"Context is everything" again

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The most recent xkcd:

Phil Resnik, who's apparently forgotten his LL password again, writes:

Does a language with pre-nominal relative clauses (e.g. Chinese) have a way of achieving a similar effect?  Is English particularly well designed for taking a seemingly completed proposition and then drastically changing its meaning?

Oh, wow, I can imagine a really fun Whorfian story coming out of this one… ;-)

Whatever the grammatical answer, there are surely discourse-level alternatives.

Arno Penzias used to offer two semi-contradictory pieces of advice about communication, both apparently based on his personal experience.

One recommendation was always to document and report everything, because you never know what might be important. He would then tell the story of how what he originally thought was thermal emissions from pigeon waste turned out to be the cosmic microwave background ("It's not birdshit", he would exclaim, "it's the origin of the universe!"), and led to his Nobel prize.

The other piece of advice — typically offered as a comment on presentations indended for AT&T line managers — was that sometimes more information is less convincing. His example was wooing someone by praising their intelligence, grace, and beauty, and then noting how conveniently located their apartment is. This is a somewhat more elaborate version of the xkcd joke, but one which makes no particular demands on a language's word-order preferences.

The xkcd joke, as written, does depend on the option of having a "restrictive relative clause" come last, specifically in the case where it denotes the background set from which an optimal member is chosen. But I suspect there is always a paratactic way to do this — anyone want to step forward to show us how to translate the strip into Chinese or Japanese?


  1. rootlesscosmo said,

    July 23, 2010 @ 12:41 pm

    One version of the short con relies on supplying a lot of circumstantial detail–"I need seven dollars and eighty-one cents to buy a bus ticket back to Fort Sam Houston before I overstay my leave and am listed as AWOL," "I have this letter from McArdle Construction promising me a job but my Grand Am broke down on the way here from Phoenix and the office closed when I got there, and my wife and kids and I need a room overnight," etc. This specious plausibility can backfire with marks who, like me, have fallen for it in the past, so calibrating the amount of information conveyed is a nice technical problem for the con artist.

  2. AKMA said,

    July 23, 2010 @ 12:57 pm

    The comic reminded me of the Flight of the Conchords song, “Prettiest Girl In The Room.”

  3. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 23, 2010 @ 1:14 pm

    Just a little off-topic context: That's the Nobel Prize that should have gone to Robert Dicke, P. James E. Peebles, and David Wilkinson. In my opinion.

    Now looking forward to the answer to MYL's question.

  4. Carl said,

    July 23, 2010 @ 1:47 pm

    In Japanese, the natural word order is "me accusative love girls out-of topic you subject number-one like adjective-modifying girl copula/politeness-marker." But in spoken Japanese you often have people say sentences that are grammatically backwards like "you subject number-one like adjective-modifying girl copula/politeness-marker (pause) me accusative love girls out-of topic."

    So, I'd say something like "お前、一番好きな少女だ…俺が好きな少女の中では。" although that may not be perfectly idiomatic, since I'm not a native speaker and I've been out of the country for a couple years.

  5. Carl said,

    July 23, 2010 @ 1:49 pm

    Oh, incidentally, I end up translating "love" as something that is technically closer to "like" but that's a whole other issue with Japanese. :-)

  6. kip said,

    July 23, 2010 @ 2:31 pm

    @Carl so I guess what you're saying is that the Japanese have no word for love and are thus incapable of loving someone the way Americans are. ;)

  7. Sili said,

    July 23, 2010 @ 3:22 pm


    The Nobel can be shared among no more than three people. Cause of much animosity in the past, and likely to be a biiiig problem when that Goddamn Particle is discovered. (The Peace Prize can go to organisations, but I don't know if that's the case for the other prizes.)

  8. JLR said,

    July 23, 2010 @ 3:54 pm

    Does a language with pre-nominal relative clauses (e.g. Chinese) have a way of achieving a similar effect? Is English particularly well designed for taking a seemingly completed proposition and then drastically changing its meaning?

    It's funny that Chinese is mentioned here, because that immediately made me think of tagging fortune cookies with "in bed".

    It turns out that xkcd has already covered this.

  9. Eli said,

    July 23, 2010 @ 4:22 pm

    Japanese can do something like this by adding what I like to think of as a "tag" at the end. Usually tags are just topic-marked nouns that have climbed up the tree, but sometimes they can be PPs or even whole subordinate clauses.

    If I were to attempt this in Japanese (though I am a non-native speaker), I might say:
    ぼくに、きみは 一番 好きな 女。…ぼくが 好きな 女の 中で。
    boku-ni, kimi-wa ichiban suki-na onna. …boku-ga suki-na onna-no naka-de.
    Me-(DIRECTIONAL/as for), you-TOPIC (first/most) liked[ADJ] woman. … I-SUBJECT like[ADJ] woman-GENITIVE middle-(FROM/out of).
    As for me, you are the most-liked woman. …out of women that like me.

