In your review of Overwatch, you said that you appreciate the fact that characters speak appropriately in Chinese, Korean, Russian, and French. However, I have read some complaints that the French accent of Widowmaker sounds fake. Since I have heard similar complaints about Leliana of the Dragon Age series, and since both are voiced by French people, I would like to know if this perception comes from actors deliberately exaggerating their pronunciation, or if Hollywood or something similar have misled people into what constitute a true foreign accent.
Antonin BRAULT

Standards are changing, so I think this issue is in flux.

I can tell you what isn’t acceptable any more: mangling foreigners’ accents as in this book.

That is, it would be completely offensive if instead of having a Korean-Japanese-American woman (Charlet Chung) voice D.Va, they’d had a white American attempt a Korean accent.

So far as I can judge, Chloé Hollings, the voice of Widowmaker, pronounces the French perfectly— as she should; she’s French.

Is her French accent exaggerated? Yes, of course; Hollings is bilingual and speaks excellent English. I don’t have any inside knowledge of Blizzard’s production, but one can imagine for many of these voices a scene something like this:

Voice actor: (pronounces a line perfectly)

Director: Great! Only… can you make it sound more French?

And the director does have a point! If they’ve gone to the trouble of hiring bilingual voice actors, they kind of don’t want perfectly unaccented English. The characters are supposed to be cartoony, so they want to reach the sweet spot where the accents communicate the character but remain attractive. (Americans, at least, react negatively to a heavy foreign accent, but find a light accent enchanting.)

With Dragon Age, I saw a page that noted that Corinne Kempa (voice of Leliana) simply didn’t have the type of French accent Americans expect to hear. Again, American viewers aren’t very sophisticated here; few could even identify different varieties of French. (I liked Leliana— it was nice to have a fantasy game that didn’t over-rely on British accents.)

It’s hard to make everybody happy, but I think Blizzard took a pretty good approach. I also like the fact that, except for the two ninjas, the characters aren’t defined by their nationalities. E.g. Mei is a climatologist, who just happens to be Chinese. Zarya is much more defined as “butch power-lifting soldier” than as Russian. They do paint with a broad brush, but they’re nodding much more to media images than to ethnic stereotypes— e.g. McCree is a version of Clint Eastwood; Junkrat refers to Mad Max.  One character they could have done better with, in my opinion, is Pharah, who should speak some Arabic.

Edit: The new character, Ana, does speak some Arabic.

I saw this on Twitter, and decided that this was an important phrase to learn in Chinese:



wǎng-shàng xūnǐ jiāoxīn bù yí

web-above virtual entrust not should

You should not make virtual commitments online.


While we’re at it, my Overwatch pals have been quoting D.Va’s comments in Korean, so let’s look at those in more detail.


a̠nɲjʌ̹ŋ ɦa̠sʰe̞jo

Annyeong haseyo!

peace you.have

Do you have peace? = How are you?

That first word is a borrowing from Chinese 安寧— Mandarin ānníng ‘peace, tranquility’. You will undoubtedly recognize the first character from 西安 Xī’ān, the ancient capital of China; also Heian, the ancient name for Kyoto. is very informal and also from the future, so she just says Annyeong!



Kamsa hamnida!

thanks have.assertive

I am thankful! = Thank you!

Again, the first word is a borrowing: 感謝 gǎnxiè ‘gratitude’; the common way to say “Thank you” in Mandarin— which you can hear Mei say in Overwatch— is 謝謝 xièxiè.

And again, D.Va informally says just Kamsa!

Mei’s “Hello” is 你好 Nǐhǎo, literally “you good?”


Is there any advice which you used to give to conlangers but now
consider misguided? What was it, why did you think it was good advice,
and how has your attitude changed to make it not-good?


This is going to be pretty boring, but: nah, not really. My stuff is mostly not advice per se; it’s just introducing linguistics to people. When I do have regrets, it’s usually that I haven’t covered somnething, and the solution is usually to write another book.🙂  So a lot of things that didn’t get into the LCK got into ALC instead.

I did take the opportunity to revise the LCK to give a better introduction to aspect, though.

