Friday, January 30, 2009

A word for having a word for...

Geoff Pullum has just pointed out that "the general reading public loves the idea that your lexicon measures your life." In other words, he means that they think a language without a particular word for x (hand for example as distinct from arm) is somehow impoverished. As I read this, it struck me that English, mean and ineffectual language that it is, actually has no word for this idea. So, as my humble way to enrich the language I offer the following:
  1. alexemic: The state of lacking a word for a particular notion.
  2. lexemic: The state of having a word for a particular notion.
  3. lexemifilia: The fetish belief that a single word ought to exist for any given concept
  • English, though lexemic with respect to hand is alexemic with respect to warm water where Japanese is exactly the opposite.
  • A: Did you see the article in today's paper saying language X had no word for snow?
    B: Yeah, another journalist suffering from lexemifilia.
If you don't like those words, I have alternatives that are a little less grandiose.
  1. gouth
  2. perd
  3. dern
(no real motivation for these particular words, I just liked the sound of them)

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Two third of a plural

Yesterday, one of my colleagues sent me the following query:
"I have a grammar question for you. Today, my ESL 300 students (from India in particular) were confused about this sentence that I had asked them to edit.

Two third of the respondents worked or had worked at properties that had websites.
They were convinced that two thirds did not need an 's'. Are there any rules for this? Or, do you think this relates to differences between Indian English and NAE? I know we would say one third, but I told them that two thirds definitely needs an 's.' Do you know why?"
I've never come across such a notion, but a quick search of for two third(s) of finds about 20,000 for the singular vs about 157,000 for the plural, a ratio of 1:8. Singulars appear even in headlines in newspapers, so it may actually be a feature of Indian English.

In contrast, the COCA has a ratio closer to 1:100.

When you look at three quarter(s), however, the ratio is approaching normal (1:60), so it seems as though it may be a particular fraction rather than fractions in general.

The only other related oddity that comes to mind is half, which is rather unlike all the other fractions, but it's weird in other ways. I don't have a good explanation for the lack of plural marking, but it is certainly non-standard here in Canada. The only use I can think of that might be OK would be as a modifier (e.g., a two-third majority), but even that strains credulity.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

English 'Activity' in Japan

I don't know how many people would give a damn about the English language education in Japan - but Brett's post prompted me to jot down the following. After all, I happen to be in Japan, and have been in the industry for a while now.

What has been going on is rather wierd. I shouldn't bore you with details, but let me start with the year 1991, when there was a suggestion to the effect that primary schools should embrace some form of 'special activity' involving a foreign language, such as English conversation. Funny wording, I know - but that's what was suggested: 'special (foreign language) activity'. Judging from what has actually been done, the 'activity' seems to refer loosely to some English-speaking person getting kids to sing, draw, say some words, etc. with no organising principles.

In a country where foreign language education (specifically, the English language education) formally starts at secondary school, this suggestion was new. In the following year, 1992, the (then) Ministry of Education started experimenting with English language 'activities' at primary schools. They did it for one school hour per week.

If you know anything about learning a foreign language, that's not much - especially when what is done is 'activity' rather than actual learning. Years later, researchers found that there were no differences whatsoever between those kids who did this English activity at primary school and those who did not, when they reached secondary school. Surprise, surprise. Those kids just wasted time there ...

Now this is where things get weird. Instead of coming up with a better idea, the Ministry then came back with a booklet entitled 'Practical Handbook for Elementary School English Activities', primarily aimed at non-Japanese teachers, which declared that 'the aim of English Activity is not language acquisition'. It then went on to describe some of the things you, as a teacher, could do in the classroom. Yes, this truly is a totally confused, and confusing, piece of literature (which, by the way, was priced at 100 yen a copy). This was in 2001.

I guess the confusion comes from the fact that they wanted to compile an official-looking manual for teaching English at primary schools, but then, faced with solid evidence that it didn't work, they added some sentences and paragraphs here and there saying 'Well, they may not learn anything, but that's not the point.' Or maybe whoever wrote it was just plain incompetent. Either way, that's my tax money being spent right there. Hey.

Well, people are not stupid; there has been a lot of debate. At the Ministry, too, there is a committee consisting of 21 people to discuss this - er, by the way, twenty out of these 21 people are those who are 'in accord with the government's directions'. What kind of totalitarian regime is this?

But the facts are so against these 20 plus one people that they couldn't come up with a report that would have enabled the Ministry to formally announce that they were introducing the scheme. This was in 2005.

Then in 2006, the Ministry issued a formal statement called 'On English Education at Primary Schools' (this time, they somehow chose the word 'education'). There was nothing in the statement about making English a formal part of primary school education; I guess they couldn't put it there. But the media jumped to it, loudly screaming, 'English classes to be introduced in primary schools!'

What the Ministry - the government - has wanted to do all along is very clear. They want one school hour per week at every primary school taught by a non-Japanese, English-speaking, teacher. They know that there are no educational merits. And they know that they cannot implement it. Their document clearly states that there are 121 ALTs - that is, officially hired English-speaking teachers - in Japan; and there are about 23,000 primary schools.

It is in this context that they sort of turned around and said, 'Hey, English classes ought to be conducted in English in high schools!'

I have just stated facts. I do not wish to speculate. But as I say, people are not stupid, and I just hear them. When America started bombing Iraq, I heard a rough-looking worker saying to his mate, 'It's all too clear, you know. It's about oil.' It wasn't just him; it was like a shared understanding.

