The Null Device
Posts matching tags 'language'
Arika Okrent, author of In The Land Of Invented Languages, has a survey of neologisms of the year from various countries:
In the Netherlands, the Van Dale dictionary group chose dagobertducktaks, “Scrooge McDuck tax,” a tax on the super rich. The “youth language” category choice was aanmodderfakker (someone with no ambition in life, from a blend of aanmodderen, “muddle,” and motherf***er).
Médicalmant, a word for a medicine taken to in order to calm down (a blend of médicament, “drug,” and calmant, “soothing”) was selected word of the year at the annual XYZ Festival of New Words in Le Havre
The Fundéu BBVA, a Madrid organization tasked with the protection of the purity of the Spanish language, made selfi, without the English e, the word of the year. Previous suggestions such as autofoto and autorretrato (self-portrait) had failed to catch on, so the spelling change to selfi seemed the next best option. Other candidates were amigovio (blend of amigo, “friend,” and novio, “boyfriend/girlfriend,” for “friends with benefits”) and impago (successfully replacing “default” in discussion of the economy).Elsewhere in the list, a few themes recur: the younger generation's attachment to their mobile phones gives rise to the German neologism Generation Kopf unten (“generation head down”); members of this generation may be at risk of what the Norwegians call mobilnakke, mobile neck. Meanwhile, the Swedish Language Council's list of words included fotobomba (to intrude into someone else's selfi) and klickfiske (“click-fishing”, i.e., what viral content sites engage in). On the other side of the Öresund Bridge, political issues such as hverdagssexisme (“everyday sexism”) and madspild (“food waste”) were the order of the day, while Portugal tackled the social implications of technology, from gamificação (gamification), to cibervadiagem (“cyberslacking”). And apparently in Finland, the word of 2014 was Putin-juusto (“Putin-cheese”), referring to Finnish cheese intended for the Russian market, knocked back because of import bans and sold at a steep discount all over Finland, with Cyrillic lettering still on the packaging.
English, meanwhile, had fairly mundane ones; the OED chose “vape” (relating to electronic nicotine inhalers), while Merriam-Webster's choice of “culture”, seemingly mundane, reflected the mainstreaming of anthropological thinking about collective human behaviour (in the sense of “company culture” or “rape culture”). And Australia had “shirtfront”, a testament to the virility of its elected leader.
In most European languages, personal pronouns (like she, him and such) are gendered; it can be somewhat awkward to talk about a person in English without disclosing whether they are (or are regarded as) male or female. (In some other languages, such as French and German, not disclosing the gender of a person is even harder, with words for “friend”, “coworker” and various occupations being gendered as well.) This means that speakers of those languages have to classify a person as male or female before discussing them, or otherwise go a lot of squirming. Interestingly, this is by no means a universal property of human language; in fact, 57% of the world's languages do not have gendered pronouns.
As the genders of people one deals with become less significant in most aspects of everyday life (discriminating between male and female coworkers could land one in legal trouble, and in the age of remote working, there's the possibility that you might not know whether your accountant or the freelance coder three timezones away you're working with is a man or a woman), this will eventually change, and gender-neutral personal pronouns will arise out of necessity. In English, what will probably happen is that “they” will lose its connotations of plurality, and become the natural way of referring to someone when their gender is irrelevant or unknown.
Not everybody is happy to wait for hypothetical linguistic evolution to take its course; in Sweden, unsurprisingly, they have taken things into their own hands, and introduced a gender-neutral personal pronoun into society, through the child-care system; a generation of Swedish toddlers is growing up used to referring to people as hen (he/she), rather than han (he) or hon (she). The pronoun hen was introduced in two Stockholm nurseries in 2012, and now has spread out of the nursery system to several newspapers; also, it has crossed the border, with reports of it being adopted into Norwegian. (There's a good chance that it'll make it into Danish as well, as it, Swedish and Norwegian are very closely related, and partly mutually intelligible.)
Not everybody is pleased with this, one can imagine the usual conservative talking heads, from Moscow to Wichita, fulminating darkly about “political correctness gone mad”, “Cultural Marxism” and/or “gender” (a term used pejoratively in reactionary circles to mean any deviation from traditional gender roles), in between making disparaging wisecracks involving meatballs and flat-packed furniture. And outside of that, there are some who think that teaching children to refer to people not as men or women but as persons is, for some reason, cruel:
But, argues Dr David Eberhard, a leading Swedish psychiatrist, a new pronoun won’t change the fact that the vast majority of people identify either as men or women. “Whatever you choose to call people, the biological differences between men and women remain,” he notes. “We should treat each other with respect, but ignoring biological gender differences is crazy. Making us identical won’t create more equality.” Boys should be allowed to play with dolls – and girls with cars – if they like to, says Eberhard, who coined the expression “safety addiction” in reference to Sweden’s health and safety system. “But”, he adds, “calling them hen instead of him or her? That’s child cruelty.”
I don't get why this is child cruelty; it's not that a user of a gender-neutral language would not learn to notice that some people are male and some female. The key difference is that this demotes gender from a defining attribute of a person—you are essentially a man or a woman—and turns it into a secondary attribute—you are a person, with a number of attributes (hair colour, height, maleness/femaleness). In a society which is (for the most part) no longer divided into hard-and-fast gender roles, should we still be using language which evolved when the two genders were organised hierarchically, with members of one all but owning members of the other as chattels? That's to say nothing of situations where one does not know the gender of a person (the aforementioned remote coworker), or indeed the rise of non-human personlike entities (with corporate personhood on the books in the US, it seems rude to refer to corporations as “it”, while they are obviously neither a “he” nor a “she”; add to that the prospect of artificial intelligences, which might not always be issued with gendered personae). Finally, one area where a non-gendered personal pronoun would reap immediate, if somewhat trivial, benefits is that of the naming of pets, especially ones hard to sex by superficial inspection (“Nice boa constrictor; what's his name?” “Her name's Ermintrude.”)
There's a piece in The Economist on the challenges of translating technological terms into minority languages, particularly ones whose speakers have lived traditional agricultural/fishing lifestyles until very recently, where the vocabulary tends to be more concrete and specific, and finding local words for new technical concepts requires some uses of poetic metaphor:
Ibrahima Sarr, a Senegalese coder, led the translation of Firefox into Fulah, which is spoken by 20m people from Senegal to Nigeria. “Crash” became hookii (a cow falling over but not dying); “timeout” became a honaama (your fish has got away). “Aspect ratio” became jeendondiral, a rebuke from elders when a fishing net is wrongly woven. In Malawi’s Chichewa language, which has 10m speakers, “cached pages” became mfutso wa tsamba, or bits of leftover food. The windowless houses of the 440,000 speakers of Zapotec, a family of indigenous languages in Mexico, meant that computer “windows” became “eyes”.Of course, the other alternative would be just to use loanwords from English (or some other common vehicular language), possibly adapting them to the grammar of the language, which apparently ends up happening informally a lot of the time.
I am currently spending some time in Barcelona, once again on occasion of the Primavera festival.
Whilst in the narrow, winding streets of the old town, I noticed a marmot-shaped door knocker on one door. This immediately brought to mind the French idiomatic expression croquer le marmot (to stand hesitantly at a door with one's hand over the door knocker, without following through), marmot-shaped door knockers presumably being customary in those days. This expression was, of course, memorably gifted to the English language as “to craunch the marmoset” by Pedro Carolino, the non-English-speaking Portuguese author of English As She Is Spoke, an unintentionally surreal (and, needless to say, entirely unusable) Portuguese-English phrasebook.
A contemporary equivalent of craunching the marmoset would presumably involve hovering over the SEND button in one's email client or something similar.
The federal Justice Ministry in Germany has decreed that all state bodies should use gender-neutral language; something which is somewhat more complicated in a strongly gendered language such as German, in which it is generally impossible to mention a person without disclosing their gender:
The changing nature of German is particularly noticeable at university campuses. Addressing groups of students in German has been problematic ever since universities stopped being bastions of male privilege. Should they be sehr geehrte Studenten or sehr geehrte Studentinnen? In official documents, such as job advertisements, administrators used to get around the problem with typographical hybrid forms such as Student(inn)en or StudentInnen – an unfair compromise, some say, which still treats the archetype of any profession as masculine.Some speculate that these changes will ultimately lead to the same process that stripped other Germanic languages such as English and Swedish of their gendered nouns; the process could take centuries, though gender-neutral pronouns could be adopted from existing regional German dialects such as Niederdeutsch (Low German), where nouns of all genders get the definite article de:
In the long run, such solutions would prove too complicated, linguists such as Luise Pusch argue. She told the Guardian that men would eventually get so frustrated with the current compromises that they would clock on to the fundamental problem, and the German language would gradually simplify its gender articles, just as English has managed to do since the Middle Ages.This is neither the only recent proposal for modernising the German language nor the most radical: the writer Ingo Niermann suggested radically simplifying the language into what he termed "Rededeutsch", a language both comprehensible to speakers of old-fashioned German and easier to learn than English. Rededeutsch goes further than the modest proposals discussed recently, eliminating the definite article altogether, along with non-present tenses, irregular verb forms and the multitude of plural forms.
While Rededeutsch is more in the spirit of artistic bricolage, or perhaps a Swiftian modest proposal, than a realistic suggestion, the debate about gender-neutral forms does highlight the fact that the languages we speak were formed in far different social circumstances, and these assumptions are carried in them. And as living language does evolve, this does take a while, often being dragged into public debate and becoming a front in the rolling culture war between progressives and conservatives. (The same, of course, happened in English some decades ago, when suggestions that words like "chairman" were problematic were met with cries of "political correctness gone mad!")
Along similar lines, two years ago, the government of France deprecated the word "mademoiselle" from official use, allowing Frenchwomen to keep their marital status private when filling in forms.
On Smarm, an essay pointing out that the problem with the internet is not snark but its condemnation, and through that, smarm; i.e., emotive appeals to the idea of positivity as a virtue (as if it were motherhood or apple pie or adorable kittens), and condemnation of negativity in general:
Over time, it has become clear that anti-negativity is a worldview of its own, a particular mode of thinking and argument, no matter how evasively or vapidly it chooses to express itself. For a guiding principle of 21st century literary criticism, BuzzFeed's Fitzgerald turned to the moral and intellectual teachings of Walt Disney, in the movie Bambi: "If you can't say something nice, don't say nothing at all."Smarm (whose genesis, in its current form, the article lays at the feet of that one-man Coldplay of letters, Dave Eggers, who exhorted to “not dismiss a movie until you have made one”, singlehandedly reserving the right to engage in, rather than merely consuming, culture for those within the culture industry) may be most obviously evident on the web, in cloyingly snark-free websites like Buzzfeed and Upworthy (the latter of which spawned a satirical webtoy), and the one-sided boosterism of the “like” button, but its effects go beyond the risk of ending up with an overly warmed heart and a jaw needing to be picked up off the floor. As a content-free (and thus outside of the criteria of debate) appeal to a nebulous ideal of civility or niceness (and surely everybody loves niceness, much like kittens and cupcakes), it is a tool for disingenuously shutting down challenging voices, and is very useful for bolstering the status quo when appeals to, say, the divine right of kings or the Hobbesian necessity of there being an ultimate authority, no longer hold water: don't do it because I said so, but do it because kittens.
Smarm hopes to fill the cultural or political or religious void left by the collapse of authority, undermined by modernity and postmodernity. It's not enough anymore to point to God or the Western tradition or the civilized consensus for a definitive value judgment. Yet a person can still gesture in the direction of things that resemble those values, vaguely.As concerns about “civility” and the “tone of debate” and such are raised, the result is often a soupy homogenate of truisms, motherhood statements and content-free manufactured consensus, meeting in the middle and staying there, bathed in a glow of positive sentiment: democratic debate reduced to calming mood lighting. Which undoubtedly serves interests behind the scene just fine.
Here is Obama in 2012, wrapping up a presidential debate performance against Mitt Romney: “I believe that the free enterprise system is the greatest engine of prosperity the world's ever known. I believe in self-reliance and individual initiative and risk-takers being rewarded. But I also believe that everybody should have a fair shot and everybody should do their fair share and everybody should play by the same rules, because that's how our economy is grown. That's how we built the world's greatest middle class.”
The lone identifiable point of ideological distinction between the president and his opponent, in that passage, is the word "but." Everything else is a generic cross-partisan recitation of the indisputable: Free enterprise ... prosperity ... self-reliance ... initiative ... a fair shot ... the world's greatest middle class.And, of course, smarm is useful for ruling out points of view deemed to be inadmissible, on the grounds that they are too negative, or confrontational, or that we have outgrown such petty squabbling about actual issues:
The New York Times reported last month that in 2011, the Obama Administration decided not to nominate Rebecca M. Blank to be the head of the Council of Economic Advisers, because of "something politically dangerous" she had written in the past: In writing about poverty relief, she had used the word "redistribution."
Like every other mode, snark can sometimes be done badly or to bad purposes. Smarm, on the other hand, is never a force for good. A civilization that speaks in smarm is a civilization that has lost its ability to talk about purposes at all. It is a civilization that says "Don't Be Evil," rather than making sure it does not do evil.Topically, we are currently witnessing a tsunami of smarm over the recently deceased Nelson Mandela, as right-wing politicians, many of whom wore HANG MANDELA badges at their Conservative Students meetings or lobbied against sanctions against the apartheid regime, fawningly profess what an inspiration the great man had been to them, with the implication that Mandela was not a freedom fighter but some kind of apolitical, beatific self-help guru, a Princess Diana in Magical Negro form, come to heal us with peace and love. It's ironic to think that, as utterly wrong as Margaret Thatcher was when she denounced Mandela as a terrorist, her view was at least grounded in reality, unlike the insipid words of content-free praise her successors are heaping upon him.
An interesting article on cryptolects, secret group languages whose purpose is to conceal meaning from outsiders:
Incomprehension breeds fear. A secret language can be a threat: signifier has no need of signified in order to pack a punch. Hearing a conversation in a language we don’t speak, we wonder whether we’re being mocked. The klezmer-loshn spoken by Jewish musicians allowed them to talk about the families and wedding guests without being overheard. Germanía and Grypsera are prison languages designed to keep information from guards – the first in sixteenth-century Spain, the second in today’s Polish jails. The same logic shows how a secret language need not be the tongue of a minority or an oppressed group: given the right circumstances, even a national language can turn cryptolect. In 1680, as Moroccan troops besieged the short-lived British city of Tangier, Irish soldiers manning the walls resorted to speaking as Gaeilge, in Irish, for fear of being understood by English-born renegades in the Sultan’s armies. To this day, the Irish abroad use the same tactic in discussing what should go unheard, whether bargaining tactics or conversations about taxi-drivers’ haircuts. The same logic lay behind North African slave-masters’ insistence that their charges use the Lingua Franca (a pidgin based on Italian and Spanish and used by traders and slaves in the early modern Mediterranean) so that plots of escape or revolt would not go unheard. A Flemish captive, Emanuel d’Aranda, said that on one slave-galley alone, he heard ‘the Turkish, the Arabian, Lingua Franca, Spanish, French, Dutch, and English’. On his arrival at Algiers, his closest companion was an Icelander. In such a multilingual environment, the Lingua Franca didn’t just serve for giving orders, but as a means of restricting chatter and intrigue between slaves. If the key element of the secret language is that it obscures the understandings of outsiders, a national tongue can serve just as well as an argot.The article goes on to mention polari, which originated as a travelling entertainers' argot and ended up being a cryptolect used by gay men in 20th-century Britain, becoming largely obsolescent after homosexuality was decriminalised, surviving as a piece of period colour in artefacts like Morrissey's song Piccadilly Palare.
