Tlingit Children’s Book

Nice piece in The Guardian about a Tlingit version of the story of The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse. The story is now about bears!

The first comment is very odd though:

It is very strange that to someone who doesn’t speak a language, its words look impossible and awkward – I presume “Xóodzi” means “Bear” but not knowing how the “Xó” or “dzi” are pronounced makes it seem alien compared to seeing something like “l’ours” or “Bär”

This sort of attitude would be less surprising from someone who was clearly monolingual, but once you realise that the sound-meaning correspondence is arbitrary for ‘bear’ and ‘l’ours’ and so on, why should Tlingit be so surprising?

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Strange signage

I was riding through the city of Darebin last week when I saw a road sign which said: NO RIGHT TURN BANS AHEAD. My immediate reaction was that it was wrong, or at least seriously weird, but why?

I quickly figured out that part of what troubled me was that there are two parses possible for the string with different scope for the negative quantifier:

[NO RIGHT TURN] BANS AHEAD

and

NO [RIGHT TURN BANS] AHEAD

It’s pretty clear that the second possibility is irrelevant – why would anyone bother telling me not to expect bans on turning right? Being able to turn right is a default expectation. But the first parse is still unsettling for me, and I think the bracketing tells us why this is the case. A ‘ban’ already contains the meaning that something is not permitted, so a [NO RIGHT TURN] BAN should (logically at least) be a ban on NOT turning right. Clearly, that’s not the intention of the sign….. I can see what they were thinking, but it didn’t really work.

This seems like another example of the phenomenon which our friends at Language Log have termed over-negation. What seems especially interesting here is that one part of the negation is hidden inside a lexical item – I haven’t looked through all the LL material to see whether such examples have been discussed there.