Archive for the ‘Language-matters’ Category


Tautological translation

In French,Interesting unique life-changing links,Language-matters,Miraculous discoveries,Random fun stuff on Friday 4th September, 2009 by Guy Tagged: , ,

How do you say “Do you remember me?” in French? According to Google’s translation service, the answer is… “Do you remember me?”. No accents needed. Try it yourself. While stocks last at all good food shops.

Obligatory screenshot:

Translation as equality!

Translation as equality!

Hmm, it seems to happen with Galician and Afrikaans too, but not Danish and Macedonian and some others I checked. Is this a function of the statistical algorithm that Google use for automatic translations? Perhaps there are not enough French people (or South Africans or Galicians) plaintively asking if their conversation partner even knows who they are…


Collection Folio No. 1 — what is the first Folio book?

In Facty facts,French,Language-matters,Miraculous discoveries,Random fun stuff,Uncategorized on Thursday 7th May, 2009 by Guy

This one really had me stumped, and I’m surprised at how hard it was to solve.

One of France’s largest publishers, Gallimard, releases many books under the “Folio” imprint. For me, these books are the quintessence of French book publishing. They invariably have a white background, a simple cover, and a very serious, classic text inside. They look like this.

On the spine there is a number, which I suppose represents how many books have previously been published under the Folio imprint, but I couldn’t confirm this. They are up to four digits now… They are truly ubiquitous in any French bookshop.

An obvious question arises if one is as easily distracted by pointless questions as I am: which book has the number 1 on its spine? Purely by chance (helped no doubt by its fame), I found that Albert Camus’ “L’étranger” is number 2. It couldn’t be much harder to find its predecessor, surely? A quick google search or three should suffice…

But of course it wasn’t sufficient, otherwise I wouldn’t have written about it. [Oh, selection and publication bias, how I adore thee!] Incredibly, I could not find a simple list of all the Folio books every published along with their associated number. Yes, of course the Folio collection has its own site. But it didn’t burp up the simple list I required.

Anywho, after much speculative clicking, I managed to order all Folio books in order of publication date. And thus it was that I found that the “first ever” Folio book — albeit published on the same day as “L’étranger”, on the 7th of January 1972 — is…

André Malraux’s

“La condition humaine”

Never heard of it either, but it looks serious and classic.

Now I can sleep safely.



In Language-matters on Wednesday 25th June, 2008 by Guy

What if the choice of sound to describe “basic concepts” is not arbitrary?

One example of this is the bouba/kiki effect. In a psychological experiment first designed by Wolfgang Köhler, people are asked to choose which of two shapes is named bouba and which is named kiki. 95% to 98% of people choose kiki for the orange angular shape and bouba for the purple rounded shape. With individuals on the island of Tenerife, Kohler showed a similar preference between shapes called “takete” and “maluma”. Recent work by Daphne Maurer and colleagues has shown that even children as young as 2.5 (too young to read) show this effect (Maurer, Pathman & Mondloch 2006).

[source: Wikipedia!, in the article about Synaesthesia

This is a controversial topic, discussed also in Steven Pinker’s “The Language Instinct”. What do you think is the truth? And if you’re so sure, why don’t you find a way to find out once and for all already?


Tingo Chinese

In Chinese,Language-matters,Logophilia on Wednesday 25th June, 2008 by Guy

Despite its contents’ uncanny resemblance to a geocities website circa 1996, the book “The Meaning of Tingo”, published almost 10 years later in 2005, was quite the bestseller. The book’s aim was to catalogue many of the most useful words used in non-English languages which — perhaps because the British Empire didn’t cover the whole world; perhaps because there was no need for many English speakers to refer to these concepts after all; or perhaps just because of a cosmic joke — were never re-coined as English words. Unsurprisingly, my primary interest was in non-European words of this type, particularly Hebrew and Chinese words.

Today I came across the most delightful Chinese example for a long while. There are many, many Chinese phrases, unsurprisingly, that are untranslatable into equally short English passages, including lots of obscure characters that no-one uses any more, if they even know about them. But this one struck me for its combination of specificity and conciseness: 晕针 (yùn zhēn), meaning “a fainting spell during acupuncture treatment”, or more generally “to faint during injection”. This might be just another form of 晕 (fainting or dizziness), as 晕高 (vertigo) and 晕场 (to faint from stress, e.g. stage fright) also exist. But this particular type of fainting is not so easily described in English as the other, inexplicably, and hence is enough to break another one of my long periods of meditative (or is it just lackadaisical?) silence.


Chinese lessons in the West Midlands

In Chinese,Language-matters on Monday 28th January, 2008 by Guy

This is a rare Public Service Announcement.

If you want to learn Chinese, and you live in Leamington Spa, Warwick, Coventry, Birmingham, or Oxford in England, you should seriously consider signing up to the service provided by For only £15 per hour, you can have one-on-one Chinese lessons with a bilingual native speaker, with the first hour provided for free. This is available for all skill levels, from total beginner to almost fluent.