With its roots in Yiddish, cant, Romani, and Lingua Franca, Polari was a meeting-place for languages of those who were too often forced to hit the road; groups who, however chatty, tend to remain silent in traditional historical accounts. Today, the spirit of Polari might be said to live on in Pajubá (or Bajubá), a contact language used in Brazil’s LGBT community, which draws its vocabulary from West African languages – testimony to the hybrid, polyvocal processes through which a cryptolect finds voice.Of course, as the whole point of a cryptolect is to conceal meaning, as soon as some helpful soul compiles a crib sheet, they kill that particular version of the language as surely as a butterfly collector with a killing jar. (An example of this that has become a comedic trope is parents, politicians and other grown-ups trying to be hip to the groovy lingo of teenagers and falling flat.)
The work of the chronicler of cryptolect must always end in failure. These are languages which need to do more than keep up with current usage: they have to stay ahead of it, burning bridges where the vernacular has come too close; keeping their distance from the clear, the comprehensible. When Harman returned to the subject of pedlars’ French, his promises of understanding came with a new caveat: ‘as [the canting crew] have begun of late to devise some newe tearmes for certaine things: so will they in time alter this, and devise as evill or worse’. We can’t write working dictionaries of secret languages, any more than we can preserve a childhood or catch a star.Not all cryptolects belong to marginalised, disempowered or nefarious outsider groups (say, itinerant thieves, galley slaves, sexual minorities or minors under the totalitarian regime of parental authority); various technical jargons have something of the cryptolect about them where they avoid using laypersons' terminology in favour of synonymous terms specific to their subcultures. This could be argued to be a good thing, as confusion can occur when words have both technical and vernacular meanings (take for example the word “energy” as used by physicists and New Age mystics). Indeed, whether, say, International Art English is a cryptolect could come down to whether it serves to actually communicate to an in-group or just as a form of ritual display.
A look at a pamphlet prepared by the US Army in 1955, at the height of the Red Scare, and titled How To Spot A Communist:
While a preference for long sentences is common to most Communist writing, a distinct vocabulary provides the more easily recognized feature of the “Communist Language.” Even a superficial reading of an article written by a Communist or a conversation with one will probably reveal the use of some of the following expressions: integrative thinking, vanguard, comrade, hootenanny, chauvinism, book-burning, syncretistic faith, bourgeois-nationalism, jingoism, colonialism, hooliganism, ruling class, progressive, demagogy, dialectical, witch-hunt, reactionary, exploitation, oppressive, materialist.
Rather chillingly, the pamphlet also warned that Communists revealed themselves if and when they talked about “McCarthyism,” “violation of civil rights,” “racial or religious discrimination” or “peace.” In other words, they were guilty if they suggested that the government was overstepping its bounds.
A behavioural economist from Yale has posited the theory that how one's primary language handles the future tense influences the amount of planning one does for the future, with one consequence being that English speakers save less for their old age than speakers of languages such as Mandarin and Yoruba, which lack a separate future tense and instead treat the future as part of the present. Professor Keith Chen's theory is that, in doing so, such languages encourage and entrench habits of thought more conducive to mindfulness of one's future than languages where the future is hived off into a separate grammatical tense:
Prof Chen divides the world's languages into two groups, depending on how they treat the concept of time. Strong future-time reference languages (strong FTR) require their speakers to use a different tense when speaking of the future. Weak future-time reference (weak FTR) languages do not.
"The act of savings is fundamentally about understanding that your future self - the person you're saving for - is in some sense equivalent to your present self," Prof Chen told the BBC's Business Daily. "If your language separates the future and the present in its grammar that seems to lead you to slightly disassociate the future from the present every time you speak.The effect is not limited to exotic non-European languages; similar differences are present in European languages to an extent (for example, one often uses the present tense in German to refer to events in the future, which is not the case in English, French or Italian; whether this has any causal relationship with the higher rate of personal saving in Germany remains to be determined).
Professor Chen's paper, The Effect of Language on Economic Behavior: Evidence from Savings Rates, Health Behaviors, and Retirement Assets, is (here), in PDF format.
If this effect holds true, all may not be lost; one could consciously intervene in English to an extent without breaking too much, by forcing oneself to say things like “I'm going to the seminar” rather than “I will go to the seminar”. Further flattenings-out of the future tense, however, get more awkward; saying, at age 29, “I'm retiring to the south of France” could raise a few eyebrows.
The ongoing gentrification of Berlin is now making a linguistic mark on the city: Prenzlauer Berg, the chic inner eastern neighbourhood popular at first with squatting artists, and then with trendy schmicki-micki couples with children in sports-utility prams, is now facing an influx of affluent new residents from Swabia, a wealthy, conservative region of southern Germany adjoining Bavaria, resulting in the Swabian dialect of German replacing the Berlin dialect in parts of the neighbourhood:
"The positive side of the changes, is that literally everything looks nice now," he said. But he then thundered, "I get angry when I'm in the bakers, and there are no Schrippen (the Berlin slang for white rolls) only Weckern (the Swabian term). And its exactly the same for plum cake," he went on, which the relative newcomers call Pflumendatschi (a Swabian term.) "That makes me really the last defender of the Berlin dialect."
Thierse added: "I hope the Swabians realize they are now in Berlin. And not in their little towns, with their spring cleaning. They come here because it's all so colorful and adventurous and lively, but after a while, they want to make it like it is back home. You can't have both."
An article looking at International Art English, the language used in art-world press releases, which, whilst sharing vocabulary and grammar with English, works differently and serves a highly specific purpose: namely demonstrating the speaker's membership of an initiated elite. As such, while it is dense with technical words, as is jargon, it differs from jargon in that the terms are deliberately nebulous and vague, serving as much to confound outsiders as to communicate to insiders:
IAE has a distinctive lexicon: aporia, radically, space, proposition, biopolitical, tension, transversal, autonomy. An artist’s work inevitably interrogates, questions, encodes, transforms, subverts, imbricates, displaces—though often it doesn’t do these things so much as it serves to, functions to, or seems to (or might seem to) do these things. IAE rebukes English for its lack of nouns: Visual becomes visuality, global becomes globality, potential becomes potentiality, experience becomes … experiencability.
Space is an especially important word in IAE and can refer to a raft of entities not traditionally thought of as spatial (the space of humanity) as well as ones that are in most circumstances quite obviously spatial (the space of the gallery). ... Spatial and nonspatial space are interchangeable in IAE. The critic John Kelsey, for instance, writes that artist Rachel Harrison “causes an immediate confusion between the space of retail and the space of subjective construction.” The rules for space in this regard also apply to field, as in “the field of the real”—which is where, according to art historian Carrie Lambert-Beatty, “the parafictional has one foot.” (Prefixes like para-, proto-, post-, and hyper- expand the lexicon exponentially and Germanly, which is to say without adding any new words.) It’s not just that IAE is rife with spacey terms like intersection, parallel, parallelism, void, enfold, involution, and platform.Space isn't singled out for special treatment by International Art English; another obsession is “reality” (both in singular and plural forms). Many things are “investigated“, “subverted” or “radically questioned”. The word dialectic, meanwhile, is particularly favoured, occurring in IAE text as often as “sunlight” occurs in everyday British English, and whilst it may have originated as a technical term from 19th-century German philosophy, IAE uses it more impressionistically, as a broad note of approval or endorsement.
The imprecise and impressionistic use of language is a recurring theme in IAE, where the composition of a press release seems to be as much an exercise in (a certain highly stylised and specific form of) aesthetic composition as the conveyance of ideas; there are a number of stylistic devices used to achieve this:
IAE always recommends using more rather than fewer words. Hence a press release for a show called “Investigations” notes that one of the artists “reveals something else about the real, different information.” And when Olafur Eliasson’s Yellow Fog “is shown at dusk—the transition period between day and night—it represents and comments on the subtle changes in the day’s rhythm.” If such redundancies follow from this rule, so too do groupings of ostensibly unrelated items. Catriona Jeffries Gallery writes of Jin-me Yoon: “Like an insect, or the wounded, or even a fugitive, Yoon moves forward with her signature combination of skill and awkwardness.” The principle of antieconomy also accounts for the dependence on lists in IAE.
Reading the "Animalia" release may lead to a kind of metaphysical seasickness. It is hard to find a footing in this "space" where Kim "contemplates" and "reveals" an odd "tension," but where in the end nothing ever seems to do anything. And yet to those of us who write about art, these contortions seem to be irresistible, even natural. When we sense ourselves to be in proximity to something serious and art related, we reflexively reach for subordinate clauses. The question is why. How did we end up writing in a way that sounds like inexpertly translated French?The article looks at the origins of IAE, mainly its roots in the necessarily stilted translations of French poststructuralist writing, though also its connection to German philosophical writing (particularly of the Frankfurt School, and the numerous writings that followed those of Freud and Marx, the two titans on whose shoulders many postmodernists have stood), and comments on the varieties of IAE emanating from different countries (the French, unsurprisingly, excel in it, their releases sounding as if written “by French interns imitating American interns imitating American academics imitating French academics”, while the Scandinavians are hobbled by a fatal clarity):
Many of IAE’s particular lexical tics come from French, most obviously the suffixes -ion, -ity, -ality, and -ization, so frequently employed over homier alternatives like -ness. The mysterious proliferation of definite and indefinite articles—“the political," “the space of absence,” “the recognizable and the repulsive”—are also French imports... French is probably also responsible for the common in IAE: simultaneously, while also, and, of course, always already. Many tendencies that IAE has inherited are not just specific to French but to the highbrow written French that the poststructuralists appropriated, or in some cases parodied (the distinction was mostly lost in translation). This kind of French features sentences that go on and on and make ample use of adjectival verb forms and past and present participles. These have become art writing’s stylistic signatures.The article concludes by suggesting that IAE may be in existential peril, as a global readership no longer guaranteed to be familiar with conventional English may not necessarily experience the estrangement of meaning a native speaker would when hit over the head with dense postmodernist verbiage, and proposing that, until it disappears, we should appreciate IAE by reading it not as press releases but as verse.
A survey of British Sign Language users, asking signers of various ages to show the signs for various ethnic and other minority groups, has revealed that signs based on stereotypes have been replaced by more neutral signs; well, in most cases:
It is no longer acceptable to sign a slanted eye when talking about the Chinese or to mime a hook nose when referring to Jewish people. The flick of a limp wrist is now an offensive signal for homosexuals. A finger pointing to an imaginary spot in the middle of a forehead is no longer appropriate as the sign for India.As for the new, culturally sensitive equivalents? Well, Chinese people wear Mao jackets and Jews have beards. India is indicated by the triangular shape of its continent, and being gay is indicated, for some reason, by “an upright thumb on one hand in the palm of the other, wobbling from side to side”. Meanwhile, France is no longer represented by pantomiming the twirling of a moustache, but instead by the comb of a cockerel (the symbol of France).
Did I say in most cases? Well, the Germans, it seems, are still the Huns of the Great War in Deaf Britain:
All British signers put their fist to their forehead with a finger pointing straight up, mimicking the shape of a Prussian spiked helmet, to refer to Germans.The change in sign language is analogous to the change in accepted word usage among the hearing, with older people likely to use older terms which may have become offensive since they learned them. Interestingly enough, the “offensive” signs have to an extent been reclaimed by those referred to them:
"Gay deaf people use the old sign for gay, and disabled deaf people use the traditional sign for disabled, even though no one from outside that group who was socially sensitive would use those signs any more," said Woll.
Some hackers in Germany have automated the process of generating semi-random T-shirt designs. The result is Zufallsshirt (“chance shirt”), a sort of Borgesian infinite library of quasi-ironic T-shirts. It generates a huge number of combinations of phrases (mostly in German, though with quite a few in English), words and clip-art. Some look like the sort of thrift-store attire hipsters wore 15 years ago, others like miscellaneous ravey wordmarks pumped out by T-shirt labels, and others are rectangles of acrostics of random words.
Some of the results are more presentable than others; one might believe that “Budapest Bicycle Flux” was a semi-obscure math-rock band whose gig the wearer happened to catch in some college-town bar back in the day, and there are situations where one might plausibly wear a T-shirt reading “I Reject Your Reality And Replace It With Cupcakes”, which, alas, cannot be said for some of the outputs, such as “your vagina is a wonderland”, or a grid of words including “Hitlerponys”, “Mörderpenis” and/or the decidedly euphemistic-sounding “wurstvuvuzela”. There are no permalinks and no way of keeping a design other than by buying it (i.e., getting it printed and shipped, which is done by a Leipzig-based mail-order T-shirt printing company). Or by saving the .png file of the image from the website. Anyway, I suspect that the creators have made a fair amount of money, and quite a few people have drawers full of odd-looking shirts from a parallel universe.
Interestingly enough, after clicking through the site for a while, a reader with a limited grasp of German may find their German comprehension improving slightly; perhaps the flood of meaningful (if nonsequiturial) sentences exercises the language pattern-matching parts of the brain in some kind of process of combinatorial fuzzing, reinforcing plausible word sequences.
As gender relations in France come up for examination (previously), the French government has moved to deprecate the honorific “Mademoiselle” ("miss") from official forms. As French has no equivalent of “Ms.”, “Madame”, which until now referred exclusively to married women, will refer to women of any marital status, allowing women to avoid disclosing their marital status.
In France, the Academie Française carefully curate the language, meticulously pruning loanwords and replacing them with French neologisms (i.e., logiciel for software, and, less successfully, courriel for e-mail). Across the border, the Germans take a different approach, and actually have a competition for the best English loanword each year, the Anglizismus des Jahres. Last year, the winner was "shitstorm", which follows 2010's "leaken".
Borrowing words from English is somewhat of a tradition in Germany; the most (in)famous example is the German colloquial word for mobile phone, "handy".
The Académie Française, the guardians of the integrity of the French language, recently held a "festival of new words", a competition in which the public were invited to suggest new French words, with the Académie choosing winners; the results are in:
The winner was attachiant(e) – a combination of attachant (captivating, endearing) and the slang word chiant (bloody nuisance) to denote someone you cannot live with but cannot live without.
Someone had also come up with the verb textoter (to write SMS messages on a mobile telephone), presumably something last year's winner, a phonard – a pejorative term for someone who is glued to their mobile phone – does all the time.
Previous festivals have thrown up gems including ordinosore (ordinateur plus dinosaur, an out-of-date computer), bonjoir (bonjour plus bonsoir, a greeting to be said around midday), and photophoner (to take a photo with a mobile phone).Of course, whether the winners make it into the official draft of the French language is another matter; while the Académie may unilaterally coin indigenously French neologisms, getting people to use them is another matter. (The Académie's word for electronic mail, courriel, seems to have been unsuccessful, with the anglicism "e-mail" instead gaining currency.) Chances are this contest is intended more to promote experimentation with the expressive possibilities of the French language.
