Tag Archives: linguistics

Computational Folkloristics

hca_by_thora_hallager_1869What do you get when you set AI (artificial intelligence) the task of reading through 30,000 Danish folk and fairy tales? Well, you get a host of fascinating, newly discovered insights into Scandinavian witches and trolls.

More importantly, you hammer another nail into the coffin of literary criticism and set AI on a collision course with yet another preserve of once exclusive human endeavor. It’s probably safe to assume that creative writing will fall to intelligent machines in the not too distant future (as well) — certainly human-powered investigative journalism seemed to became extinct in 2016; replaced by algorithmic aggregation, social bots and fake-mongers.

From aeon:

Where do witches come from, and what do those places have in common? While browsing a large collection of traditional Danish folktales, the folklorist Timothy Tangherlini and his colleague Peter Broadwell, both at the University of California, Los Angeles, decided to find out. Armed with a geographical index and some 30,000 stories, they developed WitchHunter, an interactive ‘geo-semantic’ map of Denmark that highlights the hotspots for witchcraft.

The system used artificial intelligence (AI) techniques to unearth a trove of surprising insights. For example, they found that evil sorcery often took place close to Catholic monasteries. This made a certain amount of sense, since Catholic sites in Denmark were tarred with diabolical associations after the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. By plotting the distance and direction of witchcraft relative to the storyteller’s location, WitchHunter also showed that enchantresses tend to be found within the local community, much closer to home than other kinds of threats. ‘Witches and robbers are human threats to the economic stability of the community,’ the researchers write. ‘Yet, while witches threaten from within, robbers are generally situated at a remove from the well-described village, often living in woods, forests, or the heath … it seems that no matter how far one goes, nor where one turns, one is in danger of encountering a witch.’

Such ‘computational folkloristics’ raise a big question: what can algorithms tell us about the stories we love to read? Any proposed answer seems to point to as many uncertainties as it resolves, especially as AI technologies grow in power. Can literature really be sliced up into computable bits of ‘information’, or is there something about the experience of reading that is irreducible? Could AI enhance literary interpretation, or will it alter the field of literary criticism beyond recognition? And could algorithms ever derive meaning from books in the way humans do, or even produce literature themselves?

Author and computational linguist Inderjeet Mani concludes his essay thus:

Computational analysis and ‘traditional’ literary interpretation need not be a winner-takes-all scenario. Digital technology has already started to blur the line between creators and critics. In a similar way, literary critics should start combining their deep expertise with ingenuity in their use of AI tools, as Broadwell and Tangherlini did with WitchHunter. Without algorithmic assistance, researchers would be hard-pressed to make such supernaturally intriguing findings, especially as the quantity and diversity of writing proliferates online.

In the future, scholars who lean on digital helpmates are likely to dominate the rest, enriching our literary culture and changing the kinds of questions that can be explored. Those who resist the temptation to unleash the capabilities of machines will have to content themselves with the pleasures afforded by smaller-scale, and fewer, discoveries. While critics and book reviewers may continue to be an essential part of public cultural life, literary theorists who do not embrace AI will be at risk of becoming an exotic species – like the librarians who once used index cards to search for information.

Read the entire tale here.

Image: Portrait of the Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen. Courtesy: Thora Hallager, 10/16 October 1869. Wikipedia. Public Domain.

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Speaking in (Alien) Tongues

Famous_fantastic_mysteries_195107

Considering that we humans cannot clearly communicate with any other living species on the planet it seems rather fanciful that we might be able to chat with an extraterrestrial intelligence.

But some linguists have a plan should we ever come across an alien civilization, or more likely should they ever choose to give Earth a visit. The idea is to develop a communication process using monolingual fieldwork.

From Scientific American:

In the upcoming sci-fi drama “Arrival,” several mysterious spacecraft touch down around the planet, and humanity is faced with how to approach—and eventually communicate—with these extraterrestrial visitors.

In the film, a team of experts is assembled to investigate, and among the chosen individuals is a linguist, played by actress Amy Adams. Though the story is rooted in science fiction, it does tackle a very real challenge: How do you communicate with someone—or how do you learn that individual’s language—when you have no intermediary language in common?

The film is based on “Story of Your Life,” a short story by Ted Chiang. It taps into the common science-fiction theme of alien tongues; not only the communication barrier they might present, but the unusual ways they could differ from human language. “There’s a long tradition of science fiction that deals with language and communication,” Chiang told Live Science in an email.

And in both the short story and film, linguists play a key role in bridging the gap between humans and aliens—something that isn’t entirely farfetched, according to Daniel Everett, a linguist at Bentley University in Massachusetts. “Linguists who’ve had extensive field experience can do this. That’s what they do,” Everett told Live Science.

Everett spent more than 30 years working with the Pirahãpeople of the Brazilian Amazon, learning and studying their language, which was poorly documented prior to his work. Pirahãis what’s called a language isolate, a linguistic orphan of sorts, and is the last surviving member of its language family. It is also well-known for some of its atypical qualities, such as a lack of counting numbers or relative directions, such as “left” and “right,” qualities which Everett worked out over years of study.

