Tag Archives: language

Morality and a Second Language

Frequent readers will know that I’m intrigued by social science research into the human condition. Well, this collection of studies is fascinating. To summarize the general finding: you are less likely to follow ethical behavior if you happen to be thinking in an acquired, second language. Put another way, you are more moral when you think in your mother tongue.

Perhaps counter-intuitively a moral judgement made in a foreign language requires more cognitive processing power than one made in the language of childhood. Consequently, moral judgements of dubious or reprehensible behavior are likely to be seen as less wrong than those evaluated in native tongue.

I suppose there is a very valuable lesson here: if you plan to do some shoplifting or rob a bank then you should evaluate the pros and cons of your criminal enterprise in the second language that you learned in school.

From Scientific American:

What defines who we are? Our habits? Our aesthetic tastes? Our memories? If pressed, I would answer that if there is any part of me that sits at my core, that is an essential part of who I am, then surely it must be my moral center, my deep-seated sense of right and wrong.

And yet, like many other people who speak more than one language, I often have the sense that I’m a slightly different person in each of my languages—more assertive in English, more relaxed in French, more sentimental in Czech. Is it possible that, along with these differences, my moral compass also points in somewhat different directions depending on the language I’m using at the time?

Psychologists who study moral judgments have become very interested in this question. Several recent studies have focused on how people think about ethics in a non-native language—as might take place, for example, among a group of delegates at the United Nations using a lingua franca to hash out a resolution. The findings suggest that when people are confronted with moral dilemmas, they do indeed respond differently when considering them in a foreign language than when using their native tongue.

In a 2014 paper led by Albert Costa, volunteers were presented with a moral dilemma known as the “trolley problem”: imagine that a runaway trolley is careening toward a group of five people standing on the tracks, unable to move. You are next to a switch that can shift the trolley to a different set of tracks, thereby sparing the five people, but resulting in the death of one who is standing on the side tracks. Do you pull the switch?

Most people agree that they would. But what if the only way to stop the trolley is by pushing a large stranger off a footbridge into its path? People tend to be very reluctant to say they would do this, even though in both scenarios, one person is sacrificed to save five. But Costa and his colleagues found that posing the dilemma in a language that volunteers had learned as a foreign tongue dramatically increased their stated willingness to shove the sacrificial person off the footbridge, from fewer than 20% of respondents working in their native language to about 50% of those using the foreign one. (Both native Spanish- and English-speakers were included, with English and Spanish as their respective foreign languages; the results were the same for both groups, showing that the effect was about using a foreign language, and not about which particular language—English or Spanish—was used.)

Using a very different experimental setup, Janet Geipel and her colleagues also found that using a foreign language shifted their participants’ moral verdicts. In their study, volunteers read descriptions of acts that appeared to harm no one, but that many people find morally reprehensible—for example, stories in which siblings enjoyed entirely consensual and safe sex, or someone cooked and ate his dog after it had been killed by a car. Those who read the stories in a foreign language (either English or Italian) judged these actions to be less wrong than those who read them in their native tongue.

Read the entire article here.

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A Common Language

Researchers at Cornell’s Cognitive Neuroscience Lab suggest that all humans may share one common ancestral language. This is regardless of our geographic diversity and seemingly independent linguistic family trees.

Having studied linguistics I can attest that one of its fundamental tenets holds that the sound of a word and its meaning tends to be an arbitrary relationship. Recently, a number of fascinating studies have shown that this linkage may not be as arbitrary as first thought.

For instance, words for small, prickly things — across numerous languages — are likely to be made up of high-pitched, “spiky” sounds, known as “kiki”. On the other hand, words for smoother, round objects are likely to contain “ooo” or “ou” sounds, known as “bouba”.

A great overview of the current thinking comes courtesy of  Scientific American’s recent article “‘R’ Is For Red: Common Words Share Similar Sounds in Many Languages“.

From Scientific American:

In English, the word for the sniffing appendage on our face is nose. Japanese also happens to use the consonant n in this word (hana) and so does Turkish (burun). Since the 1900s, linguists have argued that these associations between speech sounds and meanings are purely arbitrary. Yet a new study calls this into question.

Together with his colleagues, Damián Blasi of the University of Zurich analyzed lists of words from 4,298 different languages. In doing so, they discovered that unrelated languages often use the same sounds to refer to the same meaning. For example, the consonant r is often used in words for red—think of French rouge, Spanish rojo, and German rot, but also Turkish k?rm?z?, Hungarian piros, and Maori kura.

The idea is not new. Previous studies have suggested that sound-meaning associations may not be entirely arbitrary, but these studies were limited by small sample sizes (200 languages or fewer) and highly restricted lists of words (such as animals only). Blasi’s study, published this month in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, is notable because it included almost two thirds of the world’s languages and used lists of diverse words, including pronouns, body parts,verbs,natural phenomena,and adjectives—such as we, tongue, drink, star and small, respectively.

The scope of the study is unprecedented, says Stanka Fitneva, associate professor of psychology at Queen’s University in Canada, who was not involved in the research. And Gary Lupyan, associate professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin, adds, “Only through this type of large-scale analysis can worldwide patterns be discovered.”

Read the entire article here.

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Foreign Accent Syndrome

keep-calm-british

As a Brit living in the United States I have first-hand evidence that the British accent is superior to its American counterpart — as judged by Americans themselves. Americans usually characterize a person with a British accent as being more intelligent, more charming, more authoritative and more sincere. Brilliant (for my US audience, “awesome”)!

So, it would come as no surprise to find some Americans imitating the plummy pronunciation of its Old World cousin to score social points. But such impostors are usually universally derided by both Americans and Brits, save for American actors who tend only to be derided by Brits for never quite grasping the Queen’s English.

This leads me to the peculiar case of a Texan woman — with a Texan accent — who developed a British accent after surgery to correct an overbite. Her case in one of only a hundred or so ever documented examples of Foreign Accent Syndrome.

You may well ask, how is this possible? Read more over at Wired.

Image: Keep Calm screenshot. Courtesy: Keep Calm-o-Matic.

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Zhoosh the Riah

Growing up in London of the 60s and 70s (yes, I’m that old, really), I had a rich exposure to the pig latin of teenagers and the cockney rhyming slang of adults. Rhyming slang provided a gorgeously poetic and subversive way of conversing with like-minded souls and hiding meaning from any outsiders.

I still have a soft spot for its words and phrases:

I don’t adam and eve it — believe
You’re always getting into barney rubble — trouble
I made another cadbury’s flake — mistake
Switch off the custard and jelly — telly (television)
I lost my dog and bone again — phone
My plates of meat are sore — feet
How are the dustbin lids? — kids
Drive down the frog and toad — road
I crashed my jam-jar — car
Use your loaf (short for loaf of bread) — head
Close your north and south when you’re eating — mouth
Rabbit (short for rabbit and pork) is cheap — talk
That was a great cup of rosie (short for Rosy Lee) — tea
Meet you at the rub-a-dub — pub
I’m short of sausage and mash — cash
How’s the trouble and strife? — wife

Rhyming slang like other cryptolectic languages is slowly dying out. Sadly, rich dialects and phrases from our subcultures are now increasingly subsumed by homogeneous corporate-speak.

So, it’s heart-warming to find this recent article reminding us of the forbidden corners of language by columnist Gary Nunn.

From the Guardian:

There are between 6,500 and 7,000 languages spoken worldwide. Include argots – the characteristic language of a particular group – and that number climbs ginormously.

Ginormous itself is argot, the portmanteau of gigantic and enormous to form a new blended word. It’s also hyperbole: gigantic is no longer deemed huge enough, so we blend and expand.

Groups of people form their own private lexicons because coded language is exclusive, exciting and defiant. Part of it is finding your community: the mystique of being in the “in group” carried over from school; the private joke you have to be in on to find funny. You find your tribe by mimicking the peculiarities of their diction. It creates a sense of belonging, expertise and solidarity.

But it can go beyond that. The coded nature of argot (from the French for slang) can be deliberately subversive because that particular group rejects the status quo, which they find unsatisfactory, unacceptable or oppressive. It can also help conceal criminal activity or frowned-upon behaviour, making it a cryptolect – a secretive language used to confuse and exclude others and affirm the character of a marginalised subculture.

For all those reasons, argot is my favourite part of language: it sits in the forbidden corners, between the gaps, underneath the rigidity of all the rules of grammar. It’s where creativity bubbles and thrives, shrouded by an enigmatic cloak of linguistic abandon.

Often, adopters of argot have common enemies to defy or hide from: traditional conservative society; the law; the police. Defying the authority and perceived supremacy of the dominant forces in society is empowering and essential to avoid detection. It’s why drug dealers and users employ female personification in their trade to euphemise and conceal. So having a dinner party with Tina, Gina and Molly would be less civilised than it sounds: you’d be taking, respectively, crystal meth, GHB and MDMA. Similarly, the patois used in hip-hop was originally used to defy the same enemies, the argot defined by clever puns, rapid rhyming couplets, blink-and-you-miss-it wordplay and don’t-give-a-toss attitude set to an insistent beat.

Youth slang is one of the most consistently refreshing of argots. The yoof want to feel cool, exclusive, quirky and not speak in the same manner as their ’rents, which is why they’ll say things like “Nek minnit I had mahoosive FOMO” – a combination of Jamaican patois hybrid, portmanteau, acronym and drama.

As fresh as argot can feel, it can also become redundant, incumbent or mainstream. Cockney rhyming slang, for example, is a casualty of sweeping gentrification. Some of it has become mainstream – we all know what “apples and pears” means. But it retains its linguistic creativity: one’s Aris means “arse”; an abbreviation of Aristotle, which rhymes with bottle-and-glass. Genius.

Read the entire story here.

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Our Childrens Is Not Learning?

REAP-grammar-measure

It’s been 155 years since Lincoln took office as the 16th President of the United States. Yet, during this period many of our political leaders and pretenders to the throne have spoken to us in increasingly simplistic language.

In 2000 then President George W. Bush commenting on educational programs remarked, “What’s not fine is rarely is the question asked, are, is our children learning?” Since then it seems that many of our children and adults have indeed not been learning. This despite the growing complexity of our local and global politics.

Thus, the relentless march towards ever-increasing “dumbed-down-ness” brings me to the current election cycle. Could there be any better place to look? A research study out of Carnegie Mellon University’s Language Technologies Institute assessed the reading level of current and recent presidential campaign speeches.

The candidate with the lowest overall readability score — vocabulary and grammar — is Donald Trump. His grammar compares to that used by children aged 11 and under. Researchers also looked back at speeches by past Presidents and found that the language of Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan was almost twice as advanced. George W. Bush fared the worst on grammar alone — his so-called Bushisms are the stuff of books and folklore — but his vocabulary scored significantly higher than Donald Trump. More recently, President Obama, and Senators Marco Rubio and Bernie Sanders showed the highest overall readability scores.

I have to assume that the current Republican frontrunner will spin the news of his appalling linguistic (dis-)abilities in his own inimitable way — after all, 4th grade language skills will reach a significantly larger proportion of the US population, albeit mostly non-voting age, than that of his more cerebral and elitist opponents.

Check out the entire report, “A Readability Analysis of Campaign Speeches from the 2016 US Presidential Campaign“. Read more, here.

