Category: linguistics

Formal diachronic semantics: a new research direction

Besides my main focus within linguistics, i.e. formal semantics, I have always liked historical linguistics. Therefore it has been a passion of mine to try to combine the rigor of formal semantics with the general mechanisms of semantic change in historical linguistics. It seems to me now that a new field called Formal Diachronic Semantics has successfully emerged in both Europe and the USA.

The following is a brief account of the origin and development of formal diachronic semantics as I know it. My account is probably not the most accurate and I apologize in advance if any major research papers or any major figures are not described accurately in my account here.

So here we go. Although the idea of a formal treatment of diachronic semantics can be traced as far back as 1995 when Kai von Fintel published a paper titled “The formal semantics of grammaticalization” (Proceedings of the North East Linguistics Society (NELS) ed. by Jill N. Beckman, 175-190. Amherst, MA: GLSA), the new research direction did not pick up any steam for 10 years after that. There were probably only a couple of papers that dealt with such topics within these 10 years. Then in 2006, Regine Eckardt published a book titled “Meaning Change in Grammaticalization: An Enquiry into Semantic Reanalysis” (Oxford: Oxford University Press). I think this is another milestone in the development of Read more… »

Lost in translation: linguistic differences in expressing grammatical aspect.

I was reading Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist earlier today, and one sentence in the translation seemed a little odd to me.  I realized that the problem lies in how grammatical aspect is expressed in Portuguese and in English. Being a semanticist, I can’t help being a stickler and pedant. So let me describe the problem in more detail here.

My discussions here will be based on the following two journal articles:

  1. Bonomi, Andrea. 1997. Aspect, Quantification and When-Clauses in Italian. Linguistics and Philosophy 20(5). 469–514. doi:10.1023/A:1005388230492.
  2. Deo, Ashwini. 2009. Unifying the imperfective and the progressive: partitions as quantificational domains. Linguistics and Philosophy 32(5). 475–521. doi:10.1007/s10988-010-9068-z.

The interested reader can refer to those two articles for a more technical account of aspectual specifications in various languages, and how they are different from English.

Now let’s come back to the main topic here about the translation of the novel. The English edition I have is the 25th Anniversary Edition of Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist published by HarperOne (HarperCollinsPublishers). The “problematic” sentence is on line 4 of page 6:

“He arose and, taking up his crook, began to awaken the sheep that still slept”

The part that seems odd to me is “the sheep that still slept”. A better translation would be “the sheep that were still sleeping”. The use of the simple past form “slept” cannot express the nuanced meaning that the sheep were sleeping at the time when “he” started to awaken them, although the simple past form does not contradict that meaning, and it can Read more… »

A linguistically realistic solution for Twitter’s character-count dilemma

Twitter is testing a 280-character restriction for English tweets, and people have been excited about this. The topic naturally shifts to linguistic differences. For example, according to this article in the Washington Post, the different versions of Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights have radically different character counts, as shown in the chart. The English version contains 170 characters, while the Chinese version only uses 43 characters.

According to Twitter’s algorithm, one Chinese character is counted as one character equivalent to a letter in an English word. This of course leads to more limitations on English than on Chinese. The Washington Post article summarizes this dilemma quite well, and I am going to quote it here (I’ll leave aside some of the linguistically inaccurate statements since they are not really pertinent to the topic in my post here): Read more… »

Historical sources of the rhotic vowel and rhotic syllables in Chinese

Modern Standard Chinese syllables are composed of an initial (聲母) and a final (韻母). A tone can be realized on the final as a pitch contour.

One of these finals is rather peculiar, i.e. the rhotic “er”, or [ɚ] in IPA. This final can only be combined with a zero-initial, i.e. no initial consonant. Therefore it is always just “er” by itself. Note that there are rhotic syllables (see below) where the “er” vowel is preceded by a consonant initial, e.g. shùgēr 樹根兒 (“root of a tree”), but these syllables are not basic morphemic level syllables since they are results of morphological processes called rhoticization. In fact, such syllables are still represented with two separate characters, just as shown in the example above. Therefore on a purely morphemic level, the “er” vowel cannot be preceded by a consonant initial.

In terms of its tones, the “er” can only have the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th tones, but not the 1st tone. Thus there are words like ér, ěr and èr, but no words like ēr. Here again, note that we are talking about basic morphemic level units, because as shown above in the example of shùgēr, it is possible to get a 1st tone syllable with the “er” vowel, but in these cases, the 1st belongs to the preceding syllable, i .e. “gēn” here, before the morphological fusion and phonological reduction of the suffix “ér”.

Now let’s call this final “er” the rhotic vowel Read more… »

Another -l- infixing word in the Jin Dialect

jin dialectThe Jin Dialect of Chinese, which is spoken in Shanxi and the adjacent areas in Hebei and Inner Mongolia, is a very unique dialect in the northern group. Some scholars believe that the Jin Dialect could be separated from the other northern dialects and form a single dialect group.

