Archive for August, 2010

A cricket writer enlightens us on the Urdu tense system

Pakistan is playing England in a series of cricket matches, and on Sunday, August 29, Mike Brearley filed from the famous Lord's cricket ground an unbearably pompous article in The Observer about how things are going. "Cricket is the cruellest game," he began; "It is also, by the same token, the kindest" — I will spare you the rest of the self-contradictory pseudo-literary drivel of his first paragraph. But with his second paragraph he moves into linguistics and theology, and I think Language Log has to comment on the former:

There is no future tense in Urdu; the future is in the hands of Allah, it is not for mortal men to speak as if they presume to know what it holds. But Pakistan's players must at least have feared for their future as the day wore on.

Can you guess what I did on seeing this, Language Log readers? (Apart, that is, from muttering imprecations under my breath, not for the first time, about how I simply do not understand the tendency for people to talk about language as if they can just make stuff up and nothing needs to be fact-checked.) I know a little about the Indic languages, and I do have some of the right books. So I got up, walked across my office, and plucked my rather ancient (1962) copy of Teach Yourself Urdu from the shelf.

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The Glamour of Grammar

[This is a guest post by Roy Peter Clark.  He was indirectly quoted in "Flacks and hacks and brainscans" (11/23/2007), but the "analysis and criticism" that he mentions can be found in "Slippery glamour" (7/4/2008), "Don't tell Sister Catherine William" (7/5/2008), and "Funky a" (7/7/2008). I admire him for being such a good sport about the whole thing, and I urge readers to respond to his invitation to read his new book and to comment "thumbs up, thumbs down, or thumbs sideways". Substantively and politely, of course.]

About two years ago, my work became the subject of analysis and criticism on Language Log. At the time I was not familiar with this community of language experts and students and was not prepared for what was about to happen. Under a category of comments called “Prescriptivist Poppycock” (gotta love the alliteration), I read folks who questioned my scholarship, my credentials, and my writing. I am not complaining about this. I would like to describe what happened and how I responded to it.

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Tracking a factoid to its lair

Matt Richtel, one of the leading current peddlers of the "technology is eating our brains" meme, is fond of this assertion:

The average person today consumes almost three times as much information as what the typical person consumed in 1960, according to research at the University of California, San Diego.

That version is the lead paragraph of the online site for his appearance on Fresh Air, "Digital Overload: Your Brain On Gadgets", 8/24/2010.  I was curious about what this sentence could mean, and more specifically, I wondered which UCSD researchers did the measurements, and what they they measured. Usually I can track down the source of a factoid from the scant clues typically left by passing journalists, but this one has defeated me, so I'm asking for help.

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Next day's Chinese lesson

Following up on "Chinese Lesson for Today," we have another specimen of writing on a wall related to the bodily functions that requires grammatical explanation. Here is a temporary sign at a construction site in Shanghai, taken by Mollie Kirk around '08:

Jìnzhǐ xiǎobiàn, fǒuzé sǐrén 禁止小便,否則死人

Direct translation: "It is prohibited to urinate, otherwise dead man."

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Protocols of the Quizmasters of Zion

I can usually figure out the specific reasons that statistical MT systems come up with peculiar translations.  But this one has me stumped:

Google Translate renders "Montar un vínculo con Israel" into English as ""Build a bond with Israel", which seems accurate. But how did Israel slip into the English-to-Spanish mapping?

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Never mind the conclusions, what's the evidence?

A month ago, I linked to Lera Boroditsky's WSJ piece "Lost in Translation", and promised to discuss the contents in more detail at some point in the future ("Boroditsky on Whorfian navigation and blame", 7/26/2010). At the time, I noted that there is probably no single linguistic idea that is more prone to exaggeration and mis-application than the "Sapir-Whorf hypothesis" about the relations between language and thought. And the WSJ editors' subhed for Boroditsky's article gives their readers a push down that road:

New cognitive research suggests that language profoundly influences the way people see the world; a different sense of blame in Japanese and Spanish.

Meanwhile, the NYT Sunday magazine has just published a major article by Guy Deutscher, "Does Your Language Shape How You Think?" (8/26/2010), which I hereby promise to discuss in detail at some point in the future. And in order not to let my neo-Whorfianism account fall too many promises in arrears, I'll actually post about Boroditsky's WSJ piece today. (I won't try to discuss both articles at the same time, because in this sort of thing, it's the scientific details that matter.)

