Archive by Author | Phil White

Song of an ageing linguist

The ideas of my youth sleep fitfully.

I sense them – slightly behind my right shoulder.

Rarely do they trouble me now,

For they have become washed out.

Ignored for years, they have lost their vibrancy.

Once green and fresh, full of life and promise,

They are now barely perceived, colourless reminders

Of the furious battle they once waged with my indolent soul.

But as I approach my old age, I feel them stir.

Increasingly restless, they will soon erupt again into life,

For once again I sense that my

Colourless green ideas sleep furiously.

How to swear properly (in Bavarian)

It is a sign of mastery of a foreign language when you learn to swear and curse confidently, correctly and convincingly. My own mastery of German is near-native, and I spent almost half my life in Bavaria, but I never quite mastered the truly magnificent stream of vitriol that is Bavarian swearing. Although I speak German with a mild Bavarian accent and very occasionally throw in a few dialect terms and turns of phrase, I largely speak standard German, and when I swear and curse, it is invariably much the same as what you may hear elsewhere in Germany.

But the Bavarians have their own unique way of expressing frustration and insulting people. It can be quite devastating in skilled hands!

WARNING! If you are offended by swearing or blasphemy, stop reading now! This post is not for you.

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This entry was posted on August 20, 2017. 5 Comments

So what do you think, Sheba?

In the Clubhouse, I have often said that my dog, Sheba, has taught me more about language than anyone or anything else. This was not a lie. A gross exaggeration, perhaps, but not a lie.

In trying to communicate with her successfully, at least to the extent that she does not represent a danger to herself or others, I have been forced to look at how language and communication work from an entirely new perspective. And it has been fascinating.

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Possessions, possessions!

I currently have the unenviable task of working my way through my mother’s possessions. Working out what I or my niece may want to keep, what my mother may need in the care home and what I can store here “just in case”. And the rest will be cleared by a charity. Possessions, some of which were cherished, some purely functional, some of which my mother and father were once proud of, many of which they simply “possessed”.

And I look around at my own house full of possessions. I grant, I am a hoarder. You never know when a six-inch piece of string and a rusty paperclip may come in useful. Probably many thousands of books that I will never read again. Vinyl albums I will never listen to again. Towels in every drawer in every bedroom…

And indeed the house I own. And the money in the bank that I call my own. And it all gives me grief. Where to put it? Where to keep it safe? Who will want it when I am gone?

Possessions and ownership. There is one thing in this house I can never own, and it gives me more joy than anything else. As I type, I hear her snoring gently on the landing, but always alert to scare the willies out of any potential intruder. But I can never “own” her in any meaningful sense. Sheba is not that kind of dog. None of them are really.

And yet I still talk of “my dog”. Or “my friends”.

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Finger food for thought

A couple of years back, I posted some thoughts about learning Braille on the Wordwizard Clubhouse. I have resurrected them here and updated the post a little.

Please note that some browsers may not display the Braille symbols properly.


Well, I have managed it! An exciting, bewildering, bizarre, although as yet incomplete journey.

After just under 7 weeks, I have just completed the final book of my Braille course! I can now read again, albeit extremely laboriously. But what an odd experience it has been.

In this post, I shall just touch on some of the peculiarities that I have encountered, particularly from the perspective of a linguist. In another post on the main board, I shall be going into a little more detail about some of the pitfalls and problems I have had for the benefit of anyone who may be thinking of learning Braille themselves. This one is strictly for the language geeks.

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Functional typology: A translator’s perspective


Machine translation has been the Holy Grail of computational linguistics since the early days of computer science. Like the Holy Grail, it has remained elusive. It is the contention of this article that the primary reason for the failure of commercial and experimental machine translation systems to consistently deliver usable (let alone good) results lies in a number of misconceptions, not only in respect of the translation process, but also in respect of the nature of language itself. The staggering variety of syntactic manifestations across languages has driven researchers to hunt for language universals to provide a framework to which utterances in any language can be reduced, and hence reformulated in a different language. With a few notable exceptions, such language universals are held to be classes or categories to which “words” can be assigned and which interact with each other in defined ways. Translations should then be a relatively simple matter of substituting the appropriate words and applying the specific syntax of the target language.

This article attempts to use some simple examples from the day-to-day experience of a well-versed translator to illustrate some of the fallacies that underpin such approaches. If language universals exist, they almost certainly do not exist in the forms in which they are sought. Continue reading

This entry was posted on July 19, 2017. 5 Comments