EssentialstheDiagonal is a personal blog by Mike Gerra, skeptic, technologist, psychologist, artist, humanist, collector of grand, eclectic ideas.theDiagonal blog connects the dots across multiple disciplines for inquisitive, objective and critical thinkers, exploring the vertices of big science, disruptive innovation, global sustainability, illuminating literature and leftfield art. It is on this diagonal that creativity thrives, big ideas take flight and reason triumphs.
Tag Archives: language
Tuesday, June 18, 2013
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...read more
Tuesday, May 28, 2013
An interesting story on the adoption of pop culture words into our common lexicon. Beware! The next blockbuster sci-fi movie that you see may influence your next choice of noun.
From the Guardian:
Water cooler conversation at a dictionary company tends towards the odd. A while ago I was chatting with one of my colleagues about our respective defining batches. “I’m not sure,” he said, “what to do about the plural of ‘hobbit’. There are some citations for ‘hobbitses’, but I think they may be facetious uses. Have any thoughts?”
I did: “We enter ‘hobbit’ into the dictionary?” You learn something new every day....read more
Saturday, May 25, 2013
If you are an English speaker and are over the age of 39 you may be pondering the fate of the English language. As the younger generations fill cyberspace with terabytes of misspelled texts and tweets do you not wonder if gorgeous grammatical language will survive? Are the technophobes and anti-Twitterites doomed to a future world of #hashtag-driven conversation and ADHD-like literature? Those of us who care are reminded of George Orwell’s 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language”, in which he decried the swelling ugliness of the language at the time.
Orwell opens his essay thus,...read more
Wednesday, May 15, 2013
Linguists have traditionally held that words in a language have an average lifespan of around 8,000 years. Words change and are often discarded or replaced over time as the language evolves and co-opts other words from other tongues. English has been particularly adept at collecting many new words from different languages, which partly explains its global popularity.
Recently however, linguists have found that a small group of words have a lifespan that far exceeds the usual understanding. These 15,000-20,000 year old ultra-conserved words may be the linguistic precursors to common cognates — words with similar sound and meaning — that now span many different language families containing hundreds of languages.
From the Washington Post:
You, hear me! Give this fire to that old man. Pull the black worm off the bark and give it to the mother. And no spitting in the ashes!...read more
Saturday, April 27, 2013
We believe that corporate-speak is a dangerous starting point that may eventually lead us to Orwellian doublethink. After all what could possibly be the purpose of using the words “going forward” in place of “in the future”, if not to convince employees to believe the past never happened. Some of our favorite management buzzwords and euphemisms below.
From the Guardian:
Among the most spirit-sapping indignities of office life is the relentless battering of workers’ ears by the strangled vocabulary of management-speak. It might even seem to some innocent souls as though all you need to do to acquire a high-level job is to learn its stultifying jargon. Bureaucratese is a maddeningly viral kind of Unspeak engineered to deflect blame, complicate simple ideas, obscure problems, and perpetuate power relations. Here are some of its most dismaying manifestations....read more
Monday, April 22, 2013
Some words give us the creeps, they raise the hair on back of our heads, they make us squirm and give us an internal shudder. “Moist” is such as word.
The George Saunders story “Escape From Spiderhead,” included in his much praised new book Tenth of December, is not for the squeamish or the faint of heart. The sprawling, futuristic tale delves into several potentially unnerving topics: suicide, sex, psychotropic drugs. It includes graphic scenes of self-mutilation. It employs the phrases “butt-squirm,” “placental blood,” and “thrusting penis.” At one point, Saunders relates a conversation between two characters about the application of medicinal cream to raw, chafed genitals.
Sunday, March 17, 2013
No, we don’t mean war on apostasy, for which many have been hung, drawn, quartered, burned and beheaded. And no, “apostrophes” are not a new sect of fundamentalist terrorists.
Apostrophes are punctuation, and a local city council in Britain has deemed to outlaw them. Why?
