Everybody Hörts

In Berlin for the kick-off meeting of DoReCo, I've noticed a lot of multi-lingual wordplay.

The punning radio-station advertisement in the picture is a good example. It combines the 1993 R.E.M. song "Everybody hurts" with an appropriate if non-existent form of the German word hören to imply that "everybody listens" to their station, because, as the song says,

Sometimes everything is wrong
Now it's time to sing along
When your day is night alone (Hold on, hold on)
If you feel like letting go (Hold on)
If you think you've had too much
Of this life, well, hang on

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The challenging importance of spacing in Korean

Fascinating article from BLARB (Blog // Los Angeles Review of Books:

"Our Language Battle: Korea's Surprisingly Addictive Game Show of Vocabulary, Expressions, and Proper Spacing", by Colin Marshall (9/1/19)

This is the second paragraph of the article:

Having found myself living in the genuinely foreign country of Korea, I've lately also found myself watching Our Language Battle (우리말 겨루기), a game show that has aired every Monday evening on KBS since 2003. Though it occasionally invites celebrities, and this past July even brought on members of the National Assembly, it usually pits four everyday Koreans (or four teams of two, usually family) against each other in a test of their knowledge of the Korean language. It begins simply enough, with the contestants buzzing in to guess the words or phrases that fill in a crossword-style board, but soon the challenges get dramatically harder: separating folk spellings and regional variations from the officially standard, filling in words missing from old television and newspaper clips, and — most difficult of all, even for contestants who otherwise dominate the game — properly re-spacing a text whose words all run together.

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The benefits of handwriting

Many's the Language Log post in which we've looked at the pluses and negatives of writing Chinese characters (see "Selected readings" below).  These include discipline, character building, aesthetic aspects, myopia, even punishment.  Now, in "Bring Back Handwriting: It's Good for Your Brain:  People are losing the brain benefits of writing by hand as the practice becomes less common", Elemental (9/12/19), Markham Heid examines the psychological and physical effects of writing by hand as opposed to typing fully formed letters with the stroke of a key.

Psychologists have long understood that personal, emotion-focused writing can help people recognize and come to terms with their feelings. Since the 1980s, studies have found that "the writing cure," which normally involves writing about one's feelings every day for 15 to 30 minutes, can lead to measurable physical and mental health benefits. These benefits include everything from lower stress and fewer depression symptoms to improved immune function. And there's evidence that handwriting may better facilitate this form of therapy than typing.

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Driving waste for the world

The University of New South Wales wants you to know that it's driving waste, and also recycling innovation for the world.

It's not clear what either of those activities really are, and it's not easy to construe either of them as something to boast about.

UNSW seems to be taking a contrarian stance here — "driving waste" sounds like "working to create more garbage", or maybe "carting it away by the truckload" — and "recycling innovation" seems to mean "copying others' inventions". Not your typical 21st century academic slogans.

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Japlish and linguistic singularity hypotheses

[This is a guest post by Nathan Hopson]

I wanted to share two photos with examples of Japlish. One appears to be the result of a quirky machine translation.

That's the "Training room area guidelines" from the municipal sports center near my home (the only gym I can afford on my salary). The offending passage is at the bottom:

"Please use a barbell and a dumbell with a chisel in this free weight area."

This novel use of a carving and gouging implement struck me as perhaps not so much a curious aspect of inscrutable Oriental culture as instead the hallmark of machine translation gone facepalmingly awry.

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Mechanistic writing of Chinese characters

The following mind-boggling demonstration of machine-like writing of Chinese characters was posted on imgur a few days ago:

Flawless writing of Chinese characters

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Hong Kong government poster

From Donald Clarke:

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The Out of Hunan Theory

[This is a guest post by Jichang Lulu and Filip Jirouš]

A recent post by Mark Liberman nominated the Association for the Promotion of Research on the Origin of World Civilizations (Shìjiè Wénmíng Qǐyuán Yánjiū Cùjìn Huì 世界文明起源研究促进会) for the prestigious Becky prize, bestowed on those who make "outstanding contributions to linguistic misinformation". The award, named after Goropius Becanus, who claimed all human languages derived from his own, would be fully deserved by an Association promoting a form of Goropism: the contention that multiple languages, including English, are in fact derived from Chinese. While the recent event that triggered Liberman's nomination has been widely reported in English and other Chinese dialects, it is perhaps less known that the Association's chairman has even more Goropian ideas. Just like Goropius saw his Antwerp dialect as the language of Adam and Eve, Professor Du Gangjian of Hunan University claims these languages, and a few other things, in fact come from Hunan Province.

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Speed vs. efficiency in speech production and reception

An interesting new paper on speech and information rates as determined by neurocognitive capacity appeared a week ago:

Christophe Coupé, Yoon Oh, Dan Dediu, and François Pellegrino, "Different languages, similar encoding efficiency: Comparable information rates across the human communicative niche", Science Advances, 5.9 (2019):  eaaw2594. doi: 10.1126/sciadv.aaw2594.

