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Language Maps

Oxford University Press has placed the data from its World Atlas of Language Structures online. There’s some interesting information here. Following are some examples.

The map below shows this distribution of various arrangements of objects and verbs, and adjectives and nouns.

verb-object map

We can zoom in on the map to see how English relates to other European languages in this respect.

zooming in on object-verb language map

The next  map shows the kind of distinctions or lack of distinctions made in words for green and blue and other colors.

words for green and blue

The final example charts rhythm types. I didn’t realize how predominant the trochaic type — represented by the red circles — is. (This is the strong-weak-strong-weak pattern: DUM-dee DUM-dee DUM-dee.)

map of language rhythm families

Much of the data is technical and will be mainly of interest to linguists, although translators would be well served to give it a look. It seems to me that writers may wish to glance at this kind of information as well, not only to better understand the medium in which they work, but maybe also for insights in handling dialect and conveying regional flavor.


Gender confusion

A study by the University of Arizona has reported surprising results when testing native French speakers on the gender of nouns. Across the board, the French speakers showed less agreement about gender than expected, but this was particularly true of younger subjects — this suggests that gender is becoming more flexible (the young subjects did not test lower on other aspects of language). Heidi Harley at Language Log summarizes:

Native speakers fell into two groups: 14 adult speakers and 42 teenage speakers. On most grammatical tasks, for all intents and purposes, teenagers’ native-language abilities are identical to adults’ abilities. But when [the researcher] broke down the gender-assignment task results by age, she found that teenagers showed considerably more variation than the adults. On the 50 feminine nouns, for example, the 14 adults all agreed on 21 of them, while the 42 teenagers agreed on only one: cible, ‘target’. Of the 93 masculine nouns, the adults agreed on 51 of them, while all adults and teenagers agreed on only 17 (of 93!!)

Near where I lived near Guatemala City was a deep ravine. Residents of this area called it a barranco (masculine). Only much later did I learn that barranca (feminine) is more common.

English speakers, for whom learning noun gender is difficult, can take some consolation in the results of this study.


via Language Hat 


Happy Birthday, Henry Watson Fowler

henry watson fowlerMost posts at Right Reading are published at 5:00 am Pacific Time. But this one will run at 11:59 the night before. I wouldn’t want to be a day late in wishing the punctilious Henry Fowler a happy 150th.

Fowler is, of course, the author of Modern English Usage, which is still among the best editor’s reads. These days, the linguists will tell you that to be prescriptive is small-minded, and the enlightened and sophisticated attitude is to just be descriptive. After all, language is always evolving, and prescription tries to stop it in its tracks, which is unnatural. It’s like building a wall of sand to hold back the tide.

Prescription also has the taint of Latinate grammar going against it. Latin-based grammar was an attempt to rationalize language — which has a rationality, certainly, but a deep, fuzzy, fractile logic, full of exceptions and anomalies, and not the tidy package tied with a bow of the grammarians.

But of the rationalists, Fowler was flat-out the best. Once you have learned his distinction between which and that, you just can’t help but wince at “wrong” whiches, which seem at once ignorant and pretentious. Fowler’s distinction was not really one that existed in the English of his time, or not in any systematic way that was observed by very many writers. But it was so persuasive that generations of copy editors have enforced it on the language, and critical interpretations of legal texts may sometimes hang on it.

In a nutshell, Fowler said that the word that introduced restrictive clauses, and the word which signaled nonrestrictive ones (usually which clauses take a comma and that clauses do not):

  • “blogs that are a waste of time” — refers to a subset of all blogs, those that are a waste of time as opposed to those that are not
  • “blogs, which are a waste of time” — contends that all blogs are a waste of time

Why shouldn’t English be able to make that distinction?

Happy century and a half, Mr Fowler!


image from “Simon Winchester on Henry Fowler


Why are book editors so gullible?

love and consequencesFake memoirs are in the news again, with the usual hand wringing. No need to go into the details, which have been thoroughly reported. Instead, let’s think about what might make book editors so gullible.

Book editors are a peculiar mixture of optimism and cynicism. They begin as idealistic literature enthusiasts — they probably start with a ridiculously low-paying job, just because it’s “in publishing” — but those who survive are all too likely to get fried by the strains of book publishing (an extremely difficult business) and turn into cynics who will publish any crap if they think they can push it off the shelves.

But inside these crusty exteriors an optimist still lives. Each time a manuscript arrives on their desk they are hoping that it will be the book — the one that will sell like crazy, maybe be a critical success. The editor’s career, in fact, depends on that manuscript showing up.