I always wanted to give a better overview of transformations and how they revolutionized syntax. I studied that a lot in college and found it fascinating.  On the other hand… well, I can’t really say a conlanger has to know that stuff.  Plus the field never reached a consensus on the best way to handle syntax.  (My Axunašin grammar attempts to do justice to transformations, though I think it’d have to be three times as long, and include lots of cumbersome trees, to really explain the concept.)


The Five Year Plan has come in from the Marketing Commissar here at the Zompist Fortressplex. That is, I thought I’d talk about the next books I’m working on.

First: a book on Quechua. Long ago I actually wrote, for myself, a reference grammar and dictionary. That was a good start, but they need a lot of refinement. Plus I need to work through my best sources to absorb more of the language myself.


One reason I wanted to visit the Seminary Co-op bookstore last weekend was to check if they had anything on Quechua… if there was a really good book on it in English I might have just recommended that.  But they didn’t (indeed, their stock of language and linguistics books is, sadly, less than a quarter of what it once was). The best materials on Quechua are all in Spanish; I think there should be a good introductory textbook/dictionary in English, and so that’s what I’m aiming to produce.

After that I’d like to write about India, parallel to my book on China. I’ve already started the research on this, and the books I did pick up at the Co-op were grammars of Hindi and Sanskrit. I’m already excited about the material: India has an incredibly rich history, and it’s even less known in the West than China’s. But I want to spread out the research and reading a lot more, partly because I’m starting much more from scratch, and partly because I can already see that finding the narrative through line is going to be more difficult.

Chinese history is a story— you can tell it well or badly, but it’s hard for it not to be coherent, because it’s the story of one ethnicity, one language family, and for the most part one empire, which collapses and suffers invasions but always returns to itself.

India is not like that. India is unavoidably miscellaneous, and Indian history has no coherence at all. Empires rise and fall, but they’re not the same empires. You can list the major kingdoms of a particular time and it tells you nothing about other periods. (Plus there’s a lot we just don’t know. One of my books mentions that a particular king probably lived in the first century, but we can’t pin him down for sure anywhere within a 200-year period.)

Now, this is pretty much true of Europe and the Middle East too, but there we have the advantage of familiarity, and traditional identifications… Americans are not 99.6% not Greeks, and yet we read about the ancient Greeks as if there were the direct ancestors of our civilization.

One fascinating bit about India, which I get from Alain Daniélou, is that whenever some group started a kingdom or a religion in India, they’re still there. Ancient hunter-gatherers, Dravidians, Indic peoples, Persians, Muslims, Mongols, Portuguese, Brits, all came to India and you can still find them and their religions today.

It also strikes me that Westerns don’t know much about India in part because our maps stop too soon. A map of Europe + India stretches out too far; to make it fit nicely on the page, we cut it off somewhere east of Palestine. So one of the neat bits in reading Indian history is discovering the eastern half of many stories. Most of the big conquerors in the West— the Greeks, the Persians, the Huns, the Mongols, the Arabs— showed up in India too. The Greeks set up kingdoms in the Indus valley; the Romans traded with South India; the Mughals claimed descent from Genghis Khan.

Finally, for the few but anxious people who wonder if there will be another Incatena book: yes, though being able to pay rent and buy groceries is the higher priority, which is why the non-fiction books go first.  I have a few chapters written. Though honestly, this year has been discouraging for satirists. How do you top the absurdity that the daily news has been piling on us?




Recently I wrote about a commercial NLP project that bit off more than it could chew. In response an alert reader sent me a fascinating paper by Ami Kronfeld, “Why You Still Can’t Talk to Your Computer”.  It’s unfortunately not online, and Kronfeld is sadly no longer with us, but it was presented publicly at the International Computer Science Institute, so I figure it’s fair game.

Kronfeld worked for NLI (Natural Language Incorporated), which produced a natlang interface to relational databases. The project was eventually made part of Microsoft SQL Server (apparently under the name English Query), but it was allowed to die away.

