Sunday, August 2, 2020

Tones are better immune to interference

A Chinese American person recently told me she had better listening skills in Chinese than English (note: not listening comprehension, but just listening, or speech sound recognition). It's surprising because she was born and grew up in the US, never living in a Chinese speaking country except for short periods. She admitted that her conclusion may have a confounding factor that both her parents are Chinese immigrants and speak clear Mandarin to her at home. I told her that her better listening may be related to the fact that the tone of Chinese, or any tonal language for that matter, offers a high interference immunity. This means that the listener can discern the speaker's tone even if there is ambient noise, if the speaker does not utter syllables clearly, or if the distance between the speaker and the listener significantly reduces the sound volume. Under less optimal conditions, if different tones of a sound in the language alter the meanings of the sound, there will be less loss of information carried to the listener because the tone is more immune to interferences than other phonemic features of the sound.

So, the tone of a language is a desired feature. But why is that only some languages are tonal? According to this 2015 article Climate, vocal folds, and tonal languages: Connecting the physiological and geographic dots, tonal languages are generally distributed in humid regions of the world, while non-tonal languages are in arid or dry regions. To produce tones, the human organ requires a favorable ambient environment, and "very cold/dry regions apparently serve as barriers to the spread of (complex) tone".

Saturday, July 25, 2020

Adjective in the form of the past participle of an intransitive verb

First, a few grammatical terms. Everyone knows what an adjective is, like "big" in "a big car". Past participle (PP hereinafter) is a form of a verb that you use after "have" to indicate a completed action, like "opened" in "I have opened the door". A verb is intransitive when it is not followed by an object, like "happen" in "The incident happened", although it can be followed by a complement indicating time, place, etc. A transitive verb is followed by an object, like "hit" in "He hit him".

Sometimes the PP of a verb can be used as an adjective, like "opened" in "the opened jar", referring to the jar that was opened (by somebody), which is slightly different from "the open jar", where the speaker emphasizes the state of the jar more than someone's opening action.

All is fine if the verb is transitive. That is, there is no problem in using PP of a transitive verb as the modifier of a noun (nominal modifier), serving the function of an adjective. But can PP of an intransitive verb do so? The answer is sometimes but not always. We can say "an expired license", which is the same as "a license that has expired". The phrase "the disappeared man" seems to be acceptable, referring to the man that has disappeared, not necessarily implying that the man was forced to disappear by e.g. abduction. (The verb disappear does have the rare transitive sense of "to make vanish" according to Wiktionary, but we don't discuss it here.) On the other hand, we cannot say *"a come guest" (* means incorrect) and have to say "a guest that has come".

An interesting question is, How do we know when the PP of an intransitive verb can be used as an adjective or nominal modifier? I posted a question to the Facebook Linguistics group. One reader, apparently a linguist, referred me to the concept of "unaccusative verb". According to Wikipedia, "an unaccusative verb is an intransitive verb whose grammatical subject is not a semantic agent. In other words, it does not actively initiate, or is not actively responsible for, the action of the verb." Let me paraphrase. Just because a word (or phrase) is the grammatical subject in front of a verb doesn't always mean it actively (主动地) takes the action indicated by the verb. For example, "The window broke" doesn't mean the window wanted to break and therefore broke. It broke probably because someone broke it, or the bad weather caused it to break. This is different from "A guest comes" because the guest can walk and take action by himself and comes. Note that in linguistics, "accusative" refers to the relationship between the verb and its immediate action on its direct object; it has nothing to do with the action of accusing someone doing something bad, although "John accuses Jake" does have the accusative action in it ("accuses Jake").