So when editors find a promising memoir, they want it to be true. They are predisposed to believe. That’s the optimist in them. Meanwhile, the cynic in them says, Even if it isn’t true, who will know or care?

This might sound extreme, but I think it is fair to say that on some level many editors today despise their readers — they know they are putting out garbage, so if people are buying it, it must mean they have no discrimination. So the editor has come over time to believe that readers aren’t smart enough to question the authenticity of the book to be published. After all, they’ve swallowed plenty before now.

What can be done? If publishers care to change — and they will, if their bottom lines start to suffer — they need to take the process of vetting manuscripts out of the control of editors. A book editor is never going to be like a newspaper reporter who at least understands the concept of challenging sources (that’s another story).

The only safe way to handle this is for an independent person, a fact checker who is not reporting to the editor, to vet manuscripts whose authenticity can be questioned. Unless an approach like this is adopted the fake memoirs will continue to flare up periodically, as natural a phenomenon as sun spots.

The university as a center for humanities in a post-2.0 web world

RightReading would not ordinarily post an institution’s capital campaign video, but the presentation below by Richard E. Miller, Chair of the English department at Rutgers University raises some interesting issues (after the first minute and a half of departmental promotion, which can safely be skipped). The video was produced by Miller with videography provided by Paul Hammond, Rutger’s Director of Digital Initiatives, to support a Center for the New Humanities at Rutgers.

What are these new humanities? Miller says that the humanities “somewhat lost its way” — its real function is “to improve the quality of the world we live in.” He also advocates a collaborative approach to creativity, in which language and image work are brought together. Specifically, he states that “To compose and compose successfully in the twenty-first century, you have to not only excel at verbal expression and written expression but you also have to excel in the use and manipulation of images.”

One of the things that this blog has attempted to do is — as it says on this page’s footer — “to integrate the editorial and design functions, which too seldom communicate effectively.” In practice, this means the blog tends to attract some people who are interested in writing and others who are interested in design — maybe focusing more exclusively on one thing or the other would be a better approach to attracting an audience.

But that’s not what I’m trying to do. I think that some readers do share my cross-over interests, while others are open to interests outside their specialties. Miller’s approach (despite the quote cited above) seems oriented to training language specialists to work together with visual specialists; I would rather see people become creatively ambidextrous and develop capabilities in both areas.

However that might be, I believe that Miller is right that twenty-first century communication increasingly integrates language work and visual work, and I will keep plugging on way on both fronts. While I think there is still value in the fundamentals of classical education, I applaud Rutgers’ effort to keep abreast of changes in the way communication is happening, during what Miller calls “the time of the most significant change in human expression in human history.”

via Mr. Verb



wordsmith ambigram

WORDSMITHING: The process of going through a document and making sure the best possible word is used in all circumstances. — ww.lewiswritingservices.com/glossary.htm

If there is one word I would like to ban permanently it’s wordsmithing. In my day job there is someone who likes to say “Give it to Tom for wordsmithing.” The implication, to my ear, is that editing is merely cosmetic. In fact, as we know, style is content and content is style, and a good editor’s work is substantive and not just superficial.

An analogy would be accusing a politician of not being substantive because he gives a good speech. But surely no one would ever make that charge, right?


The screenshot above is from John Langdon’s Wordplay. Wordsmith is one of the ambigrams shown on the site. An ambigram is a graphic that spells a word in more than one direction. Wordmithing in this Lewis Carrollian sense is an acceptable usage.


The naked truth about English pronunciation

comparing english pronunciation

Sound Comparisons is one of those sites that makes you think there just might be something to this internet business. It contains recordings of a variety of words — naked, shown above, is just one — in several English dialects, as well as in related Germanic languages. By hovering your mouse over one of the cells in the table you can hear differences among regions of the U.K. as well as in English-speaking areas around the world — Canada, several regions of the U.S., Singapore, India, South Africa, Australia, and so on — and in languages such as Dutch, German, Yiddish, Icelandic, Danish, and so on. Phonetic history captured on the screen!


via Separated by a Common Language



At a camping store:



Recently there has been an uptick in talk about semicolons. Witness:

arabic semicolon

What does this signify? I’m not sure. Could it be another sign of the trend to the literate class becoming a cultural elite, eager to differentiate itself from the hoi polloi?

Well, maybe that’s reading too much into what might just be a random flare-up of semi-colonitis. In any case, I like this exchange from the Colbert link above.