It worked pretty well— Kronfeld gives the sample exchange:

Does every department head in Center number 1135 have an office in Berkeley?
[Answer: “No. All heads that work for center number 1135 are not located in an office in Berkeley”]

Who isn’t?
[Answer: Paul Rochester is the head not located in an office in Berkeley that works in center number 1135]

He points out that language and relational databases share an abstract structure: they have things (nouns, entities) which have properties (adjectives, values) and relate to one another (verbs, cross-references). This sort of matchup doesn’t always occur nicely.  (E.g. your word processor understands characters and paragraphs, but it hasn’t the slightest idea what any of your words mean.)

But the interesting bit is Kronfeld’s analysis of why NLI failed. One aspect was amusing, but also insightful: we humans don’t have a known register for talking to computers. For instance, one executive sat down at the NLI interface and typed:

How can we make more money?

The IT guys reading this are groaning, but the joke’s on us. If you advertise that a program can understand English, why be surprised that people expect that it can understand English?

Curiously, people attempting to be “computery” were no easier to understand:

Select rows where age is less than 30 but experience is more than 5

This seems to be an attempt to create an on-the-fly pidgin between SQL and English, and of course the NLI program could make nothing of it.

Of course there were thousands of questions that could be properly interpreted. But the pattern was not obvious. E.g. an agricultural database had a table of countries and a table of crops.  The syntactic template S grow O could be mapped to this— look for S in the country table, O in the crops— allowing questions like these to be answered:

  • Does Italy grow rice?
  • What crops does each country grow?
  • Is Rice grown by Japan?
  • Which countries grow rice?

But then this simple question doesn’t work:

  • Does rice grow in India?

Before I say why, take a moment to guess.  We have no trouble with this question, so why does the interface?

The answer: it’s a different syntactic template.  S grows in O is actually the reverse of our earlier template— before, the country was growing things, here the rice is growing, all by itself, and a location is given in a prepositional phrase. As I said before, language is fractally complicated: you handle the most common cases, and what remains is more complicated that all the rules you’ve found so far.

Now, you can of course add a new rule to handle this case.  And then another new rule, for the next case that doesn’t fit.  And then another.  Kronfeld tells us that there were 700 separate rules that mapped between English and the database structure.  And that’s one database.

So, the surprising bit from Kronfeld’s paper is not “natural language is hard”, but that the difficulty lives in a very particular area: specifying the semantics of the relational database. As he puts it:

I realized from the very start that what was required for this application to work was nothing short of the creation of a new profession: the profession of connecting natural language systems to relational databases.

So, that’s a way forward if you insist on having a natlang interface for your database!  NLP isn’t just a black box you can tack on to your program. That is, parsing the English query, which is something you could reasonably assign to third-party software, is only part of the job.  The rest is a detailed matchup between the syntactic/semantic structures found, and your particular database, and that’s going to be a lot more work than it sounds like.



I’m at the point in my book where I can’t fit everything in. So, it can overflow here! The “School of Names” (mìngjiā) is one of the also-rans of ancient Chinese philosophy— they didn’t make a big splash at the time, and unlike (say) the Mohists, they don’t appeal any better to modern tastes.

Anyway, perhaps their best known piece is 白马论 Bái mǎ lùn (White Horse Essay), by 公孙龙 Gōngsūn Lóng, which attempts to prove that a white horse is not a horse. It’s a little reminiscent of Zeno proving that movement is impossible: one can admire the argument and even be perturbed by it, but feel that surely if the dude believes it for reals, he’s confused at best.


Anyway, I decided to attempt a translation, since the Old Chinese (OC) here is not (generally) too hard, and because at least half of it is pretty amusing. It’s written as a dialog; to simplify things I’ve divided the lines into blue and red. My comments are in black. The original text and Donald Sturgeon’s translation are here.

If anyone wants to criticize my translation I’d be happy to take corrections!

Bái mǎ fēi mǎ, kě hū?
white horse not horse, can Q
Can it be said that a white horse is not a horse?

OC has no copula, but it does have a negative copula, fēi. (Wikipedia makes a big deal of OC not having a separate adjective class— words like bái are more like verbs— but nothing in the essay depends on this; bái mǎ works just like “white horse”.


It can.

Hé zāi?
what EXCL
How so??

