Wikipedia:Reference desk/Archives/Language/2008 November 23

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November 23[edit]

Chinese: Stroke order for 〇 (líng)[edit]

Does anybody know the stroke order for the Chinese character 〇 (líng)? Is it one stroke all the way around? If so, what direction is it in and where do you start?Yakeyglee (talk) 06:52, 23 November 2008 (UTC)

If it's the same thing as the Japanese one (not an actual character, but rather the zen symbol of perfection, to be written on decorative scrolls), then it's drawn in one counter-clockwise line, starting from the top. TomorrowTime (talk) 10:06, 23 November 2008 (UTC)
Yes, it's drawn in one counter-clockwise line, starting from the top in Chinese. Some Chinese dictionaries don't conut it as a character, since it's only used as a placeholder as a variant of .--K.C. Tang (talk) 13:34, 23 November 2008 (UTC)

is there a predominant gender for nouns in Romance languages?[edit]

I have read that in the Romance languages, the neuter gender of Latin disappeared, and the neuter nouns became converted mainly into masculine ones. Does this mean that masculine nouns are therefore more common than feminine ones in these languages? I'm especially interested in French, which I am learning, but also in the others. Thanks, It's been emotional (talk) 18:21, 23 November 2008 (UTC)

Not quite answering your question, I know that in German (which still has three genders) there are far more masculine nouns than feminine or neuter ones. It must be likely that the same is also true of Proto-Germanic, and perhaps it would be strange if other branches of the Indo-European family of languages showed something quite different. Strawless (talk) 22:11, 23 November 2008 (UTC)
I am fairly proficient in German, and I am surprised to hear that masculine nouns outnumber feminine nouns. This just might be true of "root" nouns, but since the endings for forming abstract nouns from verbs and adjectives are mostly feminine, and since these words make up a large number, maybe a majority of nouns in a German dictionary, I cannot see how masculine nouns outnumber feminine nouns. Can you cite a source? Marco polo (talk) 23:17, 23 November 2008 (UTC)
Also, almost any masculine noun referring to a person can be made feminine by tacking an -in onto it, so a lot of masculine nouns have their "vote" in the count canceled out by their feminine counterparts. (This will tend to be true in the Romance languages the OP was asking about, too. For that matter, abstract nouns derived from adjectives and verbs are feminine in Romance languages too. I think Indo-European languages in general have a weakness for feminine abstract nouns.) —Angr 23:31, 23 November 2008 (UTC)
OT, but there was a discussion on the gender distribution in German about a year (?) ago. The finding was, that in the subset of frequently used nouns (they tend to be one or two syllables) masculine nouns are in the clear majority. However, when it comes to polysyllabic nouns (often constructed with suffixes like -heit or the like) feminine nouns are the vast majority. As the result feminine nouns win - by more than a whisker - in the frequency stakes. Of course, in colloquial German this may not always hold. At that time somebody supplied a reference, but I can´t find the thread. --Cookatoo.ergo.ZooM (talk) 15:57, 24 November 2008 (UTC)
I don't have actual statistics, but one thing to keep in mind is that in the older Indo-European languages (including Latin), basic neuter and masculine declensions usually differed only in the nominative, accusative, and vocative case forms (and in many cases, the vocative was irrelevant, or the accusative was also the same between masculine and neuter). So if such a language eliminates the neuter gender, then it would be morphologically natural for most old neuters to become new masculines. However, neuter nominative-accusative plurals end in an "a" vowel (also an old Indo-European characteristic), so that some old neuter nouns that had been mainly used in the plural would naturally assimilate to feminine declensions with "a" vowel endings... AnonMoos (talk) 01:33, 24 November 2008 (UTC)

