Archive for the ‘linguistics’ Category

Guise, I ‘m a generally irritable and mercurial person. However, I try to be fair (not really) and don’t make scenes when people disagree with me although I’m obviously totally right all the time (actually, it’s just laziness). Nevertheless, there are several pet-peeves and other things that will get your comment deleted wherever I can delete things:

1) Leaving a racist comment without your real name/recognizable and characteristic internet alias (and I mean you, white supremacist scumbagshit from this post. In fact, I haven’t deleted your comment, but rather sent it to the Comment Limbo, so if you’re reading this and wanna come back and sign it with your real name this time I’m totally gonna publish it, darling. Send me your FB profile so I can verify.

By which I mean, racist shitfaced fuckwads like you should be shamed publicly)

2) Ruining my mood

3) Insisting that certain languages/dialects are just better than others. In fact, my stance on this issue has been briefly summed up here and is absolutely non-negotiable.

4) Using the word “teabonics”

So if you think you’d like your local old media thingy to publish something like that:

British English More Natural, Scientists Say

A recent survey analysis carried out by a team of evolutionary psychologists at LSE suggests that British English might be more intuitive and more natural, and thus easier for human brains to learn. “It’s very likely that British English, a dialect of English that has been around for a very long time,” so says the team leader Hitoshi Kanazawa, “and yet survived until today, and is also used internationally and widely considered to be very easy to learn did not just survive by accident. We think that English, especially its British dialect, might be the language that is actually closest to the language used by our savannah ancestors thousands of years ago”.

90% of the responders of the LSE survey claimed that British English is the easiest language they have ever learned, with over 60% claiming it to be the only language they can speak fluently. “British English” was most frequently associated with such adjectives as “good”, “nice”, “pleasant”, “natural”, “poetic”, “educated”, and “high-brow”. The language most frequently associated with concepts such as “strange” and “uncivilised” was Polish, while the one responders classified as most “foreign” was Urdu.

(“English Dialects and Prototypicality”, Evolutionary Psycholinguistics 17/2011, Hitoshi Kanazawa, Stanley Binker, Richard J. Herrnstier. The survey was conducted on 900 white male British undergraduates)

(hurr hurr, sauce)

(ETA: this thing above about a survey is a parody of course *facepalm* I thought it was obvious, but yeah, it is eerily evocative of some evo-psy research, hurr hurr, so I get that it’s somehow *almost* like the real thing, but nonetheless, a parody. Not real. Don’t haaaaaaaaaaaaate)

you can as well save yourself the trouble and not comment at all, because I’m gonna be, like, a Cyberman to your London!civilian!person, and DELETE! everything and also seriously, I feel really energetic today, by which I mean, trigger-happy.


The dialect of English I was taught, when I was a very tiny Sendai, by a series of mostly interchangeable mostly middle-aged ladies with perfect RP (or a perfect imitation thereof) was invariably the British one.

This left a mark: I’d normally say torch, lift, football, pavement, trousers, lorry, rubbers, bonnet, and also tend to spell colour with an extra “u”. Hopefully, though, my pronunciation is not a perfect imitation of RP: one must always strive to surpass one’s teachers.

Once, an American prof from the American Lit department and I were waiting for the lift in Sendai, but he apparently felt the necessity of ascertaining my intentions towards the lift(1), because he asked

“Are you standing in the line?”

It took me 90 seconds of helpless blinking to establish that he meant  “queue”.

There are, however, exceptions:

1) A trunk is a trunk. “Boot” is a shoe.

2) The differences between stuff like “cake”, “cookie”, “biscuit” etc, are completely elusive to me. It is my utmost conviction that there should be less words for food. In fact, a good, thrifty, efficient language could just get away with bare necessities, like:

edible food, poisonous food, spicy food, coffee

I could seriously do without the rest.

3) When I was tiny, I read a book about teddy bears or something. An important part of the plot was one of the bears trying a jumper on. Unfortunately, the idea that wearing a jumper is something a bear from a children’s book would do persisted, and I switch between “sweater” and “jumper”, but probably say “sweater” most of the time.

