25 September 2005

Languages, cliches, and my favorite swear word

I once had a co-worker tell me that Arabic was the perfect language because it was impossible to state something ambiguously. He's a Muslim, so the bias was obvious and offensive in its arrogance--the same goes for any Catholics boasting about Latin or Jews about Hebrew (closely related to Arabic, so wrestle with that one). When I challenged him on the absurdity of any language being this-er than that or more something than whatever, he huffed that he "has travelled all over the world" and therefore had more experience than me.

Needless to say, I lost most of my respect for him. I'm not a language wiz, but jackassed statements such as that push my buttons.

So Semantic Compositions was pondering the issue of football terms in Navajo and pointing out that just because the term didn't originate in the language, there's still going to be a way to say it in that language: if baseball could be covered in French, surely football can be done in Navajo. From that, he links to three previous Language Log articles on linguistic cliches propagated in the press. The first, on Irish having no word for sex (right)--with an orgy of examples. The second, on the Moken having no concept of time. The last, on the Chinese word for "crisis" (hint: it's not danger + opportunity):

Would it be fair to assume that English has no word for what the French refer to as 'papillon', resorting instead to a compound made out of the words 'butter' and 'fly'. What would such a statement, even if it were linguistically valid - which it isn't - show about the language or the speakers of the language in question? Probably very little. In fact it's about as likely that a Chinese speakers using the word 'crisis' made up of whatever morphemes it happens to be made up of is to be aware of this secondary reading as an English speaker would be to think that butterflies are some sort of 'air-borne grease balls'.

All of the articles link further down into a wonderful afternoon's worth of reading on linguistic jiggery-pokery.


Languagehat points to an NYT article (originally emailed to me by Mason, thanks!) on everyone's favorite pastime: swearing. LH takes to task those easily offended by quoting this from the article:

... a similar reaction [of physiological arousal towards cursing] occurs among university students and others who pride themselves on being educated when they listen to bad grammar or slang expressions that they regard as irritating, illiterate or déclassé.

Hehe. Rather than worry about dangling prepositions and crude pejoratives, worry about those jackasses that are abusing our understanding of the world with opportunistic lies about language. From an excellent linked article on Chinese crisis:

[Crisis = Danger + Opportunity] appears, often complete with Chinese characters, on the covers of books, on advertisements for seminars, on expensive courses for "thinking outside of the box," and practically everywhere one turns in the world of quick-buck business, pop psychology, and orientalist hocus-pocus.

Finally, LH reintroduced me to this weird form of Russian slang called Mat.

[ posted by sstrader on 25 September 2005 at 5:20:03 PM in Language & Literature ]