In rural China, women traditionally had little status; however, they did have their own secret language, which they used to maintain support networks:
After having their feet bound at around the age of seven, girls in Jiangyong County in Hunan province would live indoors – first in the "women's chamber" of their own homes, and later in the homes of their husband's family. To ease their isolation and offer support in their pain, girls from the same village were brought together as "sworn sisters" until their weddings. But a more serious relationship, almost akin to marriage and expected to last for life, could be arranged between two girls by a matchmaker, with a formal contract, if the pair shared enough of the same "characters" (being born on the same day, for example). In See's book she writes: "A laotong relationship is made by choice for the purpose of emotional companionship and eternal fidelity. A marriage is not made by choice and has only one purpose — to have sons."
Women used Nushu – a script unique to the area – to write to their laotongs after they "married out" into different villages. Yet until the 1960s few outside the province knew about it, and no men could read it, says See. "In the mid-60s an old woman fainted in a station," she says. "The police went through her things to see who she was and found a piece of paper with what looked like a code, so she was arrested on suspicion of being a spy."
Today in weaponised sociolinguistics: the US intelligence research agency IARPA is running a programme to collect and catalogue metaphors used in different cultures, hopefully revealing how the Other thinks. This follows on from the work of cognitive linguist George Lakoff, who theorised that whoever controls the metaphors used in language can tilt the playing field extensively:
Conceptual metaphors have been big business over the last few years. During the last Bush administration, Lakoff – a Democrat – set up the Rockridge Institute, a foundation that sought to reclaim metaphor as a tool of political communication from the right. The Republicans, he argued, had successfully set the terms of the national conversation by the way they framed their metaphors, in talking about the danger of ‘surrendering’ to terrorism or to the ‘wave’ of ‘illegal immigrants’. Not every Democrat agreed with his diagnosis that the central problem with American politics was that it was governed by the frame of the family, that conservatives were proponents of ‘authoritarian strict-father families’ while progressives reflected a ‘nurturant parent model, which values freedom, opportunity and community building’ (‘psychobabble’ was one verdict, ‘hooey’ another).
But there’s precious little evidence that they tell you what people think. One Lakoff-inspired study that at first glance resembles the Metaphor Program was carried out in the mid-1990s by Richard D. Anderson, a political scientist and Sovietologist at UCLA, who compared Brezhnev-era speeches by Politburo members with ‘transitional’ speeches made in 1989 and with post-1991 texts by post-Soviet politicians. He found, conclusively, that in the three periods of his study the metaphors used had changed entirely: ‘metaphors of personal superiority’, ‘metaphors of distance’, ‘metaphors of subordination’ were out; ‘metaphors of equality’ and ‘metaphors of choice’ were in. There was a measurable change in the prevailing metaphors that reflected the changing political situation. He concluded that ‘the change in Russian political discourse has been such as to promote the emergence of democracy’, that – in essence – the metaphors both revealed and enabled a change in thinking. On the other hand, he could more sensibly have concluded that the political system had changed and therefore the metaphors had to change too, because if a politician isn’t aware of what metaphors he’s using who is?The article is vague on the actual IARPA research programme, but reveals that it involves extracting metaphors from large bodies of texts in four languages (Farsi, Mexican Spanish, Russian and English) and classifying them according to emotional affect.
The IARPA metaphor programme follows an earlier proposal to weaponise irony:
If we don’t know how irony works and we don’t know how it is used by the enemy, we cannot identify it. As a result, we cannot take appropriate steps to neutralize ironizing threat postures. This fundamental problem is compounded by the enormous diversity of ironic modes in different world cultures and languages. Without the ability to detect and localize irony consistently, intelligence agents and agencies are likely to lose valuable time and resources pursuing chimerical leads and to overlook actionable instances of insolence. The first step toward addressing this situation is a multilingual, collaborative, and collative initiative that will generate an encyclopedic global inventory of ironic modalities and strategies. More than a handbook or field guide, the work product of this effort will take the shape of a vast, searchable, networked database of all known ironies. Making use of a sophisticated analytic markup language, this “Ironic Cloud” will be navigable by means of specific ironic tropes (e.g., litotes, hyperbole, innuendo, etc.), by geographical region or language field (e.g., Iran, North Korea, Mandarin Chinese, Davos, etc.), as well as by specific keywords (e.g., nose, jet ski, liberal arts, Hermès, night soil, etc.) By means of constantly reweighted nodal linkages, the Ironic Cloud will be to some extent self-organizing in real time and thus capable of signaling large-scale realignments in the “weather” of global irony as well as providing early warnings concerning the irruption of idiosyncratic ironic microclimates in particular locations—potential indications of geopolitical, economic, or cultural hot spots.The proposal goes on to suggest possibilities of using irony as a weapon:
Superpower-level political entities (e.g., Roman Empire, George W. Bush, large corporations, etc.) have tended to look on irony as a “weapon of the weak” and thus adopted a primarily defensive posture in the face of ironic assault. But a historically sensitive consideration of major strategic realignments suggests that many critical inflection points in geopolitics (e.g., Second Punic War, American Revolution, etc.) have involved the tactical redeployment of “guerrilla” techniques and tools by regional hegemons. There is reason to think that irony, properly concentrated and effectively mobilized, might well become a very powerful armament on the “battlefield of the future,” serving as a nonlethal—or even lethal—sidearm in the hands of human fighters in an information-intensive projection of awesome force. Without further fundamental research into the neurological and psychological basis of irony, it is difficult to say for certain how such systems might work, but the general mechanism is clear enough: irony manifestly involves a sudden and profound “doubling” of the inner life of the human subject. The ironizer no longer maintains an integrated and holistic perspective on the topic at hand but rather experiences something like a small tear in the consciousness, whereby the overt and covert meanings of a given text or expression are sundered. We do not now know just how far this tear could be opened—and we do not understand what the possible vital consequences might be.
The BBC News Magazine has an article about the shifting meaning of the adjective "bohemian", a word which used to started off describing vagabonds and those beyond the pale of respectable society, shifted via itinerant actors and musicians to refer to self-selected artistic outsiders who rejected bourgeois values and social norms, and now is increasingly used to refer to fashion-conscious types who engage in slightly more trendy modes of consumption (note the rise of "bobos", or "bourgeois bohemians", sometimes provocatively referred to as "White People").
In essence, bohemianism represented a personal, cultural and social reaction to the bourgeois life. And, once the latter was all but swept away by the maelstrom that was the 1960s, the former was doomed, too.Perhaps we need a word to refer to the "bohemians"-who-aren't-really-bohemians, in that, whilst engaging with culture outside of the feeding trough of the mainstream, they do live a comfortable bourgeois life, with respectable jobs, stable living arrangements and disposable income to spend on accoutrements such as limited-edition trainers, designer glasses, fancy bicycles and Apple products. How about the "avant-bourgeoisie"?
Proof that we're now almost* living in the future: the new mobile Google Translate app, which runs on your iPhone and does speech recognition, translation and speech synthesis (provided you have a data connection, of course). So you can say a phrase into it in your language and have speak a translation into various languages, with even more supported as text only.
* Now all we need is mobile data roaming that doesn't cost extortionate amounts (after all, this is the sort of thing most useful abroad), and we will be living in the future.
With it being Australia Day/Invasion Day, here is an article about the state of Australian English today.
The gist of the article seems to be that Australian English's main defining characteristic is its wealth of earthily witty similes, metaphors and turns of phrase, a testimony to the locals' mischievous frankness and street-smarts.
Then there’s euphemisms and similes – that is, those excellent little sentences which draw on comparative comic images to tell an evocative story. Such as the bloke at the pub who dodges rounds, who wouldn’t shout if a shark bit him. Or the unfortunate lady with the face like a dropped pie. Whose husband is as ugly as a hatful of arseholes.
Many of these terms don’t use exclusively Australian words at all but are characterised by an Australian way of assembling words. Regardless of his politics, Paul Keating must be regarded as one of the great creators of Australian phraseology in our public life. When Malcolm Fraser’s lip trembled upon conceding defeat in 1983, Keating described the outgoing Liberal Prime Minister as “looking like an Easter Island statue with an arse full of razor blades”.That and the fact that the pattern of Americanisation differs from that in British English (unlike Britons, Australians still wear jumpers rather than sweaters; however, they're likely to be shod in sneakers rather than trainers).
(One thing I've been wondering: when software is localised to both Australian and British English, do the localisations ever differ?)
French slang word of the day: "Yaourt":
['Yaourt' ("Yoghurt")] is the word used to describe the practice of singing along to tracks in English, usually with an unconvincing American accent, when you have absolutely no idea of the words. Yoghurt doesn't have to be English, it only has to sound English. Singing along to ‘I Want To Break Free’ in Yoghurt would sound something like this: ‘I wo' do' bek fee.’ Sit on the Métro and you'll hear plenty of amateur French R'n'B singers doing ‘Papa gode a ban noo bang’ in perfect Yoghurt. There are even current French expressions derived from Yoghurt. My favourite is ‘C'est la waneugaine’ — a bizarre distortion of the English, once again — meaning it's crazy or outlandish.(from Lucy Wadham, The Secret Life of France, p84)
20 obsolete English words that should make a comeback:
Deliciate (Verb intr.) – “To take one’s pleasure, enjoy oneself, revel, luxuriate” – Often I feel the word “enjoy” just isn’t enough to describe an experience, and “revel” tends to conjure up images of people dancing and spinning around in circles – at least in my head. “Deliciate” would be a welcome addition to the modern English vocabulary, as in “After dinner, we deliciated in chocolate cream pie.”
Kench (Verb intr.) – “To laugh loudly” – This Middle English word sounds like it would do well in describing one of those times when you inadvertently laugh out loud while reading a text message in class and manage to thoroughly embarrass yourself.
Brabble (v) – “To quarrel about trifles; esp. to quarrel noisily, brawl, squabble” – Brabble basically means to argue loudly about something that doesn’t really matter, as in “Why are we still brabbling about who left the dirty spoon on the kitchen table?” You can also use it as a noun: “Stop that ridiculous brabble and do something useful!”
Following in the footsteps of OKCupid's data-mining blog, some people at Facebook have recently analysed a sample of status updates by word category, extracting correlations between word categories (as well as overall subject matter and positivity/negativity), time of day and probability of updates being liked/commented on. The analysis has shown, among other things:
- there are correlations between word categories and age; older people use more first-person plurals, positive emotions and references to religion and family, while young people tend to talk in the singular first-person (presumably adolescent alienation?), mention sadness and death, swear a lot and talk about sex, music and TV.
- People with more friends talk more about social processes and other people, and have higher total word counts; whereas, while talking about home, family and emotions are correlated with having fewer friends, the most strongly correlated categories are time and the past.
- Positive emotions are one of the most likely categories to be liked, but least likely to attract comments. Negative emotions, however, attract a lot of comments (presumably from the people posting empathetic "Don't Like" messages).
- The one thing less likeable than negative emotions is talk about sleeping.
- People who talk about metaphysical or religious subjects are most likely to be friends. And people who use prepositions a lot tend not to be friends with people who swear a lot or exhibit anger or negative emotions.
Europe's greatest linguistic curiosity is arguably the Swiss village of Bivio (which, in Italian, means "crossroads"), whose 200 or so inhabitants juggle several languages and dialects, depending on context, and yet somehow manage to get along:
A quarter speak the official language, Italian, one fifth speak Romansch, while the majority speak some variety of German. Amazingly, they all seem to understand one another. At the grocer's, everyone speaks their mother tongue, and everyone gets the right change.
They're well-trained. At the kindergarten, they speak Italian on Tuesday and Surmiran, a Romansch dialect, on Thursday. The rest of the week, the kids alternate between the two, but in the playground, the German dialect Bündnerdeutsch rules. On Sundays, they may attend the Catholic church, where the priest preaches in Schwyzerdütsch, or the Protestant one, where High German is the order of the day.Bivio's days as a curiosity may be numbered, though; Swiss German is becoming increasingly dominant, and the primary school will start teaching English in 2012.
A BBC radio presenter made an unfortunate mispronounciation of the name of the Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, swapping the first consonant of his surname with that of the word 'culture'. The somewhat ironically named James Naughtie fell foul of the Spoonerism on Radio 4's Today programme when interviewing Hunt about the government's broadband plans. Mr. Hunt seemed to take it in good stride:
Mr Hunt tweeted: "They say prepare for anything before going on Today but that took the biscuit. I was laughing as much as u Jim."I wonder if "jeremy" will become a new piece of rhyming slang, replacing "berk" (from "Berkshire hunt").
The Guardian has a survey of jokes told around the world:
I have always felt that the foreign pages of a good newspaper should feature a jokes section from all over the world as a humanising counterweight to all the reports that stress the differences between there and here. Jokes make you realise: of course, these are people like me. They have to survive in very different circumstances, but they are people all the same.The jokes are from all over the world: we encounter corrupt rulers, peacockish Argentines, beery Aussies, dull-witted Swedes, Belgians and members of numerous other neighbouring nationalities, to mention a few recurring themes.
A girl meets an Argentinian man on the street and asks him for a light. He pats his trousers, chest and back pockets. "Sorry," he says, "I don't have one but, wow, do I have a great body or what?"
Russia's president Dmitry Medvedev sits in the driver's seat of a new car, examines the inside, the instrument panel and the pedals. He looks around, but the steering wheel is missing. He turns to Vladimir Putin and asks: "Vladimir Vladimirovich, where is the steering wheel?" Putin pulls a remote control out of his pocket and says, "I'll be the one doing the driving."And more jokes are contributed in the comments by the readers (along with a debate on whether there actually are jokes in Japan; incidentally, Richard Wiseman claims there aren't):
Russian joke about Jews:
- How does a smart Moscow Jew talk to a stupid Moscow Jew?
- On a mobile from New York.
Quelle est la différence entre Nicolas Sarkozy et un vainqueur de Formule 1? Le vainqueur de Formule 1 est le premier à Monte Carlo, et Nicolas Sarkozy est le dernier à monter Carla.
A new Zealander told me this one:Meanwhile, here is a Reddit thread for colourful local idioms from various languages:
What's the difference between Australia and a glass of milk?
Leave them both in the sun for a while and the milk will develop a culture.
Personally, I'm a huge fan of the derogatory Afrikaans term for South African English-speakers: soutpiel, which translates to "Saltcock", implying that they have one leg in England, one leg in South Africa, and their dick is dangling in the ocean.
"No te peines, que en la foto no salís" - Don't comb your hair, you're not going to be in the picture (Meaning don't get too excited, this matter doesn't concern you.)
"Da bog ti kuca bila na CNN." It's Serbian for "may your house be live on CNN". It may seem like a compliment, but consider what usually gets Serbian houses on American/International television. :(
When you're arguing over insignificant details in English, you'd be a nitpicker. In Dutch, you'd be fucking ants: 'Mierenneuken'.
Hoc instrumentum convertendi Latinam rare usurum ut convertat nuntios electronicos vel epigrammata effigierum YouTubis intellegamus. Multi autem vetusti libri de philosophia, de physicis et de mathematica lingua Latina scripti sunt. Libri enim vero multi milia in Libris Googlis sunt qui praeclaros locos Latinos habent.