  • Tulugaq: Kurt Vonnegut’s take on it was a little less warlike and more of a mandate: “Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.” Me, I like the poor semicolon and the colon alike, so I guess I just have to be a conscientious objector. Sorry, Steve Colbert.
  • The Ridger, FCD: How can a hermaphrodite be a transvestite? Do they dress like asexuals?

For anyone with market aspirations in today’s publishing climate, Vonnegut’s advice remains sound. But what would Flaubert be like without the semicolon as the hinge on which his crafty sentences swing?


Shown: Arabic semicolon from brill.nl.


Refute vs. rebut

When it comes to copy editing, I’m not particularly strict — let the author have some personal style. We all use words a little differently.

But one thing that has been annoying me lately is what I regard as the misuse of the word refute. Newspaper journalists and others consistently use refute when they mean rebut. They will write, “Senator Obama refuted Senator Clinton’s argument that she is the most electable candidate.” What I understand from that sentence is that Obama proved that Clinton’s statement was wrong. Whereas what the author means to say is that Obama responded to Clinton’s assertion and argued for a different point of view — in other words, he rebutted her argument.

  • refute: to prove to be false or erroneous
  • rebut: to oppose by contrary argument

I know that some would say that these words are or can be synonymous, or that words are defined by their usage, which should just be described and not prescribed. But that sacrifices a distinction that we are otherwise able to make, one that seems to me worth preserving.


The need for editorial direction

Web 2.0 experiments with open content are showing the value of moderated forums. Democracy is great, but chaos isn’t necessarily so hot.

Once upon a time tech types used to track stories on Digg.com. When a post got promoted to Digg’s front page it would bring your site a huge amount of traffic. The web economy is a numbers game — the more views you get the more likelihood of getting links, clicks on ads, subscriptions, and so on. Therefore, getting on the Digg front page was valuable. And when something is valuable, people will figure out ways to improve their chances of getting it.

What happened at Digg was that a clique of “power users” gained control of the system for their mutual benefit. The voted up each other’s stories, and voted down those of others. As a result, Digg became less useful to regular users. It no longer has the influence it once had. It is said that Digg blacklisted stories from some sites and manually killed others. Finally, last week, Digg announced fundamental changes to its algorithm.

Occasionally you will see stories in the upcoming section with 100+ Diggs – this is evidence of our promotion algorithm hard at work. One of the keys to getting a story promoted is diversity in Digging activity. When the algorithm gets the diversity it needs, it will promote a story from the Upcoming section to the home page. This way, the system knows a large variety of people will be into the story.

In other words, Digg is counting some votes as worth more than others (shades of Animal Farm). Similarly, Google once counted a link as a link in figuring page rank. Now they use a complicated formula for determining the value of links, and they further moderate page rank with several other factors. Finally, with Wikipedia we have seen problems caused by ineffectual refereeing of stories, which has led to the creation of Citizendium, a sort of refereed version of Wikipedia, which frequently has more reliable content.

And that’s why we need editors. Without some directing vision a publishing company is nothing but a random house.


RELATED: Digg Demonstrates The Failure Of Completely Open Collaborative Networks

Language Wars

Language Hat has been following the arguments about Russian translation that have been taking place at the NYT Reading Room blog. Are the renderings of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky superior to those of Constance Garnett and others? Pevear and Volokhonsky have said that Garnett (for example) smooths out the originals and makes them read more fluidly in English than they do in the original; they have tried to retain something of the originals’ roughness. But it appears from the comments that there is a bit of a Pevear/Volokhonsky backlash taking place.

Madam Mayo

C.M. Mayo will be reading at Alta on Saturday. Her site, Madam Mayo, is a good blog for those interested in Latin American (especially Mexican) literature and the art of translation (although I subscribe to the belief that blogs should have comments enabled). Click the screen shot to visit the site.

the latin american translation blog of c.m.maya

New Worlds / New Words book launch

I don’t think I’ve mentioned here the book launch that will be held tonight at 6:30 for our new anthology of Latin American literature. The venue is Chronicle Books, 680 Second Street. You can read about it here.

The Dirty Hungarian Phrasebook

A classic skit on the perils of translation.

Google Translate, no longer using Systran software, goes head to head with Yahoo’s Babelfish

Systran software has ruled computer translation for years. It has been the technology behind both AltaVista’s Babelfish (now owned by Yahoo), and Google’s translation service, called Google Translate. But now Google has replaced Systran technology with its own translation software.