Image: Readability levels of campaign speeches. Snapshot from report, A Readability Analysis of Campaign Speeches from the 2016 US Presidential Campaign.

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Adieu! Death of the Circumflex

je-suis-circonflexeThe French have a formal language police.

The Académie Française (French Academy) is the country’s foremost national watchdog of the French language. It’s been working to protect and preserve the language for over 380 years — mostly, I suspect, from the unceasing onslaught of English, think words like “le week-end”.

Interestingly enough members of the Académie Française proposed and accepted over 2,500 changes to the language — mostly spelling revisions — back in 1990. Now with mainstream French newspapers and TV networks having taken up the story, social media is abuzz with commentary; the French public is weighing in on the proposals, and many traditionalists and language purists don’t like what they see.

Exhibit A: the proposed loss of the circumflex accent (ˆ) that hovers above certain vowels. So, maîtresse becomes maitresse (mistress or female teacher); coût becomes cout (cost).

Exhibit B: oignon is to become ognon (onion).

Sacre bleu, I don’t like it either!

From the Guardian:

French linguistic purists have voiced online anger at the loss of one of their favourite accents – the pointy little circumflex hat (ˆ) that sits on top of certain vowels.

Changes to around 2,400 French words to simplify them for schoolchildren, such as allowing the word for onion to be spelled ognon as well as the traditional oignon, have brought accusations the country’s Socialist government is dumbing down the language.

Nothing provokes a Gallic row than changes to the language of Molière, but the storm took officials by surprise as the spelling revisions had been suggested by the Académie Française, watchdogs of the French language, and unanimously accepted by its members as long ago as 1990.

The aim was to standardise and simplify certain quirks in the written language making it easier to learn (among them chariot to charriot to harmonise with charrette, both words for a type of cart and the regrouping of compound nouns like porte-monnaie/portemonnaie (purse), extra-terrestres/extraterrestres and week-end/weekend, to do away with the hyphen.

While the “revised spelling list” was not obligatory, dictionaries were advised to carry both old and new spellings, and schools were instructed to use the new versions but accept both as correct.

The reforms provoked a #JeSuisCirconflexe campaign (derived from the #JeSuisCharlie hashtag) on Twitter. As the row spread across the internet and social networks, some wondered why the reforms, decided 26 years ago, had suddenly become such an issue.

In 2008, advice from the education ministry suggested the new spelling rules were “the reference” to be used, but it appears few people took notice. Last November, the changes were mentioned again in another ministry document about “texts following the spelling changes … approved by the Académie Française and published in the French Republic Official Journal on 6 December 1990”. Again, the news went unremarked.

It was only when a report by television channel TF1 appeared on Wednesday this week that the ognon went pear-shaped.

Read the entire story here.

Image courtesy of BBC / Twitter.

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Perchance Art Thou Smitten by Dapper Hipsters? Verily Methinks

Linguistic-trends-2015As the (mostly) unidirectional tide of cultural influence flows from the U.S to the United Kingdom, the English mother tongue is becoming increasingly (and distressingly, I might add) populated by Americanisms: trash instead of rubbish, fries not chips, deplane instead of disembark, shopping cart instead of trolley, bangs rather than fringe, period instead of full stop. And there’s more: 24/7, heads-up, left-field, normalcy, a savings of, deliverable, the ask, winningest.

All, might I say, utterly cringeworthy.

Yet, there may be a slight glimmer of hope, and all courtesy of the hipster generation. Hipsters, you see, crave an authentic, artisanal experience — think goat cheese and bespoke hats — that also seems to embrace language. So, in 2015, compared with a mere decade earlier, you’re more likely to hear some of the following words, which would normally be more attributable to an archaic, even Shakespearean, era:

perchance, mayhaps, parlor, amidst, amongst, whilst, unbeknownst, thou, thee, ere, hath

I’m all for it. My only hope now, is that these words will flow against the tide and into the U.S. to repair some of the previous linguistic deforestation. Methinks I’ll put some of these to immediate, good use.

From the Independent:

Hipsters are famous for their love of all things old-fashioned: 19th Century beards, pickle-making, Amish outerwear, naming their kids Clementine or Atticus. Now, they may be excavating archaic language, too.

As Chi Luu points out at JSTOR Daily  — the blog of a database of academic journals, what could be more hipster than that? — old-timey words like bespoke, peruse, smitten and dapper appear to be creeping back into the lexicon.

This data comes from Google’s Ngram viewer, which charts the frequencies of words appearing in printed sources between 1800 and 2012.

Google’s Ngram shows that lots of archaic words appear to be resurfacing — including gems like perchance, mayhaps and parlor.

The same trend is visible for words like amongst, amidst, whilst and unbeknownst, which are are archaic forms of among, amid, while and unknown.

Read the story in its entirety here.

Image courtesy of Google’s Ngram viewer / Independent.

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Wot! Proper Grammar?

It seems that there are several ways to turn off a potential dating connection online: a picture of your bad teeth, tales of your poor hygiene, political posturing, and now, a poorly written profile or introductory email. Is our children learning?

Seriously, can it be that the younger generation is finally rebelling against the tyranny of lowercase Twitteresque, incorrect punctuation, nonsensical grammar, fatuous emoticons and facile abbreviations? If so, this is wonderful news for those who care about our language. Now, perhaps, these same people can turn their talents to educating the barely literate generations holding jobs in corporate America. After decades of subservience to fractured Powerpoint haiku many can no longer string together a coherent paragraph.

From the WSJ:

When Jeff Cohen was getting ready to meet his OkCupid date for drinks in Manhattan, he started to have second thoughts as he reread the glaring grammatical error in her last message: “I will see you their.”

The date flopped for a couple of reasons, but bad grammar bothers Mr. Cohen. Learning a potential mate doesn’t know the difference between “there,” “they’re” and “their” is like discovering she loves cats, he says. Mr. Cohen is allergic to cats. “It’s like learning I’m going to sneeze every time I see her,” he says.

With crimes against grammar rising in the age of social media, some people are beginning to take action. The online dating world is a prime battleground.

Mr. Cohen joins a number of singles picky about the grammar gaffes they’re seeing on dating sites. For love, these folks say written communications matter, from the correct use of semicolons, to understanding the difference between its and it’s, and sentences built on proper parallel construction.

“Grammar snobbery is one of the last permissible prejudices,” says John McWhorter, a linguistics professor at Columbia University. “The energy that used to go into open classism and racism now goes into disparaging people’s grammar.”

Mr. Cohen now uses an app that ranks the message quality of prospective dates. Called the Grade, the app checks messages for typos and grammar errors and assigns each user a letter grade from A+ to F.

The Grade demotes people whose messages contain certain abbreviations, like “wassup” and “YOLO,” short for “You Only Live Once,” popular among young people who want to justify doing something risky or indulgent. Clifford Lerner, chief executive of SNAP Interactive Inc., the company that makes the Grade, says the app downgrades these types of phrases in an effort to promote “meaningful conversations.”

Dating site Match asked more than 5,000 singles in the U.S. what criteria they used most in assessing dates. Beyond personal hygiene—which 96% of women valued most, as compared with 91% of men—singles said they judged a date foremost by the person’s grammar. The survey found 88% of women and 75% of men said they cared about grammar most, putting it ahead of a person’s confidence and teeth.

“When you get a message that is grammatically correct and has a voice and is put together, it is very attractive, it definitely adds hotness points,” says New Yorker Grace Gold. “People who send me text-type messages, and horrific grammatical errors? I just delete them.” She recalls the red flag raised by one potential suitor who had written his entire dating profile in lowercase.

Language has always played a part in how people judge others, but it has become amplified in recent years with increasing informal and colloquial usage, says Ben Zimmer, a lexicographer and chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society.

Read the entire story here.

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What If You Spoke Facebookish?

The video from comedian Jason Horton shows us what real world interactions would be like if we conversed the same way as we do online via Facebook. His conversations may be tongue-in-cheek but they’re too close to becoming reality for comfort. You have to suppose that these offline (real world) status updates would have us drowning in hashtags, over-reaction, moralizing, and endless yawn inducing monologues.

I’d rather have Esperanto make a comeback.

Video courtesy of Jason Horton.

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Would You Like Vocal Fry With That?

Google-search-fries

Valleyspeak, uptalk (or upspeak), breathiness, run-on sentences and vocal fry. I’m not sure which came first and why a significant number of young people — mostly women — speak in this way. But these vocal contortions have prodded a new generation of linguists and speech pathologists into a feeding frenzy of language  research.

The overall consensus seems to suggest that these speech mannerisms paint young people as less educated and less competent. Not only that but most listeners find the patterns rather annoying.

From the Guardian:

Patriarchy is inventive. The minute a generation of women has figured out how to not be enslaved by Ideology A, some new cultural pressure arises in the form of Internalisation B, making sure they don’t get too far too fast. The latest example: the most empowered generation of women ever – today’s twentysomethings in North America and Britain – is being hobbled in some important ways by something as basic as a new fashion in how they use their voices.

This demographic of women tends to have a distinctive speech pattern. Many commentators have noticed it, often with dismay. Time magazine devoted a column to the mannerism called vocal fry, noting a study that found that this speech pattern makes young women who use it sound less competent, less trustworthy, less educated and less hireable: “Think Britney Spears and the Kardashians.”

“Vocal fry” is that guttural growl at the back of the throat, as a Valley girl might sound if she had been shouting herself hoarse at a rave all night. The less charitable refer to it privately as painfully nasal, and to young women in conversation sounding like ducks quacking. “Vocal fry” has joined more traditional young-women voice mannerisms such as run-ons, breathiness and the dreaded question marks in sentences (known by linguists as uptalk) to undermine these women’s authority in newly distinctive ways. Slate notes that older men (ie those in power over young women) find it intensely annoying. One study by a “deeply annoyed” professor, found that young women use “uptalk” to seek to hold the floor. But does cordially hating these speech patterns automatically mean you are anti-feminist?

Many devoted professors, employers who wish to move young women up the ranks and business owners who just want to evaluate personnel on merit flinch over the speech patterns of today’s young women. “Because of their run-on sentences, I can’t tell in a meeting when these young women have said what they have to say,” confided one law partner.

“Their constant uptalk means I am constantly having to reassure them: ‘uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh’. It’s exhausting.”

I myself have inadvertently flinched when a young woman barraging a group with uptalk ran a technology-based conference call: “We’ll use Ruby on Rails? It is an MVC framework to support databases?” Well, will we?

One 29-year-old woman working in engineering told me it was easier for gatekeepers in her male-dominated field to disregard running-on, softspoken, vocally frying and uptalking women. “It is difficult for young women to be heard or even responded to in many male-dominated fields if they don’t strengthen their voices, That kind of disregarding response from men made me feel even softer and even lesser – in a vicious circle of silencing.” she said.

Style is content, as any writing teacher knows. Run-ons and “non-committal-ness” dilute many young women’s advocacy powers and thus their written authority. Many young women have learned not to go too far out on a limb with their voiced opinions; but the dilution of “voice” and the muddying of logic caused by run-on sentences in speech can undermine the power of their written thought processes and weaken their marshalling of evidence in an argument. At Oxford University young women consistently get 5% to 10% fewer first-class degrees in English – and the exams are graded blindly. The reasons? Even the most brilliant tend to avoid strong declarative sentences and to organise their arguments less forcefully. Elleke Boehmer, an Oxford English professor, says: “I often observe my female students’ silence and lack of confidence in class with concern. How anxious they are about coming forward to express an opinion, to risk a point of view, so often letting the male students speak first and second and even third. And in this way they lose out in the discussions that are going to help them hone their pitch, write winning essays, secure the out-and-out firsts that male students in Humanities subjects still are securing in far greater numbers, proportionately, than they are.”

