Why journalists need to know morphology

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According to Terry Pedwell, "PMO Iqaluit bumble draws smiles, frowns", The Canadian Press, 8/18/2009:

A bumble by the Prime Minister's Office has residents of Nunavut alternately chuckling and cringing.

A news release sent out Monday outlined Prime Minister Stephen Harper's itinerary as he began a five-day Arctic tour.

The release repeatedly spelled the capital of Nunavut as Iqualuit – rather than Iqaluit, which means "many fish" in the Inuktitut language.

The extra "u" makes a big difference.

"It means people with unwiped bums," said Sandra Inutiq of the office of the Languages Commissioner of Nunavut.

I suspect that I'm not alone in hoping for an interlinear transcription, along with some related examples and discussion of the relevant phonological, morphological and syntactic issues.

[Hat tip: Peter Breslauer]

[Update — morphological and lexicographic details here.]


  1. Amy Reynaldo said,

    August 18, 2009 @ 5:45 pm

    My god, a single word to capture the concept "people with unwiped bums"? English is so useless. Nobody's ever bothered to coin something like poopybutters in English.

    [(myl) Not so fast — poopybutts gets more than 40,000 Google hits, and there's even a band. But I can't think of a city (much less a regional capital) that's just a one-letter edit distance away.]

  2. Amy Reynaldo said,

    August 18, 2009 @ 5:47 pm

    And now I'm wondering: Just how many words do the people of Nunavut have for "people with unwiped bums"?

  3. Stephen Jones said,

    August 18, 2009 @ 6:44 pm

    The nearest Google maps gives for poopybutts is Els Poblets in Valencia.

  4. Spell Me Jeff said,

    August 18, 2009 @ 7:30 pm

    Place names are fun. I grew up close to towns called Onancock and Assawoman, both in Virginia. Both are clearly of Native American origin. The latter had its spelling changed, perhaps to correspond with Assawoman Bay, not far to the north in Maryland. The former has such an Old Testament resonance, you can't help wondering if some Colonial transliterator was making a joke (or issuing a warning).

    In either case, you don't have to change a single letter to find a dirty joke.

    Wasn't there an email going around about "dirty" place names in Britain?

    Then there's this wonderful Wikipedia entry on Gropecunt Lane, once a common street name in England. Sadly, it seems they've all been re-monikered.

    Does Language Log have a Dirty Place Names desk? It should, really.

  5. Bobbie said,

    August 18, 2009 @ 7:57 pm

    Does BUTT Montana count? (Still working on the poopy part)

  6. john riemann soong said,

    August 18, 2009 @ 8:25 pm

    It's probably because Inuktitut is polysynthetic, isn't it? It probably changes the morpheme boundaries. My instinctive guess is that you could divide the city name as iqa|lu|it and the "corruption" as iqu|alu|it. Perhaps the |it| would be a plural marker, and the difference between iqa|lu and iqu|alu would be like the difference between "kiss this guy" and "kiss the sky". I don't know anything about the language of course, but it would be my guess.

  7. Aviatrix said,

    August 18, 2009 @ 8:27 pm

    I once sent an inquiry to Parks Canada about a National Park in Nunavut, and I used the spelling I got from Google Maps: Quittinirpaaq. The reply included the following paragraph:

    Also, on another note, the way you spelled Quttinirpaaq is not the Inuktitut spelling for this park. Quttinirpaaq is an Inuktitut word meaning 'the top of the world'. The way that you've spelled it could be translated as 'the person who has gained the most weight'.

    Sometimes I think there's a conspiracy by Inuktitut speakers to make up the most ridiculous meanings of every southerner's typo.

    [(myl) Funny translations are all very well, but we want the morphosyntactic analysis! Well, I do, anyhow.]

  8. James D said,

    August 18, 2009 @ 8:47 pm

    Hmmmm… This sounds too good to be true. Are we sure this isn't another "'kangaroo' means 'I don't know'" hoax?

  9. John Lawler said,

    August 18, 2009 @ 9:56 pm

    As I've mentioned to more than one Intro Ling class, Eskimo languages have their phonological resources so well organized and integrated into their grammar and lexicon that, if you make a pronunciation mistake when speaking an Eskimo language, you don't say something incorrect — rather, you say something different.

  10. Alan Walker said,

    August 18, 2009 @ 9:59 pm

    It's often said that the Aboriginal name of Melbourne's annual Moomba festival – official translation "Let's get together and have fun" – actually means "Up your bum". According to The Age, Let's have fun, said some, and name a festival 'Up Your Bum', it might be true.

  11. James said,

    August 18, 2009 @ 10:08 pm

    Iqaluk – one fish
    Iqaluuk – two fish
    Iqaluit – many fish

    The -it suffix is the plural (non dual) suffix. I seem to recall that the language is only suffixing, meaning that "people with unwiped bums" has to be something like "iqualuk". However, I can't seem to find anything about this in any dictionaries (which are hard enought to get a hold of online anyway).

    The word for person is "inuk" (thus the Inuit are just "the people"). I don't see the connection between this word the the supposed slip-up.

    This does make a great news story however. People love the "ha ha white people and crazy languages" aspect of things. (See: anything in a movie involving Chinese tones). Besides, the slip in this case was probably due to someone following normal English orthographic rules where a 'u' follows 'q'. That makes it look even "crazier" to those who have never been taught any critical thinking about language.

  12. Dmajor said,

    August 18, 2009 @ 10:41 pm

    All of this makes me wish to see Dr. Seuss's "One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish" translated into Inuktitut.

