The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘linguistics’

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 »

Bring on the Batemans, and Other News

March 25, 2016 | by

Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman in a still from American Psycho.

The Art of the Courtroom Sketch, and Other News

March 1, 2016 | by

The Hustler Magazine case before the Supreme Court; Larry Flynt in foreground, his attorney, Alan Isaacman talking before the court (Dec. 2, 1987). Illustrated by Aggie Kenny. Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Image via Hyperallergic

  • I hear you’re trying to knock over a library. May I suggest you get a hold of the blueprints? Thing about libraries is—librarians, cover your ears—many of them tend to reside in historical or at least oft-remodeled buildings with easily exploited blind spots. Let the architecture guide you: “Stephen Blumberg stole an estimated twenty million dollars’ worth of rare books and manuscripts from institutional archives and academic libraries around the United States. His plan for hitting the rare books collection of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles was characteristic: researching the history of the building, Blumberg had learned that a series of disused dumbwaiters had once functioned to deliver books between floors. The dumbwaiters were no longer active, but the shafts inside the walls of the library still offered a direct connection to book stacks that were otherwise inaccessible to the public … No alarms, no cameras, just narrow, chimney-like chutes invisible to outside view through which Blumberg could shimmy his way to treasure. And shimmy he did, successfully raiding the building from within.”
  • Today in things that are clearly art but that you’ve probably never really thought about as art: the Library of Congress has acquired ninety-six (they couldn’t just make it an even hundred?) courtroom sketches covering more than forty years of trials, featuring such prominent malefactors as Bernie Madoff, Charles Manson, and Larry Flynt. “The Thomas V. Girardi Collection of Courtroom Illustration Drawings at the Library of Congress enhances our existing holding by increasing the number of artists represented, especially female courtroom illustrators,” the curator Sara W. Duke told Hyperallergic. A press release confirmed the obvious: “The Girardi acquisition affirms the LOC as having the most comprehensive American collection of courtroom art.”
  • Adam Shatz on Nina Simone, whose “husky contralto” perplexed the jazz critics of her day but captivated just about everyone else: “Eroticism and suffering lay at the heart of Simone’s work from the very start: she seemed to have one foot in the deep South and another in Weimar cabaret … Simone cut deeper than her peers: she knew how to open the wound, to make pain audible and moving. So long as she felt adored, she was full of mischievous, salty banter in her mike breaks. But if she felt slighted, she could be explosive, even violent … Simone gave expression to a taboo emotion that, in a 1968 best-seller, two black American psychiatrists would define as ‘black rage.’ Her songs were peopled with avenging black angels, most famously a woman named Peaches who, in her 1966 song ‘Four Women,’ declares that she will ‘kill the first mother I see.’ Seldom has anyone combined art and protest to such a sublime effect, in the classical sense of fusing beauty and terror.”
  • To read Daniel Clowes’s graphic novels, you’d think he’s a total depressive, if not an out-an-out misanthrope, even. In fact, as Robert Ito writes, he’s a family man: “Unlike a lot of cartoonists, Clowes is a lot happier than the characters he creates. Most of his hapless protagonists spend much of their miserable lives futilely chasing after the sort of contentment and familial joy that Clowes has found for himself in Piedmont … Clowes acknowledges the huge impact that his own childhood—the divorce, the constant shuttling around—has had on how he views marriage and parenting today. ‘I always grew up wanting what I have now with my own family,’ he says. ‘A house, a wife, a child, everything very stable.’ ”
  • Facebook has introduced “Reactions,” a collection of five “graphicons” that allow you to respond to content (and everything is content) in one of five ways: Like, Love, Sad, Angry, Wow, Haha. If you’ve noticed that those words are, uh … syntactically nonparallel, you’re not alone in being confused and a little afraid: “The syntax of the new Facebook Reactions makes no sense. When Facebook asks you to respond to a status with that set of six words, it’s actually asking your brain to do something that’s slightly complicated: to fill in an implied sentence, or to ‘predicate’ it. Programmatic linguists call this ‘inferencing.’ The problem is, because these words are not the same category of speech, they require different predicates … If those inconsistencies bother you, you may in fact have a disorder called ‘grammar purism.’ Sufferers of GP have been known to correct mistakes on dinner menus and chew their cheeks in an effort not to correct their friend who always says ‘I have drank way too much tonight!’ GP has no cure, but some sufferers find poetry or Winston Churchill quotes soothing.”

