Gender is the least of it

A.C. sends in this opening sentence from a story in his local (NZ) paper:

The former lover of a murdered British jeweler was in his bed when he and his new girlfriend arrived at his villa on the Costa del Sol.

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Analytics, Prior and Otherwise

Analytics is all the rage. Thus Keith Pompey, "Sixers aide immerses Brown in analytics", Philadelphia Inquirer 4/7/2014

Brett Brown is inherently curious.  

The first-year 76ers coach was eager to learn as much as possible about the data that tell us where every player is during every possession of an NBA game. It's called analytics, and the Sixers are among the NBA franchises that are shifting toward basing major decisions on data and model-driven analysis.  

"There's always the thing that they call unintended consequences," said Brown, who was introduced to analytics this season. "That's where my curiosity combined with, yeah, you know, there's a bit of defiance in me that I don't believe it. Prove it. And what about this? What about that?  

"And if you can get through all those type of layers, I say, 'Wow.' And I feel like I've improved."  

So much so that the 53-year-old is fond of Lance Pearson, who deals with advanced analytics and statistical scouting for the Sixers. Pearson was hired away from Lindsey Wilson College in Columbia, Ky., where he was an assistant coach and special assistant in analytics.  He has a Ph.D. in computational neuroscience from Boston University. Pearson also has bachelor's degrees in computer science, mathematics and philosophy from Kentucky.

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Laowai: the old furriner

Lǎowài 老外 (lit., "old foreign") is a ubiquitous term for a certain type of person from abroad in China, and dictionaries almost invariably gloss it as "foreigner".  Yet the subtleties and nuances of the term seem almost endless, and they can sometimes lead to misunderstandings and hurt feelings.  To try to get a handle on this colloquial expression, I asked a number of laowai who have had long experience in China what they thought of this appellation that they had doubtless been called hundreds of times and some Chinese friends who most likely had had occasion to employ that designation themselves.

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The case of the persevering pedestrian

Calvin Men, "Police investigate Santa Cruz pedestrian's death", Santa Cruz Sentinel 4/4/2014:

A 49-year-old Santa Cruz man died late Thursday night while crossing Mission Street after being struck by a car.

G.A., who sent me the link, added "Pretty plucky of him to cross the street after he had been hit, I thought".

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Famous last words

Guest post by Karen Stollznow

In recent weeks we've been following the tragedy and mystery of the Malaysia Airlines flight 370 that vanished on March 8 with 239 people on board. Less than an hour after taking off from Kuala Lumpur en route to Beijing all communication was cut off. The plane diverted unexpectedly across the Indian Ocean and disappeared from civilian air traffic control screens. There has been much controversy surrounding the transcript of the last incoming transmission between the air traffic controller and the cockpit of the ill-fated flight.

We tend to have a morbid fascination with people's last words. We assign profound meaning and philosophical insights to the final words uttered by those who face their fate ahead of us. There are numerous books and websites that chronicle the linguistic legacies of famous people such as Douglas Fairbank's ironic, "I've never felt better," to Woodrow Wilson's courageous, "I am ready," and the betrayal expressed in Julius Caesar's "Et tu, Brute?" maintains a database of last words from cockpit recordings, transcripts, and air traffic control tapes. These are disturbing announcements of impeding doom, including: "Actually, these conditions don't look very good at all, do they?" through to an assortment of cuss words, and moving farewells like, "Amy, I love you."

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The vocabulary of prayer in modern China

Many of the comments on the disappearance of MH370 by Chinese netizens mention their prayers (qídǎo 祈祷).  Since most Chinese are not religious (i.e., are not Christians, Buddhists, etc.), to whom are they praying?  In what way are they praying?  Even if they are Buddhists, is prayer (qídǎo 祈祷) an integral part of Buddhism?  Perhaps it would be common for Chinese Muslims to use this expression, but my sense is that most of the commenters quoted in the link below are not Muslims.