Mǎ zhě, suǒyǐ mìng xíng yě; bái zhě, suǒyǐ mìng sè yě. Mìng sè zhě fēi mìng xíng yě. Gù yuē:“Bái mǎ fēi mǎ”.
horse NOM / whereby name shape PT / white NOM / whereby name color PT / name color NOM not name shape PT / therefore say / white horse not horse
“Horse” names a shape. “White” names a color. What names a color does not name a shape. Thus I say, “A white horse is not a horse.”

Zhě is a nominalizer, so if you see something like mǎ zhě you can take it as “horsiness”, or “being a horse”, or (as is probably meant here) “the concept ‘horse'”. You’ll notice  a lot here; it’s a factual evidential, but (I think) pretty weak in meaning.

Yǒu bái mǎ, bù kě wèi wú mǎ yě. Bù kě wèi wú mǎ zhě, fēi mǎ yě? Yǒu báimǎ wèi yǒu mǎ, bái zhī, fēi mǎ hé yě?
exist white horse / not can call not.exist horse PT / not can call not.exist horse NOM / not horse PT / exist white horse call exist horse / white SUB / not horse what PT
Having a white horse, that can’t be called having no horses. The state of not having no horses, is that not a horse? Having a white horse means having a horse; a white one, how is it not a horse?

Blue doesn’t bother to address Red’s first sally.  He makes the common-sense argument that having a white horse certainly means having a horse.

Qiú mǎ, huáng, hēi mǎ jiē kě zhì; qiú báimǎ, huáng hēi mǎ bù kě zhì.
request horse / yellow black horse each can send / ask white horse / yellow black horse not can send
If you ask for a horse, a yellow or black one can be sent; if you ask for a white horse, a yellow or black one cannot be sent.

Shǐ bái mǎ nǎi mǎ yě, shì suǒ qiú yī yě.
make white horse be horse PT / this number request one PT
Making “white horse” the same as “horse” makes both requests the same.

Suǒ qiú yī zhě, bái mǎ bù yì mǎ yě; suǒ qiú bù yì, rú huáng, hēi mǎ yǒu kě yǒu bù kě, hé yě?
number request one NOM / white horse not different horse PT / number request not different / if yellow black horse exist can exist not can / what PT
If the requests are the same, then a white horse is not different from a horse; if what is requested is no different, why is that a yellow or black horse is possible in one case but not the other?

Kě yǔ bù kě, qí xiāng fēi míng.
can and not can / it together not clear
Possible and not possible, clearly these are different!

Gù huáng, hēi mǎ yī yě, ér kěyǐ yīng yǒu mǎ, ér bù kěyǐ yīng yǒu bái mǎ.
thus yellow black horse one PT / and can should exist horse / and not can should exist white horse
Thus yellow and black horses are the same, in that one can say that there is a horse, but not that there is a white horse.

Shì bái mǎ zhī fēi mǎ, shěn yǐ!
correct white horse it not horse / indeed PFV
Indeed we have shown that a white horse is not a horse!

The quickest route to success is to show that “horse” and “white horse” are not the same thing. And they’re not; Red gives a real-world example where the two are not equivalent at all.  They refer to different sets.  In one sense she’s won: she’s shown that “white horse” is not identical to “horse”.

Yǐ mǎ zhī yǒu sè wéi fēi mǎ, tiānxià fēi yǒu wú sè zhī mǎ yě. Tiānxià wú mǎ kě hū?
so horse it exist color make not horse / heaven-under not exist not color it horse PT / heaven-under not horse can Q
If a colored horse is not a horse, then since the world has no colorless horses, do you say that the world has no horses?

Mǎ gù yǒu sè, gù yǒu báimǎ.
horse firm exist color / thus exist white horse
Horses definitely have colors; thus there are white horses.

Shǐ mǎ wú sè, yǒu mǎ rú yǐ ěr, ān qǔ bái mǎ?
correct horse no color / exist horse if stop only / safe seek white horse
If horses had no color, then only “horses” exist; how could you look for a white horse?

Gù bái zhě fēi mǎ yě.
then white NOM not horse PT
Thus a white one is not a horse.

