English Verb-Particle Constructions

Jul. 26th, 2017 02:59 pm
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Posted by Spencer Caplan

Lately I've been thinking about "optionality" as it relates to syntactic alternations. (In)famous cases include complementizer deletion ("I know that he is here" vs. "I know he is here") or embedded V2 in Scandinavian. For now let's consider the English verb-particle construction. The relative order of the particle and the object is "optional" in cases such as the following:

1a) "John picked up the book"
1b) "John picked the book up"

Either order is usually acceptable (with the exception of pronoun objects — although those too become acceptable under a focus reading…)

1c) "John put it back"
1d) *"John put back it"

For something like (1a) and (1b) the semantic interpretation seems largely the same, and so the "optionality" refers to the grammar allowing the generation of more than one syntactic variant. In practice however, even if multiple syntactic arrangements are permitted only one can actually be produced at a given time in a given context. Acceptability judgments tend to be more delicate or varied than would be desired here. So if we'd like to investigate what factors govern the production of one form (particle-first) over another (object-first) we may examine the overall rates of use of either variant in a corpus under different conditions. Much has been written about these sorts of phenomena, including particle placement in particular (Stefan Gries has written a whole book on the topic), yet technical constraints often limit the scope of such investigations.

For instance, two factors which have been found to correlate with/against particle-first order are the heaviness of the DP-object (heavy objects tend to follow the particle), and whether or not the object had been recently referred to in context (discourse familiar objects tend to precede the particle). Stefan finds these effects over a few hundred sentences, but because the space of lexical combinations is so large there's simply not way to control for word-level effects which may be co-variate to NP-heaviness of discourse familiarity.

To get around this I wrote a script which extracts instances of verb-particle constructions from the spoken portion of COCA and tags them for particle-order. This requires a few hand-written heuristics so as not to erroneously include prepositional phrases whose order is in fact not option (e.g. "Walk down the path" is possible but not *"Walk the path down"), but nothing too technically involved. Overall, I find a particle-first rate of approximately 60% over a very large sample of roughly 50,000 such sentences. This is in line with previous work dating all the way back to the late 1970's on this topic. However, if we zoom into rates within various predicates, things appear far more varied on a lexical level. Below is a plot showing the rates of particle-first order for the twelve most frequent verbs (each verb appearing in a few thousand sentences in my sample.) The red vs. blue colors simply represent the particle-first ratio being below/above 50%.

Some verbs (Pick, set) show nearly categorical particle-first order, while others (help, get) are majority object-first.

Subsequently zooming in to look at the behavior under "bring" (since it shows a good split around 70/30), the picture remains varied. For instance, there is a near categorical gap in ordering for "bring about" compared to "bring over".

Notice that "bring back" is roughly 50/50, so conditioning on that and splitting over the head of the object DP there is again frequently categorical split in particle ordering. There are between 10 and 100 sentences for each condition below.

None of this of course explains what's driving these large, lexically conditioned gaps, but it would be interesting to keep digging into it.

shakespeare screwed up, son

Jul. 26th, 2017 12:00 am
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July 26th, 2017next

July 26th, 2017: San Diego Comic Con was AMAZING: I met so many great and interesting readers, got to meet some people that I really admire, and won two (TWO!) Eisner Awards, for my work on Squirrel Girl and Jughead! IT WAS PRETTY AMAZING!!

– Ryan

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Posted by Mark Liberman

As I mentioned last month ("My summer", 6/22/2017), I'm spending six weeks in Pittsburgh at the at the 2017 Jelinek Summer Workshop on Speech and Language Technology (JSALT) , as part of a group whose theme is "Enhancement and Analysis of Conversational Speech".

One of the things that I've been exploring is simple models of who talks when — a sort of Biggish Data reprise of Sacks, Schegloff & Jefferson "A simplest systematics for the organization of turn-taking for conversation", Language 1974. A simple place to start is just the distribution of speech segment durations. And my first explorations of this first issue turned up a case that's relevant to yesterday's discussion of "significance".

In Neville Ryant and Mark Liberman, "Automatic Analysis of Speech Style Dimensions", InterSpeech 2016, we found systematic differences among individuals and contexts.

In that paper, we found that speech segments generally tend to be shorter in spontaneous/conversational speech than in fluent reading. The graph below compares density plots for speech-segment duration in three sources of read text and three sources of conversational speech. The largest read collection is  LibriSpeech, 1,571 hours of text reading by 2,484 speakers. The distributions for Bush and Obama are from their weekly addresses, about 14 hours in total. From spontaneous/conversational speech, we have  8.5 hours of the interview program Fresh Air, with the data for the guests and the host (Terry Gross) plotted separately; and 14 hours from YouthPoint, a radio program produced by students at the University of Pennsylvania in the late 1970s.

This should not be a surprise — there are several sources of shorter speech segments specific to spontaneous/conversational speech, including backchannels and evaluations ("mm-hmm", "yeah", "right", "I know", "no kidding", "OK", "maybe", …), and pauses that reflect the process of composition, often with repetition or self-correction across the gap.

If we look more closely at individual conversations, we see some where the participants' distributions of speech-segment durations are pretty much the same, and others with significant differences. Here are the distributions for two two-party conversations from the Fisher (English) collection:

In the second case, Speaker A is doing most of the talking: 412.5 seconds in 200 segments, compared with 269.9 seconds in 213 segments for Speaker B.

This reflects an asymmetry in conversational roles — much of the dialogue is like this:

103.70 110.54 A: (( )) here and we have i think it's more healthy too you know the fat and more veggies greens
110.99 111.52 B: yeah
111.65 112.52 B: yes yeah
113.07 115.40 B: certainly more so than like the fast food
116.02 119.18 A: yeah i mean i i gained here uh
119.47 125.98 A: how many like thirty poun- uh pounds or so but then i started on this diet eating
123.29 123.62 B: yeah
126.33 127.96 A: in a at home and
128.39 129.89 A: lost lots of weight even i'm
130.02 130.76 A: thinner than
131.08 132.65 A: than when i came here you know
132.77 133.08 B: yeah

This naturally raises the question of how to quantify such differences, and how to relate them to individual characteristics and social or conversational roles. The Fisher collection is fairly large (23398 conversational sides) and relatively uniform in interactional context (short telephone conversations between strangers on assigned topics). There's no variation in interactional role, and our information about individual characteristics is limited (sex, age, years of education, region), but some of those characteristics are stereotypically related to speech styles.

The simplest way to parameterize the distributions of speech-segment durations is just to look at their means or medians. And if we look at the median length of speech segments by sex in the Fisher dataset, we see something interesting.

The mean value of the median speech-segment durations of women talking with women is longer than the comparable value of men talking with men. This difference is highly significant (in statistical terms), p-value = 6.734e-05 according to Welch's t-test, or less than one chance in ten thousand that the difference is due to sampling error. But the speech-segment durations of women talking with men and men talking with women are essentially the same by this measure (p-value = 0.2211):

And the differences between the Same Sex and Cross Sex conditions are also "significant". At this point we could wave our hands at various gender stereotypes and talk about accommodation theory.