The problem of young women’s voices is gaining new cultural visibility. Recent books and plays have dealt with the suppression of young women’s voices: Boehmer’s own recent novel The Shouting in the Dark narrates the inner life of a young woman in South Africa in the 1970s – and shows how abuse breaks such a voice. The hit play Nirbhaya, in which Indian actresses narrate stories of their own rapes, also shows how young women’s voices are stifled by cultural silencing, even today.

Voice remains political at work as well. A Catalyst study found that self-advocacy skills correlate to workplace status and pay more directly than merit. In other words, speaking well is better for your career than working hard.

But Amy Giddon, director of corporate leadership at Barnard College’s Athena centre for leadership studies in New York, found in original research that “there is a disconnect between women’s confidence in their skills and abilities – which is often high – and their confidence in their ability to navigate the system to achieve the recognition and advancement they feel they deserve. Self-advocacy is a big part of this, and identified by many women in the study as the biggest barrier to their advancement.” In other words, today’s women know they can do great things; what they doubt – reasonably enough – is that they can speak well about those great things.

When you ask young women themselves what these destructive speech patterns mean to them, you get gender-political insights. “I know I use run-on sentences,” a 21-year-old intern at a university told me. “I do it because I am afraid of being interrupted.” No one has ever taught her techniques to refuse that inevitable interruption. “I am aware that I fill my sentences with question marks,” said a twentysomething who works in a research firm. “We do it when we speak to older people or people we see as authorities. It is to placate them. We don’t do it so much when we are by ourselves.” Surely we older feminists have not completed our tasks if no one has taught this young woman that it was not her job to placate her elders.

Read the entire article here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

 

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HR and the Evil Omnipotence of the Passive Construction

Next time you browse through your company’s compensation or business expense policies, or for that matter, anything written by the human resources (HR) department, cast your mind to George Orwell. In one of his critical essays Politics and the English Language, Orwell makes a clear case for the connection between linguistic obfuscation and political power. While Orwell’s obsession was on the political machine, you could just as well apply his reasoning to the mangled literary machinations of every corporate HR department.

Oh, the pen is indeed mightier than the sword, especially when it is used to construct obtuse passive sentences without a subject — perfect for a rulebook that all citizens must follow and that no one can challenge.

From the Guardian:

In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of human resources’. All issues are human resource issues, and human resources itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia.

OK, that’s not exactly what Orwell wrote. The hair-splitters among you will moan that I’ve taken the word “politics” out of the above and replaced it with “human resources”. Sorry.

But I think there’s no denying that had he been alive today, Orwell – the great opponent and satirist of totalitarianism – would have deplored the bureaucratic repression of HR. He would have hated their blind loyalty to power, their unquestioning faithfulness to process, their abhorrence of anything or anyone deviating from the mean.

In particular, Orwell would have utterly despised the language that HR people use. In his excellent essay Politics and the English Language (where he began the thought that ended with Newspeak), Orwell railed against the language crimes committed by politicians.

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible … Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements.

Repeat the politics/human resources switch in the above and the argument remains broadly the same. Yes, HR is not explaining away murders, but it nonetheless deliberately misuse language as a sort of low-tech mind control to avert our eyes from office atrocities and keep us fixed on our inboxes. Thus mass sackings are wrapped up in cowardly sophistry and called rightsizings, individuals are offboarded to the jobcentre and the few hardy souls left are consoled by their membership of a more streamlined organisation.

Orwell would have despised the passive constructions that are the HR department’s default setting. Want some flexibility in your contract? HR says company policy is unable to support that. Forgotten to accede to some arbitrary and impractical office rule? HR says we are minded to ask everyone to remember that it is essential to comply by rule X. Try to question whether an ill-judged commitment could be reversed? HR apologises meekly that the decision has been made.

Not giving subjects to any of these responses is a deliberate ploy. Subjects give ownership. They imbue accountability. Not giving sentences subjects means that HR is passing the buck, but to no one in particular. And with no subject, no one can be blamed, or protested against.

The passive construction is also designed to give the sense that it’s not HR speaking, but that they are the conduit for a higher-up and incontestable power. It’s designed to be both authoritative and banal, so that we torpidly accept it, like the sovereignty of the Queen. It’s saying: “This is the way things are – deal with it because it isn’t changing.” It’s indifferent and deliberately opaque. It’s the worst kind of utopianism (the kind David Graeber targets in his recent book on “stupidity and the secret joys of bureaucracy”), where system and rule are king and hang the individual. It’s deeply, deeply oppressive.

Annual leave is perhaps an even worse example of HR’s linguistic malpractice. The phrase gives the sense that we are not sitting in the office but rather fighting some dismal war and that we should be grateful for the mercy of Field Marshal HR in allowing us a finite absence from the front line. Is it too indulgent and too frivolous to say that we are going on holiday (even if we’re just taking the day to go to Ikea)? Would it so damage our career prospects? Would the emerging markets of the world be emboldened by the decadence and complacency of saying we’re going on hols? I don’t think so, but they clearly do.

Actually, I don’t think it’s so much of a stretch to imagine Orwell himself establishing the whole HR enterprise as a sort of grim parody of Stalinism; a never-ending, ever-expanding live action art installation sequel to Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Look at your office’s internal newsletter. Is it an incomprehensible black hole of sense? Is it trying to prod you into a place of content, incognisant of all the everyday hardships and irritations you endure? If your answer is yes, then I think that like me, you find it fairly easy to imagine Orwell composing these Newspeak emails from beyond the grave to make us believe that War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery and 2+2=5.

Delving deeper, the parallels become increasingly hard to ignore. Company restructures and key performance indicators make no sense in the abstract, merely serving to demotivate the workforce, sap confidence and obstruct productivity. So are they actually cleverly designed parodies of Stalin’s purges and the cult of Stakhanovism?

Read the entire story here.

 

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Gadzooks, Gosh, Tarnation and the F-Bomb

Blimey! How our lexicon of foul language has evolved! Up to a few hundred years ago most swear words and oaths bore some connection to God, Jesus or other religious figure or event. But the need to display some level of dubious piety and avoid a lightening bolt from the blue led many to invent and mince a whole range of creative euphemisms. Hence, even today, we still hear words like “drat”, “gosh”, “tarnation”, “by george”, “by jove”, “heck”, “strewth”, “odsbodikins”, “gadzooks”, “doggone”.

More recently our linguistic penchant for shock and awe stems mostly from euphemistic — or not — labels for body parts and bodily functions — think: “freaking” or “shit” or “dick” and all manner of “f-words” and “c-words”. Sensitivities aside, many of us are fortunate enough to live in nations that have evolved beyond corporal or even capital punishment for uttering such blasphemous or vulgar indiscretions.

So, the next time your drop the “f-bomb” or a “dagnabbit” in public reflect for a while and thank yourself for supporting your precious democracy over the neighboring theocracy.

From WSJ:

At street level and in popular culture, Americans are freer with profanity now than ever before—or so it might seem to judge by how often people throw around the “F-bomb” or use a certain S-word of scatological meaning as a synonym for “stuff.” Or consider the millions of fans who adore the cartoon series “South Park,” with its pint-size, raucously foul-mouthed characters.

But things might look different to an expedition of anthropologists visiting from Mars. They might conclude that Americans today are as uptight about profanity as were our 19th-century forbears in ascots and petticoats. It’s just that what we think of as “bad” words is different. To us, our ancestors’ word taboos look as bizarre as tribal rituals. But the real question is: How different from them, for better or worse, are we?

In medieval English, at a time when wars were fought in disputes over religious doctrine and authority, the chief category of profanity was, at first, invoking—that is, swearing to—the name of God, Jesus or other religious figures in heated moments, along the lines of “By God!” Even now, we describe profanity as “swearing” or as muttering “oaths.”

It might seem like a kind of obsessive piety to us now, but the culture of that day was largely oral, and swearing—making a sincere oral testament—was a key gesture of commitment. To swear by or to God lightly was considered sinful, which is the origin of the expression to take the Lord’s name in vain (translated from Biblical Hebrew for “emptily”).

The need to avoid such transgressions produced various euphemisms, many of them familiar today, such as “by Jove,” “by George,” “gosh,” “golly” and “Odsbodikins,” which started as “God’s body.” “Zounds!” was a twee shortening of “By his wounds,” as in those of Jesus. A time traveler to the 17th century would encounter variations on that theme such as “Zlids!” and “Znails!”, referring to “his” eyelids and nails.

In the 19th century, “Drat!” was a way to say “God rot.” Around the same time, darn started when people avoided saying “Eternal damnation!” by saying “Tarnation!”, which, because of the D-word hovering around, was easy to recast as “Darnation!”, from which “darn!” was a short step.

By the late 18th century, sex, excretion and the parts associated with same had come to be treated as equally profane as “swearing” in the religious sense. Such matters had always been considered bawdy topics, of course, but the space for ordinary words referring to them had been shrinking for centuries already.

Chaucer had available to him a thoroughly inoffensive word referring to the sex act, swive. An anatomy book in the 1400s could casually refer to a part of the female anatomy with what we today call the C-word. But over time, referring to these things in common conversation came to be regarded with a kind of pearl-clutching horror.

By the 1500s, as English began taking its place alongside Latin as a world language with a copious high literature, a fashion arose for using fancy Latinate terms in place of native English ones for more private matters. Thus was born a slightly antiseptic vocabulary, with words like copulate and penis. Even today modern English has no terms for such things that are neither clinical nor vulgar, along the lines of arm or foot or whistle.

The burgeoning bourgeois culture of the late 1700s, both in Great Britain and America, was especially alarmist about the “down there” aspect of things. In growing cities with stark social stratification, a new gentry developed a new linguistic self-consciousness—more English grammars were published between 1750 and 1800 than had ever appeared before that time.

In speaking of cooked fowl, “white” and “dark” meat originated as terms to avoid mention of breasts and limbs. What one does in a restroom, another euphemism of this era, is only laboriously classified as repose. Bosom and seat (for the backside) originated from the same impulse.

Passages in books of the era can be opaque to us now without an understanding of how particular people had gotten: In Dickens’s “Oliver Twist,” Giles the butler begins, “I got softly out of bed; drew on a pair of…” only to be interrupted with “Ladies present…” after which he dutifully says “…of shoes, sir.” He wanted to say trousers, but because of where pants sit on the body, well…

Or, from the gargantuan Oxford English Dictionary, published in 1884 and copious enough to take up a shelf and bend it, you would never have known in the original edition that the F-word or the C-word existed.

Such moments extend well into the early 20th century. In a number called “Shuffle Off to Buffalo” in the 1932 Broadway musical “42nd Street,” Ginger Rogers sings “He did right by little Nelly / with a shotgun at his bell-” and then interjects “tummy” instead. “Belly” was considered a rude part of the body to refer to; tummy was OK because of its association with children.

