Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Good Days

I'm now in another country. And not just visiting. My wife has a job teaching at a university and I've taken a break from teaching to finish my own studies and writing. Except that now that I'm in this country, I'm taking a language class. It's an odd experience, as I've never taken a language class. I took Old English, which used to be a language, but now she's dead.

Of course, while taking this class I have to bite my tongue when the teacher says something about her language (or anyone else's) that my linguistic training has taught me to bark at like a drug sniffing dog.* It hasn't been too much of a challenge because her opinions are moderate and a lot of her views are in line with current linguistic theories and accepted facts.

The first good sign was when on the first day of class she mentioned that Turkish is not a difficult language. "It's just different" she said. Good I thought. She's not going to brag about her language being more sophisticated, or other languages being less logical. Of course less than twenty minutes after saying this, she did say "Russian is a very hard language!" Merely a venial sin. There's usually a detoxing session after the class when Buffy will turn to me and say "I was wondering what you thought when she said…" Which is a nice sign that my ranting and raving has made an impression on my loved ones. They're starting to recognize what sorts of pitches I like to take a swing at.

*Don't they actually just sit down next to the drugs when they find them? Without barking? I don't know if that's true, but it feels true right now.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Thirteen untranslatable words

I'm a language lover. I have been since I was a kid. Just about eleven months after being born, I started saying words and I've been using them ever since. I probably use words every day and I've gotten pretty good at it.

But there's still so much for me to learn. And learning languages other than English is always a fun challenge. But what makes it so much harder is that a lot of languages have words in them that we just can't translate into English. Who knows if it's because we don't have the concept in English (which makes it impossible to make up a word to label the concept) or, more interestingly, maybe we don't have the concepts in English because we don't have the word! History's first linguist, a guy named Sapir Whorf, discovered that without a word, we can't think.

So in my research I went out and found some of the most amazing untranslatable words in the non-American speaking world. Here they are, in no particular order.

  1. Mamihlapinatapei
    This is one of the first words I learned about as an untranslatable word. It's spoken by using a ancient and primitive language from Chile, in Tierra del Fuego. (Tierra del Fuego, by the way, means "Fire, Having Land/Earth/Dirt, Which Land/Earth/Dirt Is Being This Land/Earth/Dirt".) The word, mamihlapinatapei, is unfortunately untranslatable.

  2. Toska
    This is a Russian word. It means… uhhh… it's sort of like… hm. Well it's a cool meaning, but you have to know Russian to understand it.

  3. Iktsuarpok
    The Inuits only have one word for this, and therefore altho we can't know what this word means, we do know that iktsuarpok isn't important or familiar to the Inuits, otherwise they'd have 231 words for it.

  4. Shlimazl
    The Yiddish word is used next to schlemiel a lot, both of them meaning something related to each other. The meaning is something close to… uhhhh… dammit this post is hard to write.

  5. Friolero
    No idea. Looks Spanish.

  6. The
    You might recognize this word, but there is no English translation of it. It is similar to 'a' and 'an' but it has a meaning that those two words just don't quite capture.

  7. Tartle
    Scotts talk funny, don't they?

  8. Torschlusspanik
    Germans use this word. You might notice it has the word "panik" in it which is close to English "panic" but those other parts mean some other sorts of things.

  9. Wabi-Sabi
    In Japanese culture, you have… there are these… ummm… It rhymes with itself. Like that other untranslatable word Oingo Boingo.

  10. Hwæt
    This Old English word used to be English when English wasn't yet old. Once it became old, hwæt became impossible to use.

  11. Cafuné
    Not even speakers of Portuguese from Portugal can understand this word. Only speakers of Portuguese from Brazil know what it means.

  12. L’appel du vide
    Altho the French have one translation of this that they can share with us (the call of the void), they have since given it another more interesting meaning that they are keeping from us.

  13. Schadenfreude
    This weird German word roughly translates into the English word, 'schadenfreude'.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

"Evacuate": the premises

An hourlong wait for the answer to a simple question gets tiresome. So I'm not usually a fan of detective procedurals on TV. I suppose that's also why some people are so uncomfortable with ambiguous syntax, polysemous words, and language change more generally. Understanding is hard!

