Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Do not use etymology to determine current meaning of a word

It may sound obvious. When you want to know the meaning of a word, you look it up in a dictionary and check the definitions, probably with some examples. Only if you're interested in its origin will you check its etymology. But in reality, we see that a lot of people trying to explain the connotations or nuances of meanings of a word resort to etymology. For example, in my 2017 blog 自由: "freedom" or "liberty"?, I criticized those who rack their brains trying to come up with certain semantic differences between freedom and liberty while there is none (although which word is more customarily used in which set phrase exhibits a difference in frequency).

Recently, in a Weibo posting, a Chinese blogger tried to justify his translation of draconian as "惨无人道" ("inhumanely atrocious"). He was reading the following passage of an MIT Technology Review article Every country wants a covid-19 vaccine. Who will get it first?,

"By then, though, China had a different problem: not enough covid-19. Its draconian lockdown measures had quashed the virus at home so effectively that doctors couldn’t find patients to fully test their vaccine on."

His comment is, "这里特别用到一个极其恶毒的词语叫draconian,可以翻译为惨无人道" ("An extremely vicious word is used here called draconian, which can be translated as inhumanely atrocious"). When other readers pointed out to him that his understanding of this word was incorrect, he justified his interpretation by finding the origin of draconian, which is the Athenian lawmaker named Draco, known for making harsh laws.

So much for this story. Let's re-read the renowned linguist Thomas Pyles's frequently quoted statement that "[t]here is a widespread belief, held even by some quite learned people, that the way to find out what a word means is to find out what it previously meant — or, preferably, if it were possible to do so, what it originally meant--a notion similar to the Greek belief in the etymon... such an appeal to etymology to determine present meaning is as unreliable as would be an appeal to spelling to determine modern pronunciation." (The Origins and Development of the English Language, 1964 ed., pp304-5). Not heeding this warning, we would say calculate only if we were to count pebbles because calculate comes from Latin calx ("stone"), and we would either quarantine potential SARS-CoV-2 virus carriers for 40 instead of 14 days or flatly refuse to use the word quarantine because the word inherently meant "forty".

Monday, September 7, 2020

Linguists' responses to school dismissing professor saying 那个 in communication class

A filler word in a language is uttered when the speaker hesitates in speech. While most languages have eh, ah or m, some languages have their language-specific words. For example, some English speakers say you know for this purpose, and Chinese may say 那个 (pronounced like naygher or nagher without the trailing rhotic vowel; pinyin: nèige or nàge). According to Los Angeles Times, University of Southern California business school professor Greg Patton gave 那个 (nèige) as an example of a Chinese filler word in his business communication class and was dismissed by the school who listened to the complaint of certain African American students in his class. The following are a few most like'd comments on this news in the Facebook Linguistics group:

* What a ridiculous thing. An inoffensive word in another language sounds close to an offensive word in your native language and so you get the professor fired? Perhaps those students need to learn some tolerance about linguistic differences.

* I can't be the only one to whom this part of the identity movements in the US feels very much like a toxic and bigoted form of American cultural colonialism, where certain groups within the US try to force their form of cultural ethics onto the rest of the world?
How is it reasonable for Americans (or more generally, mono-lingual English speakers) to demand respect for their own culture or ethnicity, but demand other cultures to adapt themselves to their own highly culturally-specific standards? How is it acceptable in the English-speaking academic world to demand non-English speakers to adapt their native language "because it sounds offensive" to an outsider?
-- * [my follow-up comment] (if we expand this topic a little bit) These students' complaint and the school's decision about the professor who indicated the usage of the word in clear context will have an effect of alienating Chinese Americans who overall supported the Black Lives Matter movement, which, like any movement, ought to recruit as many supporters as they can. These two things should be separated. But unfortunately humans are human.

* [me to another commenter] You mean he should have chosen another filler word? In Chinese, eh or its variant ah is pretty much the only other one. But 那个 is so common and distinctive in Chinese not mentioning it can be considered a fault in teaching. By the way, the fact that there're 10,000 characters in Chinese is irrelevant to what filler words exist in Chinese.

Other comments:

* The fact that the professor introduced that it was another languages’ conversational manager word and then said he word makes all the difference. If these students conversed with someone in a Chinese dialect, would these students try to get the Chinese student expelled?
* My best friend, who is Black, visited China on a short term abroad in a business course in school. He obviously heard this term used as it is part is casual language. Should he have been angry with the tour guides, restaurant employees, etc? He told me he was initially confused and even worried that it was meant to be hurtful but after the linguistic meaning was explained to him it all made sense and he no longer felt any distress. Why didn’t this help the USC students? I feel for them but I also feel for the professor.
* I remember in grad school a Colombian woman gave a teachimg presentation in spanish and used negro in reference to black people. It is the correct term for the color in spanish and many people in central and South America use the term for their skin color as well. But i heard audible gasps from listeners in the room. Thankfully, everyone had what I felt was enough maturity to realize it was not a slur she was using, but a word in another language. I think someone asked her privately afterwards about the use, but nothing else ever came of it.
-- * [a follow-up comment] maturity and cultural understanding make a big difference)
* the student response feels extreme from my perspective as a white linguist who also teaches communication, but I also think it would have been better if he could have chosen a different example or given a call out th…
-- * [a follow-up comment] How would a teacher of philosophy teach about Kant in the USA?
-- * [a follow-up comment] What example would you use? In 10+ years as a Chinese speaker, I’m not sure I’ve heard any other word in Chinese used in that way.
* What would happen if the Professor was Chinese and explained the same thing?
* Ugh... it’s never ending with stupid people
* as a member of the human race who can think I can logically deduce that the professor did not mean to use the N word.
* I thought I had seen stupidity at its lowest level. I was wrong.
* Monolingual people problems!
* This is bullshit. America, land of the contextually dead.

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.