Read the entire story here.

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I Literally Can’t Even

Literally… Can’t Even…

By the time you read this the title phrase will be a cringeworthy embarrassment to the teens that popularized it just over a month ago. Ok, so I’m exaggerating slightly, but you get my point — new slang enters, and leaves, our pop lexicon faster than the rise and fall of internet hasbeen Psy. The simplified life-cycle goes something like this:

Week 1: Teens co-opt and twist an existing word or phrase to a new meaning.

Week 2: Parents of teens scratch heads; teens’ obfuscation is successful.

Week 3: Social networks both on and offline amplify the new “meme”.

Week 4: Corporations targeting the teen demographic adopt the meme themselves.

Week 5: Mass media picks up the story.

Week 5 + 1 Day: New meme is old news; teens move on; parents continue head-scratching; corporate ad agencies still promoting old meme are fired.

To an amateur linguist this process is fascinating. Though, I must admit to heart palpitations — metaphorical ones — when I hear people, young and old, use and misuse “literally”. As for “can’t even”, well, its time has already passed. Next!

From NYT:

A little paradox of Internet celebrity is that a YouTube personality can amass millions upon millions of young fans by making it seem as if he’s chatting with each of them one to one. Tyler Oakley, a 26-year-old man who identifies as a “professional fangirl,” is a master of the genre. He has nerd glasses, pinchable cheeks, a quiff he dyes in shades of blue and green and more YouTube subscribers than Shakira. Some of his teenage admirers have told him that he is the very first gay person that they have ever seen. He models slumber party outfits and gushes over boy bands, giving the kids who watch him from their bedrooms a peek into a wider world.

In March 2012, Oakley faced the camera, balanced a laptop in his sightline and paged through a photo set of the curly-haired actor Darren Criss, whose turn as a hunky gay singer in “Glee” made him a fixture of teenage dreams. In these new pictures, which had just been leaked online, Criss was lounging on a beach wearing only a pair of low-rise jeans and a layer of perspiration. Oakley’s videotaped reaction was exultant. “I literally cannot even,” he informed his fans. “I can’t even. I am unable to even. I have lost my ability to even. I am so unable to even. Oh, my God. Oh, my God!”

Soon, Oakley’s groupies had immortalized his soliloquy in GIF form: “Can’t” upon “can’t,” looping forever. Now they could conjure the GIF whenever they felt so overcome by emotion that they couldn’t even complete a thought. Oakley was not the first to recast the sentence fragment “I can’t even” as a stand-alone expression. He just helped shepherd it out of the insular realm of Tumblr fandom and into the wide-open Internet. That June, John Green, a writer of fiction for young adults who was awed by the praise for his breakaway novel, “The Fault in Our Stars,” pledged to “endeavor to regain my ability to even.” When Kacey Musgraves, then 25, won Best Country Album at the 2014 Grammy Awards, besting Taylor Swift, she began her acceptance speech with two “I can’t evens.” And this season, “Saturday Night Live” aired a sketchin which a trio of nasal-toned interns “literally couldn’t even” deal with their office’s frigid temperature. The punch line lands when they screech at a fourth intern to close her window, and the audience sees her sitting helplessly at her desk, both arms suspended in plaster casts. “I can’t,” she whimpers. “I literally cannot.”

For those who grew up when teenagers didn’t “can’t,” the phrase might register as a whimper, as if millennials have spun their inability to climb the staircase out of the parental basement into a mantra. At least the Valley Girls of the 1980s and ’90s, who turned every statement into a question, and the vocal-fried pop tarts of the early 2000s, who growled almost inaudibly, had the decency to finish their sentences. Kids today, it seems, are so mindless that they can’t even complete their verb phrases.

But if you really believe that teenage girls (and boys) don’t know what they’re talking about, it’s more likely that they just don’t want you to know what they’re talking about. Teenagers may not be able to drive or vote or stay out past curfew or use the bathroom during school hours without permission, but they can talk. Their speech is the site of rebellion, and their slang provides shelter from adult scrutiny.

Guarding the secret code has become tricky, though. Teenagers used to listen for the telltale click of a parent eavesdropping on the telephone line. Now somebody (or something) is monitoring every keystroke. If an adult picks up a scrap of inscrutable teenager-speak via text or Twitter or a whisper wafting up from the back seat, she can access its definition on Urban Dictionary or Genius (which explains that “?‘I can’t even’ is a state of speechlessness too deep to even express in any other words”). In 1980, the linguist David Maurer, author of “The Big Con,” a book about underworld slang, wrote that “the migration of words from subculture to dominant culture is sparked by the amount of interaction between these groups,” as well as by the dominant group’s “interest in the behavior patterns” of the other. Parents are perennially nosy about what their teenagers are saying, and nowadays they can just Google it.

Read the entire article here.

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MondayMap: Grey or Gray Matter?

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The dumbing down of the United States continues apace. While 9-15 year-olds participating in this year’s national spelling bee competition seem to have no problem with words like “syzygy”, “onomatopoeia” and “triskaidekaphobia”, the general adult population is in dire linguistic straits.

An analysis of online search queries by Vocativ and Google Trends highlights some rather disturbing misspellings of rather common words. Though, what makes the survey so fascinating is to see the variations mapped by state. Sadly, around a dozen states had the most trouble with the word “grey”, including California, Illinois, Kansas, Michigan and North Dakota. Arkansas, on the other hand, should be proud (or not), that its residents have the most trouble with the word “diarrhea” (US spelling), while residents of Idaho can’t seem to spell “antelope”.  Texans get hung up on “beautiful” and those living in Wyoming can’t seem to spell “jelous” [sic].

Read more from Vocativ here.

Infographic courtesy of Vocativ / Google Trends.

 

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Regression Texting

emoji-2016

Some culture watchers believe we are entering into a linguistic death spiral. Our increasingly tech-driven communication is enabling our language to evolve in unforeseen ways, and some linguists believe the evolution is actually taking us backwards rather than forwards. Enter exhibit one into the record: the 👿 emoji.

From the Guardian:

So it’s official. We are evolving backwards. Emoji, the visual system of communication that is incredibly popular online, is Britain’s fastest-growing language according to Professor Vyv Evans, a linguist at Bangor University.

The comparison he uses is telling – but not in the way the prof, who appears enthusiastic about emojis, presumably intends. “As a visual language emoji has already far eclipsed hieroglyphics, its ancient Egyptian precursor which took centuries to develop,” says Evans.

Perhaps that is because it is easier to go downhill than uphill. After millennia of painful improvement, from illiteracy to Shakespeare and beyond, humanity is rushing to throw it all away. We’re heading back to ancient Egyptian times, next stop the stone age, with a big yellow smiley grin on our faces.

Unicode, the company that created emojis, has announced it will release 36 more of the brainless little icons next year. Demand is massive: 72% of 18- to 25-year-olds find it easier to express their feelings in emoji pictures than through the written word, according to a survey for Talk Talk mobile.

As tends to happen in an age when technology is transforming culture on a daily basis, people relate such news with bland irony or apparent joy. Who wants to be the crusty old conservative who questions progress? But the simplest and most common-sense historical and anthropological evidence tells us that Emoji is not “progress” by any definition. It is plainly a step back.

Evans compares Emoji with ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. Well indeed. ancient Egypt was a remarkable civilisation, but it had some drawbacks. The Egyptians created a magnificent but static culture. They invented a superb artistic style and powerful mythology – then stuck with these for millennia. Hieroglyphs enabled them to write spells but not to develop a more flexible, questioning literary culture: they left that to the Greeks.

These jumped-up Aegean loudmouths, using an abstract non-pictorial alphabet they got from the Phoenicians, obviously and spectacularly outdid the Egyptians in their range of expression. The Greek alphabet was much more productive than all those lovely Egyptian pictures. That is why there is no ancient Egyptian Iliad or Odyssey.

In other words, there are harsh limits on what you can say with pictures. The written word is infinitely more adaptable. That’s why Greece rather than Egypt leapt forward and why Shakespeare was more articulate than the Aztecs.

Read the entire article here.

Image: A subset of new emojis proposed for adoption in 2016. The third emoji along the top row is, of course, “selfie”. Courtesy of Unicode.

 

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Spam, Spam, Spam: All Natural

Google-search-natural-junk-food

Parents through the ages have often decried the mangling of their mother tongue by subsequent generations. Language is fluid after all, particularly English, and our youth constantly add their own revisions to carve a divergent path from their elders. But, the focus of our disdain for the ongoing destruction of our linguistic heritage should really be corporations and their hordes of marketeers and lawyers. Take the once simple and meaningful word “natural”. You’ll see its oxymoronic application each time you stroll along the aisle at your grocery store: one hundred percent natural fruit roll-ups; all natural chicken rings; completely natural corn-dogs; totally naturally flavored cheese puffs. The word — natural — has become meaningless.

From NYT:

It isn’t every day that the definition of a common English word that is ubiquitous in common parlance is challenged in federal court, but that is precisely what has happened with the word “natural.” During the past few years, some 200 class-action suits have been filed against food manufacturers, charging them with misuse of the adjective in marketing such edible oxymorons as “natural” Cheetos Puffs, “all-natural” Sun Chips, “all-natural” Naked Juice, “100 percent all-natural” Tyson chicken nuggets and so forth. The plaintiffs argue that many of these products contain ingredients — high-fructose corn syrup, artificial flavors and colorings, chemical preservatives and genetically modified organisms — that the typical consumer wouldn’t think of as “natural.”

Judges hearing these cases — many of them in the Northern District of California — have sought a standard definition of the adjective that they could cite to adjudicate these claims, only to discover that no such thing exists.

Something in the human mind, or heart, seems to need a word of praise for all that humanity hasn’t contaminated, and for us that word now is “natural.” Such an ideal can be put to all sorts of rhetorical uses. Among the antivaccination crowd, for example, it’s not uncommon to read about the superiority of something called “natural immunity,” brought about by exposure to the pathogen in question rather than to the deactivated (and therefore harmless) version of it made by humans in laboratories. “When you inject a vaccine into the body,” reads a post on an antivaxxer website, Campaign for Truth in Medicine, “you’re actually performing an unnatural act.” This, of course, is the very same term once used to decry homosexuality and, more recently, same-sex marriage, which the Family Research Council has taken to comparing unfavorably to what it calls “natural marriage.”

So what are we really talking about when we talk about natural? It depends; the adjective is impressively slippery, its use steeped in dubious assumptions that are easy to overlook. Perhaps the most incoherent of these is the notion that nature consists of everything in the world except us and all that we have done or made. In our heart of hearts, it seems, we are all creationists.

In the case of “natural immunity,” the modifier implies the absence of human intervention, allowing for a process to unfold as it would if we did nothing, as in “letting nature take its course.” In fact, most of medicine sets itself against nature’s course, which is precisely what we like about it — at least when it’s saving us from dying, an eventuality that is perhaps more natural than it is desirable.

Yet sometimes medicine’s interventions are unwelcome or go overboard, and nature’s way of doing things can serve as a useful corrective. This seems to be especially true at the beginning and end of life, where we’ve seen a backlash against humanity’s technological ingenuity that has given us both “natural childbirth” and, more recently, “natural death.”

