Archive for May, 2018

Sanskrit and Pseudo-Sanskrit Daoist incantations

Joshua Capitanio has written a fascinating, pathbreaking article on a highly esoteric, but also tremendously significant, topic:

"Sanskrit and Pseudo-Sanskrit Incantations in Daoist Ritual Texts", History of Religions, 57.4 (May, 2018), 348-405.

When Buddhism came to China in the early centuries of the Common Era, its Indic texts were brought by speakers of Indo-Iranian languages.  The massive encounter between highly inflected, alphabetic Sanskrit and isolating, morphosyllabic Sinitic naturally posed enormous challenges for translators and interpreters.  Working individually, in small groups, and even in larger teams, those who transferred Buddhist concepts and texts into Sinitic resorted to a variety of devices and techniques, including transcription, translation, paraphrasis, géyì 格義 ("categorized concepts"), and so forth.

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Lant

The "Frequency Illusion", introduced here in 2005, has made the big time in today's SMBC:

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English spelling reform

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An explosion of curation

From June Teufel Dreyer:

Have you noticed that suddenly “curated,” previously almost exclusively used to refer to museum exhibitions, is turning up everywhere? A talking head recently said she was “curating [her] thoughts,” the floral arrangements for a society wedding were described as “curated” by a local florist… and so on.

I have a feeling I’m going to soon dislike the word as much as I do “the perfect storm.”

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Dennis Baron (in WaPo) on corpus linguistics and "bearing arms"

The Washington Post published an opinion piece earlier today by Dennis Baron, with the self-explanatory title "Antonin Scalia was wrong about the meaning of ‘bear arms.’" The crux of the article:

By Scalia’s logic, the natural meaning of “bear arms” is simply to carry a weapon and has nothing to do with armies. He explained in his opinion: “Although [bear arms] implies that the carrying of the weapon is for the purpose of ‘offensive or defensive action,’ it in no way connotes participation in a structured military organization. From our review of founding-era sources, we conclude that this natural meaning was also the meaning that ‘bear arms’ had in the 18th century. In numerous instances, ‘bear arms’ was unambiguously used to refer to the carrying of weapons outside of an organized militia.”

But Scalia was wrong. Two new databases of English writing from the founding era confirm that “bear arms” is a military term. Non-military uses of “bear arms” are not just rare — they’re almost nonexistent.

A search of Brigham Young University’s new online Corpus of Founding Era American English, with more than 95,000 texts and 138 million words, yields 281 instances of the phrase “bear arms.” BYU’s Corpus of Early Modern English, with 40,000 texts and close to 1.3 billion words, shows 1,572 instances of the phrase. Subtracting about 350 duplicate matches, that leaves about 1,500 separate occurrences of “bear arms” in the 17th and 18th centuries, and only a handful don’t refer to war, soldiering or organized, armed action. These databases confirm that the natural meaning of “bear arms” in the framers’ day was military.

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The pragmatics of ESP

As I was browsing some search results in Google Scholar, I came across a listing for a paper titled, "Communication and Community: The Pragmatics of ESP."

After reading the title, I asked myself, If you have ESP, why would you need pragmatics?

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Your English is not bad

Thought-provoking observations by a native speaker:

"Racism in Hong Kong: why ‘your English is very good’ is not a compliment, it’s actually very insulting:  An Australian of Chinese descent reveals why she is offended every time she is praised for her excellent English-language skills", by Charmaine Chan, SCMP Magazine (5/19/18)

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Office of Mayhem Evaluation

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Yanny vs. Laurel: an analysis by Benjamin Munson

A peculiar audio clip has turned into a viral sensation, the acoustic equivalent of "the dress" — which, you'll recall, was either white and gold or blue and black, depending on your point of view. This time around, the dividing line is between "Yanny" and "Laurel."

