Archive for January, 2009

Apostrophe catastrophe

Outrage reigns in Britain over the decision by the Birmingham city council to stop using apostrophes on its street signs; the AP story, by Meera Selva, is here.

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No word for lying?

I don't know about the languages that Montaigne was thinking of, but the claim that some languages lack a word for lying is one that has continued to crop up. A few months ago Steven Point, who is currently the Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia, asserted that there is no word for "lying" in his language, Halkomelem. It appears, however, that he is mistaken: my sources say that in his language smétnqən means "to lie, speak falsely" and that q̓íq̓əl̓stéxʷ means "to lie, deceive".

An earlier example of the same theme is due to no other than John Wayne, who in the classic western Hondo asserts that "The Apaches have no word for 'lie'." That is sort of true: the Western Apache dictionary that I own lists not one but two different expressions for lying. There is a verb meaning specifically "to lie", e.g. ɬeíɬchoo "he lies", as well as an expression meaning "to lie, deceive", e.g. bich'ii' nashch'aa "I lie to him".

It may well be true that these cultures have a particularly negative view of lying, but tall tales about the lack of a word for it aren't a good way of making this point.

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No words, or too many

As we've recently seen, people love the idea that a culture is revealed by its lexicon. The earliest example of this trope that I can think of is in Michel de Montaigne's 1580 essay "Of Cannibals". This is one of the founding documents of the "noble savage" tradition, and presents the alleged lack of certain words for certain bad things as evidence of the essential goodness of humanity in the state of nature:

These nations then seem to me to be so far barbarous, as having received but very little form and fashion from art and human invention, and consequently to be not much remote from their original simplicity. The laws of nature, however, govern them still, not as yet much vitiated with any mixture of ours: but 'tis in such purity, that I am sometimes troubled we were not sooner acquainted with these people, and that they were not discovered in those better times, when there were men much more able to judge of them than we are. I am sorry that Lycurgus and Plato had no knowledge of them: for to my apprehension, what we now see in those nations, does not only surpass all the pictures with which the poets have adorned the golden age, and all their inventions in feigning a happy state of man, but, moreover, the fancy and even the wish and desire of philosophy itself; so native and so pure a simplicity, as we by experience see to be in them, could never enter into their imagination, nor could they ever believe that human society could have been maintained with so little artifice and human patchwork. I should tell Plato, that it is a nation wherein there is no manner of traffic, no knowledge of letters, no science of numbers, no name of magistrate or political superiority; no use of service, riches or poverty, no contracts, no successions, no dividends, no properties, no employments, but those of leisure, no respect of kindred, but common, no clothing, no agriculture, no metal, no use of corn or wine; the very words that signify lying, treachery, dissimulation, avarice, envy, detraction, pardon, never heard of. How much would he find his imaginary republic short of his perfection? [emphasis added]

I'd be curious to know whether it's now possible to determine which New World language (or language-family) the "cannibal" that Montaigne interviewed in Rouen in 1562 spoke, so that the truth of his assertions about the lack (for example) of a word for lying could be checked. [Update: it was Tupinambá.] I'd lay my money against him, if there were any chance to settle the bet one way or the other.

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The lexical measure of your life

Mark has just supplied new Language Log readers with a reference archive of Language Log posts about languages with lots of words for certain things, and languages with no words for certain things. It is a theme that intrigues ordinary folk; it almost mesmerises them. It is clear that nothing Language Log can do will ever discredit the twin notions that (1) lexical abundance correlates with conceptual or environmental or perceptual richness, and (2) that lexical thrift betokens a poorer and meaner experiential world.

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Victor Mair recently told me about someone who began a letter to him in a way that struck him as odd:

"I actually have a pseudo linguistics question for you about the title of the Manchu emperor."

Victor was surprised by this use of actually. He added:

The next day, my sister from Seattle, who was visiting us in Swarthmore after attending the inauguration in DC, happened to complain about this very usage of "actually" among our nieces and nephews and their friends (when they are expressing an opinion).

Actually, these two senses of actually are worth distinguishing. And this is not just my opinion — I'm relying on the analysis in Uta Lenk's 1998 dissertation, Marking Discourse Coherence: Functions of Discourse Markers in Spoken English.