From the Guardian:
The sometimes vexing question of where and when to add an apostrophe appears to have been solved in one corner of Devon: the local authority is planning to do away with them altogether.
Later this month members of Mid Devon district council’s cabinet will discuss formally banning the pesky little punctuation marks from its (no apostrophe needed) street signs, apparently to avoid “confusion”.
The news of the Tory-controlled council’s (apostrophe required) decision provoked howls of condemnation on Friday from champions of plain English, fans of grammar, and politicians. Even the government felt the need to join the campaign to save the apostrophe....read more
Saturday, March 9, 2013
“England and America are two countries separated by the same language”. This oft used quote is usually attributed to Oscar Wilde or GBS (George Bernard Shaw). Regardless of who originated the phrase both authors would not be surprised to see that book covers are divided by the Atlantic Ocean as well. The Millions continues its fascinating annual comparative analysis.
American book covers on the left, British book covers on the right.
From The Millions:
Wednesday, March 6, 2013
OMG! DYK wot Ur Teen is txtng?
Most parents of teenagers would undoubtedly side with the first characterization: texting is a disaster for the English language — and any other texted language for that matter. At first glance it would seem that most linguists and scholars of language would agree. After all, with seemingly non-existent grammar, poor syntax, complete disregard for spelling, substitution of symbols for words, and emphasis on childish phonetics, how can texting be considered anything more than a regression to a crude form of proto-human language?
Well, linguist John McWhorter holds that texting is actually a new form of speech, and for that matter, it’s rather special and evolving in real-time. LOL? Read on and you will be (surprised). Oh, and if you still need help with texting translation, check-out dtxtr.
From ars technica:
Friday, February 1, 2013
Yes, it’s official. There really is a subset of the Queen’s English for the contemporary art scene — dubbed International Art English (IAE). If you’ve visited a gallery over the last couple of decades you may be familiar with this type language on press releases and wall tags. It uses multisyllabic words in breathless, flowery, billowy sentences; high-brow phraseology replete with pretentious insider nods and winks; it’s often enthusiastically festooned with adverbs and esoteric adjectives, in apparently random but clear juxtaposition. So, it’s rather like the preceding sentence. Will IAE become as pervasive as International Sport English – you know, that subset of language increasingly spoken, in the same accent, by international sports celebrities? Time will tell.
From the Guardian:
Wednesday, October 10, 2012
Following decades of one-way cultural osmosis — from the United States to the UK, it seems that the trend may be reversing. Well, at least in the linguistic department. Although it may be a while before “blimey” enters the American lexicon, other words and phrases such as “spot on”, “chat up”, “ginger” to describe hair color, “gormless”
From the BBC:
There is little that irks British defenders of the English language more than Americanisms, which they see creeping insidiously into newspaper columns and everyday conversation. But bit by bit British English is invading America too.
“Spot on – it’s just ludicrous!” snaps Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist at the University of California at Berkeley.
“You are just impersonating an Englishman when you say spot on.”
“Will do – I hear that from Americans. That should be put into quarantine,” he adds....read more
Saturday, September 8, 2012
Sunday, August 12, 2012
Helen Sword cuts through (pun intended) the corporate-speak that continues to encroach upon our literature, particularly in business and academia, with a plea to kill our “zombie nouns”. Her latest book is “Stylish Academic Writing”.
From the New York Times:
Take an adjective (implacable) or a verb (calibrate) or even another noun (crony) and add a suffix like ity, tion or ism. You’ve created a new noun: implacability, calibration, cronyism. Sounds impressive, right?
Nouns formed from other parts of speech are called nominalizations. Academics love them; so do lawyers, bureaucrats and business writers. I call them “zombie nouns” because they cannibalize active verbs, suck the lifeblood from adjectives and substitute abstract entities for human beings:
The proliferation of nominalizations in a discursive formation may be an indication of a tendency toward pomposity and abstraction....read more
Tuesday, June 5, 2012
FOMO is an increasing “problem” for college students and other young adults. Interestingly, and somewhat ironically, FOMO seems to be a more chronic issue in a culture mediated by online social networks. So, what is FOMO? And do you have it?