4) “Plimsoll” is a word whose ridiculousness is only equal to that of “kaloryfer” and “palimpsest”. DNW.

The biggest hangup, of course, was getting over the instant visualisation of a guy in pants-pants, instead of a guy in trousers, when someone says “guy in pants”, which is something one has to do when one wants to stay sane on teh internets, which are teeming with AmE dialect speakers.

So there.

Any words (in any language, any dialect) you’ve ever had problems with?

(1) 責任を取りましたwwwww。


I was going to sleep, but I’m still all smug about having written 25 pages today. 25 pages, guys(1).

Anyway, somewhere between page 16 and page 16 1/2 I took a break and read “Itineraries and travellers in the Middle Assyrian Period” by Betina Faist, from SAAB XV/2006, where I found the following edifying(2) quotes.

1) Having summed up various peculiarities of travel during the MA (Middle Assyrian) period, BF states:

“Finally, a brief mention is owed to aspects unattested so far. In the religious realm, we do not have any indications referring to pilgrimages to the important shrines.”

Tsk, tsk, Betina. Something obvious and self-evident in your culture doesn’t have to be obvious, self-evident, expected or even present at all in others. Take Introduction to Anthropology or something, plz.

2) Trying to tie-up things cutely — something I’m absolutely in favour of — Betina(3) quotes a 1755 letter of a Frederick the Great, king of Prussia, to his sister, Wilhelmine, who was very enthusiastic about her journey to Italy:

“…I have a very high regard of the beauty of Italy, her wonderful climate, her monuments, her past greatness as well as her modern buildings. …But I also believe the Italians to be great braggarts; they exaggerate the beauty and the value of their paintings, their statues, and a thousand things more. Everything is uno spavento, una maraviglia; big words that do not stir my ear more than would the noise of a turnspit [a kind of dog -Sendai]. …I believe if I saw Italy I should not always agree with the ciceroni, which would console me for my fatherland’s barrenness; otherwise, the comparison would be too humiliating for poor Germany…”

Aww, poor Germany.

(Done commiserating yet? Hurr hurr)

Anyway, what we have here is a typically occidental assumption that people actually mean what they say. The assumption is naturally based on the firm yet quaint conviction that people always do what they should do.

(Incidentally, this conviction also allows us to date the letter as having been written sometime before the French Revolution derp)

Anyway, it is perhaps useful to suggest to puzzled Frederick a better approach to understanding the confusingly enthusiastic Italian guides. Or, even, two approaches:

A) The guides are lying. They don’t in fact think that the Italian landscape is anything like anything they imagine a wonder to be; but they have to sell it somehow, hence the unscrupulous use of more florid turn of phrase. They do not in fact intend to communicate their honest opinion about anything at all, but rather say what they think a customer might want to hear.

B) From a pragmatic standpoint, calling something “a wonder” might mean much less to a native speaker of Italian than it would mean to a native speaker of German.

Both approaches would need testing, of  course.

This is all nerd jokes and useless pedantry, as  Frederick the Great’s couldn’t have possibly known anything about the 20th century developments in linguistics.

Betina, however, could have. Alas, directly following the Frederick the Great quote:

“Sources of that nature, relevant to the cultural aspect of travel, are completely absent from our material. Nevertheless, I can imagine Tukulti-Ninurta I reclined (sic) on his throne and musing in a similar way after having received the Egyptian delegation.”

Tsk, tsk, Betina. I recommend taking Introduction to Modern Linguistics.

Also: ah, the subtle difference between absolutism and enlightened absolutism hurr hurr de hurr(5).

Nonetheless, it was a very interesting read, not only because I immediately visualised Tukulti-Ninurta musing about his Vaterland.

Aw, it’s 3 am already, I can sleep n_n

(1) There are no words in any language I know for how smug I am. The smugness; it fills my entire room, oozes through windows, and gently slinks down onto the street; then rushes to left – towards the cathedral – or right – towards the Rhine, but then it gets worse still, but I can’t see anything, once it disappears behind the corner.

No words, srsly.

(2) I feel more edified than the cathedral today.

And the big one in Mainz, too.