The article goes on to say "[u]naccusative past participles can be used as nominal modifiers with active meaning", and gives a criterion to identify such verbs. For example, in the archaic sentence "He is fallen/come" (which means He, usually referring to Jesus, has fallen / come), because "is" instead of "has" is used, both "fall" and "come" are unaccusative. Well, obviously, in Modern English, only "a fallen tree", not *"a come visitor", makes sense. So I'm afraid we can only say some unaccusative past participles can be used as nominal modifiers or adjectives. The article lists 6 groups of unaccusative verbs given by Perlmutter (1978). But I don't think all are fit to be used as nominal modifiers. Specifically, I would say (a) and (c) won't work (e.g. *"the happened event"). In (f), only "survive" works.

For native English speakers, this is a non-issue because which intransitive verb can and which cannot be turned into PP and act as an adjective naturally comes to the mouth or pen (nowadays keyboard). For English learners, it may be more fruitful to just learn them by reading and listening than by studying the grammatical rule. Nevertheless, the linguists' effort to decipher the underlying grammatical rule is intriguing to the curious mind.

Monday, February 10, 2020

"self-driving" vs "self-driven", "self-limiting" vs "self-limited"

In English, the compound adjectives <NP>-<V>ing (noun or noun phrase followed by verb in its -ing form) and <NP>-<V>ed (noun or noun phrase followed by verb in its -ed or past participle-like form) imply different relationships between <NP> and <V>. Specifically, in the former case, <NP> is the object[note] of the action <V>, while in the latter, <NP> is the agent of <V>. For example, "man-made" implies that man makes (whatever follows), as in "a man-made satellite". If you were to say "man-making", it would denote something that makes man or a human!

But this analysis seems to break when the first element is the word "self". A Google exact phrase search for "self-driving car" currently returns about 6,980,000 results and a search for "self-driven car" returns about 540,000. While the latter -ed form is less than 10% of the -ing form, most articles appear to be written by native speakers, suggesting that both forms are accepted (but people may be subconsciously treating "self" as an object more than an agent?). After all, it makes sense because "self" means, well, self; there's no need to distinguish between agent and object.

The recent coronavirus causes pneumonia that is self-limited, according to China’s National Health Commission. So, let's check "self-limiting disease" vs. "self-limited disease", a term referring to a disease that runs its course without medical treatment (treatment may speed up the process, but that's a separate point). "Self-limiting" is slightly more popular than "self-limited", 118,000 vs. 105,000 on Google. Indeed, when the <NP> is "self", either the -ing or the -ed form of the verb is accepted.

[note] A more technical term for "object" here is "patient", not in any way related to a sick person in a hospital.

Friday, September 27, 2019

What's special about English "until"/"till"?


English "until"/"till" has a side effect of reversing the state. For example:
"The scientists had not found a solution to the problem until 1970."
(informally, "did not find")
It implies that the solution *was* found in 1970. I don't know if there's a linguistic term to describe this state reversal. But in many other languages (probably Spanish, German, Chinese, Hindi, Persian, etc.), the word generally translated as English "until" does not seem to have this implication. This lack affects the English writing of the people speaking those languages natively. For example, a Persian scientist wrote ( "Microgravity has different effects on normal and cancer cells, but the related mechanisms are not well-known till now." He didn't mean to say the mechanisms are (finally) well known now; by "till now", he meant "so far" or "even as of today", a continuation of the state of "are not well known".
This implied reversal of state of English "until" seems to be more obvious if the sentence is negative.

I'd like to know
(1) whether there's a linguistic term for this semantic reversal of state implied by English "until";
(2) whether it's correct to list Spanish, German, Chinese, Hindi, Persian as the languages (maybe all languages except English?) in which a simple equivalent of English "until" does not have this semantic reversal.


