Does “oblong” mean “rectangle”?

Imagine you are reading 1984 by George Orwell, and you come across this passage:

The voice came from an oblong metal plaque like a dulled mirror which formed part of the surface of the right-hand wall. Winston turned a switch and the voice sank somewhat, though the words were still distinguishable. The instrument (the telescreen, it was called) could be dimmed, but there was no way of shutting it off completely.

So. What shape is the telescreen? Does “oblong” mean “rectangle”?

Continue reading Does “oblong” mean “rectangle”?

Does your language control you? Lingering questions.

See below for discussion of the following questions related to my recent Funzing talk on language:

  • How do people like the Hopi whose language does not have words for left and right keep track of the cardinal directions?
  • The Hopi have a less egocentric idea of the locations of things. Does that correlate with a less egocentric kind of worldview or ethics?
  • Since language has a biological basis, doesn’t that mean that linguistic relativity is a myth?
  • What’s the difference between studying a language and using it?
  • How does using sign language differ from using a spoken language?
  • How do memes (macro images), smileys (aka emoticons or emojis), text-speak and other digital innovations relate to more traditional forms of communication?
  • Why might reading something in two different languages produce two different impressions?
  • Do there exist languages (like a fictitious Star Trek alien one) that are extremely difficult or impossible to translate because they rely noticeably more on metaphors and allusions?
  • What are some other properties of language that might make one language appear strange compared to another?

Continue reading Does your language control you? Lingering questions.

Please push your bicycle across the underpass

This is a grammar post. I think the sign should say:

Please push your bicycle through the underpass.

I would use “through” because an underpass is basically a tunnel.

The light is in the tunnel, not at the end of the tunnel.

Not that prepositions necessarily make any sense, but in my experience, we say you go across things that you are on and we say you go through things you are in.

Thus, if the sign were talking about a bridge, then it could say:

Please push your bicycle across the bridge.

Calvin and Hobbes in Translation

This collection of translations of Bill Watterson’s The Revenge of the Baby- Sat probably got started when I went to Italy in 2002 and chanced upon a copy of the Italian translation.

Undoubtedly I bought the Portuguese one in Portugal in 2004 and the German one in Germany in 2008. My husband fetched me the French one from France at some point or other, having somehow determined that the contents were the same even though the cover was different. A neighbor kindly brought back the Chinese version for me when she went to visit family in Beijing recently.

Seeing Calvin’s words in other languages that use the Roman alphabet is one thing; seeing them in Chinese characters is quite strange.

Below are images of the six different book covers: French, Italian, Portuguese, German, English, and Chinese.

There are translations available in other languages, including Spanish (ISBN 9786075271170), Dutch (ISBN 97890542562), and Czech (ISBN 9788074490798), as well…

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Turn on headlights when raining

I saw this message displayed on a programmable sign over a highway, prefaced by the notation “Georgia Law”.

Obviously, the message is

Turn on [your] headlights when [it is] raining.

The intent is clear, but the syntax is awful.

Syntactically, the implied subject of both the verbs “turn” and “rain” is “you”, so technically the sentence means:

Turn on [your] headlights when [you are] raining.

I don’t have any particular suggestion for how to “improve” the sign. Signs aren’t written in normal syntax because of space constraints, so any alternate version would have to be really short. Writing “If it is raining, turn on your headlights” is obviously longer and not obviously better, because even when space is not limited, we expect signs to be written in a terse style that lacks pronouns.

Ah well. Pronouns in English are problematic anyway.

Best Mad Libs story ever!

If you’ve never heard of Mad Libs, it’s basically a kind of kids’ activity book that helps you create silly stories. The booklet asks for examples of different kinds of words (parts of speech like “adjective” or more specific kinds of words like “color”). The words will be used in a specially written story, but you don’t know exactly how they will be used. After all the words have been written down, you copy them into the story and read it aloud to see how it sounds.

Every once in a while, I tell someone the story of the time my mom and I did a Mad Libs story that made us laugh like crazy. In fact, there’s already a blog post about it. See below for more on that story, which I rediscovered on my recent trip to Atlanta.

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