Archive for Ambiguity

French (near) homonyms – "calembours pourris"

[h/t Stephan Hurtubise]

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Scope ambiguity of the week

A recent NYT headline seems like the premise for a particularly dark dystopian movie: Emily Oster, "Only Children Are Not Doomed", NYT 4/27/2020. A sort of cross between 12 Monkeys and Lord of the Flies? No:

The coronavirus pandemic has created a lot of confusion, but it also may bring into focus a question many parents (or expectant parents) ask: What is the right number of kids for my family? Quarantine or not, having siblings shapes one’s experiences and development. On balance, is this for good or for ill? […]

Overall, when it comes to what economists call success, having siblings simply does not seem to matter.

But what about the awkward only child? The data has largely rejected that idea for decades. One 1987 review article, which summaries 140 studies, found some evidence of more “academic motivation” among only children, but no differences on personality traits like extroversion. In other words, although you might expect a built-in playmate makes a kid more social, the data doesn’t bear that out.

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"Robust Contact-Rich Manipulation by Controlled Compliance"

Every day, I get several talk announcements from the various mailing lists that I subscribe to, which represent a rich array of disciplinary sources: linguistics, computer science, anthropology, sociology, communications, math, literary studies, marketing, and so on. Usually I can figure out from the title what the presentation is going to be about — but sometimes my first guess is wrong in an interesting way.

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A tough choice


My decision after the break —

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Ladle Rat Rotten Hut, Emojis and coded communication in Shanghai

Look everyone! it's a post about language in China by not-Victor! :)

I just had to drop everything and write this post while I was listening to the latest Reply-All podcast, this week consisting of a series of phone interviews with people around the world about the experience of the COVID-19 pandemic in their area. The first interview was with Justine from Shanghai, and she was talking about ways people were working around censorship in talking about…

…uh oh I suddenly realize I may be doing a disservice to the Chinese public by posting about this, so I won't go into all the detail I intended. Anyway, the basic idea is that folks were using homophonic transliteration with emojis to get around censorship of certain stories about the epidemic there. You can listen to the podcast here; the relevant bit is between minutes 4:40 and 6:15.

If you can imagine it, this would be like trying to parse "Little Red Riding Hood" from emojis  like💡💯🐀✍️👱‍♂️. Leaving comments open to see if anyone can figure out what homophonic transliteration words I intend for that sequence. First prize is a disinfected plastic cup with logo from the Language Log water cooler stash delivered by drone sometime in 2022.

It's probably worth noting that this idea of communicating via pictures of sound-alikes is basically the actual honest to god origin of phonetically based writing systems. Also worth noting that this way of repurposing symbols to represent sounds of another expression has a long history particularly in Chinese and related languages, whose linguistic features mean that you often have lots of homophones and near-homophones, and whose logographic writing systems probably lend themselves to that kind of graphemic/phonemic cross-indexing during lexical lookup. (Someone must be studying that, right? ) So you get a lot of punning and double-entendres in Chinese writing, if I understand rightly.

If the idea of homophonic transliteration is new to you,  you could get in the wayback machine and check out this archival LL post from simpler times, here.

Wishing all my fellow humans the very best from a living room in Arizona!

 

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Scaring off the coronavirus

From John Berenberg — "Coronavirus fears empty streets":

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Was it "people of colour" or "people of talent"?

Jim Waterson, "Channel 4 apologises over subtitle error on viral Boris Johnson clip (Tory anger after tweet claims PM said ‘people of colour’ instead of ‘people of talent’)", The Guardian 12/6/2019:

Channel 4 News has apologised after a subtitling error wrongly claimed Boris Johnson had discussed whether “people of colour” should be allowed into the UK, prompting the Conservatives to accuse staff at the channel of being campaigners rather than journalists.

In a clip of the prime minister uploaded to Channel 4’s social media accounts, Johnson was captioned as saying: “I’m in favour of having people of colour come to this country but I think we should have it democratically controlled and have it done that way.”

In reality, Johnson said he was in favour of having “people of talent” come to the UK, and did not discuss race.

The falsely subtitled clip went viral on Friday, prompting Channel 4 to issue a correction: “Boris Johnson says ‘people of talent’ not ‘people of colour’. Our earlier tweet was a mistake. We misheard and we apologise.”

Some people who had shared the clip continued to wrongly insist the prime minister had said the word “colour”. This suggested it may be an example of people’s hearing being influenced by visual cues – similar to the known phenomenon of the McGurk effect. It also echoes the confusion at the end of last year over whether a voice in a short audio clip was saying the word “laurel” or “yanny”.

