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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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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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This is a bit of a second take on my original insight on double referents. I’m also going to change gears slightly by introducing two related-but-not-immediately-intuitive concepts, so I hope my dear readers will bear with me as you patiently wade through my confusion of jargon and pseudo-logic.

So I’m gonna start by explaining how these constructions work syntactically (at least, so far as my middling understanding can take it), and follow it up by why this type of error is so exciting. As a sort of refresher and motivation to work through this post, I was looking at the construction and deconstruction of the error generated by non-native speakers of English in phrases like (1) and (2).

(1) Your questions are always hard to answer (*it)!

(2) John is easy to please (*him).

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