Wikipedia:Reference desk/Archives/Language/2008 December 17

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December 17[edit]

Language reform[edit]

I have read of committees reforming the orthography of various languages, and also sometimes wanting certain items of vocabulary replaced (such as for the sake of linguistic purity), but is this all? DO they ever, for example, decide that certain verbs will no longer be irregular, or change verb conjugations, or reform numeral systems (such as if English "eleven" through "nineteen" were to be reformed by analogy with 21 through 29)? —Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 05:42, 17 December 2008 (UTC)

For a start, see List of language regulators and Spelling reform. -- Wavelength (talk) 06:12, 17 December 2008 (UTC)
I think that official language academies etc. very rarely attempt to impose "a prioristic" reforms of the type you mention (i.e. motivated by abstract theoretical concerns of language efficiency or consistency etc.), but much more often try to regulate such matters as which spoken dialect will be taken as the basis of the written literary standard, replacing percieved excessive loanwords from foreign languages with words formed from native vocabulary elements, details of spelling, details of punctuation, the nuances of the definitions of a relatively small number of words, etc. We have articles on philosophical language, a priori language etc. but I don't think there's much overlap between those topics and language academies... AnonMoos (talk) 15:58, 17 December 2008 (UTC)
In Norway, counting was reformed in the mid-twentieth century from saying the ones first (three-and-fifty) to the tens first (fifty-three). I think I've heard that part of the reason was to make it easier to say "modern" things like long phone numbers. The reform happened around thirty years before I was born, yet I - occasionally - use the old way of counting. For saying things like phone numbers, the new way is almost exclusively used; the same in "official" stuff like TV programs; otherwise, old people will still tend to use the old way. (I've briefly tried to search Wikipedia and Google for English-language sources for this but didn't find much - it's briefly mentioned here: [1]) Jørgen (talk) 20:44, 17 December 2008 (UTC)
When Irish was standardized, the amount of irregularity in verbs was reduced compared to some dialects but not to others. Basically, some dialects had already regularized a lot of verb forms, and the standardized language picked those dialects to standardize on. But forms that were already irregular in all dialects stayed irregular. —Angr 21:09, 17 December 2008 (UTC)
Danish bank notes use a different word for the number than is used in speech, as I recall, the 50 crown note has "femti" printed on it, but everyone says something like "hell-tress" (which is half way to three twenties from two-twenties). Bloody confusing. DuncanHill (talk) 03:39, 18 December 2008 (UTC)

Croatian has been undergoing some major reforms in the last 15 years or so (well, the reforms seem to be more or less over now), to differentiate itself from the politically constructed Serbo-Croatian language - in Yugoslavia, we were all supposed to be brotherly nations with lots in common, and Serbian and Croatian were similar enough to be just melded into one language. The reforms consisted mainly of what was already mentioned here, taking regional versions of words and making them standard form. Looking on the process from the neighbourhood (Slovenia), it was widely perceived as a forced invention of words to form a sort of newspeak, and ridiculed as such, even if that was not exactly the case. The reform also backfired in at least one case I'm aware of - the names of months were changed from standard Latin derived names (January, February etc.) to the archaic Croatian forms, and all this has resulted in is that people on the street don't use the Latin names anymore, but neither do they use the Croatian forms, instead just using numerals. In my own Slovene, there is and has for some time been an irrational (IMO) angst about the disappearance of our own mothertoungue, and there have always been covert tendencies designed to "protect" the language - the reactionism of the language authorities is unfortunately turning Slovene into a stiff language that is afraid of accepting words of foreign origin, at times forcefully replacing loan words with words of Slovene origin at places where a loan word could be more apropriate, and particularly, clensing the language of words of perceived South-Slavic origin (i.e. Croatian or Serbian), even when these words are sometimes simply vestiges of an older Slovene language. TomorrowTime (talk) 08:23, 18 December 2008 (UTC)

grammar question - it's a simple one so please answer me quickly!!!!!![edit]

please look at the following sentence

"You mean... you cut your hair and sold it to buy me this watch chain?"

in the italicized part , does it mean that the person cut his/her hair by himself/herself or does it simply mean that the person had a haircut???

I think the second option is right, but I'm asking since I'm not so sure.

