Archive for January, 2020

"Kurban" in Hebrew, Arabic, Persian, Turkic, and Greek

Michael Carasik called this article to my attention:

"Battered but Resilient After China's Crackdown", NYT (1/18/20), by Chris Buckley, Steven Lee Myers, and Gilles Sabrié
 
An ancient Muslim town, Yarkand is a cultural cradle for the Uighurs, who have experienced mass detentions. A rare visit revealed how people there have endured the upheavals.

He asked about the following sentence:

"Amid the rubble of a demolished lot, residents bought sheep for Eid al-Adha, the Festival of Sacrifice, called Corban by Uighurs."

Pointing out that "Corban" is the Hebrew word for sacrifice, Michael wondered how it got connected with Eid al-Adha.  Thereby hangs a tale, which has captivated me for the last two days.

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MLK linguistics

There have been a few LLOG posts focusing on Martin Luther King Jr. over the years, notably "Martin Luther King's rhetorical phonetics" (1/15/2007), "Celebrating the Linguistic Significance of Martin Luther King Jr." (1/17/2016), and "There is No Racial Justice Without Linguistic Justice" (1/15/2018).

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Automatic Pinyin annotation — state of the art

[This is a guest post by Gábor Ugray]

Back in 2018 your post Pinyin for phonetic annotation planted an idea in my head that I’ve been gradually expanding ever since. I am now at a stage where I routinely create annotated Chinese text for myself; this (pdf) is what one such document looks like.

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Errant v. Arrant

Several people have emailed me to point out an apparent malapropism in a CBS News online headline: Melissa Quinn, "Nadler calls White House's impeachment rebuttal 'errant nonsense'", Face the Nation, 1/19/2020. In current usage, this should probably be "arrant nonsense".

But curiously, arrant and errant are the historically the same word, with an interesting and tangled history.

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President Shithole

J. Edward Moreno, "Facebook apologizes after Chinese president's name translated into vulgar phrase", The Hill (1/18/20) — with screen capture in Burmese and English.

Poppy McPherson, "Facebook says technical error caused vulgar translation of Chinese leader's name", Reuters (1/18/20):

YANGON (Reuters) – Facebook Inc (FB.O) on Saturday blamed a technical error for Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s name appearing as “Mr Shithole” in posts on its platform when translated into English from Burmese, apologizing for any offense caused.

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A different perspective on family name distributions

Michael Ramscar, "The empirical structure of word frequency distributions", arXiv 1/9/2020:

The frequencies at which individual words occur across languages follow power law distributions, a pattern of findings known as Zipf's law. A vast literature argues over whether this serves to optimize the efficiency of human communication, however this claim is necessarily post hoc, and it has been suggested that Zipf's law may in fact describe mixtures of other distributions. From this perspective, recent findings that Sinosphere first (family) names are geometrically distributed are notable, because this is actually consistent with information theoretic predictions regarding optimal coding. First names form natural communicative distributions in most languages, and I show that when analyzed in relation to the communities in which they are used, first name distributions across a diverse set of languages are both geometric and, historically, remarkably similar, with power law distributions only emerging when empirical distributions are aggregated. I then show this pattern of findings replicates in communicative distributions of English nouns and verbs. These results indicate that if lexical distributions support efficient communication, they do so because their functional structures directly satisfy the constraints described by information theory, and not because of Zipf's law. Understanding the function of these information structures is likely to be key to explaining humankind's remarkable communicative capacities.

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New New Year's couplets

From a friend in Hong Kong:

The following pictures are from Shatin mall last night. They show people lining up to get individually calligraphed Chinese New Year’s couplets that take up the key slogan of the protests: “Restore HK’s glory: revolution for our times.” On the way up to mass today, we saw new slogans spray-painted calling for HK independence as “the only way out”. “It ain’t over yet.”

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Two-fifths of the people in Vietnam have the surname Nguyen. Why?

In "Why 40% of Vietnamese People Have the Same Last Name", Atlas Obscura (3/28/17), republished in Pocket, Dan Nosowitz tells us:

In the U.S., an immigrant country, last names are hugely important. They can indicate where you’re from, right down to the village; the profession of a relative deep in your past; how long it’s been since your ancestors emigrated; your religion; your social status.

Nguyen doesn’t indicate much more than that you are Vietnamese. Someone with the last name Nguyen is going to have basically no luck tracing their heritage back beyond a generation or two, will not be able to use search engines to find out much of anything about themselves.

