Archive for May, 2011

A Rejection of the Power Semantic

It has been over fifty years since Roger Brown and Albert Gilman published their classic article "The pronouns of power and solidarity" (American Anthropologist 4/6:24-39, 1960), analyzing what they called the T/V distinction. The letters refer not to a device on which one views reality shows, NOVA, soap operas, etc., but to the familiar (T for Latin or French tu) vs. formal (V for Latin vos/French vous) pronouns used to address someone. To oversimplify somewhat, reciprocal T expresses solidarity, and reciprocal V may also do so; non-reciprocal usage — using V to someone with superior status and receiving T from that person, or vice versa to someone of inferior status — expresses what Brown & Gilman called the power semantic. English, of course, can't express this difference with pronouns, because our only second person pronoun in general usage is you. But English does have address forms that capture the basic social distinction: reciprocal first-name (or sometimes last-name) usage for the solidarity semantic, non-reciprocal first-name vs. title plus last name for the power semantic. So, for instance, my formidable sixth-grade music teacher called me Sally, and I called her Miss Boe. Anything else would have been unthinkable.

All this is very old news. But I just ran across an interesting example in a terrific book I've been reading — David Halberstam's last book, The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War.

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Can they even prove that?

In my last post puzzling over even ("What does 'even' even mean?", 2/8/2011), I suggested that there's a new even idiom, exemplified in phrases like "How does that even work?" or "What does that even mean?", in which even has become simply an intensifier rather than a scalar focus particle. If this is true, it would be a rebirth of even's pre-16th-century use as (in the OED's gloss) "an intensive or emphatic particle" that can be "prefixed to a subject, object, or predicate, or to the expression of a qualifying circumstance, to emphasize its identity". However, the 94 helpful comments on that post left me wondering whether this is really happening.

So here's another even example that brought me up short — Michael Hinkelman, "Feds unveil 50-count indictment against 'Uncle Joe,' 12 others", Philadelpha Daily News 5/24/2011:

But Joseph C. Santaguida, Ligambi's attorney, said the reputed mob boss, who pleaded not guilty to all charges and has a bail hearing Thursday, claimed that the feds' case was "weak."

Asked if Ligambi, dressed in a white polo shirt and jeans, was the mob boss portrayed by prosecutors, the defense attorney said: "I don't know if [prosecutors] can even prove that. I don't think it's that strong a case."

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The pit in Thomas Friedman's stomach

Thomas Friedman, "I am a Man", NYT 5/14/2011:

Watching the Arab uprisings these days leaves me with a smile on my face and a pit in my stomach. The smile comes from witnessing a whole swath of humanity losing its fear and regaining its dignity. The pit comes from a rising worry that the Arab Spring may have been both inevitable and too late. If you are not feeling both these impulses, you’re not paying attention.

Paul Brians' Common Errors in English Usage:

Just as you can love someone from the bottom of your heart, you can also experience a sensation of dread in the pit (bottom) of your stomach. I don’t know whether people who mangle this common expression into “pit in my stomach” envision an ulcer, an irritating peach pit they’ve swallowed or are thinking of the pyloric sphincter; but they’ve got it wrong.

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Jökull of the year

Another volcano in Iceland is erupting. But the projected effect on air travel is less serious than the disruptions caused by last year's Icelandic eruption:

University of Iceland geophysicist Magnus Tumi Gudmundsson said this eruption, which began Saturday, was Grimsvotn's largest eruption for 100 years.

"(It was) much bigger and more intensive than Eyjafjallajokull," the volcano whose April 2010 eruption shut down airspace across Europe for five days, he said.

"There is a very large area in southeast Iceland where there is almost total darkness and heavy fall of ash," he said. "But it is not spreading nearly as much. The winds are not as strong as they were in Eyjafjallajokull."

He said this ash is coarser than last year's eruption, falling to the ground more quickly instead of floating vast distances.

The projected disruption of newsreader self-confidence is also less serious this time, since the names involved are shorter and less confusing to non-Icelanders — the glacier that the vocano is erupting through, for example, is Vatnajökull rather than Eyjafjallajökull.

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Presidential pronouns, one more time

Yesterday, Marc Cenedella did a sort of  Breakfast Experiment™, and reported the results in "I, Obama: The President and the personal pronoun":

President Obama has taken criticism in some sectors for his use of the personal pronoun in describing, and applauding, the nation’s success in covert operations. So I’ve spent my Saturday morning at the outstanding website of The American Presidency Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara to find out what happens when Presidents speak to the CIA.

I picked twelve notable addresses from Presidential speeches at the CIA’s Langley headquarters over the past 52 years and run [sic] the numbers.

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Translated phrase-list jokes

An amusing "Anglo-EU Translation Guide" has been circulating widely in recent weeks. This seems to come from the same source as an old Economist column ("I understand, up to a point", 9/2/2004; discussed here), which attributed the joke to "the Dutch, trying to do business with the British", and which also gave some examples from a list "written by British diplomats, as a guide to the language used by their French counterparts".

