The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘linguistics’

A Pocket Versailles, and Other News

October 19, 2016 | by

The penthouse at Trump Tower. Photo: Sam Horine.

  • Thom Jones, a high school janitor whose short stories vaunted him into the literary spotlight in the early nineties, has died at seventy-one: “ Jones worked on the Betty Crocker Noodles Almondine line at a General Mills plant. He was fired as an advertising copywriter because, he was told, a client would not countenance his proposed slogan for the Jolly Green Giant—which was more or less, with an expletive inserted, ‘These are the best peas I ever ate’ … His ferocious, semiautobiographical short stories about boxers, custodians, soldiers, crime victims, cancer patients and asylum inmates coupled a fateful machismo—the eternal pessimist Arthur Schopenhauer was his hero—with grim humor.”
  • Our indefatigable efforts to drill into Trump’s psyche have led us to this: a close consideration of his interior decorating. Back in his eighties heyday, the Donald—still with Ivana then—turned to the designer Angelo Donghia to help him tame the Trump Tower penthouse. But in the intervening decades, something, some remaining tendril of good taste, was irrevocably broken, and now, as Thomas de Monchaux writes, the Trump penthouse is overstuffed with decorative diversions: “From the reflective ceilings to the gilded Corinthian capitals, a would-be Sun King eventually built himself a hall of mirrors, a pocket Versailles. Closer to the truth may be that a restless eye sought for itself a home that, detail upon detail, eye-catcher upon eye-catcher, provides constant diversion. The current Trump penthouse is a place for a short span of attention, a place without threat of stillness, a place where you don’t spend a lot of time wondering whether something is right or wrong. Ironically, the task of making such a place is not a matter of quick judgment and definite attitude, but is methodical, belabored, and slow.” 

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You Won’t Get Anywhere Taking the Stairs, and Other News

September 15, 2016 | by

Thomas Heatherwick’s Vessel, in a rendering by Forbes Massie-Heatherwick Studio.

  • 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.’ ” 

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Truly Trending: An Interview on Intensifiers

August 31, 2016 | by

William Blake, Geoffrey Chaucer.

William Blake, Geoffrey Chaucer.

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 »

Shock Your Way to Fertility, and Other News

August 11, 2016 | by

This could be you, friend! Animal magnetism and animal electricity at work.

  • 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 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.’”

Fucking with the Feds, and Other News

July 18, 2016 | by

James Baldwin with Charlton Heston, left, and Marlon Brando, 1963.

  • 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.”

Language Leakage: An Interview with Sarah Thomason

March 30, 2016 | by

The linguist discusses how technology shapes culture and culture shapes words.

A uniform for the Spokane Indians in Salish.

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 »