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.