Archive for August, 2013

The further elaboration of a flagrant mistranslation

Quincy Lu sent in the following photograph of a menu taken by his wife at a Hunan restaurant in Fremont, California (click to embiggen):

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Another "Kids Today" conversation

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Ode to The Best I Ever Had

Cassandra Gillig mashes up Frank O'Hara's 1957 Ode to Joy (read in 1966?) with Drake's 2009 Best I Ever Had:

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Grass-Mud Horse Lexicon Classics

China Digital Times (CDT) Grass-Mud Horse Lexicon is the premier place to go for Chinese netizen language designed to avoid the censors and to poke fun at the political system.

Over the years, CDT has accumulated 273 entries in its Grass-Mud Horse Lexicon.  From these, the CDT editors have selected 71 essential items for inclusion in The Grass-Mud Horse Lexicon: Classic Netizen Language, which has just been published.

Here's the Kindle edition on Amazon.

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"Clutter" in (writing about) science writing

Paul Jump, "Cut the Clutter", Times Higher Education:

Is there something unforgivably, infuriatingly obfuscatory about the unrestrained use of adjectives and adverbs?

In a word, no.  But Mr. Jump is about to tell us, approvingly, about some "science" on the subject:

Zinsser and Twain are quoted by Adam Okulicz-Kozaryn, assistant professor of public policy at Rutgers University Camden, in support of his view that the greater the number of adjectives and adverbs in academic writing, the harder it is to read.

Okulicz-Kozaryn has published a paper in the journal Scientometrics that analyzes adjectival and adverbial density in about 1,000 papers published between 2000 and 2010 from across the disciplines.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the paper, "Cluttered Writing: Adjectives and Adverbs in academia," finds that social science papers contain the highest density, followed by humanities and history. Natural science and mathematics contain the lowest frequency, followed by medicine and business and economics.

The difference between the social and the natural sciences is about 15 percent. "Is there a reason that a social scientist cannot write as clearly as a natural scientist?" the paper asks.

I'm not going to discuss the neurotic aversion to modification.  Instead, I'm going to explore Paul Jump's apparent ignorance of the norms of scientific communication and of standard English prose, and the much more surprising parallel failures of the editors of the Springer journal Scientometrics.

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Spoken Hong Kong Cantonese and written Cantonese

[This is a guest post by Robert S. Bauer, with some comments on "dialect" vs. "language" by me (VHM) at the bottom.]

1. After 1949 over the last few decades of British colonial rule, Cantonese was regarded as one more desirable/useful barrier separating HK from China.

As a consequence, the British treated Cantonese with benign neglect which allowed it to develop naturally and without interference, and this is why it has been doing as well as it has.

A couple of years ago the fact that only a handful of people showed up at a demonstration in support of Cantonese in HK shows that most HK speakers do not see it as being under imminent threat.

In Guangzhou people are told that "civilized people speak Mandarin" wénmíng rén shuō Pǔtōnghuà 文明人説普通話, which to me implies that uncivilized people speak "dialects" (topolects) such as Cantonese.

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The dormitive virtue of root-power quantities

One of the concepts that comes up in the Introduction to Phonetics course that I'm teaching this semester — first meeting yesterday — is SNR ("Signal to Noise Ratio"). This is the ratio between the power of the "signal" (defined as the stuff you care about, essentially) and the power of the "noise" (the stuff that you aren't interested in).

And at this point, there are a few things that students need to learn. Since SNR is a ratio of power to power, it's a dimensionless quantity. Similar ratios of physical quantities come up elsewhere in acoustics, like "sound pressure level" (SPL), defined as the ratio of sound pressure to the some reference level, usually taken to be the nominal threshold of human hearing. Because additive scales are more intuitive (and because psychophysical scaling is roughly logarithmic), we generally take the log of such ratios. And because powers of ten are inconveniently far apart, we generally multiply log10(whatever ratio) by 10 to get "decibels".

Now comes the part that I'm interested in this morning: the power of a sound wave is proportional to the square of its amplitude. And I'm looking for a simple and correct way to justify this statement, and to explain why we generally quantify "levels" of physical signals as ratios of powers rather than as ratios of amplitudes.

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The value of a tattoo in English

Andy Averill sent in the following picture of a Chinese person with the English word "value" tattooed on her right shoulder:

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Getting worked up over "twerk"

Perfect lexicographical storms don't come along like this very often. On Sunday night, Miley Cyrus egregiously "twerked" at MTV's Video Music Awards, in a performance that quickly became National Conversation #1 (even outpacing Syria). About 48 hours later, Oxford Dictionaries announced its quarterly update of new words — with the Associated Press and others trumpeting the news far and wide — and lo and behold, there was twerk, defined as a verb meaning "dance to popular music in a sexually provocative manner involving thrusting hip movements and a low, squatting stance."

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Secret love that sticks like glue

For the last week, the whole Chinese world was transfixed by the trial of Bo Xilai, the fallen star of the Chinese Communist Party.  Among the lurid details of crime and corruption that emerged, perhaps none has elicited greater excitement than Bo's revelation that his wife, Gu Kailai (already convicted of the murder of a British businessman named Neil Heywood), and his "top cop", Wang Lijun (already convicted of treachery and treason), carried out an illicit love affair.

The expressions Bo used to describe the romance between his wife and his chief of police have challenged the translation skills of China's journalists.

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The message

This year's Penn Reading Project book is Adam Bradley's Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop.  In my discussion group yesterday afternoon, several participants complained that some important things about the "poetics" of rap are lost in a purely textual presentation of the lyrics. One student observed that in pieces he knows, the rhythm is there in the written form — but the lyrics for pieces that he doesn't know seem flat and lifeless in comparison.

There are good reasons that this is more true for the works of Melle Mel or Jay Z than for Elizabeth Barrett Browning or W.H. Auden, I think.

One of the advantages of the weblog format is the combination of text, images, and audio or video clips, so for this morning's Breakfast Experiment™ I decided to present a small exploration of the "poetics of hip hop" in a multimedia — and somewhat quantitative — framework.

This exercise will clarify why transcriptions of the lyrics, even with bold-face indications of stress, are missing an important dimension. The lines' scansion depends not only on the syllable sequence and on where the performer puts phrasal stresses, but also on the alignment of the syllables with the musical meter. This alignment is not automatic or always obvious — it has artistically-relevant degrees of freedom beyond those available in most other genres of text setting.

For those whose appraisal of Bradley's book was (interpreting freely) "not enough vampires and car chases", this will probably make things worse — you have been warned.

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"When does one’s native language stop being native?"

That's the title of an article by Mark Schreiber in yesterday's (Aug. 25, 2013) Japan Times.  It has to do with a topic that we've discussed quite a bit on Language Log in recent weeks and months (e.g. here, with references to earlier posts on the subject): borrowings to and from Japanese.

Since the article is succinct, lively, and exemplary in its presentation, seemingly designed with a pedagogical purpose in mind, I shall quote it entirely:

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Mr. and Ms. in Chinese

Didi Kirsten Tatlow is trying to trace the roots of the word xiānsheng 先生 (lit., "one who was born earlier / first / before" –> "sir; mister / Mr.; teacher; gentleman; doctor / Dr. [dated]").  She writes:

Today of course it's applied to all men, women being nǚshì 女士 ("Ms.; lady; madam"); once upon a time I believe it meant a teacher. Yet a woman considered especially smart may be given the honorific xiānsheng 先生 (!).

Am wondering about its origins and when/how it came to be applied to all men, and whether perhaps it came from the Japanese, like many other terms in modern times (i.e., post 1911 or even earlier?).  Does anyone have any light to shed, with references?

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