Tag Archives: language

When translations go bad, bad things can happen

The gift shop had a key chain with a miniature hominid skull (KNM-ER 1470) on it. I saw the price tag, and it looked very expensive. I’m not sure if it looked expensive because I had just arrived in-county and had not yet adapted to the local currency, or if was because I had just spent the last 10 months living in an economy where you could literally purchase ownership of a prisoner for about five bucks (ransom? human trafficking? maybe there isn’t much of a difference). In any event, the price looked high, so I turned to the cashier and said, in a language that we both knew and that should have allowed a mutually intelligible conversation, “This useless object just grabbed me and threw me violently to the ground!” Continue reading When translations go bad, bad things can happen

The problem with the White Power symbol

You all know about this: It is being said that the OK sign is used to indicated “White Power” and this use has been spotted among politicians and celebrities everywhere. Is this real? I don’t know. Is it a valid symbol for “White Power”? Certainly not.

The problem with the white power symbol is that it is not a symbol. Or, if it is a symbol, it is a baby symbol that doesn’t know how to be a symbol yet, so don’t expect much from it.

Semiotics Ahead Index (not an icon, not a symbol, but yes, it is a sign.  With a sign on it.)
Semiotics Ahead Index (not an icon, not a symbol, but yes, it is a sign. With a sign on it.)

Try this.

Move your hands in front of you as though you were grasping a steering wheel, and pump your right foot while you say, somewhat loudly and using a touch of Vocal Fry if you can manage it, the words “Vroom Vrooom.”

Maybe snap your head back on the second “Vroom.”

You have signified rapid acceleration, but you did not really do it using full blown language. Well, you did, because you have full blown language, and so do the other people in the room wondering what the heck you are doing (I’m hoping you are reading this in a busy coffee shop). But the fact that they get that you are talking about rapid acceleration is because you made sounds like a car and play-tended that you are sitting in a car and reacting to forward rapid acceleration. That’s not really language. From a semiotic point of view, you signified the sound of an accelerating engine by imitating it, and you signified other aspects of rapid acceleration by imitating it. This is not symbolic. You were not doing a symbolic representation of rapid acceleration. You may be thinking, “yes, I was, or what the heck was that that if I wasn’t?” Just trust me, you weren’t.

(Except that since your intentional communication is essentially linguistic even when not and everyone around you is a human, you were, but that’s another matter for another time. Functionally, you were not, pragmatically you were.)

Now, do the following. Wipe that puzzled or snarky expression off your face and speak the following words, enunciating clearly.

nopea kiihtyvyys

Unless you are in a Finnish coffee shop, when you said those words out loud you were uttering a symbol, but unfortunately, a symbol with no meaning, because no one in the room, including yourself, speaks that language (if you are a Fin or among Fins, substitute some other language, please.)

Now, say, with no body movements or other fanfare:

rapid acceleration

In an English-speaking coffee shop, that was a symbolic act. There is no onomatopoeia. There is no imitation. There is no clue to the meaning of those words built into their utterance or the framework in which they are uttered (like an accompanying gesture or facial expression). However, you have made and conveyed meaning, and done so symbolically.

The very fact that these words mean what they mean in an utterly arbitrary way, a way unembellished with direct reflection of reality, is what makes them symbolic, and the fact that language works this way is what makes languae very powerful.

There are many reasons for this. For example, if your words were strictly tied to imitation or direct representation, it would be harder to extend or shift meanings. It would be harder for there to be a rapid acceleration of a political policy, or a state of war, or a child’s understanding of subtraction and addition, as well as a vehicle with a steering wheel. Also, you made this meaning using two words, each of which can be used as countless meaning making tools. There is an infinity of meanings that can be generated with the word “rapid” and a few other words, in various combinations uttered in a variety of contexts, and there is an infinity of meanings that can be generated with the word “acceleration” and a few other words, in various combinations uttered in a variety of contexts, and the two infinities are potentially non overlapping.

The warning sign above is like a lot of other signs (using the term “sign” like one might say “placard”). It has a triangle which, in this case, signifies semiotics. Why does a triangle signify semiotics? Because in one of the dominant theories of semiotics, which is the study of meaning making, symbolism, and sign making (the other kind of sign), meaning making has three parts (the meaning maker, the meaning receiver, and the other thing). But the triangle is not really a semiotic triangle because there are no labels. This could be a triangle of some other kind, linked to some other meaning. Indeed, the triangular shape is linked to warning signs generally, while the rhombus is for “stuff ahead” so this could be a sign signifying, by looking like something else (a danger sign), danger ahead, or pedestrian crossing ahead, or some other thing.

