Wikipedia:Reference desk/Archives/Language/2009 December 14

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December 14[edit]

Abbreviated form of numberless possessive noun[edit]

By analogy with the use of "(s)" to indicate a noun which can be either singular or plural, is there a standard form for representing a noun which can be either singular possessive or plural possessive? This question is prompted by my recent revision of Trail of the Whispering Giants. I revised " tribes " to " tribes' " before realizing that the context does not make clear whether the word "features" applies to one tribe or more than one tribe when one sculpture is discussed, or whether the grammatical number varies with different sculptures. I do not remember ever encountering such a form, or even thinking about this question. The forms " tribe(')s(') " and " tribe(s)'(s) " and " tribe('s/s') " and " tribe (s'/'s) " and " tribe's/tribes' " and " tribes'/tribe's " are some possibilities. (The extra spaces are for avoiding an apostrophe beside a quotation mark.) -- Wavelength (talk) 00:07, 14 December 2009 (UTC)

I don't think there is; if someone wants to avoid this sort of ambiguity, they usually just change word order (like "the features of all the local tribes" vs. "all the features of the local tribe"). rʨanaɢ talk/contribs 00:14, 14 December 2009 (UTC)

I propose the form " tribe's' ", pronounced the same as " tribes " and " tribe's " and " tribes' " and possibly " tribe(s) ". [I am revising the section heading.] -- Wavelength (talk) 01:02, 14 December 2009 (UTC)

If there's an ambiguity, you just have to show it; there's no understandable equivalent to "tribe(s)" (which is taken from questionnaires and government forms). Write "tribe's [or tribes']" or "tribes' [or tribe's]", or else recast it as "of the tribe(s)". "Tribe(s)" is not that good prose anyway, it's more of a convenience for form-framers; if I were writing good, formal prose I'd probably write "tribe or tribes" or else the slightly-less-grammatical "one or more tribes", as in

Historians don't know what tribe or tribes the war-party belonged to.
This huge structure must represent the craftsmanship of one or more local tribes.

—— Shakescene (talk) 01:37, 14 December 2009 (UTC)

The noun phrase "all the local tribes features" was added by User:Found5dollar at 02:14, 7 December 2009. I have asked for clarification at Talk:Trail of the Whispering Giants. -- Wavelength (talk) 17:30, 14 December 2009 (UTC)

I have revised the article according to the answer provided. -- Wavelength (talk) 16:24, 15 December 2009 (UTC)
[I am correcting my comment. -- Wavelength (talk) 19:05, 15 December 2009 (UTC)]


"Prince Giorgio, a bewhiskered grower of mimosa flowers from a family of mimosa growers, was seized by a glorious vision: that Seborga was not part of the surrounding Italian nation." A sentence from a New York Times article.

Why couldn't they just used whiskered?

Revoolution (talk) 01:27, 14 December 2009 (UTC)

Well, it's the New York Times. Also, to my ears, "whiskered" sounds like it is an inherent characteristic, like of a walrus. "Bewhiskered" means it is a person with facial hair, probably shaped in some aesthetically pleasing way. Adam Bishop (talk) 01:40, 14 December 2009 (UTC)
In Merriam-Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary sense 3 of be- is "excessively : ostentatiously — in intensive verbs formed from simple verbs <bedeck> and in adjectives based on adjectives ending in -ed <beribboned>". In some cases, the be- word takes over completely; I don't think I've ever seen anything described as "ribboned". Deor (talk) 01:55, 14 December 2009 (UTC)
Personally, I've always been fond of the word "mustachioed" rather than "bewhiskered", though I suppose the two aren't exact synonyms. +Angr 16:30, 14 December 2009 (UTC)

Sir –[edit]

I'm reading a 1995 article from Nature for an essay, found in their "scientific correspondence" section, and I've noticed that all articles start with the word "SIR -", stylised with a capital S and small cap IR, followed by an em-dash. After that, the articles just goes on like any scientific article, really. What does this mean? I assume that the authors aren't addressing some unnamed person. Could it be an abbreviation?