Google says their approach was to “feed the computer billions of words of text, both monolingual text in the target language, and aligned text consisting of examples of human translations between the languages. We then apply statistical learning techniques to build a translation model. We’ve achieved very good results in research evaluations.”

This approach sounds a bit naive on the face of it. Could it work? Let’s try a sample translation on both Babelfish and Google Translate. To keep things fair, I consulted my Yi jing page, which randomly produced hexagram 39, “Stumbling” (hmmm). The lines go like this (those after the asterisk are the commentary portion of the text):

Stumbling forth and strutting back
Porters stumbling under loads
Stumbling and turning about
Turning back to join with friends
Friends appear for welcoming
Stumbling forth and riding back


Water over mountain. Hard to get a foothold.
Choose the easier path.

Okay. We’ll translate into French and then back into English and then into German and then back into English. We’re using two languages that contributed heavily to the development of English rather than languages that are unrelated to it, so this should be a piece of cake, right?

Babelfish results first:

Stolpern in front and pavanement the back luggage cart-loads, those under the loads stolpern and turns around revolution again with stolpern, connects to the friends to assemble those the friends for the Stolpern of the admission in front and after looks * finished Montagne of the water. A balance strongly reach. Select the simpler way.

Gibberish, although I do like the way a Chinese flavor is creatively introduced by rendering “hard to get a foothold” as “a balance strongly reach.” Now let’s try Google Translate:

Stumbling block strutting back and forth
Owners stumbling block under strain
Stumbling block and
To return to connect with friends
Friends at the reception
Stumbling block fourth and riding back


The water on the mountain. Hard to get a foot.
Select the way.

Somewhat better — at least all of the words are English — although most of the sense is still wrong (how in the world did “forth” become “fourth”?). Still, while I’m not eager to add to the Google world information monopoly, it looks to me like the Google engineers have indeed surpassed Systran. The Google translation is not only a bit more intelligible and closer to the original but it also retains the format of the original. And the web interface was cleaner and easier besides. It’s not the result I was expecting, but I have to say, comparatively good job, Google.

With the caveat, of course, that both results are nearly useless. Bottom line: if you really need something translated correctly, hire a human.

The Word

I found myself next to this vehicle on the approach to the Bay Bridge the other day. It reminds me a bit of the artworks of Xu Bing and Wenda Gu. The Word dwells amongst us.

word car

Disappearing hyphens?

Since a big deal is being made about supposedly disappearing hyphens, let’s apply a little perspective to the discussion.

The first thing to realize is that the furor is the result of a promotional campaign for a new edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary; the sixth edition has omitted 16,000 hyphens that were included in the previous edition. The popular press has blamed e-mail for this, but the trend toward reduced hyphenation has actually been going on since at least the middle of the twentieth century.

What makes this a nonstory for me — besides the “who cares” aspect — is the source. If you are using the Oxford English Dictionary as a guide to spelling, all I can say is, stop now. The OED has no equal as an etymological and historical dictionary of English usage. But as a guide to spelling it has always been decades behind the times, and that’s exactly what we’re dealing with here. The sixth edition of the Shorter is playing catch-up with other dictionaries, and now is hardly the time to make a fuss about hyphens that perished half a century ago.

Check out these examples — not chosen by me but just picked up from the press reports — of words that according to SOED6 have changed from being hypenated to being spelled open or closed:

  • Words that the SOED now spells open:
    • fig leaf
    • hobby horse
    • ice cream
    • pin money
    • pot belly
    • test tube
  • Words that the SOED now spells closed:
    • bumblebee
    • chickpea
    • crybaby
    • leapfrog
    • logjam

Okay, now compare those to versions from a dictionary that people actually use as a guide to spelling, Websters New Collegiate. Just to make things clearer, I’ll use the ninth edition, published in 1983.

  • fig leaf
  • hobbyhorse
  • ice cream
  • pin money
  • potbelly
  • test tube
  • bumblebee
  • chick-pea
  • crybaby
  • leapfrog
  • logjam

You see? This has nothing at all to do with e-mail. Already a quarter century ago — in the real world if not in the OED — there was only one hyphen remaining in the entire lot that is now being used to support this story. Congratulations to the Oxford folks for successfully framing this story as one about disappearing hyphens. But the real story is that the OED is beginning to take its head out of the sand and move closer to the practice of real contemporary dictionaries.

RELATED: Typophile: What’s your favorite hyphen?

Advice from an editor

Call for translations

Two Lines is calling for submissions for its 15th anniversary edition. This volume will be edited by John Biguenet (prose) and Sidney Wade (poetry). The deadline is October 22.

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