(3) I’m terribly sorry (not), but the name “Betina” makes my wretched black little heart warm and gives me fuzzy feelings of malicious glee. I can’t not use the name. It is imperative that I use the name.

Betina, Betina, Betina~~~~~~~

I will not be stopped.

(5) For those of you who might be confused, a journey:

– in enlightened absolutism means going abroad and making a couple of sketches, preferably of ruins,

– in Tukulti-Ninurta’s “absolutism” would mean going abroad with an army and making a couple of conquests, preferably leaving behind only ruins.

(Because I have to take a break. Pshaw, internet forms, pshaw. Especially if they’re really stupid pdfs that need to be filled out FAIL and sent to like five different secretaries HUMANITY WHAT’S WRONGH WITH YOU *HATES*)

1. Hipster racism – I think this post very articulately sums up what people like Amanda Palmer do.

2. Female astronauts! PRETTY!

3. Goerge Takei in uniform, Brad Altman in a tinfoil, uh, headdress.

It was the tinfoil that totally sold the vid to me.

4. No aliens at Area 51. WO must be terribly disappointed (hurr hurr).

5.  10 Dinge die Sie nicht tun sollten beim Gottesdienst (Ten things you shouldn’t do during a mess)

5, 7, 8 = cool, but the transphobia in 6, not so much.

(Incidentally, this is the first vid that pops out if you search YT for “Gottesdienst”, hurr hurr)

6. Hilarious April Fool’s posts:

6a. by CERN:

“It’s awful”, explains Alain Grand, still shocked by the discovery. “It left horrible tracks inside the detector that made the physicists on duty at the time feel quite sick”.

6b.  via Language Log, the best story of the year: Doctorow and Stross to Write Authorized Sequel to Atlas Shrugged

“But then we realized that both of us shared one important trait with Ayn Rand: all three of us really, really like money. That made it much easier for Cory and I to cash the seven figure check.”

Hurr hurr hurrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr!

6c. Silent no longer.

7.  A very insightful post about framing reading books as a moral issue. While I dislike books like the Twilight series as the next sentient person, I also believe that arguing that they ARE BAD FOR THE CHILDRUNZ will get us nowhere. I mean, when you’re a 11 year old, you simply don’t notice stuff like sexism they way you notice it, say, even ten years later. I mean, I do know I would have hated Twilight even as a 11-year old, but only because it was boring, also romance, also boring.  I was into Tolkien and Philip K. Dick when I was 11.

(OTOH, I think Justine Larbalesier goes on a crusade against strawmen when she argues that the issue of reading versus going to play outside is some sort of a problem. I seriously doubt there are parents telling their kids to not go outside to play BECAUSE BOOKS. C’mooooooon)

8. The “new written language” thing everybody and their cousin’s talking about. Seems like a load of bullshit to me, haven’t had the chance to look at the actual paper yet, though.

Japan’s way of coping with history is not, and has never been the healthiest one. Just a couple of years ago, a bunch of MPs from the Liberal Democratic Party (<— in Japan, the LDP is *the* crazy right-wing party full of batshit, and also the most successful one) questioned the veracity of the Nanking massacre, while proposing charmingly that:

The group said the fact that the League of Nations in 1938 voted down a Chinese resolution condemning Japan, a resolution which claimed Japanese soldiers slaughtered 20,000 people in Nanjing, was one piece of evidence that no “massacre” took place. (source)

Truth: much like science, it seems indeed to be a popularity contest. NOT.

(Was the US inspired by that when they started voting on civil liberties? We will never know)


“We believe that by China removing them, we can push ahead with true Japan-China friendship for the 21st century.” (source)

Ouch. The LDP’s definition of “friendship” is very Gorean. Somehow. I mean, I wouldn’t want to be friends with them, really.

Anyway, all things considered, it should come as no surprise that the portrayal of Chinese people in the media tends from time to time to be not exactly positive, or, to put it bluntly dehumanizing. I’ll just focus on one thing – the language – because to write about everything (like the stereotype of fat Chinese mafioso-cum-businessman) would take too much time, and also most likely several hundred thousand words, and also because it’s the easiest for me, as a linguist.

