Posts Tagged ‘linguistics’
September 15, 2016 | by Dan Piepenbring
- The Paris Review’s offices are in Chelsea, where we attract hundreds of thousands of tourists every day. (What, you thought all those people were here for the High Line?) But now there’s a new attraction in town: stairs. Lots and lots of stairs, beautifully arranged, and going nowhere. It’s part of an ambitious new sculpture that some have dubbed “the social climber”: “Big, bold and basket-shaped, the structure, Vessel, stands fifteen stories, weighs 600 tons and is filled with 2,500 climbable steps. Long under wraps, it is the creation of Thomas Heatherwick, forty-six, an acclaimed and controversial British designer … Mr. Heatherwick said Vessel was partly inspired by Indian stepwells, but he also referred to it as a climbing frame—what Americans would call a jungle gym—as well as ‘a Busby Berkeley musical with a lot of steps.’ ”
- If you’re not into steps, just visit the city for the pavement. There’s a lot of it—and if you squint a bit or take the right drugs or just give it a good long think, you’ll see how interesting it is. Edwin Heathcote argues that “the pavement is the skin of the city, a membrane that separates the veneer of civilization from the darkness of the earth … The pavement is a paradoxical thing. It begins as a symbol of civilization and liberation but also becomes a kind of final resort, the domain of the homeless, of beggars and of defecating dogs. A city’s attitude to its street surface reveals much about its ideas of civic space, of ownership and generosity … ‘I think that our bodies are in truth naked,’ wrote Virginia Woolf in The Waves. ‘We are only lightly covered with buttoned cloth; and beneath these pavements are shells, bones and silence.’ ”
August 31, 2016 | by Peter Nowogrodzki
Sali Tagliamonte is a linguist at the University of Toronto, where she studies language variation and change. Her latest book, Teen Talk: The Language of Adolescents, was published in June.
I called Tagliamonte because I’d noticed more and more people using the word truly. All of a sudden it seemed to be everywhere: in work e-mails and movie reviews, in headlines, on Twitter, on Twitter, and on Twitter. “It truly is up to us,” Hilary Clinton said this summer in her acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention. A week prior, in Cleveland, Trump had remembered his “truly great mother.”
Is truly trending? I couldn’t tell—Liane Moriarty’s book, Truly Madly Guilty, had just published. There had been that Savage Garden song in the nineties, and the Lionel Richie one in the eighties. I wanted to find out more, so I did what anyone with a linguistics question would do: I e-mailed Noam Chomsky. To my surprise, he wrote back within half an hour, suggesting I ask “an outstanding sociolinguist like William Labov.” So I did. Labov told me, “The person who has done the most work on intensifiers like truly is Prof. Sali Tagliamonte.” Read More »
August 11, 2016 | by Dan Piepenbring
- Some asshole on Ninth Avenue grabbed Mary Karr’s crotch and that was a really, really, really dumb thing for him to do: “I came to and shouted from the doorway, ‘Not today! Not this bitch! You picked the wrong woman to fuck with today!’ … Around Forty-First Street, a cop car pulled up, and I hopped in and recounted it all as they peeled out like they do on Law & Order. The female officer riding shotgun radioed the description I gave her to other cops, who nabbed him and hauled him, handcuffed, before me outside the Port Authority. ‘That’s him!’ I said. He was blank-eyed, as if this whole thing were happening to somebody else. His buddy was amped up, though, claiming his friend hadn’t done anything. I shot back that was horse hockey—yes, he had—and the buddy walked off as an officer put the Grabber in the back of a cruiser.”
- In 2013, Hawaii Sign Language, or HSL, became the first new language discovered in America in eighty years. Problem is, it’s on the verge of extinction. A new project hopes to document “what may be the last-ever conversations of native HSL signers … Like every natural language, HSL is the evolved product of a specific history, the unconscious creation of a community. For it to survive, local signers will have to make a deliberate choice to use it. The same may be increasingly true of Deafness itself. The story of HSL raises crucial questions in an age of globalization: Do cultures on the margins have a future? Will enough people choose to be that different, and will they do it together?”
- In the Victorian era, electricity had a lucrative sideline in its applications to the human body: “In one popular demonstration, a young woman stood on a stool holding the chain from an electrical machine. As long as no one touched her all was fine, but when a gentleman was challenged to give her a kiss the sparks flew. Then there was medical entrepreneur James Graham’s Celestial Bed. In 1781, based at his Temple of Hymen on fashionable Pall Mall in London, Graham charged wealthy childless clients £50 a night to have sex in the electrified dome and forged a link between electricity, sex, and fertility that would persist throughout the Victorian era.”
