Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Lol it on yourself

This is the best thing I've seen today. Maybe all week. I present.... 'lol' used as a transitive verb!

Friday, 2 October 2015

Iceland in translation is less icy

I read one of Michael Dibdin's Aurelio Zen books, And then you die. Part of the plot (not really a spoiler) involves Zen (an Italian) finding himself unexpectedly in Iceland. The Italian consul, who meets him there, tells him where he is, and they have this exchange (in Italian):
Snæbjörn Guðmundsson: This is Iceland.
Aurelio Zen: I don't see any ice.
Snæbjörn Guðmundsson: No, Greenland's the icy one. 
This is true. Iceland isn't specially icy (not all over it, anyway) and Greenland is very icy. This fact always pleased me.

But Zen is Italian, and does not speak English (he originally believes himself to be in America, where he was bound for, and assumes the people are speaking in some obscure regional dialect of English). The Italian for 'ice' is ghiaccio, though, so the etymology of the Italian name of the country, Islanda, is not obvious as it is in English. It comes as a direct borrowing from the Icelandic name, and the Italian Wikipedia page has to explain this fact, indicating its non-transparency. Similarly, Greenland is Groenlandia in Italian, while 'green' is verde. In Italian, the confusion should never arise.

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Not all moths

I host a quiz night in our local micropub (it's cosy). Recently, in the 'insects' round, I asked whether insects are warm- or cold-blooded. They are cold-blooded, of course (this is not a technical term: they are actually ectothermic, which means they don't regulate their body temperature internally). One quizzer challenged me, because there are in fact three species of moth (out of maybe 10 million species of insect - we don't know exactly) that are warm-blooded.

Leaving aside the fact that rounding this off to, say, 3 significant figures is 0.00%, we have a question of genericity. Now, either my statement 'insects are cold-blooded' is an absolute statement meaning 'all insects are cold-blooded', in which case a single warm-blooded insect is enough to prove it wrong, or it's a generic statement: 'insects in general are cold-blooded'. I meant the latter, of course, and in the context of a quiz question where two options are given, this should be clear. One of the things Steven Pinker said, actually, was that to avoid the hedging ('almost', 'in general', etc) you find in bad prose, you should allow your reader to assume the generic interpretation. In academic writing there is a place for the precision afforded by hedging, but for much other writing I agree.

There's limits though. While researching my quiz, I read the supposed fact that 'babies are born with blue eyes'. That, I thought, was astonishing. It turned out that what the author meant was 'white babies who will have blue, green, hazel or grey eyes', not 'babies in general' - there is a very high proportion of babies in the world who have dark brown eyes, and are not born with blue eyes. If you're going to make generic statements you do have to be clear about what the universe of discourse is and your generic statement has to actually apply to the majority of things in it. (In this case, the author had made the very easy mistake of forgetting that not everyone is exactly like them.)

Another of my quizzers challenged another question. In the picture round I had asked for the name of the species of fish pictured. One was a goldfish, and the team had written 'carp'. I didn't allow this, and the challenger wanted to know why, when a goldfish is a carp. It's true that goldfish are carp, but not all carp are goldfish. 'Goldfish' is therefore a hyponym of 'carp' (and 'carp' is a hypernym of 'goldfish').

I am clearly not strict enough with my quizzers. If I keep blogging about their complaints perhaps they'll stop.

Monday, 21 September 2015


In case you don't follow James Blunt on twitter, here's a tip: follow him. His tweets mostly consist of sporadic bursts of sarcastic retorts to people's Blunt-hate. Here's one:

Screenshot of a James Blunt tweet
I have in the past been guilty of criticising James Blunt. I seem to remember writing a not-very-complimentary article about his music many years ago. But then he was on something on telly and was very funny and likeable, and then he started tweeting, and, well, now I think he's great.

The tweet he's responding to includes an adverb from the 'literal-to-intensifier' group: physically. Along with literally, legitimately, virtually and the like, it's at risk of becoming an intensifier adverb like totally or actually. This use of physically does retain most of its lexical meaning: she wants to physically punch him, with her hand, rather than mentally wishing it upon him. But it seems like it might be an example of the kind of usage that can easily leak into more metaphorical usage.

And then Blunt responds with a clever pun on the word slapper, as well as a grammatical correction. Normally one doesn't approve of correcting grammar to win points in a fight but here it's intended to make the other person feel foolish so it's OK, I suppose? And also it's nice to see an over-correction re-corrected back down again. The over-correction comes about because we are often told not to say things like 'me and James Blunt', and that it should be 'James Blunt and I'. So it should, if it's the subject of the sentence. But when it's the object of a preposition like between, the pronoun needs to be in 'oblique' case, or in other words me rather than I. So would all nouns, in fact, if we had a richer case system, but we only have different forms for the pronouns in English.