Anyway, it seems that at least since the first Sino-Japanese war, Chinese people have been frequently portrayed in the popular media, such as manga, B-class novels, anime, etc as speaking a ridiculous pidgin. At first, it seems, Western people would also be portrayed as speaking a  simplified form of Japanese, but this very soon changed (well, mostly). The stereotyped “Chinese”-Japanese has two main characteristics:

1) The use of the plain form of the verb “aru” at the end of every sentence that is not interrogative (which is grammatically incorrect, and also, grammatically incorrect)

2) The use of the adjective “yoroshii/yoroshi” at the end of every interrogative sentence. It can be translated as “OK?” or “right?”, and also in absolutely incorrect.

Exhibit 1, Dr Suranpu v. 5 page 173 (first written in early eighties, meaning, this is relatively fresh):

(All pidgin-like grammatical forms are underlined)

(right to left)

1. Ko- konchiwa. Watachitachi-

(Hu-hullo. We… <— plus, all “chi” should be “shi”s)

2. Kondo hikkochite kita Tsun-ikke aru. Yoroshiku ne.

(Family Tsun, just moved be. Nice to meet you <— plus the “chi” in “hikkochite” should be “shi”)

3. Hikkoshi pan aru ne.

(Just-moved-bread be, right?)

A very very old, and also doubly racist (blackface, anyone?) example from a really terrible, and also really popular manga, Norakuro. According to my sources(1) the manga started innocuously enough, but soon progressed to more militaristic topics, with the main character, the dog called Norakuro, serving in the army in a “fierce dog brigade” (mouken-tai) and fighting with pigs, which are clearly meant to represent the Chinese.

The following page depicts Norakuro accidentally stumbling upon smugglers selling weapons to native pirates (who also speak a pidgin-like Japanese):

(right to left, top-down)

1. (Norakuro, the main character, speaks correct Japanese)

Hahaa, buki ya danyaku o dojin ni uru no dana. Furachi na yatsura da.

(Huuuh, they’re selling guns and ammo to the locals. Dirty scoundrels!)

2. Zenbu de nijuuman en da. (Together, 200 000 yen <— note how the white smugglers actually speak proper Japanese)

3. Takai aru. Makeru aru. (Expensive be. Lose be)

4. Makaran yo. (You won’t lose)

5. Teppou bakudan takusan aru na. (That’s a lot of bullets)

6. Shuuchou, katte kimashita ze. (We bought it <— to the chieftain, uses the title)

7. Kayakuko he shimatte oke. (Put in the powder magazine <— the chieftain and “locals” use normal language when talking to each other)

Below, the interactions of the pig army, disorganised and cowardly.

(right to left, top to bottom)

1. Moukengun ha tetsudoumou wo norikoete kita. Mou sugu koko he kuru aru zo. (The Fierce Dog Brigade took over the railway network. They here soon be.)

2. Yarareta. (We’re in trouble)

3. Yatsu bari se no takai no hatama ga yoku ataru aru yo. (It easy to shoot tall people like them be, though <— backhanded compliment = tall = a very good thing)

4. Nigehajimetara dare ga tomete mo dame aru yo. (If we start to escape someone might stop us, wrong be)

5. Moukengun ha tetudoumou wo norikoete kita kara- (Because the Fierce Dog Brigade took over the railway…)

6. Norikoete kuru tokoro [print too tiny to read] de utsu yoroshi. Naze nigeru ka. (Shoot them with [too hard to read] while they’re there, right? Why escape?)

7. Kono gunchi toraretara make aru zo. Modore. (If the capture this place, we lose be. Go back)

8. Utte mo makeru ni kimatteru. (Even if we shoot we’ll lose)

9. Sonna wakaranai taichou ha yattsukeru yoroshi. (We beat up a dumb captain like that, right?)

10. Kora taichou no iu koto kikan ka? (Haven’t heard what the captain said?)

11. Kono aida ni nigedase. (We’ll escape soon)

12. Mukou no gunchi ga anzen aru yo. (The land over there safe be)

Charming, really. And, for the coup de grace, the freshest example, from 2000. Axis Powers Hetalia is a mind-numbingly dumb, racist manga chock-full of racist/xenophobic stereotypes featuring a bunch of anthropomorphized countries, and, basically, while my sentiments towards it can succinctly summed up with a  BURN IT WITH FIRE, it also unsurprisingly contains the racist Chinese pidgin. Below, the interactions os Russia (the blond guy) and China (the not-blond guy), pidgin-like forms underlined:

Classy, really classy.