    (Of course, words for "me", "you", and "woman" can change…)

    There's a chance this isn't the most natural way to say this (non-native speaker disclaimer) but it sounds right to me, and the tactic being used is definitely a discourse technique.used frequently in Japanese.

  10. Rubrick said,

    July 23, 2010 @ 5:38 pm

    I wouldn't be surprised to find that the style of humor in various cultures is in part Whorfian. In a joke, the punchline, pretty much by definition, has to come last. I'd expect that to result in, for example, more jokes in SVO languages in which the humor comes from an unexpected choice of object ("he ate what?"), and more in SOV languages with an unexpected choice of action ("he did what to the baby?").

    Now that I think about it, perhaps this wouldn't in itself constitute Whorfianism.

    I do find it interesting that, when one considers "untranslatable" jokes, one usually thinks of unmappable idioms or puns or unknown cultural references; but some jokes might simply not be smoothly massagable into a form with the punch in the right place.

  11. Fluxor said,

    July 23, 2010 @ 11:05 pm

    I'd translate it into Chinese as such:

    2nd pane: 你是我世界上最愛的
    3rd pane: 愛我的女人

    你(you) 是(are) 我(me/my) 世界上 (in the world) 最(most) 愛(beloved) 的(particle)

    The object in the sentence is missing but implied. One can explicitly write out the object, such as 'woman' (女人). But in the case of this joke, I've translated the object to be '愛我的女人', meaning 'woman who loves me'.

  12. Tim Martin said,

    July 24, 2010 @ 1:06 am

    Some comments on Carl and Eli's suggestions for doing this in Japanese.

    Going with the 一番好き [ichiban suki] phrasing doesn't work very well in my opinion. First of all, to be accurate and grammatical, you would have to say
    1. 君は俺の一番好きな女性だ [kimi wa ore no ichiban suki na josei da] OR
    2. 君が一番好き [kimi ga ichiban suki]

    But I don't think either is really usable, because they both sound incomplete. You like me the best out of who? The first one is especially bad, because it makes it sound like I like you the best out of some theoretical group of other girls – which immediately makes your girlfriend think, "Wait, other girls? What other girls?"

    The 2 most natural ways of saying you like someone more than anyone else would be
    1. Some ordering of 君が世界で一番好き [kimi ga sekai de itiban suki] (You – in all the world – I love the most)
    2. 君が誰よりも好き [kimi ga dare yori mo suki] (You – more than anyone – I love)

    The problem with 1. is that you're forced to define the set of people you're comparing using 世界で [sekai de], so it sounds wrong to RE-define that set by tagging something on to the end of the sentence.

    Number 2 I think is your best option. The full sentence would be…
    君が誰よりも好き。。。俺のことが好きな女性の中で […ore no koto ga suki na josei no naka de] (girls that love me – out of)

    (Note to Carl and Eli: You can't use 俺が好きな女性の中で here because it sounds like you're talking about "girls that I like," not "girls that like me." 俺のこと, however, is unambiguous.)

    The reason this tactic works is that normally the two parts of the sentence would be reversed, but as has already been said, it's natural in spoken Japanese to do things "backwards" sometimes. Another way you could do things backwards (though it doesn't apply to this joke) would be to add a "these people を除けば" [these people wo nozokeba] (these people – leaving out) to the end of the sentence. So you could say something like "I went in there and complained and was completely polite to everyone. …Except this one guy.)

    "Is English particularly well designed for taking a seemingly completed proposition and then drastically changing its meaning?"

    Generally speaking, Japanese is FANTASTIC for this. After any statement you can always add on a 。。。と言いたいところだが […to iitai tokoro da ga] (…is what I want to say, but), and then continue to say something completely different! For example…

    "You do nothing around here – you're a completely worthless employee and you are FIRED! …Is what I'd like to say, but the higher ups think they have some use for you. Go talk to Director Tanaka."

    Note that from "fired" to "is what I'd like to say" would still be part of the same sentence in Japanese. It's kind of forced in English, but it's completely normal Japanese grammar.

  13. Tim Martin said,

    July 24, 2010 @ 1:19 am

    Ah, I just realized I should have mentioned one more thing about my suggestion for this comic in Japanese. The reason it's okay to define the set of people you're comparing using 誰よりも [dare yori mo] but not 世界で [sekai de] is because 誰よりも works together with ___で [de] to define a set. On it's own, 誰よりも implies you're comparing someone to every person in the world, but when used in conjunction with ___で, it's only comparing among the people defined by the で set. This is what allows you to make the listener think you're talking about everyone and then define later that you're only talking about girls who like the speaker.