This last phrase, which I expect will soon be on many doctors’ lips, indicates the enduring power of the adjective to improve just about anything you attach it to, from cereal bars all the way on up to dying. It seems that getting end-of-life patients and their families to endorse “do not resuscitate” orders has been challenging. To many ears, “D.N.R.” sounds a little too much like throwing Grandpa under the bus. But according to a paper in The Journal of Medical Ethics, when the orders are reworded to say “allow natural death,” patients and family members and even medical professionals are much more likely to give their consent to what amounts to exactly the same protocols.

The word means something a little different when applied to human behavior rather than biology (let alone snack foods). When marriage or certain sexual practices are described as “natural,” the word is being strategically deployed as a synonym for “normal” or “traditional,” neither of which carries nearly as much rhetorical weight. “Normal” is by now too obviously soaked in moral bigotry; by comparison, “natural” seems to float high above human squabbling, offering a kind of secular version of what used to be called divine law. Of course, that’s exactly the role that “natural law” played for America’s founding fathers, who invoked nature rather than God as the granter of rights and the arbiter of right and wrong.

Read the entire article here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

 

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Nuisance Flooding = Sea-Level Rise

hurricane_andrewGovernment officials in Florida are barred from using the terms “climate change”, “global warming”, “sustainable” and other related terms. Apparently, they’ll have to use the euphemism “nuisance flooding” in place of “sea-level rise”. One wonders what literary trick they’ll conjure up next time the state gets hit by a hurricane — “Oh, that? Just a ‘mischievous little breeze’, I’m not a scientist you know.”

From the Guardian:

Officials with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), the agency in charge of setting conservation policy and enforcing environmental laws in the state, issued directives in 2011 barring thousands of employees from using the phrases “climate change” and “global warming”, according to a bombshell report by the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting (FCIR).

The report ties the alleged policy, which is described as “unwritten”, to the election of Republican governor Rick Scott and his appointment of a new department director that year. Scott, who was re-elected last November, has declined to say whether he believes in climate change caused by human activity.

“I’m not a scientist,” he said in one appearance last May.

Scott’s office did not return a call Sunday from the Guardian, seeking comment. A spokesperson for the governor told the FCIR team: “There’s no policy on this.”

The FCIR report was based on statements by multiple named former employees who worked in different DEP offices around Florida. The instruction not to refer to “climate change” came from agency supervisors as well as lawyers, according to the report.

“We were told not to use the terms ‘climate change’, ‘global warming’ or ‘sustainability’,” the report quotes Christopher Byrd, who was an attorney with the DEP’s Office of General Counsel in Tallahassee from 2008 to 2013, as saying. “That message was communicated to me and my colleagues by our superiors in the Office of General Counsel.”

“We were instructed by our regional administrator that we were no longer allowed to use the terms ‘global warming’ or ‘climate change’ or even ‘sea-level rise’,” said a second former DEP employee, Kristina Trotta. “Sea-level rise was to be referred to as ‘nuisance flooding’.”

According to the employees’ accounts, the ban left damaging holes in everything from educational material published by the agency to training programs to annual reports on the environment that could be used to set energy and business policy.

The 2014 national climate assessment for the US found an “imminent threat of increased inland flooding” in Florida due to climate change and called the state “uniquely vulnerable to sea level rise”.

Read the entire story here.

Image: Hurricane Floyd 1999, a “mischievous little breeze”. Courtesy of NASA.

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The Demise of the Language of Landscape

IMG_2006

In his new book entitled Landmarks author Robert Macfarlane ponders the relationship of words to our natural landscape. Reviewers describe the book as a “field guide to the literature of nature”. Sadly, Macfarlane’s detailed research for the book chronicles a disturbing trend: the culling of many words from our everyday lexicon that describe our natural world to make way for the buzzwords of progress. This substitution comes in the form of newer memes that describe our narrow, urbanized and increasingly virtual world circumscribed by technology. Macfarlane cited Oxford Junior Dictionary (OJD) as a vivid example of the evisceration of our language of landscape. The OJD has removed words such as acorn, beech, conker, dandelion, heather, heron, kingfisher, pasture and willow. In their place we now find words like attachmentblogbroadbandbullet-pointcelebritychatroomcut-and-pasteMP3 player and voice-mail. Get the idea?

I’m no fundamentalist luddite — I’m writing a blog after all — but surely some aspects of our heritage warrant protection. We are an intrinsic part of the natural environment despite our increasing urbanization. Don’t we all crave the escape to a place where we can lounge under a drooping willow surrounded by nothing more than the buzzing of insects and the babbling of a stream. I’d rather that than deal with the next attachment or voice-mail.

What a loss it would be for our children, and a double-edged loss at that. We, the preceding generation continue to preside over the systematic destruction of our natural landscape. And, in doing so we remove the words as well — the words that once described what we still crave.

From the Guardian:

Eight years ago, in the coastal township of Shawbost on the Outer Hebridean island of Lewis, I was given an extraordinary document. It was entitled “Some Lewis Moorland Terms: A Peat Glossary”, and it listed Gaelic words and phrases for aspects of the tawny moorland that fills Lewis’s interior. Reading the glossary, I was amazed by the compressive elegance of its lexis, and its capacity for fine discrimination: a caochan, for instance, is “a slender moor-stream obscured by vegetation such that it is virtually hidden from sight”, while a feadan is “a small stream running from a moorland loch”, and a fèith is “a fine vein-like watercourse running through peat, often dry in the summer”. Other terms were striking for their visual poetry: rionnach maoim means “the shadows cast on the moorland by clouds moving across the sky on a bright and windy day”; èit refers to “the practice of placing quartz stones in streams so that they sparkle in moonlight and thereby attract salmon to them in the late summer and autumn”, and teine biorach is “the flame or will-o’-the-wisp that runs on top of heather when the moor burns during the summer”.

The “Peat Glossary” set my head a-whirr with wonder-words. It ran to several pages and more than 120 terms – and as that modest “Some” in its title acknowledged, it was incomplete. “There’s so much language to be added to it,” one of its compilers, Anne Campbell, told me. “It represents only three villages’ worth of words. I have a friend from South Uist who said her grandmother would add dozens to it. Every village in the upper islands would have its different phrases to contribute.” I thought of Norman MacCaig’s great Hebridean poem “By the Graveyard, Luskentyre”, where he imagines creating a dictionary out of the language of Donnie, a lobster fisherman from the Isle of Harris. It would be an impossible book, MacCaig concluded:

A volume thick as the height of the Clisham,

A volume big as the whole of Harris,

A volume beyond the wit of scholars.

The same summer I was on Lewis, a new edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionarywas published. A sharp-eyed reader noticed that there had been a culling of words concerning nature. Under pressure, Oxford University Press revealed a list of the entries it no longer felt to be relevant to a modern-day childhood. The deletions included acornadderashbeechbluebellbuttercupcatkinconkercowslipcygnetdandelionfernhazelheatherheronivykingfisherlarkmistletoenectarnewtotterpasture and willow. The words taking their places in the new edition included attachmentblock-graphblogbroadbandbullet-pointcelebritychatroomcommitteecut-and-pasteMP3 player and voice-mail. As I had been entranced by the language preserved in the prose?poem of the “Peat Glossary”, so I was dismayed by the language that had fallen (been pushed) from the dictionary. For blackberry, read Blackberry.

I have long been fascinated by the relations of language and landscape – by the power of strong style and single words to shape our senses of place. And it has become a habit, while travelling in Britain and Ireland, to note down place words as I encounter them: terms for particular aspects of terrain, elements, light and creaturely life, or resonant place names. I’ve scribbled these words in the backs of notebooks, or jotted them down on scraps of paper. Usually, I’ve gleaned them singly from conversations, maps or books. Now and then I’ve hit buried treasure in the form of vernacular word-lists or remarkable people – troves that have held gleaming handfuls of coinages, like the Lewisian “Peat Glossary”.

Not long after returning from Lewis, and spurred on by the Oxford deletions, I resolved to put my word-collecting on a more active footing, and to build up my own glossaries of place words. It seemed to me then that although we have fabulous compendia of flora, fauna and insects (Richard Mabey’s Flora Britannica and Mark Cocker’s Birds Britannica chief among them), we lack a Terra Britannica, as it were: a gathering of terms for the land and its weathers – terms used by crofters, fishermen, farmers, sailors, scientists, miners, climbers, soldiers, shepherds, poets, walkers and unrecorded others for whom particularised ways of describing place have been vital to everyday practice and perception. It seemed, too, that it might be worth assembling some of this terrifically fine-grained vocabulary – and releasing it back into imaginative circulation, as a way to rewild our language. I wanted to answer Norman MacCaig’s entreaty in his Luskentyre poem: “Scholars, I plead with you, / Where are your dictionaries of the wind … ?”

Read the entire article here and then buy the book, which is published in March 2015.

Image: Sunset over the Front Range. Courtesy of the author.

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MondayMap: Bro or Dude Country?

Dude_Frequency

If you’re a male in Texas and have one or more BFFs, then chances are that you refer to each of them as “bro”. If you and your BFFs hang out in the deep south, then you’re more likely to call them “fella”. Fans of the Big Lebowski will be glad to hear the “dude” lives on — but mostly only in California, Southwestern US and around the Great Lakes.

See more maps of bros, fellas, dudes, and pals at Frank Jacobs blog here.

Image courtesy of Frank Jacobs / Jack Grieve and Diansheng Guo.

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Colorless Green Ideas Sleep Furiously

Linguist, philosopher, and more recently political activist, Noam Chomsky penned the title phrase in the late 1950s. The sentence is grammatically correct, but semantically nonsensical. Some now maintain that many of Chomsky’s early ideas on the innateness of human language are equally nonsensical. Chomsky popularized the idea that language is innate to humans; that somehow and somewhere the minds of human infants contain a mechanism that can make sense of language by applying rules encoded in and activated by our genes. Steven Pinker expanded on Chomsky’s theory by proposing that the mind contains an innate device that encodes a common, universal grammar, which is foundational to all languages across all human societies.

Recently however, this notion has come under increasing criticism. A  growing number of prominent linguistic scholars, including Professor Vyvyan Evans, maintain that Chomsky’s and Pinker’s linguistic models are outdated — that a universal grammar is nothing but a finely-tuned myth. Evans and others maintain that language arises from and is directly embodied in experience.

From the New Scientist:

The ideas of Noam Chomsky, popularised by Steven Pinker, come under fire in Vyvyan Evans’s book The Language Myth: Why language is not an instinct

IS THE way we think about language on the cusp of a revolution? After reading The Language Myth, it certainly looks as if a major shift is in progress, one that will open people’s minds to liberating new ways of thinking about language.

I came away excited. I found that words aren’t so much things that can be limited by a dictionary definition but are encyclopaedic, pointing to sets of concepts. There is the intriguing notion that language will always be less rich than our ideas and there will always be things we cannot quite express. And there is the growing evidence that words are rooted in concepts built out of our bodily experience of living in the world.

Its author, Vyvyan Evans, is a professor of linguistics at Bangor University, UK, and his primary purpose is not so much to map out the revolution (that comes in a sequel) but to prepare you for it by sweeping out old ideas. The book is sure to whip up a storm, because in his sights are key ideas from some of the world’s great thinkers, including philosophers Noam Chomsky and Jerry Fodor.

