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I was celebrating Victoria Day last weekend at the beach with a few friends, discussing the anticipated fireworks show that was to come that evening, when I said “our tax dollars paid for the fireworks” in Japanese. My friends understood what I meant, but said that it *has* to be recast in the passive (or active with a null subject). Why?? What’s going on??

So there’s this little thing in semantics called metonymy, where a word is used to represent another word. A popular example is “I read Shakespeare”, where it’s understood that what’s being read is the works of Shakespeare, rather than the decaying corpse of the Bard. Metonymy comes in various forms such as container-for-contained (e.g. “the White House” for the civ. servants that work in the White House; “dishes” for the food on the dishes, etc.); tool-for-work/accomplishment (e.g. “hand” for “throwing ability”; “pen” for “writing style”, etc.); part-for-whole (e.g. “wheels” for “a car”; “head” for “person” (when counting), etc.), etc.

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Update: I had this whole post written about my personal observations on the a kind of sub-stratification between ‘native’ speakers like myself and my friend, and monolinguals. I decided to call us “second class native speakers”. Two weeks later, while I was still finalizing this post (’cause believe it or not, I spend more than one sitting pushing out these posts), I attended a two-day conference on this very subject. So at least my observations aren’t entirely crazy. But on the other hand, it makes me wonder how many times I’ll end up reinventing the wheel, simply from mere lack of exposure.

As it turns out, I was accessing two different phenomena: heritage language speakers, and semilinguals (now a somewhat contentious term). But of course, in my head, I somehow combined the two. It all started in my linguistics classes, when my Syntax textbook told me:

(1) *Bill kissed quietly his girlfriend

(2) Bill kissed his girlfriend quietly

I totally agree that (2) is more natural than (1); but at first blush, I wouldn’t have necessarily faulted a speaker if I heard him/her report that Bill had “kissed quietly his girlfriend”. After all, (1) isn’t exactly unclear, and there’s not clear ambiguity either.

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As a linguist, meeting a native speaker of a language you’re studying is a pretty exciting event. Maybe it’s just me, but I find that I often have to do a delicate balancing act between “I’m a freakish nerd of your language, which probably implies I want to be one of you, since I’m clearly not from your ethno-cultural group” and “I know nothing and have a general interest in your language.” If I don’t start with a “power introduction” (wherein I detail my research interests and years of experience with their language), I get the slow-and-loud reception. “how. are. YOU. doing?” Thanks, mate. I’m gonna go over here now.


On the other hand, if I start off too strong, my interlocutor won’t be able to relate. After all, what’re the odds that a language learner is also a linguist? So I have to carefully reign it in, to something that the general language learner/speaker can relate to, while still covertly inducting them into certain linguistic aspects.


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  1. I am a Canadian-born Chinese, who grew up speaking English at school; and Chinese at home.
  2. I am a linguistics student with a reasonable command of Japanese.

When the preceding two facts about myself are learned by my interlocutors, I often get asked what the difference between the three languages are: Chinese, Japanese, and English. They will often go straight to the basic syntax, and assume that’s all there is to discuss. But if one would consult the table below, such an analysis is not so simple.

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In my Sisyphean quest to elevate my Japanese lexicon to a level comparable to my English, I’m forced to delve into regions of vocabulary that are not normally (ie, never) covered in language classes, no matter how advanced the course. I doubt very much, for example, that any non-mathematical student of Japanese would ever learn how to say “the sixth root of sixty-four”, or “different isotopes do not affect molecular structure”. Language classes will mostly cover pedestrian topics (ie, statistically likely domains of conversation), related to family, personal well-being, some basic anatomy (hair, eye, hand; but not spleen, kidney, liver), literature, and some politics and geography. But never math, or astronomy, or physics, or literary analysis, or music theory. I should mention that I’m not blaming language courses for not being exhaustive in covering all conceivable intellectual domains; I’m only lamenting the fact that I personally have not had the pleasure of being formally taught “tech talk” in other languages, and therefore do not possess an intuition for which expressions are natural, and which are formal. In math, for example, the exponent an is technically expressed as “a to the power of n“, but conventionally, we shorten that to “a to the nth power” or more simply “a to the nth“.

So continuing on my quest, I decided to learn the names of the planets in our beloved solar system. And, being the etymological nut that I am, was able to immediately see some interesting facts. But first, the planets:

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Barring exceptions, everybody speaks at least one language. Some speak two or more. Some have an impressive array of languages that aren’t even in the same language family. And yet, that doesn’t necessarily make them linguists, or even language experts.

In fact, monolinguals are rarely even knowledgeable of the only language they’re capable of. Loads of native English-speakers flock to Asia to teach English, despite having no background or education in English, or language pedagogy. They speak English perfectly; surely that more-than-qualifies them to teach it. And yet, they couldn’t tell you anything about the nuances between adverbs, conjunctions, and prepositions, to say nothing of the  psycho-linguistic factors in play for the use of continuitive on (used in such sentences as “go on”; “play on”; “keep on drinking”, but not in sentences like “*drink on”, or “*scratch on”).

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COCA - Corpus of Contemporary American English
L1/L2/... - Primary/Secondary Language
NNS - Non-Native Speaker
NS - Native Speaker