Well, I do like one cop show a lot: The Wire. It's intricate, precise, and consistent. Every character on the show is fallible. Every soul is broken. By addiction, betrayal, torture, improper English usage, murder…

I started watching three months ago and now I'm up to the first episode of season 5. One scene brought back memories of a conversation that took place several years ago in the language blog neighborhood. Here's the bit.

Gus Haynes sits at his desk reading and typing. He calls out

"Ms Gutierrez. Gutierrez! Get your ass over here."


"You say that 120 people were evacuated."

"Yeah. They were."

"You can't evacuate people. I mean you can if you want. But that's not what you want to say here."
Another man—the fat, bald, bearded kind—offers his analysis.

"A building could be evacuated. To evacuate a person is to give that person an enema. The details, Miss Gutierrez. At The Baltimore Sun, god still resides in the details."

As she walks away, put in her place, the fat bald guy (Jay Spry) cries out with the anguish of all obsolete convictions. "What are we gonna do with these children today?"

Not to worry. His attempt to spread uninvestigated reassurance finds a home in Alma Gutierrez's eager little soul. She has picked up her Webster's New World desk dictionary, and the camera shows her staring as she reads it. "He's right" she says. "You don't evacuate people."

We have to remember that these are fictional characters. And altho The Wire is riddled with characters based on real-life Baltimorianders, we can rest assured that neither of these superstitious editors is our friend, the reasonable John McIntyre.

But what lesson can we learn here? You need soft eyes. Investigate. Know your sources. Put facts together. Neglecting or, more egregiously, refusing to do all that is too often what leads to peeves, complaints, feigned confusion, and the uninvestigated reassurance that stopped Ms Gutierrez from a fuller understanding of the word evacuate.

It also trips up many of our fellow web-trotters. I did a little searching to find conversations about this issue, and I came across a story about a bomb threat in Palo Alto. Three commenters—employee, darwin, and sketch—provide the action.

Click to enlarge so that you can read the tiny words.

Notice that sketch's attempt to defend employee's use of evacuate doesn't actually defend the distinction precisely. The entry merely supports the sense of evacuate as "leave empty". In other words, to evacuate a building is to remove people from the building. Darwin's snippy response is on point if we accept that entry as the only admissible evidence in our investigation of the word's meaning.

This is similar to what Gutierrez does after Spry limits the meaning of the word for her. This is also part of what I did when I saw that she was shown consulting Webster's New World. I went and got out my own copy of that dictionary. Not to see what I should believe, but to see what the dictionary actually says. And you know what? It's possible to read that as the only meaning of evacuate that my copy of WNW gives.

For the sake of this argument, let's say that we're trusting the dictionary to tell us which meanings are in common enough usage to be understood and relevant. Nothing in the entry clearly indicates that the object of evacuate can be the people (or objects) that are removed. Altho I would say that sense 3.a. can be read this way, with the evacuees as the objects of evacuate, it's a tricky transitive structure. If someone is just looking to prove, rather than learn, they could hang on to their belief and say that the implied object is "place or area" not "inhabitants". I say it's both. I say the parentheses indicate two different possible objects of the transitive verb. I'm also guessing that Gutierrez' Compact Office Dictionary has a whole lot of nothing where mine has something. So the debate continues, doesn't it?

Such assurance in a limited resource is what led darwin to respond to sketch's invocation of the dictionary entry so approvingly. "I'm glad you looked it up," he says. Clearly the dictionary is given the final word as he hears it. Gutierrez used it to check Spry's claim. Sketch used it (shakily) to debunk darwin's. And darwin is glad to see him hoist by their mutual petard.

So, case closed? No. Not even if we decide we're going to end our search with a look at just one dictionary. We have to admit that altho dictionaries try to be complete, they're not always. That's why most dictionaries have more than one edition: sometimes because of errors, but really because of changes in language and additions to our understanding. So in almost all cases, if you're trying to find out about a word, use more than one dictionary.

