Acceptability judgments in Japanese

The “armchair debate” in linguistics is about to what extent we can trust a researcher’s own intuition when they deem a sentence acceptable or not. Linzen & Oseki (2015) make the point that what works for English might not work for lesser-studied languages:

The vast majority of published English judgments can be replicated with naive participants (Sprouse & Almeida, 2012; Sprouse et al., 2013). We argued that this is due to two reasons. First, a large proportion of the acceptability judgments illustrate obvious and uncontroversial contrasts (Type I/II judgments). Second, more subtle contrasts (Type III judgments) are informally vetted by a large community of linguists who are native English speakers. While not foolproof, this informal peer review process weeds out most questionable judgments (Phillips, 2010).

To examine the efficacy of the peer review process in languages other than English, we selected acceptability judgments in Hebrew and Japanese that we deemed to be questionable. A half (in Hebrew) or a third (in Japanese) of the Type III judgments failed to replicate, while all Type II judgments were robustly replicated. These results suggest that (1) formal acceptability rating experiments are not necessary for each and every judgment, (2) linguists can effectively identify questionable contrasts, and (3) informal peer review mechanisms are less effective for languages spoken by a smaller number of linguists.

For illustration, an “uncontroversial” contrast would be like:






‘It rained this morning.’





‘It thundered last night.’

Whereas a “questionable” one would be:








‘Mary’s criticism that she did not hear’







‘Mary’s criticism that she did not hear’

Linzen & Oseki’s data are test sentences from real studies. This latter one is from Sakai’s Complex NP Constraint and case conversion in Japanese (1994); and the group study rated the pair in the opposite direction as Sakai’s intuition.

Translation and professional pretense

[…] One of the greatest offerings that such programs provide students is a sense of what it means to be a professional. Unfortunately, this is not always taught in class, and has to be picked up by osmosis—by paying attention to how the teachers talk about the profession, how they present themselves as professionals. Some programs offer internships that smooth the transition into the profession. Even then, however, the individual translator-novice has to make the transition in his or her own head, own speech, own life. Even with guidance from teachers and/or working professionals in the field, at some point the student/intern must begin to present himself or herself as a professional—and that always involves a certain amount of pretense:

“Can you modem it to our BBS by Friday?”
“Yes, sure, no problem. Maybe even by Thursday.”

You’ve never used a modem before, you don’t know what BBS stands for or how one works, but you’ve got until Friday to find out. Today, Tuesday, you don’t say “I don’t have a modem” or “What’s a BBS?” You promise to modem the translation to their BBS, and immediately rush out to find someone to teach you how to do it.

“What’s your rate?”
“It depends on the difficulty of the text. Could you fax it to me first, so I can look it over? I’ll call you right back.”

It’s your first real job and you suddenly realize you have no idea how much people charge for this work. You’ve got a half hour or so before the agency or client begins growing impatient, waiting for your phone call; you wait for the fax to arrive and then get on the phone and call a translator you know to ask about rates. When you call back, you sound professional.

[…] So you pretend to be an experienced translator. To put it somewhat simplistically, you become a translator by pretending to be one. As we saw Paul Kussmaul (1995:33) noting in Chapter 7, “Expert behaviour is acquired role playing.”It should be obvious that the more knowledge you have about how the profession works, the easier it will be to pretend successfully […] note, however, that the need to “pretend” never really goes away.

(Douglas Robinson, Becoming a translator: an accelerated course.)

I’d argue further that this kind of presentational role-playing (which is necessary for any profession and even for other social roles) cannot be explicitly taught in class; osmosis is its natural path of acquisition. For an in-depth, exceedingly interesting and criminally overlooked discussion, see Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life .

For delightful tales of bravado and sheer cold-bloodness in the context of interpreting, see Kató Lomb, Polyglot: How I learn languages:

I was hired to interpret into Japanese for the first time in my life. The Hungarian hosts and I were waiting at the Ferihegy airport. Our leader was a widely popular, old politician known for his flowery style, but my knowledge of Japanese didn’t permit me to say much more than “Japanese is good, Hungarian is good, long live!” However, the first sentence I was supposed to translate into Japanese (and with which I was supposed to launch my career) went like this: “The black army of weed-scatterers will in vain try to obscure the unclouded sky of the friendship between Japanese and Hungarian peoples!”

Xu Shen the historical reconstructionist

Timothy O’Neill:

This article puts forward a new interpretation of the lexicographic method of the Shuowen Jiezi 說文解字 by rereading the original text and traditional commentaries through the lens of authorial intention. Within the paradigm of traditional Chinese hermeneutics, intentionality serves as the linchpin of philological methodology. The central argument of the article is that the lexicographic macrostructure and microstructures of the Shuowen are designed to prove that the changes in the writing systems are historically and graphemically observable, and consequently that the original intentions of the sages who used guwen [古文 “ancient writing”; here, the original Chinese script as designed by four-eyed Cangjie] to write the classics are literally recoverable by working backwards through the reforms and changes in writing to a proper understanding of how they classified and used their words in the guwen writing system. An annotated translation of the “Shuowen Postface” in light of this new interpretation concludes the discussion.

A quote:

Because they began with the inherently flawed assumption that writing has never changed, Xu argues that junwen scholars [who thought guwen to be unauthentic and preferred to work with Qin-era Small Seal script] were therefore blindly working with what they wrongly perceived to be the genuine intentions of the sages as encoded graphemically in the writing system—that is, interpretations of words based on the structure of the characters that write them. It is almost a slap in the face of the jinwen scholars that Xu Shen presents them with the historicist argument that they have been basing at least a select portion of their exegetical and governmental policy work on the drastically harmful if not immoral alterations specifically made by Qin officials to the writing system. Hence a portion of the intentions the jinwen scholars were finding in their graphemic analysis of the classics (shuozi jiejing 說字解經 “explaining characters in order to explicate the classics”) were the intentions not of sages, but of vile Qin criminals, one of whom was a eunuch regicide, no less.⁶⁷


67. This parallelism in the Postface to the title of the work provides a strong argument for understanding the original title of the Shuowen Jiezi to mean something like “analyzing the three distinct writing systems [i.e. Cangjie’s original, Zhou Great Seal and Qin Small Seal] in order to explicate their offspring characters ”.

An interesting point for me is how much importance they gave to the now-discredited practice of explaining words, and their etymology (in the older sense of the term), in terms of character analysis. This was considered to be the route to proper hermeneutics of the authorial intention of the sages, and therefore a basis for policy and law. Xu Shen specifically claims that his 540-classifier system had been deliberately set up by Cangjie and consciously employed by Confucius and Zuo Qiuming in their classics (and therefore that it’s needed to understand the sages properly). The Shuowen lists 9353 characters with 1163 “repeats” (), which are actually entries tracking changes in graphical structure—and therefore, under this paradigm, corruption, not only in structure but also in sound and meaning; this implies that 12.43% of the (then) modern small-seal graphs were “wrong”.

And here’s a piece of the translation of Shun’s scholarly trashing, just for fun:

They consider Qin lishu to be the writing of the time of Cangjie, saying that from father to son it was transmitted one to the other—how could it receive revisions and changes? Then they rashly say the head of ma and ren together makes chang , that ren holding shi makes dou , and that as for hui , it is a bent zhong .