Bái mǎ zhě, mǎ yǔ bái yě; mǎ yǔ bái mǎ yě, gù yuē: Bái mǎ fēi mǎ yě.
white horse NOM / horse give white PT / horse give white horse PT / thus say / white horse not horse PT
A white horse is horse-and-white, horse-and-white-horse. Thus I say, a white horse is not a horse.

Blue doesn’t seem to understand (or just ignores) Red’s point. He keeps insisting on the point that if you have a white horse, you have a horse.  But that doesn’t prove much— you could equally say that if you have a white horse, you have a mammal.  A horse is-a (is a member of the category) mammal, but “horse” and “mammal” are different concepts.  Red says as much in the last line— “white-horse” and “horse” are two different concepts.

Neat word derivation: Tiānxià “(what is) under heaven” = “the earth”.

Translators: always remember OC is trying to play gotcha with you. In this case it uses 耳 ěr which is usually ‘ear’, but in this case means ‘only’. Similarly 足 zú is normally ‘foot’ but sometimes means ‘enough’.

Mǎ wèi yǔ bái wéi mǎ, bái wèi yǔ mǎ wèi bái.
horse not.yet with white make horse / white not.yet with horse make white.
A ‘horse’ not yet with ‘white’ makes a horse; ‘white’ not yet with a ‘horse’ makes white.

Hé mǎ yǔ bái, fù míng bái mǎ.
join horse with white / double name white horse
Combining horse and white is the compound name “white horse”.

Shì xiāng yǔ yǐ bù xiāng yǔ wéi míng, wèi kě.
this appear and with not appear with make name / not can
(This is to use an uncombined name for a combined thing, and is inadmissible.)

Gù yuē: Bái mǎ fēi mǎ wèi kě.
thus say / white horse not horse not can
Thus I say, “A white horse is not a horse” cannot be.

I give Sturgeon’s translation for one sentence as I couldn’t figure it out.  I’m also not sure what Blue is saying, except that he’s trying to point out that “white horse” is a combination of concepts.  What we’d like him to say is that A^B implies A, but he still wants to deny Red’s contention.

Yǐ “yǒu bái mǎ wèi yǒu mǎ”, wèi yǒu bái mǎ wèi yǒu huáng mǎ, kě hū?
with “exist white horse make exist horse” / mean exist white horse make exist yellow horse / can Q
Given “having a white horse is having a horse”, does that mean having a white horse is having a yellow horse?

Wèi kě
not can.
It isn’t.

Yǐ yǒu mǎ wèi yì yǒu huáng mǎ, shì yì huáng mǎ yú mǎ yě; yì huáng mǎ yú mǎ, shì yǐ huáng mǎ wéi fēi mǎ.
use exist horse make use exist yellow horse / this different yellow horse to horse PT / different yellow horse with horse / this with yellow horse make not horse
Given “having a horse is having a yellow horse”, then a yellow horse is different from a horse; if a yellow horse is different from a horse, then a yellow horse doesn’t serve as a horse.

Yǐ huáng mǎ wéi fēi mǎ, ér yǐ bái mǎ wèi yǒu mǎ, cǐ fēi zhě rù chí ér guān guǒ yì chù, cǐ tiānxià zhī bèi yán luàn cí yě.
use yellow horse make not horse / and use white horse make exist horse / this fly NOM enter pond and coffin outer.coffin different place / this heaven-under it perverse speak disorderly phrasing PT
To take yellow horses as not horses, and yet take white horses as being horses, is to have flying things in the water and the inner and outer coffins in different places; this is perverse and random speaking.

To be honest I’m kind of tired of Red and her horses.  She is perfectly willing to make deductions about horses and colored horses like a normal person (note that she never says that yellow and brown horses are not horses).  It’s clear that the classes are different, but let’s move on and understand how they’re related. (To put it another way: if you point out that there are problems with ‘(not) be’, you’re probably right, and the solution is to be more precise.)

Yǒu bái mǎ, bù kě wèi wú mǎ zhě, lí bái zhī wèi yě.
exist white horse / not can name not horse NOM / leave white it call PT
Having a white horse cannot be called having no horses; this is called separating out whiteness.