Yes the second option is probably right. Very often we use "I did", or "he did" when we mean arranged for someone professional to do something. Other examples are "He converted the attic into a bed room" or "When I moved in I installed a burglar alarm". In all cases it is possible that the person did these things themselves, but probably more likely that they ad them done by someone else. To avoid ambiguity you could say
"You mean... you had your hair cut and sold it to buy me this watch chain?"
Or if the person really did it themselves:
"You mean... you cut your own hair and sold it to buy me this watch chain?"
"You mean... you cut your hair yourself and sold it to buy me this watch chain?" -- Q Chris (talk) 09:48, 17 December 2008 (UTC)
In the context of the story, it's made explicitly clear that someone else cut her hair. —Angr 11:05, 17 December 2008 (UTC)
Actually, I take that back. It's only implicit, not explicit, in the story. —Angr 11:10, 17 December 2008 (UTC)

By the way, I think this would be less ambiguous in French, since forms of faire couper les cheveux etc. with causative faire would mostly be used when the meaning of having other people cut one's hair is intended... AnonMoos (talk) 15:45, 17 December 2008 (UTC)

Same in German - you'd more likely say "You let your hair be cut" (Du hast dir die Haare schneiden lassen) rather than "You cut your hair" (Du hast dir die Haare geschnitten) if someone else did it. It's one of the pitfalls for us English-speakers learning German to remember to get this right. —Angr 16:10, 17 December 2008 (UTC)
That's correct. However, there is a poem which I can't find now (I think by Heinrich Böll), which says something like "Cesar crossed the Rubicon - but was it just him?", and several other examples where we, even in German, attribute an action to just one person, when it is in fact many unnamed people. (This could be called an application of "pars pro toto"). — Sebastian 18:19, 17 December 2008 (UTC)
Same with "In 1941, Hitler invaded Russia". He wasn't even personally there afaik, but the meaning still comes through - he arranged for Russia to be invaded. -- JackofOz (talk) 18:29, 17 December 2008 (UTC)
This feature of verbs used causatively is found in the Bible.

Example 1
John 3:22 After these things Jesus and His disciples came into the
"After this, Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside. He spent some time there with them and began baptizing."

John 4:2 (although Jesus Himself was not baptizing, but His disciples were)
"although it was not Jesus who did the baptizing but his disciples-"

Example 2
Matthew 8:5 And when Jesus entered Capernaum, a centurion came to Him,
"When Jesus returned to Capernaum, a centurion came up to him and begged him repeatedly,"

Luke 7:3 When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders
"When the centurion heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him to ask him to come and save his servant's life."

Example 3
Matthew 20:20 Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to
"Then the Zebedee's wife came to Jesus with her sons. She bowed down in front of him to ask him for a favor."
Matthew 20:21 And He said to her, "What do you wish?" She
"He asked her, 'What do you want?' She said to him, 'Promise that in your kingdom these two sons of mine will sit on your right and on your left.' "

Mark 10:35 James and John, the two sons of Zebedee, came up
"James and John, the sons of Zebedee, went to Jesus and said to him, 'Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask you.' "
Mark 10:36 And He said to them, "What do you want Me
"He asked them, 'What do you want me to do for you?' "
Mark 10:37 They said to Him, "Grant that we may sit, one
"They said to him, 'Let us sit in your glory, one on your right and one on your left.' "
-- Wavelength (talk) 19:39, 17 December 2008 (UTC)
Pars pro toto (cf. totum pro parte, synecdoche)? Perhaps. But I think that is not the precise species of metonymy involved in Caesar's crossing the Rubicon. Certainly it is not involved in Hitler's invading Russia, since Hitler himself did not bodily enter Russia when his forces did (am I right?). With Caesar, his personal crossing of the Rubicon is not essential to the case: it is the physical action by forces under his command that constitutes the fatal crossing. Didn't we discuss metonymy here recently, by the way? It's a thoroughly muddled affair.
A caution about causatives. English has many lexical causatives: raise means cause to rise; lay means cause to lie; set originally meant cause to sit; suckle means cause to suck. But English also uses ordinary verb forms in a causative sense. For these, our article stresses change-of-state verbs (and confuses them with lexical causatives, in the case of burn), but I'd say it's much broader. We walk the dog; we march Bart Simpson to Principal Skinner's office; we boil the water (a change of state): in these it is the dog that walks, Bart that marches, and the water that boils, where the verbs are taken in their primary, non-causative senses. And then, sometimes it is unclear what the primary sense is and whether it is causative in itself: he turned the doorknob; the doorknob turned. In my thinking about these things, we would do better to apply notions of middle voice, and radically rethink passive voice and transitivity in English.
Anyway, it may be useful to point out that standard causativity does not apply in the case we are asked about, from O. Henry's The Gift of the Magi: you make someone cut your hair, and this means that you cause someone to cut your hair; but you do not cause your hair to cut! That would be a standard causativity analysis, but improper use of cut. Let me put it this way: if shorten were construed as primarily non-causative, and the idiom were my hair shortened, then we might say, causatively, I shortened my hair.
I'm afraid a lot of those biblical examples miss the mark, interesting though they are. :)
¡ɐɔıʇǝoNoetica!T– 23:37, 17 December 2008 (UTC)


IS IT RIGHT TO PUT A COMMA BEFORE A SUBORDINATE CONJUNCTION? I have encountered subordinate conjunctions such as "because" with a comma preceding it. I know there are grammar books saying that coordinating conjunctions have commas before them.