But if you've looked at the numbers on the y-axis, you'll realize that this is an excellent object lesson in the difference between "(statistically) significant" and "meaningful", as discussed a couple of days ago. The differences, although unlikely to be the result of sampling error, are tiny — and also are small relative to within-group variance.

If we re-plot everything with a y-axis that starts at 0, this become clearer:

There's plenty of interesting and meaningful structure in conversational dynamics — but the effect of speaker and interlocutor sex on the distribution of speech segment durations is not a good example.


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I grew up around racehorses. One day, my father told me the story of how his application to call one of ours "Little Lemon", after Laika the space dog, was rejected by the Board. The reason was not that the name was unavailable; and one could speculate that there was some Cold War paranoia involved.

Here's another example of space-themed racehorses:

How about that? This is from Louise A. Ackerman's 1958 discussion about variants of the word Sputnik in American English.

According to Racing Australia, a horse cannot receive the same name as another horse until 17 years after the original horse has retired. So I am here to tell you that in Australia and New Zealand, the name Sputnik will become available again in 2026. Rocket becomes available in 2028. 

If your naming needs are more urgent, One Giant Leap is available in 2019, and Laika and Skylab are currently free! Perhaps Skylab isn't a great name for a horse, though. It does somewhat imply crashing and burning.

If you want to combine your racing and Star Trek passions, here is a list of racehorse names inspired by the cult classic.

And here is the cutest spacehorse ever, inspired by British astronaut Tim Peake.

Image courtesy of Attic Photographic

Ackerman, Louise A. 1958 Facetious variations on 'Sputnik'. American Speech 33(2): 154-156.

Real life

Jul. 24th, 2017 02:51 pm
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Posted by Mark Liberman

Today's SMBC:

For a more complex but pointed analogy, see "The Pirahã and us", 10/6/2007.

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July 24th, 2017next

July 24th, 2017: NON-CANON

San Diego Comic Con was AMAZING: I met so many great and interesting readers, got to meet some people that I really admire, and won two (TWO!) Eisner Awards, for my work on Squirrel Girl and Jughead! IT WAS PRETTY AMAZING!!

– Ryan

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Posted by Victor Mair

President Xi Jinping is fond of calling on the Chinese people to "roll up our sleeves and work hard" ( qǐ xiùzǐ jiāyóu gàn 撸起袖子加油干 / 擼起袖子加油幹).  No sooner had Xi uttered this stirring pronouncement in a nationwide address at the turn of the year (2016-17) than it became a viral meme (here and here) that has inspired countless signs, songs, and dances; enactment; and also this one, presumably in a poorly-heated environment

Xi didn't just encourage people to roll up their shirt sleeves.  He himself famously rolled up his pantlegs:

"Why This Seemingly Innocuous Photo of Xi Jinping Is So Important:  A simple act of rolling his pants up — and holding his own umbrella — shows a president eager to show a common touch."

Matt Schiavenza, The Atlantic (Jul 23, 2013)

The picture, which shows Xi standing in the rain holding his own umbrella and with his pantlegs rolled up and looking very derpy, was taken by the official Xinhua News Agency during the president's trip to Wuhan, in Hubei province, in July 2013.  It might not seem like a particularly noteworthy photograph –- neither dazzling technically nor artistically framed.  But even when it was first released, foreign observers were surprised by the photograph, and it went swiftly viral on Chinese microblogging sites.  This image was particularly notable for the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement that arose during the Hong Kong protests of 2014 (see here and here).

Although, as is his wont with umbrella, pantlegs, steamed buns, favorite jacket, and so forth, Xi wanted it to come across as folksy, his choice of vocabulary and manner of expression put him on precarious ground.

In the first place, the normal, most common and straightforward way to say "roll up sleeves" in Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM) is juǎn qǐ xiùzi 卷起袖子 / 捲起袖子.  Xi, however, used a Northeastern Mandarinism which has nuances that are just asking for trouble:



Liāo 撩 and lū 撸 are two of those mysterious "physical action" verbs with initial liquid and first tone in Mandarin — untraceable to Middle Chinese.  Someone must hav written about that. The topic has come up on LL: see this comment by Bill Baxter.

The word for "sleeve" (xiùzǐ 袖子), in this context, might also be thought by some to have unwelcome overtones, since "cut sleeve" (duàn xiù 断袖) is an old euphemism for male homosexuality.  It doesn't help that a synonym for xiùzǐ 袖子 ("sleeve") is xiùguǎn 袖管 (lit., "sleeve-tube / pipe / duct"), which invites one to think of lūguǎn 撸管 ("rub the pipe", slang for male masturbation).

Next comes jiāyóu 加油, which literally means "add oil / gas"), but which is a common cheer at sporting events and in other situations where people exhort others "to make an all-out / extra effort" (see here and here).

And then there is the monumentally problematic gàn 干 / 幹 ("do; fuck" — frequently confused with gān 干 / 乾 ["dry"]), with which long-term Language Log readers will be intimately familiar.

"The Etiology and Elaboration of a Flagrant Mistranslation" (12//09/07)

"The further elaboration of a flagrant mistranslation" (8/31/13)

(and many other posts)

Taking the last two elements together, jiāyóu gàn 加油干 ("add oil and do it") in this context makes one think of personal lubricants (rùnhuá yóu / jì / yè 润滑油 / 剂 / 液).  (Since we're at it — milestones in the history of lube branding include things like júhuā yóu / yè 菊花油 / 液, or in [faux?] Japanese kiku no eki [??] 菊の液, playing on the Chinese [and apparently also Japanese] chrysanthemum~anus metaphor.)

Xi's phrase in its original context (8:44):  notice the extremely heavy stress on the gàn 干 / 幹 ("do; fuck").

With all of these suggestive hints prompting him, it was inevitable that a snarky wit would do something salacious with Xi's dorky call to action.  Few, however, would have expected that the person who rose to the challenge was a ranking member of the CCP, Zhang Haishun, top official of the Bureau of Quality and Technical Supervision of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region.  And he did it not once, but twice, after which he was promptly dismissed from office.

Here's how Zhang ridiculed Xi:  liāo qǐ qúnzi shǐjìn gàn 撩起裙子使劲干 / 撩起裙子使勁幹 ("life up [your] skirt and do it for all [you're] worth").  The story is reported (in Chinese) here and here, and here.

A picture and fuller account is provided by Radio France Internationale.

Notice how the news items focus on the impropriety or indecency of Zhang's words, and on how it violates Party discipline, perhaps by mocking Xi's motto and exerting a "bad influence".  I see no mention of how disturbing a call to "lift up skirts" during a meeting he chaired can be to any female (or skirt-wearing) subordinates. Even if he wears a skirt to work himself, his position of power makes participation in the skirts-up implementation he advocates sound non-consensual. That Bureau might not be the ideal workplace for such a campaign.

The fuller context of Xi's slogan is as follows:

`Zǒng shūjì hàozhào “ qǐ xiù zǐ jiāyóu gān”, wǒ jú yào rènzhēn luòshí! Yào “liāo qǐ qúnzi shǐjìn gàn”!'