One of the interesting morphological devices in the Jin Dialect is some kind of -l- infixing. In such words, there is an alternative form with an -l- between the initial and the rime, and this is generally in addition to the usual form which can also be found in other northern dialects. For example:

巷 hàng (IPA: xaŋ) ~ xəlaŋ 擺 bǎi (IPA: paɪ) ~ pəlaɪ

These -l- infixing words are also used to support the existence of consonant clusters in Old Chinese, or Proto-Chinese, Read more… »

A Tale of Two Tribes: the Sino-Tibetan origins recorded in historical texts

To determine the common origins of languages and peoples, the most reliable methods include: the comparative reconstruction method and other numerical methods in linguistics, archaeological evidence, and population genetics, according to Wang (1998). When I was writing my book A History of the Chinese Language, I initially wanted to introduce arguments made by Yu Min (1980) for the common origins of the Sino-Tibetan languages and peoples, based on early historical texts. This argument was in chapter 2 of my original manuscript, and the title of chapter 2 was originally titled “A Tale of Two Tribes: Prehistory”, where the “two tribes” refers to the legendary Huangdi and Yandi tribes, as described in Yu Min’s (1980) article. But then based on the criticism from an anonymous reviewer, I agreed to remove that section from chapter 2 and the title was changed to “Where it all began: Prehistory”.

two tribes

The reviewer’s comments are very reasonable, since historical texts are not hard evidence, and any historical text could be distorted by people during the process of transmission. However, if taken with a large grain of salt, a study of such historical texts can actually add to the validity of both the independent findings in other disciplines such as historical linguistics, archaeology and population genetics, and the historical truthfulness of the text itself. Let me explain in a little more detail as to how this is possible. Read more… »

Linguistic Variations Outside the Mainstream

As linguists we make the distinction between descriptive grammar and prescriptive grammar, and insist that we are more concerned with the descriptive facts and try to come up with theoretical analyses and explanations of these facts, rather than focusing on what is considered proper grammar, or even so-called correct usage. Admittedly there are definite merits to linguistic standardization and proper usage should be encouraged, e.g. in schools and in academia. But that’s not what most linguists are interested in. However despite our focus on linguistic usage, sometimes it seems that in most aYaleGrammarrticles we do not really see much reference to non-standard usages. Linguists are normally very good at proper grammar and sometimes this advantage in language becomes a disadvantage, because it is not easy for us to take notice of real non-standard linguistic variations. Recently I came across the Yale Grammatical Diversity Project, which is indeed a very fascinating project. A few years back when I was still in graduate school, I had the pleasure of being in the audience of a talk given by Professor Raffaella Zanuttini on Appalachian English. It was definitely a great talk which drew our attention to lesser-known facts of English outside the mainstream. So it is only natural that Professor Raffaella Zanuttini is actually the leader of this Yale Grammatical Diversity Project. Read more… »

“Literary reading” or “Literary misreading”: an “archaeological” study of the pronunciation of 車


  • I have written a paper on this topic with much more updated information. So you may read the paper on my account here.
  • I have also found more examples of this kind of sound correspondence in Chinese dialects, and you can check out my presentation on these words here.

This weekend I attended a workshop on developing standard teaching materials for Chinese as a second language. One of the presenters from China used a common idiom “bì mén zào chē” (閉門造車) to describe how some teaching materials were created without consulting real makevehiclebehinddoorlanguage data. The idiom 閉門造車 literally means “make vehicles behind shut doors”, and it is now used to describe people who do things without really knowing the relevant facts. What drew my attention to the presenter’s use of this phrase was his pronunciation of 車 as “jū” instead of the standard “chē”. This presenter is from Mainland China. Interestingly, one of my colleagues from Taiwan also pronounced the 車 in 閉門造車 as “jū”, as can be confirmed by Taiwan’s 中華民國教育部重編國語辭典修訂本. But in contrast Mainland China’s 現代漢語詞典 only lists “chē” as the pronunciation. The character 車 is pronounced as “jū” in Chinese chess, as a convention. But the pronunciation of 車 as “jū” is considered non-standard in Mainland China now, although it seems that this pronunciation maintains a certain degree of “literary reading” status in Taiwan. What is worth noting here is that in both Mainland China and Taiwan, the standard pronunciation of 車 in most cases is still chē, and only in certain cases, such as idioms or conventional specialty pronunciations, does the pronunciation “jū” appear. So there is no doubt that in spoken language, the pronunciation of 車 is “chē”. Read more… »

UG and its contribution to methodology

languagefacultyAcademically I have always been a generative linguist trained in the strict sense of formal linguistics and Universal Grammar. To some extent, it is not easy to look beyond your academic belief system. But once in a while a heated philosophical debate between the Unversalists and the Cognitivists would still catch my interest. I remember four or five years ago when I was still doing my dissertation in graduate school, one of my professors circulated a paper written by Andrew Nevins, David Pesetsky and Cilene Rodrigues to counter the arguments from Daniel Everett on the lack of recursion in the Pirahã language. It was quite an eye-opener. Before that I had never questioned the fundamental beliefs in the generative linguistic field. Thus I digged deeper into the debate and found that Michael Tomasello had written a paper saying that language is not an instinct at all and there is nothing to the program of Universal Grammar. Then I read the paper written by Hauser, Chomsky and Fitch on the core principle of UG, i.e. recursion. These papers really inspired me to look at the foundational issues in linguistics and particularly in generative linguistics. Although the cognitivist view on language is very interesting and probably would correct some biases in the formal field towards pure description and functional cognitive theories of language, such a view in general still seems to me to be lacking in methodological rigor and explanatory power. So I just continued my research as usual while keeping an eye on the cognitive side of story. Read more… »

Non-standard IPA symbols in Chinese linguistics

Some of the symbols used in Chinese linguistics are quite hard to find, so here I have collected some non-standard IPA symbols for these.

  • The alveolo-palatal stops and liquid舌面前塞音和边音: ȡ     ȶ       ȵ       ȴ
  • The apical vowels舌尖元音: ɿ    ʅ     ʮ     ʯ
  • The low central vowel 低央元音: ᴀ

You can find a list of non-standard IPA symbols including the ones listed above on wikipedia at here.

If you need any one of these symbols, you can simply copy and paste.

Alternatively, before I found these symbols on line, I also made some pictures  of the alveolo-palatal stops. I have attached them here as well.