Archive for Semantics

Hyphen conundrum

From John O'M.:

Is this a bed for self-heating dogs?

Or a self-heating bed for dogs?


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Subtleties of slapping

Lately I've been encountering this expression quite a bit on the Chinese internet:

dǎ liǎn 打脸

It seems transparently to mean "slap face", but my Chinese students and friends all characterize it as jargon and netizen slang, and they say that it has only been gaining currency within the last two-three years.

Here I rank "dǎ liǎn 打脸" numerically against other terms for "slap" that I've been acquainted with since I started learning Chinese more than half a century ago.

dǎ liǎn 打脸 ("slap face") 48,700,000 ghits — that was yesterday's tally; this morning it is 59,500,000

dǎ ěrguāng 打耳光 ("box [someone's] ear") 3,420,000 ghits

dǎ yī bāzhang 打一巴掌 ("strike with the palm") 2,300,000 ghits

dǎ zuǐbā 打嘴巴 ("smack on the mouth") 975,000

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The Origin(s) of Writing

New article in the Wall Street Journal:

"‘The Greatest Invention’ Review: Written communication was a remarkable breakthrough, made in many different places and at different times."  By Felipe Fernández-Armesto, WSJ (March 11, 2022)

There are a number of assumptions and speculations packed into just this title.  When we look at the book itself, we find far more.  In the wake of the sensationalism and hype over the recently published Kingdom of Characters, lauded in countless reviews, we need to take grand claims about the nature and purpose of writing with a great deal of caution and a pinch of salt.  Fernández-Armesto's review is appropriately critical.

The review begins:

Theuth, the eager god, was proud of having invented writing. “It will,” he promised King Thamus, “make the Egyptians wiser and improve their memories.” Thamus, in Plato’s account of the myth, disagreed. “Your invention will make readers forgetful. They will stop trying to remember. They will absorb words without wisdom, data without learning, information without knowledge, and trivia without truth.”

The king’s criticisms eerily foreshadow current animadversions about the internet. Even when applied to writing, they were not entirely misplaced. Intellectuals should take them as a warning against overrating the scribe’s art. We tend to assume that the function of text is to perpetuate creativity, imagination and science. Really, however, writing began, in all the cases we know, by serving humdrum purposes: recording prices, inventories and tax returns. For most of the past, what was truly great was easily memorable: the epics, the myths, the revelations of the gods.

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Forms and meanings of "come and go"

"NBC created ‘boomerang effect’ by refusing to run ad calling out China, Olympics: Concha", Fox News 2/6/2022:

You just played
a- a clip from that ad, right?
And all over social media,
people are now watching this ad when maybe,
if it aired on NBC,
it would have came
and gone

The end of this clip is obviously a substitution for "it would have come and gone" — and Mr. Concha apparently noticed the problem as he spoke, resulting in the 330 msec. silence after "came":

But this is Language Log, not Minor Talking Head Speech Errors Log. So what's the point?

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Revisiting ursine terminology in light of Sinitic cognates: semantics and phonetics

From Chau Wu:

I have always wondered about the deep gulf of variations in the sounds of "néng 能 -bearing" characters, that is, the variations in the onsets and rimes (shēng 聲 and yùn 韻):

néng 能  n- / -eng (Tw l- / -eng)  [Note: 能 orig. meaning 'bear'; nai, an aquatic animal; thai, name of a constellation 三能 = 三台]

xióng 熊  x- (Wade-Giles: hs-) / -iong [熊 Tw hîm; the x- in MSM xióng is due to sibilization of h- caused by the following -i.]

pí 羆  ph- / -i  (the closely related p- onset is also seen in 罷, 擺)

nài 褦  n- / -ai  (the same onset n- is seen in 能)

tài 態  th- / -ai (the same th- onset is seen in 能)

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Parts of the body — back and waist; slicing up reality

The word for "back" in Mandarin is bèi , the word for "waist" is yāo .  But nearly all of my Chinese students and friends, including the most learned, get the English words mixed up.  They will say "My waist aches" when they mean "My back aches" and "Don't break your waist" when they mean "Don't break your back".

Aside from exchanges in daily conversation, I also noticed this confusion in historical contexts.  One of the most famous early medieval Chinese poets, Tao Qian (Yuanming) (365- 427), when asked to dress up in a fancy, formal way to show his subservience to a visiting inspector, famously declared, “Wú bùnéng wèi wǔdǒu mǐ zhéyāo, quánquán shì xiānglǐ xiǎo rén yé 吾不能為五斗米折腰,拳拳事鄉里小人邪!” ("I cannot bend my back to obsequiously serve a petty person in the village for five pecks of rice."  Many translators of this passage render "zhéyāo 折腰" as "bend [my] waist" rather than "bend [my] back".  The "five pecks of rice" refers to his salary as a local magistrate, which he'd rather give up than lose his dignity and self respect.  Because of his unbending attitude, Tao abandoned government service altogether by the age of forty and returned to his own hometown to live as a farmer.

[Reference for specialists:  from Tao Qian's brief biography in the "Biographies of recluses", scroll 64 of the Book / History of Jin (Jìnshū 晉書) (Zhonghua shuju ed., vol. 8, p. 2461)]

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Brew

Making coffee this morning made me think about brewing — not the process, but the English verb brew and its semantic evolution. In particular, it made me wonder again about nativist versions of semantic atomism, which hold that word meanings are (perhaps structured) collections of innate atomic features. Versions of these ideas go back thousands of years, but their most prominent recent exponent was Jerry Fodor.

