Archive for November, 2012

Sometimes there's no unitary rule

Some Language Log readers may feel that the two rules I discuss in my latest post on Lingua Franca, "One Rule to Ring Them All," are stated too loosely for their consequences to be clear. Let me explain here just a little more carefully. The topic under discussion is whether who should be in the nominative form (who) or the accusative form (whom) in sentences with structures broadly like [1]:

[1] He's the man who(m) everyone says will one day be king.

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Brown: Greek is Latin, -logy beats -nomy

"Governor 'Moonbeam' Takes on His Critics at Greenbuild", The Dirt (American Society of Landscape Architects, 11/26/2012:

California Governor Jerry Brown, aka Governor “Moonbeam,” took on his many critics at the 2012 Greenbuild in San Francisco, saying the people who originally called him that are “no longer around, while I still am.” To huge laughs, he said “apparently, moonbeams have more durability than other beings.” In a rousing speech designed to rally the green building community, Brown walked the crowd through his profound “eco” philosophy, while also laying out a path for attacking climate change in California and across the U.S.

In Latin, Brown said “eco” means house. As an example, “economy” means “rules of the house.”  “Logos” means “lord, god, or the deep principles or patterns of nature.” So “ecology is more fundamental than economics. Economics sits within ecology. Not the other way around. This means through our economy, we can’t repeal the laws of nature.” Furthermore, humanity “can’t mock the laws of nature or thumb our noses at the climatic system. We have to learn to work with nature.”

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"Suffusive to say"

Reader JC writes:

Just ran across a great eggcorn: "suffusive to say" (instead of "suffice it to say"). Got it in email from a co-worker but there are 1000+ hits in Google.

"Suffusive to say" is certainly Out There. And the source phrase "suffice it to say" feels the force that tends to create eggcorns, because of its antique syntax. But it's an atypical eggcorn, in that the intended meaning of the substitution "suffusive to say" is a bit diffuse, if not positively suffusive — and suffusive is a pretty rare word to start with.

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Aspectual politics

Teenie Matlock, "Framing Political Messages with Grammar and Metaphor", American Scientist Nov.-Dec. 2012:

Millions of dollars are spent on campaign ads and other political messages in an election year, but surprisingly little is known about how language affects voter attitude and influences election outcomes. This article discusses two seemingly subtle but powerful ways that language influences how people think about political candidates and elections. One is grammar. The other is metaphor. […]

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In a review of the game Medal of Honor: Warfighter, Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw goes on at length about what a ridiculous word "warfighter" is ("Medal of Honor Warfighter & Doom 3 BFG Edition", Zero Punctuation 11/7/2012):

So this week I've been playing a bit of Medal of Honor: Warfighter {laughs}  Sometimes I do a thing where I incrementally alter a game's name each time I say it until it's something stupid, but I'm feeling pretty fucking undercut here — you know, "Warfighter", because he just fights wars all over the place, and then he gets his tax return done by his friend Numbers Accountant.  I don't know anyone who didn't immediately laugh at this fucking name, so why didn't anyone involved in its development put their hand up, or is that a flogging offense in the EA slave pits?

He continues in the same general vein for few dozen clauses, and throughout his review, he makes a point of emitting a loud fake laugh whenever he mentions the game's name. But I thought I'd stop with his question "Why didn't anyone involved in its development put their hand up?", because even though he means this to be a rhetorical question, in fact it has an easy answer.

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Isis (& Wasis) rising

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"Cartoonist On Sikh Superhero Who Fights Prejudice", Tell Me More (NPR) 11/23/2012:

If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I am Celeste Headlee. I'm speaking with Sikh comic artist Vish Singh.

The problem was is that you wrote this op-ed in which you were talking about tolerance and trying to find a way to make people maybe more aware and more tolerant, and the response was negative.

Language Hat took special note of the preterite form of Isis a few years ago ("Is is, was is", 10/21/2009), and we've discussed Isis and Wasis here from time to time:

"The thing is is people talk this way. The question is is why? The answer is is (drumroll please) …", 6/27/2004
"A bird in the hand is, is…", 6/29/2004
"Isis Fest, with emergent free-bees", 6/29/2004
"Isis bibliography", 7/5/2004
"Xtreme Isisism", 8/13/2011
"The elusive triple 'is'", 9/25/2011
"Obama's 'is is'",  10/23/2012

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Postcard language puzzle

From reader JM:

I recently acquired these two vintage postcards from a seller in Mallorca. They are 100 years old, mailed from Mallorca in 1912-1913, and still in excellent condition. They were bought in a flea market in Mallorca and were originally advertised as being in Esperanto, which is how they came to my friend's attention (we are both Esperanto hobbyists). However, we quickly determined that they are not in fact in Esperanto, and all attempts to identify the language have thus far failed. We have ruled out many of the obvious candidates (Spanish, Mallorquín, Catalán, Basque), as well as some more exotic possibilities (Croatian, Hungarian, Hawaiian, etc. etc.)