If someone wants to have a look at it in case my description is too vague, the article is at (needs access rights)

Nature 373, 663-664

01:49, 14 December 2009 (UTC) —Preceding unsigned comment added by EditorInTheRye (talkcontribs)

Based on "correspondence" in the section title, I would say those are letters to the editor (from readers), not articles. Letters in The Economist also all start "Sir". --Nricardo (talk) 03:49, 14 December 2009 (UTC)
"Sir" is one long-established way to start a letter being sent to an organization rather than necessarily to a particular person. Variations include "Dear Sir", "Dear Sir(s)", "Dear Sir or Madam", etc. ←Baseball Bugs What's up, Doc? carrots→ 04:00, 14 December 2009 (UTC)
Note also that scientific papers (even the ones reporting new results) were originally letters sent from one scientist to another, which eventually changed to letters to the editor of a scientific journal (which were originally set up like trade magazines). Old journals (like Nature, established 1869), may retain some vestiges of that tradition. -- (talk) 16:33, 14 December 2009 (UTC)
In peer-reviewed scientific journals, full-blown 'papers' (which report original research) submitted by scientists for possible publication (if they pass the journal's Peer Review process) are written with a formal structure including most if not all of the sections Introductory Abstract, Introduction, Description, Discussion, Conclusion, Acknowledgements, References and sometimes Supplementary Data. If however someone wants to submit a much briefer report of some results, or observations about a previously published paper, that doesn't warrant all this structure, it is often done in the form of a 'Letter to the Editor', which by convention is begun in this way. Note that papers and letters are not strictly speaking 'articles': this term is more usually applied to pieces written by the journal's own staff or commissioned from a freelance writer. (talk) 04:42, 14 December 2009 (UTC)
Letters to London "broadsheet" newspapers always start "Sir-" [1] Alansplodge (talk) 13:35, 14 December 2009 (UTC)

Easiest to Most Difficult Language for Anyone to Learn...[edit]

I searched the archives and found a great many questions along the lines of "What's the easiest language to learn for someone who speaks ______". I, on the other hand, am interested in a purely objective rating of the world's major languages along degree of difficulty. What is the consensus - if one even exists - for which major world language is the easiest/hardest first language to learn? For example, I have heard it asserted many times that Japanese is the world's most difficult major language because of its grammar structure and bolted-on writing system. However, I suspect the average Japanese fellow might disagree! Is this sort of thing even quantifiable? (talk) 06:37, 14 December 2009 (UTC)

There is no consensus in the literature on this. The closest you can get is looking at the age at which people acquire certain parts of the language...but even that is just talking about bits and pieces, not the whole language. rʨanaɢ talk/contribs 07:06, 14 December 2009 (UTC)
I've heard it said that knowledge of something like 12,000 characters is required to read a Japanese newspaper, for the record. (Someone could be talking me for a ride, though; it'd not be the first time.) —Anonymous DissidentTalk 07:14, 14 December 2009 (UTC)
I don't think that is possible. In Chinese, the number is somewhere around 5,000 (and only about 2,000 for basic literacy). Japanese uses many of the same characters. rʨanaɢ talk/contribs 07:44, 14 December 2009 (UTC)
Actually, it's 2000 characters for full literacy and a thousand for basic literacy in Japanese. Also, I would like to point out that the whole deal with Japanese being incredibly difficult is blown out of proportions, IMO. It's grammar is different from what we're used to, and having to learn a whole new writing/reading system doesn't make it any easier, but it's quite doable if you put your mind to it. Japanese is also far from the only language to use a non-latinic script or grammar that is not familiar to a speaker of a language that came from Indo-European. TomorrowTime (talk) 09:46, 14 December 2009 (UTC)
I don't think there's room for serious dispute that Japanese has the most difficult writing system of any major language in the world today; not only is it made up of three separate and distinct sub-systems (two different syllabaries and one large set of word-signs), but the use of Chinese characters in writing Japanese is much more complex than the use of Chinese characters in writing Chinese itself. In Japanese there are kun readings, on readings, different layers of on readings, complexities in the use of supplemental kana, etc. See chapter 9 of Writing Systems: A Linguistic Introduction by Geoffrey Sampson (ISBN 0-8047-1756-7). AnonMoos (talk) 11:24, 14 December 2009 (UTC)
The 2000 "general use" characters aren't enough for full literacy. Crack open any Japanese novel and you'll find common characters not on that list. I'd put the total closer to 3000 for full literacy, and a well-educated native speaker ought to know even more. Paul Davidson (talk) 14:47, 14 December 2009 (UTC)
Easiest to learn also depends on what you already know. If you know French, Spanish is fairly easy. If you know either of those and you're trying to learn English, you're already ahead of someone who only knows Hindi or Mandarin or, for that matter, Hindi and Mandarin. What I'd be curious about is whether language acquisition is faster or slower depending on the language. SDY (talk) 07:28, 14 December 2009 (UTC)
They're asking about first languages. kwami (talk)
There are several issues here. There's learning one's native language. Then there's learning the national standard of your native language, which is often quite a different thing. Then there's literacy, another thing again, though related to the second. I take it you're not interested in those aspects of language learning which require a formal education (national standards, like High German in Switzerland, or literacy, like Chinese characters), but only those you pick up at home or on the street/in the field? If so, the others are correct: there is no consensus on this. However, there are aspects of certain languages which take a long time to learn. The formal register of Japanese, for example, is not generally mastered until after people leave home in their 20s. But I'm not sure you could argue that means its difficult, only that it's not required of a speaker until they're on their own. If it were required of 8-yr-olds, they'd pick it up too. Also, to become a truly good speaker of any language, in the sense that other speakers remark, Wow! S/he's a really good speaker! not only takes decades, but takes an unusual degree of talent/interest, and most people in any language don't make it. kwami (talk) 07:31, 14 December 2009 (UTC)