  14. Jon F said,

    July 24, 2010 @ 2:23 am

    Back in English, I want to say that this type of construction is typically the bailiwick of A Softer World, but now reviewing part of the archives I'm not sure there are that many. Which of these count? http://www.asofterworld.com/index.php?id=579 http://www.asofterworld.com/index.php?id=548 http://www.asofterworld.com/index.php?id=541 http://www.asofterworld.com/index.php?id=535 http://www.asofterworld.com/index.php?id=532 http://www.asofterworld.com/index.php?id=530 http://www.asofterworld.com/index.php?id=401

  15. Linguistic Anthropology Roundup #10 – Society for Linguistic Anthropology said,

    July 24, 2010 @ 2:58 am

    […] Mark Lieberman, over at Language Log (!) seems to be fond of saying, these days, "context is everything." (Since I worry about absolutes, my version is "context […]

  16. J.R. Omahen said,

    July 24, 2010 @ 4:25 am


    I'm really enjoying the ideas you put forth. As you've said, you would have to avoid initially defining the group you're comparing to (in Japanese), but not sound waffly about it. :) And the 誰よりも solution is brilliant, especially with how XでYより comparisons work.

    Only one suggestion I would make, and that would be to add the topic-discourse particle は at the end. In this instance, it would not have a "softening" effect, as it's not operating as the copula. It is, however, framing the entire preceding statement in context, and that context is all the girls in the world that like me. I might also emphasize with も. Plus I think the は at the end gives a rounded feel, and improves the cadence.



    So refreshing to think about these things…I haven't had the opportunity for a year :)

  17. Carl said,

    July 24, 2010 @ 6:29 am

    One thing I think we can all agree on is that panel one in Japanese would be "LUCKY!!!!"

  18. Tim Martin said,

    July 24, 2010 @ 9:18 am

    @J.R. Omahen: Thank you! :) Now that you mention it, the は [wa] might enhance understanding at the end.

    I did think about the も [mo] issue when I wrote my post. I'm pretty sure you can't use it the way we'd like to here, otherwise I would have. I can't tell you why, but my gut tells me it doesn't work in this case, and I've learned that that's pretty trustworthy. I'm planning on asking a Japanese friend next chance I get though. In any case, remember that the line still has to be 俺のことが好き and not 俺が好き (see my note above).

    @Carl: RAKKIIIIIII! lol.

  19. unekdoud said,

    July 24, 2010 @ 10:49 am

    Related: the "Fortune Cookies" comic: http://xkcd.com/425/

    I still can't find a way to make this work in Chinese, without resorting to missing objects, as Fluxor mentioned above. In this case, the punchline comes from the implied object, a sort of mental autocompletion of the sentence.

  20. J.R. Omahen said,

    July 24, 2010 @ 5:41 pm


    Yes, I am aware of 俺のこと, I just failed massively to type it :). I was saying it in my head, but that didn't translate to the keyboard (see what happens when you type in romaji first? I need to learn the kana input :p). And when I typed the も, it did feel weird reading it afterwards, so…it's better to scrap it. Plus, with the も in the preceeding panel, meh. :)

  21. Adam said,

    July 24, 2010 @ 6:28 pm

    On the (marginally related) subject of fortune cookies, thinkgeek sells misfortune evil cookies.

  22. Corey Sanderson said,

    July 25, 2010 @ 10:55 pm

    @Fluxor, I'd translate it as 女生 instead of 女人, the difference in implication being that the person seems younger in the first and older in the second (kind of like girl and woman, respectively).

  23. mondain said,

    July 25, 2010 @ 11:14 pm

    IMHO, it can be translated into Chinese by converting the relative clause into an independent clause, adding conjunctions such as 而且 if necessary. I also found a summary about the translation of relative clause into Chinese from an interpreter (here).

  24. Fluxor said,

    July 26, 2010 @ 12:21 pm

    @Corey Sanderson: 女生 is "girls" in the general sense or when referring to someone in the third person. When speaking to directly to the 女生 in question, the more proper translation of 'girl' is 女孩.

  25. KenM said,

    July 27, 2010 @ 5:47 am

    Fluxor, I'm no native speaker, but that does seem the best way to do this.

    Also, I'm not sure how well it would work, but personally I would try leaving off 女人 or 女孩 or 美女 or whatever, and make it 我最爱的/爱我的. Though I'm not actually sure, looking at it, that it would work. I've never been great at jokes in Chinese.

  26. Fluxor said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 1:43 am

    KemN, 我最爱的/爱我的 is an incomplete sentence and will leave readers waiting for the punchline that never comes.

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