A google image search for "sign triangle" shows that the triangle, on a sign, could mean a lot of things but almost always refers to something ahead that you need to be cautious of. Some of these signs are icons (a little train for a train), some are verging in indexes (maybe the explanation point?) but they are not very symbolic.  If I take a triangle out of the road sign panoply and put it on another road sign, it might be indexical to "danger." The widespread use of the triangle for this context may render the triangle as un-symbolizable, because it will always be iconic of the indexical reference to danger, until civilization ends, everyone forgets this, and different signs, indices, and icons emerge.
A google image search for “sign triangle” shows that the triangle, on a sign, could mean a lot of things but almost always refers to something ahead that you need to be cautious of. Some of these signs are icons (a little train for a train), some are verging in indexes (maybe the explanation point?) but they are not very symbolic. If I take a triangle out of the road sign panoply and put it on another road sign, it might be indexical to “danger.” The widespread use of the triangle for this context may render the triangle as un-symbolizable, because it will always be iconic of the indexical reference to danger, until civilization ends, everyone forgets this, and different signs, indices, and icons emerge.

Cleverly, the warning sign above is both an index to semiotics and a reference to danger, placed on a sign shape usually used to warn of danger ahead (like a deer crossing).

Briefly, a thing that looks like a thing is an icon. Like the thing on your computer screen that looks like a floppy disk, indicating that this is where you click to put the document on the floppy disk. A thing that has a physical feature linked to a thing or meaning, but not exactly looking like it, is an index. We can arbitrarily link a representation to an index (like an index card in a library to a book, linked by the call number which appears on each item) or a representation can evolve from icon to index because of change. For example, the thing on your computer screen that looks like a floppy disk, indicating that this is where you click to put the document in the cloud, in a world with no floppy disks where most computer users don’t have a clue what a floppy disk is or was, but they do know that that particular representation will save their document.

(See: Peirce on Signs: Writings on Semiotic by Charles Sanders Peirce)

A symbol can evolve from the index when the physicality of the link is utterly broken. The vast majority of words do not look, sound, in any way resemble, what they mean. Words are understood because the speakers and hearers already know what they mean. New meaning is not generated in the speaker and then decoded in the listener. Rather, new meaning is generated in the listener when the speaker makes sounds that cause the listener’s brain to interact with that third thing I mentioned above, which is shared by both.

And, of course, meaning can be generated in someone’s mind when all that happens inside your head. It is advised that, when doing so, try to not move your lips.

The point of all this: having a representation of something linked by the way it looks to some kind of meaning is asking for trouble. A totally arbitrary association between intended meaning and how something looks (or sounds, like a word) is impossible to understand for anyone not in on the symbolic system. But, such an arbitrary association allows, if the meaning making is done thoughtfully and there is no deficit in the process, for an unambiguous meaning making event. At the same time, the arbitrary nature of the symbol allows for subsequent “linguistic” (as in “symbolizing) manipulation of the arbitrary thing itself. And, the fact that the symbolizing requires that third thing, the common understanding of meaning, is what allows us to avoid meaning making that is spurious, as happens when a sign is not a pure symbol, but instead, iconic or indexical of something. And this is where the White Power symbol everyone is talking about, made up of the common “OK” sign, falls into the abyss.

Do this and show it to all the people in the coffee shop:

hand_gesture_ok_fingers_7983_1600x1200

If you are in the US you may have just told everyone that all is “OK” (or is it “Okay”?).

Among SCUBA divers it specifically means “no problem” which is subtly different than just “OK” because the problems being discussed are on a specific list of important issues to SCUBA divers, like “my air is good” etc.

In the above cases, the gesture means what it means because it is making an “O” for the beginning of OK/Okay. The gesture is an icon of the term “OK.” It is not a full blown proper symbol.

If you are in Argentina or several other South American areas, and possibly parts of Europe, you may have just called everyone in the room an asshole. In this case, the gesture refers to that anatomy, and the anatomy is metaphorical for a state of mind or behavioral syndrome. The symbol itself is an icon or index to the sphincter region.

In other contexts (mainly in Europe), the symbol is also an insult in a different way, in that the “0” part of the gesture implies “you are nothing, a zero.”

In Arabic speaking cultures, the symbols sometimes refers to the evil eye, because it looks like an eye. So it is used, along with a mix of phrases, as a curse.

If you put the ring formed by the gesture over the nose, you are telling someone they are drunk, in Europe. Or, you may place the “O” near your mouth to indicate drinking.

