Archive for May, 2013

Blend of the week

Sharknado is apparently an actual movie, about to be released, about tornados made of sharks.

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It depends on what "do not" means

Departing from Canadian stereotypes: "Toronto Mayor Rob Ford denies using crack cocaine", CBC News 5/24/2013

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There has been a serious accusation from the Toronto Star that I use crack cocaine. I do not use crack cocaine, nor am I an addict.

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At the top of hundreds of webpages belonging to the Shenzhen Energy Corporation, a large power company in Guangdong Province, China, we find the following four main headings:

shǒuyè 首页 ("Home")

xīnwén zhōngxīn 新闻中心 ("News center")

tóuzīzhě guānxì 投资者关系 ("Indicrteurseus")

qǐyè wénhuà 企业文化 ("Culture")

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Border collie syntax?

I have been unabashedly contemptuous of previous stories about dogs learning to understand human languages (for example, I hammered home the point that fetching named objects is not understanding language in this 2004 post, which Mark Liberman followed up here). I think it is incumbent on me to acknowledge further developments in the area that actually lead to refereed publications, so let me point out that Learning and Motivation has now published a paper about some experiments purporting to show that a 9-year-old border collie called Chaser has learned some rudimentary syntax. For example, Chaser can differentiate To ball take Frisbee from its inverse, To Frisbee take ball, and perform the right action in each case. This Science News article gives a fairly full account of the results.

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Sloppiness and its enemies

Paul Krugman ("The Sloppiness Syndrome", NYT 5/22/2013):

So what is it with New Republic alumni? First Michael Kinsley, then Charles Lane, weigh in with defenses of austerity that aren’t just wrong, but painfully ill-informed. Kinsley not only makes a really bad analogy between current events and the 1970s, he seems not to know anything about what happened in the 1970s either. Lane attacks stimulus advocates for failing to address an argument that I actually discussed, at length, in my last column but one.

Whence cometh this epidemic of sheer sloppiness?

I’m not really sure, but in these cases I suspect it has a lot to do with the famed TNR/Slate premium on being “counterintuitive”, which in practice meant skewering supposed liberal pieties. (Kinsley himself joked that TNR should be renamed “Even the liberal New Republic”).

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Squids in his (her, your) ink

From Gabe Wyner come photos of a menu in Arcos de la Frontera, whose English version is full of the delightful consequences of someone's earnest reliance on a bilingual dictionary. For example:

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Ngram morality

David Brooks has found a congenial story in Google ngrams — or rather, in three papers about ngrammatical history, which he interprets to show that virtue, discipline, and concern for the common good have been declining, while subjectivity and concern for self-esteem have increased ("What Our Words Tell Us", NYT 5/20/2013)).

Brooks doesn't cite or link to the papers, which in my opinion is a form of journalistic malpractice, so here they are:

Jean M. Twenge, W. Keith Campbell, and Brittany Gentile, "Increases in Individualistic Words and Phrases in American Books, 1960–2008", PLoS One 7/10/2012
Pelin Kesebir and Selin Kesebir, "The Cultural Salience of Moral Character and Virtue Declined in Twentieth Century America", Journal of Positive Psychology, Forthcoming
Daniel B. Klein, "Ngrams of the Great Transformations", GMU Working Paper in Economics, 2013

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Protesting too much

A guest post from Tony Kroch:

The line "The Lady doth protest too much, me thinks" from Hamlet that Mark Liberman blogged about at the end of last month struck me because it encapsulates in one sentence several significant changes that the English language has undergone. We are lucky that the written record is rich enough to let us see how features we take for granted today developed over time.

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Tabudish and the origins of Mandarin

In the comments to "Shanghainese", a lively discussion on the relationship between the Wu branch of Sinitic languages and early Mandarin has ensued.  Quoting South Coblin,

This reminds me … of something Jerry Norman was wont to say, i.e., that there were three good criteria for identifying Mandarin and deciding how old the family is. These are the concurrent presence of the third person pronoun tā, the negative bù, and the subordinative particle de/di. Jerry called languages of this type “Tabudish”, and he sometimes used this name for them in correspondence with me.

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Misnegation or term of art?

Roni Caryn Rabin, "No Easy Choices on Breast Reconstruction", NYT Blogs 5/20/2013:

A syndrome called upper quarter dysfunction — its symptoms include pain, restricted immobility and impaired sensation and strength — has been reported in over half of breast cancer survivors and may be more frequent in those who undergo breast reconstruction, according to a 2012 study in the journal Cancer. [emphasis added]

Reader E.S.M. wondered whether "restricted immobility" should have been "restricted mobility" or "partial immobility" or something else.

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Grammar vs. style: ignorance in The Times

Articles about English grammar in UK newspapers tend to exhibit an almost incredible degree of stupidity. In no other subject could such self-contradictory idiocy be accepted, or subjected to so little fact-checking. Today's exhibit is an article headed "English like it never should of been" by Oliver Moody in Saturday's The Times (London, 18 May 2013; don't buy a subscription just to read an article as asinine as this, but click this link if you already have a subscription; if you wasted $2.50 on hard copy as I did, look at page 3). I will deal with just one example of its boneheaded ignorance, one out of many.

This was the sub-head: "Language is becoming more democratic as even MPs fail to speak properly, a study from Cambridge reveals."

So, it is "democratic" to speak improperly? And Members of Parliament are actually doing that? Intelligent readers will seek evidence.

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Biden at Penn: did the Vice President insult the Chinese nation?

The Tea Leaf Nation online magazine posted this article on May 19, 2013:  "VP Biden’s Penn Commencement Speech Inspires Viral Rant by ‘Disappointed’ Chinese Student."  The article, by Xiaoying Zhou, offers an excellent account of this tempest in a teapot (as it were), and the comments that follow it are also germane.

Still, a closer look at what the angry student, Zhang Tianpu, actually wrote will help us put the controversy in a clearer perspective.

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2013 Blizzard Challenge

From Simon King:

I am pleased to announce that the English section of this year's Blizzard Challenge listening test is now live. Please help us out by taking part, and encouraging your colleagues, students, friends, contacts, etc. to take part too. It's your chance to hear a range of speech synthesisers, including some really good ones. Please circulate this message widely – for example, on mailing lists, forums and using social media – we need to reach as many people as possible in the coming month or so.

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