Archive for January, 2018

Questionable Sino-Mongolian toponymy

News article from Xinhua (1/16/18, by Quan Xiaoshu, Qu Ting, Cao Pengyuan):

"Ancient tripartite-city of Xiongnu a special religious and meeting site: archaeologists"

It starts:

The ruins of an ancient tripartite-city, known as Sanlian City, in midwest Mongolia's Khermental City, demonstrates that the Xiongnu tribe used to perform religious ceremonies and hold alliance meetings there.

Bathrobe comments:

Now, it may be due to my poor web research skills, but I'm having considerable difficulty finding any Sanlian city or even a Khermental city in Mongolia outside of the Xinhua news article.

Is this another mangled news story where Chinese news reporters are too incompetent (or maybe arrogant) to check the names of geographical places outside of China? I'm also wondering at the thickskinned-ness of calling the archaeological site of a non-Chinese culture in a foreign country by a name so transparently Chinese as "Sanlian".

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Doubletalk challenge

Malia Wollan, "How to Speak Gibberish", NYT Magazine 1/5/2018:

Strive for linguistic plausibility. In 2014, Sara Maria Forsberg was a recent high-school graduate in Finland when she posted “What Languages Sound Like to Foreigners,” a video of herself speaking gibberish versions of 15 languages and dialects. Incorporate actual phonology to make a realistic-sounding gibberish. “Expose yourself to lots of different languages,” says Forsberg, now 23, who grew up speaking Finnish, Swedish and English.

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Apostrophosis

According to Andrew Higgins ("Kazakhstan Cheers New Alphabet, Except for All Those Apostrophes", NYT 1/15/2018), the pending turn to a Latin alphabet for Kazakh has run into a pothole: the 77-year-old dictator Nursultan A. Nazarbayev, who apparently has not yet been informed about Unicode, or the possibility of varied computer keyboard layouts.

Mr. Higgins also seems to be in the dark about such arcana — he refers to characters (or maybe diacritics) as "markers", for some reason, and apparently thinks that the Latin alphabet is nothing but good old US ASCII, with none of those furrin umlauts and accents and cedillas and such:

Because Kazakh features many sounds that are not easily rendered into either the Cyrillic or Latin alphabets without additional markers, a decision needed to be made whether to follow Turkish, which uses the Latin script but includes cedillas, tildes, breves, dots and other markers to clarify pronunciation, or invent alternative phonetic pointers.

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Not, only, unless, if, whatever . . .

The morning mail brings an apparent instance of misnegation — Daniel Boffey, "May faces tougher transition stance from EU amid Norway pressure", The Guardian 1/16/2018:

The EU also insists that the UK will only continue to enjoy the benefits of trade agreements with non-EU countries unless “authorised” by Brussels.

Given the context, English grammar, and general principles of rational interpretation, the author must have meant either

  1. the UK will not continue to enjoy the benefits of trade agreements with non-EU countries unless “authorised” by Brussels
  2. the UK will only continue to enjoy the benefits of trade agreements with non-EU countries if “authorised” by Brussels

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There is No Racial Justice Without Linguistic Justice

Today we celebrate the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.

One of my favorite Martin Luther King Jr. quotes come from a speech he delivered at a retreat attended by staff of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in South Carolina, one year before he was assassinated:

“We have moved from the era of civil rights to the era of human rights, an era where we are called upon to raise certain basic questions about the whole society. We have been in a reform movement… But after Selma and the voting rights bill, we moved into a new era, which must be the era of revolution. We must recognize that we can't solve our problem now until there is a radical redistribution of economic and political power… this means a revolution of values and other things. We must see now that the evils of racism, economic exploitation and militarism are all tied together… you can't really get rid of one without getting rid of the others… the whole structure of American life must be changed. America is a hypocritical nation and [we] must put [our] own house in order.” (King 1967)

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Trump: To 'd or not to 'd?

Louise Radnofsky, "White House Disputes Trump Quote in Journal Interview: The Wall Street Journal stands by what it reported and releases audio of disputed portion of interview", WSJ 1/14/2018:

The White House disputed that President Donald Trump told The Wall Street Journal in an interview Thursday that “I probably have a very good relationship with Kim Jong Un of North Korea,” saying that Mr. Trump had instead said “I’d probably have a very good relationship” with the North Korean leader.

The Journal stands by what it reported. The Journal and White House agreed before the interview that audiotape taken by White House officials and reporters would be used for transcription purposes only. After the White House challenged the Journal’s transcription and accuracy of the quote in a story, The Journal decided to release the relevant portion of the audio. The White House then released its audio version of the contested segment.

