LINGUIST List 11.2294

Mon Oct 23 2000

Qs: Phantom Phrases, "To mean"/Arguments

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  • karchung, Phantom phrases
  • Jorge Guitart, query about arguments--to mean

    Message 1: Phantom phrases

    Date: Sat, 21 Oct 2000 12:03:34 +0800
    From: karchung <>
    Subject: Phantom phrases

    This past week a student who had done a transcription of Cat Steven's "Father and Son" as part of a class assignment said she and a friend heard a Mandarin phrase in one part of the song. The song describes a conflict between a middle-aged father and his college-age son in which the son says he's cried 'keeping all the things I knew inside', and over his father's unwillingness to listen to him.

    The phrase the student 'heard' was _ba3 lei4 ca1 diao4_ (take tears wipe away) 'wipe away your tears'; her friend said she heard _ba3 lei4 ca1 gan1_ (take tears wipe dry) 'dry your tears', both of which make sense in the context of the lyrics. I then played the portion of the song in question for the whole (Mandarin-speaking) class - and they burst out in raucous laughter. They immediately 'heard' it too. I didn't (I am a fluent but not native speaker of Mandarin) - until I tried again at home and figured out what was going on.

    The English phrase was: [It's hard,] but it's harder [to ignore it]; the part that sounded like Mandarin is unbracketed; the parts in brackets are added for context. The English-Mandarin correspondence is:

    bV (tap)I ts'a d (_but it's harder_, British English)

    (V = wedge [inverted V], I = short lax i, ' indicates aspiration, = schwa)

    ba3 lei4 ca1 diao4

    I played it for my son (Mandarin-English bilingual, age 19) to see if he could 'hear' it, without telling him the Mandarin. He didn't; but then he got it after I told him the Chinese phrase. 'I hear it, but it's a bit forced,' was his comment.

    This made me remember similar experiences I've had with various languages; one that comes to mind is a character in a beginning Chinese dialogue named Zhang1 Han4sheng1. To me he was always 'John Hanson'! Though I was laughed at once by a classmate for calling him this.

    I guess this falls under the category of 'shoecabbages', on which Teresa Dowlatshahi ( posted over LINGUIST some time ago. (I've heard from her recently, and she is currently writing a weekly children's column on 'shoecabbages'.) The words Teresa collects seem to have a fairly clear and stable one-to-one correspondence in the mind of the speaker. What I'm describing seems to be more on-the-fly and context-dependent, and with less of a fixed connection between the matched-up elements.

    Does anybody else have experiences like this to report, anecdotal or otherwise? I don't plan to do a serious study on this, but I find the phenomenon intriguing. Please write to me privately and I'll summarize if there are enough responses.

    Karen Steffen Chung National Taiwan University

    Message 2: query about arguments--to mean

    Date: Mon, 23 Oct 2000 19:11:04 -0400 (EDT)
    From: Jorge Guitart <>
    Subject: query about arguments--to mean

    How many arguments does the English verb 'to mean' have as used in (1) and (2)

    (1) You mean nothing to me (2) You mean a great deal to me

    Are [nothing] and [a great deal] arguments? You can't say *'You mean to me'

    In "Do you want to know something? You mean a great deal" is the second sentence ungrammatical if your interlocutor has no idea of your feelings towards her or him?


    Jorge Guitart SUNY Buffalo