Pronunciation Stereotypes and the Uncrackable IPA Code

Disclaimer: just because a significant number of people in group A (esp. of a certain race/ethnicity) also have quality B does not mean that (i) all or most people of group A have quality B or (ii) people of group A who do not have quality B are in any way strange or inferior.

In other words, stereotypes are stupid; don’t apply them to real people.

The stereotypical “Asian” (a person from “Asia”, a mythical faraway continent consisting of two countries, China and Japan) is too hard-working, gets disowned for any grade below an A, has infinitesimally thin eyeslits, and pronounces L’s and R’s identically.

*jumps at opportunity to find and use .gif seen on Reddit without understanding any context*

The internet says the L/R thing is mostly due to Japanese having only a single sound somewhere in between those two. Wikipedia has a page on Japanese phonology which seems to support this. Still, Wikipedia articles on phonology all consist of giving every sound a long incomprehensible name, such as the “apical postalveolar flap undefined for laterality” for the Japanese sound discussed above, and I’m not Japanese, so don’t take my word for it.

Mandarin Chinese (blatantly ignoring the myriad dialect variations) has a perfect L sound (ㄌ) and an R sound (ㄖ) that is only a little different. Of course, there are people who still pronounce them identically, but it’s not common — generally, the language teaches L’s and R’s well. Right?
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(Random long words)

  1. “Propreantepenultimate”: describes the fifth-to-last in a sequence. (pro- from Ancient Greek πρό, “before”)
  2. “Preantepenultimate”: describes the fourth-to-last in a sequence. (pre- from Latin prae, “before”)
  3. “Antepenultimate”: describes the third-to-last in a sequence. (ante- from Latin ante, “before”)
  4. “Penultimate”: describes the second-to-last in a sequence. (pen- from Latin paene, “almost”)
  5. “Ultimate”: describes, among other things, the last in a sequence.

(The order was chosen so they’d be autological in this context, of course.)

Quoted in a debate book. The footnote citation reads: John Silber, “Illiteracy and the Crisis of Our Society,” Bostonia (spring 1994), p. 48.

The state legislature misspelled the drug’s chemical name when it passed the bill that outlawed it in 1986. Thus Burling could not be convicted of possessing the substance specified by the lawmakers. The correct spelling is methylenedioxymethamphetamine, not methylenedioxyethamphetamine [note the omission of the letter m] as the law had it. Next time they ban a drug in Nebraska, they’d better consult a pharmacological dictionary.

I don’t know why this post is here, but it is.

Also, for some reason I got 47 views from Bulgaria today, apparently from the same person.

(On the scientific “theory”)

If you are ever bored online (I am, obviously) you will wander into the large silly debate over evolution and “God-did-it” aka creationism aka intelligent design etc. And somebody on the other side will say, “It’s just a theory!” And some fearless defender of science will have to explain, for the umpteenth time, that in science the word “theory” means a rather well-tested and well-developed broad explanation.

I thought this was a particularly silly point for the creationists to try to argue. They’re not even trying to invoke scripture or intuition here, which might even make conceivable arguments; they’re arguing over the terminology of their opponents that they don’t need anyway.

But recently I realized that I had not-quite-consciously attached the same wildly-speculative label to other “theories”, now that I’m in AP Biology and ever-so-slightly closer to the frontiers. For example, the endosymbiont theory. It’s not of course that I think I should accept these things dogmatically — that’s always against scientific values — but I still feel like I’ve been tricked into being overcautious.

So now I genuinely think the scientists, or just whoever came up with this crappy idea to use “theory”, are at fault here. A new made-up word or phrase would totally be worth it here. It’s not like you guys pulled any punches with naming the organelles, or amino acids, or nucleic acids, or polysaccharides, or functional groups, or the elements of the periodic table. Don’t even get me started on the blasted months of the year.

Seriously, anybody who is responsible for naming stuff in the future, think of all the memory that could be used for better purposes.

Seriously. Two mating types and you call them a and α. There are no words for this feeling.


From the vantage point of the guy who apparently knows too much about writing essays compared to everybody else… I get to see a lot of people’s writing. And because I’m too altruistic, pedantic, and good at procrastination, I correct a lot of errors. Aside from these, which I think are mostly rather average errors, there is one other thing that sticks out at me: the vocabulary words.

I’ll get straight to the point. I don’t think that learning vocabulary out of a book of vocabulary words is a good idea. There’s rarely, if ever, any logic to which words are lumped together in a “lesson”. Of course, unless we’re talking about words in the nomenclature (whee!) of a particular scientific discipline or something, most words can’t be categorized like that at all, but that doesn’t mean we should just pick them out of a hat. It’s very reasonable to read a book at the right difficulty and select the hard words to learn, like we did with Hiroshima. Furthermore, simply giving the definition of a word is absolutely not enough to allow people to start using the word smoothly. There are the connotations and occasionally problems like whether the word is commonly applied to people or objects, concrete or abstract things, and so on. There would be exceptions if “cat” sounded like the sound a cat makes like it does in so many other languages, but no, English is too crazy for that.

Why do we care about vocabulary so much (e.g. in the SAT)? Fundamentally, vocabulary is about memorizing associations between sequences of letters and meanings. You can cut some corners with knowing root words and affixes, as well as recognizing context, but the hard part is just memorizing the associations, most of which were arbitrarily made up, the rest of which were derived from other associations which were arbitrarily made up.
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English Names

For some reason, everybody around here seems to think that adding English characters, no matter how broken or meaningless, confers an added sense of quality or superiority. I don’t really understand the mindset here but it’s the only explanation I can come up with. It’s certainly not to make the lives of our English-speaking population any easier.