Friday, 18 September 2015

LAGB 2015

I've been at LAGB this week. It's the annual meeting of the Linguistics Association of Great Britain, held around this time in a university in the UK. This year it's at UCL, which is a very nice university. I've spent most of the week in talks, of course, but there are also some nice museums that belong to the university itself to see while I'm here. I'll post something more shortly, but for now I just thought I'd better say why I haven't been doing much on the blog lately.
Jeremy Bentham's auto-icon at UCL

Sunday, 13 September 2015


The Morris group that I dance with did some workshops for some Dutch children this week. One of the girls said that the evening was gezellig - and she asked me did we have this word? Well, we don't, of course. I tried to kind of mutate it into English and got this far:

  1. -ig is an adjective suffix, meaning -y or equivalent. 
  2. ge- is a kind of verbal past tense thing, I believe, so this is an adjective formed from a verb

But then I got stuck (it also turns out I was wrong about the ge- bit anyway).

Just from the way it sounded, I suggested 'cosy', even though it didn't seem right in context. I looked it up when I got home and 'cosy' is one of the things it can mean, but the internet also tells me that this is an 'untranslatable' word.

Untranslatable words, it seems to me, come in two or three flavours. There's one kind where a language happens to have a word for a very specific concept. This is not untranslatable; it's just that language X encodes something in one single word that language Y does with a phrase. See, for example, German schadenfreude or Japanese origami (I have no idea how much Germans or Japanese people actually use these words). In this case, as with many others, the way we get round not having a word for this concept is to just borrow it. We also do this with foreign things like food (risotto, wasabi, pak choi, tea...).

There's also words where the translation isn't exact, although there's a bunch of words with similar meanings. See the Language Log entry on 'accountability', for instance. Prepositions are also a problem - they never seem to translate quite right from one language to another, partly because they don't have 'meaning', as such, but rather a grammatical function. These must be annoying for translators and make learning languages a little bit harder/more interesting, but we can learn what the nuances are.

Then there's the kind that seem somehow exotic because they refer to some concept that we hadn't thought about before. These have a great appeal on the internet. I suspect this is because they tend to refer to highly emotional states of mind. Nostalgia would be a good example of this in English, and saudade in Portuguese. They are often claimed to say something about the temperament of the nation that uses that word, so Portuguese or Brazilians are typically melancholic or nostalgic. We know the fallacy of attributing a characteristic to a whole nation, but nevertheless we like to do it because it helps us to label people.

Gezellig is said on Wikipedia to 'encompass the heart of Dutch culture', so it's a good example of one of these 'untranslatable words'. Wiktionary says it means 'companionable, having company with a pleasant, friendly atmosphere, cosy atmosphere or an upbeat feeling about the surroundings'.

It also says it comes from gezel, which means 'companion'. So much for my etymological analysis.

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Something you never realised about factive predicates! This is epic!

There's a post about Guardians of the Galaxy. It's a cute story: blockbuster film helps child appreciate slash believe in self. But it's got one of those flippin' annoying clickbait headlines, which says this:
Something you never realised about Guardians of the Galaxy. This is epic. 
The problem, apart from clickbait headlines being a problem in general, is that realise is what's called a factive verb. That means that whatever is 'realised' should be a true fact. In this case, it's 'something about Guardians of the Galaxy'. Perhaps some hidden in-joke, or an 'easter egg', or trivia about how the film was made.

Compare these examples, taken from Wikipedia and modified by me, where the # means that it's pragmatically weird (doesn't make sense) to say the second part:
Marc realised that he was in debt...
#...although in fact he wasn't in debt.
Eliza regretted drinking John's home brew...
#...and in fact she didn't drink it.
With these, which are non-factive and can be cancelled without it sounding contradictory:
Marc thought he had scored full marks...
...although in fact he had got two questions wrong.
Eliza believed she was the winner of the race...
...but in fact she had come second. 
The thing that is realised or regretted must be true, while the thing that is thought or believed might not actually be true, as long as the person thinks or believes it (they may be mistaken).

This particular post is someone's personal story, and they freely say that it's not based on any factual knowledge, just on their own personal experience of the film. This isn't a fact that we might possibly have realised, so this headline is not only annoying, it doesn't even make sense, and whoever wrote it is now on my List Of People To Tut At Should I Ever Meet Them.