The Yanny vs. Laurel perceptual puzzle has been fiercely debated (see coverage in the New York Times, the AtlanticVox, and CNET, for starters). Various linguists have chimed in on social media (notably, Suzy J. Styles and Rory Turnbull on Twitter). On Facebook, the University of Minnesota's Benjamin Munson shared a cogent analysis that he provided to an inquiring reporter, and he has graciously agreed to have an expanded version of his explainer published here as a guest post.

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World disfluencies

Disfluency has been in the news recently, for two reasons: the deployment of filled pauses in an automated conversation by Google Duplex, and a cross-linguistic study of "slowing down" in speech production before nouns vs. verbs.

Lance Ulanoff, "Did Google Duplex just pass the Turing Test?", Medium 5/8/2018:

I think it was the first “Um.” That was the moment when I realized I was hearing something extraordinary: A computer carrying out a completely natural and very human-sounding conversation with a real person. And it wasn’t just a random talk. […]

Duplex made the call and, when someone at the salon picked up, the voice AI started the conversation with: “Hi, I’m calling to book a woman’s hair cut appointment for a client, um, I’m looking for something on May third?”

Frank Seifart et al., "Nouns slow down speech: evidence from structurally and culturally diverse languages", PNAS 2018:

When we speak, we unconsciously pronounce some words more slowly than others and sometimes pause. Such slowdown effects provide key evidence for human cognitive processes, reflecting increased planning load in speech production. Here, we study naturalistic speech from linguistically and culturally diverse populations from around the world. We show a robust tendency for slower speech before nouns as compared with verbs. Even though verbs may be more complex than nouns, nouns thus appear to require more planning, probably due to the new information they usually represent. This finding points to strong universals in how humans process language and manage referential information when communicating linguistically.

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Really weird sinographs, part 3

We've been looking at strange Chinese characters:

"Really weird sinographs" (5/10/18)

"Really weird sinographs, part 2" (5/11/18)

For a sinograph to be weird, it doesn't need to have 30, 40, 50, or more strokes.  In fact, characters with such large numbers of strokes might be quite normal and regular in terms of their construction.  What makes a character bizarre is when its parts are thrown together in unexpected ways.  On the other hand, characters with only a very small number of strokes might be quite odd.  Two of my favorites are the pair 孑孓, which are pronounced jiéjué in Modern Standard Mandarin and together mean "w(r)iggler; mosquito larva".

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Smart should check the OED

A couple of days ago, I wondered why modern English is reluctant to turn adjectives into verbs ("This towel kinds to your skin", 5/12/2018, and Laura Morland commented that "Universal verbing privileges would indeed be the kinder option." We were lamenting the loss of certain kinds of category-bending freedom, but Christopher Beanland wants us to have even less of it ("Smart knows that’s not English – how adland took a mallet to the language", The Guardian 5/14/2018):

It’s taken a millennium and a half for English to develop into a language as rich and complex as a character from your favourite multi-part Netflix drama series – and just a few years for the advertising industry to batter it into submission like a stained piñata at a child’s party.

Baffling slogans have become the new norm in adland. Perhaps Apple laid the foundations in 1997 with its famous Think Different campaign, but things have since gone up a notch: in 2010, Diesel blurted out perplexing offerings such as “Smart had one good idea and that idea was stupid”. Then came Zoopla with its “Smart knows” campaign. Now we’re informed by Ireland’s flag carrier that “Smart flies Aer Lingus”. Who are these people called Smart and how can we avoid sitting next to them on our next flight?

Today’s language-mangling ad campaigns run the greasy gamut from the somewhat confusing “Live your unexpected Luxembourg” to the head-scratching “Start your impossible”.

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The wonder of Cantonese particles

Rosalyn Shih has an entertaining and informative piece called "Let's Go Laaaaaaaa:  And learn Cantonese particles" in LARB China Channel (5/1/18)

Some highlights:

…In Singapore, particles have migrated to English, prompting the Quora thread “Why do Singaporeans say lah at the end of every sentence?”

It seems that the more southern the Chinese-speaker, the more particles he or she might use. Citing various studies from 1924 to 1994, Language Log notes the estimates of Cantonese particles are anywhere from 30 to 206….

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