Syntactic tunneling

From Harry Asche:

I am a tunnel engineer, and the patron saint of tunnelling is St Barbara.  Her saint's day is the 4th of December.  I am a bit of a tunnel nut, so on a visit to a church in Europe, I bought a St Barbara card, printed on a handy credit-card sized piece of plastic.  

Here is the Prayer to St Barbara, transcribed exactly:

"O God, who among the other miracles of Your power, have given even to the weaker sex the victory of martyrdom, grant, we beseech You, that we, who are celebrating the heavenly birthday of Blessed Barbara, Your Virgin and Martyr, may, by her example, draw nearer to you.  Amen."  

I am greatly impressed by the complexity of the first sentence.  The core is "O God grant that we may draw nearer to you."  But this is interrupted by no less than six additional clauses.  "That we" and "may" live in little islands on their own.  

Is this a result of translation from the Latin?  I did five years of Latin at school and it had a lasting negative affect on my ability to write English.

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Trevor Noah reflects on language and identity

In my introductory undergraduate course on English words, and in most undergraduate introductory courses on linguistics, students are invited to reflect on language and identity—how the way you speak communicates information about who you are—which they are typically very interested in. This isn't my beat, professionally speaking, but as a linguist I have a duty to help my students think through some of these issues (and, if they get interested, point them in the right direction to get really educated). To get started, I often play this one-minute clip of a Meshach Taylor Fresh Air interview from 1990, which is usually a good starting point for some discussion.

But Fresh Air (yes I'm a Terry Gross fangirl) also recently ran an interview with the biracial South African host of the Daily Show, Trevor Noah, which contained this ten-minute motherlode of a reflection on multilingualism, language choice, racism, acceptable targets of mimicry, vocabulary size, Trump's communicative abilities, resentment of accented speech… whew. I'm just going to leave it here for your edification and enjoyment. Maybe one of our more sociolinguistically expert Language Loggers will provide some more detailed commentary later. For my part — well, I just invite you to think about what kind of 500-word essay you'd write for a Ling 101 class with this 10-minute clip as your prompt.

To hear the whole interview, or read the transcript, visit the NPR Fresh Air page.

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Chinese restaurant shorthand, part 2

On Saturday the 26th, Yixue Yang and I went to the Ting Wong Restaurant in Philadelphia's Chinatown. I took one look at the menu and knew right away that the first thing I wanted was the second item on the menu, the Congee with Chopped Beef.

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A new English word

Since I began the study of Chinese languages half a century ago, there's one word that I have found very useful and versatile, but extremely hard to translate into English, so in this post I'm going to propose that we might as well just simply (gāncuì 乾脆 = the previous five English words) borrow it into English and be done with it.  That word is the almighty, inimitable, the one and only:  lìhài!

lìhài 厉害 (simplified) / 厲害 (traditional)

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Telephone or telegraph?

There's a controversy over whether President Xi Jinping called President-elect Donald Trump to congratulate him on his victory in the November 8th election.  The problem is summarized in this passage from The Economist:

Chinese officials pay obsessive attention to ensuring the Communist Party’s line is reflected accurately by the country’s main media. But Mr Trump’s victory caught them in a muddle. Several outlets said Mr Xi had telephoned his compliments to Mr Trump. But Mr Trump said he had spoken to or heard from most foreign leaders—except Mr Xi. The phone call did not take place until six days after the vote. In most countries such a mistake would be insignificant, the result of sloppy reporting or ambiguous phrasing (in Mandarin, the phrase “sent a congratulatory note” can also mean “congratulate by phone”). In China it suggested that media overlords were not sure what line to take.

(emphasis added)

From The Economist, November 19th, 2016, "China" section, page 59 of British edition.

"Weighing up Telangpu:  A victory for China?  Some Chinese see much to like in Mr Trump" (11/19/16)

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Language & Communication: Request for Information

This is a guest post by Bill Badecker, Linguistics Program Director at the National Science Foundation.

Subject: Language & Communication:  Request for Information

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Mixed metaphor of the week

“As the car is hurtling towards the cliff, it’s driving on quicksand,” Levitt said.