But here's the fun part: looking around. We don't have to just look at the specific entry for a word to know what a dictionary thinks of that word. Every once in a while, a dictionary entry is a little weak on the witness stand. In this case, look less than a centimeter down the page at the next entry, for evacuation (sense 2) and the entry right after that for evacuee.

See? The dictionary knows how to talk just like people do. If your god resides in the details, he resides in all of them.

Monday, December 10, 2012


It's been over a year since I posted anything on this blog, and I don't think the symbolism of an entirely silent 2012 is as beautiful and poignant as it is sad and discouraging. So here's a little throat clearing to keep my voice ready.

I've watched as several blogs, that were part of my regular reading, have winnowed down to archives and 404 errors. The saddest examples are those small blogs with light readership, that had something to say but felt ignored. They remind me of the timid introvert at a party who works up the courage to add something to the conversation. They speak so softly that they're interrupted and no one notices. So they stop halfway thru their sentence and look around with a nervous smile pretending it didn't hurt.

I've never felt ignored here, but I do need a drink. That'll get me talking.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Possible eggcorn hits close to home

Seen in a comment from a social networking site:

"Your alive ? I thought this was a line through a wishyboard...."

I wouldn't have understood what this meant without the context. But it's pretty clear that "wishyboard" is being used here instead of 'ouija board'. So we have the alteration/substitution necessary for an eggcorn. Do we have a reasonable semantic reanalysis?

It's a tough one. Is it likely that "wishy" refers to the divining, eking, asking, and pleading that might accompany a ouija board session? Is there wishing involved in the typical seance? Wishing upon a pentagram?

And beyond the possibility of a reanalysis here, this is nonce term with extra weight on the "once". I couldn't find any relevant hits in a quick search on Google™. This might be a true one-off. But there's just something about it…

Friday, February 25, 2011

On Language is turned off - The Old Grey Lady ain't what she used to be

Ben Zimmer was one of the first language bloggers to notice Wishydig and occasionally direct readers this way. I still remember that almost 4 years ago he was kind enough to mention one of my posts to Mr. Verb. It was a post I had written in response to one of William Safire's not very careful On Language columns on word history. Mr. Verb, writing with the same frustration I felt, remarked that it was time someone take over for the Times' resident Language Maven. Little did we know that in only a few years, the column would be Zimmer's.

Earlier today, Zimmer announced that his On Language column, "at least in its current incarnation," is being dropped from the redesigned New York Times Magazine. He has been trusted with that space for the past year, and he repaid that trust with careful, relevant, reliable, and interesting commentary on language. To make his columns interesting he didn't resort to making up facts, exaggerating claims, or stoking fears. He's a linguist who knows that language is fascinating on its own when represented accurately and analyzed reasonably.

I don't need to speculate about the business reasons for cutting On Language from the Times Magazine. I don't like it. Rational and insightful discussions of language are rare enough in mainstream news outlets. There are too many dilettantes and dabblers who go no further than to complain about variation and throw tantrums against change. Zimmer, on the other hand, provides calm and informed commentary. I'm sure he will continue to do so at Language Log, and the Visual Thesauraus. This is a coda, ending no syllable articulated by Zimmer, but by the New York Times.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Linguists know how to talk

Ben Zimmer and John McWhorter have done a diavlog hosted by Bloggingheads. If you know the names, you already know if you're interested. If you don't know the names, they're real linguists who will undoubtedly replace some of your mistaken beliefs and superstitions about language with observations that will prove to be much more interesting.

Zimmer has previously said of the word diavlog:

Diavlog is a second-order blend, by the way: it blends dialog and vlog, with the latter element representing a blend of video and blog. Or make that third-order, since blog blends Web and log.

My question has long been this: Do we distinguish, with a proper surface representation, a diavlog [dia(log)+[v(ideo)+[((we)b)+log]]] from a diavlog [dia(log)+[v(ideo)+log]] that isn't designed for the web?

And how do we know that [v] isn't just an infix, excised from video and inserted into dialog?

