Archive for May, 2008

"Chad" back in the news

Most of us haven't thought much about the word chad since the 2000 presidential recount in Florida. The word dominated the news so much back then that the American Dialect Society anointed it Word of the Year. But now the HBO docudrama Recount has brought back memories of chad — taking us back to the innocent days when the word was a novelty even to experienced political operatives.

Here's the key exchange between two Gore staffers, Ron Klain (played by Kevin Spacey) and Michael Whouley (played by Denis Leary):

Klain: How does a thing like that even happen?
Whouley: Because punch card ballots are primitive. You get cardboard chad that get punched, but don't go all the way through the holes so they're hanging off the edge of the ballot.
Klain: Hanging chads.
Whouley: Chad.
Klain: What?
Whouley: There's no S.
Klain: The plural of chad is chad?
Whouley: That's great democracy.
Klain: Jesus.

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High Patronage

The conference I'm attending, LREC 2008, is being held in Marrakech, Morroco, "under the High Patronage of His Majesty King Mohammed VI".  I don't know what this means in practical terms: does this patronage come with a subsidy, or is it simply a conventional phrase for events held at the government-run Palais des Congres, or what? I'll ask Khalid Choukry or one of the other conference organizers; but in fact, I'm more interested in the linguistic aspects of this "high patronage" than the practical ones.

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And a little Zippy

After Bizarro and Zits, here's a little Zippy. (Click on a cartoon to get an enlarged image.) First, on languages (though, this being Zippy, it wanders):


(I'm reminded of Mel Brooks' astonished complaint about his time in the Army, stationed in France: everyone spoke French!)

And then a riff on the idea that expressions mean different things to different people:


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Zits roundup

Another cartoon roundup, this time from Zits (click on a cartoon to get an enlarged image):

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Prescriptivist Science

Is there any "prescriptivist science"? Could there be any? The reaction of some linguists will be that "prescriptivist science" is as much as a contradiction in terms as "creation science" is. But I disagree.

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Bizarro roundup

A collection of Bizarro cartoons I've been accumulating for some time:

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There's a "Quorum" (in the sense of a discussion among a select group) up at Freakonomics on the topic "What Will Globalization Do To Languages". I'm one of the participants. I tried, perhaps too hard, to find something non-obvious to say on this topic — maybe I just should have sounded the tocsin for preservation of endangered languages.

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Kids these days

Classic KTD rant in a recent For Better or for Worse strip:

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True confessions of a sexist

Everyone (well, almost everyone) knows that context is important when we try to understand meaning. Linguists deal with context in phonology, grammar, and discourse, as well as at the social and psychological levels and probably a few other levels that I can't think of at the moment. And when you look at language in the context of time (when something was said in the past), it's relatively easy to find fault with silly people like us who change our minds about some wacky position we once held. Years, months, weeks, or even minutes ago most of us said, sometimes even believed, something that we wouldn't want to support any longer. But there are bullies out there who ignore such time contexts so if you said it once, you're stuck with it forever.

This is obvious, and I'm a bit embarrassed to even mention it, but I feel I really have to, because it's so common in our gotcha-ridden times. So I've decided to come clean and wrench from temporal context one of my own serious character flaws…before someone else has the chance to zap me first. So, if you're still with me, here it is.

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I'm in Marrakech for LREC2008, and so I should be blogging about all the interesting things going on here. But instead, at least today, I'm going to post the first installment of something that's been on my to-blog list since early April.

At the P.I. meeting of the DARPA GALE program, there was a panel discussion, chaired by Philip Resnik, on on the topic of Chinese-English machine translation. Or rather, according to Philip's introductory slide, on the topic "What the @#$% Do We Do About Chinese-English MT?"

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Superdelegates, round two

Back on April 15, Robert Beard posted an entry on "Dr. Goodword's Language Blog" about the word superdelegate, writing that "the US press is pushing a new word into our collective vocabulary in an apparent attempt to tilt the US elections in the direction it prefers" (i.e., in the direction of Barack Obama to the detriment of Hillary Clinton). He hammered the point home, calling superdelegate a "new pejorative term," a "new epithet," and so forth. A few days later I pointed out here that the word is in no way new: it can be documented from 1981 and was becoming firmly entrenched in non-pejorative political usage by the time of the 1984 Democratic National Convention. Dr. Beard/Goodword has now responded in the comments section and has revised his original post, so I'd like to follow up on his latest points.

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Enervate, disconnect, revolt

A conference I recently attended — I conceal its identity to spare the blushes of the organizers — had apparently forged enough connections to industrially applicable linguistic research to make it succumb to the blandishments of business-school jargon. (If one sups with the devil one should use a long spoon.) Every participant was given one of those fancy plasticized file folders to hold the program and so on, and on this fancy folder was emblazoned the following slogan:

• innovate • connect • achieve

I stared at the unrequested folder for some time, thinking of Orwell, and trying to imagine what ghastly school of business management Newspeak must have spawned the slogan.

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How to learn to read Chinese

The hardest part of learning Chinese is mastering the thousands of characters that are necessary for full literacy.  The spoken language, in contrast, is relatively easy to acquire.  A good teacher who employs benign pedagogical methods can have students conversing quite fluently within a year or two.  By “benign pedagogical methods” I mean focusing on pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar, and patterns (phrases, clauses, sentences – through build-up drills, substitution drills, etc.).  Unfortunately, all too many Chinese language teachers crush the enthusiasm and the confidence of beginning and intermediate students by requiring that – almost from the start – they arbitrarily learn dozens or scores of characters every month.

From the very beginning of my own Chinese language learning experience nearly forty years ago, I have staunchly opposed this over-emphasis on brute force memorization of characters.  Rather, I advocate what I call “learning like a baby” as much as possible.  Namely, let students naturally become familiar and comfortable with the basic expressions, structures, and intonations of the language.  After acquiring this solid foundation, then gradually introduce characters in a systematic fashion, one that is directly linked to words and expressions, not as isolated morphosyllables.

Unfortunately, most of us are adults or teenagers (post-puberty, at any rate) before we embark on our Chinese language learning quest.  Furthermore, we do not live in a Chinese language environment, so that makes it all the harder to “learn like a baby.”  As we say in Mandarin, ZE(N)3ME BAN4? (“What to do?”)

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