In Japan, if the hand is facing down, that “o” shape is a coin, so it can mean money or something related.

In parts of china, while the symbol can mean “three” the zero part tends not to. To say “zero” one simply makes a closed fist.

In basketball, the “o” part of the gesture is just there to get the index finger out of the way. The key part of it is the three fingers sticking up, which means that the player who just threw the ball into the hoop got three points.

illuminati-triple-666Meanwhile, among some Buddhists, the three fingers part is not the point. The circle part is where the meaning is, but not as the letter “o” but rather the number “0”. Moving across the religious spectrum a ways, in another South Asian religion, it is the three fingers symbolize the three “gunas” which you want to have in harmony, while the “o” part represents union of consciousness. But again, all of these meanings have to do with the actual physical configuration of the fingers.

Rarely, the symbol means “666” and, increasingly, is linked to the Illuminati. To the extent that the Illuminati exists, and I’m not going to confirm or deny. The symbol is also found in western Christian allegoric art. I don’t know what it means there.

There are places in this world where there are both negative and positive meanings implied by the iconic nature of the symbol, which can lead to both confusion and intended ambiguity. I worked on a crew with people who were either Argentinian or who lived in Argentina for a long time, and others who had never been to Argentina. It was always great fun to watch the boss give kudos to a worker at the same time as calling him an asshole. We need more gestures like that.

I put the spreading but I think recent interpretation of the OK symbol as “white power” at the top of the post.

The Anti-defamation league identifies a version of the White Power symbol, where you use one hand to make a W (start with a “live long and prosper” then move the two middle fingers together) and an upside down OK to make the P. It is not clear that the ADL is convinced this is real; they may just suspect it. Bit generally, the symbol is found in a small cluster of mainly twiterati, who have produced a few pictures of possible or certain white supremacists or racists using the symbol. But in all cases, they may just be saying “OK” in the usual benign sense. the best case I’ve seen for the one handed WP=White Power OK symbol is its apparent use on a sign being held at a white supremacist group march, but that could be a singular case, or fake.

Of course, now that the cat is out of the bag, the OK symbol IS a sign for “White Power” or could be, or at least is an ambiguous one, so anything can happen from here on out. I’m just not sure this use was there before a few days ago when Twitter invented it.

OLYMPICS-BLACK-POWER-SALU-008But that is not the point I wish to make here. The point is that the OK gesture sucks as a symbol in the modern globalized world because it has so many existing meanings, yet is not an arbitrary symbol. It isn’t fully linguistic. It has a hard time doing the job a symbol should do, which is to be both fully agreed on, with respect to meaning, and adaptable into novel meaning contexts without easily losing its primary symbolic, historically determined, references.

And, the reason for this is that the OK hand gesture looks like something, or more importantly, looks like a lot of things. A bottle coming to the mouth, a bottle on the nose because you are so drunk, an eye (evil or otherwise), a zero, a three, an “O” or a “P”. A coin or an asshole. Probably more.

So, yes, a “black power” gesture looks to someone in Hong Kong like a declaration of “Zero!” That sign isn’t in as much trouble as “OK” because the meaning “black power” is regional, and the use of the fist is regional. But it is another example of something indexical (a fist meaning power is very indexical, maybe even partly iconic) and thus, not truly symbolic, and thus, limited as a fully powered linguistic thing.

Don’t get me started on this one:

Hook 'em Longhorns. Or, cuckold! Or, Eye of the Camel. Or, Evil Eye. Or, "I fucked your wife" (in Argentina, variant of "cuckold"). "Out Out" to evil in some South Asian religions.  Heavy metal/rock on.  Satan.
Hook ’em Longhorns. Or, cuckold! Or, Eye of the Camel. Or, Evil Eye. Or, “I fucked your wife” (in Argentina, variant of “cuckold”). “Out Out” to evil in some South Asian religions. Heavy metal/rock on. Satan.

Palpable History: Dictator’s Voice, Dictator’s Words

It is a good idea to occassionally experience history. This helps us understand ourselves, and our possible futures, better. Much of this is done through reading excellent texts. For example, I’m currently reading Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Goodwin’s objective is to contextualize Lincoln by looking at him in the broader context of the individuals that ran against him for the Republican nomination, and whom he later added to his cabinet. Goodwin succeeds, at several points, in placing the reader in a time or place of great import. Watching the very young Abraham Lincoln lower himself onto a log (he was out cutting firewood), his face buried in his hands and tears streaming from between his fingers, and not leaving that spot or position for hours after learning of the death of his mother. Or the layout and use patterns of Lincoln’s office in the White House, where he occupied a corner desk, and various members of his cabinet and military came and went with urgent messages, and made vitally important decisions, until the end of the day when Lincoln would sit down for a long read. That sort of thing.