Gender statistics for French and other Romance languages
First I answer the question for French, using the large and widely respected dictionary Petit Robert (CD-ROM version 2.1, 2001). Then I generalise the answer.
Among Petit Robert's searchable nouns that are classified by gender, 14,358 are n. f. (feminine noun) and 18,038 are n. m. (masculine noun). Another 88 are n. m. et f. (examples: guide m. is "one who guides", f. is "girl guide"; hydromètre m. is "hydrometer", f. is a class of insect "qui court rapidement à la surface de l'eau, appelé communément araignée d'eau", or heteropteran; and <*ahem*> foudre f. is "lightning", m. is as in the rare and archaic foudre de guerre, "a great captain"). Another 79 are n. m. ou f. of either gender without change of meaning (examples: coenzyme; happy end; goulache variously spelt – and note that Hungarian does not have grammatical gender). A more considerable group (of 2,352) are simply n., and these are of two types: of either gender (determined by the sex of the referent) without change of form or meaning (examples: aéronaute; portraitiste; polygraphe, glossed as "Didact., vieilli: auteur non spécialiste qui écrit sur des domaines variés. Diderot se fit polygraphe pour rédiger son Encyclopédie" – nice term for a Wikipedian), or having two standardised forms for masculine and feminine (examples: poivrot, -ote, "drunkard"; marathonien, -ienne). A negligible few items in these searches were wrongly picked up, or had different reasons for their classification than those I have just given.
Synopsis of findings
Now, there are several ways to present these data synoptically. Here is one way:

Of the 34,915 nouns classified by gender in Petit Robert, 41.1% are purely feminine, 51.7% are purely masculine, and 7.2% have mixed assignment of gender.

I leave the generation of other equally valid formulations as an exercise.
First, three reasonable assumptions:
  1. Gender functions pretty well the same in all Romance languages (with the possible exception of Romanian, along with perhaps some minor languages, since Romanian retains a strangely behaving kind of neuter gender).
  2. The vocabulary of the Romance languages is generally from the same sources (mainly Latin, of course; Romanian is again problematic because its lexicon is strongly infiltrated by Slavic).
  3. The overall frequencies of occurrence, along with the differential frequencies of occurrence in different registers, are much the same for cognate words in all Romance languages (except again for Romanian, perhaps).
So I set aside Romanian and some minor languages. On the strength of these assumptions I venture to say that the proportions found for French would be closely matched in the other Romance languages. Furthermore, although this analysis has been confined to word types (that is, dictionary words) as opposed to tokens (that is, instances of use of those dictionary words), any analysis of tokens in texts or spoken discourse is likely to be generalisable to other Romance languages. A weaker generalisation to other European language groups (Germanic, Slavic, the Greek family, etc.) would be possible, but for the intrusion of the neuter gender in these.
Miscellaneous notes
  • I agree that abstract terms are typically feminine. And yes, this is not only a characteristic of Indo-European languages, but also Semitic. This probably makes for a preponderance of feminine nouns (possibility even a majority of types, and of tokens) in writing and in learned registers; and a converse greater-than-baseline preponderance of masculine nouns in speech and in colloquial registers.
  • As for those Greek (and some Latin) neuter plurals ending in -a, yes: they typically become feminine. They are few, though, and would not noticeably affect the statistics presented above. Examples: la bible, la mathématique – and, I'm happy to able to add, la noétique.
  • My username is from the Greek neuter plural νοητικά. It is often taken as indicating feminine gender and, what's more, femaleness; but I always meant it to remain decisively neuter plural. I never thought of it being taken to indicate much at all, for most people.
¡ɐɔıʇǝoNoetica!T– 05:42, 24 November 2008 (UTC)
I am in a position to be able to confirm that Noetica (the human being) is neither neuter nor plural. -- JackofOz (talk) 19:08, 24 November 2008 (UTC)
Thank you, JackofOz. In return, I issue a similar assurance regarding your status and numerary conformation.
¡ɐɔıʇǝoNoetica!T– 21:06, 24 November 2008 (UTC)
Awesome answers folks! It's been emotional (talk) 19:27, 29 November 2008 (UTC)

Do bilingual people claim to think in any particular language?[edit]

I read in How the Mind Works by Steven Pinker that although people often claim we think in words, this is untrue. This is clear enough when we consider how often we find we cannot quite put our thoughts into words. If we thought in words, there would be no problem - we'd just speak our actual thoughts, and that would be it. Even so, there seems to be some linguistic component to thinking. I'm curious about whether bilingual people claim to think in any particular language, because this example would show up clearly how much language guides thought. The idea is that I, a monolingual English speaker, might be unaware of the dividing line between word-based and wordless thought, but a bilingual person, when thinking in words, would become aware of the process due to their thinking in one language and not the other. So if you're bilingual, this question is for you, or else if you know something about this from any second-hand source, please contribute! It's been emotional (talk) 18:31, 23 November 2008 (UTC)

