Archive for October, 2013

The Slants v. the USPTO

Kat Chow, "Asian-American Band Fights To Trademark Name 'The Slants'", NPR codeswitch 10/20/2013:

The Slants, a six-member band from Portland, Ore., calls their sound "Chinatown Dance Rock" — a little bit New Order, a little bit Depeche Mode. They describe themselves as one of the first Asian-American rock bands. Their music caters to an Asian-American crowd, they've spoken at various Asian-American events, and they're proud of all of it.

But the Slants have been duking it out with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) over the past four years because of their name. The PTO refused the band's two trademark applications, saying that "slants" is a disparaging term for people of Asian descent. Now the band plans to take their case to a federal circuit court.

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Marmoset conversation

This is a guest post by Margaret Wilson.

Turn-taking is fundamental to human conversation, so the question of whether it occurs in other social animals is extremely interesting. A new paper on turn-taking in marmoset monkeys (Takahashi et al., "Coupled Oscillator Dynamics of Vocal Turn-Taking in Monkeys", Current Biology, 2013) is to be applauded for tackling this issue.

Unfortunately, though, it is not clear that their data demonstrate turn-taking in any sophisticated sense: specifically (and this is the sense embraced by the authors), entrainment of timing mechanisms between two individuals to regulate the passing of the turn. They begin by asking, "Is this a simple call-and-response (‘‘antiphonal’’) behavior seen in numerous species, or is it a sustained temporal coordination of vocal exchanges as in human conversation?" They conclude that they have shown the latter, but, on my reading, all their data is compatible with simple call-and-response. What seems to be going on is that the authors have failed to appreciate just how weird human turn-taking is.

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Linguistic change on a short time scale

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Prepositional identity

From Tim Leonard:

I read here that Arthur C. Clarke wrote in his diary, "… are virtually identical with us." I was surprised that he would use "identical with" rather than "identical to," since I find it ungrammatical. So I checked Google Ngram Viewer, and was delighted to discover that the preposition that goes with "identical" appears to be a previously fixed choice that's in the process of changing:

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Bad Science

There's an article in the current issue of The Economist that you should read carefully: "Trouble at the lab", 10/19/2013.  If you're a regular reader of Language Log, you'll be familiar with the issues that it raises — lack of replication, inappropriate use of "statistical significance" testing, data dredging, the "file drawer effect", inadequate documentation of experimental methods and data-analysis procedures, failure to publish raw data, the role of ambition and ideology, and so on.

But all the same, I'm going to push back. The problems in science, though serious, are nothing new. And the alternative approaches to understanding and changing the world, including journalism, are much worse. In fact, some of the worst problems in science are the direct result, in my opinion, of the poor quality of science journalism. One of the key reasons that leading scientific journals publish bad papers is that both the authors and the editors are looking for media buzz, and can usually count on the media to oblige.

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An endless flawing stream of translation

From Leopold Eisenlohr, writing about his neighborhood in West Philadelphia:

So, I walk on down to the corner store to pick up a couple things and the woman behind the counter is reading (aloud, but quietly) a book that is in Chinese, in vertical columns, and clearly made to be a handsome volume. We step away from her book so she can get me something (a beer) from behind the counter and I ask her (in English), whatcha reading? and she answers: the Bible. We then continue in Chinese and I ask about the translation, is it in old style Chinese, etc, getting more and more confused since by her answers it doesn't sound like the Bible at all. When we get back she shows it to me and it's actually a Buddhist scripture, the Liánghuáng bǎo chàn 梁皇寶懺 (Jeweled Repentance of the Emperor of the Liang Dynasty)!

So what happened, I think, was that the Bible became an English equivalent for the word jīng 经, and she was using it as a general term for scripture, classic, sutra, etc. I had never heard that before — the conflation in English of bible and jing. I should include the fact that the woman's English is pretty poor.

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"If someone has no intelligence"

"McCain: Attempt to defund Obamacare was 'fool's errand'", NBC News 10/16/2013:

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Brian Williams: And how about decorum? You have very nicely passed it off, but recently, Congressman Gohmert of Texas called you an Al Qaeda supporter and it hardly made a blimp [sic] in all the talk.