"The General Secretary called for 'rolling up sleeves to work harder', which our Bureau [of Quality and Technical Supervision] must conscientiously implement. Time to 'lift up skirts for a hard shag!'"

Who is this Zhāng Hǎishùn 张海顺, so full of chutzpah?  I haven't been able to find any English language description of the man, but there's a brief Wikipedia article on him in Chinese.  From all that I can glean, he is 59 years old, a Han from Shanxi.  He went to Inner Mongolia as a rusticated youth and studied in Qiqihar. Zhang majored in Chinese, and it shows: he has now achieved international fame as a poet-official.

The "rolling up" doesn't have to stop at sleeves. Now that "sumer is icumen in", everyone's rolling up their shirts. Western commentators never tire of commenting on that (the "Beijing Bikini") (witness the Gray Lady), which Chinese metacommentators then metacomment on.

A Beijing Bikini makes you a half bǎng yé 膀爷 ("shirtless dude"), which of late has been eliciting some Puritanical backlash.

Courtesy of Jichang Lulu, here are half a dozen Tibetan translations of Xi's " xiù gàn 撸袖干" ("roll up the sleeves and do it") slogan, from various official-ish sources:

phu thung brdzes nas ngar shugs sgrims

phu thung brdzes nas nus shugs 'don

phu thung brzes nas hur thag byed

phu thung brdzes nas 'bad brtson byed

phu thung brdzes nas 'bad brtson byas (te)

phu dung brdzes nas las la 'bungs

All the translations agree on the qǐ xiùzǐ 撸其袖子 ("roll up sleeves") part (phu [th|d)ung rdze), although they use two different spellings for "sleeve". For the second part (jiāyóu gàn 加油干), there are many different interpretations: 'bring forth power/energy', 'exert oneself'….

In Mongolian (from PRC sources, both in traditional script for domestic consumption and in Cyrillic for ("Outer") Mongolia):

ᠬᠠᠨᠴᠤᠢ ᠰᠢᠮᠠᠯᠠᠨ (ᠴᠢᠷᠮᠠᠢᠢᠨ) ᠠᠢᠯᠯᠠᠶ᠎ᠠ
Qancui simalan (cirmayin) ajillay-a

Ханцуй шамлан хичээн зүтгэ[е]
Ханцуй шамлан гавшгайлан ажилла[я]

where again there's universal agreement on the rolled-up sleeves, but the second half can be "exert ourselves", "work" in some gung-ho way, or just "work".

[Thanks to Jichang Lulu, Melvin Lee, Meiheng Dietrich, and Yixue Yang]

Unmasking Slurs

Jul. 23rd, 2017 01:36 am
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Posted by Geoff Nunberg

I'm sympathetic to many of the arguments offered in a guest post by Robert Henderson, Peter Klecha, and Eric McCready (HK&M) in response to Geoff Pullum's post on "nigger in the woodpile," no doubt because they are sympathetic to some of the things I said in my reply to Geoff. But I have to object when they scold me for spelling out the word nigger rather than rendering it as n****r. It seems to me that "masking" the letters of slurs with devices such as this is an unwise practice—it reflects a misunderstanding of the taboos surrounding these words, it impedes serious discussion of their features, and most important, it inadvertently creates an impression that works to the advantage of certain racist ideologies. I have to add that it strikes me that HK&M's arguments, like a good part of the linguistic and philosophical literature on slurs, suffer from a certain narrowness of focus, a neglect both of the facts of actual usage of these words and the complicated discourses that they evoke. So, are you sitting comfortably?

HK&M say of nigger (or as they style it, n****r):

The word literally has as part of its semantic content an expression of racial hate, and its history has made that content unavoidably salient. It is that content, and that history, that gives this word (and other slurs) its power over and above other taboo expressions. It is for this reason that the word is literally unutterable for many people, and why we (who are white, not a part of the group that is victimized by the word in question) avoid it here.

Yes, even here on Language Log. There seems to be an unfortunate attitude — even among those whose views on slurs are otherwise similar to our own — that we as linguists are somehow exceptions to the facts surrounding slurs discussed in this post. In Geoffrey Nunberg’s otherwise commendable post on July 13, for example, he continues to mention the slur (quite abundantly), despite acknowledging the hurt it can cause. We think this is a mistake. We are not special; our community includes members of oppressed groups (though not nearly enough of them), and the rest of us ought to respect and show courtesy to them.

This position is a version of the doctrine that Luvell Anderson and Ernie Lepore call "silentism" (see also here). It accords with the widespread view that the word nigger is phonetically toxic: simply to pronounce it is to activate it, and it isn’t detoxified by placing it in quotation marks or other devices that indicate that the word is being mentioned rather than used, even written news reports or scholarly discussions. In that way, nigger and words like it seem to resemble strong vulgarities. Toxicity, that is, is a property that’s attached to the act of pronouncing a certain phonetic shape, rather than to an act of assertion, which is why some people are disconcerted when all or part of the word appears as a segment of other words, as in niggardly or even denigrate.

Are Slurs Nondisplaceable?

This is, as I say, a widespread view, and HK&M apparently hold that that is reason enough to avoid the unmasked utterance of the word (written or spoken), simply out of courtesy. It doesn't matter whether the insistence on categorial avoidance reflects only the fact that “People have had a hard time wrapping their heads around the fact that referring to the word is not the same as using it,” as

07/21/17 PHD comic: 'Weekend Plans'

Jul. 21st, 2017 04:23 pm
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Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham
Click on the title below to read the comic
title: "Weekend Plans" - originally published 7/21/2017

For the latest news in PHD Comics, CLICK HERE!

Fossils We Want to Find

Jul. 23rd, 2017 08:00 pm
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Posted by Darren Naish

There’s a list of fossils I’d really like you to go out and find. Good luck.

-- Read more on ScientificAmerican.com
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July 20th, 2017next

July 20th, 2017: This comic is inspired by... THE PLANET MARS!!

Thanks to everyone who backed my Kickstarter! I'm super stoked about the book and I can't wait to get it out there. Hooray!

– Ryan

Response to Pullum on slurs

Jul. 20th, 2017 10:45 pm
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Posted by Barbara Partee

This is a guest post by Robert Henderson, Peter Klecha, and Eric McCready in response to Geoff Pullum's post of July 10. My only role was offering in advance to post a reply if the authors would like me to. I'm a good friend of Geoff Pullum and a friend of the authors. What follows is theirs.

We were quite surprised to read the LL post by Geoff Pullum of July 10. In this post, GP discussed the suspension of Tory MP Anne Marie Morris for using the phrase “n****r in the woodpile” at an event held at the East India Club. After her use of this phrase was recorded and publicized, she was suspended by the Tories for what the Financial Times described as a racist remark. According to GP, this punishment was excessive, as the remark in question was not racist; he proceeds “reluctantly” to defend Ms. Morris, as the idiom in question was merely “silly.” While we offer no comment on the appropriateness of the specific punishment Ms. Morris received, we do find this characterization problematic on both moral and empirical grounds, together with many other commentators on social media, and we want to suggest that the author should have been (much) more careful when dealing with such an important topic.

