A thoroughly nice day

For linguistic nerdiness in Catalan.
It’s been a nice day today; not just clear and sunny but warm and spring-like as well. Unfortunately, it’s still cold in flat, although I did try to usher some warm air in. It wasn’t interested, preferring to play outside where it’s warm.
I tried similar phrases in Catalan to the Italian ones in the previous post. From what little evidence I was able to amass, it seems that Catalan may have a preference for N + Adj + PP because there were almost no instances of any other order, hence tall gruixut "thick slice" in
tall gruixut de ceba "onion"/de cansalada "bacon"/de pernil (dolç) "(boiled) ham"/de tonyina "tuna"
and talls gruixuts "thick slices" in
talls gruixuts de formatge "cheese"
I found one instance of talls de tonyina gruixuts.
The same was true of talls prims "thin slices". The PP was consistently the final element.
A search for alt mur "high wall" is skewed by the alt attribute found in <img> tags and even adding de doesn’t help much. On the other hand, I get all of six results for mur alt de X, but apart from one instance of mur de pedra alt, none of the other N + PP + Adj phrases gets a single result.
Besides, if my knowledge of Italian is slight, my knowledge of Catalan is even slighter. The morphology seems to have a tendency to the irregular (e.g. roig (m) "red"; roja (f) "red"), which means I’m in way over my head without a decent grammar.

Some observations on NP modification in Italian

Or, Guessing with Google.
As I mentioned in a previous post, when I use a material such as stone, wood, plastic etc. as a modifier which most (all?) of the time forms a compound and thus something which gets modified by adjectives. For example, in "an old silver coin", I think of the silver coin as old rather than the coin being old an silver. In Italian, the equivalent to material nouns as modifiers is di + the noun (e.g. di pietra "stone"; di legno "wood"; di plastica "plastic"). My initial hypothesis was that although adjectives normally follow their noun, they’d precede phrases such as muro di pietra "stone wall", sedia di legno "wooden chair", sacchetto di plastica "plastic bag" rather than immediately follow the noun. I was also sceptical that they’d follow the whole phrase.
But as I found, there are examples of all three types, although I’m not sure whether there’s any significant difference in meaning. It’d take a native speaker to tell you that. The order of precedence for the adjective seems to be initial » final » medial. In other words, it seems to be preferred if the adjective is as close to the noun as possible, but preferably doesn’t intervene between the noun and the PP. (Nonetheless fette spesse di pane and fette sottili di pane blow that idea out of the water.)
It’s perhaps also worth noting that there are other reasons why things get moved. For example, note un recinto di mattoni alto due metri "a brick wall two metres high", where alto has probably been enticed away by due metri.
I tried to think of various phrases to throw into Google modified by some suitable adjective, although I’m aware that that’s not exactly the most accurate means of finding the information I want because of various quirks of the search engine. Thus any figures I cite are approximate at best. It wasn’t easy to find suitable phrases because once you started adding adjectives to the core phrase, the number of instances often dwindled to zero.
Anyway, here are a few results.
  Adj + N + PP N + Adj + PP N + PP + Adj
sg ("Thick slice of bread") Spessa fetta di pane 71 Fetta spessa di pane 5 Fetta di pane spessa 62
pl ("Thick slices of bread") Spesse fette di pane 104 Fette spesse di pane 320 Fette di pane spesse 35
sg ("Thin slice of bread") Sottile fetta di pane 250 Fetta sottile di pane 4 Fetta di pane sottile 8
pl ("Thin slices of bread") Sottili fette di pane 676 Fette sottili di pane 1420 Fette di pane sottili 173
These two phrases singular and plural produce some unexpected results, with the most numerous instances being the plural of the N + Adj + PP forms.
I tried the same with thick and thin slices of meat to see whether there was some sort of pattern. Spessa fetta di carne and its variants don’t even get into double figures, and sottile fetta di carne "thin slice of meat" gets all of ten hits, while the other two variants on the phrase get 2 and 3 respectively. But sottili fette di carne "thin slices of meat" gets 535 and fette sottili di carne 1110. Fette di carne sottili, on the other hand, comes a very distant third with a mere 3. Apparently, there seems to be something about slices.
  Adj + N + PP N + Adj + PP N + PP + Adj
sg ("High stone wall") Alto muro di pietra 617 Muro alto di pietra 6 Muro di pietra alto 166
pl ("High stone walls") Alti muri di pietra 133 Muri alti di pietra 9 Muri di pietra alti 37
sg ("Low stone wall") Basso muro di pietra 147 Muro basso di pietra 6 Muro di pietra basso 20
pl ("Low stone walls") Bassi muri di pietra 14 Muri bassi di pietra 104 Muri di pietra bassi 9
Most of these behave as I initially predicted – until you get to muri bassi di pietra, although it’s the lowest of the high-scoring instances.
  Adj + N + PP N + Adj + PP N + PP + Adj
sg ("Thick stone wall") Spesso muro di pietra 185 Muro spesso di pietra 4 Muro di pietra spesso 81
pl ("Thick stone walls") Spessi muri di pietra 265 Muri spessi di pietra 47 Muri di pietra spessi 36
These phrases are doing what I predicted with the preposed adjective occurring more often than the postponed one. Why the others behave as they do with a higher frequency of N + Adj + PP in the plural, I don’t know.
This requires a much more extensive investigation for which I have neither the time nor the Italian.