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Ask Language Log: Adjectives from country names?

Jak King writes:

Are there rules in English for making adjectives from countries, or are the assignments random?  I have found a number of standard adjectival endings (-ese, -(i)an, -ish, -i, -er). There are also some singularities (French, Greek, Monegasque) and some where the adjectival form is the same as the country name (Hong Kong, New Zealand).

How is this worked out, or who decides?

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Chinese lesson for today

Sign on the wall of a public toilet in China:

Yánjìn yòng dǎngbào dǎngkān dāng shǒuzhǐ yòng" 严禁用党报党刊当手纸用.

Smooth translation: “Use of Party newspapers and magazines as toilet paper is strictly forbidden.”

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Pure Chinese?

Ads for the Confucius Institutes show up all over the Web. At times they seem to be virtually ubiquitous, at least on sites that I visit. One that I've been encountering frequently of late shows a sculpture of Confucius, at the bottom of which are written the words "Kongzi Xueyuan" 孔子學院, translated below that as "Confucius Institute," followed by the words "Teach you pure Chinese."

Aside from the fact that "Teach you pure Chinese" as a whole strikes me as an odd locution, the notion of "pure Chinese" by itself gives me pause. If the Confucius Institutes are going to teach you "pure Chinese," they must have in mind one or more kinds of "impure Chinese" that they do not want you to learn. Are there opposing institutions that are out there teaching "impure Chinese"?

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Taking care of people

Today's Tank McNamara features an idiom with two very different meanings:

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Altmann: Hauser apparently fabricated data

There's new information emerging from the slow-motion Marc Hauser train wreck. Carolyn Johnson, "Journal editor questions Harvard researcher's data", Boston Globe 8/27/2010:

The editor of a scientific journal said today the only "plausible" conclusion he can draw, on the basis of access he has been given to an investigation of prominent Harvard psychology professor Marc Hauser's research, is that data were fabricated.

Gerry Altmann, the editor of the journal Cognition, which is retracting a 2002 article in which Hauser is the lead author, said that he had been given access to information from an internal Harvard investigation related to that paper. That investigation found that the paper reported data that was not present in the videotape record that researchers make of the experiment.

“The paper reports data … but there was no such data existing on the videotape. These data are depicted in the paper in a graph,” Altmann said. “The graph is effectively a fiction and the statistic that is supplied in the main text is effectively a fiction.”

Gerry Altmann posted a statement on his weblog with a more detailed account: harvard misconduct: setting the record straight", 8/27/2010). As indicated in Johnson's article, the facts and interpretations that Altmann provides go beyond, to a shocking degree, previously described issues of lost data or disagreement about subjective coding of animal behavior.

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The normalcy of refudiate

Ian Best writes:

Since it was first used by Palin, and then commented upon by the media, I've heard the word [refudiate] used a couple of times in everyday speech. Both times it was used in a playful, ironic way, as if the person knew it was a Palin-invented, non-legitimate word. I.e. "You need to refudiate that comment!"

My question: At what point does a word become a legitimate word, one worth keeping, if it is used often enough in everyday speech, even ironically?

I actually think "refudiate" is a useful invention, whether intended or not by Palin. "Refute" and "repudiate" have distinct meanings, and it is certainly possible to do both simultaneously. Politics and origins aside, what do you think about the word itself, and about the chance that it will catch on?

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Part-of-speech classification question

Brett Reynolds (who writes the blog English, Jack) raised an interesting question of detail about English grammar the other day in an email to me and Rodney Huddleston: What is the syntactic category (part of speech) of slash, as used in There is also a study slash guest bedroom, or We need a corkscrew slash bottle opener? (Brett's email, incidentally, provided what I think is the right answer.)

The syntactic categories of a language are supposed to be grammatically definable natural classes of words that share syntactic properties with each other to an interesting degree — to a degree that clearly makes it easier to describe how sentences are put together. You can assume for present purposes that the categories to choose from are the ones used in The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language: Noun (dog, gratitude, . . .), Verb (walk, instantiate, . . .), Adjective (good, ridiculous, . . .), Adverb (carefully, soon, . . .), Preposition (of, through, . . .), Determinative (the, some, . . .), Subordinator (that, whether, . . .), Coordinator (and, or, . . .), or Interjection (ouch, hey, . . .). Where would you put slash? (In the use exemplified by the sentence given above, that is.) Think about it a little before you read on.

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