"The scientists had not found a solution to the problem until 1970."
暗示科学家们终于在1970年找到了对这个问题的解决方法,而该语句的西班牙语、德语、汉语、印地语、波斯语的直译不具有这个隐含意义。比如汉语“科学家们直到1970年没有找到对这个问题的解决方法”,一般会被理解为1970年仍然没有找到,即这个没有找到的状态持续存在,但在英语中却从没有找到反转为找到。该Facebook群的成员来自世界各地,大多数是语言学学者或学生,整个群能读懂的语言估计至少有二三十种吧,没有人对我列出的几种语言提出实质性的异议,还有人补充缺乏这种状态反转的语言,例如有人指出意大利语等。至于是否语言学中有无术语描述我暂命名为semantic reversal of state的现象,多人提出几个概念(presupposition、telicity等),但我认为都不能完全符合。因此,我暂时得出结论:英语的until或till是人类语言中罕见或唯一具有语义的状态反转属性的用于表达时间延续到某点的介词。
(顺便说一句,我与那位讲波斯语的伊朗生物学家email联系,确证了他本来的确是想说“the related mechanisms are not well known so far”。)

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Word order flexibility

According to Wikipedia, about half of the world's languages take subject–object–verb (SOV) as the primary word order of a sentence, while one third follow the subject–verb–object (SVO) order. English and Chinese belong to the SVO category; e.g., in "She loves him" or "她爱他", if any of the three words or characters is re-positioned, the meaning of the sentence will be altered or be completely lost.

Recently I was reading the very entertaining tale of Phyllis and Aristotle. Legend has it that "Aristotle advised his pupil Alexander to avoid the king's seductive mistress, Phyllis, but was himself captivated by her. She agreed to ride him, on condition that she could play the role of dominatrix." (summarized by Wikipedia) On the Wikipedia page, the Old French verse that told this story ended with Aristotle excusing himself to Alexander, saying

Amour vainc tot, & tot vaincra
tant com li monde durera

with Modern English translation as "Love conquers all, and all shall conquer / As long as the world shall last".

English readers don't need to be fluent in French, much less Old French, to identify the French words corresponding to the English words; e.g. amour "love", vainc "conquers" (think of vanquish), tot "all" (think of total), etc. But what's troubling to me is that the second part of the first line, tot vaincra, is translated as "all shall conquer". The English word conquer is a transitive verb, i.e. it must be followed by an object. It took me a while to realize that "all shall conquer" actually means "(love) shall conquer all". The original author of the verse didn't write "& vaincra tot" simply because the inversion that places vaincra at the end makes it rhyme with the last word of the second line, durera ("last"). But an average English reader having no knowledge of French will have difficulty understanding "all shall conquer". So I edited the Wikipedia page to read "and shall conquer all". A few months later, someone disagreed and changed the translation back, saying it's poetic English.

I took this issue to a language forum and asked for people's opinions. As expected, most forum members agree with me. One even says he initially thought "all shall conquer" meant "all will fight back", which is a totally wrong interpretation. But one member, apparently a native Frenchman, disagreed with me and said the reader should adapt to the text of the author and the translator should respect the style of the author. Others disagreed with him, and my response was that "the adaptation should not go so far as to rendering the 'translated' text incomprehensible in the target language". I have no doubt that his mother tongue influences his appreciation of English speakers' low tolerance of flexible word order. If he were to translate the Old French verse into Chinese (suppose he knows some Chinese), the Chinese verse would probably read "爱征服一切,一切征服", the latter part of which likewise makes no sense to a native Chinese speaker.

In Romance languages such as French or Spanish, the primary word order is also SVO. However, occasionally we see sentences whose constituent is moved to a different position than the SVO rule would stipulate. (E.g. "Ont été reçus Pierre, Paul et Marie", possibly in response to "à Qui a été reçu ?") Native speakers are used to these sentence structures and can understand the meaning based on context and/or the idiomatic nature of such expressions. As far as I know, there is no metric or index in linguistics to measure the word order flexibility of a language. We know that highly inflected languages such as Latin and Russian have fairly flexible word order. But English and Chinese would be quite low on this metric, while various Romance languages are probably in the middle. Sentences such as "That I know", or "那个我知道", of an apparent OSV order, are exceptions, and their OVS variants, i.e. "That know I" and "那个知道我", are completely prohibited or meaningless, even though it may be understood in French in a certain context.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Mutual intelligibility in writing only