(Most of this material is from the Satoshi Kinsui’s book. The Hetalia strip was recovered online)

(1) Satoshi Kinsui, Baacharu nihongo. Yakuwarigo no nazo.

Nice things, as I said, which means,  I lazily use other person’s explanation instead of doing it myself ^^J


And now, transliteration + translation:

It’s a very easy text, though!

(ed. Daniels, Bright, The World’s Writing Systems)

You’d think there’s no such thing, but, uh-huh oh wow, not so much.

The phenomenon of smug Western weeaboos smugly proclaiming they don’t have to learn the Japanese honorifics, because “nobody uses them in Real Life, anyway” is nothing new. What is still quite surprising to me, though, is how wide-spread this sort of attitude really is.

(It shouldn’t, because it’s obviously a self-fulfilling prophecy)

1. In Japanese, you’re not being polite to be nice or friendly. You’re being polite to show that you can correctly read a situation as one requiring polite speech, to indicate your distance to the speaker (you can also use more polite language when you’re unhappy with someone, suggesting something like “we’re not as close as before, anymore”; one frequently finds oneself saying “gokuroosama” ironically when fed up with someone etc), and so on. This means that you can’t assume you will be able to get close to everybody in five seconds after meeting them PLUS ignore social conventions just because you’re such a special snoflake.

2. As it happens, I have Sachiko Ide’s research right in front of me, harr harr.
(I sleep with her books under the pillow srsly)
It’s an article from 1986 about degrees of politeness according to addressee in Japanese and American English requests. There’s a huge table that illustrates the distribution of polite forms in everyday speech, and as can be clearly seen in the table, the most polite forms are most frequently used towards: teachers, older people, medical doctors, secretaries, post office workers, part-time job superiors, landlords/landladies, police officers, department store staff.
Please, by all means, please try and explain why this shouldn’t be Real Life conversation stuff, and how you’ll be totes able to avoid it all the time.

I’m waiting.

(I’ve also got an article about polite form usage among married couples, FFS –> e.g. Yoshida& Sakurai, 2005, in: Broadening the Horizons of Linguistic Politeness, ed. Ide, Lakoff)

(There’s also a fascinating article by Ide about politeness and gendered speech, which explains that women’s speech appears to be more polite, because women are statistically more likely to only have  non-work-related conversations — because they might not work — which are automatically more polite than the work-related conversations in which men are more likely to participate; Ide, “Josei-no keigo-no gengokeesiki-to kinoo”, 1985)

3. That said, can a foreigner live without learning honorifics? Absolutely. They have, however, resign themselves to the position of an outsider, never getting a job, and missing out on a significant portion of the fun everybody else gets to have. A foreigner unable to use polite speech in Japanese will most likely be only friends with Japanese people who are used to foreigners and their wacky foreign ways, they might quite often not be taken seriously, and very likely will be treated like child who makes everybody happy when they manage to accomplish the trivial task of saying “good morning” properly.

I mean, nobody has to learn polite speech, if they don’t want to, but denying it exists? LOL, ignorance.

ETA: typos, as usual, meh.

I’ve got a fascinating article about fieldwork and the blunders linguists-cum-anthropologists sometimes do.

I wanted to add a quantifier like “when they haven’t done enough research before setting out on an Oceania trip”, but then I realized that, no, actually, there are things you can’t really know beforehand, because sometimes you will just make mistakes, OK?

Boldly went where no linguist had gone before

Gunter Senft researched the language (and culture, inevitably) of the Trobriand Islanders in Papua New Guinea.  The most reliable book about Trobriand Island at the time Senft was about to set out there was still Malinowski’s stuff from 1920 and 1930.