I'm not bilingual, but I'm fluent in a language (German) other than my native language (English), and I certainly sometimes think in English and sometimes think in German, and I'm always aware of what language I'm thinking in. —Angr 18:39, 23 November 2008 (UTC)
Angr has highlighted something I was going to ask, too. What exactly do you mean by "bilingual"? I've heard people use the word "bilingual" in reference to people who can fluently speak a language other than their native one. I, on the other hand, have been taught that "bilingual" means "having two native languages", i.e. stemming from a family where two languages are spoken without hierarchy, or stemming from a family that speaks a language different than the language of the environment - a much harsher definition of the word. So, which of the two meanings did you have in mind? Me, I can fluently speak (besides my native language, of course) English, to an extent German, and to a somewhat lesser extent Japanese, and I have found myself in numerous situations where I had something on my mind that I could express perfectly in one of those secondary languages, but not my mother toungue. TomorrowTime (talk) 19:04, 23 November 2008 (UTC)
Sometimes that is because words exist for concepts in one language but not the other. In English we just assimilate the words (Schadenfreude, Blitzkrieg, Fahrvergnügen) Rmhermen (talk) 19:27, 23 November 2008 (UTC)
To me (native Norwegian, reasonably fluent in English and functional in Spanish), this is a difficult question to answer by introspection. To know which language I'm thinking in, I need to reflect about the fact that I'm thinking. And when I do that, I may force my thoughts to a point closer to verbalization than they were before I reflected about the fact. It's a bit like a quantum measurement. Now, when typing in English, I'm certainly thinking in English. When I'm engaged in conversation with Spanish friends, I'm certainly thinking in Spanish. A couple of weeks ago, I remember enjoying a beautiful sunrise on my way to work. In which language was I thinking when I watched it? I have no idea - I wasn't aware. --NorwegianBlue talk 19:18, 23 November 2008 (UTC)

[after ec, answering TomorrowTime's post] Thanks very much for the interesting answers so far. You've both hit upon my meaning quite accurately. Since the question is more about the nature of thought, the exact definition of bilingual is unimportant. I'm only interested in people having enough of two languages to potentially think in either one. For example, I can express simple thoughts adequately in French, but I don't know it well enough to think directly in it. That is, although I don't have to translate, I do have to be conscious of what I'm doing, so it's not like using English. I would say my consciousness connects more or less seamlessly with my language when I use English, but being unable to switch to another tongue, I can't tell how separate these two components are. Some of you obviously can, so it's been good asking this question. It's been emotional (talk) 19:20, 23 November 2008 (UTC)

Also, for NorwegianBlue, it might be possible to catch a thought just after you've had it, by looking back at whether you had any words forming in your mind while you were thinking. Next time you see a sunset, you might be more aware - but not if you wait a couple of weeks ;) It's been emotional (talk) 19:26, 23 November 2008 (UTC)

As stated, I think the very act of trying to catch it, might force a thought that wasn't really verbal in the first place, into one of the languages that I speak. If I'm listening to the news on Norwegian radio while watching it, the language will probably be Norwegian. If, on the other hand, I'm listening to a Spanish podcast while watching it, the language will probably be Spanish. --NorwegianBlue talk 19:47, 23 November 2008 (UTC)
Nature of thought, eh... Well, I've learned all my foreign languages mostly by immersion (watching cartoons in English and German as a kid, having immersion being the way of things at Uni while studying Japanese), and as I said, I find myself expressing things to myself in these foreign languages, and then stopping and seeing if I can express the same thing in my native Slovenian, and being sometimes unable to do so. I (think) I even have memories of dreaming in languages other than my native one. The reason I even comtemplate these language-related things is, I'm a translator by profession, and these sort of questions just come to me naturally. I'm still not sure I completely comprehend what your original question was, but I hope I helped at least a bit in answering it :) TomorrowTime (talk) 19:34, 23 November 2008 (UTC)
I personally, as a native English speaking professional translator of Japanese and English, and ex-language teacher in Japan, routinely dream in Japanese. Sometimes I will have scenes within the same dream which are based either in UK or in Japan, and the language will switch accordingly and automatically. As for thinking in Japanese, that has come natural to me after ten years of living there, so now I do not notice it, except when I have to answer a question in English all of a sudden, and I have to pause sometimes to find the answer!--ChokinBako (talk) 01:45, 24 November 2008 (UTC)
If I am concentrating about something and I use language A to think about it, then if someone asks me a question in language B, I will answer in language A. If I am not concentrating, I will answer in language B. Phil Burnstein (talk) 19:30, 25 November 2008 (UTC)