This difference illustrates something very weird about last names: they’re a surprisingly recent creation in most of the world, and there remain many places where they just aren’t very important. Vietnam is one of those.

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Farther on beyond the IPA

In "On beyond the (International Phonetic) Alphabet", 4/19/2018, I discussed the gradual lenition of /t/ in /sts/ clusters, as in the ending of words like "motorists" and "artists". At one end of the spectrum we have a clear, fully-articulated [t] sound separating two clear [s] sounds, and at the other end we have something that's indistinguishable from a single [s] in the same context. I ended that post with these thoughts:

My own guess is that the /sts/ variation discussed above, like most forms of allophonic variation, is not symbolically mediated, and therefore should not be treated by inventing new phonetic symbols (or adapting old ones). Rather, it's part of the process of phonetic interpretation, whereby symbolic (i.e. digital) phonological representations are related to (continuous, analog) patterns of articulation and sound.

It would be a mistake to think of such variation as the result of universal physiological and physical processes: though the effects are generally in some sense natural, there remain considerable differences across languages, language varieties, and speaking styles. And of course the results tend to become "lexicalized" and/or "phonologized" over time — this is one of the key drivers of linguistic change.

Similar phenomena are seriously understudied, even in well-documented languages like English. Examine a few tens of seconds of (even relatively careful and formal) speech, and you'll come across some examples. To introduce another case, listen to these eight audio clips, and ask yourself what sequences of phonetic segments they represent:

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"Common sense" in Chinese and in English

Long Ling has an essay about an exam given to prospective civil servants in Chinese:

What Really Happened in Yancheng?” by Long Ling, the London Review of Books, 42.2 (1/23/20).  Translation by Jonathan Flint.

This essay, written by a government official in Beijing — presumably writing under a pseudonym — describes the civil service examinations used to select personnel in China. Conventional problem-solving makes up about half of the test, with ideology making up the other half. The author zooms in on the degree to which the exams require regurgitating Marxist ideology: essentially, a test of one’s ability to follow the party line.

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Further v. Farther

Apparently, further and farther come from the same source, namely the verb that we retain as further meaning "to promote". The different spellings were originally due to the general diversity of English orthography in earlier times. And the spelling was apparently not regularized because the word(s) took over as the comparative form of far, which used to be farrer. But because of the similarity of meanings, both forms seem always to have been used in the full range of adjectival and adverbial meanings, though with some probabilistic influence of far's spatial sense on the vowel.

From the 1895 OED entry for farther (not revised since then):

Middle English ferþer (whence by normal phonetic development farther ) is in origin a mere variant of further n., due probably to the analogy of the verb ferþren < Old English fyrðrian to further v. The primary sense of further, farther is ‘more forward, more onward’; but this sense is practically coincident with that of the comparative of far, where the latter word refers to real or attributed motion in some particular direction. Hence further, farther came to be used as the comparative of far; first in the special application just mentioned, and ultimately in all senses, displacing the regular comparative farrer. In standard English the form farther is usually preferred where the word is intended to be the comparative of far, while further is used where the notion of far is altogether absent; there is a large intermediate class of instances in which the choice between the two forms is arbitrary.

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Indo-European "cow" and Old Sinitic Reconstructions: awesome

For at least four decades, I have suspected that IE gwou- ("cow") and Sinitic /*[ŋ]ʷə/ (< uvular? [Baxter-Sagart]) ("cow") are related.  Some new scientific research makes this surmise all the more believable.

More than three decades ago, Tsung-tung Chang already published on this idea in his "Indo-European Vocabulary in Old Chinese", Sino-Platonic Papers, 7 (January, 1988), p. 18 (of i, 56), citing Pokorny 482 gʷou and giving "gou" as his OS reconstruction.

Looks pretty simple and straightforward, doesn't it?  Well, it isn't simple at all

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"Vegetable English" vs. "Korea Fish" in Taiwan's presidential election

As we have seen over and over again, banning, blocking, and censorship of the internet make it almost impossible for Chinese citizens to openly discuss anything that is slightly sensitive on the political scale (see "Selected readings" below).  But netizens are highly resourceful, and they have continuously been able to think of creative ways to comment on current affairs through punning and other linguistic maneuvers.

"Chinese netizens declare 'Vegetable English' defeats 'Korea Fish' in Taiwan election:  Chinese netizens mock censors by describing Taiwanese presidential candidates as 'Vegetable English,' 'Korea Fish'"

By Keoni Everington, Taiwan News, Staff Writer (1/12/20)

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