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Sidenote: Welcome to the new year! I’ve successfully completed one semester of my Q-year at UT, and hopefully will continue to match/exceed my previous performance in the new term, as grad schools now consider my applications for their MA program in Linguistics. Unlike my days as an undergrad, I never handed in anything late, nor did I skip any submissions this term. I honestly have my three+ years’ corporate experience to thank for my current time-management skills (which is still far from exemplary, but thankfully distant from the dysfunctional state I was in during my late teens). I also spent two weeks in Tokyo during my winter holidays, which I’ll blog about later (with a relevant linguistic angle — I promise!)

It’s funny to consider what kind of associations people make with words and especially names. Sure, in the study of semantics, we talk about salience of meanings, so that “foul” as in “bad play/move in sports” is more likely to be elicited in the average speaker’s mind than “bad-smelling”. Given names are more nebulous, although certain cultural staples exist. For example, most people imagine Gertrude as being over a certain age, or that Martha is over a certain weight.

My given name, Joseph, isn’t really all that exciting. Etymologically, it comes from Hebrew, and means “he will increase/add”. Frankly, I suspect it’s supposed to say more about my fecundity than my arithmetic ability. In any case, it’s not an especially novel name, nor an especially novel spelling (like “Yoseff”, for example). In the decade I was born, “Joseph” was the tenth most popular given male name; and in 2011, ranked 22nd.

Now, “Joseph” being a standard common Christian English name, doesn’t have any strong associations for me. And I suspect, for most people, meeting someone named “Joseph” doesn’t really elicit any particular associations or surprise. And yet, a few weeks ago, when I met a fellow Asian-(North)-American, her first response to learning my name was “Is your family Christian?”


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I normally wouldn’t comment on such things, because other websites already do such an excellent job of it, but I decided to write about this particular debacle because of its reportedly actual translation.

So I found this webpage that allegedly described three major [Chinese] tattoo mistranslations. However, the investigative journalism enshrined in that page was of such eye-wateringly low quality, it really blew my mind. In any case, one of them contained the following Chinese tattoo: 夕丑男, which the owner reportedly thought meant “love, honour, and obey”. Allegedly, however, the “real” meaning is “at the end of the day, this is an ugly boy”.

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Even if you know all the words in the sentence, it doesn’t mean you know what the sentence means. Moreover, even if a grammatically correct translation is attainable, doesn’t mean that it carries the same discoursal value. Such is the curse of polylingualism (by which I mean, “the phenomena of having more than one language in existence”).

So in English, we have this fascinating effect of doubling negatives in order to soften the intent. Wonderfully documented in Laurence R Horn’s The Expression of Negation, Horn notes that the two negatives do not completely cancel each other, and instead end up producing a weaker positive than the original positive statement. Consider:

1. Mary’s happy. Or at least, not unhappy.

2. Bart: Dad, are you licking toads?
Homer: I’m not NOT licking toads…

3. A: I thought you were friends with her?
B: Well, I’m not NOT friends with her…

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During a brief bout of insanity, I worked as a non-certified court reporter, taking oral testimony outside of court. And during that time, I had failed to be green-lit as an editor for transcripts (which are used as evidence in trial). But aside from the extraordinary lack of proper training, an explicit style guide, or even an outlined chain of command, was the general idea that the Dictionary is the Final Authority. …That, and, upon second thought, almost every other linguistic fallacy was rigidly followed.

1. Dictionary as Final Authority
I suppose in a literal way, the dictionary is a final authority, in the sense that it is last. Think about it: words only get entered and defined in dictionaries after lexicographers (extremely subjectively) observe the emergence of new words and/or usages. Put another way, it’s only after a word has reached a certain saturation point in common culture, that lexicographers will attempt to define and enter a word into their dictionaries. Which is to say, that the in-house 1989 Canadian Oxford Dictionary is woefully behind the times. Especially when you consider the fact that what is being transcribed is spontaneous contemporary speech; not a carefully considered written response. (Corollary: Dictionary between languages are even further behind the times. Between my Japanese friends and me, we found that their only gloss for poignant, was the etymologically original sense of “sad”, as opposed to the more contemporary sense of “apt; sharply felt”.)

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I generally try to stay away from Western films with Eastern themes, because despite over a century of colonization/trading relations, the whole “mysticism” veil still persists. Admittedly, I’m always extra sensitive when people of my (East Asian) ethnic background are portrayed in western media, especially since the cultural and linguistic similarities are very scarce.  But on a whim, since I used to be a Jet Li fan (notably before he broke into Western media), I decided to try out Forbidden Kingdom (2008).

But this blog isn’t a personal film review, although I will say that the effects were stunning and impressive. The plot was also decent. But as far as the linguistic angle goes, there seemed to be some awkward lines. Within 30 minutes of the film, I’d already caught some very awkward translations:

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Another blog post headed by a flashback to my LING101 class: Apparently the words “perfume” and “fragrance” have been rising and falling on syncopated peaks. The rich will prefer “perfume” and then the lower classes will copy them, and then the rich will switch to “frangrance” to stay ahead. …And then the lower classes will copy them again and use “fragrance”, forcing the rich to switch back to “perfume”. And this flip-flipping has been going on for a few hundred years now. Unfortunately, I forget which one is currently ahead in England, but I’m going to stake a guess with “fragrance”.

This entire process is fascinating to me, even though it clearly doesn’t occur within a generation. For one thing, it’s yet another counter-example to the “golden age” fallacy of language perception (the idea that our current use of language is corrupted from some earlier pristine state). But for another, it also demonstrates that pro- and prescriptive efforts in language use aren’t always entirely effective. English, however, does not have a sole claim to this phenomenon.

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So earlier this morning (Feb 5), I followed a friend’s link to the Daily Mail’s online article citing a psych study on the correlation between cognitive ability and political views. Essentially, people who can’t abstract that well, can’t consider other people’s perspectives as well, which translates to being unable to relate to people who are different from them (whether by sex, race, or sexual orientation). And the afternoon before, I had had a discussion with some Japanese friends about what famous personalities of Japan are known in Canada (or vice versa), which highlighted the idea of “stereotypical faces” in my head. Read the rest of this entry »

A very tired old rhetorical trope (among journalists, and by extension the general public) is the idea that “language X has no words for Y,” thereby inferring some cultural or intellectual value judgement on language X’s speaker population. But all sufficiently sophisticated cultures will have ways of expressing similar sentiments, even if they don’t have a one-to-one and onto mapping of vocabulary. So while I certainly wouldn’t dare to make value judgements on languages for lacking the distinction between two related English words, it does get frustrating sometimes, when I have to go through the same spiel again and again, whenever I meet yet another speaker of language X.

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