The people were similarly isolated, and were entirely monolingual, he said. So it didn’t matter that Everett didn’t know Portuguese. Rather than asking questions about the Pirahãlanguage in a shared second language, he conducted his research in a style known as monolingual fieldwork.

Pointing to a nearby object, like a stick, and asking (even in English) what it’s called is typically interpreted as a cue to name it, Everett said. From the names of things, a linguist can then work their way towards actions, and how to express relationships between objects, Everett said. All the while, linguists typically transcribe the statements, paying attention to the sounds, the grammar and the way meanings are combined, building a working theory of the language, he said.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Reprint of The War of the Worlds cover-featured on the July 1951 issue of Famous Fantastic Mysteries. Public Domain.

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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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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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DeepDrumpf the 4th-Grader

DeepDrumpf is a Twitter bot out of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL). It uses artificial intelligence (AI) to learn from the jaw-dropping rants of the current Republican frontrunner for the Presidential nomination and then tweets its own remarkably Trump-like musings.

A handful of DeepDrumpf’s recent deep-thoughts here:

DeepDrumpf-Twitter-bot

 

The bot’s designer CSAIL postdoc Bradley Hayes says DeepDrumpf uses “techniques from ‘deep-learning,’ a field of artificial intelligence that uses systems called neural networks to teach computers to to find patterns on their own. ”

I would suggest that the deep-learning algorithms, in the case of Trump’s speech patterns, did not have to be too deep. After all, linguists who have studied his words agree that it’s mostly at a  4th-grade level — coherent language is not required.

Patterns aside, I think I prefer the bot over the real thing — it’s likely to do far less damage to our country and the globe than the real thing.

 

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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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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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Deep Time, Nuclear Semiotics and Atomic Priests

un-radioactive_warning_signTime seems to unfold over different — lengthier — scales in the desert southwest of the United States. Perhaps it’s the vastness of the eerie landscape that puts fleeting human moments into the context of deep geologic time. Or, perhaps it’s our monumental human structures that aim to encode our present for the distant future. Structures like the Hoover Dam, which regulates the mighty Colorado River, and the ill-fated Yucca Mountain project, once designed to store the nation’s nuclear waste, were conceived to last many centuries.

Yet these monuments to our impermanence raise a important issue beyond their construction — how are we to communicate their intent to humans living in a distant future, humans who will no longer be using any of our existing languages? Directions and warnings in English or contextual signs and images will not suffice. Consider Yucca Mountain. Now shuttered, Yucca Mountain was designed to be a repository for nuclear byproducts and waste from military and civilian programs. Keep in mind that some products of nuclear reactors, such as various isotopes of uranium, plutonium, technetium and neptunium, remain highly radioactive for tens of thousands to millions of years. So, how would we post warnings at Yucca Mountain about the entombed dangers to generations living 10,000 years and more from now? Those behind the Yucca Mountain project considered a number of fantastic (in its original sense) programs to carry dire warnings into the distant future including hostile architecture, radioactive cats and a pseudo-religious order. This was the work of the Human Interference Task Force.

From Motherboard:

Building the Hoover Dam rerouted the most powerful river in North America. It claimed the lives of 96 workers, and the beloved site dog, Little Niggy, who is entombed by the walkway in the shade of the canyon wall. Diverting the Colorado destroyed the ecology of the region, threatening fragile native plant life and driving several species of fish nearly to extinction. The dam brought water to 8 million people and created more than 5000 jobs. It required 6.6 million metric tons of concrete, all made from the desert; enough, famously, to pave a two lane road coast to coast across the US. Inside the dam’s walls that concrete is still curing, and will be for another 60 years.

Erik, photojournalist, and I have come here to try and get the measure of this place. Nevada is the uncanny locus of disparate monuments all concerned with charting deep time, leaving messages for future generations of human beings to puzzle over the meaning of: a star map, a nuclear waste repository and a clock able to keep time for 10,000 years—all of them within a few hours drive of Las Vegas through the harsh desert.

Hoover Dam is theorized in some structural stress projections to stand for tens of thousands of years from now, and what could be its eventual undoing is mussels. The mollusks which grow in the dam’s grates will no longer be scraped away, and will multiply eventually to such density that the built up stress of the river will burst the dam’s wall. That is if the Colorado continues to flow. Otherwise erosion will take much longer to claim the structure, and possibly Oskar J.W. Hansen’s vision will be realized: future humans will find the dam 14,000 years from now, at the end of the current Platonic Year.

A Platonic Year lasts for roughly 26,000 years. It’s also known as the precession of the equinoxes, first written into the historical record in the second century BC by the Greek mathematician, Hipparchus, though there is evidence that earlier people also solved this complex equation. Earth rotates in three ways: 365 days around the sun, on its 24 hours axis and on its precessional axis. The duration of the last is the Platonic Year, where Earth is incrementally turning on a tilt pointing to its true north as the Sun’s gravity pulls on us, leaving our planet spinning like a very slow top along its orbit around the sun.