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Saucily garbled blurb

To say the least, I was perplexed when a book that I co-edited with Mark Bender was described thus on Tao Blog:

In The river Anthology of Asiatic Folk and Popular Literature, digit of the world’s directive sinologists, Victor H. Mair and Mark Bender, getting the dimension of China’s oral-based literate heritage. This assemblage presents entireness worn from the super embody of test literature of some of China’s constituted social groups — including the Han, Yi, Miao, Tu, Daur, Tibetan, Uyghur, and Kazak — and the selections allow a difference of genres. Chapters counterbalance sept stories, songs, rituals, and drama, as substantially as poem traditions and professed storytelling, and feature both old and little-known texts, from the news of the blackamoor warrior Hua Mulan to the fuck stories of cityfied storytellers in the Yangtze delta, the priest rituals of the Manchu, and a hoaxer tale of the Daur grouping from the forests of the northeast. The Cannibal Grandmother of the Yi and another strange creatures and characters unsettle acknowledged notions of Asiatic story and literate form. Readers are introduced to phrase songs of the Tai and the Dong, who springy among the strange limestone hills of the Guangxi Tai Autonomous Region; impact and matchmaking songs of the mountain-dwelling She of Fujian province; and water songs of the Cantonese-speaking dish grouping of Hong Kong. The editors feature the Altaic poem poems of Geser Khan and Jangar; the depressing tale of the Qeo kinsfolk girl, from the Tu grouping of state and Qinghai provinces; and topical plays famous as “rice sprouts” from Hopeh province. These fascinating juxtapositions elicit comparisons among cultures, styles, and genres, and proficient translations preserves the individualist case of apiece thrillingly creative work.

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Goddard and Frohlich Respond to Atkinson

The following is a letter written by Ives Goddard and Bruno Frohlich of the Department of Anthropology at the Smithsonian Institution in response to the paper by Q. D. Atkinson claiming that the distribution of speech sounds in the world's languages demonstrates a single point of origin for human languages in Africa. Mark discussed this paper here. The letter was submitted to Science, which declined to publish it.

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No word for Rapture

Today's Doonesbury:

Recently, the media have been bombarding us with stories about Harold Camping's calculations that the end of the world will start tomorrow: Ashley Parker, "Make My Bed? But You Say the World’s Ending", NYT 5/19/2011; Mark Washburn, "With Rapture at hand, why bother flossing?", The Charlotte Observer, 5/20/2011; Abby Sewell, "Entreprenuers offer post-'rapture' services", L.A. Times 5/19/2011; David Barnett, "Apocalypse now? Christian Rapture fiction and the end of the world", 5/20/2001; etc.

But this being Language Log rather than Eschatology Log, my interest this morning is in the word rapture and in various associated verbs, such as rapted and raptured. Somewhat to my surprise, it appears that the sense glossed by the OED as "A state, condition, or fit of intense delight or enthusiasm" is a couple of centuries older than the sense glossed as "the transport of believers to heaven at the Second Coming of Christ".

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Is a bad writing system a Good Thing?

In commenting on language hat's link to Victor Mair's post on a "Nontrivial script fail" in Chinese, Vanya wrote:

Do we English or French speakers really suffer compared to Spanish or Turkish speakers because our writing system is far more illogical? Recent economic and cultural history might suggest otherwise. Look at all the waste and nonsense around the German spelling reforms – whose life has improved because of it? China seems to be doing pretty well right now, so what's the issue?

And many of the comments on Victor's post itself expressed similar sentiments; thus Rivers4:

Gosh, how will China ever become the world's second largest economy with such a cumbersome an inefficient writing system?

Oh, wait…

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Compounded capital snafu

The big news in Beijing last week was the theft of millions of dollars worth of artwork from the heavily guarded Forbidden City.  The Telegraph reported that "The seven stolen items had come from a temporary exhibition of early 20th century Chinese furniture, jewellery boxes and bags from the collections of the privately-run Liangyicang Museum in Hong Kong."

According to the BBC, "The Beijing News reported that the Hong Kong museum had not insured the items for as much as it could have because it believed they would be safe in Beijing."

The daring theft occurred during the wee hours of the morning on Monday the 9th.  By Wednesday night, Beijing police announced that they had apprehended a person whom they declared was the suspected culprit and had recovered most of the missing objects.

While there was much hand-wringing and soul-searching over how such a brazen robbery could have occurred under the very noses and cameras of the massive security apparatus inside of the Forbidden City, the real fun began after the apprehension of the suspected criminal, and it has a cause that is rooted in the misuse of characters.

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BBC Brit head noun pile win

Chris Dammers writes to point out a classic British headline noun pile-up on the BBC's news index page, "Sack rape row Clarke – Miliband":

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Nontrivial script fail

We have recently encountered an "Epic Dictionary Fail". Today, I should like to consider what happens when a script fails.

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