Tag Archives: linguistics

A Platypus and a Philosopher Walk into a Bar…

Image result for kant and the  platypus

Don’t ask me what the title of this book means. I think (stress think) it has something to do with our limited use of language to describe the world around us. The writer, none other than Umberto Eco, famed author of The Name of the Rose, is way too smart for his own good. And mine.

He starts with the story of Marco Polo, and how another famed Italian ran into a “unicorn” during The Travels in what is today’s Indonesia. In point of fact, however, it was a Javan rhinoceros. It was big. It had a horn. It kind of resembled a horse. Therefore,  it was a unicorn. Eco then hypothesizes what Signore Polo would have said had he made it to Australia and run into a platypus because, as often seems to be the case with animals in Oz, they defy description based on “old-world” foundations.

Not long ago, I heard about Eco’s Kant and the Platypus: Essays on Language and Cognition, and quickly grew excited. I love languages, the study of linguistics, and even (sometimes) have (limited) cognition!

About one sentence into this sizeable book, I knew I was in way above my pay grade. I finished the first chapter, skimmed the second, and then threw in the towel.

If you’re a part of the publishing industry, especially in fiction, then you know how little time and space an author has to “sell” you on a project. If you’re a reader, you also know that you have a threshold. The difference between the two usually comes down to how long/far this breaking point is reached.

For agents, editors and publishers, you might get anywhere from a single paragraph to 10 or 20 pages. If you’re a grant organization, you usually offer anywhere between 10 and 30 pages for the author to shine. As a reader, I often go with the “100-page rule.” If you fail to sell me on your writing and/or story by the century mark, chances are I’m going to drop you like a bad, oversized suit. Life is too short; I’m busy; I’ve got other things on my Tsundonku shelf. The reasons are many and varied.

In any event, if you’re a glutton for scholarly linguistics then by all means pick up Eco’s book. God speed, says I! However, if you’re simply interested in learning more about Eco and how to become an “antischolar,” check out this excellent piece from Brainpickings: An inventory of the meaningful life titled “Umberto Eco’s Antilibrary: Why Unread Books Are More Valuable to Our Lives than Read Ones.”


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Image result for verbicide

I love linguistics, and while this is by no means a political blog, I can’t help but share one thought I had after watching last night’s first presidential “debate” (i.e. bareknuckle oratory slugfest). Politicians are generally cut from the same cloth in that they turn the act of lying into an art and consistently mislead the public. Fine and dandy. The whole world has come to expect this of the people who run our governments.

But last night, DJT took this pattern of behaviour to a new level: He committed verbicide. For those not familiar with the noun, here’s the dictionary definition:

               1. the willful distortion or depreciation of the original meaning of a word.

               2. a person who willfully distorts the meaning of a word.

Some choice examples from last night include, but are not limited to, the following:

[on pretty much everything stated by Hilary that was backed up with hard evidence]

“Wrong. Wrong. You’re wrong.” = Yes. Yes. You’re right.

[on his tax plan being a job creator]

“It’s going to be a beautiful thing to watch.” = You will lose the shirt off your back. Then you will shit the bed. Many times over.

[on how he will get American manufacturers to come back to the U.S.]

“…my father gave me a very small loan in 1975 and I built…a company that’s worth many, many billions of dollars ” = My father came to my rescue many times with numerous handouts.

[on climate change being a “hoax.”]

I did not — I do not say that” = You’re right. I tweeted that in 2012 and on December 30, 2015, I did tell the crowd at a rally in Hilton Head, S.C. that climate change is a hoax.

No wonder you’ve been fighting ISIS your entire adult life.” = I can’t believe you’ve been fighting ISIS since 2013.

Anyway, I could go on and on like the Energizer bunny, but I’ll leave DJT’s verbicide tendencies at that. If we’re lucky, his next step in the campaign will be to aim his crosshairs at neologism (the introduction of a new word into a language) and we’ll all get to take our lexicons to new heights.

Wouldn’t that be great! = I’m genuinely scared for the future of the English language!



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Lost in Untranslatability

Many thanks to my friend Michael P. for posting an interesting article from The Independent on one of my favourite subjects, entitled “10 untranslatable words from around the world.” My favourites from the list include the Hindi word viraha (the realization of love through separation), the Indonesian word jayus (a joke so unfunny, you can’t help but laugh…please take note, Mitt Fudgesicle), and the Tamil word oodal (the fake anger lovers display after a fight).

Polyglots – the real cunning linguists of the world – really do have all the fun. As someone who has had the torture-like bliss (is there a word for that in any language? Otherwise please refer to Sexy Mild Genius Girl’s dictionary) of learning Korean for many years, I’d like to add a few more words to the unofficial list of words you should stay away from without flame-retardant attire.

1. (han): Chinese is to Korean much like what Latin and Greek are to modern English. This particular han (there are numerous meanings to the exact same Korean word) is derived from the Chinese character , and is commonly translated as “(deep) suffering.” To understand Korea – and Koreans – you have to live and breathe this word past the literal semantics of it all. Korea is the self-described “shrimp between the whales” (Japan, Russia, China) and the NKOTB who always seems to be attracting trouble (i.e. getting the crap kicked out of it). Whether you’re wondering why so many Korean ballads want to make you slash your wrists, why Korean actors in TV and movie dramas always seem to be on the verge of portending the end of the world, or why one must drink copious amounts of soju and other assorted alcoholic drinks on a regular basis, it all comes down to han. And because you’re not an ethnic Korean who has lived your whole life in Korea, you will never truly understand the concept. Or so I’m told.

2) 왕따 (wang-dda): Interestingly enough, we have the word “bully” in English, but no specific word for “one who is bullied.” Korean is the exact opposite. Usually translated as “outcast,” it’s so much more than that. It’s the loner, the loser, the one not accepted and tormented for being short or fat or unable to eat truckloads of kimchi at one sitting or the loooooooooooooooser from Honam (the southwest provinces of South Korea). Wait, I’m from the southwest of Korea!

3) 촌뜨기 (chon-dde-gi): This is a personal favourite of mine from my Mokpo days, when my buddy Albert L. would often act like a toolbox after imbibing one too many poktanju “bombs.” The dictionary defines it as “hillbilly/yokel/hayseed,” but it’s way cooler/crueller than that. Just ask Albert L.

4) (bap): “Rice” (literally) has to be the most versatile, most wickedest word in the Korean language. Bap is the word you use for cooked rice (as opposed to the numerous other nouns which exist in Korean for rice depending on its stage of growth/function), but it’s also used in myriad phrases that help give life to some awesome phrases, including, but not limited to:

  1. 먹었어?      Did you eat rice?                                 (How are you?/How’s it going?)
  2. 이지!        It’s horse rice!                                     (Of course!/For sure!)
  3. 먹을래?   Ya wanna eat rice with beans?        (You lookin’ to go to jail?)

The lesson here is clear: Languages are cool; not all words can be translated; and there should be a hall of fame for people who can speak Korean.

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