Now Earth’s true-north pole star is Polaris, in Ursa Minor, as it was at the completion of Hoover Dam. At the end of the current Platonic Year it will be Vega, in the constellation Lyra. Hansen included this information in an amazingly accurate astronomical clock, or celestial map, embedded in the terrazzo floor of the dam’s dedication monument. Hansen wanted any future humans who came across the dam to be able to know exactly when it was built.

He used the clock to mark major historical events of the last several thousand years including the birth of Christ and the building of the pyramids, events which he thought were equal to the engineering feat of men bringing water to a desert in the 1930s. He reasoned that though current languages could be dead in this future, any people who had survived that long would have advanced astronomy, math and physics in their arsenal of survival tactics. Despite this, the monument is written entirely in English, which is for the benefit of current visitors, not our descendents of millennia from now.

The Hoover Dam is staggering. It is frankly impossible, even standing right on top of it, squinting in the blinding sunlight down its vertiginous drop, to imagine how it was ever built by human beings; even as I watch old documentary footage on my laptop back in the hotel at night on Fremont Street, showing me that exact thing, I don’t believe it. I cannot square it in my mind. I cannot conceive of nearly dying every day laboring in the brutally dry 100 degree heat, in a time before air-conditioning, in a time before being able to ever get even the slightest relief from the elements.

Hansen was more than aware of our propensity to build great monuments to ourselves and felt the weight of history as he submitted his bid for the job to design the dedication monument, writing, “Mankind itself is the subject of the sculptures at Hoover Dam.” Joan Didion described it as the most existentially terrifying place in America: “Since the afternoon in 1967 when I first saw Hoover Dam, its image has never been entirely absent from my inner eye.” Thirty-two people have chosen the dam as their place of suicide. It has no fences.

The reservoir is now the lowest it has ever been and California is living through the worst drought in 1200 years. You can swim in Lake Mead, so we did, sort of. It did provide some cool respite for a moment from the unrelenting heat of the desert. We waded around only up to our ankles because it smelled pretty terrible, the shoreline dirty with garbage.

Radioactive waste from spent nuclear fuel has a shelf life of hundreds of thousands of years. Maybe even more than a million, it’s not possible to precisely predict. Nuclear power plants around the US have produced 150 million metric tons of highly active nuclear waste that sits at dozens of sites around the country, awaiting a place to where it can all be carted and buried thousands of feet underground to be quarantined for the rest of time. For now a lot of it sits not far from major cities.

Yucca Mountain, 120 miles from Hoover Dam, is not that place. The site is one of the most intensely geologically surveyed and politically controversial pieces of land on Earth. Since 1987 it has been, at the cost of billions of dollars, the highly contested resting place for the majority of America’s high-risk nuclear waste. Those plans were officially shuttered in 2012, after states sued each other, states sued the federal Government, the Government sued contractors, and the people living near Yucca Mountain didn’t want, it turned out, for thousands of tons of nuclear waste to be carted through their counties and sacred lands via rail. President Obama cancelled its funding and officially ended the project.

It was said that there was a fault line running directly under the mountain; that the salt rock was not as absorbent as it was initially thought to be and that it posed the threat of leaking radiation into the water table; that more recently the possibility of fracking in the area would beget an ecological disaster. That a 10,000 year storage solution was nowhere near long enough to inculcate the Earth from the true shelf-life of the waste, which is realistically thought to be dangerous for many times that length of time. The site is now permanently closed, visible only from a distance through a cacophony of government warning signs blockading a security checkpoint.

We ask around the community of Amargosa Valley about the mountain. Sitting on 95 it’s the closest place to the site and consists only of a gas station, which trades in a huge amount of Area 51 themed merchandise, a boldly advertised sex shop, an alien motel and a firework store where you can let off rockets in the car park. Across the road is the vacant lot of what was once an RV park, with a couple of badly busted up vehicles looted beyond recognition and a small aquamarine boat lying on its side in the dirt.

At the gas station register a woman explains that no one really liked the idea of having waste so close to their homes (she repeats the story of the fault line), but they did like the idea of jobs, hundreds of which disappeared along with the project, leaving the surrounding areas, mainly long-tapped out mining communities, even more severely depressed.

We ask what would happen if we tried to actually get to the mountain itself, on government land.

“Plenty of people do try,” she says. “They’re trying to get to Area 51. They have sensors though, they’ll come get you real quick in their truck.”

Would we get shot?

“Shot? No. But they would throw you on the ground, break all your cameras and interrogate you for a long time.”

We decide just to take the road that used to go to the mountain as far as we can to the checkpoint, where in the distance beyond the electric fences at the other end of a stretch of desert land we see buildings and cars parked and most definitely some G-men who would see us before we even had the chance to try and sneak anywhere.

