Posts Tagged ‘culture’
March 30, 2016 | by Ryan Bradley
The linguist discusses how technology shapes culture and culture shapes words.
The first time Sarah “Sally” Thomason and I spoke, she’d just completed her annual two-day, eighteen-hundred-mile drive from her home in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where she teaches, to rural northwestern Montana, where she spends her summers studying Montana Salish. For thirty-four years, Thomason has been assembling a dictionary of this Native American language, which is spoken fluently by fewer than forty people. Thomason, a linguist, is fascinated by what happens when one language meets another, and how those languages change, or don’t. I had contacted her because I was interested in how certain words—say, e-mail, or google, or tweet—had been exported worldwide by American-born technology. I’d already called several linguists, and they all said I had to speak to Sally. No one, they said, had more insight into how linguistic traits travel, how pidgins and creoles are born, and how languages interact and change over time.
The French government tried very hard to resist American loanwords like e-mail, promoting in its place messagerie électronique or courriel. They’d formed a whole agency for this purpose. Laws were passed and enforced. And yet e-mail prevailed—it was simply more efficient. But Sally was especially excited about languages that resist such borrowing, even in the face of extraordinary cultural influence and dominance. Montana Salish was one such language. Our conversations followed a pattern: I arrived expecting one thing and ended up somewhere entirely distinct, thinking differently about language and human culture.
Is it fair to say that you study what happens when languages meet? Is meet too friendly a word? I suppose there’s a whole range of things that happen, and sometimes it’s friendly and sometimes it’s not.
Right, but having a language disappear because all the speakers got massacred is actually really rare. There are a couple of examples where all the speakers of some language got wiped out by a volcanic eruption on an island. And there are a couple of examples, at least one in this country, where almost everybody was wiped out by smallpox and then the remainder was lynched by a mob.
What languages are those? Read More »
November 9, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- Today in language and sensory perception: the verdict is in and English is a laughably inadequate language when it comes to describing scents. We must close the smell deficit, giving the olfactory its due in a mad rush of neologism. “In English, there are only three dedicated smell words—stinky, fragrant, and musty—and the first two are more about the smeller’s subjective experience than about the smelly thing itself … the Jahai people of Malaysia and the Maniq of Thailand use between twelve and fifteen dedicated smell words … ltpit describes the smell of a binturong or bear cat—a two-meter-long animal that looks like a shaggy, black-furred otter, and that famously smells of popcorn … Another word is used for the smell of petrol, smoke, bat droppings, some species of millipede, the root of wild ginger, the wood of wild mango, and more. One seems specific to roasted foods. And one refers to things like squirrel blood, rodents, crushed head lice, and other ‘bloody smells that attract tigers.’ ”
- In her quest to compile a kind of contemporary ars moriendi, Robyn K. Coggins has taken an exhaustive survey of how people would like to die: “Sometimes I think getting sniped while walking down the street is the best way to go. Short, sweet, surprising; no worries, no time for pain. Sure, it’d be traumatic as hell for the people nearby, but who knows—your death might spark a social movement, a yearlong news story that launches media, legal, and criminal justice careers. What a death!”
- I can think of where not to die: in Gore Vidal’s pool, which has apparently fallen into disuse. “The pool was … filled with dead fish with bruised purple backs hovering beneath the dark green surface. Abandoned sun chairs lay by the side.” You can change all that, though. Vidal’s 10,500-square-foot property on the Amalfi coast, La Rondinaia, is for sale for a cool $21.1 million. Invite me over once you’ve fixed the place up. Don’t let me die in the pool.
- Far beyond the walls of the academy, poets like Tyler Knott Gregson are pouring their hearts out online, putting forth page after page of unvarnished verse. They’ve found that most coveted thing: a wide readership. Gregson’s new book of haiku has a first printing of a hundred thousand copies; he “belongs to a new generation of young, digitally astute poets whose loyal online followings have helped catapult them onto the best-seller lists, where poetry books are scarce. These amateur poets are not winning literary awards, and most have never been in a graduate writing workshop … Their appeal lies in the unpolished flavor of their verses, which often read as if they were ripped from the pages of a diary … The rapid rise of Instapoets probably will not shake up the literary establishment, and their writing is unlikely to impress literary critics or purists who might sneer at conflating clicks with artistic quality. But they could reshape the lingering perception of poetry as a creative medium in decline.”