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Attachment ambiguity of the week

Annie Ropeik, "N.H. Defends Laconia Law Barring Female Nudity In U.S. Supreme Court Appeal", New Hampshire Public Radio 12/6/2019:

New Hampshire has filed a response with the U.S. Supreme Court in the so-called “Free the Nipple” case of three women arrested for going topless at Weirs Beach in 2016.

The high court had asked to hear from the state, which an attorney for the women appealing says shows at least one justice may be interested in the issue.

The women say the Laconia ordinance under which they were convicted is unconstitutional and discriminates based on gender.

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Intentionally ambiguous headline

"The Lost Harvest of Chinese Food Plants in Venezuela", By José González Vargas, Caracas Chronicles (May 11, 2019)

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Corpora and the Second Amendment: “bear arms” (part 1), plus a look at “the people”

An introduction and guide to my series of posts “Corpora and the Second Amendment” is available here. The corpus data that is discussed can be downloaded here. That link will take you to a shared folder in Dropbox. Important: Use the "Download" button at the top right of the screen.

New URL for COFEA and COEME: https://lawcorpus.byu.edu.

This is the first of what will be three posts on bear arms; it will be devoted to critiquing the Supreme Court’s discussion of bear arms in District of Columbia v. Heller. My examination of the corpus data on bear arms will appear in my next two posts. In the meantime, if you're interested, you can read discussions of the data by Dennis Baron (“Corpus Evidence Illuminates the Meaning of Bear Arms,” in the Hastings Constitutional Law Quarterly) and by Josh Blackman & James C. Phillips (“Corpus Linguistics and the Second Amendment,” in the Harvard Law Review Blog), both of which reach conclusions consistent with mine. (The piece by Blackman & Phillips is especially noteworthy, given that they are both gun-rights advocates.)

My focus in this post will be on the Supreme Court’s conclusion that at the time the Second Amendment was proposed and ratified, bear arms unambiguously meant ‘carry weapons, for purposes of being prepared for a confrontation,’ without regard to whether the carrying was in connection with military service. What I conclude is that even without taking account of how bear arms was actually used, the court’s arguments don’t hold up. Assuming for the sake of argument that bear arms could reasonably have been understood to mean what the court said it meant, the court didn’t show that it unambiguously meant that.

That’s not to say that I think bear arms was ambiguous. As I’ll discuss in the next two posts, the corpus evidence points toward the conclusion that bear arms unambiguously conveyed the military meaning that the Supreme Court rejected: “to serve as a soldier, do military service, fight” or “to wage war.” But even if the evidence were equivocal, the absence of evidence unambiguously supporting the court’s interpretation would still be important.

That’s because the court’s analysis in Heller depends crucially on its conclusion that bear arms was unambiguous. It was that conclusion that enabled the court to interpret the Second Amendment’s operative clause (“the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed”) without taking into consideration its prefatory clause (“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State”). In the court’s view, if the operative clause was unambiguous, the prefatory clause “does not limit or expand [its] scope.” So if court was wrong in thinking that the operative clause was unambiguous, it was wrong in refusing to consider whether the prefatory clause affected its meaning. And if the prefatory clause plays a role in interpreting the operative clause, the argument against the court’s interpretation is strengthened.

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Another post-modifier attachment ambiguity

From CNN's front page on the web today:

Pelting them with iPhones? Stranding them in Dongle Hell? Better not to know…

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Who's the sponsor?

A few weeks ago I attended the last afternoon of Scale By The Bay 2018 ("So much for Big Data", 11/18/2018), and as a result, this arrived today by email:

We had a blast at Scale by the Bay. We hope you did, too. As a sponsor, the organizer has shared your email with us. If you would like to receive messages from Xxxxxxxxx, please opt-in to our mailing list.

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Guilty gloves

There was some discussion earlier this morning ("Editors without judgment") about editorial culpability for misreadings due to the ambiguity of post-modifier attachment. In that headline (…a space for women without judgment), the problem the problem was a PP modifier (without judgment) that should attach "high", i.e. to an earlier NP (a space … without judgment), and creates an unfortunate misreading if attached "low" (women without judgment). I implicitly blamed this on the inattentive sub-editor who wrote the headline. But really, it's the fault of the English language, for having no good way to indicate where post-modifiers should attach.

Here's an example where the problem goes in the opposite direction — Hannah Ellis-Petersen, "NHS rubber gloves made in Malaysian factories accused of forced labour", Guardian 12/9/2018.

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