- In the thirties, Wallace Stevens published a poem called “Sad Strains of a Gay Waltz”: “There are these sudden mobs of men, / These sudden clouds of faces and arms, / An immense suppression, freed, / These voices crying without knowing for what … ” David Bromwich reflects on the meaning of these lines in the age of Trumpism: “The qualities of the mob I think Stevens meant to evoke were anger and a somehow warranted self-pity. Those outside are unequipped by nature to enter into the mood. But these sudden mobs don’t want our pity; they are made out of feelings that are intoxicating, and the feelings are their own reward. And never pretend that self-pity is a contemptible thing. It is the most popular and contagious of emotions. ‘The epic of disbelief,’ Stevens concluded, ‘Blares oftener and soon, will soon be constant.’”
- Here in America, we know that customer service is about pitching fits, pointing fingers, and ruining a total stranger’s day because the ice in your Frappuccino was kind of chunky. In the UK, though, people have so much time to kill that they actually compose funerary poetry with their customer-service representatives. It all started when a guy found a dead worm on his cucumber in Tesco’s, and it goes, and goes: “Although life takes funny old turns, we can all learn from William the Worm … ”
July 18, 2016 | by Dan Piepenbring
- If you’re a best-selling author, here is a great way to piss off the FBI: announce that you’re writing a book about the FBI. In 1964, writing in an issue of Playbill, James Baldwin mentioned some future projects he had in mind, including one on “the FBI and the South.” Cue federal anxiety: “When [J. Edgar] Hoover himself was informed of the project, his response was characteristically curt—‘Isn’t Baldwin a well-known pervert?’ This being Hoover’s FBI, that was not a rhetorical question, and it launched an additional inquiry in the nature of Baldwin’s ‘perversion.’ Whatever the FBI planned on doing with this information, it all ultimately proved rather moot—Baldwin never wrote the book, and there’s strong evidence he never planned to.”
- The artist Bruce Conner once provided a list of adjectives to describe his work: the first four were “beautiful, horrible, hogwash, genius.” He was, somehow, right on the money. J. Hoberman remembers the first time he saw a Conner piece: “As a fifteen-year-old Pop Art aficionado wandering through the Whitney Museum’s 1964 Sculpture Annual, I discovered Conner’s work in the form of the assemblage Couch. There was no warning. It was like rounding a corner and bumping into Death … a derelict remnant of a nightmare haunted house. Conner took a moldering, paint-spattered, wax-encrusted Victorian divan and managed to imbed it with a child-sized mummy. The simulated, decomposed corpse was nestled into a corner. On closer inspection, it looked as though it might have been strangled.”
- It’s widely accepted that one of the few attractions of a career in medicine is regular exposure to nude people. In the eighteenth century, aspiring doctors had such a hankering for nudity that they took it upon themselves to construct very, very, very detailed wax women: “Known today as Anatomical Venuses, these wax figures of women were life-sized and fully dissectible, with their removable organs completely exposed to all, while their faces were kept intact with beautiful, oddly serene features … I was especially struck by a number owned by the French doctor Pierre Spitzner (whose collection is now at the University of Montpellier), which date to the second half of the nineteenth century: one was a wax automaton, featuring a Venus who ‘breathed,’ with a rising and falling chest; another is of a girl in an impeccably white nightgown undergoing a caesarean section, with four distinctly male hands prodding her revealed organs, bizarrely attached to no bodies—phantom hands, complete with white cuffs and the sleeves of black jackets to add an extra layer of eeriness.”
- In the age of the seven-figure advance, as Nathan Scott McNamara writes, “major presses are inadvertently helping foster an environment where American indie presses can thrive by doing the very thing they’re best at: being small and, by extension, focusing on creativity and originality over sales … In reorganizing the priorities of book publishing—by inventing new models rather than trying to repeat past success, by valuing ingenuity over magnitude, by thinking of sales as a way to make great books possible rather than the point—indie presses aren’t just becoming the places where the best books are published; they’re already there.”
