Thursday, 29 May 2014

If hot all meet in the fridge

See a bigger picture here

The sign in the subject line is from a butcher's window – and is possibly apocryphal (though quite credible).
But earlier this week I came across a delightful instance (detailed in theLanguage  Log) of machine translation run amok. It's quite a short piece, and well worth a read. But here's the gist: Erbil International Hotel in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, served a buffet. One dish in the buffet was meatballs. And this, for reasons explained in that Language Log article, was the sign adorning the dish:

It seems that the word 'meatballs' was first helpfully transliterated; this accounts for the /bɔ:l/ versus /pɔ:l/ confusion (as Arabic has no /p/ phoneme). Then some machine translation software got to work taking no account of the fact that (as Language Log reports):

...Arabic text usually dispenses with the diacritics for short vowels known as ḥarakāt, leaving only long vowels represented. So "ميت" is a fine transliteration for English meat /mi:t/, but it could also represent the Arabic word mayyit 'dead' (derived from the verb māta مات 'die'). 
This caught my eye because English sports two words related to this māta:
  1. The word 'matador', borrowed from the Spanish matador  – itself based on the verb matar. The matador is 'the killer'.
  2. The expression 'check mate'. {Think of sheik.} When a chess player says 'check mate', they are saying 'The king is dead' {or, by one account noted in Etymonline, 'The king is stumped'.
The Language Log piece adds
...I suspect that Google's statistical approach to automatic translation is being misled by the frequency of the phrase "Paul is dead" in texts involving the persistent urban legend that Paul McCartney actually died in 1966.
On a first reading I dismissed this as fanciful, but now I'm not so sure. Google reports 324,000 hits for "Paul is dead" (and those of you who resist the insidious Wikipedeaization of Internet links may prefer this account of the myth.) So "Paul is dead" is a strong collocation. It even gets into the Corpus of Contemporary American (though not in huge numbers, and not at all in the rather more staid BNC.)

That's all for now. I must start writing my flyer for When Vowels Get Together: The paperback.

Update: 2017.07.10.11:30 – Tweaked format and removed old footer.

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