What counts as a racist remark? The range of possibilities is broad, from direct attributions of racial slurs to covert dog-whistles, and it’s ultimately not for us as white individuals, or for anybody outside of the oppressed group in question, to declare exactly what is or is not a racist act. However, it does seem clear to us that the category of racist statements isn’t limited to saying things like “X is a [slur].” Thus GP’s claim that the MP’s statement doesn’t count as a racist remark because she didn't call anyone by the slur is off the mark. Utterances which are judged to be racist remarks even include saying positive things about non-people, e.g., "I love [slur] food!" This fact shows that GP’s definition of racist remarks is far too narrow.

Once we allow racist remarks to include more than predicating a slur of an individual, the ground for defending Morris's remark shrinks substantially. The only such defense is to argue that the appearance of the n-word in an idiom is enough to neutralize its racist meaning component. GP tries this route, but here the post runs into empirical problems given well-known facts about slurs. There is a consensus in the semantic/pragmatic and philosophical literature on the topic that slurs aggressively attach to the speaker, committing them to a racist attitude even in embedded contexts. Consider embedded slurs; imagine Ron Weasley says “Draco thought that Harry was a mudblood”, where attributing the thought to Draco isn’t enough to absolve Ron of expressing the attitudes associated with the slur. Indeed, even mentioning slurs is fraught territory, which is why the authors of most papers on these issues are careful to distance themselves from the content expressed. While we aren’t aware of work on slurs in noncompositional idioms in particular, a moment’s thought is enough to show that just putting a potentially offensive word into an idiom doesn’t defuse it; we would feel uncomfortable saying “the shit hit the fan” in formal situations, for example, although here “shit” lacks its literal meaning. Thus we should expect that the slurring meaning of the n-word survives in the idiom.

Slurs are generally words which have a history of being used to inflict serious emotional distress. Setting aside how it is that they come to do that in first place (which surely must have something to do with both their literal meaning and with their issuers’ hateful intent), they come to have a perverse second effect, as we understand it: they viscerally remind their victims of the hurt they have experienced due to prior use of the word, as summed up by the Langston Hughes quotation excerpted by Geoffrey Nunberg’s post, or by Ice Cube in his recent discussion with Bill Maher: “When I hear a white person say it, it feel like that knife stabbing you, even if they don’t mean to.” And importantly, what we have read and heard from people who have been victimized by these words suggests that any depiction can be such a reminder, whether it is use, mention, quotation, or even just phonetic overlap, as in the very obvious case of an idiom containing a slur, or less obvious cases like similar-sounding but historically unrelated words.

As an analogy, consider someone who has been the victim of repeated axe-violence — someone who has been attacked with axes over and over again over the course of their life, and has been threatened with such attacks even more often. If such a person were to come into contact with even just a depiction of an axe or axe-violence, it would be responsible to assume that the person may well become upset, and maybe even re-traumatized. And importantly, this is independent of anyone’s intent — it wouldn’t matter if I showed such a depiction to such a person with the virtuous intent of wanting to rob these depictions of their power to hurt the victim, for example — it would still very likely cause pain. There would be no reason to expect that that pain would be in any way a function of the depicter’s intent.

Likewise, any depiction of a slur creates the risk of causing hurt to those people who have been historically victimized by the slur, regardless of speaker intent. In this way, the slurring effect of a slur is more like Grice’s (1957) natural meaning than his non-natural (communicative) meaning; it is something the hearer derives from the utterance independent of grammatical convention or of their recognition of the speaker’s intent. See also this discussion of research on the physiological effects “mere words” can have.

These considerations defuse the central claim of GP's linguistic defense of Morris's remark, namely that the meaning of the idiom is "a hitherto concealed unpleasant surprise". Instead, racial slurs are terms that both predicate racial categories of people, and also denigrate those categories (technically, they are “mixed content bearers”). The idiom thus means "a hitherto concealed unpleasant surprise" while at the same time committing the speaker to a racist attitude. It is this second component that we expect to attach to the speaker, even in idiom. That this is the case is also shown by the fact that people have to keep apologizing for using the phrase. In fact, the fact that the MP was suspended and the reporting of the suspension makes use of the term “racist remark” is itself evidence that people naturally get the racist interpretation.

We think that GP's defense of Morris is not tenable on linguistic grounds, but there is a second aspect of the post in question that we find disturbing and important to address. Throughout the post, GP repeatedly mentions the n-word in its uncensored form. In a follow-up to the original post, he says that his refusal to censor is a strategy to avoid giving that word its power. If you take the standard linguistic analysis of slurs, though, the word’s power does not come from mere taboo (i.e., a social prohibition on using or mentioning the word as we see with expletives like "shit"). The word literally has as part of its semantic content an expression of racial hate, and its history has made that content unavoidably salient. It is that content, and that history, that gives this word (and other slurs) its power over and above other taboo expressions. It is for this reason that the word is literally unutterable for many people, and why we (who are white, not a part of the group that is victimized by the word in question) avoid it here.

Yes, even here on Language Log. There seems to be an unfortunate attitude — even among those whose views on slurs are otherwise similar to our own — that we as linguists are somehow exceptions to the facts surrounding slurs discussed in this post. In Geoffrey Nunberg’s otherwise commendable post on July 13, for example, he continues to mention the slur (quite abundantly), despite acknowledging the hurt it can cause. We think this is a mistake. We are not special; our community includes members of oppressed groups (though not nearly enough of them), and the rest of us ought to respect and show courtesy to them.

The sad fact is that linguistics as an academic field has severe diversity issues. These problems are not helped by the strategy above, which, while in the abstract might have its merits, in practice is only hurtful, and only serves as a barrier to those who might find its use painful or insensitive. Certainly, the taboo-ignoring strategy exemplified by GP’s original post is not going to be helpful in solving the problems our field has with lack of diversity. These problems are further evidenced by the fact, mentioned above, that we, the authors, are white, so we cannot directly understand what it feels like to be affected by the slur under discussion. Writing this post discomforts us in light of this fact, but we feel that we have a responsibility to try to further this discussion, and acknowledge that our understanding of the actual harm that comes from the n-word is indirect. For all of us who are not targeted by particular slurs, understanding can only really come from listening to those who have been harmed by them. We strongly encourage everyone to do so.

We want finally to emphasize that it’s not our intention to hang GP from the nearest flagpole, or to implicate in any way that he is himself a racist. We mention this only because some people we have talked about this issue with felt the need to defend him on this count. It hadn’t even entered our minds; we know that language behaviors are deeply ingrained and don’t always reflect our values. Indeed, one of the main points of this note is that speaker intention is not always relevant to these matters. (What’s more, we don’t even believe that debating which individual people may or may not be “racists in their heart of hearts” is a productive way to take on racism.) We are, in fact, fans of GP’s; but we are not fans of this post, for the reasons above.