Bù lí zhě yǒu bái mǎ bù kě wèi yǒu mǎ yě.
not leave NOM exist white horse not can call exist horse PT
Without separating it, having a white horse can’t be called having a horse.

Gù suǒyǐ wéi yǒu mǎ zhě, dú yǐ mǎ wèi yǒu mǎ ěr, fēi yǒu bái mǎ wèi yǒu mǎ.
thus thereby make exist horse NOM / alone with horse make exist horse only / wrong exist white horse make exist horse
Thus why it’s taken as having horses, it’s only because horses make for having horses, and it’s incorrect to say that having a white horse makes for having horses.

Gù qí wèi yǒu mǎ yě, bù kěyǐ wèi mǎ mǎ yě.
thus it make exist horse PT / not can make horse horse PT
Thus if it’s taking as having horses, you can’t call a horse a horse.

Not sure I follow Blue’s point, but let me point out the interesting word 为 wéi. The root meaning is “make, do”; in Dàoism they highly value 无为 “not-doing”.  You can also use it in the sense of “act as, fulfill a role”, which is how I think it’s being used here.  And that in turn is not far from being a copula “be”.  Though in fact that’s not where Mandarin’s copula comes from… it comes from 是 shì ‘this’.

Bái zhě bù dìng suǒ bái, wàng zhī ér kě yě.
white NOM not settle SUB white / forget it and can PT
Whiteness does not determine what is white— this can be neglected.

Bái mǎ zhě, yán bái dìng suǒ bái yě.
white horse NOM / speak white settle SUB white PT
“White horse” speaks of whiteness determining what is white.

Dìng suǒ bái zhě, fēi bái yě.
settle SUB white NOM / not white PT
What determines what is white, is not whiteness.

Mǎ zhě, wú qù qǔ yú sè, gù huáng, hēi jiē suǒyǐ yīng.
horse NOM / not go take to color / thus yellow black all therefore accept
“Horse” does not specify a color; thus a yellow or black horse is acceptable.

Bái mǎ zhě, yǒu qù qǔ yú sè, huáng, hēimǎ jiē suǒyǐ sè qù, gù wéi bái mǎ dú kěyǐ yīng ěr.
white horse NOM / exist go take to color / yellow black all therefore color leave / therefore only white horse alone can accept only
“White horse” does specify a color; thus yellow and black are removed by their color; only a white horse can be accepted.

Wú qù zhě fēi yǒu qù yě; gù yuē:“Bái mǎ fēi mǎ”.
not go NOM not exist go PT / therefore say / white horse not horse
What is not excluded is not what is excluded; therefore I say “A white horse is not a horse.”

Again pointing out differences in behavior or implication between “white horse” and “horse”.  I thought we’d established that a few bamboo strips ago, but you can never have enough supporting arguments in philosophy.  Blue apparently backs away slowly at this point— we never learn if he was convinced.

The hardcover LCK is now available!


It’s published through Lulu rather than Amazon. The price is a little ouchy ($34.95), but it’s solid and looks like it’ll stand up to the sort of intensive, exhaustive reading you should apply to my books. And if someone doesn’t approve of conlanging, it’s heavy enough to hurt when thrown at them.

It’s also a new edition! The typography is redone (same font as ALC); typos are corrected; and I’ve taken the opportunity to rewrite the aspects section, which has bugged me for years. I will update the softcover and Kindle versions sometime early in the new year (it’s too disruptive during Christmas season).

Oh, you want to hear more about aspects? Well, the problem is that terminology has become more precise. The traditional grammatical term “perfect” was used for a lot of things, but mostly for completives (the activity has been completed) or perfectives (the event is seen as a whole, not as a process).

“Perfect” should now be used for events of current relevance. It’s like saying “This happened, and you can draw the obvious conclusion from it.” E.g. “I’ve already eaten (so I don’t want dinner)”, or “John has arrived (so we can start the party)”, or “I’ve been to Greece (so I know all about gyros)”. “John’s arrived” also implies that John is still here, unlike “John arrived”; similarly “I’ve eaten” implies that I’m not hungry, unlike “I ate”. The Russian ‘perfect’ is really a perfective, while the French imparfait is an imperfective.

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