Your answers will greatly enlighten me. Thank you, —Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 11:39, 17 December 2008 (UTC)

The answer is that it depends on which authority you choose to follow. See serial comma. --Richardrj talk email 11:52, 17 December 2008 (UTC)
Wrong conjunction, Richardj. One Hundred Nineteen was asking about "because" and the like introducing a clause. But the answer is still the same, it depends on who(m) you listen to. I had a physics teacher who insisted on a comma before "because" in all cases, which is wrong. My answer is to let readability be your guide, and that the question is not about conjunctions so much as it is about clauses and sense. The Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, supplies two good examples: "He didn't run because he was afraid; he ran because it had started to rain." No commas, because the "because" clause is essential to the meaning. (Funny—I'd have put a comma where they have a semicolon.) "He didn't run, because he was afraid to move." Non-essential, explanatory. This distinction is not always so clear, so use a comma when in doubt. --Milkbreath (talk) 12:57, 17 December 2008 (UTC)
There are certain "rules" that one can follow: if clauses seldom need to be preceded by commas, nor do when (in the temporal sense) clauses; since clauses are not usually preceded by commas when they are temporal but are preceded by commas when they are causal; although clauses are almost always preceded by commas; and so forth. But Milkbreath is essentially correct that the matter basically involves a sensitivity to traditional usage and to the distinction between what is and isn't restrictive in the context. Deor (talk) 04:11, 18 December 2008 (UTC)

Dutch or Afrikaans?[edit]

While doing an image review for a Featured Article Candidate (British Empire), I asked the nominator to provide a description of an associated image in English. One was already attached to the image in what I think is Dutch, but it may be Afrikaans. Either way, I don't know the difference. However, I think it would be helpful to identify the appropriate language. I tagged the language at my best guess in the description line. Please notify if it should be changed. Thanks. --Moni3 (talk) 14:23, 17 December 2008 (UTC)

The language is Dutch and not Afrikaans. Marco polo (talk) 15:01, 17 December 2008 (UTC)


May someone please add the pronunciation of this German surname to WP article: [[2]]. Thanks. --Omidinist (talk) 16:30, 17 December 2008 (UTC)

I can't find the pronunciation in any of my usual sources. If no one here can tell you, maybe someone at de:Wikipedia:Auskunft will know. I suspect it's pronounced the French way, [suˈʃɔ̃], but I don't know for sure. —Angr 17:38, 17 December 2008 (UTC)
"ou" isn't a normal vowel combination in German (see German orthography). I'd suspect it's pronounced like "der Blouson"[3], that is similar to the French, as the above poster says. --Maltelauridsbrigge (talk) 00:24, 18 December 2008 (UTC)
it is pronounced the French way. Souchon ws a descendant of Huguenotes.--Tresckow (talk) 03:18, 18 December 2008 (UTC)
Huguenots. --Cookatoo.ergo.ZooM (talk) 05:36, 18 December 2008 (UTC)

Number of English sentences[edit]

How many possible sentences are there in English? Counting sentences like: 'subject + verb', 'subject + verb + object', 'subject + verb + object + although ...'. And exclusing sentences that are way too long.--Mr.K. (talk)

Well, including sentences that are "way too long", the number is infinite. (You can repeat the first six words of "I know that you know that he's a liar" indefinitely.) Whether excluding the "way too long" sentences reduces that to a finite number, I don't know. —Angr 18:39, 17 December 2008 (UTC)
This obviously can't be answered unless you define "way too long." Also, what limits are you placing on what words can be used? Anything in the OED? -Elmer Clark (talk) 19:42, 17 December 2008 (UTC)
The main answer revolves around the notion of recursion. There are a few points of recursion in English syntax, such as subordinate clauses and prepositional phrases(The man who I saw cooking in the kitchen by the lake where the pandas who like peanut butter used to sit...). There are also no official limits on how many adjectives can precede a noun (the big, red, banana-shaped, over-the-top, famous, horribly dressed, ... film star). The more you expand a sentence, the more incomprehensibility grows, but the theoretical possibilities of sentences are infinite. It's one of the primary features of language that it can use recursion to allow a theoretically infinite number of utterances. Piraha is controversially a potential counter-example, but like I said, it's controversial. Steewi (talk) 22:53, 17 December 2008 (UTC)