This time, the shared understanding may be summarised in four words: 'more jobs for Americans'. I find myself unable to brushing it off outright. But I do not wish to speculate; I would like to remain hopeful. If, and I repeat IF, Japan has democracy that works, people's voices will be heard, and what is best for the kids will be done. But then, don't get me started on how big that 'if' is ...

Sunday, January 11, 2009

A country called Turkey

In today's Family Circus, Billy is wondering about a country called Chicken.

The word Turkey in English actually predates turkey, the name of the bird, by about 200 years. The country name comes from medieval Latin Turkia and has been used in English since the mid 1300s. The word turkey, however, wasn't used in English until the mid 1500s.

In fact, the bird is actually named after the country, and not because of any stupid or insulting characteristics, but because it was thought to have come from Madagascar via Turkey. Coincidentally, this is the same kind of process that gives Turkish its word for the same bird: hindi. In that case, the Spanish had brought the bird from the Americas, but at the time, Europeans believed that the Americas was actually India. So the Turks named the bird after the country that they thought it came from, Hindi (Hindistan).

Incidentally, turkey appears not to have picked up its negative meanings until about 1927.

What's up with white in Japanese?

Starting a few days ago hundreds of people have been searching the net for the Japanese word for white and finding their way to a few postings I made back in 2007. I'm very curious about what has spawned this peak in interest, so if anybody knows, please fill me in. If you're still looking, the noun is 白 (shiro), and the adjective is 白い (shiroi).

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Teaching English in English in Asia

This past summer, we ran a special TEFL program for a group of Korean high school English teachers. The impetus was the Korean government's mandate that English classes there be taught in English. Now it appears that the government of Japan is following suit.

Interestingly, over the holidays we were talking to my niece who is in her first year of junior high school in Japan. She said that her English teacher is an American woman. She was clear that this teacher was not an assistant, but actually her teacher. I found that surprising because she attends a regular public school. When I was teaching in Japan, I also taught the core English classes for the jr 1 students, but it was a big deal. Nobody had heard of a non-Japanese teacher doing this, and we had a bit more flexibility because it was a private school. How times change!

Friday, January 02, 2009

Words for smells

I've mentioned Russel Smith's writing before. My aunt found his column in yesterday's Globe and Mail interesting enough to forward me a link, and indeed there are some keen observations there, but I'm not very confident of his basic premise:
"The only words for smells we have are comparisons.

Compare our words for other perceptions: We have basic words for colours which are not dependent on the knowledge of specific substances or objects for their understanding. Red, for example. It is not a simile or a metaphor. All it means is red. Similarly with touch: we have smooth, rough, spiky, soft. With smell we must say rose, sweat, tarragon, concrete, wet dog.

We simply have no words for smells. We simply have no words for smells. Acrid, I suppose, comes close to being an abstract word for a smell, but it's more like a kind of smell than a specific one: It's more about an unpleasant burning sensation caused by a smell. We have lots of modifiers like that: Smells are pungent or heady or nauseating. But those words aren't specific smells in themselves.

We have poetic approaches too. Writers will say a warm smell, for example, but their synesthesiacal attempts just underline the paucity of available vocabulary."

I don't totally buy his absolutist claim that "the only words for smells we have are comparisons," at least not if we allow that there are truly words for other senses, but there might be something to this. The normal human eye has only three different types of photoreceptor cells that respond to different colours. These are the cones responding to short (blue), medium (green) and long (yellow-red) light. The tongue similarly has only four different types of taste buds that respond to five different kinds of flavours, though this isn't the simply one-to-one correspondence that exists in the eye.

I have not been able to turn up any such limit or classification for olfactory receptor neurons. And it makes sense that things with a limited pallet have specific labels but that those with more diverse basic components be described in other ways.

I'm less sanguine about Smith's analysis of touch. It seems to me that the textures he lists are kinds of texture rather than a specific ones. And he has carefully avoided discussing sound.

Anyhow, what about his claim that we have no words for smell? I propose at least three: sweet, sour, and bitter.

These are activated by G-channel receptors, which exist both in the mouth and in the nose. It is well acknowledged that our sense of taste is largely influenced by our sense of smell. So I'm not sure that we can clearly say that these are primarily tastes and only synesthesiacally smells.

But even allowing that they are only tastes, the word sweet meant "pleasing to the senses, mind or feelings" in Old English, and bitter comes to us from biting. These are the poetic approaches that Smith dismisses. Here his argument breaks down; either you accept that words based on the poetic approach qualify for both taste and smell, thus accepting words like: acrid, pungent, sharp, green, and fresh or you reject the poetic approach for taste and say that we don't really have sense words there either. Similarly, if salty qualifies as a taste, why would we not accept words like musty, fruity, flowery, oily, and metallic as smells?

But perhaps the most basic problem with the proposal is the idea that a word for something is somehow more genuine than a metaphor or paraphrastic description and that a language that is missing a particular word for a given concept is somehow impoverished thereby. Geoff Pullum exasperates: "Everybody thinks that the key thing about a language is which words it has." No! "Natural languages are much better thought of as systems of conditions on the structure of expressions (words, phrases, sentences). Some of the well-established conditions apply to word-sized units (it really is well established that dog denotes Canis domesticus, and that the is the only acceptable form for the definite article), but the constraints do not entail a roof on the number of words or prescribe which ones are genuinely in the language."