Before it was shut for good, Yucca Mountain had kilometers of tunnels bored into it and dozens of experiments undertaken within it, all of it now sealed behind an enormous vault door. It was also the focus of a branch of linguistics established specifically to warn future humans of the dangers of radioactive waste: nuclear semiotics. The Human Interference Task Force—a consortium of archeologists, architects, linguists, philosophers, engineers, designers—faced the opposite problem to Oskar Hansen at Hoover Dam; the Yucca Mountain repository was not hoping to attract the attentions of future humans to tell them of the glory of their forebears; it was to tell them that this place would kill them if they trod too near.

To create a universally readable warning system for humans living thirty generations from now, the signs will have to be instantly recognizable as expressing an immediate and lethal danger, as well as a deep sense of shunning: these were impulses that came up against each other; how to adequately express that the place was deadly while not at the same time enticing people to explore it, thinking it must contain something of great value if so much trouble had been gone to in order to keep people away? How to express this when all known written languages could very easily be dead? Signs as we know them now would almost certainly be completely unintelligible free of their social contexts which give them current meaning; a nuclear waste sign is just a dot with three rounded triangles sticking out of it to anyone not taught over a lifetime to know its warning.

Read the entire story here.

Image: United Nations radioactive symbol, 2007.

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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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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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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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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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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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Ultra-Conservation of Words

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!

It’s an odd little speech. But if you went back 15,000 years and spoke these words to hunter-gatherers in Asia in any one of hundreds of modern languages, there is a chance they would understand at least some of what you were saying.

A team of researchers has come up with a list of two dozen “ultraconserved words” that have survived 150 centuries. It includes some predictable entries: “mother,” “not,” “what,” “to hear” and “man.” It also contains surprises: “to flow,” “ashes” and “worm.”

The existence of the long-lived words suggests there was a “proto-Eurasiatic” language that was the common ancestor to about 700 contemporary languages that are the native tongues of more than half the world’s people.

“We’ve never heard this language, and it’s not written down anywhere,” said Mark Pagel, an evolutionary theorist at the University of Reading in England who headed the study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “But this ancestral language was spoken and heard. People sitting around campfires used it to talk to each other.”

In all, “proto-Eurasiatic” gave birth to seven language families. Several of the world’s important language families, however, fall outside that lineage, such as the one that includes Chinese and Tibetan; several African language families, and those of American Indians and Australian aborigines.

That a spoken sound carrying a specific meaning could remain unchanged over 15,000 years is a controversial idea for most historical linguists.

“Their general view is pessimistic,” said William Croft, a professor of linguistics at the University of New Mexico who studies the evolution of language and was not involved in the study. “They basically think there’s too little evidence to even propose a family like Eurasiatic.” In Croft’s view, however, the new study supports the plausibility of an ancestral language whose audible relics cross tongues today.

Pagel and three collaborators studied “cognates,” which are words that have the same meaning and a similar sound in different languages. Father (English), padre (Italian), pere (French), pater (Latin) and pitar (Sanskrit) are cognates. Those words, however, are from languages in one family, the Indo-European. The researchers looked much further afield, examining seven language families in all.

Read the entire article here and be sure to check out the interactive audio.

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Corporate-Speak 101

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.

1 Going forward

Top of many people’s hate list is this now-venerable way of saying “from now on” or “in future”. It has the rhetorical virtue of wiping clean the slate of the past (perhaps because “mistakes were made”), and implying a kind of thrustingly strategic progress, even though none is likely to be made as long as the working day is made up of funereal meetings where people say things like “going forward”.

2 Drill down

Far be it from me to suggest that managers prefer metaphors that evoke huge pieces of phallic machinery, but why else say “drill down” when you just mean “look at in detail”?

3 Action

Some people despise verbings (where a noun begins to be used as a verb) on principle, though who knows what they say instead of “texting”. In his Dictionary of Weasel Words, the doyen of management-jargon mockery Don Watson defines “to action” simply as “do”. This is not quite right, but “action” can probably always be replaced with a more specific verb, such as “reply” or “fulfil”, even if they sound less excitingly action-y. The less said of the mouth-full-of-pebbles construction “actionables”, the better.

4 End of play

The curious strain of kiddy-talk in bureaucratese perhaps stems from a hope that infantilised workers are more docile. A manager who tells you to do something “by end of play” – in other words, today – is trying to hypnotise you into thinking you are having fun. This is not a game of cricket.

5 Deliver

What you do when you’ve actioned something. “Delivering” (eg “results”) borrows the dynamic, space-traversing connotations of a postal service — perhaps a post-apocalyptic one such as that started by Kevin Costner in The Postman. Inevitably, as with “actionables”, we also have “deliverables” (“key deliverables,” Don Watson notes thoughtfully, “are the most important ones”), though by this point more sensitive subordinates might be wishing instead for deliverance.

6 Issues

Calling something a “problem” is bound to scare the horses and focus responsibility on the bosses, so let’s deploy the counselling-speak of “issues”. The critic (and managing editor of the TLS) Robert Potts translates “there are some issues around X” as “there is a problem so big that we are scared to even talk about it directly”. Though it sounds therapeutically nonjudgmental, “issues” can also be a subtly vicious way to imply personal deficiency. If you have “issues” with a certain proposal, maybe you just need to go away and work on your issues.

