Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Jobs that begin with the letter 'L'

Such as 'lexicographer', were one of the subjects on our local radio station today, so I spent ten minutes talking to Lesley Dolphin, host of the BBC Radio Suffolk afternoon show, about the life of a lexicographer. There is a link here:

(the interview is from about 0.55.21 and goes up to about 1.05.00)

Because this is on BBC's 'Listen again' Iplayer facility I think it will expire on Oct 18th 2011 (one week after the show was aired) and it is probably only available in the UK.

Here are some of the points that came up:

  • Yes, at some point someone did write every entry that you read in the dictionary. At some point there was a blank screen that was filled in by a fallible human to the best of their abilities. And therefore it is occasionally wrong.
  • There are lots of ways to decide what to write in a dictionary but, because we now have a lot of evidence (Corpus) you would have to work very hard to persuade me that you would write a better dictionary without looking at Corpus or other genuine real-person language output
  • Language changes and always has done. English is no exception (and maybe changes more than some others)
  • You don't need to patrol language. Just record it. Language is perfectly capable of protecting itself.

Friday, 9 September 2011

English phrases borrowed from Chinese - kind of

What I'm talking about are not the obvious Chinese-sounding words like tofu and Feng Shui (which are indeed borrowed or imported from Chinese - hands up those who know that Feng Shui means 'Wind + Water')

What I'm interested in now is how many other English phrases and idioms are derived from Chinese by translation of the original Chinese words. There was after all a lot of contact between England and China from about 1800 onwards and there has been a continuous contact via the entrepôt of Hong Hong.

One example I had heard of was the phrase a 'look-see' (as in "I think I might just wander over there for a quick look-see"). This is apparently well-attested as being a translation (or 'calque' for the more linguistically-minded) of the Chinese phrase 看见 (kàn jiàn) which  means 'look-see'.

However I was very surprised to realise that the idiom 'to lose face' is also taken directly from Chinese. It seemed so comfortably English that I had never suspected it was an  interloper, but it seems that it was taken in the 19th century from the much older Chinese expressions regarding face. The usual Chinese phrase for 'lose face' is 丢面子 (diū miàn zi). The concept of 'face' is much richer in the Chinese language than in English and you can, for example, make a conscious effort to 'give someone face' by treating them as important or worthy in front of others.

If anyone knows of or suspects other loans of this type I'd be glad to hear.

Monday, 15 August 2011

duì​bu​qǐ 对不起! - apologies for absence for last three weeks

(duìbu is the normal Chinese word for "sorry!" by the way. It's the one you use when you bump into someone in a queue)

We've just come back from three weeks holiday in South-West China. I should have perhaps mentioned this on here in advance. But it does mean that I have come back with lots more ideas about China and particularly about how it looks to someone working with language. I will post some of these things over the next few weeks, but in the mean time here is the link to a 'Blipfoto' journal that Caroline posted while we were there. She's put 21 photos there - one for each day - of things that really caught the eye. The first one is for July 23rd (here: and they go through to Aug 13th. I'm particularly keen (for obvious reasons) on the nice picture of a calligrapher's shop on Aug 11th. More later

Monday, 18 July 2011

Chinese Sayings No.5

杯盘狼藉 (bēi pán láng jí)

To find out what this idiom means, why don't you just copy the Chinese characters, go to Google, select 'Image search' and see what comes up? (This is a sneaky trick of the bilingual lexicographer or even of a language-curious non-lexicographer who wants to find out the meaning of something in a foreign language)

The 'literal' meaning of this idiom is something like "cups and plates scattered all over the place" (although the Chinese word bēi can stand for glasses too, so this is not just an unruly teaparty)

The idiomatic meaning is 'the scene after the feast', ie a sign that everybody has just had a very good evening. In an idiomatic English reading of it, you'd think of it as "what the kitchen looked like the morning after the party". But in China all carousing is done in a restaurant, so the mess would be cleared away within the hour.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Chinese is a tonal language - and therefore...

