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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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  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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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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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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So I’ve been reading this manga series called “Antimagia“, which is a cute little series (just started), about a little boy prince who’s been to hell and back, and in the process acquired this fantastic magical power called ‘antimagia’. …except that he’s literally performing magic. And that magic is called ‘anti-magic’. But it’s not the sort of magic-nullifier kind of magic. I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t really compute for me.

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A lot of the friends that I’ve been making recently are from Japan, and so the topic of language acquisition naturally  crops up in conversation. “Joseph, why is your Japanese so good,” they’d ask. “What can I do to improve my English?” As both an English major and an amateur linguist, my answer is usually something like:

“access as many forms of media as possible. Watching sitcoms will give you natural expressions for natural situations. Reading novels and magazines will give you the breadth of vocabulary for sophisticated discourse. Speaking with native speakers will give you first-hand opportunity to practise and revise your speech patterns.”

But internally, my answer is simply a word: Rhetoric. Rhetoric is the secret success to any language learner. It’s the secret success to any speaker or writer, to any one who communicates effectively. And yet, it’s the one thing in language acquisition that is never explored. Everybody gets fixated on grammar and vocabulary, without considering the wide-ranging applications of rhetoric.

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The issue of translating (and peripherally, transliterating) has weighed on my mind ever since I undertook a certain school project, translating the first chapter of a Classical Chinese novel into contemporary English. This led to two main problems: the issue of transliterating character names; and how faithfully to preserve the rhetorical structure, since it differs so wildly from English literature.

But before we go further, we should address the (annoying) lie of “we don’t have a word for X in our language, and therefore those people are cognitively impoverished”. From my Linguistics 101 lecture notes:

Everything in any language can always be translated into another language. There is no lexeme that is beyond the cognitive capacity of any normal adult. Translations can only differ in their brevity(length), and elegance(structure).

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