We were sharing songs in Chinese class with literary techniques, and there were a bunch of songs, including mine, by this pretty famous singer with the stage name Fish Leong. Okay, it’s kind of cute and it’s a translated homophonic Cantonese pun, so it makes some sense, although I wonder what people would think the name meant if mentioned without any context. There was this more obscure guy a couple seasons back in the reality TV singing competition (see, no original shows around here) whose name was Quack. *smacks head* It’s also kind of cute if you only know that the word is the sound a duck makes, which probably holds for most of the audience. But still, it takes just five seconds to put it into Wikipedia. Oops?
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So, as triggered by my confrontation with the Chinese book report (remember? whatever the answer is, it’s okay): a reflection on my incompetence at dealing with two languages, and why this matters, or not.

I can think in both languages. It’s a natural product of our school environment. The two languages often have to complement each other; most of the nerdy terms or globally relevant allusions are English-exclusive (I couldn’t talk coherently about SOPA in any language other than English!), but a lot of cultural and geographical staples around here are Chinese only. And sometimes there are unexpected holes where an innocuous-looking phrase simply has a few too many connotations to translate perfectly (the example I always get stuck on, and have yet to solve satisfactorily with anything short of a full sentence recasting, is “appreciate”.)

Also for some reason when I consciously make myself cross the language rift my internal subvocalization process gains this elaborate mainland accent with extra effort to make the retro-alveo-something sounds emphasized. That is something I can’t talk about coherently in either language alone. Tada.

But all things considered, my thought and writing process seems more optimized for English. I think the dramatic difference in the subjects of study in our education is a big source of the problem: namely, too much Classical Chinese stuff. I concede, learning it for the heritage and historical background is important and completely justified, and there are a lot of big-picture literary techniques that can be applied no matter which dialect of language one decides to use. Still, being able to apply them in a language-independent manner is far from trivial. And everybody is so serious in these passages, just going on about how to be wise, use money and time well, or how beautiful the frozen lake is in winter (so the consensus is I’m severely deficient in aesthetic percepts as well, but that’s a topic for another post). Only the best of the best parts of the important wise people’s writings made it into these books, but we’re not all important wise people and you can’t expect us to write in this manner all the time! Nothing even vaguely outlandish or imaginative like (pulling something out of a hat here) “Harrison Bergeron”. This term’s Chinese textbook has just seven passages, five classical and two vernacular. And I simply don’t believe anybody is actually expecting us to learn the ins and outs of Classical Chinese to write it! There aren’t any authors publishing books in the dialect. It’s important and memorable and significant to our heritage, all undeniable points that I concede, but it’s dead, as harsh as it feels saying that.

I don’t know how much of this is my own fault for not reading as much Chinese “extracurriculars”. I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m already stuck in a confirmation bias feedback loop. There is definitely much more hype and many more options if one is looking a foreign-language bestseller (even after translation) than compared with native ones. And just maybe, there really aren’t enough cool or attractive authors for me, because my jargon-infested computer-reliant hyperlinked niche is already too firmly wedged on the other side of the cultural barrier. Being a technologically up-to-date nerd is just so much easier following the Western world where everybody else is.

And, while we’re on the technological bits (no pun intended): the Internet is still not quite free of its roots in seven-bit ASCII. Of course we’re moving away, forced by the waves of globalization (Google says 60% of the web uses Unicode), but it’s still far from a completely idiot-proof system. Pentadactyl isn’t playing nice with me over here with two foreign characters. I should fix this except I don’t think I’d make any progress.

On ease of writing and file size: because of less redundancy and more versatile combination, I’m pretty sure Chinese is a little bit more compact if considered as just a sequence of bytes, even under reasonable UTF encoding. But when writing words out, there’s a lot of room for contention, and as a math nerd nothing makes me more frustrated than graph theory. Take a look: 邊 (“edge”/”side”) has 19 zarking strokes and takes me three times as long to write out as either the English word or the simplified character (6 strokes). 點 (naturally “point”/”vertex”), 17 versus 9. And when I have to write an entire proof with these characters again and again, well.. use your imagination. I still feel some loyalty to preserving tradition and keeping the writing in the traditional format, but considerations like these make me admit that the whole simplification thing has some very good points. (Then, who knows how much physical writing I should expect to need to perform in the rest of my life, as the computers take over?)

But on the flip side, English is really a clusterfudge of a language, too! How can anybody tolerate pronouncing “colonel” the way we do? Seriously? It’s idiotic and that’s a profound understatement. Okay, this post is basically nothing but understatements, or maybe I’m just always a hyperbolic writer. In any case, I need to stop overcorrecting this post like I always do.

Yes, that’s all. Everybody should switch to Esperanto or something, just like the Dvorak keyboard layout or base-6 number system.

Nerdy Writing

I can look at the posts I made in fourth grade, and understand how I might get exaggeratedly happy about these tiny things, and write this ramble that goes up and down and all over the place.

Anyway apparently I wrote “to indulge in a colloquialism” less than a year ago in a school essay and now it sounds plain freaky to me. The bad stereotypical vulnerable type of nerdy. The “colloquialism” was “hyper”.

I mean this is from a guy who managed to fit “syzygy” into a fifth-grade project and somehow still thinks it was more natural than that.

Sixth-grade. “My gateway to a fragment of heaven”. F7U12.

When I come back to this post in a few years I’ll probably find it extremely hypocritical. Oh well.