Archive for Language and science

Data vs. information

[This is a guest post by Conal Boyce]

The following was drafted as an Appendix to a project whose working title is "The Emperor's New Information" (after Penrose, The Emperor's New Mind). It's still a work-in-progress, so feedback would be welcome. For example: Are the two examples persuasive? Do they need technical clarification or correction? Have others at LL noticed how certain authors "who should know better" use the term information where data is dictated by the context, or employ the two terms at random, as if they were synonyms?

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Bronze, iron, gold, silver

In our ongoing quest to link up linguistics with archeology, we have had numerous posts involving Iranian-speaking peoples spreading from west to east and bringing culture and language with them.  When I say "culture", I mean technological as well as spiritual, artistic, architectural, and other aspects, plus social customs and political organization.  Because the Iranian-speaking peoples were so active in spreading diverse manifestations of culture, I often refer to them as Kulturvermittlers par excellence.

Among the more prominent features of culture that Iranian-speaking peoples transmitted across Eurasia was metallurgy.  That includes all four of the main metals:  bronze, iron, gold, and silver.  The first two were mainly for weapons and implements, and where they went, they transformed military affairs, agriculture, and daily life.  The changes that bronze and iron brought about amounted to revolutions of civilization.  Gold and silver were primarily for ornament and embellishment, and the Iranian-speaking people created breathtakingly beautiful works of art out of these precious metals

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The dissemination of iron and the spread of languages

This incredibly fine NHK documentary on "The Iron Road" will only be available online until November 8.  Since I do not know whether and in what form it will be available after November 8, I'm including it here only as a link embedded in the title.  If anyone discovers that, after November 8, it might be available on YouTube, Vimeo, or other easily accessible platform, I would be very grateful.  In any event, if you are interested in the history and transmission of ferrous metallurgy across Eurasia, together with its cultural and political impact, as well as Hittite and Scythian art, architecture, and language, and what came before the Silk Road, I strongly urge you to view this video by November 8.  This is one of the best Eurasian archeology documentaries that I have ever seen.

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"Gold" as element and "gold" as substance — as conceived by Mendeleev

[This is a guest post by Conal Boyce]

Your wonderful arabesque on the world of 'kedi'* (and the disappearance of cats for a time — perhaps to a different planet, because they had grown weary of trying to school us humans?) reminded me that you are a connoisseur of languages plural, not just Chinese. In that connection, you might find my 2019 article** on Mendeleev interesting.

 
[**"Mendeleev’s Elemental Ontology and Its Philosophical Renditions in German and English", HYLE – International Journal for Philosophy of Chemistry, Vol. 25 (2019), No. 1, 49-70.]

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Thought control to detect the misuse of language

[This is a guest post by Mark Metcalf]

Recently read a short story by Chinese sci-fi author Ma Boyong (translated by Ken Liu) entitled "City of Silence" (Jìjìng zhī chéng 寂静之城) — a tale about a highly dystopian future in ("not") China. The story was referenced in an article in Wired.

Haven't been able to find an English translation online, so I got the Kindle version in a compilation – Invisible Planets. A thought-provoking story that describes a State in which the government controls people's thoughts by monitoring all of their communications in order to detect the "misuse" of language. The following excerpts from the book explain how the process evolved. Very disturbing, with echoes from recent history that are even more disturbing.

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Hong Kong: language, art, and resistance

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Singapore circuit breakers

From a colleague in Singapore:

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Chinese coronavirus linguistic war

From a Taiwanese colleague:

In the struggle against Wǔhàn fèiyán 武漢肺炎 ("Wuhan pneumonia"), Taiwan has to fight the war on three fronts: (1) trying to stop the virus at its borders; (2) trying to join the WHO for world-wide collaboration and disease information; and (3) fighting against the Communist Chinese dictatorial linguistic policies.  The linguistic policy on disease terminology is really weird; it smacks of George Orwell's 1984.

He cites this article in Chinese and this facebook page (also in Chinese).  Here's another article in Chinese from Taiwan that sticks to "Wuhan pneumonia" despite the pressure from WHO and the PRC government to adopt a name that is not transparent with regard to the origin of the disease.

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Badge of honor: Language Log is blocked in China

Two days ago, I received this message from a colleague in China:

Not sure if this should be a badge of honor or a disappointment, but a few days ago Language Log got blocked in China.  (Source — GreatFire.org:  Language Log is 100% censored)

This caps off a miserable year where we also lost Wikipedia (all languages), The Guardian, Al Jazeera, Hackernews, Imgur….

[VHM:  Of course, Google, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and many other invaluable websites were already off-limits to Chinese citizens for years  The internet in China is severely decimated by the CCP government.]

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Mycological meandering: vernacular variora

The surname of the mayor of Prague is Hřib (Zdeněk Hřib [b. May 21, 1981]):

"Zdeněk Hřib: the Czech mayor who defied China"

By refusing to expel a Taiwanese diplomat, the Prague mayor has joined the ranks of local politicians confronting contentious national policies

Robert Tait in Prague
The Guardian, Wed 3 Jul 2019 01.00 EDT

The surname Hřib, though unusual, struck me as familiar.  Jichang Lulu observes:

Hřib is the regular Czech reflex of the Proto-Slavic source of, e.g., the Russian and Polish words for "mushroom" (гриб, grzyb). The Czech form, however, has a more specific meaning (certain mushrooms, e.g., Boletus). On the other hand, the further origin of Slavic gribъ has long been a matter of much debate, and I'm not aware of a generally accepted Proto-Indo-European (or other) etymology.

That set me to wondering whether there are cognates in other IE branches.

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First grade science card: Pinyin degraded, part 2

Another science card given out to first grade students in Shenzhen, China (see "Readings" below for the first one):

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Language as a self-regulating system

Thought-provoking article by Lane Greene, the language columnist and an editor at The Economist:

"Who decides what words mean:  Bound by rules, yet constantly changing, language might be the ultimate self-regulating system, with nobody in charge", Aeon (12/6/18).

Greene starts with a wallop:

Decades before the rise of social media, polarisation plagued discussions about language. By and large, it still does. Everyone who cares about the topic is officially required to take one of two stances. Either you smugly preen about the mistakes you find abhorrent – this makes you a so-called prescriptivist – or you show off your knowledge of language change, and poke holes in the prescriptivists’ facts – this makes you a descriptivist. Group membership is mandatory, and the two are mutually exclusive.

But then he softens the blow by saying, "it doesn't have to be this way".

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Wolf's milk, a slime mold attractive to young Chinese?

"Growing up on wolf's milk" — when I first encountered this expression, which was applied to youth who had survived the multiple catastrophes of the first quarter-century of the PRC, I took it literally because I thought that they didn't have much of anything else to eat.  Naturally, though, I did wonder how they would be able to obtain a significant amount of milk from she-wolves to make a difference.

For a moment I thought that maybe starving children were going out into the woods and scavenging for Lycogala epidendrum, commonly known as wolf's milk or groening's slime, which grows on damp, rotten logs from June through November. It wasn't long, however, before I realized that the expression "growing up on wolf's milk", as it occurred in PRC parlance from the 70s and later, was being used metaphorically to describe the hardships experienced by those who endured the privations of early communist rule in China.

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