Oh, the answer is 42, obviously. TomorrowTime (talk) 07:51, 18 December 2008 (UTC)

It's not only a question of grammar, but also a question of vocabulary. English effortlessly takes in foreign-language words as loanwords (more or less all languages do this, but English seems pretty extreme in that regard), then there's all sorts of slang, technical and scientific terminology, jargon, neologisms etc, much of which is not even listed in the OED. In finite time with a finite number of speakers, the number of words ever uttered in English is finite, of course, but if you ask about all possible sentences, English vocabulary is potentially infinite. Then, consider sentences like "The German word Schnee means snow", "The Latin word domus means house", et cetera - you can do this for every word in every language (living, dead or artificially constructed), yet all of these are different English sentences with a different meaning. So, as enticing as 42 sounds, my money is on infinity -- Ferkelparade π 09:08, 18 December 2008 (UTC)
Of course, it is infinity, as Angr showed above. However, if we reduce the length of the sentence (E.g. by limiting the number of letters to 1000) then we get a finite number. Ignoring rare foreign letters such as "é" and only allowing comma, dash (which can double as hyphen), and semicolon for punctuation, we have 30 different charactiers, resulting in 30 to the 1000th different sentences. That's about 101500 - a one with 1500 zeroes. Of course, most of these would not be English sentences - they would just look as if they had been typed by monkeys on a typewriter. The number of actual English sentences would be far less. Therefore, it wouldn't be infinity. — Sebastian 10:43, 18 December 2008 (UTC)

not "infinity" because the longest sentence it is possible to utter would be limited by human lifespan (or the lifespan of the universe if you get your descendents to continue your sentence for you). But that's beside the point. They are fapp infinity. --dab (𒁳) 11:14, 18 December 2008 (UTC)

Follow-up OK, I meant actually the number of types of sentences. In this case, you will be counting 'John is talking' and 'John is walking' just as one. So it doesn't matter how many words English has or what words count. It is only about the structure. 'Way too long' is also way too blurred. I meant here sentences that are so long that nobody uses them. Mr.K. (talk) 11:32, 18 December 2008 (UTC)

But you might not use a sentence that my mother's auntie's hairdresser's husband's favourite pupil's best friend's older sister's boy friend's mother would. -- Q Chris (talk) 12:38, 18 December 2008 (UTC)
NO, I definitely wouldn't include these sentences. Five or six speech parts should be more than enough. And that even for academic philosophers trying intentionally to appear deep (but actually being just complicated).--Mr.K. (talk) 12:48, 18 December 2008 (UTC)
The question is too poorly defined for me to answer, so I'll throw in "Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo." --Sean 15:08, 18 December 2008 (UTC)
Depends what you mean by "type of sentence". Let's take some example sentences:
  • John is talking.
  • John talks.
  • John expresses himself verbally.
  • John was talking.
  • John will talk.
  • John will be talking.
  • John can talk.
  • John may talk.
  • John sometimes talks.
  • John has talked.
  • John should be talking.
  • John appears to be talking.
  • Look - John is talking !
  • I, John, am talking.
How many different "types of sentences" are there in that list ? Where exactly do you want to draw the boundaries between one "type of sentence" and another ? Gandalf61 (talk) 16:02, 19 December 2008 (UTC)
I would say that "John talks" and "John sometimes talks" are the same type. On the other hand, "John talks because he wants to." is another type. Mr.K. (talk) 16:24, 19 December 2008 (UTC)

The apparent rank of Borisch Kommendant in World in Conflict[edit]

Hello I discovered while playing as russians on this computer game, I was being styled as Borisch Kommendant(or whatever it appears to my ears), does this mean something? My guesses are that it means A:Grand Commander; B:Lieutenant Commander; or C:just Commander. What really does it mean? I would appreciate an answer.

