Archive for August, 2017

The Imperious Criterion of Meaning

Patrick Radden Keefe, "Carl Icahn's Failed Raid on Washingon", The New Yorker 8/28/2017, mentions the title of Icahn's Princeton senior thesis:

In 1960, after studying philosophy at Princeton (where he wrote a thesis titled “The Problem of Formulating an Adequate Explication of the Empiricist Criterion of Meaning”) and a stint in medical school (he was a hypochondriac, which did not help his bedside manner), Icahn shifted to Wall Street.

But Keefe doesn't mention what is now my favorite correction of all time — 2/12/2006 in the New York Times:

An interview on June 5, 2005, with Carl Icahn misstated a word of the title of a thesis he wrote while he was an undergraduate at Princeton. As a reader informed The Times two weeks ago, it is "The Problem of Formulating an Adequate Explication of the Empiricist Criterion of Meaning," not "Imperious Criterion."

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The power and the lactulose

The so-called Free Speech Rally that's about to start in Boston will probably be better attended, both by supporters and opponents, than the one that was organized by same group back in May. But some of the featured speakers at the May rally, including "Augustus Invictus", have decided not to attend today's rerun. So I listened to the YouTube copy of the May rally speech by Austin Gillespie (Augustus's real or at least original name). And since this is Language Log and not Political Rhetoric Log (though surely political rhetoric is part of language), I'm going to focus on YouTube's efforts to provide "automatic captions".

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Learning languages is so much easier now

If you use the right tools, that is, as explained in this Twitter thread from Taylor ("Language") Jones.

Rule number 1:  Use all the electronic tools at your disposal.

Rule number 2:  Do not use paper dictionaries.

Jones' Tweetstorm started when he was trying to figure out the meaning of shāngchǎng 商场 in Chinese.  He remembered from his early learning that it was something like "mall; store; market; bazaar".  That led him to gòuwù zhòngxīn 购物中心 ("shopping center").  With his electronic resources, he could hear these terms pronounced, could find them used in example sentences, and could locate actual places on the map designated with these terms.

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Dispatch with, dispense from, dispel with, …

The Washington Post's digital front page a little while ago told us that Donald Trump has given in to those who wanted him to "dispatch with" Stephen Bannon:

Earlier today, Mitt Romney's Facebook post explained that he would "dispense from" discussion of certain aspects of Trump's comments on the Charlottesville events:

And in February of 2016, Marco Rubio urged us to "dispel with this fiction that Barack Obama doesn't know what he's doing".

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More Zombie Lingua shenanigans

[This is a joint post by Eric Baković and Kai von Fintel.]

Regular Language Log readers will be familiar with our continuing coverage of the goings-on at what we in the linguistics community have given the name Zombie Lingua — the Elsevier journal once universally known by its still-official name, Lingua — a journal that we believe should have been allowed to die a respectable death when its entire editorial board resigned en masse at the end of 2015 to start the new (and flourishing!) fair Open Access journal Glossa, published by Ubiquity Press.

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The linguistics of a political slogan

Banner on the side of a fancy car in Sydney, Australia:

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He lapsed into the passive voice

Mark Landler recently published an article in the New York Times under the headline "Where Predecessors Set Moral Standard, Trump Steps Back." Unlike his predecessors, he notes, the current president has rejected the very concept of moral leadership:

On Saturday, in his first response to Charlottesville, Mr. Trump condemned the violence "on many sides." Then he lapsed into the passive voice, expressing, as he has before, a sense of futility that the divisions between Americans would ever be healed.

"It's been going on for a long time in our country," he said. "Not Donald Trump, not Barack Obama. This has been going on for a long, long time."

This incompetent, floundering president, who has never previously had to run an organization and is revealing that he is no good at it, is guilty of so many things that could have been mentioned. But passive voice?

Asking whether "the divisions between Americans would ever be healed" is passive voice, but that's not Trump, that's Landler, who's the accuser here. "It's been going on for a long time in our country" is not in the passive voice. Mark Landler is one more case (I have literally lost count) of someone who writes for a major print source and pontificates about other people's grammar but doesn't know the difference between active and passive.