So here, I’m going to invite you to do something a little strange. I’ve got here an audio recording of Adolf Hitler having a normal conversation (about extraordinary things) with a fancy dude by the name of Mannerheim, during a visit to Mannerheim at the time of his birthday. Wikipedia has the story on the audio recording. Here, it is presented as a YouTube video so you can follow who is speaking, and what is being said.

The reason to listen to this for a few minutes (no need to listen to the whole thing, though if you know anything about WW II, it may become captivating after a while) is because Hitler almost always screamed at his audience, and this is him speaking in a normal voice. I want to pair this audio experience with a linguistic but read experience. After listening to the audio recording with Mannerheim, read through the transcript of Hitler’s only other known “conversational” bit of significance.

There is a recording of that as well. It is a speech but one in which he speaks normally for much of the time. The point here, though, is not to listen to it to get the voice experience (but that is interesting) but to read his words. To hear how he formulates his statements, how he describes his situation. How he aggrandizes himself in the face of failure, how he belittles his enemy. How he schizophrenically moves between the gigantic and the modest, how he moves around his own goal posts as needed to make himself look big league smart.

Below you’ll find the two videos and the text. If either video vanishes (they do sometimes) you can easily relocate one on YouTube

The Mannerheim Recording:

The text of Hitler’s Stalingrad Speech:

If we follow our enemies’ propaganda, then I must say that is to be compared with “Rejoicing towards Heaven, depressed until Death”‘ The slightest success anywhere, and they literally turn somersaults in joy. They have already destroyed us, and then the page turns and again they are cast down and depressed. I did not want to attack in the center, not only because Stalin knew I would. I provide one such example. If you read the Russian telegrams every day since June 22nd, they say the following each day: “Fighting of unimportant character”. Or maybe of important character. “We have shot down three times as many German planes. The amount of sunken tonnage is already greater than the entire naval tonnage, of all the German tonnage from before.” They have so many of us missing that this amounts to more divisions than we can ever muster. But, above all, they are always fighting in the same place. “Here and there”, they say modestly, “after fourteen days we have evacuated the city.” But, in general, since June 22nd they have been fighting in the same place. Always successful, we are constantly being beaten back. And in this continued retreat we have slowly come to the Caucasus.

I should say that for our enemies, and not for your soldiers, that the speed at which our soldiers have now traversed territory is gigantic. And what has transcribed this past year is vast and historically unique. Now, I do not always do things just as others want them done. I consider what the other probably believe and then do the opposite on principle. So, if I did not want to attack in the center, not only because Mr. Stalin probably believed I would, but because I didn’t care about it at all. But I wanted to come to the Volga, to a specific place and a specific city. it happened to have Stalin’s name, but that’s not why I went there. It could have had another name.

But, now this is a very important point. Because from here comes 30 millions tons of traffic, including about nine millions tons of oil shipments. From there the wheat pours in from these enormous territories of the Ukraine and from the Kuban region then to be transported north. From here comes magnesium ore. A gigantic terminal is there and I wanted to take it. But, as you know, we are modest. That is to say that we have it now. Only a few small pockets of resistance are left. Some would say “Why not fight onwards?” Because I don’t want a second Verdun! I would rather hold this with small combat patrols! Time does not matter, no ships are coming up the Volga! That is the important point.

Hitler’s Speech, 8 November, 1942:

Turns Out Dick Is Really Interesting.

Have you ever wondered how “Dick” became short for “Rick”?

Probably not. But it turns out that the reason, if the following video is accurate, is interesting.

I have two questions for the historical linguists in the room. First, is there a name for this rhymification effect? Is is common? Is it confined to certain regions or cultures? Is it linked to Cockney in some way?

OK, that was a lot of questions, but really, all the same question. My second one is simpler: Where does the phrase “Swinging dick” come in? It is a Britishism for, I think, Square Mile money managers and investors. According to something I saw on TV once.

What English Sounds Like To non-English Speakers

This is nice.

Karl Eccleston and Fiona Pepper are amazingly good actors. The writing is excellent as is the directing. The subtext. THE SUBTEXT IS BRILLIANT.

