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?" Planecrashinfo.com 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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bus v. buzz

In a post a couple of days ago ("PSDS", 3/30/2014), I observed that in English, "Syllable-final (and especially phrase-final) /z/ is usually voiceless". In a comment, Mark F. asked

[A]re "buzz" and "biz" just isolated counterexamples to the generalization about syllable-final /z/, or is it generally false for accented syllables? Or do I just think I pronounce the /z/?

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Emojify the Web: "the next phase of linguistic evolution"

Today's announcement from the Google Chrome team (yes, note the date):


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A zeugmatic crash blossom to torment Mets fans

As if New York Mets fans don't have to suffer enough, what with the five straight losing seasons and the embarrassing bullpen meltdown in yesterday's home opener, this headline (tweeted by Mark Fishkin) appeared in today's Wall Street Journal:

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WaPo nixes midget

Yesterday brought new information about the Sunday comic strip I discussed in "Refreshing the S-word", 3/30/2014. We learned from Michael Cavna ("PEARLS BEFORE ‘NEIN’: Stephan Pastis finds irony in Post nixing strip about word choice…because of word choice", Washington Post 3/31/2014) why the Washington Post decided not to run that strip:

IN YESTERDAY’S “Pearls Before Swine,”, creator Stephan Pastis used his characters to engage in a playful dialogue over word choice. In the strip, Rat is talking to Goat about how certain words fall out of favor for more politically correct or gender-neutral terms. The culturally obsolete terms, Rat says, include “maid,” “stewardess,” “secretary” and “midget.”

Post editors were with Pastis … right up until “midget.” The M-word was enough to get the strip spiked. The print edition of Sunday’s comics ran an old “Pearls Before Swine” instead. (The “midget” strip did run, however, in the online version of The Post. Pastis said he had not heard of the strip being spiked by any other of his 600-plus newspaper clients.)

Post comics producer Donna Peremes flagged the strip and discussed it with Deputy Style Editor Eva Rodriguez. “We thought that ‘midget’ just wasn’t the same as ‘secretary.’ … Sort of apples and oranges,” Peremes explains to Comic Riffs. ” ‘Midget’ just carried a lot more of a charge — seemed more of a slur — than ‘stewardess’ or ‘secretary.’ ”

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