- Let’s finish things off in the gutter, where a group of dirty-minded linguists have started to name all the words that sound sexual but aren’t. For starters: cordwangle, invigilation, formicate, uvula, quincunx. Mark Liberman writes, “A colleague (who has request anonymity) and I have developed a fondness for perfectly innocuous words which, to the linguistically unwashed masses, sound sexual. My colleague’s example sentence is ‘Because her husband was intestate, she sought to dilate her fungible assets; despite cunctation for titivating, she managed to masticate and lucubrate far into the night.’ ”
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 »
March 25, 2016 | by Dan Piepenbring
- John Jeremiah Sullivan on Shuffle Along, one of the first all-black musicals on Broadway: “The blacks-in-blackface tradition, which lasted more than a century in this country, strikes most people, on first hearing of its existence, as deeply bizarre, and it was. But it emerged from a single crude reality: African American people were not allowed to perform onstage for much of the nineteenth century. They could not, that is, appear as themselves … In Shuffle Along, two black people fell in love onstage, and [the journalist Les] Walton wanted to see how a white audience would handle this … What he expected to see was not rage or revolt but something more ambiguous, an occasional discomfort passing through the room, and perhaps at certain moments a holding-back too, on the part of the cast. ‘White audiences, for some reason,’ Walton wrote, ‘do not want colored people to indulge in too much lovemaking.’ ”
- Speaking of musicals: American Psycho is one now. When Bret Easton Ellis’s novel came out, in 1991, some bookstores refused to stock it. Times have changed. As Dwight Garner writes, “This novel was ahead of its time. The culture has shifted to make room for Bateman. We’ve developed a taste for barbaric libertines with twinkling eyes and some zing in their tortured souls … Reading Mr. Ellis’s novel today, the hysteria of 1991 is almost inexplicable to me. It’s apparent from the start that Patrick Bateman is a sendup of a blank Wall Street generation. He’s a male mannequin, the ultimate soulless product of a soulless time … Something has happened since 1991 to our response to violence, especially when it is seasoned with a shake of wet or, especially, dry humor. Increasingly inured to the mess, we’ve learned to savor the wit.”
- What about Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary? Was it, too, ahead of its time? Though its observations about youth and work have long been dismissed as pedestrian, the economy has made them radically prescient, as Daniel Wenger writes: “Two years before Sex and the City, Fielding offered a third-wave route around the battleground between love and power … Today, Bridget Jones needn’t be limited to the confines of its chick-lit designation. The notion that the equations of life do not add up is still a particular problem for women of all ages, but many young people, no matter their gender, will find some of Bridget’s story familiar. Within a couple of years of graduating college, Bridget would have found her job prospects threatened by the global recession of the late eighties and early nineties; even when we first meet her, she’s flitting from position to position. Millennials began joining the workforce in the wake of the Great Recession, and according to a 2014 Council of Economic Advisers report, the consequence is an almost epigenetic stain on professional lives.”
- Sometimes people talk about fiction and nonfiction, and I’m like, What’s really the difference, you know? And they sort of phumpher and mumble a bit before they throw their hands up. But a lot of us feel this way: “According to Geoff Dyer, who says his next book is ‘a mixture of both fiction and non- but will be published as non-,’ the strength of the distinction in anglophone culture has waxed and waned … The nonfiction novels of Truman Capote and Norman Mailer blurred the lines again in the 1960s, he continues, and the boundary is ‘perhaps going through another porous phase right now’ … ‘You’d have to go back to the early nineteenth century or earlier to a time when “literature” referred to fiction and nonfiction rather than to a particular, highly regarded form of imaginative writing,’ he adds. Dyer cites Raymond Williams, who suggested that ‘the special regard in which fiction comes to be held … is probably connected to romanticism and the emphasis put on the imagination—which is itself a response to the rise of industrialization: a very fact-based process as Dickens emphasizes later in Hard Times.’ ”
- But why stop there? Why knock down the walls between genres when you can mount an assault on the separation between language and culture? On Charles Taylor’s The Language Animal: “He argues that language, like everything else that matters to human beings, cannot be understood as a kind of semantic Lego, where we acquire individual words with firm, clear shapes and string them together to form sentences, paragraphs, essays, and books. Language is shaped by the culture that has produced it, which means that it, in turn, shapes those who go on to use it. Hence: ‘The basic thesis of this book is that language can only be understood if we understand its constitutive role in human life’ … He agrees that ‘speech is the expression of thought,’ but insists ‘it isn’t simply an outer clothing for what could exist independently.’ The broadly Wittgensteinian alternative he offers to this reductionism is a kind of holism, in which the meanings of words hang together in complex webs in which culture and semantics cannot be disentangled.”