From the Washington Post:
Over the past academic year, there has been an explosion of new or renewed campus activities, pop culture phenomena, tech trends, generational shifts, and social movements started by or significantly impacting students. Most can be summed up in a single word.
As someone who monitors student life and student media daily, I’ve noticed a small number of words appearing more frequently, prominently or controversially during the past two semesters on campuses nationwide. Some were brand-new. Others were redefined or reached a tipping point of interest or popularity. And still others showed a remarkable staying power, carrying over from semesters and years past....read more
Sunday, April 29, 2012
Author Lewis Lapham reminds us of the phrase made (in)famous by Emperor Charles V:
“I speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men, and German to my horse.”
So, what of the language of the internet? Again, Lapham offers a fitting and damning summary, this time courtesy of a lesser mortal, critic George Steiner:
“The true catastrophe of Babel is not the scattering of tongues. It is the reduction of human speech to a handful of planetary, ‘multinational’ tongues…Anglo-American standardized vocabularies” and grammar shaped by “military technocratic megalomania” and “the imperatives of commercial greed.”
More from the keyboard of Lewis Lapham on how the communicative promise of the internet is being usurped by commerce and the “lowest common denominator”.
Saturday, April 28, 2012
Peter Ludlow, professor of philosophy at Northwestern University, has authored a number of fascinating articles on the philosophy of language and linguistics. Here he discusses his view of language as a dynamic, living organism. Literalists take note.
From the New York Times:
Saturday, March 31, 2012
You may not “adam and eve it”, but it seems that fewer and fewer Londoners now take to their “jam jars” for a drive down the “frog and toad” to their neighborhood “rub a dub dub”.
From the Daily Telegraph:
The slang is dying out amid London’s diverse, multi-cultural society, new research has revealed.
A study of 2,000 adults, including half from the capital, found the world famous East End lingo which has been mimicked and mocked for decades is on the wane.
The survey, commissioned by The Museum of London, revealed almost 80 per cent of Londoners do not understand phrases such as ‘donkey’s ears’ – slang for years.
Other examples of rhyming slang which baffled participants included ‘mother hubbard’, which means cupboard, and ‘bacon and eggs’ which means legs.
Significantly, Londoners’ own knowledge of the jargon is now almost as bad as those who live outside of the capital.
Saturday, March 17, 2012
The last couple of decades has shown a remarkable improvement in the ability of software to translate the written word from one language to another. Yahoo Babel Fish and Google Translate are good examples. Also, voice recognition systems, such as those you encounter every day when trying desperately to connect with a real customer service rep, have taken great leaps forward. Apple’s Siri now leads the pack.
But, what do you get if you combine translation and voice recognition technology? Well, you get a new service that translates the spoken word in your native language to a second. And, here’s the neat twist. The system translates into the second language while keeping a voice like yours. The technology springs from Microsoft’s Research division in Redmond, WA.
From Technology Review:
Monday, March 5, 2012
In the early 19th century Noah Webster set about re-defining written English. His aim was to standardize the spoken word in the fledgling nation and to distinguish American from British usage. In his own words, “as an independent nation, our honor requires us to have a system of our own, in language as well as government.”
He used his dictionary, which still bears his name today, as a tool to cleanse English of its stubborn reliance on aristocratic pedantry and over-reliance on Latin and Greek. He “simplified” the spelling of numerous words that he believed were contsructed with rules that were all too complicated. Thus, “colour” became “color” and “honour” switched to “honor”; “centre” became “center”, “behaviour” to “behavior”, “traveller” to “traveler”....read more
Wednesday, September 14, 2011
In his book, “The Secret Life of Pronouns”, professor of psychology James Pennebaker describes how our use of words like “I”, “we”, “he”, “she” and “who” reveals a wealth of detail about ourselves including, and very surprisingly, our health and social status.