Read the entire article following the jump.

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Moist and Other Words We Hate

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.

From Slate:

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.

Early in the story, there is a brief passage in which the narrator, describing a moment of postcoital amorousness, says, “Everything seemed moist, permeable, sayable.” This sentence doesn’t really stand out from the rest—in fact, it’s one of the less conspicuous sentences in the story. But during a recent reading of “Escape From Spiderhead” in Austin, Texas, Saunders says he encountered something unexpected. “I’d texted a cousin of mine who was coming with her kids (one of whom is in high school) just to let her know there was some rough language,” he recalls. “Afterwards she said she didn’t mind fu*k, but hated—wait for it—moist. Said it made her a little physically ill. Then I went on to Jackson, read there, and my sister Jane was in the audience—and had the same reaction. To moist.”

Mr. Saunders, say hello to word aversion.

It’s about to get really moist in here. But first, some background is in order. The phenomenon of word aversion—seemingly pedestrian, inoffensive words driving some people up the wall—has garnered increasing attention over the past decade or so. In a recent post on Language Log, University of Pennsylvania linguistics professor Mark Liberman defined the concept as “a feeling of intense, irrational distaste for the sound or sight of a particular word or phrase, not because its use is regarded as etymologically or logically or grammatically wrong, nor because it’s felt to be over-used or redundant or trendy or non-standard, but simply because the word itself somehow feels unpleasant or even disgusting.”

So we’re not talking about hating how some people say laxadaisical instead of lackadaisical or wanting to vigorously shake teenagers who can’t avoid using the word like between every other word of a sentence. If you can’t stand the word tax because you dislike paying taxes, that’s something else, too. (When recently asked about whether he harbored any word aversions, Harvard University cognition and education professor Howard Gardner offered up webinar, noting that these events take too much time to set up, often lack the requisite organization, and usually result in “a singularly unpleasant experience.” All true, of course, but that sort of antipathy is not what word aversion is all about.)

Word aversion is marked by strong reactions triggered by the sound, sight, and sometimes even the thought of certain words, according to Liberman. “Not to the things that they refer to, but to the word itself,” he adds. “The feelings involved seem to be something like disgust.”

Participants on various message boards and online forums have noted serious aversions to, for instance, squab, cornucopia, panties, navel, brainchild, crud, slacks, crevice, and fudge, among numerous others. Ointment, one Language Log reader noted in 2007, “has the same mouth-feel as moist, yet it’s somehow worse.” In response to a 2009 post on the subject by Ben Zimmer, one commenter confided: “The word meal makes me wince. Doubly so when paired with hot.” (Nineteen comments later, someone agreed, declaring: “Meal is a repulsive word.”) In many cases, real-life word aversions seem no less bizarre than when the words mattress and tin induce freak-outs on Monty Python’s Flying Circus. (The Monty Python crew knew a thing or two about annoying sounds.)

Jason Riggle, a professor in the department of linguistics at the University of Chicago, says word aversions are similar to phobias. “If there is a single central hallmark to this, it’s probably that it’s a more visceral response,” he says. “The [words] evoke nausea and disgust rather than, say, annoyance or moral outrage. And the disgust response is triggered because the word evokes a highly specific and somewhat unusual association with imagery or a scenario that people would typically find disgusting—but don’t typically associate with the word.” These aversions, Riggle adds, don’t seem to be elicited solely by specific letter combinations or word characteristics. “If we collected enough of [these words], it might be the case that the words that fall in this category have some properties in common,” he says. “But it’s not the case that words with those properties in common always fall in the category.”

So back to moist. If pop cultural references, Internet blog posts, and social media are any indication, moist reigns supreme in its capacity to disgust a great many of us. Aversion to the word has popped up on How I Met Your Mother and Dead Like Me. VH1 declared that using the word moist is enough to make a man “undateable.” In December, Huffington Post’s food section published a piece suggesting five alternatives to the word moist so the site could avoid its usage when writing about various cakes. Readers of The New Yorker flocked to Facebook and Twitter to choose moist as the one word they would most like to be eliminated from the English language. In a survey of 75 Mississippi State University students from 2009, moist placed second only to vomit as the ugliest word in the English language. In a 2011 follow-up survey of 125 students, moist pulled into the ugly-word lead—vanquishing a greatest hits of gross that included phlegm, ooze, mucus, puke, scab, and pus. Meanwhile, there are 7,903 people on Facebook who like the “interest” known as “I Hate the Word Moist.” (More than 5,000 other Facebook users give the thumbs up to three different moist-hatred Facebook pages.)

Being grossed out by the word moist is not beyond comprehension. It’s squishy-seeming, and, to some, specifically evocative of genital regions and undergarments. These qualities are not unusual when it comes to word aversion. Many hated words refer to “slimy things, or gross things, or names for garments worn in potentially sexual areas, or anything to do with food, or suckling, or sexual overtones,” says Riggle. But other averted words are more confounding, notes Liberman. “There is a list of words that seem to have sexual connotations that are among the words that elicit this kind of reaction—moist being an obvious one,” he says. “But there are other words like luggage, and pugilist, and hardscrabble, and goose pimple, and squab, and so on, which I guess you could imagine phonic associations between those words and something sexual, but it certainly doesn’t seem obvious.”