Easily overlooked

Parts of grammar you just don’t think about.

When I get thinking about something, especially something to do with linguistics, it can be bloody impossible for me to switch Mr Brain off. That’s difficult enough at the best of times, but linguistics makes it worse. I’m like a cat with catnip.

My poor little brain was getting overheated by NPs like “an old silver coin” where, if I put the adjective into a predicative sentence, I’d say “The silver coin is old”. In other words, I’d tend to regard “old” as the modifier of “silver coin” rather than just one of two adjectives modifying “coin”. But what would be the NP corresponding to “The old coin is silver”? I suppose I’d say something like “an old coin made of silver”.

But that’s not what was really plaguing me. In English, attributive adjectives precede nouns unless the adjective takes some sort of post-head modification (e.g. “suitable clothes” but “clothes suitable for a unicyclist“). There are a few other exceptions, but they tend to be set expressions such as “court martial“. Although English is generally a left-headed language like the Romance and the Celtic languages, we still place attributive adjectives ahead of nouns. Quirk of our grammar; nothing to worry about.

Mr Brain was getting stir-fried because I started wondering how you’d deal with such NPs in the Romance languages, where a noun and its modifier are qualified together by an attributive adjective. In the Romance languages, most attributive adjectives follow their noun (e.g. Italian la ragazza italiana “the Italian girl”; Sicilian l’omu nglisi “the Englishman”). There are also certain words which can be used as modifiers in English, but which in Italian have to be rendered as preposition + noun. If I want to say “a silver coin” in Italian, I’d have to say una moneta d’argento (literally, “a coin of silver”).

Here’s where I began to suspect that this must constitute another exception to the general rule of post-head attributive adjectives in Italian and other Romance language. If I wanted to say “an old silver coin”, I’d have to say una vecchia moneta d’argento as opposed to una moneta vecchia “an old coin”. If I place the word for “old” after “silver”, I’d be saying the silver was old and have to say una moneta d’argento vecchio. The phrase moneta d’argento vecchia does get six results via Google, but vecchia is modifying the next word in the sentence, not moneta.

Curiously enough, a search for moneta d’argento vecchio yields a single result which contains the phrase vecchia moneta d’argento vecchio, but again, the second adjective appears to be modifying the following word (which is film). Actually, I need to find a better phrase which would allow both the head of the NP and the noun in the PP modifying the head to be qualified by the same adjective without sounding odd.

Later. Drat, drat, and double drat! I picked the wrong adjective. Vecchio is one of the small set of adjectives in Italian which normally precede the noun. Well, I did say that I needed a better phrase than this one. [You might want to mention something about knowing Italian a little better. –ed.]

Spessa fetta di pane “thick slice of bread” gets 71 results via Google, but fetta spessa di pane gets a mere 5. However, fette spesse di pane gets 320. On the other hand, fetta di pane spessa gets 62. What makes the last result interesting is that pane “bread” is masculine, which means that spessa must be agreeing with fetta “slice”. The plural form, fette di pane spesse gets 35, but spesse fette di pane 104.

I get a few hits for lucente medaglia d’oro/argento “a shiny gold/silver medal”, but nothing for medaglia d’oro/argento lucente. There’s one instance of lucida madaglia d’argento.

Moving on to another phrase, there are 41 results for scatola di fiammiferi vuota “empty box of matches”, but only one for vuota scatola di fiammiferi. Similarly, bottiglia di vino rotta gets 18 results and the plural form, bottiglie di vino rotte, gets 31, but neither rotta bottiglia di vino nor the plural, rotte bottiglie di vino, get any. On the other hand, bottiglia rotta di vino and bottiglie rotte di vino both get a few results each.

I think under the circumstances that I’ll go and have a shower and then set out the results properly in a new post.

National (American) Grammar Day.

Over on Language Log, Arnold Zwicky notes with a sigh that it’s National (omigod) Grammar Day in the States. He notes that Paul Kiparsky has observed that unlike some European countries, the English language has never had an official regulatory body.

Such an arrangement resonates with American free-enterprise ideals and also with the widespread American disdain for “experts” and “intellectuals”.

