Sunday, July 20, 2008

Reparse and Rephrase

--General Notice from the Author of this Blog-----
Not that I have too many dedicated readers, but those who do read this blog might notice a slight change in the past and future posts over the next year. Apparently, it can raise the general brownie points I earn with the admissions office for studying linguistics at grad school. Which means I'll have to censor some of my past posts to make them less offensive. I mean, I'm pretty confident that my posts are mostly benign, but I know when I can get emotional, decrying silly things like the prototypical grammar nazi.
--End General Notice-----

Some of you may already know, or otherwise infer from my general [inter-related] interests, that I'm an avid crossword puzzler. In fact, I spent about 5 hours in HS designing my own for submission to the school newspaper. It was ultimately rejected though, because they felt the calibre was too high. And that hurt. Somewhat. I suppose I could post it online sometime, if I ever figure out how to work in interface elements in Adobe-Macromedia Flash.

So, now that I'm in university, enjoying and suffering the life with my fellow students, I grabbed the newest release of our university newsletter, and flipped to the crossword [and sudoku] section. Given that my university's commercial strength is in its engineering and science-related fields (being one of two universities in Canada to have Math as a separate faculty), it's also natural that a number of them would also be avid watchers of science-fiction shows, such as the Star Trek series, Babylon 5, Doctor Who, etc. But what's also interesting (which would explain bookstores' shelving logic), is that those who invest a lot in watching science-fiction also enjoy a lot of fantasy. And that seems to teem more into this rising "genre" of anime. (Although strictly speaking, it's more a medium than a genre, given that the common elements are reliant on their drawing style, as opposed to general plot elements.)

So, a university strong in maths and science results in a lot of students who are interested in anime. This in turn means good business for the East Asian Studies department over at one of the affiliated colleges of the university. But it also means that when speaking to a student from my university, you cannot assume total ignorance about East Asia, especially since a sizable proportion of the students are also of East Asian descent.

So, back to the crossword. From all the above, it would therefore be less strange to see a higher number of clues and answers to be related to East Asia. And that, although not strange in and of itself for crosswords, does stand out as something that one would expect only at this university.

The crossword at hand had no less than 5 Japanese-related hints, out of a total of about 100 clues. One that was particularly curious (and again, relating back to the fact that the audience is expected to be anime-watching engineers instead of culturally acclimatised linguists), read as follows: "Japanese opposite of 'seme'".

The answer they were looking for, of course, was "uke". But why might I contest that answer? First, let us look at the semantics and morphology of these words. "Seme" is the gerund form from the verb "semeru", meaning "to thrust; to attack". The connotation is therefore "aggressive". "Uke", on the other hand, is the gerund from the verb "ukeru", meaning "to receive, to accept", and connoting passivity. And from this explanation, it might seem clear why these two form an opposing pair: one does the stabbing, the other suffers the stabbing. But typically, and especially in the context of an anime-watching audience, the most salient associations that surface for "uke" and "seme" are not verbal gerunds, but rather the meanings they represent as Japanese slang.

As it turns out, a male can be described as "seme", if he "wears the pants in the relationship" (to phrase it in an excruciatingly polite way. A quick review of the preceding paragraph should give a better glimpse of what it really entails.) An "uke", therefore, is the partner to the "seme", and does the ahh... other half of the work in a relationship.

So, that's all fine and dandy. It's a set pair of words used in a certain sub-genre of anime, and that's fine. But the problem is, "uke" isn't exactly the Japanese opposite of "seme". Because, you see, to the culturally normalised Japanese national, the opposite of "attack" is "defend".

Aha! But then, perhaps the crossword writer merely meant that the answer was supposed to be in Japanese when she wrote the clue. That is perhaps true, but how many people honestly interpret the opposite of a verb to be the passive form of that verb? Is the opposite of killing "being killed", or "reviving"? But then, the opposite of eating is to be eaten, right? Or is it to starve?

And here, the solution dawns that although the word "opposite" is a linear, one-dimensional transformation (to borrow some terminology from my math days), the actual range of opposites for any given word is in fact, closer to being two-dimensional. The semiotic square is actually a nice way of summarising and articulating this conclusion.

[illustration to be added later].

So, as we can see, oppositions can come in one of two forms: laterally, horizontally, or diagonally. Yay. Applying knowledge to everyday situations.


Sparkle said...

I really think that even considering the population that makes up our university the number or Japanese related clues is exaggerated. The crossword targets a very small audience. Then again, those crosswords are always subpar.
On a different note, I'm not sure all words have an opposite. Can you unblow your nose? And if we must look for an opposite to eating, I think throwing up is also a worthwhile option to consider.

Joseph said...

You raise an excellent point -- not all words come in binary oppositions. That's exactly the concern I raised in my semiotics class when we were covering exactly that -- the semiotic square, and the example I gave was colour (specifically, red and green).

I like your suggestion for the opposite of eating though; it makes a pleasant image of the food's direction vector, relative to the mouth. :)