“with no result”

I’m a long-time fan of this site, which features extraordinary translation fails from (primarily) Chinese and Japanese into English. Machines really have no chance at doing this task successfully, given the uniquely multi-layered semantic processing involved with hanzi/kanji. What’s quite marvelous is the sheer degree of surreal poeticism and, often, twisted syntactic lunacy which results.

Yesterday while finally tackling some long-overdue laptop tidying I came across a misplaced folder containing a number of these, and here be two (menus are a prime source).

Oh, and a good and happy new year to all!



[ae:::h], or, English needs more interjections…

My last post, a frustrated shriek concerning the now seemingly complete acceptability of cell phone use in public indoor spaces, ended with the well-known non-word “aargh.” This reminds me of the relative poverty-strickenness of our language with regard to interjections.

Yes, seriously.

Two cases in point. There’s a word I say all the time that doesn’t exist, but sounds rather like the IPA symbols given in the title to this post. For those unacquainted with the IPA, the symbol “ae” indicates a near-open front vowel, unrounded (like our “a” in the word “hat”), and the colons after it indicate lengthening (“h” is like our ordinary unvoiced “h”). I say that a lot, although more precisely the vowel is somewhat in-between an [ae] and the slightly “closer” (tongue higher) [ɛ].

But we have no word for this, so I can’t type it! “Eh” doesn’t work: this nearly always is used interrogatively, meaning “huh?” So I end up typing something like “ugh” or “aargh,” but that’s not what I mean.

The other “word” I say a lot has a vowel sound like the i in “is,” though slightly more central, followed by a sound somewhere in-between our English “h” and German “ch.” When I use it it means something like: “what can ya do?” or like an abbreviated alternative to “oy vey,” or something like that. But again if you were to try and write that you’d get something like “ihh,” and no one would understand it at all.

And come to think of it, we all say a lot of “words” which basically consist of just a single, often in-between kind of vowel, sometimes with some kind of optional “h” at the very end. And they are all very expressive. The only problem is they don’t happen to be words…

I always used to devalue interjections as a part of speech. When you begin studying a new language you become gradually more and more immersed in all the semantic intricacies and profundities of Verbs, find yourself engulfed in the endless sea of Nouns. You master the various classes of Pronoun, pick up comparative and superlative forms of Adjective and Adverb along the way, learn those basic twenty or so Prepositions, and bow at the feet of the mighty Conjunctions and Particles which structure and clarify larger units of thought. But Interjections? I always used to think: why are they even a part of speech? Grammars and vocabulary books only ever give you, like, two of them! What’s the point?

Our word “interjection” comes from the Latin “interiectiō,” literally meaning “throwing something in.” The idea is that there are no structural ties there to the rest of the sentence. In any case, I’ve decided they do need their own part of speech after all, because I’ve realized we need more of them. However … “ihh” just isn’t going to catch on, I understand this. Or [ae:::h]. Oh well. Who’s in charge of all this anyway? Someone should write a letter…

shi shi shi …

shi shi shi

(Apologies for the poor scan. It’s taken from Writing Systems: A Linguistic Approach, by Henry Rogers (Blackwell))

I love this very extreme example of Mandarin Chinese homophony: an entire story made up of a single syllable (though really four syllables of course, taking into account tonal quality).

Various people have recorded this literary masterpiece, the one below being my favorite…

linguistics in a flow chart (ish)

(click for higher resolution)

Well, I feel sorry for the oft-neglected morphologists, neglected again. As the bridge between phonology and syntax, their work tends either to be tacked onto the former or the latter, for some reason, denied sovereignty.

Beyond that, this is quite clever, though of course necessarily schematic. I don’t really fit, since my answer to the very first question channels me into only one option – which is not where I’d want to go. But when I choose the answer “several,” instead of “as many as possible,” it does in fact bring up the half of the diagram I’m most interested in, especially syntax, semantics (although the non-math kinds like lexical and cognitive), and pragmatics. (Hmm, but both first and second language acquisition are completely fascinating also – I suppose it’s only the upper right quadrant that holds less of an interest for me.)

Obviously the main purpose was to give some general sense of the range of linguistic enterprise while having some fun at the same time (can’t syntacticians function with young children?!).

It’s interesting how little the general public still knows about what linguists do. The most common view of course is that “linguists” simply learn many languages, ie that they are polyglots, rather than that they study language as such. So this chart may be helpful in giving a sense of the range of areas involved in the study of language, even if a little (tongue-in-) cheekily.

“Take pleasure in the mid day”: Siri and Google Voice (try to) have a conversation…

… and remind us just how utterly human is language.

Why is language understanding/production so stupendously difficult to inculcate in a machine/software? Consider the various levels:

1) A language’s sound system is never simply a one-to-one mapping from symbol to a set of articulations, because sounds are always affected by their surrounding context too, in all kinds of ways. We’re almost entirely unconscious of this as we speak, but software must explicitly calculate everything. So every form of assimilation, say – whether it be forward-looking (anticipatory coarticulation), or as it were backward-looking (perseverative) – represents an additional syllabic possibility, and as English contains many homophones (though not even nearly as many as, say, Japanese), software has to come up with higher-level criteria in order to select one over another. Leading to:

2) All the intricacies of morphosyntax, which represent a creative capacity fundamentally irreducible to sets of algorithmic procedure.

3) But then, at the same time as a machine is grappling with all of that, it comes up against the semantic component of language, which again is an unthinkably more sophisticated system than a mere cataloguing of potential meanings word-by-word and phrase-by-phrase, involving intricacies within intricacies of nuance – figuration, irony, suggestion, metaphor, and on and on…

4) And even this isn’t the end of a poor machine’s travails, because semantics then shades into the level of language known as pragmatics, which involves everything connected to context (personal, social, cultural), and cohesiveness and reference internal to the entire current discourse – in short, a multitude of different kinds of understanding between people which don’t need to be explicitly expressed.