Mutual intelligibility is one important way to differentiate a language from a dialect, in spite of some complications. One such complication is the separation between writing and verbal intelligibility in the language varieties spoken in China; people in many regions of China may pronounce the same characters so differently that they can communicate with each other only by writing and not verbally. How do we define or measure mutual intelligibility in writing only (MIW hereinafter) in general? Here I describe an experiment that may serve as a starting point. Two people with high school or more education who natively speak language varieties A and B, respectively, but not both (if A and B are different), are subject to a test. Each person reads 100 sentences in normal speed randomly selected from the entire corpus of Modern A or B. (As an approximation to the entire corpus, take the Internet and book content indexed by Google as an example.) Each sentence is followed by 10 interpretations given in the language variety the other person understands, and he (she) chooses the correct one (10 choices instead of 4 or 5 just to reduce the random guess correctness). Then repeat the test switching the two people along with their respective language variety. If >=50 sentences are correctly understood, A and B are excluded from MIW. If it's <50, they are further subject to a test in which 100 sentences selected from the entire corpus are shown in writing. If >=90 sentences are correctly understood, we consider varieties A-B a case of MIW.

Thus, Sichuanese-Mandarin will be disqualified because they can be verbally communicated (and of course with written script). But Shanghainese-Mandarin, Hunanese-Mandarin, Shanghainese-Hunanese are good examples of MIW. Cantonese warrants more discussions. It's obvious that the Cantonese-Mandarin (or -Shanghainese etc.) pair has no verbal MI. There are grammar particles, pronouns and some common words unique to Cantonese. When a literate person who natively speaks Cantonese but has not learned the written Chinese in the way Chinese is taught in mainland China writes in Cantonese, can the writing be understood with >=90 correctness by one speaking Mandarin only? Suppose the content is absolutely randomly selected from the entire Cantonese corpus, and is not purely colloquial and definitely not contrived to contain a disproportionately high ratio of Cantonese-specific markers or characters. I don't know the answer, and an actual experiment is needed. One example of such a written script in Cantonese is a Wikipedia page. I personally don't know Cantonese and I may or may not be able to correctly answer 90 out of 100 questions in a reading comprehension test. Note that Cantonese is special in that many native Cantonese speakers do read Chinese text proficiently, although mandarin or other Chinese dialect speakers don't read Cantonese text (such as that Wikipedia page), creating asymmetric intelligibility, which is quite common in the world. Thus, when these two people try to communicate by writing, the preferred script they choose will be Chinese, not Cantonese. In discussing MIW, we should define two levels, one only allowing the written script to be the textual representation of the spoken language (e.g. Cantonese text for Cantonese speech), the other allowing the two people to choose whatever their preferred script is. Technically, we should limit MIW to the first case.

According to Wikipedia, Icelandic-Faroese and German-Dutch are MIW pairs. (The article also lists French-some Romance languages but does not give a good reference to support it. To my knowledge of a few Romance languages, this pair is invalid.) Based on a posting in Facebook Linguistics group, the following are additional language varieties that are candidates for MIW:

* Scots-English
* Many languages in South Asia with Sanskrit roots
* Swiss German-Standard German
* Hanoi Vietnamese-Southern Vietnamese (but highly disputed in the Sinosphere group whose members are mostly Vietnamese)
* Danish-some other Scandinavian languages

Note that I'm dealing with MIW between language varieties, a concept encompassing dialects within a language as well as languages, styles, registers, etc. While MIW within a language may not be limited to Chinese, it's probably safe to say the Chinese language has the most MIW pairs among its dialects, due to the dissociation between the pronunciation and the written form.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

"below" is not an adjective

In a technical discussion forum about databases, someone posted an off-topic message: "to all Oracle staff, this phrase is not English: 'follow the below steps' How does this slip into Oracle Support tech note documents". Indeed, the English word "below" should not be used as if it was an adjective (see e.g. Wiktionary). But I've seen this incorrect usage for 20+ years especially in the IT industry. In the beginning, it mostly occurred in messages written by people with Indian-like names. Nowadays, Chinese or other ethnicities as well.