Excerpts from James Pennebaker’s interview with Scientific American:
In the 1980s, my students and I discovered that if people were asked to write about emotional upheavals, their physical health improved. Apparently, putting emotional experiences into language changed the ways people thought about their upheavals. In an attempt to better understand the power of writing, we developed a computerized text analysis program to determine how language use might predict later health improvements....read more
Tuesday, September 13, 2011
As any Italian speaker would attest, the moon, of course is utterly feminine. It is “la luna”. Now, to a German it is “der mond”, and very masculine.
Numerous languages assign a grammatical gender to objects, which in turn influences how people see these objects as either female or male. Yet, researchers have found that sex tends to be ascribed to objects and concepts even in gender-neutral languages. Scientific American reviews this current research.
From Scientific American:
Gender is so fundamental to the way we understand the world that people are prone to assign a sex to even inanimate objects. We all know someone, or perhaps we are that person, who consistently refers to their computer or car with a gender pronoun (“She’s been running great these past few weeks!”) New research suggests that our tendency to see gender everywhere even applies to abstract ideas such as numbers. Across cultures, people see odd numbers as male and even numbers as female....read more
Monday, September 12, 2011
Well the simple answer is, around 800 spoken languages. Or to be more precise, Papua New Guinea is home to an astounding 830 different languages. New York City comes in a close second, with around 800 spoken languages – and that’s not counting when the United Nations is in session on Manhattan’s East Side. Sadly, some of the rarer tongues spoken in New York and Papua New Guinea, and around the globe for that matter, are rapidly becoming extinct – at the rate of around one language every two weeks.
As the Economist points out a group of linguists in New York City is working to codify some of the city’s most endangered tongues.
From the Economist:
This week theDiagonal triangulates its sights on the topic of language and communication. So, we introduce an apt poem by Robert Duncan. Of Robert Duncan, Poetry Foundation writes:
Though the name Robert Duncan is not well known outside the literary world, within that world it has become associated with a number of superlatives. Kenneth Rexroth, writing in Assays, names Duncan “one of the most accomplished, one of the most influential” of the postwar American poets.
By Robert Duncan:...read more
Tuesday, September 6, 2011
Steve Jobs resigned from his position as Apple’s CEO, or chief executive officer, Wednesday. Taking his place is Tim Cook, previously the company’s COO, or chief operating officer. They also have a CFO, and, at one point or another, the company has had a CIO and CTO, too. When did we start calling corporate bosses C-this-O and C-that-O?
The 1970s. The phrase chief executive officer has been used, if at times rarely, in connection to corporate structures since at least the 19th century. (See, for instance, this 1888 book on banking law in Canada.) About 40 years ago, the phrase began gaining ground on president as the preferred title for the top director in charge of a company’s daily operations. Around the same time, the use of CEO in printed material surged and, if the Google Books database is to be believed, surpassed the long-form chief executive officer in the early 1980s. CFO has gained popularity, too, but at a much slower rate....read more
Monday, August 29, 2011
Why do some words take hold in the public consciousness and persist through generations while others fall by the wayside after one season?
Despite the fleetingness of many new slang terms, such as txtnesia (“when you forget what you texted someone last”), a visit to the Urbandictionary will undoubtedly amuse at the inventiveness of our our language., though gobsmacked and codswallop may come to mind as well.
Monday, August 15, 2011
The infographic below shows the evolution of some of the influential programming languages since the 1950s. Though, it omits some key languages such as LISP, PL/1, APL, Prolog, MUMPS, ALGOL, Smalltalk and others.
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Friday, December 28, 2007
Each nation establishes its borders, sometimes defines itself, certainly organises itself, and always affirms itself around its language, says Marc Hatzfeld. The language is then guarded by men of letters, by strict rules, not allowing for variety of expression. Against this backdrop, immigrants from ever more distant shores have arrived in France, bringing with them a different style of expression and another, more fluid, concept of language....read more