I don't think it is a good idea to assume anything about people's knowledge of language, so let me explain what 'tonal language' means and then go into how this matters when you are an English speaker learning Chinese (or a Chinese speaker learning English)

I don't think we have tonal languages in Europe at all, but they are fairly common in Asia (and I'd say the most important tonal language is Chinese). The basic difference is that in English the meaning of a word usually stays the same no matter whether you say it with a flat, level tone or with a rising question-like tone or with a falling, 'Honest Yorkshireman' sort of tone. Let's take the word 'ma' which means the same thing as 'mum' or mom' in some northern English dialects and in Irish English. Now you could say:
  • "Was that woman your ma?" (where the word would go up in tone because it's a question)
  • "My ma had a few words with her" (in which case the word would be fairly level in tone)
  • "That wasn't my da, that was my ma!" (in which case the tone would be falling because you're contrasting it)
In each of those sentences the meaning of the word 'ma' is quite stable. It means the same thing whatever way you pronounce it. But in a tonal language that difference of rising tone, flat tone, falling tone actually makes it a different word.

Now it happens that 'ma' is also a word in Chinese (did you see what I did there?) so let me give you an example:
  • If you say 'ma' with a level, flat fairly high-pitched tone in Chinese it means (surprise, surprise) 'mother'
  • If you say 'ma' with a rising tone, like a question, it can mean 'hemp' or it can be an adjective meaning 'rough, coarse'
  • If you say it with a tone that goes down and then comes back up (it sounds a little like someone being sarcastic) then it means 'horse'
You will at least be happy to know that each of the three different words above have different Chinese characters (they are, respectively, 妈, 麻 and 马). The 'Mandarin' Chinese that you will most likely be taught is basically a four-tone language (the tones of any character can be: first tone (level and fairly high pitched), second tone (rising), third tone (falling then rising), fourth tone (falling). There are also some characters that have no tone or a 'neutral' tone and these are sometimes referred to as 'fifth tone'.

So what are the practical implications of this if you are learning Chinese?

  • You have to make sure that you listen hard to your teacher and pay real attention to how they pronounce a new word. English speakers are only accustomed to listening to a string of sounds in a new word, not to the actual 'tune' of those sounds. It is very good to have a parrot-like faculty as a mimic.
  • You will live in fear - when visiting China - of making some horrible faux pas because you got the tones wrong. For example, at the mildest end of the scale, the word for 'buy' is 'mai' and the word for 'sell' is also 'mai', but with a different tone. The TV sitcom phrase 'hilarious consequences' is always at the front of your mind (PS, there isn't really much risk of faux pas but you will fear them nevertheless)
  • You will realise why old English-speaking comedians had that strange sing-song voice that they used when pretending to be Chinese. It is actually based on a correct observation of what Chinese sounds like. It goes up and down because it wouldn't make sense without the up-and-down. In fact, a lot of  English speakers' contact with China over the last two centuries has been with speakers of Cantonese (which is the main Chinese 'dialect' of South China and Hong Kong). And Cantonese has seven tones, not four!
Now can I just emphasize that none of the above is meant to put you off learning Chinese - far from it. I'd recommend Chinese learning to anyone, because it is great fun and more and more useful every year. It is just a good idea to go in with your eyes open and to go in fully-prepared for a language which is logical and ancient and learnable but just not like English.

However, I should point out that we do in fact have a couple of islets of tonal meaning in English too. Think of the word 'really' and of its various meanings. In the first exchange below it means something like 'absolutely!' and it is said with a level or falling tone. In the second sentence it means 'Is that the case?' and is said with a rising tone. The tone backs up the meaning.

A:'You must be tired after that drive.'
B:'Yeah, really.'

A: 'He said that years ago he lived in the same street as you.'
B: 'Really?'

Monday, 11 July 2011

Parsing the 'Today' programme

Strange things can happen to you when you are working all day on dictionaries. In exactly the same way that a period reading Victorian Novels can render one insensible to the quotidian language of the 'mobile vulgus' so can an excess of lexicography do funny things to your brain's word-centres.

I once spent six months working on a project in which we had to produce a full list of all the patterns and collocations of 500 common verbs. This meant we spent all day long thinking about and describing how 'spend' or 'charge' or 'offer' could fit into all its possible sentences. Go on, you have a go:

In one of its common senses, you can spend something, usually money, but this 'something' could be realised by lots of nouns and noun phrases:
  • spend £50
  • spend your inheritance
  • spend far more than you really ought to have done
  • spend all the money that you had saved up for the Christmas presents
  • spend nothing (yes, even an amount that is zero can be a kosher object for this verb)
and because this is a fairly standard English transitive verb, you are just as likely to find the noun or noun phrase preceding the verb in a passive structure:
  • by this point all the money had been spent
  • what I spent on that guitar would have kept me in roll-ups for a year
  • £80bn is being spent on bailing out the banks
The upshot of all this time spent looking hard at verbs and sentences is that you become very familiar with the whole way that natural English sentences work. It is far beyond the kind of parsing that people used to do at school, because that was usually done with made-up sentences. No, you end up listening to the Today programme on Radio 4 in the morning and you find yourself parsing the sentences as people speak. Ho-hum... fill the cafetiere... Adverbial clause indicating time frame ...boil the kettle...Object clause preceding transitive verb in passive...check the toast....verb in perfect continuous form..... It is a strange experience.