"All languages have about the same complexity: They're all tremendously complex." This is what several of my linguistics professors have told me, and they all took it for granted. It's even written in some textbooks, like Language Files, 8th edition, Department of Linguistics, Ohio State University. --Kjoonlee 10:11, 14 December 2009 (UTC)

Yep, that's pretty much it. Like blind men touching an elephant, you can call any language "complex" depending on what part of it you look at. Chinese has a lot of characters, Arabic has crazy verb conjugations, lots of Mesoamerican languages have complicated agglutinative verb morphology, Wolof has a complicated noun class system, Russian has tough phonology...etc. People who don't quite know what they're talking about have called all of these "the hardest" at some point or another, because they're just looking at one feature that's difficult and not looking at the language as a whole. rʨanaɢ talk/contribs 10:22, 14 December 2009 (UTC)
It's a myth that all languages are equally complex. There is some truth to it, in that a language that is simple in one area may be complex in another, but basically it was a white lie intended to counter the formerly prevalent racist notion that "primitive" people spoke "primitive" (that is, simple) languages, and consequently that ethicities who spoke simple languages were intellectually deficient. Well, I say "formerly", but there are still people who think that way. But really, there's no reason at all to think that all languages are equally complex. In fact, many "primitive" languages are actually more complex in many ways than the languages we're familiar with: polysynthesis is certainly not simple; perhaps the linguistic mixing and unstable influences in the histories of major language-family expansions have eradicated some of their former complexity, whereas small peoples who have been isolated and stable for millennia have had time to accrue all sorts of complexities and irrugularities. kwami (talk) 15:10, 14 December 2009 (UTC)
I agree with Kwamigami here -- all languages are equally expressive (as far as can be determined), so there are no "primitive languages" (spoken by groups of adult cognitively-normal people), in the Lévy-Bruhl or whatever sense. However, that doesn't necessarily mean that all languages are equally complex. In fact, if some language develops a particular subsystem significantly beyond what is revealed by linguistic typology to be common among languages generally (such as certain Khoisan languages which have many distinct click consonants, or the abstract consonantal roots of the Semitic languages etc. etc.), then that language is objectively complex with respect to that particular linguistic feature. Also, linguistic opacity -- such as a lot of inflectional morphology following a number of separate conjugational/declensional patterns with additional irregularities piled on top (as found in many older Indo-European languages) -- takes up memory space without any corresponding gain in communicative power, and so may be considered to add to language complexity. And there's one type of language, the creole languages, which are noted for generally lacking any major complexities with respect to linguistic typology or linguistic opacity, so that such creoles are can be considered less complex than most other languages (though not necessarily less expressive, which is a different matter). Esperanto has a few creole-type characteristics, but also many "Standard Average European" characteristics (i.e. features which make Esperanto easier to learn for speakers of some European-origin languages, but not for speakers of many other languages). AnonMoos (talk) 20:15, 14 December 2009 (UTC)
Yes, that is all correct. The main point I was trying to make is that it's not constructive to try to say one language is "the hardest" just by looking at one cherry-picked feature and putting on blinders to the rest of the language, which is what a lot of people tend to do. If you Google "hardest language", you will find a lot of random people's blogs making uninformed arguments that all pretty much amount to "X is the hardest language because it has the most complicated Y". Depending on which Y people choose to pay attention to and which they choose to ignore, almost any language could fill the place of X. rʨanaɢ talk/contribs 20:23, 14 December 2009 (UTC)
A very good point. My native Slovene is often touted as "extremely difficult" because it has the dual case. A long time ago I used to have an American flatmate, and his comment to this was: "well, I've learned 26 case paradigms by now, I don't see why the 27th should be that much different." TomorrowTime (talk) 07:49, 15 December 2009 (UTC)
I agree with that summary completely. When I was studying Russian, my friends would ask me "But why Russian? Isn't it incredibly difficult to learn?". On examination, this perceived difficulty turned out to be the Cyrillic alphabet, which is mastered surprisingly quickly. Other aspects of the language did indeed prove to be harder nuts to crack (and I never did master verbs of motion, mainly because my teacher primed us for weeks beforehand by telling us how hard most students find them, so like a very obdedient student I proceeded to find them very hard). But overall, it's not the behemoth of complexity that many westerners seem to assume it is. -- Jack of Oz ... speak! ... 20:57, 14 December 2009 (UTC)
The Cyrillic thing is a great example of how perceptions of difficulty can vary from person to person. Personally, I find Cyrillic (handwritten, at least) a pain--although, granted, I hardly ever use it so I'm not very experienced. On the other hand, I know some people who find it very easy. When I was first learning Uyghur, which can be written with Arabic or with Cyrillic, I had a classmate who was already fluent in some other languages written in Cyrillic. Thus, when we got to the end of class and were going to spend a little while learning the Cyrillic (we had spent most of the class using Arabic), it was killing me, whereas the other guy was beside himself with excitement for how much easier the language suddenly got when he would use that alphabet. One person's difficult is another person's easy, I guess. rʨanaɢ talk/contribs 23:04, 14 December 2009 (UTC)