Ideas about language that have entered the public consciousness are more myth than reality, Evans argues. Bestsellers by Steven Pinker, the Harvard University professor who popularised Chomksy in The Language InstinctHow the Mind Works and The Stuff of Thought, come in for particular criticism. “Science has moved on,” Evans writes. “And to end it all, Pinker is largely wrong, about language and about a number of other things too…”

The commonplace view of “language as instinct” is the myth Evans wants to destroy and he attempts the operation with great verve. The myth comes from the way children effortlessly learn languages just by listening to adults around them, without being aware explicitly of the governing grammatical rules.

This “miracle” of spontaneous learning led Chomsky to argue that grammar is stored in a module of the mind, a “language acquisition device”, waiting to be activated, stage-by-stage, when an infant encounters the jumble of language. The rules behind language are built into our genes.

This innate grammar is not the grammar of a school textbook, but a universal grammar, capable of generating the rules of any of the 7000 or so languages that a child might be exposed to, however different they might appear. In The Language Instinct, Pinker puts it this way: “a Universal Grammar, not reducible to history or cognition, underlies the human language instinct”. The search for that universal grammar has kept linguists busy for half a century.

They may have been chasing a mirage. Evans marshals impressive empirical evidence to take apart different facets of the “language instinct myth”. A key criticism is that the more languages are studied, the more their diversity becomes apparent and an underlying universal grammar less probable.

In a whistle-stop tour, Evans tells stories of languages with a completely free word order, including Jiwarli and Thalanyji from Australia. Then there’s the Inuit language Inuktitut, which builds sentences out of prefixes and suffixes to create giant words like tawakiqutiqarpiit, roughly meaning: “Do you have any tobacco for sale?” And there is the native Canadian language, Straits Salish, which appears not to have nouns or verbs.

An innate language module also looks shaky, says Evans, now scholars have watched languages emerge among communities of deaf people. A sign language is as rich grammatically as a spoken one, but new ones don’t appear fully formed as we might expect if grammar is laid out in our genes. Instead, they gain grammatical richness over several generations.

Now, too, we have detailed studies of how children acquire language. Grammatical sentences don’t start to pop out of their mouths at certain developmental stages, but rather bits and pieces emerge as children learn. At first, they use chunks of particular expressions they hear often, only gradually learning patterns and generalising to a fully fledged grammar. So grammars emerge from use, and the view of “language-as-instinct”, argues Evans, should be replaced by “language-as-use”.

The “innate” view also encounters a deep philosophical problem. If the rules of language are built into our genes, how is it that sentences mean something? How do they connect to our thoughts, concepts and to the outside world?

A solution from the language-as-instinct camp is that there is an internal language of thought called “mentalese”. In The Language Instinct, Pinker explains: “Knowing a language, then, is knowing how to translate mentalese into strings of words.” But philosophers are left arguing over the same question once removed: how does mentalese come to have meaning?

Read the entire article here.

 

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The Idea Shower and The Strategic Staircase

Every now and then we visit the world of corporatespeak to see how business jargon is faring: which words are in, which phrases are out. Unfortunately, many of the most used and over-used still find their way into common office parlance. With apologies to our state-side readers some of the most popular British phrases follow, and, no surprise, many of these cringeworthy euphemisms seem to emanate from the U.S. Ugh!

From the Guardian:

I don’t know about you, but I’m a sucker for a bit of joined up, blue sky thinking. I love nothing more than the opportunity to touch base with my boss first thing on a Monday morning. It gives me that 24 carat feeling.

I apologise for the sarcasm, but management speak makes most people want to staple the boss’s tongue to the desk. A straw poll around my office found jargon is seen by staff as a tool for making something seem more impressive than it actually is.

The Plain English Campaign says that many staff working for big corporate organisations find themselves using management speak as a way of disguising the fact that they haven’t done their job properly. Some people think that it is easy to bluff their way through by using long, impressive-sounding words and phrases, even if they don’t know what they mean, which is telling in itself.

Furthermore, a recent survey by Institute of Leadership & Management, revealed that management speak is used in almost two thirds (64%) of offices, with nearly a quarter (23%) considering it to be a pointless irritation. “Thinking outside the box” (57%), “going forward” (55%) and “let’s touch base” (39%) were identified as the top three most overused pieces of jargon.

Walk through any office and you’ll hear this kind of thing going on every day. Here are some of the most irritating euphemisms doing the rounds:

Helicopter view – need a phrase that means broad overview of the business? Then why not say “a broad view of the business”?

Idea shower – brainstorm might be out of fashion, but surely we can thought cascade something better than this drivel.

Touch base offline – meaning let’s meet and talk. Because, contrary to popular belief, it is possible to communicate without a Wi-Fi signal. No, really, it is. Fancy a coffee?

Low hanging fruit – easy win business. This would be perfect for hungry children in orchards, but what is really happening is an admission that you don’t want to take the complicated route.

Look under the bonnet – analyse a situation. Most people wouldn’t have a clue about a car engine. When I look under a car bonnet I scratch my head, try not to look like I haven’t got a clue, jiggle a few pipes and kick the tyres before handing the job over to a qualified professional.

Get all your ducks in a row – be organised. Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street had an obsession with rubber ducks. You may think I’m disorganised, but there’s no need to talk to me like a five-year-old.

Don’t let the grass grow too long on this one – work fast. I’m looking for a polite way of suggesting that you get off your backside and get on with it.

Not enough bandwidth – too busy. Really? Try upgrading to fibre optics. I reckon I know a few people who haven’t been blessed with enough “bandwidth” and it’s got nothing to do with being busy.

Cascading relevant information – speaking to your colleagues. If anything, this is worse than touching base offline. From the flourish of cascading through to relevant, and onto information – this is complete nonsense.

The strategic staircase – business plan. Thanks, but I’ll take the lift.

Run it up the flagpole – try it out. Could you attach yourself while you’re at it?

Read the entire story here.

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Climate Change Denial: English Only

It’s official. Native English-speakers are more likely to be in denial over climate change than non-English speakers. In fact, many who do not see a human hand in our planet’s environmental and climatic troubles are located in the United States, Britain,  Australia and Canada. Enough said, in English.

Sacre bleu!

Now, the Guardian would have you believe that media monopolist — Rupert Murdoch — is behind the climate change skeptics and deniers. After all, he is well known for his views on climate and his empire controls large swathes of the media that most English-speaking people consume.  However, it’s probably a little more complicated.

From the Guardian:

Here in the United States, we fret a lot about global warming denial. Not only is it a dangerous delusion, it’s an incredibly prevalent one. Depending on your survey instrument of choice, we regularly learn that substantial minorities of Americans deny, or are sceptical of, the science of climate change.

The global picture, however, is quite different. For instance, recently the UK-based market research firm Ipsos MORI released its “Global Trends 2014” report, which included a number of survey questions on the environment asked across 20 countries. (h/t Leo Hickman). And when it came to climate change, the result was very telling.

Note that these results are not perfectly comparable across countries, because the data were gathered online, and Ipsos MORI cautions that for developing countries like India and China, “the results should be viewed as representative of a more affluent and ‘connected’ population.”

Nonetheless, some pretty significant patterns are apparent. Perhaps most notably: Not only is the United States clearly the worst in its climate denial, but Great Britain and Australia are second and third worst, respectively. Canada, meanwhile, is the seventh worst.

What do these four nations have in common? They all speak the language of Shakespeare.

Why would that be? After all, presumably there is nothing about English, in and of itself, that predisposes you to climate change denial. Words and phrases like “doubt,” “natural causes,” “climate models,” and other sceptic mots are readily available in other languages. So what’s the real cause?

One possible answer is that it’s all about the political ideologies prevalent in these four countries.

The US climate change counter movement is comprised of 91 separate organizations, with annual funding, collectively, of “just over $900 million.” And they all speak English.

“I do not find these results surprising,” says Riley Dunlap, a sociologist at Oklahoma State University who has extensively studied the climate denial movement. “It’s the countries where neo-liberalism is most hegemonic and with strong neo-liberal regimes (both in power and lurking on the sidelines to retake power) that have bred the most active denial campaigns—US, UK, Australia and now Canada. And the messages employed by these campaigns filter via the media and political elites to the public, especially the ideologically receptive portions.” (Neoliberalism is an economic philosophy centered on the importance of free markets and broadly opposed to big government interventions.)

Indeed, the English language media in three of these four countries are linked together by a single individual: Rupert Murdoch. An apparent climate sceptic or lukewarmer, Murdoch is the chairman of News Corp and 21st Century Fox. (You can watch him express his climate views here.) Some of the media outlets subsumed by the two conglomerates that he heads are responsible for quite a lot of English language climate scepticism and denial.

In the US, Fox News and the Wall Street Journal lead the way; research shows that Fox watching increases distrust of climate scientists. (You can also catch Fox News in Canada.) In Australia, a recent study found that slightly under a third of climate-related articles in 10 top Australian newspapers “did not accept” the scientific consensus on climate change, and that News Corp papers — the Australian, the Herald Sun, and the Daily Telegraph — were particular hotbeds of scepticism. “TheAustralian represents climate science as matter of opinion or debate rather than as a field for inquiry and investigation like all scientific fields,” noted the study.

And then there’s the UK. A 2010 academic study found that while News Corp outlets in this country from 1997 to 2007 did not produce as much strident climate scepticism as did their counterparts in the US and Australia, “the Sun newspaper offered a place for scornful sceptics on its opinion pages as did The Times and Sunday Times to a lesser extent.” (There are also other outlets in the UK, such as the Daily Mail, that feature plenty of scepticism but aren’t owned by News Corp.)

Thus, while there may not be anything inherent to the English language that impels climate denial, the fact that English language media are such a major source of that denial may in effect create a language barrier.

And media aren’t the only reason that denialist arguments are more readily available in the English language. There’s also the Anglophone nations’ concentration of climate “sceptic” think tanks, which provide the arguments and rationalisations necessary to feed this anti-science position.

According to a study in the journal Climatic Change earlier this year, the US is home to 91 different organisations (think tanks, advocacy groups, and trade associations) that collectively comprise a “climate change counter-movement.” The annual funding of these organisations, collectively, is “just over $900 million.” That is a truly massive amount of English-speaking climate “sceptic” activity, and while the study was limited to the US, it is hard to imagine that anything comparable exists in non-English speaking countries.

Read the entire article here.

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Your Tax Dollars At Work — Leetspeak

US-FBI-ShadedSealIt’s fascinating to see what our government agencies are doing with some of our hard earned tax dollars.

In this head-scratching example, the FBI — the FBI’s Intelligence Research Support Unit, no less — has just completed a 83-page glossary of Internet slang or “leetspeak”. LOL and Ugh! (the latter is not an acronym).

Check out the document via Muckrock here — they obtained the “secret” document through the Freedom of Information Act.

From the Washington Post:

The Internet is full of strange and bewildering neologisms, which anyone but a text-addled teen would struggle to understand. So the fine, taxpayer-funded people of the FBI — apparently not content to trawl Urban Dictionary, like the rest of us — compiled a glossary of Internet slang.

An 83-page glossary. Containing nearly 3,000 terms.