The feeling that it leaves you with is quite refreshing though. Too often 'grammar' is seen as an external force that stops you doing the wrong thing. In fact the real grammar is the hugely flexible but still constrained set of preferences and obligations that allow you to make up totally new sentences that a casual listener can absorb while making the coffee (or which a casual lexicographer can absent-mindedly parse)

Saturday, 9 July 2011

What do we mean by 'to speak a language'?

Or in other words, if you say 'I speak a little French' how little is enough for you to qualify?

We were once on a ferry going from Croatia to Venice, for the first time. Caroline and I started to gather together any Italian that we knew, in the way that one gathers together loose change when slightly short of the price of a drink.

Bella! Ciao! Illuminati! Espresso! Si! we went on like this for quite some time, pulling words we had seen on menus, heard in Mafia films, noticed in songs. It was surprising how much two never-learners of Italian had managed to squirrel away.

The lack of any grammatical knowledge was more critical. Once you have got past "una X per favor" (or is it por favor) there is not much that you can do without the glue of structure to hold things together. And then one realises that having all those nouns and occasional adjectives won't get you far without the basic (and no doubt, highly irregular) common verbs to hold it together.

I think we got together about 60-80 words eventually and plucked up the courage to order two ice-creams in 'Italian-lite'. The handsome Venetian vendor smiled and answered in perfect English.

I think I would consider 60-80 words to be a little short of 'a smattering' and well short of 'a bit'. But maybe it was enough to kick-start one's acquisition of the language. And you have to admit that when you learn your second word in a new language you have increased your vocabulary size by 50%!

Friday, 8 July 2011

Chinese sayings No 4

绵里藏针 (mián lǐ cáng zhēn) 

This idiom translates directly as 'a needle hidden in silk floss'. The zhēn at the end is the needle (it has a metal 'radical' within the character. I'll come back in a later post to the whole idea of 'radicals' in Chinese characters)

So what would the English meaning be and when would you use it? Well, the closest is 'the iron fist in the velvet glove' or, possibly 'a wolf in sheep's clothing'. It basically indicates a hard inner purpose beneath a smooth or emollient surface. It is sometimes useful to enter a chinese word or phrase into the google image search option to see what comes up (to get a feel for the character, word or phrase). There are several military images when you search for this idiom.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Terrestrial television, corded phones and dumb bombs...

Go on, what is the connection between those three things?

Think a bit....

OK - they are all names that were invented to specifically refer to the 'default' word that we used to use before a particular technical development occurred. So before 'Satellite television' came along 'Terrestrial television' was just called 'television' (because it was pretty much all terrestrial and nobody had thought this was a fact worth mentioning). And before 'cordless phones' were invented a 'corded phone' was just called a 'phone'

I'm sure there must be a technical term for this, but in it's absence I would call it the 'terrestrial television syndrome'. I would be very glad to collect other examples of the phenomenon - and even gladder to receive people's predictions for new words that will emerge in this way.

For example, if 'designer babies' become the new norm, then what do you call the other kind?

"Oh, the nose? Yes, Charlie was a ***** baby".

What term is going to fill that gap? Artisan baby? off-the-peg baby?

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Chinese Sayings No 3

不管黑猫白猫, 能捉耗子就是好猫 (Bu guan hei mao bai mao, neng zhuo haozi jiu shi hao mao)

which roughly translates as: "It doesn't matter whether it is a black cat or a white cat, as long as it can catch mice it's a good cat". It is apparently a Sichuan saying from that huge, friendly and spicy province in the heart of China (PS even if you don't speak any Chinese you should still be able to work out the Chinese word - and character - for "cat" from this saying :))

The English equivalent to this saying? I'm not sure we have one but the meaning is clear enough = "function is what matters, not form". If you can think of a closely-matching English idiom, tell me.