My parents speak Cantonese and English. I can barely speak any form of Chinese. (I can't discuss anything I'm interested in without code switching.) Well, me, I think in English. Vltava 68 (talk contribs) 04:08, 26 November 2008 (UTC)

I was "raised" bilingual in English and Spanish. Here are some points on how I feel my mind works from what I can tell:

  • I tend to think in English which I would say is more important to me than Spanish. So for example if Im doing maths homework I would do all thinking in English
  • When I speak either language either alone or together (code-switching) I do not have to think about what I want to say in one particular language and then come up with the translation. I repeat I do not have to do this.
  • However, with other languages I have tried learning/partially learned i do have to think about what I want to say (in English as I seem to give English priority) and then translate it in my head before speaking it. I do feel however that as I gain experience in such languages, I do not seem to have to do this as much. Perhaps this is what should be meant by "being fluent in a language". -- (talk) 21:56, 26 November 2008 (UTC)
Thanks a lot for the interesting discussion. Perhaps I wasn't totally clear about the question, which was designed to use bilingual people to answer a question about the psychological nature of thought (monolingual people can't do the same kind of comparative introspection). I conclude that my own theory is plausible, that although we don't think purely in words, they must be closely linked to our thoughts in some way. Thanks for the help. It's been emotional (talk) 19:33, 29 November 2008 (UTC)

how did people cope with the language barrier in coloniial/ military settings etc?[edit]

Hi to all again. I've come across many situations in studying history, most recently with Cortez and the Aztecs, where it ought to be impossible for the people to have communicated, because they not only spoke different languages, but given the short time available, there would have been no trained interpreters either. It seems like Cortez marched onto the shores of modern-day Mexico, met a bunch of Aztecs, and started speaking their language all of a sudden, or they his. Our article on Cortez says he used an interpreter, in which case, how did she learn Spanish so quickly? What of the situation at the borders of the Roman Empire, where they encountered all sorts of Germanic and other foreign peoples? Did the barbarians, Asians, Africans etc. all understand the importance of Latin as a lingua franca, or did the Romans appreciate the value of learning the culture and language of the people they intended to subjugate? Thanks once again, It's been emotional (talk) 19:08, 23 November 2008 (UTC)