We are grateful for helpful comments on this note by Carissa Ábrego-collier, Chris Davis, Mitcho Erlewine, Julia Goldsmith-Pinkham, Prerna Nadathur, and Betsy Pillion.

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Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham
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title: "The Mysteries of SPACE" - originally published 7/19/2017

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Rescued debate

Jul. 20th, 2017 12:40 pm
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Posted by Mark Liberman

Yesterday Sharon Klein wrote to ask about the 2010 debate on Language and Thought hosted by The Economist:

Some colleagues in other departments (notably in philosophy) have been asking to talk about the hypothesis, linguistic relativism, and the actual research around the issues. While I can (and have begun to) collect relevant papers for a casual reading group (a good way to reach out…), I remembered that the debate provided a very helpful clearinghouse for the discussion that had developed in this area.

But she found that the Economist's intro page on this debate  leads only to an debate archive site that doesn't include this one; and the links in old LLOG posts are now redirected to the same unhelpful location.

A source at the magazine explained:

We vastly over-designed the debate platform (and over-thought it generally, in various ways), and when we stopped running the debates that way, we stopped running that bit of the website. The old debates are now unavailable online.

A bit of poking around at the Internet Archive turned up a copy:

Opening statements (with Derek Bickerton as "Featured guest")

Rebuttal statements (with Dan Slobin as "Featured guest")

Closing statements (with Lila Gleitman as "Featured guest")

As I noted at the time ("Shellacked by Boroditsky", 12/22/2010), the voting audience overwhelmingly supported Lera Boroditsky's argument that "the language we speak shapes how we think".

I've always been fond of Lane Greene's assessment:

If I had to sum up in plain English my conclusion would be not "language shapes thought" (much less "language restricts thought"), but probably "language nudges thought" (in certain circumstances).

Lane's final zinger in that comment:

What if silly Whorfian thinking were something we were innately prone to? Wouldn't that just blow [Lera Boroditsky's] and Steven Pinker's minds at the same time?

Or, as Lila Gleitman likes to put it, less speculatively, "Empiricism is innate".

See also "Never mind the conclusions, what's the evidence?", 8/30/2010 , and if you have a robust appetite for quasi-Whorfian explorations, the whole "'No word for X' archive".

There's a relevant (Whorf-skeptical) review article by Lila Gleitman and Anna Papafragou in the Oxford Handbook of Cognitive Psychology, "Relations Between Language and Thought" (preprint here). And for a deep dive into language and space, see Peggy Li et al., "Spatial Reasoning in Tenejapan Mayans", Cognition 2011.



Helpful Google

Jul. 17th, 2017 10:44 pm
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Posted by Mark Liberman

The marvels of modern natural language processing:

Michael Glazer, who sent in the example, wonders whether Google Translate has overdosed on old Boris and Natasha segments from Rocky and Bullwinkle:

But it seems that the Google speech synthesis systems are not in on the fun, because if I accept Helpful Google's suggestion that I might mean "I vud be grateful if jou vould čonfirm rečeipt of this email so that I čan be sure that is has reačed jou", and then use the synthesize button, what come out sounds less like Boris Badenov and more like a bad reconstruction of proto-indo-european:

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Posted by Darren Naish

There’s a giant, weird space in the skulls of big horned dinosaurs—haven’t you heard?

-- Read more on ScientificAmerican.com

climate change comix

Jul. 16th, 2017 12:00 am
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July 16th, 2017next

July 16th, 2017: There's THREE DAYS LEFT to get WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE PUNCHES A FRIGGIN' SHARK and/or other stories! You should because it's gonna be great, in my not-at-all-biased opinion!!

– Ryan

Annals of redundancy and masochism

Jul. 17th, 2017 05:20 am
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Posted by Victor Mair

Two gems from Chris Brannick via Facebook (the first is from the site of the Immortality Pills in Guangzhou and the second is from the Langham Place Hotel, also in Guangzhou):


yánjìn xiédài 严禁携带 ("it is forbidden to carry")

wéijìn wùpǐn 违禁物品 ("prohibited items")


xǐngshén zhī xuǎn 醒神之选 ("wake up selection")

dāndiǎn zǎocān 单点早餐 ("à la carte breakfast")

In making effective translations, one must not only not slavishly follow dictionaries and machine translators, one must also exercise common sense.  Unfortunately, that means one must have a good command both of the language from which one is translating and of the language into which one is translating — a combination that requires extensive training in both languages.

Annals of poor translation

Jul. 17th, 2017 05:12 am
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Posted by Victor Mair

Below are two pages from the instruction book for a small point and shoot digital camera (the original in Chinese and the corresponding page translated into English). As you can see, the language display has a couple of strange choices.

jiǎn Zhōng 简中 ("simplified Chinese [characters]")

fán Zhōng 繁中 ("traditional Chinese [characters]") — fán 繁 literally means "complex; complicated; numerous", referring to the number of strokes compared to the simplified characters

For the first, the instruction manual follows Google Translate in giving "Jane", roughly approximating the sound of jiǎn 简.  For the second, it give "numerous", whereas Google Translate gives "traditional".

It's ironic that the manual messes up only the Chinese when that is the language of the original text, and handles all the other languages correctly.

[Thanks to Rob Perez]

Serious earworm infection

Jul. 17th, 2017 02:32 am
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Posted by Victor Mair

I had heard "Let Me Love You" by D J Snake featuring Justin Bieber many times on the radio and was intrigued by several things:

1. Who / what is D J Snake?

2. In what way is the super famous Biebs "featured" on a record by a D J named Snake?  In other words, what was the nature of their collaboration?

3. Above all, who was making that manic, beyond yodeling sound in the background (was it Biebs? D J Snake? somebody else? a machine / instrument?), and how were they making it?

So I went looking for a music video in hopes that I might be enlightened.

Yesterday, by chance, instead of one of the various three and a half minutes or shorter versions, I watched this 9'20" video first:

"LET ME LOVE YOU" – DJ Snake ft Justin Bieber Dance

The combination of repetitive musical phrases and frenetic dance moves caused these words and the associated notes to become lodged in my brain:

Don't you give up, nah-nah-nah / I won't give up, nah-nah-nah / Let me love you / Let me love you….

For the next three hours, though I tried to do some earnest work, I couldn't get that song out of my mind.

Fortunately, I did fall asleep and didn't hear the music in my dreams (I'm one of those people who almost never dream, or perhaps I should say that I'm seldom aware that I dream), but I woke up the next morning and the worm was right there in my ear!

Those who have experienced earworms, especially of banal phrases / tunes will know how annoying, almost maddening, they can be.

When it gets really bad, the only first aid I can use to cope with them is to strive very hard to shift to another musical phrase.  Unfortunately, then I'm usually stuck with a replacement earworm that goes on an endless repeat loop of its own, or the two phrases get jumbled and alternate with each other.  As a last resort, the only solution I know of is to engage in vigorous physical activity (running, basketball, exercise, etc.).  One can only hope that, after the energetic physical activity is over, the earworm will not return.