Which is why when he arrived the stuff he knew was:

1. Stuff from Malinowski’s publications.

2. The interrogative pronouns avela (who), avaka (what), ambeya (where) and the general deictic beya (this, that, there, here) he was taught by a Catholic priest from the local mission(1).

Mistakes were made

That said, some of the mistakes Senft made were rather silly and avoidable(2). This is because they were clearly caused by projecting Senft’s language on the language he was trying to learn/investigate. For instance, he showed a spider web and asked someone what it was, to which the answer was kapali la bwala. Because he already knew that kapali meant spider, he assumed that the la bwala part was another noun, which he then interpreted as “net”.

Later, it turned out that la was a possessive, and bwala meant in fact “home”, so that the whole expression should be interpreted as “spider’s house”, not web.

Other times, though, Senft really couldn’t have known.

For instance, when he heard a word bweyowa, after consulting the native speakers briefly he decided it was the deictic “here”. However, a look at a map at a map hanging at the Catholic mission(3) suggested that Bweyowa is rather a variant of Boyowa, and is actually the name of the island on which he lived.


When Senft pointed at a piece of carving (for which the islands seem to be famous) and asked for a name for it, he was told it was uligova. It took him some time to find out that the word was actually for what the carving depicted, namely “a crocodile“, which was the reason while the language speakers had continued to snigger at his wacky antics for some time.

At first children were afraid of him whenever he went(4), so an event when a kid didn’t cry was a cause for further investigation. When a mum with a non-crying kid approached, Senft decided he could ask for the kid’s name. Upon hearing his voice, the kid did finally start crying, and the mum said gwadi e-kokola, which  Senft painstakingly noted down as the kid’s name.

What the phrase means, however, is “the child is afraid of you”.

Resistance was sort of futile

The more serious mistakes were however the ones that directly threatened to make Senft a pesona non-grata on the island: the lack of proper manners, his social misbehaviours.

For instance, he kept asking people about the names of people who were already deceased, and noticed that some of them would not want to speak to him again shortly thereafter. It turned out that it was a huge faux pas to ask about one’s dead relatives on the island.

Senft also made a blunder when he asked about a word that was part of the women’s language, and which men were forbidden to utter. He also shouldn’t have mentioned profanities that were part of children’s songs outside of the context of the songs.

One of the most hilarious mistakes, in my opinion, was the one Senft made with regard to greetings. He would go out to bath every morning, carrying his towel and soap stuff, so that he was sure everybody knew where he was going. This is why he was quite puzzled that the people he would pass on his way would ask him where he was going anyway, and that they were quite discomfited when a detailed answer was not forthcoming.

Finally, one of Senft’s neighbours explained to him that he should always answer the questions as exactly as possible, because they were as a matter of fact greetings. The details were required for two reasons:

1. the practical one: there were many accidents involving coconuts on the island,

2. the sort-of-practical one: the islanders believe that the world is filled with the malevolent spirits of dead people, known as kosi, who are fond of scaring people so that they become disoriented and get lost in the jungle.

So, by asking him for his exact route everybody was showing that they care a great deal about his well-being, and Senft, by being dismissive of those questions, acted like a complete jerk.

And this isn’t something that only happens to foreign researchers. Prof Kobayashi who specialises in NE Japanese dialects, once accidentally asked about a name of a plant in a village in which the exact same words actually meant “fart”. His informant was a nice old lady; one can only imagine how outraged she was at the young (then) post-doc behaving so rudely(5)!

(from Gunter Senft, “Ain’t misbevahing? Trobriand pragmatics and the field researcher’s opportunity to put his (or her) foot in it”, Oceanic Linguistics 34/1)

(I suppose I could send the pdf if I’m asked really nicely)

(1) Catholic missions are like cockroaches. Or locusts. D:

(2) OTOH, it’s easy for me to say.

(3) At least they aren’t completely useless.

(4) As a person who had Japanese kids crying at her formidalby alien sight, I can sympathise ^^;;;;

(5) This is a story I heard from prof Kobayashi himself. There’s even an article about the word, somewhere.