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Timing and irony in Helsinki

I'm back, for the first time since August 2001, in Helsinki, Finland. I love this city, for all sorts of reasons. Intelligent and interesting academic friends; big, beautiful public buildings in brilliant white and yellow; the views across the harbor (hardly any of the sea is frozen today, so the big car ferries are moving with no trouble and the icebreakers are mainly up north); the comfort of the Hotel Arthur; but above all (for yes, this is Language Log, not Baltic Tourism Log) the coolest language in the world. Finnish seems wonderful to me. Delicious. Speaking the little bits of it that I can manage, or even just reading out signs, actually gives me a tingling feeling on the tongue. (Yliopistokirjakauppa: it tastes like iced champagne.) And I learned a tiny bit more about Finnish pronunciation within minutes of arrival. I thanked the taxi driver by saying kiitos ("Thank you") as I got out, carefully making the i twice as long as the o, which is what I thought was correct. But I clearly heard my friend Hanna, who had kindly come to the airport to meet me, say to the driver what sounded to my ear more like kitos. As soon as we got inside the hotel I asked her, what's up? Why was her first-syllable vowel shorter than mine? And like a solid linguist she was able to answer me instantly and authoritatively.

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Counting linguistics job ads and dissertations

Heidi and I both posted recently about the job market in linguistics (my post, and her collaborative post with Shannon Bischoff). There was some discussion in the comments about whether the numbers were truly comparable and whether we should base conclusions on just one year of data. This post attempts to make amends, as it were, by setting Linguist List job data from the last five years alongside the Proquest dissertation data that Shannon collected:

Update (2009-06-09): See this post for arguably more accurate counts for dissertations.

Counts of job ads and dissertations, 2004-2008

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'No word for X' archive

Responding to the popularity of this morning's post on the politico-lexical economy of fair, here's a list of some earlier LL posts on aspects of the No Word for X meme and its rhetorical deployment [updated for some later ones as well…]:

"No word for 'runoff'?", 12/23/2020
"'No words for mental health'", 9/8/2020
"Two few words to describe emotions", 2/12/2019
"No word for rape", 5/29/2018
"Candidate for careless Whorfian nonsense of the year", 3/11/2018
"Failing words in Myanmar", 7/20/2015
"No word for 'fetch'", 11/25/2014
"No word for 'father'", 10/22/2014
"When there's no Hebrew word for something, it's a bad idea", 4/4/2014
"No word for rape" (11/20/2013)
"No word for normal parts of early childhood?" (7/23/2013)
"Wade Davis has no word for 'dubious linguistic claim'" (1/14/2013)
"No word for 'privacy' in Russian?" (1/15/2012)
"It's baaack . . . and upside-down!" (1/2/2012)
"No word for Rapture" (5/20/2011)
"No word for 'mess'" (4/21/2011)
"We have not the word because we have so much of the thing" (4/19/2011)
"No word for dyslexia in languages with good spelling systems" (2/28/2011)
"Annals of 'No Word for X'" (1/23/2011)
"No word for 'retroactive loss of modifier redundancy'?" (10/9/2010
"No word for journalistic indolence" (10/6/2010)
"No virgins on Danger Island" (10/6/2010)
"Whorfian tourism" (9/23/2010)
"There is No Word in Japanese for 'Compliance'" (7/15/2010)
"Icelandic: no word for 'please', 45 words for 'green'?" (4/18/2010)
"40 words for 'next'" (4/2/2010)
"Pop-Whorfianism in the comics again" (7/29/2009)
"Hay foot straw foot" (7/29/2009)
"No word for bribery" (7/3/2009)
"From the 'words for X' annals" (5/31/2009)
"No concept of X in Y" (3/29/2009)
"Rainbow sparkling air sequins" (2/2/2009)
"No word for lying?" (1/31/2009)
"No words, or too many" (1/30/2009)
"No word for fair?" (1/28/2009)
"Another 'words for X' competition" (1/1/2009)
"No word for integrity?" (12/31/2008)
"Reverse Whorfianism and the value of SHAs" (12/23/2008)
"Burger King Whopper Virgins" (12/4/2008)
"Journalistic dreamtime" (3/8/2007)
"Solving the world's problems with linguistics" (12/17/2006)
"Does anybody have a word for this? Probably not." (11/2/2006)
"Parts of a fish head: Let me count the ways" (10/4/2006)
"Ineffability" (9/21/2006)
"No concept of the future, no yuccas either" (5/11/2006)
"No Word for Thank You" (5/6/2006)
"New ideas and new words" (4/23/2006)
"Whorf in a bottle" (5/5/2006)
"Ayn Rand psychologizes a trope" (3/19/2006)
"Ayn Rand, linguist?" (3/15/2006)
"'60 Minutes' doomed to repeat itself" (12/24/2005)
"Snowclone blindness" (11/19/2005)
"The miserable French language and its inadequacies" (9/30/2005)
"Football in Navajo, anyone?" (9/23/2005)
"Crisis ≠ Danger + Opportunity" (4/29/2005)
"No word for 'lazy hack parroting drivel'" (4/1/2005)
"No word for sex" (3/12/2005)
"It's like a glimmer on the horizon" (12/3/2004)
"Arctic folk at loss for words again" (11/23/2004)
"No word for robins" (11/16/2004)
"46 Somali words for camel" (2/15/2004)
"Somali words for camel spit" (2/11/2004)