Convertere instrumentis computatoriis ex Latina difficile est et intellegamus grammatica nostra non sine culpa esse. Autem Latina singularis est quia plurimi libri lingua Latina iampridem scripti erant et pauci novi posthac erunt. Multi in alias linguas conversi sunt et his conversis utamur ut nostra instrumenta convertendi edoceamus. Cum hoc instrumentum facile convertat libros similes his ex quibus edidicit, nostra virtus convertendi libros celebratos (ut Commentarios de Bello Gallico Caesaris) iam bona est.In other words, while Latin is a dead language, and few if any people are going to send emails (or nuntios electronicos, as the Romans would have called them), the translator is useful because of the vast number of books wholly or partly in Latin. And, while there is little new Latin text to train the engine on, there is a huge repository of existing Latin texts and translations, of varying antiquity, many of which Google have digitised. Which works quite adequately for translating the sorts of things likely to have been written in Latin.
Sadly, the same can't be said for Google's English-to-Latin translation; at the moment, for a lot of inputs, it seems to do little more than change the order of the words around, getting stumped on words like, say, "translate" and "Latin".
danah boyd has a new blog post on social steganography, or ways of encoding double meanings in messages one knows will be overheard.
Social steganography is one privacy tactic teens take when engaging in semi-public forums like Facebook. While adults have worked diligently to exclude people through privacy settings, many teenagers have been unable to exclude certain classes of adults – namely their parents – for quite some time. For this reason, they’ve had to develop new techniques to speak to their friends fully aware that their parents are overhearing. Social steganography is one of the most common techniques that teens employ. They do this because they care about privacy, they care about misinterpretation, they care about segmented communications strategies. And they know that technical tools for restricting access don’t trump parental demands to gain access. So they find new ways of getting around limitations. And, in doing so, reconstruct age-old practices.Often these techniques depend on shared cultural references; the fact that one's peers (typically within one's generation) have a shared vocabulary of song/movie/videogame/TV/&c. references has the convenient side-effect of providing a cryptolect that is all but parent-proof. (Which is why teens, i.e. those living in the totalitarian surveillance state of being a minor, are into ostensibly lame stuff like Justin Bieber and Fall Out Boy; few 'rents, even (or especially) those hip enough to know all about Joy Division and the Velvet Underground and krautrock and britpop and whatever, are going to study up on the latest godawful racket the kids these days are listening to just to be able to decode chatter most of which is going to be fairly inconsequential social administrivia. From which it might follow to say that when nostalgic adults listen to music from their adolescence, they are, knowingly or otherwise, revisiting the paraphernalia of strategies for mitigating a lack of freedom.) Anyway, boyd cites an example:
When Carmen broke up with her boyfriend, she “wasn’t in the happiest state.” The breakup happened while she was on a school trip and her mother was already nervous. Initially, Carmen was going to mark the breakup with lyrics from a song that she had been listening to, but then she realized that the lyrics were quite depressing and worried that if her mom read them, she’d “have a heart attack and think that something is wrong.” She decided not to post the lyrics. Instead, she posted lyrics from Monty Python’s “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.” This strategy was effective. Her mother wrote her a note saying that she seemed happy which made her laugh. But her closest friends knew that this song appears in the movie when the characters are about to be killed. They reached out to her immediately to see how she was really feeling.It's debatable whether Monty Python counts as a parent-proof youth-culture reference. I'm guessing that the example story happened somewhere in the US, where Monty Python still has an aura of counterculture about it, and is likely to not be picked up by one's straight-laced 'rents. (Perhaps it happened in a devoutly Christian community, where The Life Of Brian would be virtually punk rock?)
Of course, nowadays Carmen could just have posted the update to Facebook under a filter, excluding her mother from seeing it, and her mother would have been none the wiser. (Unless Facebook has mechanisms preventing minors from hiding content from their parents, which I hadn't heard of.)
Security researchers are now working on ways of generating machine code that looks like English-language text (PDF).
In this paper we revisit the assumption that shellcode need be fundamentally different in structure than non-executable data. Specifically, we elucidate how one can use natural language generation techniques to produce shellcode that is superficially similar to English prose. We argue that this new development poses significant challenges for inline payloadbased inspection (and emulation) as a defensive measure, and also highlights the need for designing more efficient techniques for preventing shellcode injection attacks altogether.The code is generated by a language engine which selects fragments of text, Markov-chain-fashion, from a large source (such as Wikipedia or the Gutenberg Project). It looks like the random gibberish spammers pad their emails out with, though if executed, functions as x86 machine code. (Rather inefficient machine code, with a lot of jumps and circumlocutions to fit the constraints of looking like English, but good enough to sneak exploits through in.) Below is an example of some code thus disguised:
Neologism of the day: "Crash blossoms" is apparently the word for amusingly ambiguous newspaper headlines (of the form of "British Left Waffles On Falklands", "Eighth Army Push Bottles Up Germans" or "Drunk Gets Nine Months In Violin Case"). The term comes from the headline of a story about an Anglo-Japanese violinist whose parents died in a plane crash.
A Google engineer writes about how Google's search engine attempts to understand synonyms:
We use many techniques to extract synonyms, that we've blogged about before. Our systems analyze petabytes of web documents and historical search data to build an intricate understanding of what words can mean in different contexts. In the above example "photos" was an obvious synonym for "pictures," but it's not always a good synonym. For example, it's important for us to recognize that in a search like [history of motion pictures], "motion pictures" means something special (movies), and "motion photos" doesn't make any sense. Another example is the term "GM." Most people know the most prominent meaning: "General Motors." For the search [gm cars], you can see that Google bolds the phrase "General Motors" in the search results. This is an indication that for that search we thought "General Motors" meant the same thing as "GM." Are there any other meanings? Many people can think of the second meaning, "genetically modified," which is bolded when GM is used in queries about crops and food, like in the search results for [gm wheat]. It turns out that there are more than 20 other possible meanings of the term "GM" that our synonyms system knows something about. GM can mean George Mason in [gm university], gamemaster in [gm screen star wars], Gangadhar Meher in [gm college], general manager in [nba gm] and even gunners mate in [navy gm].
The Economist looks at some of the more complicated human languages, ones which make legendarily tricky languages like Greek and Latin look simple:
For sound complexity, one language stands out. !Xóõ, spoken by just a few thousand, mostly in Botswana, has a blistering array of unusual sounds. Its vowels include plain, pharyngealised, strident and breathy, and they carry four tones. It has five basic clicks and 17 accompanying ones. The leading expert on the !Xóõ, Tony Traill, developed a lump on his larynx from learning to make their sounds. Further research showed that adult !Xóõ-speakers had the same lump (children had not developed it yet).
Beyond Europe things grow more complicated. Take gender. Twain’s joke about German gender shows that in most languages it often has little to do with physical sex. “Gender” is related to “genre”, and means merely a group of nouns lumped together for grammatical purposes. Linguists talk instead of “noun classes”, which may have to do with shape or size, or whether the noun is animate, but often rules are hard to see. George Lakoff, a linguist, memorably described a noun class of Dyirbal (spoken in north-eastern Australia) as including “women, fire and dangerous things”. To the extent that genders are idiosyncratic, they are hard to learn. Bora, spoken in Peru, has more than 350 of them.
Berik, a language of New Guinea, also requires words to encode information that no English speaker considers. Verbs have endings, often obligatory, that tell what time of day something happened; telbener means “[he] drinks in the evening”. Where verbs take objects, an ending will tell their size: kitobana means “gives three large objects to a man in the sunlight.” Some verb-endings even say where the action of the verb takes place relative to the speaker: gwerantena means “to place a large object in a low place nearby”. Chindali, a Bantu language, has a similar feature. One cannot say simply that something happened; the verb ending shows whether it happened just now, earlier today, yesterday or before yesterday. The future tense works in the same way.When faced with the question of what the hardest language for an Anglophone to learn might be, the Economist posits the Amazonian language Tucuya, a language with between 50 and 140 genders and a tendency to create compound words from morphemes, among other features:
Most fascinating is a feature that would make any journalist tremble. Tuyuca requires verb-endings on statements to show how the speaker knows something. Diga ape-wi means that “the boy played soccer (I know because I saw him)”, while diga ape-hiyi means “the boy played soccer (I assume)”. English can provide such information, but for Tuyuca that is an obligatory ending on the verb. Evidential languages force speakers to think hard about how they learned what they say they know.The most complex languages tend to be the ones from isolated areas (like the Amazon and the highlands of New Guinea). This makes some sense; after all, trade and cultural exchange would serve to smooth languages, polishing off the rough edges, generalising special cases and cutting enough corners to allow foreigners and travellers to understand them. If a language is used by people in a wide variety of environments, its structures are going to become more generic and adaptable. Conversely, if you and your ancestors have spent all your lives knowing the objects and routines of one kind of environment, then the circumstances of your lives will seem timeless and absolute, and specialised word genders and grammatical cases for them will seem like common sense.
A Scrabble enthusiast has found what is believed to be the highest-scoring move found so far, possibly the highest-scoring possible: "SESQUIOXIDIZING", for 2,044 points.
Of course, actually having the board in a state where this can fall into place would require quite a bit of luck, to say the least.
Gropecunt Lane (pronounced /ˈɡroʊpkʌnt ˈleɪn/) was a street name found in English towns and cities during the Middle Ages, believed to be a reference to the prostitution centred on those areas; it was normal practice for a medieval street name to reflect the street's function or the economic activity taking place within it. Gropecunt, the earliest known use of which is in about 1230, appears to have been derived as a compound of the words "grope" and "cunt". Streets with that name were often in the busiest parts of medieval towns and cities, and at least one appears to have been an important thoroughfare.
Although the name was once common throughout England, changes in attitude resulted in it being replaced by more innocuous versions such as Grape Lane. Gropecunt was last recorded as a street name in 1561.There are currently no streets named Gropecunt Lane in England, them all having been renamed to things like Magpie Lane, Grape Lane, or in some cases, Grope Lane (attributed by the prudish to the narrowness and darkness of the street, not to any untoward activity having taken place there). Perhaps the time has come for a campaign to undo these shameful acts of vandalism and restore this piece of English history?
(via David Gerard)
Unfortunately chosen brand name of the moment: Russian gas company Gazprom has recently launched a joint venture with the Nigerian gas firm NNPC. Unfortunately, the name they chose for their joint venture is Nigaz. Word.
I wonder whether the problem was caused by some Russian executive being unaware of pejorative words in English, or whether the name was deliberately chosen so that they can have a totally wicked gangsta-rap company anthem.
There are red faces at the Max Planck Institute, after the institute published an issue of its journal with a special report on China, and decided to include some Chinese characters on the cover for visual impact. Unfortunately, they didn't seem to have any Chinese speakers on hand, and after the journal went out to publication, it was discovered that the text on the cover was from a flyer advertising a brothel, describing in lascivious detail the talents of the "pretty-as-jade housewives" therein:
Editors had hoped to find an elegant Chinese poem to grace the cover of a special issue, focusing on China, of the MaxPlanckForschung journal, but instead of poetry they ran a text effectively proclaiming "Hot Housewives in action!" on the front of the third-quarter edition. Their "enchanting and coquettish performance" was highly recommended.
The Max Planck Institute was quick to acknowledge its error explaining that it had consulted a German sinologist prior to publication of the text. "To our sincere regret ... it has now emerged that the text contains deeper levels of meaning, which are not immediately accessible to a non-native speaker," the institute said in an apology. "By publishing this text we did in no way intend to cause any offence or embarrassment to our Chinese readers. "The faux pas apparently caused much amusement amongst Chinese internet users, with the exception of some who thought it was a deliberate insult to China. Then again, some people said the same thing about that Guns'n'Roses album. Having said that, this is by no means the first instance of clueless Westerners making fools of themselves in Chinese:
There are tales of drunken teenagers walking out of tattoo parlours with characters reading, "This is one ugly foreigner" or "A fool and his money are easily parted". Another web-user wrote: "I recently met a German girl with a Chinese tattoo on her neck which in Chinese means 'prostitute'. I laughed so loud, I could hardly breathe."The brothel-keeper could not be reached for comment.
Recently, Swansea council in Wales needed to erect a road sign warning advising lorry drivers to avoid a residential area. Being in Wales, the sign would have needed to be bilingual, so the council emailed a translation service to get a Welsh translation of the text, and upon receiving the reply, promptly printed it on a sign and put it up. Only after the sign had gone up did people point out that the text was an out-of-office auto-reply:
All official road signs in Wales are bilingual, so the local authority e-mailed its in-house translation service for the Welsh version of: "No entry for heavy goods vehicles. Residential site only".
Unfortunately, the e-mail response to Swansea council said in Welsh: "I am not in the office at the moment. Please send any work to be translated".Which leaves a few questions unanswered: are there really so few Welsh speakers in Swansea that the council couldn't find one on staff to run the sign past? And surely a translation service would have made their out-of-office messages bilingual.
Azerbaijan, a tiny, oil-rich country where Eastern Europe meets Western Asia and Iran, has a fraught history with its current Latin script. In the 7th century, Arabic script was introduced during the Arab conquest, and was used to write Azerbaijani until the ’20s, when it was exchanged for Latin script under Soviet rule—a deliberate attempt to counter the influence of Islam. In 1939, Joseph Stalin took his colonization program further when he imposed the Cyrillic alphabet on the Soviet Empire. After obtaining independence in 1991, though, Azerbaijan switched from Cyrillic to Latin script again, adopting a modern variation of the 1929 writing system. The switch was part of a massive repackaging of Azerbaijani national identity, and a vehicle for the new government’s claims to legitimacy.
Writing systems can have the power to unite or divide related communities. Serbian and Croatian, for instance, are close dialects of the same language—so close that the language is usually referred to as Serbo-Croatian. Each, however, is militantly defined by its own script: Serbs use Cyrillic, Croats use Latin. Hindi and Urdu also share a common vocabulary and grammatical structure, and linguists refer to them as one language: Hindi-Urdu. In print, however, the distinction has religious and political significance. Hindi is written in Devanagari, historically associated with Hinduism, while Urdu is written in an Arabic script associated with Islam. Hindi is used in India, while Urdu is used in Pakistan.
Typography can also evoke narratives of the past in the service of national identity. In the ’30s, the Nazis embraced blackletter type as deeply and authentically German, and the Italian fascists engraved their monuments with capital letters in a Trajanic style, making a conspicuous connection between their party and the Roman Empire. But such movements can emerge from the grassroots as well. In the Basque region of Spain, the Euskadi-style script—lettering with bulging shapes and tapered serifs, the result of ancient artisans’ technique of scraping stone from the outside of the letters instead of engraving them—evokes myths of an idyllic past separate from Spain.
A chance to watch language changing in real time: the North Carolina Division of Motor Vehicles has offered to replace all licence plates containing the letters "WTF" free of charge, after the letters became obscene following the rise of internet/text-messaging abbreviations. Nearly 10,000 licence plate holders have the three letters in their plates, though whether they wish to replace them will be up to them. I wonder how many will take up the offer.
Community activism can cut both ways; in San Diego, for example, activists are mobilising to occupy benches to keep the homeless off. The noble cause behind this: dissatisfaction by the benches' donors (a merchants' association) that they were attracting undesirables:
Esther Viti, who oversees the donation of public benches for a merchants' association in La Jolla, sent an e-mail to 45 other activists last week asking them to sit in three-hour shifts, no bathroom breaks allowed.
"After all, you MUST OCCUPY THAT BENCH continually for three hours to prevent that homeless person from sitting on that bench," the e-mail said.Interesting how the non-judgemental phrase "homeless person" has wasted no time in soaking up the same connotations as politically-incorrect phrases like "bum" and "tramp" that it displaced.