A couple of earlier posts:

"Earworms and white bears" (9/1/13)

"Musical maggots" (9/5/13)

One commenter informed us that "Absurd Macaronic Earworm" is the name of his band's debut album.  They could only hope that would be true.

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Posted by Barbara Partee

Paul Kay offered the following item for discussion around the water cooler at Language Log central:

Here's an excerpt from the initial email from Rob Goldstone to Donald Trump, Jr.:

​"This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its  government’s support for Mr. Trump – helped along by Aras and Emin."​

Is it worth noting the use of the possessive determiner​? I guess it's generally accepted that possessive determiners involve  some kind of existence presupposition, though I'm aware that there's a lot more to that subject than I know. In the current instance, the presupposition would be that there is in fact Russian government support for Trump. …

Paul continues:

“Why this presupposition might be interesting is that Goldstone seems to be taking it for granted that Trump Jr. is aware of Russia's (active) support and Trump Jr.'s lack of objection to this apparent assumption on Goldstone's part suggests that he (Trump Jr.) finds nothing untoward in Goldstone's tacit assumption. Would the existence of tacit agreement between G and T that cooperation exists between the campaign and the Russian government constitute evidence that there is in fact cooperation between the campaign and the Russian government?”

Those of us who were by the water cooler agree that Paul is right about the presupposition. One has to be careful, because in some contexts, like "I want to see proof/evidence of your love", there is not a presupposition of the existence of love. The lack of presupposition is even stronger in examples like "I haven't seen any evidence of their involvement in the affair." "There's no evidence of his support for such measures." But those are contexts that actively question or deny the relevant existence claim; such contexts can cancel the presupposition of existence.

But the given context, which we can simplify to "This is part of Russia and its government's support for Mr. Trump", contains nothing that would conflict with the presupposition of the existence of support for Mr. Trump by Russia and its government, so the presupposition survives.

The fact that the existence of such support is presupposed and not asserted is of particular interest, as Paul notes, because it’s thereby presented as old, familiar information; Goldstone is not informing Trump Jr about the support, but assuming that that’s shared information both already have. What’s new is what preceded that sentence — news of an offer to provide documents which “would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father.”

As Paul notes, Donald Trump Jr.’s lack of objection or reaction to that presupposition supports the impression that the existence of Russian government support is shared knowledge: there seems to be tacit agreement between Goldstone and Trump that the Russian government is supporting Mr. Trump. Of course that doesn’t follow absolutely; it’s always possible to be surprised someone’s presupposition but simply “accommodate” it, add it silently to the “common ground” without expressing your surprise. But at the very least, as Kai von Fintel notes, the presupposition is being accepted as unremarkable, even if not actually already taken for granted. The net result is still tacit agreement about the Russian support.

Paul wonders if that tacit agreement on the occasion of setting up a meeting would constitute evidence of cooperation between the campaign and the Russian government. But I’m just a linguist, so while I’m prepared to argue for the presupposition, I’ll stop with that and let the legal experts take it from there.

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Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham
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title: "The Path to Enlightenment" - originally published 7/14/2017

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North America on the Belt and Road?

Jul. 16th, 2017 09:09 am
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Posted by Mark Liberman

I've spent the past couple of days at the "Belt and Road Forum for Language Resources", organized by the "Beijing Advanced Innovation Center for Language Resources". There are other recently-founded Beijing Advanced Innovation Centers for "Future Education", "Genomics", "Soft Matter Science and Engineering", "Intelligent Robots and Systems", "Big Data and Brain Computing", "Future Visual Entertainment", and no doubt many others.

As for the "Belt and Road Forum" part, this is part of the "Belt and Road Initiative" (discussion e.g. here), which Christine Lagarde said "is about connecting cultures, communities, economies, and people, and about adding new economic flavors by creating infrastructure projects that are based on 21st-century expertise and governance standards". The "Belt" seems to be a set of land-based transportation projects, while the "Road" is the "Maritime Silkroad", all centered on China as illustrated here:

One thing that puzzled me about this workshop was its thematic image of an artistically pixelated globe  centered over the North Atlantic, roughly at the latitude of Philadelphia.

Here's an example from the cover of the Center's brochure:

And another from the backdrop on the stage in the auditorium:

Dialect maps get surreal

Jul. 15th, 2017 03:57 am
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Posted by Ben Zimmer

Everybody seems to enjoy sharing dialect maps displaying the boundaries of different American regionalisms. So it was only a matter of time before this enticing form of data visualization got satirized. On Twitter, Josh Cagan takes it in an absurdist direction.

Some background. As I detailed here back in 2013 ("About those dialect maps making the rounds…"), we had a burst of dialect-mania when Josh Katz, then a PhD student in statistics at North Carolina State University, created heat-map visualizations of regional variants. Katz originally based his maps on data collected in the early aughts as part of the Harvard Dialect Survey, conducted online by Bert Vaux and Scott Golder. Using Vaux and Golder's questionnaire, Katz created his own online survey, ultimately collecting about 350,000 unique responses, and displayed the results using the data analysis software RStudio. (See: "Beyond 'Soda, Pop, or Coke': Regional Dialect Variation in the Continental US.")

Katz's heat maps first went viral in June 2013 when Walt Hickey reproduced them for Business Insider. (The BI article currently registers nearly 43 million views.) Katz went on to create a wildly popular dialect quiz for the New York Times, which turned into an even bigger viral sensation at the end of 2013. After an internship at the Times, Katz joined the paper's analytic journalism team, creating data visualizations for The Upshot. He also turned his heat maps into a book, published last year under the title Speaking American: How Y’all, Youse, and You Guys Talk. (Full disclosure: I appeared with Katz at a book launch event.)

The latest flurry of interest in dialect maps is due to a piece that Katz created for the Reader's Digest site with some of the maps from his book: "Say These 9 Words, and We’ll Tell You Where You Grew Up." Those maps have been making the rounds on social media over the past week — sometimes with astonished reactions, such as this one from Elizabeth Minkel.

As for Cagan's spoof, he repurposed Katz's map for soda vs. pop vs. coke.

The nonsensical replacements in Cagan's map are reminiscent of a new strain of gibberish that's been popping up online, in which fast food logos get transmogrified.

The source of such twisted logos is Reddit, specifically the subreddit /r/sbubby. (See Know Your Meme for more background.) I wonder, can you get arpleparple at Applebapple's?

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Posted by Victor Mair

[This is a follow up to "Preserved wife plum" (7/12/17), after which there ensued a vigorous and enlightening discussion on the terminology for plums, apricots, pastries, and so forth.]

My wife was born in Shandong in 1936, but fled from the Japanese with her family to Sichuan before she was one year old, and she spent the next eleven years of her life in Sichuan, before fleeing once again with her family, this time from the Chinese Communists, to Taiwan.