So then the question becomes: What is it about certain words that makes certain people want to hurl?

Riggle thinks the phenomenon may be dependent on social interactions and media coverage. “Given that, as far back as the aughts, there were comedians making jokes about hating [moist], people who were maybe prone to have that kind of reaction to one of these words, surely have had it pointed out to them that it’s an icky word,” he says. “So, to what extent is it really some sort of innate expression that is independently arrived at, and to what extent is it sort of socially transmitted? Disgust is really a very social emotion.”

And in an era of YouTube, Twitter, Vine, BuzzFeed top-20 gross-out lists, and so on, trends, even the most icky ones, spread fast. “There could very well be a viral aspect to this, where either through the media or just through real-world personal connections, the reaction to some particular word—for example, moist—spreads,” says Liberman. “But that’s the sheerest speculation.”

Words do have the power to disgust and repulse, though—that, at least, has been demonstrated in scholarly investigations. Natasha Fedotova, a Ph.D. student studying psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, recently conducted research examining the extent to which individuals connect the properties of an especially repellent thing to the word that represents it. “For instance,” she says, “the word rat, which stands for a disgusting animal, can contaminate an edible object [such as water] if the two touch. This result cannot be explained solely in terms of the tendency of the word to act as a reminder of the disgusting entity because the effect depends on direct physical contact with the word.” Put another way, if you serve people who are grossed out by rats Big Macs on plates that have the word rat written on them, some people will be less likely to want to eat the portion of the burger that touched the word. Humans, in these instances, go so far as to treat gross-out words “as though they can transfer negative properties through physical contact,” says Fedotova.

Product marketers and advertisers are, not surprisingly, well aware of these tendencies, even if they haven’t read about word aversion (and even though they’ve been known to slip up on the word usage front from time to time, to disastrous effect). George Tannenbaum, an executive creative director at the advertising agency R/GA, says those responsible for creating corporate branding strategies know that consumers are an easily skeeved-out bunch. “Our job as communicators and agents is to protect brands from their own linguistic foibles,” he says. “Obviously there are some words that are just ugly sounding.”

Sometimes, because the stakes are so high, Tannenbaum says clients can be risk averse to an extreme. He recalled working on an ad for a health club that included the word pectoral, which the client deemed to be dangerously close to the word pecker. In the end, after much consideration, they didn’t want to risk any pervy connotations. “We took it out,” he says.

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Image courtesy of keep-calm-o-matic.

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Txt-Speak: Linguistic Scourge or Beautiful New Language?

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:

Is texting shorthand a convenience, a catastrophe for the English language, or actually something new and special? John McWhorter, a linguist at Columbia University, sides with the latter. According to McWhorter, texting is actually a new form of speech, and he outlined the reasons why today at the TED2013 conference in Southern California.

We often hear that “texting is a scourge,” damaging the literacy of the young. But it’s “actually a miraculous thing,” McWhorter said. Texting, he argued, is not really writing at all—not in the way we have historically thought about writing. To explain this, he drew an important distinction between speech and writing as functions of language. Language was born in speech some 80,000 years ago (at least). Writing, on the other hand, is relatively new (5,000 or 6,000 years old). So humanity has been talking for longer than it has been writing, and this is especially true when you consider that writing skills have hardly been ubiquitous in human societies.

Furthermore, writing is typically not a reflection of casual speech. “We speak in word packets of seven to 10 words. It’s much more loose, much more telegraphic,” McWhorter said. Of course, speech can imitate writing, particularly in formal contexts like speechmaking. He pointed out that in those cases you might speak like you write, but it’s clearly not a natural way of speaking.

But what about writing like you speak? Historically this has been difficult. Speed is a key issue. “[Texting is] fingered-speech. Now we can write the way we talk,” McWhorter said. Yet we view this as some kind of decline. We don’t capitalize words, obey grammar or spelling rules, and the like. Yet there is an “emerging complexity…with new structure” at play. To McWhorter, this structure facilitates the speed and packeted nature of real speech.

Take “LOL,” for instance. It used to mean “laughing out loud,” but its meaning has changed. People aren’t guffawing every time they write it. Now “it’s a marker of empathy, a pragmatic particle,” he said. “It’s a way of using the language between actual people.”

This is just one example of a new battery of conventions McWhorter sees in texting. They are conventions that enable writing like we speak. Consider the rules of grammar. When you talk, you don’t think about capitalizing names or putting commas and question marks where they belong. You produce sounds, not written language. Texting leaves out many of these conventions, particularly among the young, who make extensive use of electronic communication tools.

McWhorter thinks what we are experiencing is a whole new way of writing that young people are using alongside their normal writing skills. It is a “balancing act… an expansion of their linguistic repertoire,” he argued.