Spare a thought for Mark Boyle, the 28-year-old English hippie who planned to walk from Bristol to India without any money for world peace or something similar, subsisting only on the charity of strangers. Alas, it was not to be, and Mr. Boyle gave up his quest at Calais after his lack of money and inability to speak French caused the locals to think of him as a free-loader or an asylum seeker.
Not one to be easily dissuaded by the cold hard impact of reality, Mr. Boyle has strategically downsized his plans to a walk around the coast of Britain, learning French as he goes, for another attempt in future.
As overt expressions of racism become unacceptable, good ol' boys in the US South have adapted by referring to black people as "Canadians":
Last August, a blogger in Cincinnati going by the name CincyBlurg reported that a black friend from the southeastern U.S. had recently discovered that she was being called a Canadian. "She told me a story of when she was working in a shop in the South and she overheard some of her customers complaining that they were always waited on by a Canadian at that place. She didn't understand what they were talking about and assumed they must be talking about someone else," the blogger wrote.
A University of Kansas linguist said that a waitress friend reported that "fellow workers used to use a name for inner-city families that were known to not leave a tip: Canadians. ‘Hey, we have a table of Canadians.... They're all yours.' "
Stefan Dollinger, a postdoctoral fellow in linguistics at University of British Columbia and director of the university's Canadian English lab, speculated that the slur reflects a sense of Canadians as the other. "This ‘code' word, is the replacement of a no-longer tolerated label for one outsider group, with, from the U.S. view, another outsider group: Canadians. It could have been terms for Mexicans, Latinos etc. but this would have been too obvious," he said. "What's left? Right, the guys to the north."The comments to the Boing Boing post which mentioned this are enlightening as well:
I work with an American who recently emigrated to Canada from one of the "suh-then" states. He tells me our early stance against the "war" on Iraq left a bad taste toward Canada in the rural south. Raw hate and "we should invade those b*stards and kick them out on an ice flow" rage was quite common in his semi-rural area. Using "Canadian" in this fashion would be a logical progression. They're not being ironic at all.
My friend has parents that used to use the word frequently until she married an actual Canadian. When she told them that he was Canadian they went totally ape-shit. She informed them that they were not invited to the wedding. When they found out he wasn't black (oh the relief... you should've seen it), they apologized. They're still bigots, but possibly one degree less so now.
I live in Pennsylvania, where I've heard a similar practice; many of my father's friends use the term "Democrat" instead of "Canadian" for the exact same purpose. Most of these guys are old, white Republicans, and many of them are also Freemasons.
Actually, the term "Canadian" in reference to black people has been around and in prevalent use for years, like seven or eight of them. It can't have taken that long for the mainstream to have figured that out. The new term is "German" because it was feared that black folks were catching on to the "Canadian" thing a couple of years ago.It is not clear whether "Canadian" started off as restaurant slang for "cheapskate" (presumably due to Canada not having a tipping culture as in the US due to higher minimum wages?) or was a racist euphemism all along.
(via Boing Boing)
Among the latest additions to the often irreverent slang used by doctors, as tracked by the British Medical Journal: a "Hasselhoff" is a patient who turns up in casualty "with an injury with a bizarre explanation", a Jack Bauer is a doctor who is still working after 24 hours on the job, and a Father Jack is a "confused, usually elderly patient whose constant high-pitched verbal ejaculation and attempts to get out of bed are responsible for insomnia on wards".
Merriam-Webster's 2007 Word of the Year is w00t:
expressing joy (it could be after a triumph, or for no reason at all); similar in use to the word "yay": "w00t! I won the contest!"The article gives the etymology of "w00t" as an acronym for "we owned the other team"; I agree with Cory Doctorow that this seems like a back-formation of the word. I suspect that the word comes from the UNIX superuser account name "root", via hacker/cracker culture (as in "I've acquired root privilege (on some machine)" -> "root" -> "w00t").
Incidentally, w00t is probably the only word in the dictionary with digits as letters (though please correct me if I'm wrong); which means that Scrabble players may soon need the L33T Tiles.
(via Boing Boing)
Allegations have emerged of a secret mailing list used by a cabal of Wikipedia admins to unaccountably ban people they suspect of being enemies of Wikipedia trying to infiltrate the site. (The evidence against one banned user was that they seemed too skilled and too productive for a new user, and thus were probably a troll or sleeper agent trying to infiltrate Wikipedia and win its trust before doing god knows what.)
Meanwhile, it turns out that "wikipedia" is an ingredient in the food at at least one Chinese restaurant:
In this case, "wikipedia" turns out to be a type of fungus. This is not the first time that a restaurant in Asia has listed "wikipedia" as an ingredient; some two years ago, a French restaurant in Taiwan listed cheesecake as "wikipedia", and there are other reports of another establishment using the word to denote squid. Could it be some quirk of novice attempts at Chinese-to-English translation that causes this word to be mistaken for so many culinary ingredients?
Pink Tentacle, an English-language Japanese blog, has a list of the top 60 Japanese buzzwords of 2007:
30. Dried-fish woman [himono onna - 干物女]: Himono onna (”dried-fish woman”) is an expression used in the movie Hotaru No Hikari to describe the main character, a woman in her 20s who has renounced the pursuit of romance. She spends her evenings reading manga and drinking at home alone, and she spends her weekends lazing around in bed. She’s a dried-fish woman.
32. The power of insensitivity [donkanryoku - 鈍感力]: Made popular by Donkanryoku (The Power of Insensitivity), a best-selling book written by popular novelist Junichi Watanabe, this expression means something like “thick skin” and refers to the ability to live in a relaxed manner without getting worked up over the little things.
35. Tetsuko [鉄子]: The unhealthy obsession with trains has long been a predominantly male pursuit, but the numbers of female train otaku — known as “Tetsuko” — are on the rise. [More]
40. Dark website [yami site - 闇サイト]: Yami sites (”dark websites”) are online networking sites where people can take out hit contracts on others, make illegal transactions (drugs, fake bank accounts, hacked cellphones, prostitution, etc.), and meet suicide partners. Japan has seen a recent rise in the number of murders arranged through these web-based hotbeds of criminal activity.
55. Factory moe [koujou moe - 工場萌え]: This year saw a mini-boom in the off-the-wall genre of factory moe photo books focusing on the functional beauty of large-scale industrial plants.
(via Boing Boing)
Seen in a Times piece on amusing signs around the world, this sign is in Pune, India:
They do seem to have an appreciation of the full breadth of the English language in Pune.
Evolutionary psychologist and language specialist Steven Pinker has an article on the neurology and psychology of swearing, how obscene language differs from regular language and whence it gets its power to perturb:
The upshot is that a speaker or writer can use a taboo word to evoke an emotional response in an audience quite against their wishes. Thanks to the automatic nature of speech perception, an expletive kidnaps our attention and forces us to consider its unpleasant connotations. That makes all of us vulnerable to a mental assault whenever we are in earshot of other speakers, as if we were strapped to a chair and could be given a punch or a shock at any time. And this, in turn, raises the question of what kinds of concepts have the sort of unpleasant emotional charge that can make words for them taboo.
The historical root of swearing in English and many other languages is, oddly enough, religion. We see this in the Third Commandment, in the popularity of hell, damn, God, and Jesus Christ as expletives, and in many of the terms for taboo language itself: profanity (that which is not sacred), blasphemy (literally "evil speech" but, in practice, disrespect toward a deity), and swearing, cursing, and oaths, which originally were secured by the invocation of a deity or one of his symbols.
Ths secularization has rendered religious swear words less powerful, creative speakers have replaced them with words that have the same degree of affective clout according to the sensibilities of the day. This explains why taboo expressions can have such baffling syntax and semantics. To take just one example, why do people use the ungrammatical Fuck you? And why does no one have a clear sense of what, exactly, Fuck you means? (Some people guess "fuck yourself," others "get fucked," and still others "I will fuck you," but none of these hunches is compelling.) The most likely explanation is that these grammatically baffling curses originated in more intelligible religious curses during the transition from religious to sexual and scatological swearing in English-speaking countries:Pinker goes on to discuss the correlation between the hierarchy of obscene words functions and the disease-carrying power of the substances involved, the social forces behind sexual taboos, and concludes that, since obscene language does have power, it should neither be proscribed outright nor used thoughtlessly:
- Who (in) the hell are you? >> Who the fuck are you?
- Holy Mary! >> Holy shit! Holy fuck!
- Damn you! >> Fuck you!
The common denominator of taboo words is the act of forcing a disagreeable thought on someone, and it's worth considering how often one really wants one's audience to be reminded of excrement, urine, and exploitative sex. Even in its mildest form, intended only to keep the listener's attention, the lazy use of profanity can feel like a series of jabs in the ribs. They are annoying to the listener and a confession by the speaker that he can think of no other way to make his words worth attending to. It's all the more damning for writers, who have the luxury of choosing their words off-line from the half-million-word phantasmagoria of the English language.
When Norman Mailer wrote his true-to-life novel about World War II, The Naked and the Dead, in 1948, his compromise with the sensibilities of the day was to have soldiers use the pseudo-epithet fug. (When Dorothy Parker met him, she said, "So you're the man who doesn't know how to spell fuck.") Sadly, this prissiness is not a thing of the past: Some public television stations today fear broadcasting Ken Burns' documentary on World War II because of the salty language in his interviews with veterans. The prohibition against swearing in broadcast media makes artists and historians into liars and subverts the responsibility of grown-ups to learn how life is lived in worlds distant from their own.
(via Mind Hacks)
A new book takes to task the accepted belief that men and women think and/or communicate differently, as expounded by popular psychology books like Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus:
The bones of Cameron’s argument, set out in The Myth of Mars and Venus, are that Gray et al have no scientific basis for their claims. Great sheaves of academic papers, says Cameron, show that the language skills of men and women are almost identical. Indeed, the central tenets of the Mars and Venus culture – that women talk more than men, that men are more direct, that women are more verbally skilled – can all be debunked by scientific research. A recent study in the American journal Science, for instance, found men and women speak almost exactly the same number of words a day: 16,000.
Where the book becomes interesting is when she asks why we have become interested in these myths. “The first point to make is that in the past 20 years we have become obsessed by communication,” she says. “And that’s not just in relationships; it’s in customer care, it’s in politics. All problems are seen to be communication problems.
Cameron is not simply irritated that the Mars and Venus books have filled too many Christmas stockings. Her fervour on this issue runs deeper. There is, she thinks, something regressive, deeply conservative, in this outlook because what it seems to be saying is that we can’t change.The author, Deborah Cameron, is a feminist philologist and Rupert Murdoch professor of Language at Oxford (really); other than the Mars-and-Venus brigade, she has in her sights Darwinists (which, I'm guessing, means the likes of Steven Pinker and/or Richard Dawkins), Tories, man-hating "pseudo-feminists" and punctuation/grammar pedants:
“You had people like Prince Charles and Norman Tebbit inferring that if people were making spelling mistakes it was only a short step to them coming in dirty to school and then there’d be no motivation for them to stay out of crime,” says Cameron. “There were these illogical slippery slope arguments: how, if children didn’t know how to use the colon properly, it was only a few steps from drug-taking and criminality. There was a deep moral and social dimension to it all.
Word of the day: Mojibake (n): the phenomenon of text on a computer rendering as garbage characters because of an incorrect character encoding being used to read it. (From the Japanese 文字 (moji; letter or character), and 化ける (bakeru; to appear in disguise, to take the form of, to change for the worse).
British menswear chain Burton has egg on its face after it emerged that the decorative Cyrillic text on a T-shirt it was selling was actually an extreme-right anti-immigrant slogan, translating as "We will cleanse Russia of all non-Russians":
The shirt's overall design is an odd jumble of ersatz French logo and Russian iconography, but there is no mistaking the nature of the sentiment, which uses the old word for Russia, "Rus" as a way of distinguishing between ethnic Russians and those with Russian citizenship. "I've spoken to a Russian friend," says Mr Shuttleworth, "and she said you would be arrested if you wore it in Russia."
The phrase is typical of those painted on foreigners' homes by Russian neo-nazis.Burton has blamed one of its suppliers for the gaffe, saying it was told that the slogan read merely "be proud of Russia".
An African-American woman in Toronto who recently bought a sofa was shocked to find that it was labelled with racial epithets. Packaging on the chocolate-coloured sofa described it as "Color:Nigger-brown".
"She's very curious and she started reading the labels," Moore explained. "She said, `Mommy, what is nig ... ger brown?' I went over and just couldn't believe my eyes."The retailer blamed the incident on the manufacturer in Guangzhou, China.
This is not the only incident of English-language labels on imported products having been written seemingly with ignorance of taboo words. One I heard about involved the assembly instructions for a piece of furniture. Next to a diagram of a screw being driven into a hole was the one-word instruction, "Fuck".
This year's crop of pre-Christmas advertising in London includes campaigns from various charities, suggesting that people buy, as gifts for their loved ones, items of aid for people in developing countries. Oxfam's version of this campaign, titled "Famously Funusual Gifts", seemed particularly strained:
Other than "funusual" being a somewhat cringeworthy neologism, it is also inaccurate. One can say a lot of good things about giving someone a certificate that their gift was a goat for an African village or a combination children's playground and water pump: it can be worthy, enlightened, socially aware, and, yes, unusual. However, to say it is "fun" is somewhat of a stretch. One might get a lot of satisfaction, a feeling of wellbeing or worthiness, or (more uncharitably) a smug sense of moral and cultural superiority over the Sun-reading philistines who merely got a new plasma-screen TV for Christmas; however, none of these emotions are usually classified as "fun". Even if the certificate one gets in lieu of a present is set in Comic Sans and festooned with quirky cartoons.
This use of "fun" sounds like a potential neologism in the making; perhaps we will see the meaning of "fun" change to refer to something that's not particularly enjoyable though one is obliged, by social pressure, to grin and bear it and pretend that it is in order to keep up appearances of worthiness or superiority. ("This village toilet is the best gift ever; so much better than a Nintendo Wii.") Eventually, the implicit sarcasm will seep into the word "fun", and its original meaning will go the way of other words like "gay" and "special": "That sounds totally fun. Let's go do something else instead."
Last.fm is currently temporarily down, and displaying a grey page with text, in various languages, informing the user of this fact.
Interestingly enough, the English message reads:
We're sorry, but our database servers are currently overloaded. Please enjoy a quick cup of tea and then try refreshing this page.whereas the Italian one reads:
Siamo spiacenti ma i nostri server sono momentaneamente sovraccaricati. Gustatevi un caffè veloce e provate ad aggiornare questa pagina.Which, literally, invites the user to have a cup of coffee (which, when one thinks about it, is more culturally appropriate than literally translating it to a cup of tea).
The Portuguese translation seems to also mention coffee, though the French, German and Polish ones seem to stick with tea; the Spanish one doesn't seem to mention any beverage. I don't know what the Russian, Japanese or others say.
Which gives a concise tea-vs.-coffee map of European cultures. And it made me wonder whether, were it written in Australian English, it would refer to coffee rather than tea. And what about American English? Perhaps "please enjoy a Mega-Grande Lattucino™" or something?
A Times columnist's take on France24 and those silly French people:
Since, alongside the news , the new state-funded France 24 channel sees itself as an ambassador for the French "art de vivre" (French for "way of life") and for its "savoir faire" ("rural snail-tasting festivals"), the channel launched at 7.29 GMT yesterday evening -- presumably in order to allow staff and viewers to first knock back a couple of reviving Pernods after their return from the traditional Gallic post-work/pre-dinner bout of hanky-panky ("mouchoir-pouchoir").