One of the last things Li-ching did before passing away in 2010 was write her childhood memoirs in Hanyu Pinyin (see here, here [three items], and here).  At this moment, I do not recall if she mentioned it in her memoirs, but one of her fondest recollections of Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan where she and her family lived (it was also the wartime capital of the Republic of China — now on Taiwan) was the làméi 臘梅 / 腊梅 (Chimonanthus fragrans / praecox).  In English, the làméi 臘梅 is referred to as wintersweet, Japanese allspice (despite the attractive name, it is not edible), calyx canthus, and mistakenly — but still quite commonly — as "wax plum" (look it up on Google Images under this name for pretty pictures of the blossoms).   In Japanese this plant is called rōbai 蝋梅, although it used to be written 臘梅 and 蠟梅 (nowadays it is normally written in kana alone:  ろうばい · ロウバイ).

It would take me too far afield to get into the thorny relationships among 臘, 腊, 蝋, 蠟, and 蜡, but if someone else wants to attempt it, they're more than welcome.  On the Chinese side, là 臘 / 腊, refers to the twelfth month (year-end) sacrifice, or more generally to wintertime.  Pronounced xī, this same character means "dried meat", but the term 臘肉 / 腊肉, which refers to cured meat made during the last month of the year, is pronounced làròu.  (I clearly remember walking around the campus of Sichuan University in winter and seeing the làròu 臘肉 / 腊肉 hanging from the windows and balconies of people's flats as it cured.)  On the other hand, là 蠟 / 蜡 means "wax".  I leave it to others to sort out the relevant kanji.

Judging from its scientific classification, the làméi 臘梅 is completely unrelated to the Prunus genus, which includes plums, cherries, peaches, nectarines, apricots and almonds.  This is proof that Sino-Japanese méi / kun ume, on bai 梅 spans across more than one genus.

Back to Sichuan.  I used to go there frequently in the late 80s and 90s to work on a massive dictionary of Middle Vernacular Sinitic with Zhu Qingzhi, who was teaching at Sichuan university in those years (we're still working on it, and hope to finish within two years).  One winter, my wife said to me, "Victor, if you see any làméi, please bring some back for me."

I knew how much Li-ching loved làméi, so I kept my eyes open for it as I walked through Chengdu in the gray, dreary cold.  One day, I saw some branches of blossoming làméi hanging over a courtyard wall, so I broke off a small sprig that extended far out into the alleyway (I knew how much it would mean to Li-ching).  Because the làméi is so delicate, yet flowers in the dead of winter on leafless branches, it has tremendous symbolic significance for those who struggle in adversity.

Fortunately, I managed to preserve that sprig with all of its petals intact.  When I delivered it to Li-ching, she was ecstatic, since she hadn't seen, held, and smelled làméi for more than half a century by that point.

The other greatest gift that I gave to Li-ching was a sprig of plum blossoms, the kind that julie lee wrote about in this comment, perfectly encased in a block of clear plastic, acrylic, I believe.  By chance, I found it in a small arts and crafts shop in Kyoto.  I do not know how the craftsman who made that work of art did it, but there are no bubbles or other imperfections in the block, and every tiny petal, stamen, and pistil retains its original shape, as fresh as the day when that block was created.

Because they are both called méi 梅 in Chinese, even though they are not in the same genus, the two gifts that I gave to Li-ching were intimately linked in her mind.

This leads me to a brief conclusion on the terminology for "wine" in Chinese.  We've discussed this many times on Language Log before (e.g., here, here, and here).  Suffice it to say for the moment that technically jiǔ 酒 is not "wine", but more akin to "brew" or "beer".  Countless poems have been written about drinking jiǔ 酒 and appreciating méi 梅, and these terms are almost always translated as "wine" and "plum", though technically those translations may not be correct in many cases.  Despite the title of this post, it is not my intention to embark on a campaign to change our customary renderings of jiǔ 酒 and méi 梅, except when it would clearly make more sense to do otherwise.  However, when it comes to fāngyán 方言, we really do need to stop using the mistranslation of that term as an excuse to call Cantonese, Taiwanese, etc. "dialects" (of what?  Mandarin?), when clearly they are bona fide languages.

Polysemous Pejoratives

Jul. 14th, 2017 02:06 am
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Posted by Geoff Nunberg

Geoff Pullum suggests that the flap over an MP’s use of nigger in the woodpile is overdone:

Anne Marie Morris, the very successful Conservative MP for Newton Abbot in the southwestern county of Devon, did not call anyone a nigger.…
Ms. Morris used a fixed phrase with its idiomatic meaning, and it contained a word which, used in other contexts, can be a decidedly offensive way of denoting a person of negroid racial type, or an outright insult or slur. Using such a slur — referring to a black person as a nigger — really would be a racist act. But one ill-advised use of an old idiom containing the word, in a context where absolutely no reference to race was involved, is not.

Oh, dear. As usual, Geoff's logic is impeccable, but in this case it's led him terribly astray.

As it happens, I addressed this very question in a report I wrote on behalf of the petitioners who asked the Trademark Board to cancel the mark of the Washington Redskins on the grounds that it violated the Lanham Act’s disparagement clause. The team argued, among other things, that “the fact that the term ‘redskin,’ used in singular, lower case form, references an ethnic group does not automatically render it disparaging when employed as a proper noun in the context of sports.” The idea here is that the connotations of a pejorative word do not persist when it acquires a transferred meaning—as the team’s lead attorney put it, “It’s what our word means.” In fact, they added, the use of the name as team name has only positive associations.

I responded, in part:

Nigger has distinct denotations when it is used for a black person, a shade of dark brown, or in phrases like nigger chaser, nigger fish, or niggertoe (a Brazil nut), and in phrases like nigger in the woodpile. All of those expressions are “different words” from the slurring ethnonym nigger from which they are derived, but each of them necessarily inherits its disparaging connotations. The OED now labels all of them as "derogatory" or "offensive." On consideration, it’s obvious why these connotations should persist when an expression acquires a transferred meaning—for more-or-less the same reason the connotations of fuck persist when it's incorporated in fuckwad. The power of a slur is derived from its history of use, a point that Langston Hughes made powerfully in a passage from his 1940 memoir The Big Sea:

The word nigger sums up for us who are colored all the bitter years of insult and struggle in America the slave-beatings of yesterday, the lynchings of today, the Jim Crow cars…the restaurants where you may not eat, the jobs you may not have, the unions you cannot join. The word nigger in the mouths of little white boys at school, the word nigger in the mouth of the foreman at the job, the word nigger across the whole face of America! Nigger! Nigger!

When one uses a slur like nigger, that is, one is "making linguistic community with a history of speakers,” as Judith Butler puts it. One speaks with their voice and evokes their attitudes toward the target, which is why the force of the word itself trumps the speaker’s individual beliefs or intentions. Whoever it was who decided to name a color nigger brown or to call a slingshot a nigger shooter could only have been someone who already used the word to denote black people and who presumed that that usage was common in his community. (Someone who was diffident about using the word in its literal meaning would hardly be comfortable using it metaphorically.) To continue to use those expressions, accordingly, is to set oneself in the line of those who have used the term as a racial slur in the past. Slurs keep their force even when they’re detached from their original reference. That’s why, in 1967, the US Board on Geographic Names removed Nigger from 167 place names. People may have formed agreeable associations in the past around a place called Nigger Beach, or a company called Nigger Lake Holidays, but they don’t redeem the word.