Gsmgm (talk) 19:16, 17 December 2008 (UTC)

Well, Boris is a common Russian given name, and "Borisch" looks like a spelling of some German's (wrong) idea of how it's pronounced. But then, I suppose, it would be Komm(a)ndant Borisch rather than Borisch Komm(a)ndant. Other than that, I have no idea. -- JackofOz (talk) 19:32, 17 December 2008 (UTC)
Well, I do believe I heard Boris(c)h or something like that(it was a clear sound of sh it the end). I doing a lot of german classes so it might filter through sometimes. And I know I heard in the given order. Ahh well, probably it's the game producers who failed to study russian properly. Gsmgm (talk) 19:44, 17 December 2008 (UTC)
Was it in a German sentence? In that case, it could have been any of a number of adjectives, such as "Bayerisch" (Bavarian) or "Preußisch" (Prussian). (See above how far away what you hear can be from the correct pronunciation in a given language.) — Sebastian 19:55, 17 December 2008 (UTC)
It wasn't a german sentence, it was stated ingame by a russian(speaking english) to address the commanding officer. Gsmgm 21:01, 17 December 2008 (UTC) —Preceding unsigned comment added by Gsmgm (talkcontribs)
Any chance it could be "tovarich (meaning 'comrade') general?" --- OtherDave (talk) 23:29, 17 December 2008 (UTC)
That sounds much more likely. "Tovarishch Kommandant" (Comrade Commandant) would be how a Soviet-era trooper would address his commandant, although I'm not sure it's post-Soviet practice. -- JackofOz (talk) 02:32, 18 December 2008 (UTC)
See Mondegreen. -- Wavelength (talk) 18:29, 18 December 2008 (UTC)
Hmm, not sure this is a mondegreen, Wavelength. That requires the sound of what the listener "thinks" he heard to make some sense, even if not the intended sense. Clearly, this listener could make no sense of what he thought was "Borisch", otherwise he wouldn't have been asking the question here. -- JackofOz (talk) 18:38, 18 December 2008 (UTC)
Okay, thanks, now I understand it, I though about it for a very long time today and found out it was indeed a V(I am not sure of any T:s, additionaly, I might also heard "Bovarish") somewhere in the sentence, Now it makes really sense now. Indeed, I never learned russian, so I wouldn't understand anything russian. PS World In Conflict is a cold war era RTS/RTT game, so russians saying comrade is very likely. DS Gsmgm (talk) 18:44, 18 December 2008 (UTC)
Товарищ (Tovarishch) is pronounced with a fairly strong accent on -va (tə-VA-rishch), and the first syllable could easily be swallowed when speaking quickly, so much so that the listener might not catch it at all. -- JackofOz (talk) 19:08, 18 December 2008 (UTC)
The Wiktionary page wikt:товарищ has an audio file in .ogg format.
-- Wavelength (talk) 19:29, 18 December 2008 (UTC)
Could it have been "Bolshiy"? That means big, or grand. Little Red Riding Hoodtalk 02:02, 20 December 2008 (UTC)

Vetula sed(?) Noli Picare... Is this correct Latin?[edit]

Hello, Is this correct latin, I saw it on a Telenor tv commercial, where it apparently is supposed to mean "you old magpie". I am very interested in the answer, so can you find out please?

Gsmgm (talk) 19:27, 17 December 2008 (UTC)

It means "Old woman but don't caulk with pitch". Now I am very interested why you are so very interested in the answer. — Sebastian 20:00, 17 December 2008 (UTC)
Well, It came up in class when I and a pal started discussing tv commercials, and I started to wonder if this was correct latin. I pass the issue to my subconsciousness and remeberd it today. So I though where else to resolve this issue if not wiki. And that "very interested" was just a proper if somewhat dishonest reason. Gsmgm 20:57, 17 December 2008 (UTC) —Preceding unsigned comment added by Gsmgm (talkcontribs)
So how would a roman state "you old magpie"? Gsmgm (talk) 21:32, 17 December 2008 (UTC)
"Tu, pica senex"? Deor (talk) 21:43, 17 December 2008 (UTC)
Okay, thanks, that would be interesting for my friend, and proving tv-commericals don't usually do any background research. Gsmgm (talk) 18:46, 18 December 2008 (UTC)

Russian: "corashon"[edit]

I've been watching World War II: Behind Closed Doors on the BBC, and I've noticed that, in conversation, Russians sometimes say a word that sounds like "coraShon"; while the context would suggest it means something like "I see" or "is that so?", the programme's subtitles don't show it. What are they actually saying, and what does it mean? Thanks. (talk) 22:45, 17 December 2008 (UTC)

I imagine they're saying khorosho, which means "good" or "all right" or "OK". —Angr 22:49, 17 December 2008 (UTC)
Which is also the source of "horror show" in A Clockwork Orange, isn't it? Adam Bishop (talk) 02:25, 18 December 2008 (UTC)
Yes. Algebraist 02:28, 18 December 2008 (UTC)
Thanks Angr, that's it! (talk) 18:23, 18 December 2008 (UTC)
See Mondegreen. -- Wavelength (talk) 18:30, 18 December 2008 (UTC)