That means that at the time of writing, we don't actually know what the opening headlines were. But we might guess they were something along the lines of, "Iraq, c'est encore un grand mess, n'est-ce pas?" (literally, "That George Bush is a dork, isn't he?"); And "L'Angleterre evidemment a une équipe de cricket qui joue comme un bunch de garçons de Nancy -- pas, obvieusement, notre Nancy en Lorraine!"); though maybe not, "Et maintenant, les actualités chaud directe de Rwanda ...").
France 24 is basically a TV channel for a nation that is annoyed that it has failed to persuade the rest of the world to speak French rather than English (apart from -- and this really embarrasses them -- the word gauche, which is the universally used term for "Donald Rumsfeld").Aside: I wonder which variant of English France24 will use: whether it'll be broadcast in the Commonwealth English of their ancient adversaries and fellow EU members across la Manche, or the American English of their former revolutionary protegés and historical friends, recently seen eating Freedom Fries and putting "First Iraq, then France" bumper stickers on their Hummers.
BBC News Magazine has a piece on subversions of office jargon:
Enough with all this blue sky thinking in the workplace. Not just because the phrase is yet another example of meaningless office twaddle. But because it is time for some red sky thinking, the signal, in these darkening autumn days, that it is nearly time to go home.
A polidiot is someone promoted beyond their abilities thanks to their political skills. How to spot them? Well, they will be the ones testiculating - waving their arms around while talking nonsense. Often supported by a backing singer, that familiar person in a meeting who doesn't contribute their own ideas but just nods along with the boss.
But spare a thought for Valerie; hard at work, but baffled. At her office, the mission is to herd the dinosaurs to the right end of the cricket green. What does it mean? She has no idea.And then there are terms like "raise the bar on this" (leave it for the pub), and "expectation management" (or what the boss wants to hear).
The BBC has an interesting article on South Asian influences on colloquial English, from "Hinglish" as spoken in India to contemporary British slang:
And the dictionary identifies how the ubiquitous "innit" was absorbed into British Asian speech via "haina" - a Hindi tag phrase, stuck on the sentences and meaning "is no?".
This collision of languages has generated some flavoursome phrases. If you're feeling "glassy" it means you need a drink. And a "timepass" is a way of distracting yourself. A hooligan is a "badmash" and if you need to bring a meeting forward, you do the opposite of postponing - in Hinglish you can "prepone".
There are also some evocatively archaic phrases - such as "stepney", which in south Asia is used to mean a spare, as in spare wheel, spare mobile or even, "insultingly, it must be said, a mistress," says Ms Mahal. Its origins aren't in Stepney, east London, but Stepney Street in Llanelli, Wales, where a popular brand of spare tyre was once manufactured
According to Conrad Heiney, one of the worst things you can call someone these days is "well-meaning":
A well-meaning person is always doing the wrong thing. The phrase encompasses many sins. The well-meaning person is presumed to be ignorant of the world's harsh ways, naive, gullible, and full of an unwarranted optimism especially about human nature. Arrogance or at least hubris is implied too, in that well-meaning people have an exaggerated view of their own ability to improve things.
One thing is certain: well-meaning people always make things worse. They're always trying to feed babies when the real problem is that parents won't work. Or getting in the way of a war because of the horrors thereof when the real problem can only be solved by winning the war. Or providing shelter for the poor when the real problem is the oppressive system that keeps them poor. Well-meaning people always seem to have band-aid solutions and don't see the picture. Their attempts to make things better always result in disaster because of something called the Law of Unintended Consequences which says that every time you do something that seems to mean well it will mean more trouble later on, in the larger scheme of things.
This is a place where Social Darwinism, Marxism, and Malthusian pessimism meet after having been thoroughly dumbed down into one idea: don't try to be good. The task is impossible and will make you into a victim yourself. Worse still, it will obstruct the natural way of things which eventually resolves conflicts. The Tao of this worldview is cruelty, and you must flow with it.
The word "aggressive" is entirely positive in all contexts. It has come to mean "effective," and anything labeled "passive" is by definition a failure. One roots out crime aggressively, and also treats disease aggressively, and even an aggressive prose style is given the seal of approval.
I urge you to resist this. Mean well.
An addendum to the Swedish indie-pop post made yesterday: Jim tells me that government-funding of indie music does happen in Britain—in Wales:
Many of the small bands and record labels here are part-funded by the Welsh Language Board. Who knows what'll happen to that funding once the Welsh Language Board is shut down, folded into the rest of the Assembly by Rhodri Morgan's "Bonfire of the Quangos." But here's an example - the Board have just released the new "Dan y Cownter 2" CD, which anyone can have for free, showcasing 10 bands on 10 different labels. If you want a copy, just email email@example.com. You don't even have to do it in Welsh. Review here. Sorry to sound like an advert, but it's an excellent thing.There is indeed a vibrant music scene in Wales (Jim played me some examples, from the early 1980s to the present day, when I was last in Aberystwyth, along with commentary and translations), and a lot happening there creatively, with both the eisteddfod tradition and local government funding helping.
Of course, the key difference between Welsh and Swedish indie pop is that the Swedes usually sing in English. I guess it helps that the English never colonised Sweden and tried to extinguish its language.
The Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles has revoked an elderly woman's custom license plates because they had become obscene. Pat Niple had had the number plates reading "NWTF" (standing for "Northwood Tree Farm", a business she had owned) for more than a decade, and had had no problems with them—until this year, when they fell foul of technologically-mediated language change:
"Apparently, the young people use it on the computer," she said.
Niple went to a BMV office to get some answers. A clerk had to whisper what the acronym means to some people.
"Now what the -- and the last word begins with an f," Niple said. "I said, 'You got to be kidding me.'"
Discovery of the day: there is a Scots edition of Wikipedia (or "Wikipædia", as it's known in Scots). That's written in the Scots language, which is descended from Middle English, and is just about comprehensible to English speakers. (Though while it may look like English with funny spellings and odd words, it should not be mistaken for Scotched English; not only that but one should be wary of artificial attempts to make it more English-like, such as the nefarious apologetic apostrophe). In it you will find 1,573 articles about various subjects, including (naturally) Scotland, the "Unitit Kinrick" and Europe, the "mathematical an naitral sciences", "airt an cultur", "applee'd sciences an industry", "daily life an leisur" and "ither", as well as on written Scots and a Scots-English dictionary. Also, the Scots for "search" is "rake" (though "Edit" appears to be the same as in English; either that or MediaWiki doesn't let one change this), and some articles begin with the disclaimer:
The "Scots" that wis uised in this airticle wisna written by a native speaker. Gin ye can, please sort it.
The producers of an independent film have ended up with egg on their face after accidentally using an offensive word for the Catalan language in their DVD subtitle menu. The author of the DVD, not being familiar with the 30 or so languages the subtitles are in, went to Wikipedia to look up the various languages' names for themselves, and just happened to hit the page on Catalan immediately after some vandal had changed the name for the language to be "Polaco", an abusive term for Catalan people (literally meaning, oddly enough, "Polish person"). The Wikipedia page was changed soon afterward, but the author didn't find out about the mistake until the DVDs with the insulting term had been sent out. Oops!
There's a fairly interesting paper on the status of the word "fuck" in US law, and the irrational power that word taboos have in our seemingly enlightened society.
A trilogy of events motivated me to start this project. The first occurred during my second year of law teaching. In my Professional Responsibility course, the lesson for the day was attorney racist and sexist behavior. The case I assigned from a leading casebook was liberally sprinkled with fuck, cunt, shit, bitch and the like. Sensitive to the power of language, I recited the facts myself rather than ask a student as was my norm. After the course was over, I was reviewing my student evaluations and discovered this: "I was a little disturbed by the way he seemed to delight in saying 'cunt' and 'fucking bitch' during class. I think if you're going to say things like that in class, you should expect it to show up on the evaluation."
Three legally trained minds--a law student, a law enforcement officer, and a federal judge--each heard the word fuck and suddenly lost the ability to calmly, objectively, and rationally react. If fuck has power over these people, what are the limits of its influence?It has some interesting factoids, such as:
Of particular interest to the lawyer-lexicographer is the suggestion of an Egyptian root petcha (to copulate). During the last Egyptian dynasties, legal documents were sealed with the phrase, "As for him who shall disregard it, may he be fucked by a donkey." The hieroglyphic for the phrase--two large erect penises---makes the message clear.The author of the piece (which is titled, simply, "Fuck") makes it clear that he regards word taboos as irrational and unworthy of a place in rational discourse, and as such never avoids using the word where there is an option. Oddly enough, he also seems to refuse to put quotes around it, even when discussing the word "fuck" itself rather than what it refers to, as if doing so would be an unacceptable surrender to the Prim And Proper Language Police.
(via Boing Boing)
Seen on the care instructions label attached to a piece of clothing from Swedish retailer H&M:
What I'm wondering is: why are Americans advised to "wash with like colors" while Britons are instructed to "wash with similar colours"? Would there be any danger of anyone fluent in either dialect misunderstanding the other? Is "similar" in this context a conspicuously un-American usage, or "like" a shocking mangling of the Queen's English?
A fairly comprehensive explanation of l33tspeak, its origins, variations (including B1FF/newbie/OMGWTFBBQ!!!1!-speak) and cultural connotations. Also, an article on the "-izzle" suffix in hip-hop slang, and Anglicisms in German.
(via bOING bOING)
An interesting account from the recent Ukrainian election, which pitted the country's Russian population (a legacy of Stalin's mass population transplants) against its Ukrainian-speaking one:
The sense of persecution was not alleviated by a spectacular official cock-up in the run up to the election, which left many disenfranchised. Computer software translated Russian names into Ukrainian ones. Mr Shkvortsov (Mr Starling) became Mr Shpak and could not vote because his passport did not match the electoral roll.
The other day, I was in this fancy Italian/French restaurant (where I had Escargot, but that's another story) and so they had fancy English under the usual Chinese names. They're pretty accurate, until I read about desserts. Under the Chinese for cheesecake, was the English word, "Wikipedia".
From a BBC News 24 story last night, about some disturbed individual who was shot by air marshals after claiming to have a bomb:
The BBC's H2G2 project (which is sort of like a parallel-universe Wikipedia or something) has a wonderfully informative piece on the history and use of British swear words:
Legend has it that in the 1950s, construction kits like Meccano would be sold in boxes of various sizes. The list of contents which came with the standard size box would be headed 'Box, Standard' (which elided into 'bog standard' when spoken) and the larger box was the 'Box, Deluxe' which was spoonerised to create the phrase 'The Dog's B******s'. This is such a satisfying explanation for two common forms of British English usage that one really wants it to be true.
The word would appear to have entered the English language during the early Middle Ages; in 1230AD, both Oxford and London boasted districts called 'Gropecunte Lane', in reference to the prostitutes that worked there. The Oxford lane was later renamed the slightly less-contentious Magpie Lane, while London's version retained a sense of euphemism when it was changed to 'Threadneedle Street'. Records do not show whether it was a decision of intentional irony that eventually placed the Bank of England there.
In 1999, Conservative Future - the youth wing of the Conservative Party - started using the logo 'CFUK'. Sadly, this got them into trouble with the clothing company French Connection UK, who had recently rebranded themselves 'fcuk'. It is strange to think that there may be an entire generation who, like Norman Mailer, cannot spell the word.
In 1987, the American soul group The Tams had a Top 30 UK hit with a song called There Ain't Nothing Like Shaggin'. They were probably rather puzzled to hear that what they regarded as an innocent little ditty about a dance craze was having trouble getting airplay in Britain.
The poet Robert Graves wrote a very odd little book called Lars Porsena, or The Future of Swearing and Improper Language. Writing in the 1920s, he claimed that there was an definite class difference in the use of the words 'bastard' and 'bugger'. He claimed that in the working class, people might well be sensitive about illegitimacy, but were often unfamiliar with homosexuality, and so bastard was a mortal insult and bugger was a much milder term. The severity was reversed in the upper classes, who had nice traceable bloodlines and a boarding-school education. He claimed that bugger was a much more serious insult in upper-class circles, where people were more likely to believe it.
Some highlights from a new book of nuance-laden foreign words:
And then there are the numerous Albanian words for types of facial hair, the name of an Inuit party game which literally translates as "frozen walrus carcass", and the Easter Island Pascuense word "tingo", as used in the book's title, which means "to borrow objects from a friend's house, one by one, until there's nothing left".
- "backpfeifengesicht" - German for "a face that cries out for a fist in it"
- "bakku-shan" - a girl who appears pretty from behind but not from the front (Japanese)
- "drachenfutter" - peace offerings made by guilty husbands to their wives (German; literally "dragon fodder")
- "koshatnik" - A seller of stolen cats (Russian)
- "Kummerspeck" - weight gained from emotion-related overeating (German; literally "grief bacon")
- "uitwaaien" - walking in windy weather for fun (Dutch)
(via bOING bOING)
The residents of the Austrian village of Fucking are sick of English speakers finding treating their village as a joke (and stealing their road signs); however, the Daily Telegraph's writers obviously aren't:
"Let's just say there are plans in place to deal with this," the Kommandant warned darkly. "What they are, I am not at liberty to disclose, but we will not stand for the F---ing signs being removed. It may be very amusing for you British, but F---ing is simply F---ing to us. What is this big F---ing joke? It is puerile."
"The Germans all want to see the Mozart house in Salzburg. Italians and Russians always celebrate New Year here. Every American seems to care only about The Sound of Music (filmed around Salzburg in 1965). The occasional Japanese wants to see Hitler's birthplace in Braunau. But for the British, it's all about F---ing."
"Yet still there is this obsession with F---ing. Just this morning I had to tell an English lady who stopped by that there were no F---ing postcards."
His predecessor, Siegfried Hauppl, was equally dismissive when he was interrupted playing a game of Skat. "I am no longer the mayor so this F---ing problem is nothing to do with me," he growled, turning his back and studying his cards.
"The older people don't like being laughed at by some of the younger ones from other villages, but we are proud of our beautiful F---ing."It's all rather Benny Hill, isn't it?
A lengthy compedium of essentialist explanations of various languages:
English is essentially bad Dutch with outrageously pronounced French and Latin vocabulary. --Eugene Holman
Australian English is essentially Cockney without the refinement. -- Öjevind Lâng
Swedish, Norwegian and Danish are actually the same language. It's just that the Norwegians can't spell it, and the Danes can't pronounce it. --Chlewey
Yiddish is essentially the Ebonics of German. --submanifold
Dutch is essentially English spoken whilst stoned, which pretty much explains all the double vowels --Keith Gaughan
French is essentially a language that elides everything that doesn't get out of the way fast enough, and nasalises everything else. --Peter Bleackley
Brazilian is essentially a conlang created by people who wanted to have sex all the time, but still be able to talk about everyday things. --alleszermalmer
Romanian is essentially a Romance language trying really hard to blend in with the Slavic languages around it. --Jesse S. Bangs
Romanian is essentially French pronounced as written. --Christian Thalmann
German and Polish are essentially the same, only there are too many "ß"s in Leftoderian writing, and too many "z"s in Rightoderian. --Andreas Johansson
Breton is essentially Welsh with all the consonants changed to "z". --Thomas Leigh
Welsh is essentially the only language that can have four consecutive L's. --Danny Weir
Star Trek is essentially a religion for secular humanists, and Klingon is its Latin. --Jeffrey Henning
(via bOING bOING)
Over the next week, the BBC has a special feature on dialects, accents and regional usages in the UK. As part of this series, a BBC reporter tries speaking in Received Pronounciation. the cut-glass proper English accent formerly known as "BBC English", but now only used by automated announcements on the Tube and effete, treacherous aristocrats in Hollywood movies:
For example, wedging a cork in my mouth and attempting to read lines from Julius Caesar was invaluable, helping me keep the tongue flat and speaking with restricted lip movement, but I did feel like a snake who had tried to open a wine bottle with his fangs, only to get stuck.