Here's the abstract:

Language is universal, but it has few indisputably universal characteristics, with cross-linguistic variation being the norm. For example, languages differ greatly in the number of syllables they allow, resulting in large variation in the Shannon information per syllable. Nevertheless, all natural languages allow their speakers to efficiently encode and transmit information. We show here, using quantitative methods on a large cross-linguistic corpus of 17 languages, that the coupling between language-level (information per syllable) and speaker-level (speech rate) properties results in languages encoding similar information rates (~39 bits/s) despite wide differences in each property individually: Languages are more similar in information rates than in Shannon information or speech rate. These findings highlight the intimate feedback loops between languages' structural properties and their speakers' neurocognition and biology under communicative pressures. Thus, language is the product of a multiscale communicative niche construction process at the intersection of biology, environment, and culture.

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The indecipherability of the Voynich manuscript

Less than half a year ago, we were treated to yet another among countless claims for the decipherment of the mysterious Voynich manuscript (henceforth "Vm"):  "Voynich code cracked?" (5/16/19).  I was skeptical then and am even more skeptical now after having read this article:

Peter Bakker, "The Voynich manuscript: the decipherment of ms. 408", Lingoblog (9/10/19)

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HVPT review

A bit more than 11 years ago I wrote ("HVPT", 7/6/2008):

At the recent Acoustics 2008 meeting, I heard a presentation that reminded me of a mystery that I've been wondering about for nearly two decades. The paper presented was Maria Uther et al., "Training of English vowel perception by Finnish speakers to focus on spectral rather than durational cues", JASA 123(5):3566, 2008. And the mystery is why HVPT — a simple, quick, and inexpensive technique for helping adults to learn the sounds of new languages — is not widely used.

In fact, as far as I can tell, it's not used at all. Over the years, I've asked many people in the language-teaching business about this, and the answer has always been the same. It's not "Oh yes, well, we tried it and it doesn't really work"; or "It works, but the problems that it solves are not very important"; or "I'd like to, but it doesn't fit into my syllabus". Rather, their answer is some form of "What's that? I've never heard of it."

The "nearly two decades" then extended back from 2008 to  a 1991 JASA paper, which is now more than 28 years old: J. S. Logan, S. E. Lively, and D. B. Pisoni, "Training Japanese listeners to identify English /r/ and /l/: A first report". And recently, Ron Thomson sent me a link to a 2018 review article that starts by quoting my 2008 blog post — "High variability [pronunciation] training (HVPT): A proven technique about which every language teacher and learner ought to know", Journal of Second Language Pronunciation.

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Taiwanese and Old Norse words for "homestead, village"

[This is a guest post by Chau Wu]

Tai Po District 大埔區 is one of the 18 districts of Hong Kong whereas 大埔县 (Dabu xian) in Guangdong is a Hakka culture center bordering on Southern Fujian. In Taiwan the term 大埔 (Tōa-po·) is found in about 40 place names such as 大埔鄉 Tōa-po·-hiong, 大埔村 Tōa-po·-chhun, 大埔里 Tōa-po·-lí, etc.

In fact, Tw 埔 (po·) 'homestead, village' is the most popular Taiwanese word in place names (Sino-Platonic Papers, No. 262, p. 123). The lexicographer 陳修 (Tân Siu) states in his 台灣話大詞典 (The Great Dictionary of Taiwanese, page 1379) that, "我們台灣以埔po· 為地名者特別多 (In Taiwan we use 埔po· in place names especially plentifully)."

Its corresponding word in Old Norse, bær 'homestead, village', is also the most popular word for naming places by the Vikings. Examples are: Sjöbo in Sweden, Maribo and Rødby in Denmark, Valebø in Norway, and Fellabær in Iceland. Its loan to English becomes -by as in Hornby, Gatsby, and the "by" in "bylaw".           Pointing to its popularity, Cleasby and Vigfusson state that, "wherever the Scandinavian tribes settled, the name by or bö went along with them." (An Icelandic-English Dictionary, page 92). It appears that this unique Nordic custom of using bær/bo/by in place names is carried on in Taiwan.

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Conservation of orthographic gemination, again

Earlier today, BBC News wrote about the latest #sharpiegate development: "Trump Dorian tweets: Weather staff 'faced sacking threat' over Alabama", 9/10/2019:

US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross had threatened to fire senior staff at the federal weather agency unless they backed President Donald Trump's claim that Hurricane Dorian might hit Alabama, the New York Times reports.

It says this led to last week's statement by the agency, disavowing an earlier position by a regional office that the US state was not at risk.

The acronym NOAA (for "National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration") occurs six times in the article. But there's one apparent slip of the fingers resulting in "NAOO":

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