Archive for Semantics

On the difficulty of saying what a word is

Sophie MacDonald asks:

I have been an on-and-off reader of Language Log for several years, and have always enjoyed your contributions, though I’m not a linguist. I do work on formal language theory sometimes, but very much within mathematics and computer science, not linguistics.

Recently, a music theorist colleague asked me for help with a question. She is engaging with the body of literature that applies linguistic ideas and methods to the study of music, and she is in particular working with the idea that it is hard to give a definition of a chord or a melodic phrase that actually makes sense within musical practice. She was asking for linguistic sources indicating the difficulty of saying what a word is, which might be useful for the point she is making.

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Perfect translation

Meme online from a Chinese forum (fortunately I have a screenshot). Hilarious, but sad, though, considering China’s reported covid conditions.

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"Ethical misconduct"?

"Another Trump appointee provides a lesson in ethical misconduct", WaPo 11/5/2022:

The Office of the Inspector General issued a report last month identifying a series of “administrative, ethical and policy violations” by J. Brett Blanton, appointed by President Donald Trump and sworn in in early 2020.

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Compound agent nouns in English

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The mystery of sóng (U+2AA0A) ("semen")

Matt Jenkins writes:

I am hoping you'll indulge a question that's been bugging me. I have been trying to improve my fluency by watching as many Chinese online dramas as possible, and sóng (U+2AA0A) comes up in show after show. But the character is always quite obviously "cut-and-pasted" into the subtitles. I'm (generally) familiar with the character as a simplified form of 㞞, and that people usually write 怂 instead. But why is the character practically completely absent from character sets and dictionaries? It's no more offensive than its progenitor 㞞, but 㞞 is far easier to find in character sets.

Jichang Lulu wrote about 㞞 on the Language Log back in March [see "Selected readings" below], but that post didn't include any reference to    (U+2AA0A).

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Omnibus Chinglish, part 4

Yet more fun (see parts 1, 2, and 3).

Don't JuYiGe


(source)

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Cat huffing and snorting in Japanese and Chinese

Full disclosure:  I'm not an expert on felines, except sort of for Hello Kitty.  I've owned a lot of dogs, but have never had a kitty kat since the time I was a little boy.  I have a poor understanding of their psychology and behavior, although I very much like to observe them, especially when they're sleeping or sunning themselves, and I love to hear them purr.  Occasionally it's fun to pet them, and I like it when they walk around my legs, twirling / wrapping their tail as they go.

Here's a reddit thread from last fall:

Posted by u/Curious_Cilantro, Oct. 1, 2021

[Chinese] xīmāo 吸猫 – to zone out and enjoy the company of a cat, as if it were a drug. Lit. “snort/suck cat”

Example: After work, I just want to relax at home and xīmāo 吸猫 (enjoy my cat’s company).

It’s a new phrase mostly used by young people. Since snorting drugs is xīdú 吸毒,and cats are so charismatic, appreciating their company is like snorting a drug that helps you relax.

A variation is yún xī māo 云吸猫 (cloud snort cat), which refers to browsing pictures and videos of cats online. A significant portion of reddit is dedicated to accommodating this activity.

[VHM:  Romanizations / Hanyu Pinyin added]

A screenshot of this has been making the rounds on Facebook, shared via the page "Cats on Cocaine" (CokedOutCats), appropriately enough.

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"A motive was immediately unknown"

Lauren Hernández, "Teen, 16, fatally shot on Oakland street with high-powered rifle", 6/9/2022 (emphasis added):

A 16-year-old boy was killed in a shooting in Oakland on Thursday evening and police are urging witnesses to come forward, authorities said.

At about 6 p.m., Oakland police received a call of shots fired in the area of 3000 block of 64th Avenue, where one person was reported to be down and a potential second victim was “somewhere else,” Oakland Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong said in a video posted to Facebook.

Officers found the teen who had been shot with a “high-powered rifle,” Armstrong said. Police also received a ShotSpotter activation for the shooting, Armstrong said. “Several shots” were fired, he said.

“We are following up on the second individual who appeared to be a victim as well,” Armstrong said, adding that police believe that victim is in stable condition. Information on that victim was not immediately released.

A motive was immediately unknown on Thursday evening, Armstrong said.

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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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