The phrase is widely remembered as what Deng Xiao Ping is supposed to have said at a Communist Party Secretariat meeting in 1962. He was the person credited with pushing through the economic and market reforms which have revolutionized China (if you'll pardon the pun) over the last 30 years.

You can see why he picked this particular saying.

Sunday, 26 June 2011

On the birdiness of birds

During our lexicographical training we were introduced in a practical way to some of the things that seemed very arcane knowledge during an English degree, but which turn out to be your bread-and-butter when writing a dictionary.

For example, in one session we had to consider the 'birdiness of birds'. This section borrowed some of the images and ideas from Jean Aitcheson's book 'Words in the Mind' and specifically the chapter dealing with 'bad birds and better birds'

OK, imagine that your task is to 'draw a bird'. How many times do you need to repeat this task until someone comes up with a picture of a penguin, or an ostrich, or a chicken? The whole idea of 'bird' just works so much better with a sparrow or a pigeon.
  • Has wings: - check
  • Has feathers - check
  • Can fly - check
  • would fit (although unwillingly) into a breadbin - check
how many of these questions get a positive answer for an ostrich or a penguin? You can think of the entire birdy race as a huge picture, with those goody-two-shoes sparrows right at the middle and then an expanding circle of less-than-perfection going out all the way through crows (a bit too single-coloured) then ducks (rather too fond of swimming) all the way out to the bird-in-name-only that is the penguin. OK I admit their beaks are perfectly birdy, but that's about it.

Now the thing that I would invite you to consider is -getting away from easily visualised concepts like birds - which is the tooliest tool, the jobbiest job and the emotioniest emotion?

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

“I speak seven languages, three of which are English”

That is how I start off sometimes when I'm doing a talk on dictionaries or language learning. The four foreign ones are French (OK), German (OK-ish), Chinese (coming on) and Russian (vestigial). I'll come back in a later post to what we mean by 'speak a language'

The three Englishes are:
  1. The Northern English variety that I grew up with (West Yorkshire) with absent final 't' sounds in words like 'COAT' and with a horrible mismatch of 'u' related vowels compared to 'standard English'
  2. 'standard English', or my best approximation of it, 'u' vowels excepted
  3. Teacher English - with all the simplifications and non-native structures and self-censorships that a few months in the classroom can provoke. I'm not saying it's good, but it happens.
I don't think there is anything wrong with this kind of Zelig-ness. It's natural to take your cues from your environment and to meet people half way. And if you are in danger of being completely misunderstood by your fellow English-speakers you will do a lot to avoid that embarrassment. I once spent a summer working in Rotherham and had to crank up my Northern accent to well past the end of the dial just to be adequately understood.

Even these three Englishes can be further subdivided or augmented as the occasion requires. If I visit my roots in the West of Ireland, I can feel novel inflections and sentence sound-patterns coming up unbidden. If I am visiting the US, I know I will self-censor British vocab and will add in the US English words of which I am aware.

I am also aware - but not proud - that there is an in-house dictionary cant which is not always strictly necessary and which must serve some of the same function that is served by, say, academic-speak such as 'issues around X' . I admit it is not necessary for me to say "the lexis need to push collocational disambiguation and be a bit less splitty". But sometimes if feels right.

So what about you - if you had to count up all your native languages, never mind the foreign ones, how would you dice it?

Things you notice when trying to learn Chinese, No. 1

You realise the drawbacks of the 'pinyin' readings that tells you in western letters how a Chinese character is pronounced. You have to think of the pinyin as the stabilisers on your bike that have to come off before you can really ride it.

You look at a road sign and it says:


And your eyes go straight to the words 'Beijing', not to the characters. You can't help it. That's just the way your alphabetic brain was made. If there are letters there, your letter-reared synapses will go straight for the food that they know.

But really the word is 北京 and that is where the Chinese speaker will look. The only way for me to progress (and I'd love to hear the experiences of others in my position) is to take a deep breath and drop the pinyin. It is a very strange feeling - for me - reading characters. It's nice, but I still have that sense of this not being what reading should be like. Try this sentence:


There, how did that feel for you? It should mean something like "you are reading my blog at the moment' but I can't guarantee its accuracy. The pinyin reading (with numbers for the different tones) is, I think,:

ni3 men xian4zai4 kan4 zhe wo3 de bo2 ke4

You can read a sentence in characters and understand the meaning, but not have as prominent a sense of the 'sound' of it as you do in English. You sort of know the way the characters are pronounced (that's what the pinyin taught you earlier on in the process) but it's like finding that someone has reorganised the cupboard in your kitchen. Things are not stored in the place they should be.