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The sparseness of linguistic data

Gary Marcus and Ernest Davis say in a New York Times piece on why we shouldn't buy all the hype about the Big Data revolution in science:

Big data is at its best when analyzing things that are extremely common, but often falls short when analyzing things that are less common. For instance, programs that use big data to deal with text, such as search engines and translation programs, often rely heavily on something called trigrams: sequences of three words in a row (like "in a row"). Reliable statistical information can be compiled about common trigrams, precisely because they appear frequently. But no existing body of data will ever be large enough to include all the trigrams that people might use, because of the continuing inventiveness of language.

To select an example more or less at random, a book review that the actor Rob Lowe recently wrote for this newspaper contained nine trigrams such as "dumbed-down escapist fare" that had never before appeared anywhere in all the petabytes of text indexed by Google. To witness the limitations that big data can have with novelty, Google-translate "dumbed-down escapist fare" into German and then back into English: out comes the incoherent "scaled-flight fare." That is a long way from what Mr. Lowe intended — and from big data's aspirations for translation.

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Eskimo words for freedom

Under the heading Freedom 2014, "Whether it’s freedom from surveillance or freedom to be single, this spring the BBC is investigating what freedom means in the modern world". One of the BBC's own contributions to #Freedom2014 is a lovely addition to our No Word For X archive:

I'll leave it to better-informed commenters to tell us how to express various concepts of freedom in Inuit — but my guess is that "not caught" is one of a number of perfectly reasonable Inuit phrases for various senses of English free. Certainly as hunter-gatherers in marginal terrain the Inuit must have experienced many kinds of freedom in their history — though perhaps they would echo what Matthew Arnold said about philistinism: "We have not the expression in English. Perhaps we have not the word because we have so much of the thing."

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"She was probably male"

In "The future of singular they" (3/8/2013), I noted that some people assign the traditional English pronouns he, she, they (and it?) in non-traditional ways, depending on the preferences of the person referred to rather than on the traditional criteria of number, animacy, and primary sexual organs. And the number of conceptual categories involved  is potentially much larger than four, as discussed in "58 Facebook genders" (2/18/2014).

Ann Leckie's 2013 novel Ancillary Justice depicts a situation in which the traditional relationships of language and gender are modified in an interestingly different way.

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Chinese Dream: Flying nine days

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The future of Chinese language learning is now

When I began learning Mandarin nearly half a century ago, I knew exactly how I wanted to acquire proficiency in the language.  Nobody had to tell me how to do this; I knew it instinctively.  The main features of my desired regimen would be to:

1. pay little or no attention to memorizing characters (I would have been content with actively mastering 25 or so very high frequency characters and passively recognizing at most a hundred or so high frequency characters during the first year)

2. focus on pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar, particles, morphology, syntax, idioms, patterns, constructions, sentence structure, rhythm, prosody, and so forth — real language, not the script

3. read massive amounts of texts in Romanization and, if possible later on (after about half a year when I had the basics of the language nailed down), in character texts that would be phonetically annotated

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Translating Chinese poetry is hard

Wei Shao sent me this photograph of the English translation of a famous Chinese poem:

(Click to embiggen.)

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"When there's no Hebrew word for something, it's a bad idea"

From Pat Robertson's 700 Club, 3/31/2014:

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The Estimation Game

More than 30 years ago, the famous linguist Mark Aronoff joined Lila Gleitman and others who have gotten under-/over-estimating upside down– "Automobile Semantics", Linguistic Inquiry 1981:

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Energize Complete Works

Jì Xiànlín 季羨林 (1911-2009), an old friend of mine, was China's greatest Indologist and Tocharian specialist (see this Wikipedia article, also in Mandarin, Cantonese, and Classical Chinese).  His complete works in 18 volumes, Jì Xiànlín quánjí 季羨林全集, are available through Amazon and other online book services.  What is strange is that the English translation of the title is given in a number of places as Energize Complete Works.

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