In any case, instead of saying "the below steps", we should say "the following steps", or "the steps below" (implying "located" before "below"). I'm guessing the adjectival usage of "below" is probably due to influence from the antonym "above", which *can* be used as an adjective as in "the above steps".

In light of the descriptivism vs. prescriptivism debate in which the latter has slowly lost ground in the past century, some people may argue that as more and more people start to use "below" as an adjective, this usage may eventually become accepted; after all, language evolves with the way it's spoken by the people. In fact, Merriam-Webster has already acknowledged this usage, after adverb, preposition, and noun. But for now, the majority of the native speakers and no other English dictionary consider this usage acceptable. It's wise to be standard-compliant and stop saying "the below steps".

(A good discussion is found on Daily Writing Tips.)

Friday, July 6, 2018

Basic Chinese Characters

I finally finished my little book Basic Chinese Characters. It contains 2500 commonly used Chinese characters selected by the Ministry of Education of China, with pinyin and definitions manually added by me. The book sorts the characters by frequency usage according to Google's estimate of occurrences of each character on the Internet (a method only I used and probably I invented). Some more descriptions of the book, plus sample pages, are at The book is available on Amazon as an e-book.

The book is in the format of character - pinyin (tones marked with numbers) - definition. For example,

二 er4 two
三 san1 three
四 si4 four
六 liu6 six
七 qi1 seven
零 ling2 zero
本 ben3 notebook; (measure word for books etc.); 本来(lai2) originally
日 ri4 sun
所 suo3 (function word, roughly “that which”); 所以 therefore; bureau
下 xia4 down, below; to go down
止 zhi3 to stop
脆 cui4 brittle, crispy
诞 dan4 birth
碍 ai4 blocking, hindrance
散 san4 to scatter, to disperse; scattered, loose (w.p. san3)
兽 shou4 beast
逝 shi4 to drift away; 逝世(shi4) to pass away, to die
猪 zhu1 pig
暂 zan4 temporary
腊 la4 preserved meat

Free offer If you as a reader of this blog are interested in this book, for a limited time, I can selectively offer this book for free on one condition and one wish. You must not share my book with anyone else. If your friend would like a copy, please have him or her contact me directly. But since there is no technical way to enforce this requirement, I can only trust you as on a verbal agreement. In addition to this requirement, I sincerely hope you can write an honest review and post it to the website, or if not feasible, on Goodreads. You can request a free copy by sending me an email at It would be nice if you could tell me one or a few book reviews you previously wrote on

Irrespective of any interest in the book, if you have any comments, suggestions, or corrections, please let me know. They are highly appreciated.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Ludwig Feuerbach and the End/Outcome of Classical German Philosophy

The 200th anniversary of the birth of Karl Marx (May 5, 1818 - March 14, 1883) is coming soon. This great thinker is one of the very few that have had profound influence over human history. His numerous works, along with those of his close friend and also great thinker, Friedrich Engels, have been translated into dozens of languages and meticulously studied around the world. This short posting is about one single word in the title of Engels' book, Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy.

In the 1980's, I read about disagreement with the Chinese rendering of the word, “终结” (literally "end", "termination"), in a Chinese article. If my memory serves me right, the author of the note was 朱光潛, a renowned scholar and philosopher in China. He argues that, as the original German title "Ludwig Feuerbach und der Ausgang der klassischen deutschen Philosophie" uses the word "Ausgang", literally "exit" or "outcome", there's no reason to change it to "end" in English or “终结” in Chinese, which is obviously different in meaning. Since both Wikipedia and use the word "end" in English and only a small number of websites on the Internet use the word "outcome", I had some email exchanges with a knowledgeable volunteer on, Ben, partly duplicated as follows:

it always struck me as strange that this has always been translated as "end" - maybe it was a result of a certain "Stalino-Hegelian" teleology, which infected the movement in the 20th century? 'Ausgang' would probably be better translated as 'denouement' (as in a novel or play) or, as you suggest, "outcome".
Communist greetings

If it was the result of "Stalino-Hegelian" teleology, why would scholars in the English world be affected, as would the Russian and Chinese translators, which is understandable? British or American translators don't need to go through Russian and Chinese sources to do the German-to-English translation.