American tourists in particular seemed to love it, perhaps mistaking me for a Hugh Grant impersonator. A few were slightly scared by my over-enthusiastic use of the phrase "Dear fellow", but a woman named Judy seemed especially enamoured with the accent. "Can I take you home to the ranch?" she said in a rich Texan drawl.Also on the BBC in the Voices series: language change and (the myth of) Americanisation, the language of love, and the language of the love that (once) dare not speak its name, or "Polari".
A look at English subtitles on a Chinese pirate version of Revenge of the Sith. Curiously enough, the subtitles seem to have been translated from the Chinese translation by someone with All-Your-Base-level English-language proficiency, who somehow didn't think of checking them against the spoken dialogue. Which is how we end up with "Revenge of the Sith" becoming "Backstroke of the West", a fighter pilot saying "He is in my behind", characters using the word "fuck" randomly, and, best of all, "Jedi Council" translating as "Presbyterian Church".
Cross-cultural artefact of the day: ABC guidelines on how to refer to deceased Aboriginal people (PDF), referring to the common Aboriginal tradition prohibiting the use of the personal names of the recently deceased:
People who share the personal name of the deceased person--including English names--will very often temporarily or permanently adopt another personal name.
In central Australia, the construction "Kumanjayi"--and variants--are used to replace the personal name of the deceased, and is very commonly taken on by people who share the same or similar sounding personal name&emdash... Again as an example, the main town of central Australia was referred to by members of some communities as "Kumanjayi Springs", after the death of a woman called Alice. In the latter case, it could hardly be expected a media organisation should follow this practice!
I once read that one reason why the vocabularies Australian Aboriginal languages changed relatively rapidly was that often the names for various things would be changed if they sounded much like the names of recently deceased people.
(via ABC MediaWatch)
Former NME editor Paul Morley comments on the spectacle of Glen Matlock complaining about the amount of swearing on TV, and asks whether the former Sex Pistol, now a middle-aged family man, has turned against what he stood for, whether he really stood for it in the first place, or whether he has a point:
Clearly, Matlock has decided that as a musician, as an entertainer, he is going to grow old gracefully, even if this means spending most of his time as an unknown. He will not be an expletive-packing Pistol cursing freely into his 50s and 60s, committed to the cause of perpetuating a wild image even as the wrinkles deepen, the flesh softens and the desire crumples. Gene Simmons of Kiss, Alice Cooper, indeed Lemmy are not the right role models for Matlock as he approaches 50, which even if it is the new 40 is not really close enough to the magic years of the 20s where in the old-fashioned sense you can, in a dignified way, wreck yourself, and possibly elements of surrounding civilisation.
Then again, those of us who are watching rich celeb chef Jamie Oliver swear his way through his school dinners show actually might agree with Matlock that there really is too much swearing on television. Middle-of-the-road TV programming freely tosses in the obscenities to suggest there is grit and realism where really there is just frantic emptiness. Matlock might actually be anxious that the swearing is in the wrong mouths, that dull people are exploiting mock controversy as an easy route to commercial attention and that as an ex-Pistol who witnessed the Grundy incident he's responsible for that, and embarrassed by it.
Via found, a fascinating essay (PDF; ugly Google HTMLification available here) exploring the reasons why virtually every language in the world has words like "mama" and "papa" for "mother" and "father" (or sometimes vice versa). And no, it has nothing to do with any notion of those words having been inherited, miraculously unchanged, from a single ancestral language (the "Proto-World" hypothesis, now more or less universally derided among linguists, though still having a seductive popular appeal to the untrained, much like astrology or new-age mysticism), as the essay demonstrates.
The conclusion is inescapable. The mama/papa words are not fossilized relics of some ancient ancestral language at all. Instead, they are being created all the time. New examples of mama/papa words are constantly being invented and passing into use. At first these new words survive alongside the older ones as informal or intimate versions, but eventually they may take over completely and drive the older words out of the language.
The new examples, it is hypothesised, come from the sound babies make during their babbling phase. A babbling infant isn't trying to speak, but rather calibrating its vocal chords, though that doesn't prevent the proud parents from picking out its sounds and adopting them as informal terms for "mother" and "father" (and occasionally other things in the environment, such as older siblings or relatives; such words for younger siblings are conspicuously absent, as the theory would predict). The word sticks, and the child grows up calling its mother "mama" or similar. These new-formed words fall onto the conveyor belt of language, gradually fossilise into more formal forms, and ultimately fall into disuse as newer, fresher words take their place.
Rats have been trained to tell the difference between spoken Japanese and Dutch. (via bOING bOING, who immediately saw the biowar potential of such developments)
William Safire looks at current youth slang (via gths). Though I thought that "crunk" meant parent-scaringly extreme in an aggressively sexualised way, like one of the growing numbers of porn videos by rappers, rather than merely "crazy drunk". (And does anybody actually use "dropping the kids off at the pool"? It sounds about as contrived as "crimping off a length".)
The latest Orwellian threat to democratic discourse is verbless language, à la Teflon Tony Blair:
Humphrys notes Blair's apparent fear of verbs and mocks his speeches, which are peppered with verbless phrases like "new challenges, new ideas," or "for our young people, a brighter future" and "the age of achievement, at home and abroad".
By using this technique, Humphrys says, Blair is simply evading responsibility.
"The point about verbs is that they commit the speaker," he writes. "Verbs cement sentences to their meaning so it's not surprising that politicians tend to mistrust them."
(via bOING bOING)
Factoid of the day:
Many have conjectured that the word "Duck" is the funniest word in the English language. This was popularized by the Marx Brothers comedy Duck Soup, considered by some to be the funniest movie ever made. This might have more to do with the actual animal than the English word for it, as in 2002, after conducting a scientific cross-cultural joke experiment known as LaughLab, psychologist Richard Wiseman concluded that ducks are funny in all the studied countries: "If you're going to tell a joke involving an animal, make it a duck."
- Wikipedia: "inherently funny word"
A list of secrets of various occupations; small, inconsequential-seeming things which make a difference in the perceived competence of the practitioner: (via FmH)
Every actor eventually is called upon to act drunk. Most do this by slurring their speech, stumbling around, and perhaps drooling a bit. This is what a freshman drama teacher calls "indicating." A better way to appear drunk is to act very, very sober. Walk very carefully, and try not to let anyone see that you're inebriated. This is much more subtle and will register on a level the audience won't immediately recognize.
Always put copper grease on the battery terminals after servicing a car. The performance benefit is negligible, but when customers look under the hood they will immediately see that something's changed and thus feel happy to pay you.
In Australia, the butchers have a secret language called "rechtub klat" that they use to gossip about customers without getting caught. The code is formed by speaking words backward. Old-timers could have entire conversations in the language, but these days a core vocabulary of about 20 to 30 essential words are used...
If you can't think of a headline for a story, use one of these three magic verbs: "weighs," "mulls," or "considers."...
A better German map of the London Underground, with the names of the stations translated etymologically, as opposed to merely having been converted into macaronic pseudo-German. Some of the translations are fairly straightforward (i.e., "Inselgärten" and "Kamdenn Stadt", and, indeed, "Evangeliumseiche"), while others look nothing like the originals (how, for example, does one get from "Amersham" to "Egmundshof"; or, indeed, why does "Piccadilly" come across as "Nimm-Dill" in German?). Still, it's reassuring to know that Mile End is "Mellenende", and not "2.4km Ende".
The author, one Horst Prillinger, also has two English translations of the Vienna Underground; one seriously translated and one more flippantly. Interesting to see that Vienna shares one thing with Melbourne and Brisbane: they all have a Brunswick St.
Stupidity of the day: a nightclub night, advertised on the front of a street paper from a few weeks ago, calling itself "Le Belle Donne". If they're going to act all sophisticated and Frenchified, it would help if they actually got the word genders right.
A funny thing has happened on social-network site Orkut: by some quirk of social network dynamics, Brazilian Portuguese speakers now outnumber English speakers 2 to 1, and the Anglophones are getting a sudden taste of what it's like to be in a marginalised linguistic minority:
"Orkut maps one's social prestige, and Brazilians are by nature gregarious," said Beth Saad, a professor at the University of Sao Paulo's School of Communications and Arts.
Tammy Soldaat, a Canadian, got a sample of Brazilian wrath recently when she posted a message asking whether her community site on body piercing should be exclusive to people who speak English. Brazilian Orkut users quickly labeled her a "nazi" and "xenophobe."
"Since we can invite anyone we want at Orkut, and my friends are Brazilians, it doesn't make sense talking to them in English," Reis said in Portuguese. "I use the language I know." His compatriot Pablo Miyazawa has a more moderate view. "Brazilians have the right to create anything they want in any language they want," Miyazawa said. "The problem is to invade forums with specific languages and write in Portuguese. Brazilians are still learning how to behave in the Net."
This posits a dilemma: if English is no longer the language of the majority on Orkut, what reasonable rationale could there be for asking Brazilian users to use English in non-Brazilian-specific forums, rather than asking English-speakers to learn Portuguese (the new majority language)? Not so much on one web site (where the management could, in theory, dictate the site's language) but on the internet at large. I wonder how long it will be until (American) English is displaced as the global language and Americans/Australians/Britons have to learn another language (be it Portuguese, Chinese or something else) to engage in the intellectual mainstream of internet discourse, or else become increasingly marginalised and ghettoised?
One of the batch of Gmail invites that has recently flooded the streets has ended up in my hands, and hence I've been able to have a look at it.
- Gmail user names must have at least 6 characters, so über-l33t names like, say, "acb" are out. One fewer reason to angst about all the good names having been snapped up by early adopters, big spenders and well-connected digerati.
- If your desired ID is unavailable, it gives you a number of options; i.e.,
- Gmail sends mail in plain text, and not HTML as some broken services (*cough*Hotmail*cough*) do. This is good.
- Gmail still doesn't seem to have POP or IMAP, either incoming or outgoing. Which is going to make downloading one's mail tricky.
Aside: This site has some concerns about Gmail's privacy implications. Granted, the somewhat eccentric graphics on the site give off a paranoid-crackpot vibe; however, some of the issues raised are concerning:
If Google builds a database of keywords associated with email addresses, the potential for abuse is staggering. Google could grow a database that spits out the email addresses of those who used those keywords. How about words such as "box cutters" in the same email as "airline schedules"? Can you think of anyone who might be interested in obtaining a list of email addresses for that particular combination? Or how about "mp3" with "download"? Since the RIAA has sent subpoenas to Internet service providers and universities in an effort to identify copyright abusers, why should we expect Gmail to be off-limits?
Does anybody know whether the RIAA or an equivalent agency would have an easier time ordering Google to hand over a list of all people with the words "mp3" and "download" in their mail than they would of ordering an ordinary ISP to give them access to customers' mail spools? (Mind you, the latter happened in Australia; ARIA did get access to student mail at various universities.)
Some handy Aramaic phrases for those going to see
Mel Gibson's answer to Battlefield Earth the Greatest Blockbuster Ever Sold. Includes ones like "Sorry I'm late. Have I missed any scourging?", "Yes, I'm Jewish, but I wasn't there that day", and "it sort of reminds me of Life of Brian, but it's nowhere near as funny".
(via bOING bOING)
I saw The City of Lost Children at the Astor last night. One thing I've noticed is that the subtitles on the Australian theatrical release (which I've seen about thrice over the past decade) and those on the US (Sony) DVD release use different translations of the dialogue (for example, the first line of the clone's singsong in the US DVD is translated as "I am a gnome, a bag of bones", but appears in the theatrical release as "I am a midget, a flibbertigibbet"). Funnily enough, the translation used in the theatrical release appears to be American, or at least in American English (for instance, the clones address their stepmother as "Mom").
Two tidbits in the news: smugglers in Algeria are using donkeys fitted with tape recorders for smuggling goods to Morocco; the tape recorders instruct the unaccompanied donkeys to keep walking. Meanwhile, in a gaffe reminiscent of the Mitsubishi Pajero, British curry giant Sharwoods have discovered, much to their dismay, that the name of their new "deliciously rich" curry sauces, looks like the Punjabi word for "arse". The word is "bundh", which can be transliterated and pronounced in two ways, with comically divergent meanings.
In his Jargon File, Eric S. Raymond argues that using the word "hacker" to mean "someone who breaks into computers" as opposed to "intellectually curious tinkerer" is deprecated and factually incorrect. Someone named Raven Black has a good rant about why ESR is wrong:
The Jargon File talks absolute bollocks about the word hacker. It claims that using it as a synonym of cracker is deprecated. No it's bloody not, Mr Jargon File, it's common usage, quite the opposite. What you mean is you, like Mr How To Become A Hacker, want it to be deprecated because you want your precious word back, just like wiccans claim that witch means wiccan even though it's fucking obvious that common usage has it meaning the green evil warty cauldron broomstick variety. Claiming that the common usage is deprecated just gets those people you'd have call themselves hackers (or witches) into trouble when they do so in non-wanker company and are misunderstood.
Mr. Black proposes a new word (akin to "wiccan" for "witch") to be used for the benign meaning of "hacker". The word proposed, however, is "phrenic", which sounds (a) about as daft as atheists calling themselves "Brights", and (b) like a plausible abbreviation for "schizophrenic" (much in the way that "tard" is used as a derogatory term for the mentally challenged). Chances are if tinkerers started calling themselves "phrenics", the word would devolve to become a slang term for "weird and/or crazy person" in popular usage, applying to everybody from the mumbling, long-bearded programmer in the back office to the mumbling, dishevelled itinerant on the street corner.
Via Jim, this page of silly Tube maps, including one with the station names removed (see how many you can name), and this one in German (amusingly enough, Mile End is "2.4km Ende" in German). And here are some (mostly) sensible Tube maps; and a link to some brilliant stickers found added to line maps (I think I may have seen some of those when I was last over there).
An interesting and scholarly Grauniad article on the rise and fall of the word "fuck", formerly a sexual obscenity.
The decline is a matter of shifting taboos, says Jean Aitchison, the Oxford professor of language and communication... "In the last century, it was religious swearing that upset people," she says. "Then, in the mid-20th century, sexual swearing. But these days people get far more upset about politically incorrect language: nigger, and even mad, are quite taboo. "
The class issue remains an awkward one for fuck's supporters. The classier the accent, the more endearing (and figurative, rather than aggressive) it somehow sounds. Hugh Grant carried it off with aplomb (and a plum) in Four Weddings and a Funeral, and when a BBC Radio 3 announcer recently let slip a fuck on air, it caused little stir; the same station's drama output is a secret treasury of fucks. Yet when football manager Graham Taylor used it 32 times in a Cutting Edge documentary, it went down rather badly - especially with the popular newspapers, which remain squeamish about any word that might unsettle readers; the Sun even avoids "orgasm". Most non-broadsheets, when it is unavoidable, opt for f**k, which lets them, as Jones puts it, be "daring and prissy simultaneously".