We have an article Hardest language, but there are perpetual debates on its talk page, and I'm not sure that it's been steadily improving... AnonMoos (talk) 11:10, 14 December 2009 (UTC)

In terms of "easiest to learn as a first language", a reasonable candidate might be sign language, since it does not require fine vocal control, which is tough in any spoken language. Kids can learn sign language earlier than any spoken language because of this, see Sign language in infants and toddlers, and sign language(s) is/are fairly major languages worldwide. Also there are conventional languages specifically designed to be easy to learn, such as Esperanto, and by all accounts they succeed at this as a second language. But there are at least a few people who were taught this as their first language - see for example George Soros - so it might be a good candidate for "easiest spoken first language", though not a major one. LouScheffer (talk) 14:42, 14 December 2009 (UTC)

There are over 7,000 languages on the Earth. To say one is harder than the other is impossible to judge. TomA8 15:13, 14 December 2009 (UTC)
Esperanto was designed from the outset to be easy to learn, but I think you have a head start if you know a Latin-based language already. Alansplodge (talk) 17:12, 14 December 2009 (UTC)
Coincidentally, today (the 15th) is indicated as the "birthday" of Esperanto, on Google. However, it's actually the 150th birthday of Esperanto's inventor, L. L. Zamenhof. ←Baseball Bugs What's up, Doc? carrots→ 07:34, 15 December 2009 (UTC)
Ironically, even though I myself am a bit of an Esperanto enthusiast, it should be noted that all things being equal, Esperanto is not a terribly easy language to learn, unless you happen to be a speaker of an Indo-European language to begin within. Its phonology isn't particularly intuitive (at least for English speakers or for non-Indo-European speakers) and its vocab and grammar are entirely biased toward Western Europe. However, it is simplified and regularized in a way that make it a bit easier than learning what is called a natural langauge (i.e. all non-artificial languages). Perhaps this doesn't help the original poster, of course, who was interested in first languages....though for that you could see George Soros (an esperanto native speaker).- (talk) 10:54, 15 December 2009 (UTC)
It would be interesting to compare the length of time that the diplomatic service of various countries allocate to teaching a language from scratch. So if, for example, the US give their staff 18 months to get up to a given standard in Arabic, but only 15 months for Russian, that data could be mapped against what the Russians and Arab states give their staff to learn Chinese and French. Anyone up for the job of data massaging? Or finding the data in the first place? BrainyBabe (talk) 19:38, 16 December 2009 (UTC)
Ithkuil is very hard. (talk) 19:45, 16 December 2009 (UTC)