- In the late eighties, the artist Kembra Pfahler decided to sneak subversive commentary into the most accessible vehicle around: a rock band. “The first performance I ever did … was when I came home and looked around and there was nothing in the house except an egg. There wasn’t anything to use, I didn’t have a guitar, I had an egg. So I stood on my head and cracked an egg over it … I decided in 1989 to start a classic rock band … so I could slide the imagery into the consciousness of the viewer a little easier. This was The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black … The band allowed me to squeeze in all the strange images I’d been working on for all these years, what I now call my ‘manual of action,’ my own vocabulary of images: the sewn vagina; the egg piece; all of the costumes, like Abra Kedavour; the flowing anal bead shirt; the shark piece; the upside down Crucifix piece, where I hang upside down on the cross; the wall of vagina; the bowling ball piece. For the most part, the performances happened during the guitar solo, and were over before you knew what happened.”
July 10, 2015 | by Jeffery Gleaves
- Your extensive library is all vanity: Henry James’s novel The Portrait of a Lady warns against associating our books with status and considering them a marker of “the supposed growth of our intellect advertised in terms of shelf space.” Do you collect books, or do you actually read them?
- What happened to midrange film dramas? Maybe they just got better and look more like big pictures. Example: that “art film” aesthetic we like so much (hand-held camera work, low and bad lighting) is tied more to compromises made by directors with low budgets than to artistic choice, and yet these bad techniques are often misused as a markers of “artistic authenticity.” Film history has seen a number of these gambles and trade-offs, but not all have stuck: “there’s no connection between the short-term appeal of a movie and its artistic importance. Some aesthetic landmarks are profitable, some aren’t.”
- The comic-book publisher Drawn & Quarterly celebrates its twenty-fifth birthday this year, and everyone is excited because they’ve been doing the Lord’s work: “The D+Q backlist is rich in volumes that have been at the forefront of making comics an accepted literary and visual form—works by such prominent cartoonists as Lynda Barry, Art Spiegelman, Chris Ware, Chester Brown, Seth, Julie Doucet, Adrian Tomine, Yoshihiro Tatsumi.”
- Before you do your literary duty and read Go Set a Watchman, consider naming your child after your literary hero. If the trends tell us anything, we may be destined for a generation of Atticuses: “Harper, which nationwide ranked 887th for newborn girls in 2004, actually ranked 11th in 2014. Atticus rose from 937th in 2004 to rank 370th in popularity for male babies in 2014.”
- Touché! A specific set of literature is steeped in pistol-wielding duels. Whether it be the soufflet, the acknowledgement of the offense, the rencontre, the violent encounter, or listening to the dying opponent’s final words, John Leigh’s Touché catalogues and analyzes the duels of literary history. Through this chronicle of absurd formality, Leigh looks at everything, from “Casanova’s account of his duel with a Polish nobleman, to comic duels in Dickens and to two of Maupassant’s short stories.”
July 9, 2015 | by Jeffery Gleaves
- Admire the tenacity of lit mags yet question their utility? The poet Stephen Burt argues that a new journal simply needs a raison d’être: it should seek to fill a “gap that earlier journals failed to fill, a new form of pleasure, a new kind of writing, an alliance with a new or under-chronicled social movement, a constellation of authors for whom the future demand for work exceeds present supply, a program that will actually change some small part of some literary readers’ tastes.”
- What can the Greek tragedies tell us about the current Mediterranean refugee crises? Aeschylus’s 470 B.C. play, The Suppliants, concerns the fifty daughters of the Egyptian king Danaus, who flee Africa and seek asylum in Greece. Fitting then that a new production of the play is being reimagined in modern-day Sicily, where “African refugees beg at traffic lights,” and is being staged in the ancient Greek theater of Syracuse, in Sicily.
- What can the inmates at a Missouri prison tell us about the evolution of language? In compiling a lexicon of facility-specific slang, they found that a viking is a “prisoner with poor hygiene,” a kite is “an informal message sent by a prisoner,” and a pumpkin is, you guessed it, “a term used for new arrivals” (but not for the reason you might expect). After all, “a dictionary is not a book of rules but a description of language as it is used in real life at a particular moment in time,” says English professor Paul Lynch, who volunteers at the prison.