The Gender Genie is a CGI implementation of the Koppel/Argamon algorithm for determining the sex of the author of a piece of text. The results are mixed; it accurately determined that Graham and Jim are male and that Beth, Beth and Shauna are female, though it also pegs Cos, Grant and Charlie Stross as female. It also thinks most of my blog entries are either female or sexually ambiguous (hmmm); however, my LiveJournal reads as unambiguously male. Odd...
Veteran English literary/cultural magazine The Spectator looks at Hinglish, the oddly ornate dialect of English used in India, laden with British Army metaphors, cricket terminology and quaintly archaic British slang that hasn't been heard in London since the 1930s:
Like so many good gags, `Official intimation' pops up in P.G. Wodehouse (Heavy Weather, chapter ten), whose books are to be found on every bookshelf of every bookshop in India. It is a safe bet that Wodehouse is the inspiration for many standard Hinglish-isms, viz a `quantum' (never a mere amount), `sans' (as in, he went out `sans' his coat), or, my favourite, `for the nonce'. An Indian acquaintance once playfully suggested that Wodehouse has a place in the elastic pantheon of Hindu gods.
More unappealing in tone is the ubiquity of 'mishap' to describe everything from massacres of peasants in rural India, the unspeakable daily carnage on India's roads, to the 1992 razing of the 16th-century Babri mosque at Ayodhya by allies and members of the present Hindu revivalist government. Newspapers are also guilty of inappropriate levity: 'A mosque in Tamil Nadu was bombed in the wee hours today.'
The Spectator (a somewhat conservative institution, though not in the dogmatic, anti-intellectual way associated with contemporary conservatism) presents Hinglish as a charming, if in places unnerving, phenomenon; progressive psychiatrist Eliot Gelwan, however, regards it as somewhat more sinister, a symptom of the "cultural schizophrenia" of a civilisation broken to the will of Victorian England, and suggests that the Spectator's fondness for it may be an artefact of its "cultural-imperialist attitude".
It looks like the major dictionaries are trying to outdo each other at being hip and up-to-the-minute and savvy to the latest street lingo. A while ago, the OED added a raft of neologisms including "bling-bling" and now the Collins English Dictionary has published its list of new words. As well as cultural phenomena ("Sars", "quidditch") there are neonconservative coinages (such as "regime change" and "road map"), SMS abbreviations ("gr8", "want 2tlk"), definitional terms for new aspirational classes ("yetties", "nylons") and even words scraped from WIRED Magazine's made-up jargon columns, like "idea hamster". (Come on; did anybody ever use the phrase "idea hamster" in a non-ironic sense?)
Jim informs us that the word "wibble" is now in the OED. How much do you want to bet that it'll stay in usage longer than some of the other new additions like "bling-bling" and so on?
Researchers at the Illinois Institute of Technology have written a program which identifies the sex of an author by their word usage frequency. Apparently women use relationship-related words like "with" and "for", whereas men use more specific and absolute words like "the", "this" and "as"; which brings us back to the old rock-logic/water-logic cliché.
The results showed that the words favoured most heavily by men were what grammarians call determinative words such as "the," "a," "as," "that" and "one." Female writers favoured "she" and relationship words such as "for," "with," "in," "and" and "not."
"This is surprising, since, unlike conversation, writing a book or an article does not involve direct social interaction"
Hmmm; if one wrote up such a program and applied it to, say, blogs on the web, I wonder what proportion it would sex accurately.
Update: the paper may be found here (though you have to subscribe to get the PDF). However, there is also a copy on the personal page of Prof. Moshe Koppel, one of the authors. And it appears that they're from Israel, not Illinois. (Perhaps the journalist confused the abbreviations?)
And now, some answers to the timeless question of what does "fo' shizzle my nizzle" mean: (via MeFi)
Originated in medival England in the 17th century, this phrase has changed in meaning completely, from the orignal shorthand denotation of "Alas! An advasary has come upon us! To the catupults!" to the modern definition of "Please grease up my penis."
nah, ya'lls know dat dis chea' mean, "for sure my endearing African-American acquaintance".
Numerous commentators have pointed out that the phrase is considered offensive when used by white people. Though aren't most people who say "fo' shizzle my nizzle" white suburban kids in big yellow shorts?
Amelioration is the linguistic phenomenon by which negative words or phrases lose their negative associations over time and become innocuous or even positive. Recent examples are "bad" (meaning 'good') and the likes of "shut up!"/"get outta here!" (generally translated as "you don't say?"). The phenomenon, however, is an old one: a classic example is "nice", which, until the 13th century, meant "stupid". (via MeFi)
If this is an ongoing process, one could extend it to the future; i.e., if you're writing a story set some decades from now, you could have some phrase currently found unambiguously offensive used in an innocuous way in the dialogue (i.e., in 2030, something like "go bugger yourself" will mean "really?". For extra points, make the phrase colourful and/or anatomically implausible.)
The latest development in Trustworthy Computing technology: NewCode, a programming language based on Orwellian principles. It is (theoretically) impossible to express security vulnerabilities in NewCode.
Renaming French fries to "Freedom fries" is for sissies; why not eliminate all words of French origin from the English language, asks the Christian Science Monitor? (via MeFi) Ðough if we're going to do someþing like ðat, I prefer ðe idea of modernising Old English to bypass ðe Norman influence; ðat way we get ðose doovy þ and ð characters back. (Why should ðe Icelanders have ðem all to ðemselves?)
"Quit hogging the victory blanket": During World War 1, America renamed sauerkraut and hamburgers to "liberty cabbage" and "liberty steak". Now, one US restaurant has renamed its french fries to "freedom fries".I wonder if it'll catch on.
Rowland said his intent is not to slight the French people, but to take a patriotic stance to show his support for the United States and the actions of President Bush. "It's our way of showing our patriotic pride," he said, noting that his business has a lot of local military troops as customers.
I wonder if he's taking the piss; why not just adopt the nomenclature of the old country (and America's most loyal
lapdogs allies) and call the dish "chips"?
(Actually, didn't the Americans coin the term "french fries" to distance themselves from their former colonial oppressors' language, instead aligning themselves with fellow post-Enlightenment revolutionary nation France?)
The results of the 2001 UK Census are in; use of Gaelic is in decline (though the decline is slowing), but Welsh is experiencing a resurgence (thanks to people like Jim). Meanwhile, Britain has 390,000 Jedi; 2.6% of yoof party centre Brighton and Hove reports its religion as Jedi, and university towns and the bohemian parts of south London also report high concentrations.
Beware the badly-translated Asian Two Towers bootleg DVD captions; some are oddly streetwise, like "Bring your pussy face to my ass" and "You gonna pick it up or what?"; and some, like Eomer saying "too long i wanted my sister" are just disturbing. (via MeFi)
A useful list of smutty phrases in French (cut out and keep in wallet or purse): (via MeFi)
English: "I don't give a shit!"
French: Je m'en bats les couilles
Literal translation: "I slap my balls against it!"
Not all that far away from "I unclog my nose towards you, sons of a window dresser!"
The British government official in charge of educational standards claims that a decline in family conversations is responsible for today's primary school students have the worst language skills in memory. Family conversations have devolved to a "daily grunt", a monosyllabic exchange, under pressure from long working hours and a TV-centred lifestyle. (via FmH)
(I wonder how this will tie in with the rise of the Internet and mobile phones; could we see a generation who have inarticulate verbal communication skills but can SMS rings around anyone today; a brave new world of grunting, nimble-thumbed cyber-cavemen? The interpersonal skills of a borderline-autistic IRC junkie could be the norm within a decade.)
The bizarre story of Solresol, a musical language, designed by a 19th-century French inventor, in which sequences of notes represent words.
The following June, the Paris newspaper La Quotidienne asked Sudre for a private demonstration. The paper's editor picked up his pen and scratched out a single word onto a slip of paper: "Victoire!" Sudre played a few notes on his violin. His students, in another room, dutifully translated this into perfect French. To the staff's bewilderment, Sudre then asked them to give him words in English, German, Spanish, Italian, Arabic, or Chinese... because he had already completed these dictionaries.
After its inventor passed away in 1862 or so, and Solresol soon vanished into obscurity, unable to compete against more user-friendly languages such as Volapuk and Esperanto. However, a revival is under way, led by various cryptographers, musicologists and miscellaneous enthusiasts across the world, with a website (unreachable at time of writing), proposed automated translation programs, and seven Solresol characters are apparently in the Unicode spec (though I couldn't find them). (via Found)
Word up, y'all! In an attempt to grab the lucrative black-identified-white-kids demographic, CNN plan to start using hip-hop phrases in headlines.
"In an effort to be sure we are as cutting-edge as possible with our on-screen persona, please refer to this slang dictionary when looking for just the right phrase," reads an internal Headline News memo obtained by the Daily News. "Please use this guide to help all you homeys and honeys add a new flava to your tickers and dekos."
Hmmm... middle-aged white people spouting hip-hop lingo on air; should make for some amusing sample material if nothing else. (via Plastic)
A NYTimes article about Verlan, a French argot spoken by immigrants and countercultural hipsters, in which words are arbitrarily reversed. I suppose it's sort of like a French equivalent of Palare, the English gay/carnival argot.
Thus the standard greeting "Bonjour, ça va?" or "Good day, how are you?" becomes "Jourbon, ça av?" "Une fête" (a party) has become "une teuf"; the word for woman or wife, femme, has become meuf; a café has become féca; and so on. The word Verlan itself is a Verlanization of the term l'envers, meaning "the reverse."
Originally a criminal argot in the 19th century, Verlan was adopted by second-generation immigrants after World War 2, and now by bourgeois trendies and rebellious teens. Perhaps not a small part of its countercultural appeal is going against the mainstream dogma of linguistic purism and sticking it to the Académie Française.
Ms. Lefkowitz explained: "There are now different kinds of Verlan. There is the Verlan of the original group, the working class immigrants from the banlieus. Then there is the Verlan of the urban professionals, bourgeois Verlan or `Verlan geoisbour.' There is also the Verlan of the teenagers who use it to distinguish themselves from the adult word as a game and a form of amusement."
Factoid of the day: Japanese has a word for the concept of slack. The word is "yutori" - to take it easy. It means having room or a surplus of something, be it time or money. (ta, Toby)
An article from The Age about Stereolab, who are touring this week.
"We are sometimes asked to re-record French songs in translation, usually for commercial reasons; day-time radio won't play anything foreign. But we really can't see the point. It's ridiculous - most English pop songs don't make much sense anyway.
US teen slang after the WTC attack. Attractive boys are "firefighter cute", petty concerns are "*sooo* Sept. 10", mean teachers are "terrorists", and weird kids (read: acceptable targets for bullying) are "Taliban". (via Reenhead)
A linguistics professor believes that space colonists' language would mutate rapidly, possibly becoming unintelligible to their Earthbound kin within decades, due to the different environment.
"This single, relatively homogeneous dialect will be noticeable with the first generation of children born on the space vehicle and will surely result in a dialect that differs from all the parents' dialect, and from every other dialect of English spoken on Earth," Thomason said.
The sexual marketplace: The greatest love letters in history have used the same techniques used by direct mail marketers.
In advertising, we must remember, honesty is a commodity that can be traded freely against expectations; since Henry (VIII) clearly didn't need Anne (Boleyn) as a repeat customer, he could afford to promise her more than his final cutthroat offer.
An interesting analysis of boy/girl bands, allegedly from an (unnamed) US study.
Percentage of unique words in lyrics. Average word length. Frequency of "love", "heart" and "baby". These were the criteria used by a US study of boy, girl and teen bands. The researchers picked albums by four of the biggest pop acts around - Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and 'N Sync - and pitted them against an album by Pink Floyd, their musical opposite.
"there is a scientifically proven relationship between how bad a band is and the number of times they sing the word 'baby' "
An interesting piece about the dominance of English, and the efforts made to preserve other languages from its encroachment:
In Hong Kong, by contrast, the new, Chinese masters are promoting Cantonese, to the concern of local business. And in India some people see English as an oppressive legacy of colonialism that should be exterminated. As long ago as 1908 Mohandas Gandhi was arguing that "to give millions a knowledge of English is to enslave them." Ninety years later the struggle was still being fought, with India's defence minister of the day, Mulayam Singh Yadav, vowing that he would not rest "until English is driven out of the country". Others, however, believe that it binds a nation of 800 tongues and dialects together, and connects it to the outside world to boot.
(Psychoceramic speculation: perhaps someone should try something like that in Australia; what's the point of becoming a republic if we still speak the tongue of our colonial oppressors? It may be politically correct to adopt and adapt an Aboriginal language (as has been done with Hebrew and Icelandic) as "Australian"; a committee of fashionable academics, bureaucrats and special-interest groups could be appointed to supervise the development of the language.)
[T]he Icelanders have readily adopted alnaemi for "AIDS", skjar for "video monitor" and toelva for "computer". Why? Partly because the new words are in fact mostly old ones: alnaemi means "vulnerable", skjar is the translucent membrane of amniotic sac that used to be stretched to "glaze" windows, and toelva is formed from the words for "digit" and "prophetess". Familiarity means these words are readily intelligible. But it also helps that Icelanders are intensely proud of both their language and their literature, and the urge to keep them going is strong
[M]ultilingualism, a commonplace among the least educated peoples of Africa, is now the norm among Dutch, Scandinavians and, increasingly, almost everyone else. Native English-speakers, however, are becoming less competent at other languages: only nine students graduated in Arabic from universities in the United States last year, and the British are the most monoglot of all the peoples of the EU . Thus the triumph of English not only destroys the tongues of others; it also isolates native English-speakers from the literature, history and ideas of other peoples. It is, in short, a thoroughly dubious triumph. But then who's for Esperanto? Not the staff of The Economist, that's for sure
Via Lukelog, some pages on Polari, a secret underground language used by London's gay community in less tolerant days: (1, 2, 3). Polari (sometimes spelled Palare) is believed to have originated from the lingua franca used by mediæval sailors and/or the slang used by carnival showmen, and contains elements from Italian, Yiddish, Romany and Shelta (the language of the Irish Travellers). It's the language in Morrissey's Piccadilly Palare (of course), and appears to be related to the argot used in an allegedly obscene verse, said to date from the time of the Crimean War, and quoted by Neil Gaiman in one of the Sandman books:
Nanty dinarly, the omee of the khazi,
said due bionc peroney, manjaree on the cross.
We'll all have to scarper the latty in the morning,
before the bona omee of the khazi shakes his doss.
Semiopathy is a condition which causes its victims to over-empathise with objects:
Kathy Haskard, meanwhile, tells us of the wave of sympathy that washed over her when she saw a sign on a country road in Tasmania saying: "Warning, depressed bridge ahead". Roger Lampert, on the other hand, was perhaps suffering more from semiophobia when, at an early age, he was deeply distressed by the sight of the local "family butcher".
Meanwhile, Sandy Henderson tells us that at Dunblane, near where he lives, is a sign that reads "Hummingbird House Training Centre". Henderson says he hadn't realised that hummingbirds needed house training, but it was very thoughtful of someone to set up a centre to provide it.
Do you have any similar examples to recount? If so, post them in the Comments.