The glossary was recently made public through a Freedom of Information request by the group MuckRock, which posted the PDF, called “Twitter shorthand,” online. Despite its name, this isn’t just Twitter slang: As the FBI’s Intelligence Research Support Unit explains in the introduction, it’s a primer on shorthand used across the Internet, including in “instant messages, Facebook and Myspace.” As if that Myspace reference wasn’t proof enough that the FBI’s a tad out of touch, the IRSU then promises the list will prove useful both professionally and “for keeping up with your children and/or grandchildren.” (Your tax dollars at work!)

All of these minor gaffes could be forgiven, however, if the glossary itself was actually good. Obviously, FBI operatives and researchers need to understand Internet slang — the Internet is, increasingly, where crime goes down these days. But then we get things like ALOTBSOL (“always look on the bright side of life”) and AMOG (“alpha male of group”) … within the first 10 entries.

ALOTBSOL has, for the record, been tweeted fewer than 500 times in the entire eight-year history of Twitter. AMOG has been tweeted far more often, but usually in Spanish … as a misspelling, it would appear, of “amor” and “amigo.”

Among the other head-scratching terms the FBI considers can’t-miss Internet slang:

  1. AYFKMWTS (“are you f—— kidding me with this s—?”) — 990 tweets
  2. BFFLTDDUP (“best friends for life until death do us part) — 414 tweets
  3. BOGSAT (“bunch of guys sitting around talking”) — 144 tweets
  4. BTDTGTTSAWIO (“been there, done that, got the T-shirt and wore it out”) — 47 tweets
  5. BTWITIAILWY (“by the way, I think I am in love with you”) — 535 tweets
  6. DILLIGAD (“does it look like I give a damn?”) — 289 tweets
  7. DITYID (“did I tell you I’m depressed?”) — 69 tweets
  8. E2EG (“ear-to-ear grin”) — 125 tweets
  9. GIWIST (“gee, I wish I said that”) — 56 tweets
  10. HCDAJFU (“he could do a job for us”) — 25 tweets
  11. IAWTCSM (“I agree with this comment so much”) — 20 tweets
  12. IITYWIMWYBMAD (“if I tell you what it means will you buy me a drink?”) — 250 tweets
  13. LLTA (“lots and lots of thunderous applause”) — 855 tweets
  14. NIFOC (“naked in front of computer”) — 1,065 tweets, most of them referring to acronym guides like this one.
  15. PMYMHMMFSWGAD (“pardon me, you must have mistaken me for someone who gives a damn”) — 128 tweets
  16. SOMSW (“someone over my shoulder watching) — 170 tweets
  17. WAPCE (“women are pure concentrated evil”) — 233 tweets, few relating to women
  18. YKWRGMG (“you know what really grinds my gears?”) — 1,204 tweets

In all fairness to the FBI, they do get some things right: “crunk” is helpfully defined as “crazy and drunk,” FF is “a recommendation to follow someone referenced in the tweet,” and a whole range of online patois is translated to its proper English equivalent: hafta is “have to,” ima is “I’m going to,” kewt is “cute.”

Read the entire article here.

Image: FBI Seal. Courtesy of U.S. Government.

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Literally? Literally!

In everyday conversation the word “literally” is now as overused as the word “like” or the pause “um”. But, it’s also thoroughly abused (figuratively) and misused (literally). Unfortunately for pedants and linguistic purists, the word has become an intensifier of sorts. So, while you’ll still have to resort to cringing and correcting — if you are that inclined — your conversational partners next time they exclaim “… he was literally dying from laughter”, you have help online. A new web browser extension scans the page you’re on and replaces the word “literally” with “figuratively”. Now that’s really mind-blowing, literally.

From Slate:

If you’re a cool-headed, fair-minded, forward-thinking descriptivist like my colleague David Haglund, it doesn’t bother you one bit that people often use the word “literally” when describing things figuratively.

If, on the other hand, you’re a cranky language bully like me, it figuratively bugs the crap out of you every time.

We pedants are waging a losing battle, of course. Even major dictionaries now recognize the use of “literally” as an intensifier for statements that are not literally true.

Fortunately, Yahoo Tech‘s Alyssa Bereznak has run across a simple remedy for this galling inversion of the term’s original meaning. Built by a programmer named Mike Walker, it’s an extension for Google’s Chrome browser that replaces the word “literally” with “figuratively” on sites and articles across the Web, with deeply gratifying results.

It doesn’t work in every instance—tweets, for example, are immune to the extension’s magic, as are illustrations. But it works widely enough to put you in metaphorical stitches when you see some of the results. For instance, a quick Google News search for “literally” turns up the following headlines, modified by the browser extension to a state of unintentional accuracy:

  • The 2014 MTV Movie Awards Were Figuratively on Fire
  • 10 Things You Figuratively Do Not Have Time For
  • Momentum Is Figuratively the Next Starting Pitcher for LSU

Be warned, though: Walker’s widget does not distinguish between the literal and figurative uses of “literally.” So if you install it, you’ll also start seeing the word “figuratively” to describe things that are literally true, as in, “White Sox Rookie Abreu Figuratively Destroys a Baseball.” (The baseball was in fact destroyed.)

But hey, that’s no worse than the current state of affairs. Come to think of it, by the anti-prescriptivists’ logic, there’s nothing wrong with using “figuratively” to mean “literally,” as long as enough people do it. Anything can mean anything, literally—I mean figuratively!

If you’re signed into the Chrome browser, you can install the extension here. For those who want a browser extension that zaps hyperbole more broadly, try Alison Dianotto’s Downworthy tool, which performs similar operations on phrases like “will blow your mind” and “you won’t believe.”

Read the entire article here.

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MondayMap: The Bear Necessities

A linguistic map of Europe shows how the word “bear” is both similar and different across the continent.

bear-etymology-map-in-europe-2000-1635

From the Washington Post:

The Cold War taught us to think of Europe in terms of East-versus-West, but this map shows that it’s more complicated than that. Most Europeans speak Romance languages (orange countries), Germanic (pink) or Slavic (green), though there are some interesting exceptions.

Map courtesy of the Washington Post.

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Are You An H-less Socialist?

If you’re British and you drop your Hs while speaking then your likely to be considered of inferior breeding stock by the snootier classes. Or as the Times newspaper put it at the onset of the 20th century, you would be considered  an “h-less socialist”. Of course, a mere fifty years earlier it was generally acceptable to drop aitches, so you would have been correct in pronouncing “hotel” as “otel” or “horse” as “orse”. And, farther back still, in Ancient Rome adding Hs would have earned the scorn of the ruling classes for appearing too Greek. So, who’s right?

If you’re wondering how this all came about and who if anybody is right, check out the new book Alphabetical: How Every Letter Tells A Story by Michael Rosen.

From the Guardian:

The alphabet is something not to be argued with: there are 26 letters in as fixed a sequence as the numbers 1-26; once learned in order and for the “sounds they make”, you have the key to reading and the key to the way the world is classified. Or perhaps not.

Actually, in the course of writing my book about the history of the letters we use, Alphabetical, I discovered that the alphabet is far from neutral. Debates about power and class surround every letter, and H is the most contentious of all. No other letter has had such power to divide people into opposing camps.

In Britain, H owes its name to the Normans, who brought their letter “hache” with them in 1066. Hache is the source of our word “hatchet”: probably because a lower-case H looks a lot like an axe. It has certainly caused a lot of trouble over the years. A century ago people dropping their h’s were described in the Times as “h-less socialists.” In ancient Rome, they were snooty not about people who dropped their Hs but about those who picked up extra ones. Catullus wrote a nasty little poem about Arrius (H’arrius he called him), who littered his sentences with Hs because he wanted to sound more Greek. Almost two thousand years later we are still split, and pronouncing H two ways: “aitch”, which is posh and “right”; and “haitch”, which is not posh and thus “wrong”. The two variants used to mark the religious divide in Northern Ireland – aitch was Protestant, haitch was Catholic, and getting it wrong could be a dangerous business.

Perhaps the letter H was doomed from the start: given that the sound we associate with H is so slight (a little outbreath), there has been debate since at least AD 500 whether it was a true letter or not. In England, the most up-to-date research suggests that some 13th-century dialects were h-dropping, but by the time elocution experts came along in the 18th century, they were pointing out what a crime it is. And then received wisdom shifted, again: by 1858, if I wanted to speak correctly, I should have said “erb”, “ospital” and “umble”.

The world is full of people laying down the law about the “correct” choice: is it “a hotel” or “an otel”; is it “a historian” or “an historian”? But there is no single correct version. You choose. We have no academy to rule on these matters and, even if we did, it would have only marginal effect. When people object to the way others speak, it rarely has any linguistic logic. It is nearly always because of the way that a particular linguistic feature is seen as belonging to a cluster of disliked social features. Writing this book has been a fascinating journey: the story of our alphabet turns out to be a complex tug of war between the people who want to own our language and the people who use it. I know which side I’m on.

Read the (h)entire (h)article ‘ere.

Image: Alphabetical book cover. Courtesy of Michael Rosen.

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Linguistic Vectors

Our friends at Google have transformed the challenge of language translation from one of linguistics to mathematics.

By mapping parts of the linguistic structure of one language in the form of vectors in a mathematical space and comparing those to the structure of a few similar words in another they have condensed the effort to equations. Their early results of an English to Spanish translation seem very promising. (Now, if they could only address human conflict, aging and death.)

Visit arXiv for a pre-print of their research.

From Technology Review:

Computer science is changing the nature of the translation of words and sentences from one language to another. Anybody who has tried BabelFish or Google Translate will know that they provide useful translation services but ones that are far from perfect.

The basic idea is to compare a corpus of words in one language with the same corpus of words translated into another. Words and phrases that share similar statistical properties are considered equivalent.

The problem, of course, is that the initial translations rely on dictionaries that have to be compiled by human experts and this takes significant time and effort.

Now Tomas Mikolov and a couple of pals at Google in Mountain View have developed a technique that automatically generates dictionaries and phrase tables that convert one language into another.

The new technique does not rely on versions of the same document in different languages. Instead, it uses data mining techniques to model the structure of a single language and then compares this to the structure of another language.

“This method makes little assumption about the languages, so it can be used to extend and re?ne dictionaries and translation tables for any language pairs,” they say.

The new approach is relatively straightforward. It relies on the notion that every language must describe a similar set of ideas, so the words that do this must also be similar. For example, most languages will have words for common animals such as cat, dog, cow and so on. And these words are probably used in the same way in sentences such as “a cat is an animal that is smaller than a dog.”

The same is true of numbers. The image above shows the vector representations of the numbers one to five in English and Spanish and demonstrates how similar they are.

This is an important clue. The new trick is to represent an entire language using the relationship between its words. The set of all the relationships, the so-called “language space”, can be thought of as a set of vectors that each point from one word to another. And in recent years, linguists have discovered that it is possible to handle these vectors mathematically. For example, the operation ‘king’ – ‘man’ + ‘woman’ results in a vector that is similar to ‘queen’.

It turns out that different languages share many similarities in this vector space. That means the process of converting one language into another is equivalent to finding the transformation that converts one vector space into the other.

This turns the problem of translation from one of linguistics into one of mathematics. So the problem for the Google team is to find a way of accurately mapping one vector space onto the other. For this they use a small bilingual dictionary compiled by human experts–comparing same corpus of words in two different languages gives them a ready-made linear transformation that does the trick.