Thus ends the Announcement.


Sinograms to delight and to potentially herald an end to zero productivity on my part

In Chinese,Language-matters,Sinograms on Tuesday 2nd January, 2007 by Guy

I know you love funky Chinese characters, and I still remember how impatient you are, so let’s get on with it:

(from here; linking from the character directly would introduce a misleading underline): a female rhinoceros, or the species rhinoceros indicus, or to be safe, a female specimen of the species rhinoceros indicus. Courtesy of a squirrel, who was aided by cojak.

(here, and almost nowhere else): “the profundity of the harem, the mysterious and profound of the forbidden palace, the flourishing and exuberant of the flame”, according to cojak. The possibility that this is a hoax, or at least a nonce-character, burns strongly in my paranoid loins. Assuming it is real (and can someone please explain how that is decided? Or even what it means?), the alleged radical is , which means ‘sweet’, and is one of the rarer radicals. We shall come across it again, I’m quite sure.

(here) is, according to this self-described “curious article”, the most complex character currently in use, and it means, tingo-esque-ly, a “sound obscured by a stuffed nose”, or a “stoppage of the nose to speak with a nasal twang” according to its allocated cojak page, which in my admittedly non-expert opinion seems to be a quite similar definition. It is written with 36 strokes of the brush — if a brush is to be the writing instrument of choice — which is, to quote an eminent contemporary academic, “rather a lot of strokes”.

, , and (respectively here, here, here and, hold it, here) respectively mean, according to the sometimes-unreliable cojak, “ill-tempered; naughty”, “jade; precious stone; gem”, “master, chief owner; host; lord” and “king, ruler; royal; surname”. I am viscerally thrilled by their similarity in appearance [acknowledged by the use of the last character to represent the second one when radicalised, what with the “king” sense never being used as radical] which bears no relation to their diversity of meanings. Now of course you could argue, and I’m certain you will, that this is a facile enjoyment, a childish reason to be excited, and proof positive of my unquenchable racism, for doesn’t the equivalent phenomenon happen in English and other languages written with alphabets (let alone those written with abjads!)? This is true, but I don’t care. Let me be pleased if I can’t help it. Please.

and (referenced here and here respectively) mean ‘seashell’ and ‘to see’ respectively [how striking that their English definitions sound similar too]. Their “traditional” variants are 貝 and 見. Isn’t that nice? They’re also radicals, delightfully.

and (here and here, here-fans): Yes, these characters are not identical, and neither are their pronounciations, though their meanings are mercifully similar, with the former meaning “pig”, and the latter meaning… “a shackled pig”. Isn’t it obvious? My feline source indicates that these devilish sinograms are no longer in use, but they could theoretically be sprung upon us in the name of Chinese, rather like an Irish parliamentarian insisting on his or her right to debate laws in Gaelic, so we have to be ready. Like the Irish parliamentarians who have to listen to the Gaelic. I think you get it now.

and (available for ogling over here and, hey!, here): These two have the same pronounciation [you did work out that you can find out how to pronounce any of the characters featured in this post by merely and utterly leaving the mouse cursor hanging over them for a moment or four? Well, how about now?], the same meaning (sweet, like their radical, , encountered earlier. I did warn you), and are, as you can possibly see, identical, apart from the minor dissimilarity of being the other way round to each other. My knowledgable, well-sourced and rather dishy source has informed me that only the latter one — yep, the one with the radical on the right — is in current usage, but who’s keeping count? Apart from these guys (and gals. And those in-between).

If you can’t see some of the characters, or if you’re wondering why I get so happy at discovering that squares are sinograms too, you need to make your computer understand Chinese. This isn’t as hard as making you understand Chinese, but it’s not so simple that I can help you. Use the power of google to aid you in your quest. Good luck soldier.


Words for the Weekend 1

In Logophilia,Random fun stuff on Sunday 6th August, 2006 by Guy

It might already be Sunday as I type this and that, but this should not diminish the value of these first entries in the Words for the Weekend series. There are always other weekends to consider them. Don’t be so short-termist.

Eight words, all in English, first come first served:

  • inwrought [thank you von Mises, for the articles and the words they’re composed of, even though you are dead. I guess that isn’t your fault]
  • spoliation [ditto]
  • objurgate [ibid. He clearly used a big dictionary to create his works]
  • garnet [about as familiar a word to me as 石榴石, which is — yes! — the equivalent in Chinese]
  • miscegenation [a very useful word, and the demagogue in me can’t help but notice how it’s handily concorant with “misogynistic”. Courtesy of the vixen]
  • margaritaceous [gracias’s A.Word.A.Day RSS feed! No gracias for the silly name]
  • pulchritude [ditto]
  • proceleusmatic [oh so ditto]

More to follow, if I can catch them and when I find the will to display them. Like butterflies.