Zhangsan unmasked

[note: this is my first linguistics qua linguistics post here, as opposed to on Descriptively Adequate. i'll keep those old posts archived there, but i think everything new will live on ecormany.com] 

anyone who's read more than their fair share of syntax articles knows about John and Mary, the dull protagonists of every English example sentence. John kissed Mary. Mary was kissed by John. *Mary was given by John the book.

read even more and you'll figure out that several languages have their own stock characters. Italian has Gianni (who keeps making telephone calls). Japanese has Taroo and Hanako. Mandarin has Zhangsan and Lisi.

i never quite knew what to make of these names. does Zhangsan have all the same connotations of plainness as John? out of curiosity, i turned to Google Translate. i remember some old Language Log posts [1] [2] on how to fool the software into giving you odd "translations" for proper names that reflected parallel uses. for example, Austria is the Ireland of Germany, apparently. to do this, you had to be crafty or happen upon it by accident, since you had to input English text but tell Google that the source was in fact German. the possibilities for things going wrong when you ask a computer program to translate English to English with a German-to-English algorithm are rife.

anyway, back to Zhangsan. to query GT on him, i had to play some tricks too. as far as i can tell, GT doesn't take romanized input for either Chinese or Japanese, so to get his name in characters, i had to  "translate" the string 'Zhangsan' from English to Chinese.


next, those two characters back into the Google Language Mangler to get our English equivalent! drumroll for… 

Joe Smith.jpg

…Joe Smith. i think he'll get along  great with John.