It doesn't take that much time to figure out the basics of a new language, if you're immersed in it for a few months; Cortez probably met Nahuatl speakers before finding the actual Aztec homeland, although I don't know anything about that specifically. I know that's what happened with Captain Cook - he found a couple of Tahitians who were willing (or were perhaps semi-kidnapped) to sail around the Pacific with him, and they learned English on board, and since the other Polynesian languages are so similar, they could communicate with everyone from Fiji to New Zealand. As for the Romans, they themselves thought Greek was the best language to use, and everyone in the east spoke Greek either natively or as a lingua franca before they got there. In the west, it's likely that the Celtic and Italic languages were similar enough that communicating was not a big problem. I've read that Caesar had to write his messages in Greek because the Gauls could read his Latin. Adam Bishop (talk) 19:24, 23 November 2008 (UTC)
In North America, there was contact between the native and fisherman for years before settlement with some of the locals "joining" ship's crews or "visiting" European capitals - often under duress, but learning the language. Hence Squanto and Samoset spoke English when they met the Pilgrims for example. Rmhermen (talk) 19:32, 23 November 2008 (UTC)
For more on Cortez's translator, see La Malinche. Little Red Riding Hoodtalk 21:23, 23 November 2008 (UTC)
How very interesting that is! I was just about to say that the Spanish had had a settlement at Santo Domingo since the late 1490s, and they surely could have found someone. But now we see how they did it. Strawless (talk) 22:25, 23 November 2008 (UTC)
Almost always, contact has preceded conquest. Without prior contact, the conquerors or colonists would not have known where to go. Even Columbus failed to found a successful settlement on his first voyage to the Americas, but he did bring some captives back to Europe. Contact led to travel, including travel by captives, who would have learned the language of their captors and then become useful to them as interpreters. Even peaceful contact led to some reciprocal language acquisition for purposes of trade, cultural exchange, and romance. This would of course have happened in ancient times as well. Also, trade languages and lingua francas helped bridge linguistic gaps. In the early years of Roman expansion, many Romans would have known some Punic, a major trade language throughout the western Mediterranean and North Africa, and many Romans spoke Greek, which widely spoken throughout the eastern Mediterranean basin, in Egypt, and even in southern Gaul (modern France). Their knowledge of these languages would have helped them in those regions when they were newly conquered. Once the Romans had conquered southern Gaul, many Celts in the rest of Gaul began to learn Latin for trade and diplomacy. Once the Romans had conquered northern Gaul, Britons would have begun to learn Latin for similar reasons, generations before the Roman conquest of Britain. Marco polo (talk) 22:36, 23 November 2008 (UTC)
I thought of a good example of the language barrier - Usama ibn Munqidh mentions an instance during the crusades when a Muslim thought he had been granted safe passage through crusader territory, but since they couldn't understand that weird French babbling, he actually didn't, and was taken prisoner. Adam Bishop (talk) 01:57, 24 November 2008 (UTC)
I heard a story about one of the first English travellers to Japan (not William Adams). He was shipwrecked but was not captured and was basically allowed to roam free in the village of the people that had saved him. He spoke none of their language and they spoke none of his. One day, he was sitting on the beach entertaining a group of kids, when he started drawing in the wet sand. The kids started saying 'nani? nani?', and soon it dawned on him that 'nani' meant 'what'. He then went around the village pointing at things and saying 'nani', and writing the words down, and this is how he came to learn Japanese.--ChokinBako (talk) 17:38, 24 November 2008 (UTC)
Take the following example of how it can be done, with some difficulty. Lewis and Clark famously kept adding to their band of travelers with progressively more and more translators; basically each group of natives only knew there language and that of their primary trading partners, and only the eastern-most natives knew English; so there are some famous passages in their journals which detail some tortuous communications which required half a dozen translators, each passing the message down the line. It would sometimes take as much as 5 minutes to ask a single question and get the response back, and oftentimes it required numerous repetitions. Imagine the childhood game of telephone, but where each person in the chain speaks a different set of languages, and you get an idea of how messed up this could be. 20:47, 25 November 2008 (UTC)

About 100-120 years ago, a British army major by the name of Davies traveled from Kunming (Yunnan province, China) to Mandalay in Burma, for the purpose of mapping possible rail routes. He spoke no useful language and did not carry a gun (although he did have a pass from the Chinese Imperial Court). What he found was that a length of bamboo, applied liberally around the head and shoulders, was an effective means of getting what he wanted, whether it was a bed for the night, passage on a ferry or the services of a guide. In other words, the combination of the appearance of superiority and the use force carries a meaning that is beyond words. (To avoid misunderstanding, I do not approve of beating people to get what you want, now or then.)DOR (HK) (talk) 06:20, 26 November 2008 (UTC)

Thanks for all those excellent answers to my above questions, It's been emotional (talk) 19:44, 29 November 2008 (UTC)

"Pricked off"[edit]

The text of the Charles Heathcote Tatham article was written for the DNB in England in about 1895. It uses the phrase "pricked off" to describe the way a painter transfers the proportions of a small paper drawing onto a large surface prior to actually doing the painting, by using a pin or stylus to "prick" tiny reference points onto the working surface. I need a concise modern phrase for this, but I cannot think of one. "Took the dimensions from" is close, but does not imply the same level of copying. Please help. -Arch dude (talk) 23:55, 23 November 2008 (UTC)

"Marked off the proportional dimensions" ? "Pricked off" sounds like being upset by an objectionable person, AKA, a "prick". StuRat (talk) 00:16, 24 November 2008 (UTC)
There is a way that tailoring uses tracing paper and a toothed wheel in a similar way. Ah here it is Tracing wheel so tracing might cover it. Marked out is a contemporary term for transferring from the original, but even better is this original meaning of "Cartoon" and how the sketch was transferred to the artwork. I'd use scale-up in there somewhere. Julia Rossi (talk) 00:36, 24 November 2008 (UTC)