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Chinese, Greek, and Latin, part 2

[This is a guest post by Richard Lynn.  It is all the more appreciated, since he had written it as a comment to "Chinese, Greek, and Latin" (8/8/17) a day or two ago, but when he pressed the "submit" button, his comment evaporated.  So he had to write the whole thing all over again.  I am grateful to Dick for his willingness to do so and think that the stimulating results are worth the effort he put into this post.]

James Zainaldin’s remarks concerning the Lunyu, Mencius, Mozi, Zhuangzi, and the Dao de jing, his frustration by the limits of grammatical or lexical analysis, that is, the relative lack of grammatical and lexical explicitness compared to Greek and Latin texts, is a reasonable conclusion — besides that, Greek and Latin, Sanskrit too, all are written with phonetic scripts — easy stuff! But such observations are a good place to start a discussion of the role of commentaries and philological approaches to reading and translating Literary/Classical Chinese texts, Literary Sinitic (LS). Nathan Vedal’s remarks are also spot on: “LS is really an umbrella term for a set of languages. The modes of expression in various genres and fields differ to such a high degree that I sometimes feel as though I'm learning a new language when I begin work on a new topic.”

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Bad Chinese

Sign south of the demolished Pfeiffer Bridge on Highway 1 in Monterey County (photograph taken on August 12, 2017 by Richard Masoner while on a Big Sur bike trip, via Flickr):

Bad machine translation

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Asses and asterisks

When The Sun, a famously prurient UK tabloid newspaper, chose the headlines for its coverage of the Taylor Swift case in Denver, the editors made a curious choice. They used asterisk masking on the American English word ass ("buttocks area"), printing it as "a**" as if it would be unthinkably offensive for the readers to also see the "ss" (unless it were in a reference to a stupid person, or to the animal on which Jesus rode into Jerusalem, where the same letter sequence would be fine). But they did not do the same to the familiar British English 3-letter synonym bum (which has only the meaning "buttocks area" and never means "hobo" in British).

British English has a descendant of the same Old English root as ass, but it is spelled arse, and is pronounced [ɑːs] rather than [æːs]. British arse is considered just as coarse as American ass, but The Sun has printed it thousands of times (try the Google search: {arse site:www.thesun.co.uk}). Quoting ass couldn't possibly be judged gratuitous, as it was uttered in court many times during the legal proceedings being reported.

What this says to me is that the idea of asterisk masking for taboo words is an incoherent mess even in the practice of those who favor it.

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Colonialism or gas

The last three panels of Dumbing of Age for 8/10/2017, featuring Danny and Sal:

Mouseover text: "They have a similar smell."

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"Nephew-nazi"

When the White House issued a statement that finally condemned white supremacists for the violence in Charlottesville this weekend, the version that was originally released had an unusual typo: "nephew-nazi" for "neo-Nazi":

The president said very strongly in his statement yesterday that he condemns all forms of violence, bigotry, and hatred and of course that includes white supremacists, KKK, nephew-nazi and all extremist groups. He called for national unity and bringing all Americans together.

Brian Stelter noted the typo on CNN.

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Brooks on biological sexism

David Brooks recently argued that James Damore's anti-gender-diversity memo was right, and that Google was wrong to fire him ("Sundar Pichai Should Resign as Google’s C.E.O.", NYT 8/11/2017), giving us another example of Mr. Brooks' long-standing fascination with pseudo-scientific justifications of gender and ethnic stereotypes.

The best evaluation of Damore's memo that I've seen is Yonatan Zunger, "So, about this Googler's manifesto.", Medium 8/5/2017, which makes three key points:

(1) Despite speaking very authoritatively, the author does not appear to understand gender.
(2) Perhaps more interestingly, the author does not appear to understand engineering.
(3) And most seriously, the author does not appear to understand the consequences of what he wrote, either for others or himself.

Zunger focuses on points (2) and (3) — for a a deeper dive into point (1), see e.g. Rosalind Barnett and Caryl Rivers, "We’ve studied gender and STEM for 25 years. The science doesn’t support the Google memo.", recode 8/11/2017.

But what about David Brooks?

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