When I was living with the Efe Pygmies in the Ituri Forest, they would imitate French and English speakers while ranting about specific people who had annoyed or amused them. It was easy to tell which they were doing … French vs. English. But it only sounded like people imitating people, it didn’t sound like the real thing. I remember Sid Caesar doing this as part of his regular routine in several languages, and talking about getting in a cab, say, in Italy, and yelling at the cab driver in fake Italian during the whole ride. Here’s an example. But that isn’t what Eccleston and Pepper did either.

What the heck is Vocal Fry?

Until a few minutes ago, I didn’t even know what the heck Vocal Fry is. Apparently some people have gotten really annoyed about it, as it is a speech mannerism that has emerged among young folks, who are always annoying, and especially females, who are always annoying. Apparently. (I also did not know that until a few minutes ago! I’m learning a lot of new stuff today!)

It’s been written up in a scientific journal (see below), in popular media, and it was brought to my attention by a facebook post of Debby Goddard’s. But of all the sources I’ve seen, the following video best describes the phenomenon for those who don’t already know what it is:

Speech mannerisms come and go, and they seem to be part of the cultural process of ever-shifting styles. Some have suggested (Trigger warning: Possible Pop Psychology!) that this is an ingroup-outgroup mechanism. If you don’t know the current mannerisms, you can’t sit at the Middle School lunch table with the other cool kids.

Here’s an interesting thing about speech mannerisms: When we Westerners see them in other cultures, we (well, not you and me, but those other Westerners) often glom onto them as markers for primitivism or as indicators of less than fully developed culture or even language. A great example for those who know it is the banter of the men in the film The Feast, a Chagnon film depicting a Yanomamo Feast (more about the feast here). The men are bartering, arguing, making alliances, and showing off, and it is done with a cadence almost as though they were rapping. This is on top of the already highly nasalized language, and with face and hand gestures that vaguely resemble Western children complaining about things. This makes them look like children. Of course, they are talking about important matters of local economy, about death and warfare, about relationships, marriage, and so on. They are not acting like children in their own culture but they are heavily invested in a highly stylized set of vocal mannerisms that are not easy for a Westerner (well, those other Westerners) to interpret.

ResearchBlogging.orgIt has been said that Vocal Fry is the new Valley Speech, and if so we can see the lilting rise at the end of every single sentence replaced with a dropping of tone and glottalization at the end of every sentence, on certain TV ads and in certain sitcoms.

Language log has a discussion here. Slate has something here. And, here it is in Science Now.

The Journal of Voice reports a study, Habitual Use of Vocal Fry in Young Adult Female Speakers.

The purpose of this study was to examine the use of vocal fry in young adult Standard American-English (SAE) speakers. This was a preliminary attempt to determine the prevalence of the use of this register in young adult college-aged American speakers and to describe the acoustic characteristics of vocal fry in these speakers. Subjects were 34 female college students. They were native SAE speakers aged 18–25 years. Data collection procedures included high quality recordings of two speaking conditions, (1) sustained isolated vowel /a/ and (2) sentence reading task. Data analyses included both perceptual and acoustic evaluations. Results showed that approximately two-thirds of this population used vocal fry and that it was most likely to occur at the end of sentences. In addition, statistically significant differences between vocal fry and normal register were found for mean F0 minimum, F0 maximum, F0 range, and jitter local. Preliminary findings were taken to suggest that use of the vocal fry register may be common in some adult SAE speakers.

You can access that paper here.

I think the most interesting finding may be one they are not too sure of based on the available data. Fry has been around a while, and has in the past been reported as a marker for larger scale chunks of speech, like paragraph-size utterances, but the new use is simply to fry-out the ends of sentences. If this turns out to be the case it constitutes an arbitrary re-use of an extant vocalization tool as a purely stylistic form rather than as a marker of meaning, since we probably already could tell where sentences ended. Also, it needs to be noted (as they do in the study) that this particular research does not identify focal fry as a thing done by females of a certain age. This study simply looked at females of a certain age, and did not attempt to identify the demographic parameters of the mannerism’s use.


More about Language here.

Wolk, L., Abdelli-Beruh, N., & Slavin, D. (2012). Habitual Use of Vocal Fry in Young Adult Female Speakers Journal of Voice, 26 (3) DOI: 10.1016/j.jvoice.2011.04.007

Photo of fries by Fklickr user Gudlyf

A run in my stocking is not a worn out salmon: Response to Mark Liberman

I’m very please that my discussion of the “we can’t ever know what a word is” Internet meme has elicited a response from Mark Liberman at Language Log. (here) Mark was very systematic in his comments, so I will be very systematic in my responses.

Continue reading A run in my stocking is not a worn out salmon: Response to Mark Liberman