The end result of all these layers of difficulty?

We quickly go from: “…I expect some degeneration. Human Computer Interactions are prone to error, frustration, and often amusement. Humorous incongruities arise and superiority humor emerges as we take pleasure in the mistakes, misunderstandings, and limitations of software and machines.”

To: “I think that the generation human computer interactions airport to wherever castration in the office at and if you have to call me at either white and Terrier already and we have urgent that we take pleasure in the Patriot understanding on limitations of software and leaking.”


our culture of aversion (1)


The buddhist tradition speaks of a root cause to all our suffering – basic ignorance/confusion/delusion regarding the nature of reality – giving rise to two fundamental kinds of impulses and strategies for papering over that ignorance. One is a push and the other is a pull. The former aims to get rid of whatever feels too threatening to our current sense of self, the latter aims to strengthen that sense of self by bringing in elements from the seeming outside – greater security in the form of identities, possessions, credentials, pleasures etc. (These – the three “kleshas” – are represented in the very center of the traditional Wheel of Life above.)

The two strategies deriving from ignorance get translated in a number of different ways, and those translations matter. Consider some of the alternatives for the “pull” impulse: desire, greed, attachment, passion. The English terms come preloaded with entire cultural histories, and we can’t simply forget these. For us “greed” is entirely negative, but “passion” carries a number of very positive aspects. For that matter, “attachment” and “desire” have some good senses too.

“Aggression,” “hatred,” “anger,” and “aversion” are the terms most commonly used to translate the “push” quality mentioned above. Here too there can be confusion: “aggression” is more-or-less entirely negative for us, but sometimes the word “anger” is used positively, and even “hatred” too, as when people speak about a hatred for violence or brutality, for example, or a hatred of samsara (deluded existence).

My general experience within Tibetan buddhism has been that for us humans, practically speaking, pulling isn’t considered quite as problematic as pushing, at least in general. The poetry of Trungpa Rinpoche, for example, is full of “passion,” love of human beauty and creativity, love of the earth, the elements. He was famous/notorious for his numerous affairs and prodigious drinking. He celebrated heartbreak in love and more broadly “the genuine heart of sadness,” one description of the bodhisattvic impulse itself.

Another lama put it this way: he said that even though any desire/attachment etc will cause suffering sooner or later, as beings on the path attachment has more to be said for it than aversion, specifically because it involves relationship. There is acknowledgment of connectedness, a potential for openness. Of course, this is present too in aversion – in the Tibetan view, all confused emotional energies have a flip side that is nothing other than their pure wisdom quality.

But again very generally speaking, “householder” or non-monastic buddhism recognizes a positive need for “passion” in our more usual, ordinary sense of the word. We need to generate a lot of energy for the path, to cultivate confidence, strength, and a kind of burning desire to be free of conditioning, compulsion, ignorance. As the lama mentioned above continued: even if your passion is just for an old shoe, at least you’re relating to something! There’s something concrete to work with. Whereas aversion/hatred rejects relationship itself.

And perhaps this is also why, of the six traditional psychological realms of buddhism (represented in the third spoke of the Wheel of Life), that which is associated with “desire” is the human realm, considered the most fortunate of the six. Whereas the realm dominated by aggression and hatred is of course the hell realm – the least fortunate of all.


So I just received back some comments on a project proposal that contained this word “operationalization.” And it occurred to me that I actually have no idea what this means!

Breaking it apart, 1) we have a root, “opus/opera,” meaning “work” (same as in the musical terms).

And now a whole string of derivational suffixes:

2) the noun “opus/opera” becomes the verb “operate”;

3) which becomes another noun, “operation”;

4) which gets turned into an adjectival form, “operational”;

5) from which we get another verb, “operationalize”;

6) which finally gives us … yet another nominal form, “operationalization.”

That’s 3 nouns, 2 verbs, and an adjective, if anyone is keeping count.

So the question is: how do we simplify this thing? “The procedure whereby something is made operational/workable/usable?” I guess that’s what it’s trying to convey.

But even more fully parsed: “The procedure whereby something is put into a form which can serve as an entity upon which one can do some kind of work.”

Ugh. That’s just one ugly word, isn’t it?

The contextual phrase was “operationalization of theories,” so why not just something like: applying the theories? That’s about half the number of syllables plus pretty much anyone can understand it.

But … that seems to be the point. Non-academic folk aren’t supposed to understand academic-speak anymore. Not just when specialized terms do need to be used, but, like, ever, it seems…

are the Japanese really forgetting how to write kanji correctly?

I found this post on Language Log yesterday rather sad:

According to a recent survey of more than 2,000 people, 66.5 percent of Japanese think they are losing the ability to correctly handwrite kanji. Moreover, the level is above 50% for every age group except for the youngest (16-19), who are of course still actively studying characters and thus must be prepared for tests; and even there the figure is still very close to the 50% mark.

And these figures are much higher than 10 years ago.

The significance of this isn’t completely clear to me as the article (and perhaps the recent survey as well) doesn’t specify the relative number of kanji which are becoming difficult for those that replied in the affirmative. I’d guess all the more frequent characters remain easily writeable. But the long-term trend of writing less and less by hand seems assured, so… I assume there is an increased use of hiragana for less frequent characters. Which, on top of the ever more frequent non-native borrowings into katakana, will make the writing system a stranger hybrid over time.

There’s an interesting post near the bottom of the comments section about the history of Chinese character use within Korean, and the stages by which, over the course of the past century or so, the former has ceded most of its ground to the Hanguel (the native Korean syllabary). Still very hard for me to imagine the same thing happening within Japanese, for several different reasons, but it’s an unusual situation.