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Ask Language Log: Are East Asian first names gendered?

The question comes from George Amis:

I wonder– are first names gendered in Mandarin?  That is, is it possible to tell that Tse-tung or Wai-wai are masculine names? Given the extraordinary proliferation of Chinese first names, I rather doubt it. And what is the case with Japanese first names? Here, I suspect that the names are gendered, although of course I don't know.

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Ross Macdonald: lexical diversity over the lifespan

This post is an initial progress report on some joint work with Mark Liberman. It's part of a larger effort to replicate and extend Xuan Le, Ian Lancashire, Graeme Hirst, & Regina Jokel, "Longitudinal detection of dementia through lexical and syntactic changes in writing: a case study of three British novelists", Literary and Linguistic Computing 2011. Their abstract:

We present a large-scale longitudinal study of lexical and syntactic changes in language in Alzheimer's disease using complete, fully parsed texts and a large number of measures, using as our subjects the British novelists Iris Murdoch (who died with Alzheimer's), Agatha Christie (who was suspected of it), and P.D. James (who has aged healthily). […] Our results support the hypothesis that signs of dementia can be found in diachronic analyses of patients’ writings, and in addition lead to new understanding of the work of the individual authors whom we studied. In particular, we show that it is probable that Agatha Christie indeed suffered from the onset of Alzheimer's while writing her last novels, and that Iris Murdoch exhibited a ‘trough’ of relatively impoverished vocabulary and syntax in her writing in her late 40s and 50s that presaged her later dementia.

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Zhou Youguang's 112th birthday

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Ask Language Log: Easy but unused initial clusters?

From Bob Moore:

I have recently become interested in an important Alaska native weaver named Jennie Thlunaut. The linguistic question is about the initial consonant cluster of her last name, "thl". My initial reaction on seeing the name was that this consonant cluster was not phonotactically possible in English, and that it would be hard for me to pronounce. I was surprised to find that it was very easy for me to pronounce, without the perception of a highly reduced vowel separating the initial consonants that I usually experience when trying to pronounce a foreign word containing a consonant cluster not found in English.

I confirmed that "thl" does not seem to be a possible word-initial consonant cluster in English by grepping for all case-insensitive instances of " thl" in the English Gigaword corpus. I found something between 100 and 200 of these, and I examined all of them, finding then all to be either (1) foreign words or names, (2) attempts to represent the pronunciation of foreign words or names, (3) representations of "lisping" in English, or (4) typos.

I am puzzled that there would be an easy-to-pronounce phonological sequence that is completely unused in a language. It seems like coding efficiency would favor using any sequence that is easy to pronounce. Is there a more general phonological principle in English that would block the use of "thl"? Are there other easy-to-pronounce consonant clusters that are not used in English?

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Translating Trump

Whether he really said it or not — "Trump appears to deny using 'shithole' language" (POLITICO [1/12/18]), see also here — "shithole" is already part of the ever-burgeoning scatalogical lore surrounding President Trump, so people have to deal with it, including translating this colorful term into other languages.

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"Experience is different"

Zoe Williams, "With the NHS, reality has finally caught up with Theresa May", The Guardian 1/8/2018 [emphasis added]:

“If you look across the NHS, experience is different,” the prime minister flailed, as if the fact there wasn’t a stroke victim waiting for four hours in an ambulance outside every hospital was proof of her competence. “Experience is different,” she repeated, taking a moment’s refuge in a new evasive tic, of turning everything into a passive voice where nothing is the consequence of anybody’s actions. We’re just a nation of people having a set of experiences which are all different, and everybody’s working very hard because we all want things to be good.

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The Last Lesson — in Mongolian

The Chinese government has prohibited  Mongolian language instruction in all schools in the Mongolian areas of Xinjiang:  "Southern Mongolia: Instruction in Mongolian Language Banned in All Schools", Unrepresented Nations & Peoples Organization (1/3/18).

The last school in the so-called Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region to provide education in the Mongolian language, the Bayangol No. 3 High School, has banned its usage as language of instruction. According to the region’s Education Department, the ethnic language can be offered as an elective course, but all main courses must be taught in Chinese. This clearly demonstrates that bilingual education is no longer existent which sparked further outrage when articles and internet posts discussing this situation were removed by Chinese authorities. Southern Mongolians are deeply concerned and outraged by this as they feel their nation is being reduced to a Chinese colony.

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