The result is a whole new language, one that wouldn’t be intelligible to people in the year 1993 or 1973. And where it’s headed, it will likely be unintelligible to us were we to jump ahead 20 years in time. Nevertheless, McWhorter wants us to appreciate it now: “It’s a linguistic miracle happening right under our noses,” he said.

Forget the “death of writing” talk. Txt-speak is a new, rapidly evolving form of speech.

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Video: John McWhorter courtesy of TED.

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Language as a Fluid Construct

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:

There is a standard view about language that one finds among philosophers, language departments, pundits and politicians.  It is the idea that a language like English is a semi-stable abstract object that we learn to some degree or other and then use in order to communicate or express ideas and perform certain tasks.  I call this the static picture of language, because, even though it acknowledges some language change, the pace of change is thought to be slow, and what change there is, is thought to be the hard fought product of conflict.  Thus, even the “revisionist” picture of language sketched by Gary Gutting in a recent Stone column counts as static on my view, because the change is slow and it must overcome resistance.

Recent work in philosophy, psychology and artificial intelligence has suggested an alternative picture that rejects the idea that languages are stable abstract objects that we learn and then use.  According to the alternative “dynamic” picture, human languages are one-off things that we build “on the fly” on a conversation-by-conversation basis; we can call these one-off fleeting languages microlanguages.  Importantly, this picture rejects the idea that words are relatively stable things with fixed meanings that we come to learn. Rather, word meanings themselves are dynamic — they shift from microlanguage to microlanguage.

Shifts of meaning do not merely occur between conversations; they also occur within conversations — in fact conversations are often designed to help this shifting take place.  That is, when we engage in conversation, much of what we say does not involve making claims about the world but involves instructing our communicative partners how to adjust word meanings for the purposes of our conversation.

I’d I tell my friend that I don’t care where I teach so long as the school is in a city.  My friend suggests that I apply to the University of Michigan and I reply “Ann Arbor is not a city.”  In doing this, I am not making a claim about the world so much as instructing my friend (for the purposes of our conversation) to adjust the meaning of “city” from official definitions to one in which places like Ann Arbor do not count as a cities.

Word meanings are dynamic, but they are also underdetermined.  What this means is that there is no complete answer to what does and doesn’t fall within the range of a term like “red” or “city” or “hexagonal.”  We may sharpen the meaning and we may get clearer on what falls in the range of these terms, but we never completely sharpen the meaning.

This isn’t just the case for words like “city” but, for all words, ranging from words for things, like “person” and “tree,” words for abstract ideas, like “art” and “freedom,” and words for crimes, like “rape” and “murder.” Indeed, I would argue that this is also the case with mathematical and logical terms like “parallel line” and “entailment.”  The meanings of these terms remain open to some degree or other, and are sharpened as needed when we make advances in mathematics and logic.

Read the entire article after the jump.

Image courtesy of Leif Parsons / New York Times.

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A Very, Like, Interestaaaaaaang Linguistic Study?

Uptalk? Verbal fry? Linguistic curiosities enter the mainstream courtesy of trendsetting young women aged 18-25 and Australians.

From the Daily Telegraph:

From Valley Girls to the Kardashians, young women have long been mocked for the way they talk.

Whether it be uptalk (pronouncing statements as if they were questions? Like this?), creating slang words like “bitchin’ ” and “ridic,” or the incessant use of “like” as a conversation filler, vocal trends associated with young women are often seen as markers of immaturity or even stupidity.

Right?

But linguists — many of whom once promoted theories consistent with that attitude — now say such thinking is outmoded. Girls and women in their teens and 20s deserve credit for pioneering vocal trends and popular slang, they say, adding that young women use these embellishments in much more sophisticated ways than people tend to realize.

“A lot of these really flamboyant things you hear are cute, and girls are supposed to be cute,” said Penny Eckert, a professor of linguistics at Stanford University. “But they’re not just using them because they’re girls. They’re using them to achieve some kind of interactional and stylistic end.”

The latest linguistic curiosity to emerge from the petri dish of girl culture gained a burst of public recognition in December, when researchers from Long Island University published a paper about it in The Journal of Voice. Working with what they acknowledged was a very small sample — recorded speech from 34 women ages 18 to 25 — the professors said they had found evidence of a new trend among female college students: a guttural fluttering of the vocal cords they called “vocal fry.”

A classic example of vocal fry, best described as a raspy or croaking sound injected (usually) at the end of a sentence, can be heard when Mae West says, “Why don’t you come up sometime and see me,” or, more recently on television, when Maya Rudolph mimics Maya Angelou on “Saturday Night Live.”

Not surprisingly, gadflies in cyberspace were quick to pounce on the study — or, more specifically, on the girls and women who are frying their words. “Are they trying to sound like Kesha or Britney Spears?” teased The Huffington Post, naming two pop stars who employ vocal fry while singing, although the study made no mention of them. “Very interesteeeaaaaaaaaang,” said Gawker.com, mocking the lazy, drawn-out affect.

