Orthography and meaning

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Today's xkcd:


  1. Roger Whitehead said,

    August 10, 2015 @ 7:00 am

    Well said.

    I've always thought it was two words with 'u' in, the first being "smug".

  2. Amy de Buitléir said,

    August 10, 2015 @ 7:06 am

    I used to respond to the "no I in TEAM" comment with "but there is a ME". I think I'm going to use the XKCD response from now on, though.

  3. Boris said,

    August 10, 2015 @ 9:03 am

    I suppose this would be an example of true-claim linguification?

  4. Tim O'Neill said,

    August 10, 2015 @ 9:09 am

    The relationship between orthography and meaning was originally paramount. All the most popular writing systems (Greek, thus Roman and Cyrillic, and Arabic) were derived from Phonecian heiroglyphs, which were pictures of things, e.g. O was a picture of an eye, A was a (now upside down) head of cattle, N was a curvy snake. And of course, while Chinese has moved on to a morpho-semantic compromise system, there'll still plenty of characters that look like what they mean, like mountain, river, water, big, up, down, one, two, three, etc.

    Even as a big xkcd fan, this one didn't work for me. This saying appeals to the mnemonic-device way of thinking, the same way screws weren't designed to loosen to the left and get tight to the right just due to alliteration and rhyming. Especially because people frequently DO confuse etymology and meaning, e.g. "decimate" or "unique."

  5. Boris said,

    August 10, 2015 @ 9:22 am

    But nobody is going around thinking "Let's see, I'm in a T-E-A-M, without an 'I', so the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one." Mnemonic devices are something else entirely; this is merely inspirational sporty speak.

  6. Darrell Duke said,

    August 10, 2015 @ 10:12 am

    I like "merely inspirational sporty speak".

  7. Mara K said,

    August 10, 2015 @ 11:01 am

    There is, however, an /i/ in team, so shut up and cooperate.

  8. Another Boris said,

    August 10, 2015 @ 1:22 pm

    @Tim O'Neill:
    Phoenician *alphabet, and it certainly wasn't composed of pictures of things. Even Egyptian hieroglyphs, from which Phoenician alphabet derives, are far from simple pictography.

  9. Josh Ard said,

    August 10, 2015 @ 2:32 pm

    Somebody, maybe Michael Jordan, said, "There is no i in lose, but there is one in win."

  10. William said,

    August 10, 2015 @ 2:37 pm

    Greengrocers The Thompson Twins of Nottingham are known locally for their withering one liners as much as their produce. Once, when told there was "No I in Team," I heard them shout out in tandem "…but there's a U in ***t".

    I don't know if this is appropriate language for this wonderful blog, but clearly the last word on the matter.

  11. Rubrick said,

    August 10, 2015 @ 4:52 pm

    @William: I think "must" is perfectly acceptable.

  12. Neil Dolinger said,

    August 10, 2015 @ 5:01 pm

    This was momentarily funny….


  13. Data and “Data” | Panther Red said,

    August 10, 2015 @ 6:34 pm

    […] Here's today's xkcd (Language Log post): […]

  14. Michael Watts said,

    August 11, 2015 @ 4:33 am

    while Chinese has moved on to a morpho-semantic compromise system, there'll still plenty of characters that look like what they mean, like mountain, river, water, big, up, down, one, two, three, etc.

    All right, I'll grant one, two, and three (as 一, 二, and 三).

    Here are some characters you seem to have identified as "looking like what they mean" (along with a couple of spoilers I threw in):

    卡 山 下 天 河 两 水 大 江 上

    It might be fun for the commenters with no character knowledge to try to pick out which characters fit the meanings you listed. I think it's harder than you've made it sound.

  15. richardelguru said,

    August 11, 2015 @ 6:30 am

    @ Mara K
    Not the way I've ever heard it, there is however an /iː/.


  16. Berna said,

    August 11, 2015 @ 11:34 am

    @Michael Watts: none of those characters make me think of river, water, big, up, or down. If I had to guess, the 2nd one might be mountain; the others I can't say at all.

  17. Michael Watts said,

    August 11, 2015 @ 7:11 pm

    Berna – good guess. 山 is indeed the word for mountain (you make me wish I'd put in 出 or 从…). Here are the others:

    卡 – overwhelmingly used as a loanword for english "card" (it's pronounced kǎ). It has some "authentic" uses, but I don't know them.

    下 – down

    天 – sky

    河 – river, especially the Yellow River. This is the primary word for "river" as a general concept.

    两 – two

    水 – water

    大 – big

    江 – river, especially the Yangtze River. Though not the primary word, to the best of my knowledge this is also a general word for "river".

    上 – up

    I've been slightly disingenuous, in that I'm pretty sure Tim O'Neill meant 川 when he referred to "the character that means river". But it doesn't mean that anymore, just as 木 is no longer the word for "tree" — 川 is pretty much restricted now to place names and old ossified idioms.

    Big picture, trying to determine what characters mean by looking at them will get you nowhere at all, even when, as with 上 and 下, they really are meant to depict their own meaning and still do a passable job.

  18. Tim O'Neill said,

    August 11, 2015 @ 9:12 pm

    This discussion is a bit surreal for me, since my version of Windows doesn't have the East Asian character set.

    As for my screw-up on Phoenician "hieroglyphs," I definitely knew that the Phoenecian Abjad derived from Egyptian hieroglyphs, so I must've just skipped a logical step there.

  19. Guy said,

    August 11, 2015 @ 11:26 pm

    Is there a character for "character that doesn't look like what it signifies"?

  20. Michael Watts said,

    August 12, 2015 @ 1:22 am


    Probably not; the characters are traditionally divided into several groups based on how they're formed, of which one group is "picture of the concept". So there will be a standard term for that (although I don't know what it is), but I don't see why there would be a term for the opposite.

  21. David said,

    August 12, 2015 @ 6:33 am

    Isn't it a character that doesn't look like Bertrand Russell shaving a barber?

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