- Jerry Seinfeld thinks that political correctness is killing comedy; he doesn’t perform at college campuses because “they’re so PC.” it wasn’t always that way: American college humor is historically steeped in offensiveness. Take National Lampoon, an offshoot of the The Harvard Lampoon and precursor to Saturday Night Live, for example, where “getting a rise out of people was precisely the goal, and the magazine was steadfast in its dedication to what it saw as a decidedly non-partisan approach to humor.”
- This week in the perils of the modern age: the Russian government released a public-awareness campaign highlighting the dangers of taking a selfie. With a little help from Google Translate, we learn that “when a person is trying to take a picture of himself—he scattered attention, he lost his balance, he does not look around and did not feel in danger.” Have fun this summer. Practice safe selfies.
July 8, 2015 | by Jeffery Gleaves
- The owner of the most famous wheelbarrow in literature finally gets his due. Williams Carlos Williams was inspired in 1938 by the image of Thaddeus Marshall’s humble gardening implement left out in the rain, next to a flock of white chickens, and wrote the sixteen-word poem “Red Wheelbarrow.”
- Wikipedia? It’s been done. Diderot spent more than twenty years writing and editing his Encyclopédie, a French translation of one of the first English-language encyclopedias. Diderot, however, transformed the original by conceiving of his “as a fully interactive text,” complete with footnotes and appendices that serve the era’s “version of hyperlinks, cross-listings, which take the reader to other ‘sites’ in the encyclopedia.”
- Experimental composer Conlon Nancarrow utilized the player piano for his musical studies because “he was drawn to the technical possibilities of the machine, which can play faster and with greater precision than the most virtuosic pianist.” He applied congruent ratios to separate tempos and hand-punched cards while creating his unplayable, weirdly enjoyable tunes.
- Robert Louis Stevenson may have been an egomaniac and brilliant fantasist, but he was also quite ill throughout his life. While visiting him in Samoa, where he would be buried at forty-four, historian Henry Adams said of Stevenson, “Imagine a man so thin and emaciated that he looked like a bundle of sticks in a bag, with a head and eyes morbidly intelligent and restless.”
- All hail the Devil’s Bible, a thirteeth-century, wood-bound anomaly that is more than three feet long and comprises 620 pages. Officially named the Codex Gigas, it’s fabled to have been written by a banished monk, who resolved “to write the world’s biggest book in one night. To do so, he naturally required the help of the Devil.” Their deal? “All the monk had to do was paint a full-page portrait of Beelzebub in the Codex and hand over his mortal soul.”
July 7, 2015 | by Jeffery Gleaves
- Joan Didion is twice the man you’ll ever be, so suggests a recent article in The Millions. Her masculine superiority lies in the “glacial emotional distance” of her prose, which is better than yours. Her coolness astounds: in her essay, “On Self-Respect,” she writes that people who have it, “are willing to invest something of themselves; they may not play at all, but when they do play, they know the odds.”
- Ottessa Moshfegh, winner of the 2013 Plimpton Prize, talks with Sarah Gerard about keeping a notebook: “When I’m writing to myself, I’m really trying to process something, and it usually has to do with writing out my delusion and then trying to interpret what that delusion might be in service of, and then trying to comfort myself about the anxiety that the delusion was helping me cope with.”
- Apple reversed its decision to ban historical video games that depict the battle flag of the Confederate States of America. Copies of Gone with the Wind and The Red Badge of Courage weren’t being pulped during the recent public outcry against flying the Confederate flag at certain state capitols, nor were Cold Mountain or Glory taken off the iTunes store. This reminds gamers, yet again, “that games are seen not as a scholarly pursuit, that they do not merit serious consideration alongside films and books on their subject matter.”
- While we’re talking about America, it seems our literary canon isn’t fit for television. Consider the numerous Jane Austen adaptations, the massive success of Downton Abbey, and the lack of a critically acclaimed film version of any Faulkner novel. Are American novels too dark for TV, or has Hollywood locked up the rights for most major American titles? As Rebecca Eaton, executive producer of Masterpiece, says, “The reasons that we haven’t are twofold … One is money, the second is money. And the third is money.”
- Which reminds me: culture isn’t free, but our post-Napster, digitalized-content world still operates as if it were. The trouble is, “if individual artists cannot make a living from their creative work, they will eventually throw in the towel,” and it’s important that “large corporations do not monopolize the cultural sphere.” Wrest control of culture from the ruling class. Buy a book.