I think it is worth bearing in mind that the project of translating Marx and Engels into English was also overseen by mainly Soviet funds and Soviet-type scholars. I am not suggesting that they have not done an outstanding job (of course they have!) but am merely pointing out that ideology and outlook cannot *but* find reflection in translation work and rendering somebody's thoughts into another language.
Communist greetings

I wanted to confirm that Russian translators were responsible for the popular English translation "end" but couldn't find definitive evidence. According to the translation by Foreign Language Press in Beijing, this 1976 English translation in China is based on the 1951 edition by Foreign Languages Publishing House in Moscow. Then I found an earlier one, published in 1946, Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy, by Progress Publishers, which according to Wikipedia "was a Moscow-based Soviet publisher founded in 1931. It was noted for its English-language editions of books on Marxism-Leninism".

As we can see, in the English translation as early as 1946, the Moscow edition already used "end" for "Ausgang", as if Engels was announcing the death of classical German philosophy. A good description is in fact given by the last link, i.e. "Engels considered this something of a summation or closure of the post-Hegelian criticism Marx and he had initiated in The German Ideology 43 years before." Note that the words "summation", "closure", although not literally matching "Ausgang", are a good paraphrase of it.

The Wikipedia page also gives the title translation in other languages. French uses "fin", Portuguese "fim", Japanese "終結", and Russian "конец", all meaning "end". It's a small surprise that all these semi-official translations in various languages somewhat deviate from the German original.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

A few word-play jokes

First, a translation of a poem (ci-poem to be exact) by Ms. Li Qingzhao (李清照, 1084 – ca 1155/1156), a poet at the turn of the Northern-to-Southern Song dynasty.

落日熔金,Sunset of molten gold
暮云合壁,Evening clouds of enclosing jade
人在何处。 Where am I standing?
染柳烟浓, Mist coloring the willows thickens
吹梅笛怨, Flute plays “The plum of melancholy”
春意知几许。 How's the springtime coming?
元宵佳节, The joyous Festival of Lantern
融和天气, in this clement weather
次第岂无风雨。 “Will it not be windy and rainy soon?”
来相召、香车宝马,谢他酒朋诗侣。 “Sorry”, said I to my wine-and-poetry friends, who came to invite me for an outing, in their fragrant BMW

Second, a list of words offered to "improve" English vocabulary, with a caution to the readers when I posted it to Weibo. And the "facts" stated therein are not to be trusted.

English vocabulary (non-)study
Learners of limited vocabulary should wear gas masks to avoid poisoning.

* infantry:
In the mid-20th century, the first public child care facility in the US was established in the suburb of Chicago, Jenkins Infantry, named after the owner Mary Jenkins.

* indefatigable
At the end of the 3-month clinical trial, 35% of the volunteers presented no change in either the body-mass index or the normalized adipose quantity. These indefatigable participants were advised to join a more aggressive weight watch program.

* bruxiathesaurus
A group of international paleontologists recently discovered never-seen-before dinosaur fossils, tentatively named bruxiathesaurus, on the evidence that these creatures apparently would grind their teeth while sleeping. Bruxia or bruxism, grinding or clenching teeth at night, is common among homo sapiens. This is the first time dinosaurs are found to have this behavior.

* infarction
Some patients with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) try to “hold in” flatulence. There is no controlled study on either any benefit or harm done by this practice of infarction.