Having identified this mapping, it is then a simple matter to apply it to the bigger language spaces. Mikolov and co say it works remarkably well. “Despite its simplicity, our method is surprisingly effective: we can achieve almost 90% precision@5 for translation of words between English and Spanish,” they say.

The method can be used to extend and refine existing dictionaries, and even to spot mistakes in them. Indeed, the Google team do exactly that with an English-Czech dictionary, finding numerous mistakes.

Finally, the team point out that since the technique makes few assumptions about the languages themselves, it can be used on argots that are entirely unrelated. So while Spanish and English have a common Indo-European history, Mikolov and co show that the new technique also works just as well for pairs of languages that are less closely related, such as English and Vietnamese.

Read the entire article here.

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Of Shoons, Shakes and Slumgullions

One of the keys to the success of the English language is its flexibility — over time it has proven rather adept at borrowing and stealing from other languages. Of course, as the language adapts and evolves it sheds lesser used words and phrases. For writers this is a double-edged sword — new words enable an author to delve into the contemporary lexicon, but some beautiful old words fall out of favor and daily use.

From the New York Times:

A “slumgullion” is a stew of leftovers, and while the dish has been described as “watery,” the word itself is delectably unusual and juicily descriptive. Alas, you won’t find many people cooking up anything with that name these days, so we’re denied the pleasure of rolling the lovely sounds of slumgullion — let alone its more questionable flavors — on the tongue.

A certain kind of novelist — my kind — looks for opportunities to use such interesting bits of English, and one way to do that is to set a novel in the past. My predilection for stories of squalor and glitter, hysteria and moral complexity, led me most recently to 19th-century New York, which offers interesting parallels to the present-day city, and a dragon’s pile of linguistic loot. It’s an era recent enough that its speech is still comprehensible, but it’s sufficiently long ago to offer up lost words and expressions that reinvigorate language and make the past come alive.

The problem for a writer who has seized upon a story set in the past is how to create a narrative voice that conjures the atmosphere of its historical times, without alienating contemporary readers. It’s a complicated sort of ventriloquism. The worst perils and most intense attractions lie in dictionaries.

The Oxford English Dictionary, for example, guardian of the mother tongue, regularly offers up such treasures as “I’ll misguggle your thrapple! I’ll mashackerel ye to rights!” This dazzling way of saying, “I’ll choke you,” was written by the Scottish playwright James Bridie, in his 1930 play “The Anatomist,” using language first documented a hundred years earlier.

My favorite of all dictionaries is “The Secret Language of Crime” a mother lode of forgotten words. This little volume was published in 1859 by the New York City police chief, George W. Matsell. Mr. Matsell was also the editor of a newspaper, The Police Gazette, which fed New Yorkers a steady diet of murder, rape, abduction and thievery.

He kept notes on the slang of thugs and criminals, and wrote up a guide, so his cops and reporters would know what the bad guys were talking about when they went on like this: “He told Jack as how Bill had flimped a yack, and pinched a swell of a spark-fawney.” In other words, “He told Jack that Bill had hustled a person, and obtained a watch, and also robbed a well-dressed gentleman of a diamond ring.”

According to Mr. Matsell, a “shickster” was a woman. “A shake” was a prostitute. A “shoon” was a lout. And that’s just three words in the “sh” section. His “vocabulum” or “Rogue’s Lexicon” is a mash-up of all the languages that have made American English the vibrant and evolving idiom we know, with words derivative of Irish, Italian, Yiddish, Spanish, German. “Shickster,” for example, is probably how Chief Matsell heard “shiksa,” the Yiddish word for a non-Jewish woman. A “fen” he defines as “a common woman” but in Ireland, a “fen” is a boggy marsh — which gives us a good idea of how an insult seeds itself and germinates on new soil.

But woe to the novelist who succumbs entirely to such specialized vernacular, whether it be a “rogue’s lexicon,” modern street slang or regional dialect. There’s no faster way to alienate a reader than to write, as Matsell did in his lexicon: “Jack speeled to the crib, when he found Johnny Doyle had been pulling down sawney for grub.” (Translation: “Jack fled home and saw that Johnny had stolen some bacon to eat.”) That’s far too much “vocabulum” to wade through, and readers have little patience for such thickets of gobbledygook. Novels overburdened in this way make good projectiles for heaving at the wall.

The best writers — from Charles Frazier in “Cold Mountain” to Junot Diaz in “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” — deploy foreign or arcane words sparingly, to give a realistic flavor of an era or a culture, but they also channel the atmosphere of time and place through the rhythms of speech.

“I am an old gimper,” says Knucks, a character in “The Waterworks,” E.L. Doctorow’s novel of New York in the 1870’s. “I must live by wits alone… and the wits tell me a man mustn’t show himself too inquirous about such dark matters.”

Reading this bit of dialogue, we know we’re not in the present. The word “gimper” is not in common use, but needs no translation. The syntax, too — “a man mustn’t show himself too inquirous” — is stiffer and more formal than a contemporary speaker’s. Certainly Doctorow’s characters talk in a manner true to their times, but his own narrative voice hews to a more contemporary English, and his work never crosses the line into overkill.

For novelists to get a realistic feel for “what it was like” in the past, reading original texts of the period is invaluable. Old newspapers, for example, full of advertisements for medicines like “liver invigorator,” or devices like the “toilet mask,” and headlines screaming about the crimes of a certain “Hag of Misery,” or “The Ghoul of Chatham Street,” help color the imagination with a sense of how the world looked and sounded, what people dreamed of and feared, how they went about their lives while wearing cage crinolines, deerstalker hats and whalebone corsets, before they were turned all sepia-tinted by time.

By perusing period novels, magazines, advice books, letters, medical texts and sermons, contemporary novelists can conjure up a fresh narrative voice not only out of the vocabulary of bygone days, but from the rhythms of speech, the values of an era. A 19th-century “swell” is not going to speak the “secret language of crime,” but will have his own “vocabulum,” one that will reflect a worldview. For example, the Rev. Charles Loring Brace, who founded the Children’s Aid Society in 1853, referred to homeless children as a “happy race of little heathens,” or “flibbertigibbets,” which reflected the 19th-century belief that such children were lighthearted and “merry.”

Read the entire article here.

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Dolphins Use Names

From Wired:

For decades, scientists have been fascinated by dolphins’ so-called signature whistles: distinctive vocal patterns learned early and used throughout life. The purpose of these whistles is a matter of debate, but new research shows that dolphins respond selectively to recorded versions of their personal signatures, much as a person might react to someone calling their name.

Combined with earlier findings, the results “present the first case of naming in mammals, providing a clear parallel between dolphin and human communication,” said biologist Stephanie King of Scotland’s University of St. Andrews, an author of the new study.

Earlier research by Janik and King showed that bottlenose dolphins call each other’s signature whistles while temporarily restrained in nets, but questions had remained over how dolphins used them at sea, in their everyday lives. King’s new experiment, conducted with fellow St. Andrews biologist Vincent Janik and described July 22 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, involved wild bottlenose groups off Scotland’s eastern coast.

Janik and King recorded their signature whistles, then broadcast computer-synthesized versions through a hydrophone. They also played back recordings of unfamiliar signature whistles. The dolphins ignored signatures belonging to other individuals in their groups, as well as unfamiliar whistles.

To their own signatures, however, they usually whistled back, suggesting that dolphins may use the signatures to address one another.

The new findings are “clearly a landmark,” said biologist Shane Gero of Dalhousie University, whose own research suggests that sperm whales have names. “I think this study puts to bed the argument of whether signature whistles are truly signatures.”

Gero is especially interested in the different ways that dolphins responded to hearing their signature called. Sometimes they simply repeated their signature — a bit, perhaps, like hearing your name called and shouting back, “Yes, I’m here!” Some dolphins, however, followed their signatures with a long string of other whistles.

“It opens the door to syntax, to how and when it’s ‘appropriate’ to address one another,” said Gero, who wonders if the different response types might be related to social roles or status. Referring to each other by name suggests that dolphins may recall past experiences with other individual dolphins, Gero said.

“The concept of ‘relationship’ as we know it may be more relevant than just a sequence of independent selfish interactions,” said Gero. “We likely underestimate the complexity of their communication system, cognitive abilities, and the depth of meaning in their actions.”

King and Janik have also observed that dolphins often make their signature whistles when groups encounter one another, as if to announce exactly who is present.

To Peter Tyack, a Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution biologist who has previously studied dolphin signature whistle-copying, the new findings support the possiblity of dolphin names, but more experiments would help illuminate the meanings they attach to their signatures.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Bottlenose dolphin with young. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

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Stale Acronym Soup

If you have ever typed (sorry, tweeted) the acronyms LOL or YOLO then you are guilty as charged of  language pollution. The most irritating thumbspeak below.

From the Guardian:

Thanks to the on-the-hoof style of chat-rooms and the curtailed nature of the text message and tweet, online abbreviations are now an established part of written English. The question of which is the most irritating, however, is a matter of scholarly debate. Here, by way of opening the discussion, are 10 contenders.

Linguists like to make a distinction between the denotative function of a sign – what it literally means – and the connotative, which is (roughly) what it tells you by implication. The denotative meanings of these abbreviations vary over a wide range. But pretty much all of them connote one thing, which is: “I am a douchebag.”

1) LOL

This is the daddy of them all. In the last decade it has effortlessly overtaken “The cheque’s in the post” and “I love you” as the most-often-told lie in human history. Out loud? Really? And, to complicate things, people are now saying LOL out loud, which is especially banjaxing since you can’t simultaneously say “LOL” and laugh aloud unless you can laugh through your arse. Or say “LOL” through your arse, I suppose, which makes a sort of pun because, linguistically speaking, LOL is now a form of phatic communication. See what I did there? Mega-LOL!

2) YOLO

You Only Live Once. But not for very much longer if you use this abbreviation anywhere near me when I’m holding a claw-hammer. This, as the distinguished internet scholar Matt Muir puts it, is “carpe diem for people with an IQ in double figures”. A friend of mine reports her children using this out loud. This has to end.

3) TBH

To Be Honest. We expect you to be honest, not to make some weary three-fingered gesture of reluctance at having to pony up an uncomfortable truth for an audience who probably can’t really take it. It’s out of the same drawer as “frankly” and “with respect”, and it should be returned to that drawer forthwith.

4) IMHO

In My Humble Opinion. The H in this acronym is always redundant, and the M is usually redundant too: it’s generally an opinion taken off-the-peg from people you follow on Twitter and by whom you hope to be retweeted.

5) JFGI

Just Fucking Google It. Well, charming. Glad I came to you for help. A wittier and more passive-aggressive version of this rude put-down is the website www.lmgtfy.com, which allows you to send your interlocutor a custom-made link saying “Let Me Google That For You” and doing so. My friend Stefan Magdalinski once sent me there, and I can say from first-hand experience that he’s a complete asshole.

6) tl;dr

It stands for “too long; didn’t read”. This abbreviation’s only redeeming feature is that it contains that murmuring under-butler of punctuation marks, the semicolon. On the other hand, it announces that the user is taking time out of his or her life to tell the world not that he disagrees with something, but that he’s ignorant of it. In your face, people who know stuff! In an ideal world there would be a one-character riposte that would convey that you’d stopped reading halfway through your interlocutor’s tedious five-character put-down.

Read the entire article here.

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