Archive for January, 2016

Floating world

Nicola Esposito sent in the following observations and questions:

What is the etymology of ukiyo 浮世, the "floating world" known in the West mostly thanks to its depictions by artists such as Hiroshige, Hokusai and others?

While perusing the website of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, I discovered that the origins of ukiyo lie in a homophone of 浮世 denoting the "transient world" of Buddhist tradition.  The page does not offer any other detail, but from what I gather that homophone should be ukiyo 憂世, whose literal meaning should be closer to something like "unhappy world".  Unfortunately my knowledge of Japanese is too shallow to be able to to tackle Japanese sources, and I was wondering if you could offer insight on this etymology and in particular how this substitution happened, if it indeed happened. Was it some kind of pun?

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How to turn one out of five into three out of four

Towards the end of last year, there was a bit of a fuss in the UK about the role of alcohol in hospital costs. Thus Sarah Knapton, "Three in four people in A&E at weekend are there because of alcohol: 70 per cent of people are admitted to emergency units at the weekend as a result of drinking", The Telegraph 12/21/2015 — illustrated with the rather atypical picture on the right.

And there was plenty of other coverage, e.g. "Alcohol-related A&E cases rise to 70% of workload at weekends", Daily Mail 12/21/2015; Mike Doran, "Alcohol responsible for up to 70% of all A&E admissions as experts renew minimum unit price calls", The Mirror 12/21/2015; Annalee Newitz, "Drunk people account for 70% of weekend emergency room visits in UK city: Drinking binges are now a scientifically measurable phenomenon", Ars Technica 12/22/2015.

But there's just one little wrinkle: the actual rates that the study found (of alcohol involvement in weekend emergency-room visits) were more like 20%. So how did the journalists get from "one in five" to "three in four"? Well, basically in the same way that we're allowed to conclude that in 1986, the rate of space-shuttle explosions was one per week. After all, there was one week in that year (the last week of January) when there was an explosion. And in the cited study, there was one weekend hour (2:00-3:00 a.m.) when a bit over 70% of the patients were measured with a non-zero breath alcohol content.

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Chinese proverbs

A frequent topic of our Language Log posts has been about how best to learn Chinese, e.g.:

"How to learn to read Chinese " (5/25/08)

"How to learn Chinese and Japanese " (2/17/14)

"The future of Chinese language learning is now " (4/5/14)

Two things I have stressed:  1. take advantage of properly parsed Pinyin or other phonetic annotation and transcription; 2. utilize the full resources of digital, electronic, hand-held, and online dictionaries and other devices to assist and enhance the learning of reading and writing.

Whenever a well-designed, efficient pedagogical tool appears, I am always pleased because it means more rapid acquisition and less suffering for students.

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What are the chances of sustaining life at the Sydney Opera House?

Stephen Bullon sent a link to an article in the Guardian — Ian Sample, "Most threats to humans come from science and technology, warns Hawking", 1/18/2016 — and pointed to a picture caption that reads "Stephen Hawking reflects on the Earth’s chances of sustaining life at the Sydney Opera House / earlier last year".

Stephen's comment:

Seems to me that if you can't sustain life at the Sydney Opera House, the rest of Australia has got no chance.

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Only connect

Bob Moore sent in a link to a story (Brooke Crothers, "Windows 10 will only work on newest PCs, says Microsoft", Fox News 1/18/2016), and commented:

I was confused when I saw this, because I am already running Windows 10 on several older PCs. When I read the article, I realized that what they meant to say was "Only Windows 10 will work on newest PCs, says Microsoft".

As far as I can tell, the editor who wrote the headline must also have been confused, since as far as I can tell, "Windows 10 will only work on newest PCs" can't possibly mean "Only Windows 10 will work on newest PCs".

This opinion is not a prescriptivist judgment about how the language ought to be interpreted, like most complaints about the placement of only, but a simple statement of how the phrase works (or doesn't work) for me. (And I suppose for Bob as well.)

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Shandong lisp

Nick Kaldis writes:

I am wondering if your collective knowledge of Gaomi Shandongese and dialectology can clear something up for me. My late beloved father-in-law, Tóng Jìguāng 佟繼侊, from Gaomi county, would pronounce something like an thi sandong len for "俺是山東人“ [VHM:  MSM pron. ǎn shì Shāndōng rén ("I'm a Shandongese")]. My question is: is the lisp in 是 common in Shandongese? And, is there a specific word for "lisp[ing]" (of the letter/sound "s") in Chinese?

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Drug trial dies, dog due to be wed

Readers have recently sent in some examples of crash blossoms in headlines about tragic events.

Melissa Chan, "Man Left Brain Dead After French Drug Trial Dies", Time Magazine 1/17/2016.
Kim Willsher, "Man left brain-dead after French drug trial dies in hospital", The Guardian 1/17/2016.
Will Worley, "France clinical trial: Man left brain-dead after drug test dies", The Independent 1/18/2016.

Of course it was the man who really died, although the "drug trial" or "drug test" also metaphorically died.

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Some linguistic notes on the Taiwan election

Taiwan has just concluded its general elections with some amazing results.

From a long-term resident in Taiwan;

A twenty-five point victory for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in the presidential election!

Tsai Ing-wen: 56.1%
Eric Chu (KMT): 31.0%
James Soong (PFP): 12.8%

A huge, emotional crowd in Taipei for Tsai.

A very, very good day for the DPP, which will also control the Legislature for the very first time.

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Celebrating the Linguistic Significance of Martin Luther King Jr.

[This is a guest post by Walt Wolfram, with Caroline Myrick, Jon Forrest, and Michael J. Fox.]

Martin Luther King Jr’s speeches are without peer in their public recognition and rhetorical significance. King’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech is rated as the number one speech of the twentieth century and several other speeches are ranked within the top 100. Given King’s prominence as a speaker and his leadership role in the Civil Rights Movement, it’s ironic that his sociolinguistic legacy has been relatively unexamined and ignored. There are no analyses of how he systematically manipulated regional, ethnic, and stylistic language features in different situations other than a couple of limited studies of his pitch and intonation, including a Language Log post in 2007 ("Martin Luther King's rhetorical phonetics").

In a forthcoming paper ("The Sociolinguistic Significance of Martin Luther King Jr."), we analyze how King’s speech indexes his regional, social, and ethnic identity in speaking to different audiences in different situations. Our results are worth considering in terms of their broader implications for language and social inequality.

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A rebirth for Manchu?

Manchu was the language of the last Chinese dynasty, the Qing, which ruled from 1644-1912, and had two of its emperors (Kangxi, Qianlong) each rule for 60 years or more.

Today, out of nearly ten million ethnic Manchus, fewer than one hundred can still speak the language fluently, and it is generally regarded as being on the brink of extinction.

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The Finn-donesian of "The Force Awakens"

Tasu LeechFor my language column in the Wall Street Journal this week, I describe how some alien-speak in "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" ended up being created by a young Finnish YouTube sensation, tailor-made for Indonesian actors. We could call it "Finn-donesian," though the character Finn doesn't actually speak it. Rather, the dialogue was designed for the Kanjiklub gang, who briefly face off against Han Solo and Chewbacca on a space freighter packed with slithery Rathtars.

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Rooster Caponizing Competition

Sign at the Hakka Cultural Museum in Kaohsiung, Taiwan:

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The first rule of political discourse

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