Fun, though.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Chinese Sayings - No 2

虎头蛇尾 (hǔ tóu shé wěi) 

This one literally means "tiger's head and snake's tail" and it is used for something with a fine start and a poor finish (anyone who has been watching Leeds United games for the last couple of years will know how this feels). I think the usual translation for this one is 'to run out of steam'

Saturday, 18 June 2011

Strimmer or Weedwhacker?

The trouble with British English and American English is that we are all really good with the differences that we know about, but are universally rubbish with the ones we don't know about. Hands up how many of you genuinely knew that the the other bunch used the 'other' name above for one of these.

And there are so many other daily objects that just don't get into the movies/cinema or that don't come up in the Brit/US differences in the picture dictionaries. Yes, we know it's trunk/boot and hood/bonnet, but how do you find out about the ones you've never heard of? I worked on a dictionary that had a list of the Brit/US differences that people had pointed out so far. It was already 1600 words and rising. And far from complete.

I'd be very interested to hear suggestions for new, unknown differences.

GTA6 - how to freak out your kids

My idea for the next development of the Grand Theft Auto franchise...

OK, GTA6 - Restorative Justice.

You still have to steal the cars and run down the bystanders but for every crime you commit the police put you through a restorative justice programme where you have to meet your victims and understand the effect that your crime has had on them.

"That Pontiac was Mr Thompson's pride and joy. He had saved up for it for years and used it to take his mother to church. Your actions made him feel violated and even now it's been repaired there is still a persistent dark stain on the carpet from Mr Kessler's gunshot wound. By the way, you'll be meeting Mr Kessler on Level 22..."

Friday, 17 June 2011

Why Semantic Engineering?

The very first job that I had in lexicography, more than 20 years ago, involved writing a 'production dictionary' - basically a Thesaurus that also told you not just the different words that you could use for a particular meaning, but also what the difference was between each of those words. This formative experience has left its mark. I can't overhear someone say 'pop round if you are near my office' without wondering why they chose that verb or that tense and not one of the hundred other ways of saying it. It's gone too far to stop now. It's my burden, curse, albatross....

Chinese Sayings - No 1

釜底游鱼 (fǔ dǐ yóu yú)

This literally means 'a fish swimming in the bottom of a cauldron' and the meaning is 'someone whose fate is sealed' (because the heat is going to be turned up soon). I suppose the closest English equivalent might be 'dead man walking' but that is a little bit too Godfather-ish


“Would you draw the bloomin curtains – you’ll be seen from Wallace’s Bog!”

I completely understand what this means, have heard it many times and have used it many times too. But the phrase ‘Wallace’s Bog’ has a special status for me, because I have never heard it or used it except to members of my direct family.

I would guess that you can easily think of a phrase that has the same status for you – something that you are very familiar with but which you only use within the family. I would say this is one of the words that make up my famiolect (TM?), that subset which is part of a language, part of a dialect but is actually an emblem of a family group and of the language that holds that group together.

Here are a few more words and phrases from my famiolect with my stab at a translation or explanation. I would love to hear yours:

  1. ·         Gowk: an apple core. Eg (when our mother had made an apple pie) “does anyone want the gowks” (one would gnaw on them in an absent-minded rather than desperate way, I hasten to add)
  2. ·         Plodging: what you did at the seaside when you rolled your trousers up and shuffled into the small breakers. Eg: “We spent the day plodging and stopping seagulls from nicking our sandwiches” (NB I know that in some parts of the country this was common parlance, but not in the part where we lived)
  3. ·         “I like to hear frogs..” a rude comment on someone else’s bombast or self-obsession. The missing second half which everyone understood was ‘..farting in the stubble’
  4. ·         Banaclat: we didn’t know that nobody else’s father in our street said this when he went off to work. Nor did we realise for many years that is was a remnant of the Gaelic that my father heard around him when he was a child.

So what words and phrases make up your famiolect? What things do you only use (with pleasure and gusto) when surrounded by your family? And do you know why those particular phrases? Was it migration? An ear for colourful language? An obsessive attachment to Gilbert and Sullivan? What built your famiolect?