The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy's article puts it this way:

Fodor was also a staunch defender of nativism about the structure and contents of the human mind, arguing against a variety of empiricist theories and famously arguing that all lexical concepts are innate. Fodor vigorously argued against all versions of conceptual role semantics in philosophy and psychology, and articulated an alternative view he calls “informational atomism,” according to which lexical concepts are unstructured “atoms” that have their content in virtue of standing in certain external, “informational” relations to entities in the environment.

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The linguistic origins and affiliations of Zen

In the fifth comment to "Artistic Sinograph: Buddha" (11/11/21), stephen reeves says he'd like to hear about the origins of Zen.  This has always been one of my favorite topics, so I'm more than happy to tell it.

"Zen" entered the English lexicon already by 1727.  Here's a succinct, serviceable, popular explanation of its derivation:

[Japanese zen, from Early Middle Chinese dʑian, meditation; also the source of Mandarin chán), from Pali jhānaṃ, from Sanskrit dhyānam, from dhyāti, he meditates.]
 
Word History: Zen, a word that evokes the most characteristic and appealing aspects of Japanese culture for many English speakers, is ultimately of Indo-European origin. The Japanese word zen is a borrowing of a medieval Chinese word (now pronounced chán, in modern Mandarin Chinese) meaning "meditation, contemplation." Chán is one of the many Buddhist terms in Chinese that originate in India, the homeland of Buddhism. A monk named Bodhidharma, said to be of Indian origin, introduced Buddhist traditions emphasizing the practice of meditation to China in the 5th century and established Chan Buddhism. From the 7th century onward, elements of Chan Buddhism began to reach Japan, where chán came to be pronounced zen. The Chinese word chán is a shortening* of chán'nǎ "meditation, contemplation" a borrowing [VHM:  transcription] of the Sanskrit term dhyānam. The Sanskrit word is derived from the Sanskrit root dhyā-, dhī-, "to see, observe," and the Indo-European root behind the Sanskrit is *dheiə-, *dhyā-, "to see, look at." This root also shows up in Greek, where *dhyā- developed into sā-, as in the Common Greek noun *sāma, "sign, distinguishing mark." This noun became sēma in Attic Greek and is the source of English semantic.

Source:  American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition.

*The same thing happened with the Chinese transcription of "Buddha", as we saw in the previous post.  The Chinese have a low tolerance for maintaining the full transcriptions of words from other languages, usually shortening them by one or more syllables.]

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Measure words for robots

Christian Horn was reading an article in Japanese Endgadget (8/11/21) about the introduction of a new kind of robot called a "Cyberdog".

Says Christian:

You don't need to know Japanese to understand the fascinating part:  in Japanese, when counting things, the type of "thing" you are counting is relevant.  So you count "flat things" differently than "long shaped" things.  Or machines, fish, or animals.

The article states that Cyberdog is aimed at developers, and is limited to "1000台(匹?)", showing hesitation over which measure word to use, dai 台 (counter for machines, including vehicles) or hiki 匹 (counter for small animals​; counter for rolls of cloth; counter for horses​).  If you use dai 台 as a measure word for counting Cyberdogs, it would indicate that you think of them as machines.  If you use hiki 匹 for counting them, it would indicate that you regard Cyberdogs as animals.

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Ambiguous triple negative

This morning, I read the following sentence on a large list to which I belong:

"Apparently no one that hasn't been vaccinated doesn't want to live.

I read it over several times and thought about it for quite a while, but am still not sure that I understand what the author of the sentence really meant.  Can anyone state the intent of the sentence more clearly and unambiguously?

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Fully vaccinated or not in English, French, and Chinese

Sign in Vancouver International Airport:


Segregated line-ups for vaccinated and unvaccinated international arrivals at Vancouver International Airport. Photo by Andrew Aziz. (Source)

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GE

The particle "ge 個/个" is one of the most frequent characters in written Chinese (12th in a list of 9,933 unique characters).  It is generally thought of as a classifier, numerary adjunct, measure word.  Indeed, it functions as the almost universal, default classifier when you're not sure what the correct / proper measure word for a given noun should be.  In addition, "ge" has more than a dozen other definitions and usages, for which see Wiktionary. However, I'm not sure that any dictionary or grammar accounts for a very special usage that I have long been intrigued and enchanted by, namely the "ge" in this type of sentence:

Wǒ máng de gè yàosǐ

我忙得個要死!

"I'm so busy I could die!", i.e., "I'm incredibly busy!"

Here de 得 is a particle marking the complement of degree.

Because I lived with a big household full of Chinese (Shandong) in-laws, I picked this construction up very early in my learning of spoken Mandarin, but I always had a visceral feeling that it was extremely colloquial and unlikely to be encountered in written texts and was probably not covered in conventional grammars.  So I asked around among colleagues and native speaker informants how they would explain this unusual "ge", grammatically or otherwise.  Here are some of the replies I received.

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"No longer scared to hide who I am"

Jeré Longman, "An N.H.L. Prospect Is the First Such Player to Announce He’s Gay", New York Times 7/19/2021:

Luke Prokop, 19, a prospect with the Nashville Predators, on Monday became the first player with an N.H.L. contract to publicly announce that he is gay.

Prokop, who is from Edmonton, Alberta, made his announcement in an Instagram post, writing, “From a young age I have dreamed of being an N.H.L. player, and I believe that living my authentic life will allow me to bring my whole self to the rink and improve my chances of fulfilling my dreams.”

A third-round selection by the Predators in the 2020 N.H.L. draft, Prokop wrote: “While the past year and a half has been crazy, it has also given me the chance to find my true self. I am no longer scared to hide who I am. Today I am proud to publicly tell everyone that I am gay.”

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