The more we scrutinized them, the more mysterious they became, and finally I decided to buy them. At this point, we don't know if they are in a real language, or if they are some kind of cipher, or even a fake. But why would someone go to the trouble – this isn't the Voynich manuscript we're talking about here.

Here's what we have determined so far. They were both sent from Palmas, Mallorca, to a man named Juan Planas (a very common name in Mallorca). He was the second officer on a Spanish steamer named Florentina. One was mailed to the ship while it was in Cartagena, Spain (addressed in Spanish), and the other to the ship docked in London (addressed in English). They are dated in Spanish, but the rest of the message is in an unknown language. When the writer ran out of room, they turned the card upside down and finished off the message at the top. They are signed "Le."

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Turkey uteri

Last year in August, Valerie Syverson sent in a photograph taken at a storefront in Sydney's Chinatown that showed a package labeled "Bradysia homozygous". That sent me on a wild-goose chase, but eventually I was able to identify the product as leek turnovers and describe how the translation error had come about (see "Fungus gnat turnovers").

Now Valerie, who seems to get around the world, spotted the product in the following photograph in a Chinese grocery store in Ypsilanti, Michigan:

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Black Friday

The annual Thanksgiving feast may have had its origins in Massachusetts, but "Black Friday" is one of  Philadelphia's contributions to American culture. Ben Zimmer told the story in his 11/25/2011 Word Routes column, reporting on research by Bonnie Taylor-Blake:

Today is the day after Thanksgiving, when holiday shopping kicks off and sales-hunters are in full frenzy. The day has come to be known in the United States as "Black Friday," and there are a number of myths about the origin of the name. Retailers would like you to believe that it's the day when stores turn a profit on the year, thus "going into the black." But don't you believe it: the true origins come from traffic-weary police officers in Philadelphia in the early 1960s. […]

Philadelphia merchants disliked the label "Black Friday" and tried to get people to use a more positive term: "Big Friday." That effort failed, of course, and "Black Friday" caught on, spreading to other cities in the 1970s and '80s.

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Ma Ying-jeou and Xi Jinping: presidential language notes

Recently, the Economist referred to the president of Taiwan as a "bumbler":  Ma the bumbler:  A former heart-throb loses his shine"  The Taiwanese media translated "bumbler" as 笨蛋 ("stupid egg / oaf"), which caused Ma's supporters to have conniptions:  "'Ma the bumbler' Economist report causes storm in Taiwan".

To call someone a bèndàn 笨蛋 ("stupid egg / oaf") or even a dà bèndàn 大笨蛋 ("big stupid egg / oaf") is not really that bad.  Presidents in Western nations are called by terms of opprobrium that are much worse than that every day.  Indeed, my wife used to call me bèndàn 笨蛋 ("stupid egg / oaf") or dà bèndàn 大笨蛋 ("big stupid egg / oaf") in an affectionate manner.  So it's hard to fathom why calling Ma Ying-jeou a "bumbler" — translated into Mandarin as bèndàn 笨蛋 ("stupid egg / oaf") or dà bèndàn 大笨蛋 ("big stupid egg / oaf") — would occasion such an uproar.

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It's worse than you thought

The most recent xkcd:

Mouseover title: "Collaborative editing can quickly become a textual rap battle fought with increasingly convoluted invocations of U+202a to U+202e."

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Except for access

Jonathan Smith spotted this photograph of a sign in Hong Kong that is part of a blog post decrying impenetrable official language:

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Translation as cryptography as translation

Warren Weaver, 1947 letter to Norbert Wiener, quoted in "Translation", 1949:

[K]nowing nothing official about, but having guessed and inferred considerable about, powerful new mechanized methods in cryptography – methods which I believe succeed even when one does not know what language has been coded – one naturally wonders if the problem of translation could conceivably be treated as a problem in cryptography.

Mark Brown, "Modern Algorithms Crack 18th Century Secret Code", Wired UK 10/26/2011:

Computer scientists from Sweden and the United States have applied modern-day, statistical translation techniques — the sort of which are used in Google Translate — to decode a 250-year-old secret message.

The original document, nicknamed the Copiale Cipher, was written in the late 18th century and found in the East Berlin Academy after the Cold War. It’s since been kept in a private collection, and the 105-page, slightly yellowed tome has withheld its secrets ever since.

But this year, University of Southern California Viterbi School of Engineering computer scientist Kevin Knight — an expert in translation, not so much in cryptography — and colleagues Beáta Megyesi and Christiane Schaefer of Uppsala University in Sweden, tracked down the document, transcribed a machine-readable version and set to work cracking the centuries-old code.

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