High vowel lenition/devoicing in French

On a trip to Québec in the 1970s, I asked a passerby for directions (in French), and he gave me an answer that at first I thought was in Polish or some other Slavic language unknown to me. He also pointed to the visible train-track overpass a couple of blocks away, and waved his arm to indicate a right turn, so I got the meaning from his gestures. And after a bit, I realized that his opening phrase, which I heard as something like


was a Québecois vernacular version of "tu vas direct jusqu'au trac", with the [i] and [y] vowels deleted (and the  initial /ʒ/ of "jusqu'au" devoiced). I asked a Canadian colleague about it, and was told that the deletion of high vowels was known to linguists in Francophone Canada, but (as far as he knew at that time) had not been documented.

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Mix and match Japanese orthography

Most Language Log readers are aware that the Japanese writing system consists of three major components — kanji (sinoglyhs), hiragana (cursive syllabary), and katakana (block syllabary).  I would argue that rōmaji (roman letters) are a fourth component, as they are in the Chinese writing system.

How do people decide when to switch among the different components of the Japanese writing system?  Of course, custom and usage determine when to use one and when to use another.  (It's a bit like masculine, feminine, and neuter in gender based languages [a frequent and recent topic on Language Log] — you don't ask why, you just do it].)  In most cases, convention has fixed which of the three main components of the writing system is used for a particular purpose.  On the other hand, since I began learning Japanese half a century ago, I noticed a fairly conspicuous slippage regarding what I had been led to believe were predetermined practices.

Sanae Heist, a senior studying linguistics at Columbia University, brought this whole matter to the surface when she wrote to me as follows:

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New worlds, words, and letters

A recent strip from Dinosaur Comics:

Mouseover title: "stop, you fool! you're building a world far too quickly and far too awesome! no narrative will ever live up to it!!"

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Nest: a rare and perplexing surname

By chance, I came across the surname "Gnaizda".  Its phonological configuration puzzled me for a while, but then I began to formulate hypotheses about its origin.  I briefly thought that it might have been Semitic and considered the possibility that it was cognate with "genesis".  It was easy to rule out "genesis", though, because that goes back to the PIE root *gene- ("give birth, beget").

Rather than making stabs in the dark about what language Gnaizda might derive from, I thought it would be more sensible to search for individuals with that surname and see whether there were any pertinent biographical, genealogical, or onomastic information available about them.

The most prominent Gnaizda I found was the civil justice advocate, Robert Gnaizda (1936-2020), who was the General Counsel and Policy Director for the Greenlining Institute based in Berkeley, California.  There are many references to him on the internet.  Unfortunately, the Wikipedia article on Robert Gnaizda does not provide any etymological information about his surname.

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LÀ encore…

Continuing my anecdotal exploration of "focus"-like phenomena in French, I dove into a random point in the middle of a random Radio France podcast ("Libre Pensée – L’Europe, l’Union européenne et les élections européennes", 4/14/2024). And within a few seconds, I heard this, where the apparent "focus" on caught my attention:

Euh mais pour bien comprendre il faut là encore revenir à l'histoire —
décidément nous faisons un peu un cours d'histoire aujourd'hui

(Google translation for those who need it…)

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Fish-in-fish matryoshka sinoglyph

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Victor Hugo, hélas

Focus is perhaps the single most perniciously ambiguous word in the field of linguistics. In Beth Ann Hockey's 1998 dissertation, "The interpretation and realization of focus: an experimental investigation of focus in English and Hungarian", she wrote:

Linguists have associated the word “focus” with a wide variety of phenomena. In addition a wealth of other terms including “new,” “emphasis,” “stress,” “rheme,” “comment,” “accented,” “prominent,” “informative” and “contrast” have been attached singly or in combination to phenomena that seem to be the same as, similar to or overlapping with those that have been called focus.

Beth Ann quotes a few relevant passages from Lewis Carroll, including

‘That's a great deal to make one word mean,’ Alice said in a thoughtful tone.
‘When I make a word do a lot of work like that,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘I always pay it extra.’

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Two brushes in one hand — virtuoso calligraphy

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A very noisy channel

From Breffni O'Rourke:

I thought you might appreciate this effort by Dall.E. The prompt was "Create a diagram of Shannon and Weaver's model of communication."

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Digital Humanities for the study of traditional Asian medicines

A guest post for The Digital Orientalist (4/10/24), under The Magic of Philology and Indexing, Polyglot Asian Medicines (Foundational Resources and Digital Tools), by Michael Stanley-Baker, Christopher S.G. Khoo and Faizah Zakariah (all three are based at academic institutions in Singapore), "Tracking Drug Names Across Language, Time, Space and Knowledge Domains to Produce New Visions of Traditional Medicine".

This is a richly detailed article with many links and citations.  I will not attempt to cover, much less extensively quote, lengthy portions.  Instead, I will begin with the authors' general introduction, note the main sections of the article, refer to the graphs, and quote one typical section to show what the authors' approach can accomplish.

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Feeling wet

Yesterday in one of my classes, a female student from China said that she didn't like to exercise in the morning because she felt "wet".  At first, I couldn't believe my ears, so I asked her, "Did you say 'wet'?"  "Yes," she said, "wet".  I couldn't understand in what way she would feel "wet" in the morning and how that would prevent her from doing exercises.

We wouldn't use the English word "wet" to describe a morning condition that would discourage us from doing exercises, so I tried to think of other related words (synonyms or near-synonyms for "wet") that would work better.  "Logy"? "sodden"? "heavy"?  But I couldn't come up with any equivalent words that would fit the bill.  I specifically was disinclined to choose the word "shī 濕", which literally does mean "wet", but didn't believe that's what she meant because it would signify something like "drenched", "dripping", "soaked", not a systemic condition of the body, unless it means something in traditional Chinese medicine that I'm not aware of.

I puzzled over this conundrum for a while without making any significant progress, so today I sent her an e-mail asking the following question:  "What Chinese word / concept did you have in mind when you said you felt 'wet' in the morning"?

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Polysyllabic sinoglyphs

From Markus Samuel Haselbeck, responding to Egas Moniz-Bandeira on Twitter/X:

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Chinese (il)logic from inside

[Prefatory note:  The Chinese author of this guest post, TCI (encrypted acronym to protect her identity) holds a humanities M.A. from a top tier American research university which she attended from 2016 to 2018.  She has been employed for several years as an adviser to  students in China who desire to study abroad (especially the USA) in high school, college, or university.  Her statement will be followed by the remarks of a long experienced, well established practitioner of that profession (application counselor) in China who explains its aims and modus operandi.

The author (TCI) emphasizes what she considers to be a lack of logic in Chinese thought.  It is ironic that her focus is very much on the gender of personal pronouns at a time when many people in America are trying to do away with or downplay that aspect of personal pronouns.  Before dismissing what she says out of hand, bear in mind that for TCI it is a cri de coeur.  She grew up in China learning one system of thought, came to America and struggled to learn another, and now she has gone back to China and is trying to teach the next generation of students who want to come to America and think like Americans how to be less fraught in learning this new way of thinking.

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