Do not scoff, says Nassima Abdelli-Beruh, a speech scientist at Long Island University and an author of the study. “They use this as a tool to convey something,” she said. “You quickly realize that for them, it is as a cue.”

Other linguists not involved in the research also cautioned against forming negative judgments.

“If women do something like uptalk or vocal fry, it’s immediately interpreted as insecure, emotional or even stupid,” said Carmen Fought, a professor of linguistics at Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif. “The truth is this: Young women take linguistic features and use them as power tools for building relationships.”

The idea that young women serve as incubators of vocal trends for the culture at large has longstanding roots in linguistics. As Paris is to fashion, the thinking goes, so are young women to linguistic innovation.

Read the entire article here.

Image courtesy of Paul Hoppe, Daily Telegraph.

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What do Papua New Guinea and New York City Have In Common?

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:

New York is also home, of course, to a lot of academic linguists, and three of them have got together to create an organisation called the Endangered Language Alliance (ELA), which is ferreting out speakers of unusual tongues from the city’s huddled immigrant masses. The ELA, which was set up last year by Daniel Kaufman, Juliette Blevins and Bob Holman, has worked in detail on 12 languages since its inception. It has codified their grammars, their pronunciations and their word-formation patterns, as well as their songs and legends. Among the specimens in its collection are Garifuna, which is spoken by descendants of African slaves who made their homes on St Vincent after a shipwreck unexpectedly liberated them; Mamuju, from Sulawesi in Indonesia; Mahongwe, a language from Gabon; Shughni, from the Pamirian region of Tajikistan; and an unusual variant of a Mexican language called Totonac.

Each volunteer speaker of a language of interest is first tested with what is known as a Swadesh list. This is a set of 207 high-frequency, slow-to-change words such as parts of the body, colours and basic verbs like eat, drink, sleep and kill. The Swadesh list is intended to ascertain an individual’s fluency before he is taken on. Once he has been accepted, Dr Kaufman and his colleagues start chipping away at the language’s phonology (the sounds of which it is composed) and its syntax (how its meaning is changed by the order of words and phrases). This sort of analysis is the bread and butter of linguistics.

Every so often, though, the researchers come across a bit of jam. The Mahongwe word manono, for example, means “I like” when spoken soft and flat, and “I don’t like” when the first syllable is a tad sharper in tone. Similarly, mbaza could be either “chest” or “council house”. In both cases, the two words are nearly indistinguishable to an English speaker, but yield starkly different patterns when run through a spectrograph. Manono is a particular linguistic oddity, since it uses only tone to differentiate an affirmative from a negative—a phenomenon the ELA has since discovered applies to all verbs in Mahongwe.

More from theSource here.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia / Creative Commons.

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France: return to Babel

From Eurozine:

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.

Today more than ever, the language issue, which might at one time have segued gracefully between pleasure in sense and sensual pleasure, is being seized on and exploited for political ends. Much of this we can put down to the concept of the nation-state, that symbolic and once radical item that was assigned the task of consolidating the fragmented political power of the time. During the long centuries from the end of the Middle Ages to the close of the Ancien Régime, this triumphant political logic sought to bind together nation, language and religion. East of the Rhine, for instance, this was particularly true of the links between nation and religion; West of the Rhine, it focused more on language. From Villers-Cotterêts[1] on, language – operating almost coercively – served as an instrument of political unification. The periodic alternation between an imperial style that was both permissive and varied when it came to customary practise, and the homogeneous and monolithic style adopted on the national front, led to constant comings and goings in the relationship between language and political power.

In France, the revocation of the Edict of Nantes by Louis XIV in 1685 resolved the relationship between nation and religion and gave language a more prominent role in defining nationality. Not long after, the language itself – by now regarded as public property – became a ward of state entitled to public protection. Taking things one step further, the eighteenth century philosophers of the Enlightenment conceived the idea of a coherent body of subject people and skilfully exploited this to clip the wings of a fabled absolute monarch in the name of another, equally mythical, form of sovereignty. All that remained was to organise the country institutionally. Henceforth, the idea that the allied forces of people, nation and language together made up the same collective history was pursued with zeal.

What we see as a result is this curious emergence of language itself as a concept. Making use of a fiction that reached down from a great height to penetrate a cultural reality that was infinitely more subtle and flexible, each nation establishes its borders, sometimes defines itself, certainly organises itself, and always affirms itself around its language. While we in Europe enjoy as many ways of speaking as there are localities and occupations, there are administrative and symbolic demands to fabricate the fantasy of a language that clerics and men of letters would appropriate to themselves. It is these who, in the wake of the politicians, help to eliminate the variety of ways people have of expressing themselves and of understanding one another. Some scholars, falling into what they fail to see is a highly politicised trap, complete this process by coming up with a scientific construct heavily dependent on the influence of mathematical theories such as those of de Saussure and, above all, of Jakobson. Paradoxically, this body of work relies on a highly malleable, mobile, elastic reality to develop the tight, highly structured concept that is “language” (Jacques Lacan). And from that point, language itself becomes a prisoner of Lacan’s own system – linguistics.

From theSource here.

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