English translation (from Hindi-Urdu?)[edit]

—copied from the Humanities Reference desk:

Is there an English translation of heer ranjha, sohni mahiwal, sassi punnun and mirza sahiba? —Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 02:20, 14 December 2009 (UTC)

Sahiba can be a term of address for females, much like "madam" (it's the female form of sahib). Mirza can be a name in South Asia. -- (talk) 13:24, 14 December 2009 (UTC)
I think they're referring to the Punjabi/Sindhi (not Hindi-Urdu) "tragic romances" (as the article Heer Ranjha calls it). Since these are essentially folktales, I'm sure there are plenty of English interpretations of them. If you start from the Wikipedia articles on them, I'm sure you'll be able to find something. Bʌsʌwʌʟʌ Speak up! 19:04, 19 December 2009 (UTC)

generate a glossary from a list of words[edit]

Is there any site where I can generate a glossary from a list of words? I know several online dictionaries, but none where you can just copy-and-paste a list of obscure words and get a list of common synonyms from it.ProteanEd (talk) 16:07, 14 December 2009 (UTC)

If you have some sort of corpus in text format that already has definitions in it, it should be easy to do using a programming language like Python or Perl. rʨanaɢ talk/contribs 17:51, 14 December 2009 (UTC)
If you're on Linux or similar, you can do:
for word in `cat my_words.txt`; do
  lynx -dump "$word" > "$word.definition"
--Sean 14:10, 15 December 2009 (UTC)

What word describes highly functional people?[edit]

I mean like astronauts, CEOs, basically a word to describe the personality type/quality that connotes both ability and drive in large amounts. (talk) 18:23, 14 December 2009 (UTC)

High-flyers, high achievers, excellers? (talk) 18:37, 14 December 2009 (UTC)
Type A? (Though that's not one word.) Clarityfiend (talk) 18:58, 14 December 2009 (UTC)
Supercompetent? --Anon, 20:42 UTC, December 14, 2009.
Übermensch? - or perhaps that's going a bit too far...Alansplodge (talk) 21:38, 14 December 2009 (UTC)
Go-getters, the pro-active. In the past this may have been desribed as having "spirit" or vigour. (talk) 21:52, 14 December 2009 (UTC)
Well-adjusted? Bus stop (talk) 22:53, 14 December 2009 (UTC)
Some are. Some aren't!-- (talk) 22:57, 14 December 2009 (UTC)
Driven. (Opposite of "slacker.") Bus stop (talk) 23:10, 14 December 2009 (UTC)
It doesn't mean that they can afford chauffeurs? (talk) 14:36, 15 December 2009 (UTC)
Yes, it means that too. But they don't wash their cars. They tend to send their late model Bentleys to the dry cleaners. Bus stop (talk) 14:46, 15 December 2009 (UTC)

"Vigo(u)r" is as good as any. Teddy Roosevelt, one of the most "driven" Presidents we ever had (fueled in part by consuming a gallon of coffee every day), talked about his lifestyle as "the vigorous life." ←Baseball Bugs What's up, Doc? carrots→ 14:52, 15 December 2009 (UTC)

A gallon of coffee, huh? Makes me think of that episode of Seinfeld where Kramer got free coffee in a legal settlement. (talk) 16:13, 15 December 2009 (UTC)
Masterly. Perhaps the root meaning of Master meant this, but has come to mean someone being in control of others. (talk) 13:36, 18 December 2009 (UTC)
The is also Sisu. (talk) 11:32, 24 December 2009 (UTC)


What are the kanji and roumaji for inferno, thunderstorm, and blizzard? -- (talk) 22:48, 14 December 2009 (UTC)

You might want to try wiktionary or a Japanese-English dictionary. rʨanaɢ talk/contribs 23:01, 14 December 2009 (UTC)
When I went to the Japanese Wikipedia, they had the kanji but not the roumaji. -- (talk) 23:06, 14 December 2009 (UTC)
The English wiktionary has pretty extensive entries for most kanji, including the romaji. Just enter them in there. Indeterminate (talk) 00:19, 15 December 2009 (UTC)
inferno: 猛火 mouka
thunderstorm: 雷雨 raiu
blizzard: 吹雪 fubuki
Paul Davidson (talk) 05:39, 15 December 2009 (UTC)