  13. dr pepper said,

    August 19, 2009 @ 12:15 am

    I recall that few years backthere was a discussion of some place in Canada named Dildo.

  14. William Berry said,

    August 19, 2009 @ 1:59 am

    The post and thread emphasize sense rather than sound, so I guess my comment is somewhat off-topic, but I like the name of the Inca fortress at Cuzco: Saqsaywamann (or something like that). Peruvian folk there tell me that Yanks pronounce it as "sexy woman" It works with just the right Spanish pronunciation (a Spanish speaker saying "sexy woman" with native accent).

  15. JuanTwoThree said,

    August 19, 2009 @ 3:09 am

    There are enough places here to satisfy the inner child of most people:


  16. Colin John said,

    August 19, 2009 @ 6:33 am

    I don't think I've mentioned it here before, but for many years I used to drive past the end of 'Butt Hole Lane' in Conisborough (South Yorkshire, England). A perfectly normal formation relating to the small wagons used in the local coal mines up to the middle of the last century – called butts and pushed by 'butty-boys'.

  17. Nick Lamb said,

    August 19, 2009 @ 7:01 am

    "you don't say something incorrect — rather, you say something different."

    That seems objectively like a bug. Coding 101, if you use all possible codes to mean something different and valid, then error recovery is impossible at code level. You can spend an extra few bits per message to get error detection (so at least you know what you heard is incorrect) or a few more for correction, it seems like most human languages make that investment.

    I get it that humans can correct for many errors at a higher level using context but I don't think that excuses such a misfeature in a human language.

    [(myl) I agree; and if the set of "possible words" and the set of "actual words" in Inuit are essentially the same, that would be an unprecedented characteristic for a human language, and therefore worth documenting in a less impressionistic way.

    In English, there are on the order of 2^14 possible monosyllables, of which roughly 2^13 are actual words; but as word length increases, the density (of actual words) decreases radically; and given the observed distribution of word lengths, the entropy of the English lexicon (ignoring word frequency) is around half the entropy of the phonological code (i.e. something like 2^20 words in a space of something like 2^40 possibilities). My impression is that this is pretty typical across languages for the density of words (as opposed to morphemes) in the space of phonologically-allowed possibilities, though I haven't looked in detail at very many languages.

    Of course, unigram frequency reduces the entropy of English words by a considerable factor, to on the order of 10 bits per word; and in message context, a higher-order n-gram model reduces it further, to 8 bits or so.

    So it might be possible for Inuit morphophonemics to be almost entirely lacking in redundancy (relative to Inuit phonotactics), without violating the overall requirements of Coding 101. If the different messages that are nearby in terms of edit distance are typically far apart in semantic and pragmatic space (as in the case of "many fish" and "poopy butts"), then the effects of channel noise will generally be neutralized by a "language model" (perhaps supplemented by a "topic model"), i.e. by considerations of the prior plausibility of alternative interpretations.]

  18. Theophylact said,

    August 19, 2009 @ 9:23 am

    And, of course, Austria has places named both Fucking and Wank (as I found out listening to "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me!" and confirmed through Google Earth. (Both are apparently popular with British tourists, who like to be photographed posing by the town signs.)

  19. john riemann soong said,

    August 19, 2009 @ 9:57 am

    "The -it suffix is the plural (non dual) suffix. "


  20. Theodore said,

    August 19, 2009 @ 10:15 am

    Nick Lamb's comment (and the subsequent response) reminds me of something I'd meant to Ask Language Log™ for a while: Among different languages, just how much variation is there in "the density of words in the space of phonologically-allowed possibilities" ? What is the distribution? Do languages spoken in human-dense and noisy environments include more redundancy for error detection/correction than those spoken in relatively quiet and sparsely-populated areas? Can anything be learned from languages with dialects spoken in both kinds of environment?

  21. Ian Preston said,

    August 19, 2009 @ 12:13 pm

    @myl: … But I can't think of a city (much less a regional capital) that's just a one-letter edit distance away.

    Carp Hole, Illinois shares the properties of meaning "place of many fish" and being one editing mistake away from meaning something not dissimilar.

  22. Barbara Partee said,

    August 19, 2009 @ 1:05 pm

    Ian, that's wonderful!

  23. John Cowan said,

    August 19, 2009 @ 1:17 pm

    Wank is in fact in Germany, though near the border: you can go from Wank to Fucking in about 47 minutes, according to Google Maps.

  24. tablogloid said,

    August 19, 2009 @ 1:30 pm

    On behalf of my careless Prime Minister of Canada's communications staff, I would like to apologize to all the unwiped bums on the planet.

    Now, I am starting to worry about what the real meaning is of Eskimo Pie.

  25. Spell Me Jeff said,

    August 19, 2009 @ 1:45 pm

    "you can go from Wank to Fucking in about 47 minutes"

    Now, that's foreplay!

  26. john riemann soong said,

    August 19, 2009 @ 2:40 pm

    "? Do languages spoken in human-dense and noisy environments include more redundancy for error detection/correction than those spoken in relatively quiet and sparsely-populated areas?"

    I always thought the level of redundancy was biologically-determined…it seems to be fairly constant among natural languages.

  27. Aviatrix said,

    August 20, 2009 @ 5:29 pm

    Theodore, I always wondered when listening to my Dene passengers conversing among themselves, whether there were typically more back consonants and fewer labial sounds in languages that had been developed in places with very cold winters.

    Its hahd to talk English hoharly hen you lihs ah rozen!

  28. john riemann soong said,

    August 20, 2009 @ 6:43 pm

    but [r] is a liquid …. it's certainly not a "front" consonant and it doesn't have to be labialised

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