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Pell-mell

When, about 40 years ago, I first read the "Basic Annals of Xiang Yu (232-202 BC)" ( Xiàngyǔ běnjì 項羽本紀) in the The Scribe's Records (Shǐjì 史記, ca. 94), the foundation for the 24 official dynastic histories that followed it, I was struck by this sentence:   `Yúshì Xiàng wáng dà hū chí xià, Hàn jūn jiē pīmí, suì zhǎn Hàn yī jiāng.'「於是項王大呼馳下,漢軍皆披靡,遂斬漢一將。」("Then King Xiang shouted loudly and galloped down, causing all of the Han army [to flee] pell-mell, whereupon he cut down one of the Han generals".)

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Empty heart disease

In "Life is Meaningless, Say China’s Top Students:  A Peking University professor reports that students have full course loads and ‘empty hearts’", Fu Danni (Sixth Tone, 11/23/16) introduces us to a newly minted term:  kōngxīn bìng 空心病 ("empty heart disease").

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AI panics

The last month or so has seen renewed discussion of the benefits and dangers of artificial intelligence, sparked by Stephen Hawking's speech at the opening of the Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence at Cambridge University. In that context, it may be worthwhile to point again to the earliest explicit and credible AI warning that I know of, namely Norbert Wiener's 1950 book The Human Use of Human Beings [emphasis added]:

[T]he machine plays no favorites between manual labor and white-collar labor. Thus the possible fields into which the new industrial revolution is likely to penetrate are very extensive, and include all labor performing judgments of a low level, in much the same way as the displaced labor of the earlier industrial revolution included every aspect of human power. […]

The introduction of the new devices and the dates at which they are to be expected are, of course, largely economic matters, on which I am not an expert. Short of any violent political changes or another great war, I should give a rough estimate that it will take the new tools ten to twenty years to come into their own. […]

Let us remember that the automatic machine, whatever we think of any feelings it may have or may not have, is the precise economic equivalent of slave labor. Any labor which competes with slave labor must accept the economic conditions of slave labor. It is perfectly clear that this will produce an unemployment situation, in comparison with which the present recession and even the depression of the thirties will seem a pleasant joke. This depression will ruin many industries-possibly even the industries which have taken advantage of the new potentialities. However, there is nothing in the industrial tradition which forbids an industrialist to make a sure and quick profit, and to get out before the crash touches him personally.

Thus the new industrial revolution is a two-edged sword. It may be used for the benefit of humanity, but only if humanity survives long enough to enter a period in which such a benefit is possible. It may also be used to destroy humanity, and if it is not used intelligently it can go very far in that direction.

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"Mixed" languages

On Monday (11/26/16), Erika Sandman will be defending her doctoral dissertation on "A Grammar of Wutun" in the Faculty of Arts, Department of World Cultures, at the University of Helsinki.  I have a special interest in this type of "mixed" (for want of a better word) language that is situated at the interface between the Tibetic and Sinitic groups.  My fascination with the hybrid Sinitic and non-Sinitic languages of northwestern China derives from a number of factors, including the decades of fieldwork and historical research I have devoted to the region, the fact that the 14th Dalai Lama was born here, and the intriguing thought that — if Sinitic and Tibetic are indeed related in some fashion, as many people believe — the Gansu-Qinghai sprachbund constitutes a laboratory both for the study of Tibetic and Sinitic languages individually, but also for observing their interactions with each other and with the Turkic and Mongolic languages that have also prevailed here at different times and are still present today.

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Dialect death

Reports of the death of languages and the extinction of languages are alarmingly routine, but before a language dies out entirely, when it is endangered, its dialects die off one by one.

"Last native speaker of Scots dialect dies" (10/6/12)

Dialect Death:  The case of Brule Spanish (1997)

The list of publications documenting the dead and dying dialects could go on for many pages:  I lament each and every one of them.

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Aravrit

Speaking of biscriptalism, Guy Almog called my attention to an interesting project called Aravrit (that is, Arabic + Hebrew [ivrit]).

From the home page:

Aravrit is a project of utopian nature. It presents a set of hybrid letters merging Hebrew and Arabic.

This new writing system is composed of an Arabic letter on the upper half and a Hebrew letter on the bottom half. The characteristic features of each letter were retained, however in both languages the fusion required some compromises to be made, yet maintaining readability and with limited detriment to the original script. In Aravrit, one can read the language he/she chooses, without ignoring the other one, which is always present.

Judging from Aravrit's Facebook page, many of the details of this new, hybrid script were inspired by features found on Yemenite manuscripts.

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