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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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 »

Sometimes, the smallest words make up the most interesting errors. A common speech error I’ve noticed among ESLers, is the addition/placement of “it” as the object in a complement. For example, consider the following:

*1. Your questions are always hard to answer it.
*2. What you just said is something that we cannot do it.

(Linguists conventionally head an unnatural sentence with a [*], and a questionably/regionally unnatural sentence with a [?])

In both cases, the “it” at the end is superfluous, because either (a) the whole complement (ie, the bit that goes after “is/are”) is used to describe the subject (the bit that goes before the “is/are”), and so it would create a recursive referent (e.g. “your questions are hard to answer themselves”); or (b) because it’s part of the subclause modifying the noun (e.g. “questions {that are hard to answer}).

But admittedly, this is a relatively high-level error. After all, consider the following related sentences:

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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