Tony Thorne says that, as late as the 1960s, it was possible to use the expression nigger in the woodpile “without having a conscious racist intention,” and Geoff argues that Morris’s utterance was not a racist act. That depends on what a "racist act" comes down to. It’s fair to assume that she didn’t utter the phrase with any deliberate intention of manifesting her contempt for blacks. But intention or no, anyone who uses any expression containing the word nigger in this day and age is culpably obtuse—all the more since nigger, more than other slurs, has become so phonetically toxic that people are reluctant even to mention it, in the philosophical sense, at least in speech. “Racially insensitive” doesn’t begin to say it.

It's that same obtuseness, I’d argue, that makes the Washington NFL team’s use of redskin objectionable, despite the insistence of the owners and many fans that they intend only to show “reverence toward the proud legacy and traditions of Native Americans” (even if the name of their team is a wholly different word). True, that word seems different from nigger, it’s only because the romanticized redskin is at a remove from the facts of history. Say “redskin” and what comes to mind is a sanitized and reassuring image of the victims of a long and brutal genocidal war, familiar from a hundred movie Westerns: the fierce, proud primitives, hopelessly outmatched by the forces of civilization, who nonetheless resisted courageously and died like me. (As Pat Buchanan put it in defending the team’s use of the name, “These were people who stood, fought and died and did not whimper.”)

In fact the most deceptive slurs aren’t the ones that express unmitigated contempt for their targets, like nigger and spic. They’re the ones that are tinged with sentimentality, condescension, pity, or exoticism, which are no less reductive or dehumanizing but are much easier to justify to ourselves. Recall the way the hipsters and hippies used spade as what Ken Kesey described as “a term of endearment.” Think of Oriental or cripple, or a male executive’s description of his secretary as “my gal.” Did that usage become sexist only when feminists pointed it out? Was it sexist only to women who objected to it? That's the thing about obtuseness, you can look deep in your heart and come up clean.

[Note: Just to anticipate a potential red herring, the recent Supreme Court decision invalidating the relevant clause of the Lanham Act didn't bear on the Redskins' claim that their name was not disparaging. The Court simply said that disparagement wasn't grounds for denying registration of a mark. The most recent judicial determination in this matter was that of the Court of Appeals, which upheld the petitioners' case.]

Tao and Taoism

Jul. 13th, 2017 01:29 pm
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Posted by Victor Mair

Yesterday's NYT has an article by Javier C. Hernández titled "China’s Religious Revival Fuels Environmental Activism" (7/12/17).  It's a long article, filled with a lot of New Age, ecological phraseology that is uncharacteristic of the usual political, military, and economic discourse of the antireligious PRC.  I was drifting along, not paying too much attention to the details of what it said, but this short paragraph — quoting a Taoist monk named Xuan Jing — caught me up short:

As he sipped tea, he jotted down Taoist teachings: “Humans follow the earth, the earth follows heaven, heaven follows Taoism, Taoism follows nature.”

How could that be?  "Heaven follows Taoism" — that doesn't make sense.  If anything, Taoism should follow Heaven.

I read the paragraph again, but it still didn't compute.

So I clicked on the Chinese version of the article, where the offending paragraph reads thus:

Tā yībiān pǐn chá, yībiān xiě xià dàojiā jiàoyì: “Rén fǎ dì, dì fǎ tiān, tiān fǎ dào, dào fǎ zìrán.”


As he tasted his tea, he wrote down Taoist teachings:  "Humans model themselves on Earth, Earth models itself on Heaven, Heaven models itself on the Way, and the Way models itself on Nature."

If you want some chuckles to start your day, check out what Google Translate, Baidu Fanyi, and Microsoft Translator do with this.  But one shouldn't really blame them overmuch, since what the Taoist writes isn't Mandarin, but a kind of Literary Sinitic / Classical Chinese.

[h.t. Bill Holmes]

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Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham
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title: "The Conference Morning Session" - originally published 7/12/2017

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The N-word Yet Again

Jul. 12th, 2017 08:55 pm
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Posted by Ben Zimmer

The following is a guest post by Tony Thorne of King's College London, originally appearing on his blog. It provides an alternative view to that expressed by Geoff Pullum in his post, "Tory uses N-word… not."

On July 10 Samir Dathi tweeted: "Anne Marie Morris suspended for using N-word. Good. But why is someone who called black people 'picaninnies' our foreign secretary?"

Morris, the Conservative MP for Newton Abbot's use of the phrase 'nigger in the woodpile' provoked widespread condemnation and resulted in her suspension and an abject public apology, but the UK public and media have a very short memory. It was far from an isolated instance of this crass archaism being invoked by British politicians, as this website records.

The expression originated in the USA (Jonathon Green, aka Mister Slang, has a first citation as the name of a popular song from the 1840s) where it was usually associated with an image of a runaway slave in concealment, but it is in the UK where it has enjoyed a lengthy and unfortunate afterlife.

I can testify that the phrase was used by middle-class speakers in conversation in the UK the 1950s and 1960s. It was possible to use the n-word (not the whole phrase) in Britain up to the end of the 1950s without having a conscious racist intention. The WW2 flying ace Guy Gibson, for instance, named his beloved pet dog 'Nigger' and I can remember myself using the word in a public swimming pool in suburban London in about 1959 to point out a black child playing nearby (a rare thing in our lower middle-class neighbourhood). Even then my father rebuked me very sternly, saying "we don't say that and you mustn't use the word!"

Yasmeen Serhan reported on the MP's gaffe for American readers in The Atlantic.

Attempts were made, by Tory supporters and some linguists, to excuse the MP on the grounds that she is 60 years old and so for her generation the words in question carry little or less force. Others pointed out that inadvertent racism is nonetheless racism, but where quibbles about slurs and taboos are concerned, I think the acid test is actually to debate them in real-life environments. I have discussed the n-word and similar controversies with a range of young people and with older members of BAME communities and they are simply not acceptable. Quite apart from clumsiness and insensitivity on the part of somebody in public life, it's arguable, too, that Morrison used the expression wrongly: it doesn't mean an unanticipated or an unappreciated future eventuality, but a hidden snag. The nuances – the semantic components and assumptions embedded in the phrase are interesting and challenging to unpick – the connotations of such usages may also mutate over time. Potential confusions are illustrated by the several interpretations or misunderstandings posted on Urban Dictionary.

Finally, on a very personal note, it occurred to me that finding an escaped slave today, perhaps in the woodshed behind a prosperous suburban or rural home, is entirely possible in a Britain where traffickers and slavemasters prey on migrants, refugees and the poor and desperate. (Oh and, on the subject of the Foreign Secretary a Twitter poll resulted in this from @BrianElects: "Whether B[oris] Johnson should also be expelled for calling black people 'piccaninnies' with 'watermelon smiles': Yes: 95% No: 5%.") [As noted below, the poll is satirical.]


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