I assume he’s forgotten that there was talk about setting up an English Academy or some such at the end of the 17th century, long before the USA even existed. In the end, it all came to nothing, and obviously had nothing to do with the philosophy of American society.

An English Academy regulating the whole of the English-speaking world would be impossible today. Such a body could be set up in individual English-speaking countries, but it couldn’t (attempt to) regulate English in all of them because each country has its own variety which differs from the others to a greater or lesser extent. (And that’s not to mention other axes along which languages vary – age, gender, social status etc.) Besides, what’s the point? Languages aren’t exactly well-behaved. Tell them to do something and they’ll blow a raspberry at you.

Theseus and the Minotaur

Raging bull.

We’re doing Unit 30 from the Workbook today, which is the story of Theseus and the Minotaur. This version glosses over the part about the Minotaur’s mother being Pasiphae (Minos’ wife):

Mean-while the monster of a human-beast,
His family’s reproach, and stain, increas’d.
His double kind the rumour swiftly spread,
And evidenc’d the mother’s beastly deed.

Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book 8, 252-55.

Pasiphae, having fallen in love with the bull which Poseidon had given Minos, asked Daedalus to make a fake cow for her in which she hid so that the bull (obviously a rather thick creature) could bonk her. ([Ac] … maior con que d’autra femna nada.)

I know the story well enough, but when I got to the part where the little darlings are meant to start fleshing out elements of the story in detail, a couple of things suddenly struck me. One was how the Cretans got the Minotaur to go into the labyrinth if it was otherwise so savage; and the other was why Minos kept it alive. After all, it’s evidence of his wife’s bestial infidelity and some very advanced techniques in genetic manipulation.

As for the labyrinth, wouldn’t the Minotaur tend to get closer to the entrance because that’s where his lunch was most likely to be? And if there were fourteen people to eat, that means that the Minotaur was limited to one a month apart from his birthday and New Year. It’s no wonder Theseus defeated the creature because it was half starved most of the time. Minos was guilty of human-bovine hybrid abuse, although that’s understandable under the circumstances.

[22.10.08. It’s a year later and I’m about to teach the same unit (prob­ably tomorrow). I note a sudden surge in hits for this particular topic; coincidence?]

Step away from the word

And place the morphemes where I can see them.
On a number of occasions, I’ve seen the word "accommodation" pluralised here in China. I’ve always assumed that this was a minor instance of Chinglish because the translators were unaware that the noun is uncountable. Well, it is in my English. But I was rewatching the sixth series of Stargate SG1 when I heard one of the characters use the word in the plural, and can only conclude that this is another feature of American English. "Accommodation" seems to have acquired the sense of an individual room.
I wonder if the logic went
  1. Hotels are posh
  2. Accommodation is posh.
  3. Therefore I must call my room "accommodation" or the hotel staff will think I’m some cretinous yokel.
Next thing you know, the Americans will be spelling words like "colour" without a "u" or "centre" with the final ‘r’ and ‘e’ back to front. And who knows what else they’ve been doing to the language?

Banned on the run

Foreign cartoons? Oh the horror!

I read a story on Danwei a few days ago about more horror-related hysteria from Nanny.

The horror movie rules are intended to protect the mental health of children.

The usual nonsense in other words, because any restrictions on such films are easily circumvented by a quick trip to the DVD shop. Why not buy some porn while you’re there?

Anyway, the ban on showing foreign cartoons on telly has now been extended to 9pm (Further restrictions on foreign cartoons, and horror movies). It was previously 5pm – 8pm. Although I know that things are not the same at all high schools, several of the ones I’ve been teaching at inflict evening study on our little darlings. In other words, our kids wouldn’t have the chance to see any cartoons between 5pm and 8pm or later. About the only time they might see any would be at the weekend, probably after a trip to the DVD shop to buy horror films and porn. And cartoons.

Ironically, there’s a shop just up the street which sells comic books. If the artwork you can see at the front is anything to go by, it would seem likely that most of their merchandise is probably manga rather than 漫画 (mànhuà).[1] So much for 7:3 domestic to foreign cartoon ratio.

I’m going to guess that the local cartoon/comic industry just doesn’t cut it compared with the Japanese anime/manga behemoth. One of my pupils once lent me The Butterfly Lovers on VCD (for some reason), but the result was like soft-focus Disney in lurid pastel colours. The anime version would be more pleasing aesthetically, although Yingtai would end up with unfeasibly large boobs.

Meanwhile, Edison Chen is back in Hong Kong and, so it says over on ESWN, is going to retire permanently from the Hong Kong entertainment industry. Well, I suppose it’s better to leave on a high because he and his leading ladies are now probably better known than ever. The accompanying picture of police surrounding the car to keep the baying mob of hacks away is bad press for the use of police resources, although under the circumstances a goodly number was probably in order. I’d say from the pic that 100 is a bit beyond a goodly number.