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John McCain: Well, on that particular issue, uh I- sometimes those are- comments like that are made out of malice, but if someone has no intelligence, uh I don't view it as being a malicious statement; um and you know, you can't respond to that kind of thing.

The phrase "someone has no intelligence" is ambiguous: It can mean "someone is not intelligent", or it can mean "someone has no (access to) secret information about an actual or potential enemy". When I read about Senator McCain's comment, I wondered which one he meant, or whether he might be trying to preserve deniability.

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Something in the water?

During last night's vote on reopening the government and raising the debt ceiling, the official House Stenographer apparently decided to make a speech about Freemasons and had to be escorted out:

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It's not in the OED yet, but it's in Wikipedia, and in Ross Douthat's most recent blog post, "A Teachable Moment", NYT 10/16/2013:

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Magic grinds the wound, bringing invalidity

Nora Castle sent in four photographs of Chinglish signs that she took while on a trip to China in 2009. I have previously covered two of the signs (contributed by other readers) in earlier Language Log posts, but am happy to examine the two new ones, which are actually quite delectable.

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Indo-Egyptian mystery

Lameen Souag, "A little mystery: an unidentified Indic language in the Genizah collection", Jabal al-Lughat 10/14/2013:

In 1896, Cambridge bought a huge archive of documents from a synagogue in Cairo, starting as early as the 11th century: the Genizah collection. Most of them are in Arabic in the Hebrew script – or just in Hebrew – but the rest cover a wide variety of languages. One of them should be an interesting puzzle for any readers familiar with South Asian languages: the fragment below is obviously in Devanagari or some derivative, but so far no one has been able to determine what language it is written in or what it says. Given the trade connections revealed by the letters, it would probably have come from Kerala, or maybe later on Bombay, but there are no guarantees…

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Stupid police investigation of racist language

As I have frequently pointed out here on Language Log before, the contrast between the constitutionally protected free speech of the USA and the many legal restraints on speech in the UK is really striking. In the latest incident, a British lord posted a tweet with a photo of three Chinese toddlers dressed in watermelon-rind costumes. Two of the kids look delighted, but the one in the center is crying. To accompany the picture the noble lord tweeted a remark that I will position below the jump, because I don't want those of a nervous disposition to see it. His remark was the subject of a police investigation. The question was whether it was so racist that it should be regarded as violating the criminal law. If you think you can bear it, take a deep breath and read on.

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"I been laying in this bed all night long"

Sufjan Stevens has posted an interesting comment on Miley Cyrus's "Get It Right". You should go read it on his blog, but since I've noticed that LL commenters often don't follow links, here's the text:

Dear Miley. I can’t stop listening to #GetItRight (great song, great message, great body), but maybe you need a quick grammar lesson. One particular line causes concern: “I been laying in this bed all night long.” Miley, technically speaking, you’ve been LYING, not LAYING, an irregular verb form that should only be used when there’s an object, i.e. “I been laying my tired booty on this bed all night long.” Whatever. I’m not the best lyricist, but you know what I mean. #Get It Right The Next Time. But don’t worry, even Faulkner messed it up. We all make mistakes, and surely this isn’t your worst misdemeanor. But also, Miley, did you know the tense here is also totally wrong. Surely you’ve heard of Present Perfect Continuous Tense (I HAVE BEEN LYING in this bed all night long [hopefully getting some beauty sleep?]). It’s a weird, equivocal, almost purgatorial tense, not quite present, not quite past, not quite here, not quite there. Somewhere in between. I feel that way all the time. It kind of sucks. But I have a feeling your “present perfect continuous” involves a lot more excitement than mine. Anyway, doesn’t that also sum up your career right now? Present. Perfect. Continuous. And Tense. Intense? Girl, you work it like Mike Tyson. Miley, I love you because you’re the Queen, grammatically and anatomically speaking. And you’re the hottest cake in the pan. Don’t ever grow old. Live brightly before your fire fades into total darkness. XXOO Sufjan

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