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No word for fair?

Over the years, we've discussed many cross-cultural comparisons based on the "No Word for X" meme. In the most recent LL post on the subject ("No word for integrity?", 12/31/2008), I asserted that

[W]hen someone makes a sociological point by saying that language L has no word for concept C, you'll rarely lose by betting that they're wrong.

But a recent assertion by Bart Wilson seems more promising — the linguistic part is supported by reference to a chapter in a recent book by an actual (and eminent) linguist, and the socio-cultural part is supported by reference to a large body of empirical research, some of which was done by Wilson himself.

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Giving the bad news

We’ve had more than enough bad news lately about the economy, loss of jobs, fraud in the marketplace, and our various wars, so maybe talking about how to give bad news seems timely. Now has published an article about the problems that law enforcement officers experience when it’s their job to give the bad news to relatives about murder victims and other tragedies. Giving the bad news is hard on the police. Some do it well; others don’t. But giving the ultimate bad news is necessary, no matter how hard we stuggle to do it.

Most of us have to communicate bad news to suffering people at some time in our lives, whether it’s the type that police have to announce, the type that financial advisors have to give clients who have just lost their life savings in a stockmarket dive, or the type that physicians sadly have to give their patients. No bad news giving is easy.

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Pause, on, off, whatever: human interface design

In the lecture room where I will be giving a talk later today at the Max-Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, the audiovisual equipment is controlled by a small touch-screen unit. Right now, the part of the display that controls the ceiling-mounted projector looks like this:


That is almost exactly what it looks like. Now, you tell me: would that mean that the projector is on, or that it is off? Is the blue button the operative one, showing the name of the current state? Or is it the white button beside it that we should pay attention to? (I should make it clear that the PAUSE across below them is not a button: only the ON and the OFF buttons change color when touched.) And then once we have decided whether we should see this as saying "ON" or as saying "OFF", do you think it means that the pausing function is on, which would mean that the projector is off? Or that the pausing function is off, which would mean that the projector is on?

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John DeFrancis, August 31, 1911-January 2, 2009

My old friend and comrade-in-arms, John DeFrancis, died at the age of 97 on January 2, 2009. The cause of his death was a bizarre, tragic accident, yet one that is supremely ironic for someone who devoted his entire adult life to the study, teaching, and explication of Chinese language: John choked on a piece of Peking Duck at a Christmas dinner in a Honolulu restaurant.

John with some of the books he published in 1996

John with some of the books he published, in 1996 by John DeFrancis

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Linguists on the job market

Chris's post on the job market for linguists circulated instantly here at the University of Arizona, and one of our enterprising recent grads, Shannon Bischoff, thought of comparing Chris's job posting numbers, sorted by area, to numbers of dissertations produced in each area. I post his revised table of figures including the diss numbers below the jump.

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