In another ESWN story, Jolin Tsai, squawking Canto-pop princess, appears to be trying to divert attention from the Edigate scandal (in which she may have had a small part[2]) by referring to Taiwan as her country, thus causing the hysterical reactionaries on the Mainland to react, well, hysterically.

1. All right, some low linguistic comedy on my part. The word is spelt the same way in Chinese and Japanese.
2. According to that source of the pictures, there were questions about whether the shots of Jolin were really her. They don’t look like her.

I’m not alone in my vice

No, not that one, the other one. All right, the other other one.

Chris has an entry about chinesepera-kun in which he mentions Barking at the Sun as the source of his discovery. I followed the link and found that BatS (d’you mind if I acronymise you thus? [Acronymise? I’m reaching for the Paracetamol. –ed.]) is the product of at least one Chengdu-based expat. I did check the list of Chengdu-based blogs on the CBL when I first came here, but most of them (being few in number to begin with) seemed to be moribund or the blogger had long since departed. Off the top of my head, I’m not aware of any other foreigners blogging from Chengdu, although I’m sure they’re out there.

Somewhere, and I don’t recall where exactly, I ran into the phrase “barking at the sun”. No, I do recall. I was looking up the character 蜀 (Shǔ) in my dictionary. The entry has the phrase 蜀犬吠日 (Shǔ quǎn fèi rì) “Sichuan dogs bark at the sun”, meaning ignorant people are easily surprised. Makes sense if you recall that we rarely see the sun.

In unrelated news, I note that I’ve been getting a lot of hits for bamboo this, that and the other recently. I had one for bamboo stories:

Once upon a time, there was some bamboo. It grew for a few years and was then cut down and turned into chopsticks, brush holders, and many other ingenious things.
The End.

And there was one for the world’s tallest bamboo, which is not a thing I believe I’ve ever mentioned. All right, I have no idea which sort of bamboo holds that particular record and will leave the intrepid explorers of Cyberia to find out for themselves. Another recent visitor wanted to know the pronunciation of 竹 (zhú) “bamboo”.

竹 zhú "bamboo"

The initial is a non-aspirated retroflex affricate, and the word is 2nd tone.

I’ve also been getting hits for how to pronounce words in French ever since I posted an entry about Jérôme Kerviel’s name. One wanted to know how you pronounce “green” in French. Of course, the real question should’ve been how to pronounce “vert”, which is the French word for “green”. I assume the -t is silent unless followed by a vowel, audible or otherwise.

One of my most recent hits via Baidu was for vagna, which is 3rd sg pres indic of the Piedmontese vagné “to win”. How curious that someone in China (who isn’t me) should be searching for a Piedmontese word. Perhaps they were looking for some other word, although I can’t even begin to guess which one.

[11.08.14. Shifted post from Computers and Internet to Linguistics, where it seems a little more germane.]

The content may be questionable

And appears to have adverts to match.

I normally don’t pay much attention to the Google Ads on websites except when they’re eye-catchingly incongruous as in the case of today’s instal­ment of Questionable Content. Apart from Faye planting one on Sven (finally), it seems that Google Ads are assuming that the readership of QC has issues.

We know who you are, you dirty little perverts!

I’ve seen similarly mistargeted ads on websites about atheism. For ex­ample, these were the Google Ads on the Secular Humanism website when I went there a moment ago.

Google Ads strike again

The first one is ludicrous whether it’s Islam or Christianity, neither being beautiful or peaceful, and the last one is a contradiction in terms. It’s a bit like saying that some language has no grammar and then outlining it’s phonology, morphology and syntax.

Even the Rational Response Squad can’t escape Google Ads’ misdirected marketing strategy.

Expecting a relevant Google Ad? Think again.

Irony Theatre Presents

The Policemen at the Intersection.
A common feature of several local intersections today was the partial or total absence of traffic lights. The ones north and south of the school had no lights at all for either motorised traffic or pedestrians; one on the north side of Tianfu Square had a functioning light one way but not the other; and one near the Taiping Department Store seemed similar, although the lights for the pedestrian crossing were operating.
When I was returning home, I saw that temporary lights had been set up at the intersection north of the school, but not at my intersection, although it’s actually (marginally) busier than the northern one. The irony is that a bunch of policemen who ride motorbikes like to sit outside the International Department, and, as usual, there they all were – doing absolutely nothing about the traffic.
Mind you, I’ve seen plenty of people ride their bikes through that intersection against the lights with impunity. Where policemen in the West might have a word with you, our boys in blue probably view road safety as some bourgeois, counter-revolutionary tendency and an impediment to the advancement of the proletariat. Well, it’s that or they’re too lazy to get off their capacious posteriors and do something.