Archive for July, 2017

How rapidly and radically can a language evolve?

[This is a guest post by Alex Wang, a long-term resident of Shenzhen, China]

I was wondering if there have been any studies on how readily a language can absorb new elements and features.

Yesterday at the Pacific Coffee shop near where I live, by chance I struck up a conversation with a professor who teaches economics at the local Shenzhen University.  He heard me speaking with my younger son in English and, when I went to attend my older son, he struck up a conversation with my younger son.  I suppose he was curious about how my younger son's oral English skills were so “good”, since he has a daughter who is around the same age as my older boy.  It would seem many locals want an English speaking friend for their children so as to have an environment to practice.

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Han

Pearls before Swine for 7/23/2017:

A couple of Generation Z language consultants confirm the accuracy of the translations. Or as one of them put it, "Haha right".

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Chinese Synesthesia

Xiaoyan (Coco) Li, a native Chinese speaker with synesthesia (self identified, never formally tested), happened to come across this Language Log post:

"Synesthesia and Chinese characters" (3/9/17)

She wrote to me saying that she experiences some of what Leo Fransella (quoted in the earlier post) referred to as "'non-trivial' Chinese synaesthesia".  For him "trivial" Chinese synesthesia is associated with or stimulated by the letters of the Pinyin used to spell Chinese words, not from the characters used to write them.

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English Verb-Particle Constructions

Lately I've been thinking about "optionality" as it relates to syntactic alternations. (In)famous cases include complementizer deletion ("I know that he is here" vs. "I know he is here") or embedded V2 in Scandinavian. For now let's consider the English verb-particle construction. The relative order of the particle and the object is "optional" in cases such as the following:

1a) "John picked up the book"
1b) "John picked the book up"

Either order is usually acceptable (with the exception of pronoun objects — although those too become acceptable under a focus reading…)

1c) "John put it back"
1d) *"John put back it"

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Gender, conversation, and significance

As I mentioned last month ("My summer", 6/22/2017), I'm spending six weeks in Pittsburgh at the at the 2017 Jelinek Summer Workshop on Speech and Language Technology (JSALT) , as part of a group whose theme is "Enhancement and Analysis of Conversational Speech".

One of the things that I've been exploring is simple models of who talks when — a sort of Biggish Data reprise of Sacks, Schegloff & Jefferson "A simplest systematics for the organization of turn-taking for conversation", Language 1974. A simple place to start is just the distribution of speech segment durations. And my first explorations of this first issue turned up a case that's relevant to yesterday's discussion of "significance".

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Real life

Today's SMBC:

For a more complex but pointed analogy, see "The Pirahã and us", 10/6/2007.

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Comrades, "hike up your skirts for a hard shag"

President Xi Jinping is fond of calling on the Chinese people to "roll up our sleeves and work hard" ( qǐ xiùzǐ jiāyóu gàn 撸起袖子加油干 / 擼起袖子加油幹).  No sooner had Xi uttered this stirring pronouncement in a nationwide address at the turn of the year (2016-17) than it became a viral meme (here and here) that has inspired countless signs, songs, and dances; enactment; and also this one, presumably in a poorly-heated environment

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Unmasking Slurs

I'm sympathetic to many of the arguments offered in a guest post by Robert Henderson, Peter Klecha, and Eric McCready (HK&M) in response to Geoff Pullum's post on "nigger in the woodpile," no doubt because they are sympathetic to some of the things I said in my reply to Geoff. But I have to object when they scold me for spelling out the word nigger rather than rendering it as n****r. It seems to me that "masking" the letters of slurs with devices such as this is an unwise practice—it reflects a misunderstanding of the taboos surrounding these words, it impedes serious discussion of their features, and most important, it inadvertently creates an impression that works to the advantage of certain racist ideologies. I have to add that it strikes me that HK&M's arguments, like a good part of the linguistic and philosophical literature on slurs, suffer from a certain narrowness of focus, a neglect both of the facts of actual usage of these words and the complicated discourses that they evoke. So, are you sitting comfortably?

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Response to Pullum on slurs

This is a guest post by Robert Henderson, Peter Klecha, and Eric McCready in response to Geoff Pullum's post of July 10. My only role was offering in advance to post a reply if the authors would like me to. I'm a good friend of Geoff Pullum and a friend of the authors. What follows is theirs.

We were quite surprised to read the LL post by Geoff Pullum of July 10. In this post, GP discussed the suspension of Tory MP Anne Marie Morris for using the phrase “n****r in the woodpile” at an event held at the East India Club. After her use of this phrase was recorded and publicized, she was suspended by the Tories for what the Financial Times described as a racist remark. According to GP, this punishment was excessive, as the remark in question was not racist; he proceeds “reluctantly” to defend Ms. Morris, as the idiom in question was merely “silly.” While we offer no comment on the appropriateness of the specific punishment Ms. Morris received, we do find this characterization problematic on both moral and empirical grounds, together with many other commentators on social media, and we want to suggest that the author should have been (much) more careful when dealing with such an important topic.

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Rescued debate

Yesterday Sharon Klein wrote to ask about the 2010 debate on Language and Thought hosted by The Economist:

Some colleagues in other departments (notably in philosophy) have been asking to talk about the hypothesis, linguistic relativism, and the actual research around the issues. While I can (and have begun to) collect relevant papers for a casual reading group (a good way to reach out…), I remembered that the debate provided a very helpful clearinghouse for the discussion that had developed in this area.

But she found that the Economist's intro page on this debate  leads only to an debate archive site that doesn't include this one; and the links in old LLOG posts are now redirected to the same unhelpful location.

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Helpful Google

The marvels of modern natural language processing:

Michael Glazer, who sent in the example, wonders whether Google Translate has overdosed on old Boris and Natasha segments from Rocky and Bullwinkle:


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Annals of redundancy and masochism

Two gems from Chris Brannick via Facebook (the first is from the site of the Immortality Pills in Guangzhou and the second is from the Langham Place Hotel, also in Guangzhou):


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Annals of poor translation

Below are two pages from the instruction book for a small point and shoot digital camera (the original in Chinese and the corresponding page translated into English). As you can see, the language display has a couple of strange choices.


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