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

IPA Palette now available for 64-bit Snow Leopard

About a year ago I asked if anyone could help me get IPA Palette working on Snow Leopard. I didn't get much of a response. I found some workarounds.

A couple days ago, Brian 'Moses' Hall, the author of IPA Palette, found the post and responded.

Snow Leopard "broke" some aspects of Input Methods (because it suddenly went all 64-bit crazy) so people like me (and those write screen saver plugins and such) suddenly had to scramble. IPA Palette 2.0 addresses all these changes and works great on SL. Cheers, Moses Hall.

So IPA Palette 2.0b4 is available for download.

A couple images:

It's a nice utility. I've set up some text replacement preferences for most of my IPA input, but I'll definitely use IPA palette for more of the fine tuning and narrow transcriptions.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Imagine how they treat your luggage

Seven dogs died because of a flight from Tulsa to Chicago. I know the reports say they died afterwards, but that's according to the airline, and how much trust can we put in puppy killers?

Whoever wrote or edited the article apparently subscribes to a mysterious usage rule that I wondered about a couple years ago: the rule is that you can't autopsy another species. So:

The incident was under investigation. The dogs are being necropsied.
Necropsied. When I first read about this usage belief, I asked if autopsies couldn't be performed on non-humans, or if it was just about a species other than that of the investigator.
[W]hat is it that technically keeps a pathologist from performing an autopsy on anything but another human? … The comment says the issue is "a different species" so does this mean that if horses were smart enough (and had opposable thumbs) they would be able to perform autopsies on other horses?
This is a sad story. It seems the airline didn't follow its own policies, and it's hard to imagine how to see them as anything other than sloppy enough to kill your pets. To borrow an old George Miller joke, I don't want to name the actual airline, but I will tell you that it's an american airline.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Mamas and Papas

Two day's ago I was reading an old Time magazine. One article quoted Victoria Osteen saying "Our Daddy G-d is the strongest!"

I remembered that during my youth—and later employment—in parochial school, some preachers/teachers/spiritual-cheerleaders found it helpful to argue that there were places in the bible where the writer referred to the paternal role of a deity with a word closer to "daddy" than "father" in the original Hebrew, Aramaic, Koine Greek, Old English or whatever.

Then about twenty minutes ago I read something a friend had written, and she used the phrase "my mom". This was a very light, very tongue-in-cheek exchange, and yet I couldn't bring myself to write "your mom" in my response. It just didn't feel right.

Then about sixteen minutes ago, I saw that earlier today John McIntyre posted his thoughts on this very topic as regards journalistic conventions. He, like me, tends away from the less familiar 'Mom' (and I assume the same goes for 'Dad').

I know this is influenced largely by the fact that I refer to my parents as 'Mother' and 'Father.' My friends have always thought this sounded stilted and distant. But those are for me the less loaded terms. Calling them 'Mom' and 'Dad' strikes me as similar to calling my sisters "Sis."

To be clear: I'm not saying that this is what the words mean, or that other people should equate the words that way, or that I even hear it this way when other people speak. This is my idiolect that I'm talking about. All my sisters refer to our parents as 'Mom' and 'Dad' and it doesn't sound odd to me. Somewhere along the line, many many years ago, I attached some sort of overly familiar—and somehow, at the same time, distant—spin to those words. I recognize that my reaction to uttering Mom and Dad isn't in line with general use and connotation.

McIntyre writes that the formality offers respect and that it creates a distance, and I think the paradox of my usage arose out of an attempt to do the former but not the latter.

The old preachers' claims about a heavenly "daddy" versus "father" strikes me as simple and silly. I'm not a biblical languages scholar, but I do know that there is such a range of familiarity in these terms, and it's driven by individual preferences, and there's a wide and sprawling variety of connotations for words like dad and daddy and dada and da and pa and papa and pappy and pops and father and old man

If Mrs Osteen wants to argue that her daddy in the sky is stronger than ours, that's fine. But once she argues that her daddy told us to call him Daddy, I'm calling shenanigans. That father doesn't speak English.