A Generic Statement About Haystacks, and Other News

December 11, 2015 | by

Claude Monet, Wheatstacks, Snow Effect, Morning, 1891.

  • Our new Winter issue, hot off the presses, features poems from A New English Grammar by Jeff Dolven. One of them, “*The Haystack’s Painting,” has occasioned a roiling linguistic-grammatical debate at Language Log. “I would have no problem with a sentence such as ‘We sat in the haystack’s shadow’ in any case, but the case at hand is not a generic statement about haystacks,” one reader writes: “The body of the poem personifies the haystack, so it seems perfectly consistent that the title does also. If the reader is caught short by the title, only to have the tension relaxed by personification in the following lines, this is to the poet’s credit.” Another says, “I’m not quite sure what’s being considered ungrammatical about ‘The haystack’s painting.’ Haystack is a noun; nouns have possessive forms. It’s certainly unusual to consider the subject of a painting to be the ‘owner’ of that painting, but I think it’s quite an effective poetic device here.”
  • The poet Stephen Spender kept his sexuality a secret—a burden he managed only with the belief that leading a double life was completely ordinary for a writer. “In the 1990s, when literary parties were more fun, or I was more fun, I used occasionally to see Stephen Spender,” Andrew O’Hagan writes: “there he was, the establishment on quivering legs, queer as a chocolate orange but safely married. (When I spoke to him, I discovered he could flirt with his eyes shut.) … ‘Just do your thing,’ one wishes to say to him, but he was doing his thing, and part of that thing was not really to know what his thing was. Sexual identity gets all the limelight, but sex itself wasn’t particularly important to Spender and the freedom he harped on about, and feared losing as a result of his domestic decisions, was the freedom to write as he wanted to.”
  • Today in length: books have more of it than ever. A survey found that the average number of pages in a book has increased by 25 percent since 1999—to four hundred pages. “The real struggle is publishing an unremarkably-sized book,” one agent says: “the most difficult area now appears to be the middle. Mid-list, mid-career, middle-sized—in fact anything that’s middling.”
  • Jewels, vases, statues, masks, vessels … you name it, the Ancient Greeks had it in gold. And now this plunder is ours, all ours: “We learn a great deal about Greek art by being grave robbers. The immensely privileged eased themselves into the afterlife with much of the booty that had cushioned their time on earth. It seems they aimed at taking along enough symbols of power and wealth to get whatever passes for honor in the underworld. Greek and Roman rulers and victors wore wreaths more often than crowns; so we find gold imitations of the rich foliation of crowns made from different tree branches. Phillip II was buried in an underground miniature temple wearing an oak leaf wreath made with stunning realism by his little army of goldsmiths.”
  • People have been flying in the movies for more or less as long as they’ve been flying in real life. The plane, in cinema, has long functioned as an essential piece of visual vocabulary, and also as propaganda. During World War II, the military commissioned directors like William Wyler to bring a glorious variant aerial combat into movie houses: “Wyler and his crew embedded (as we might now say) with the 91st Bomb Group. They took their sixteen-millimeter cameras on bombing runs … The results of his time with the 91st Bomb Group were assembled into a short documen­tary called Memphis Belle (1944), which James Agee praised for its immediacy. ‘I could not guess which shots were re-enacted and which were straight records,’ Agee confessed, and postwar movies would often aspire to induce precisely this confusion. Agee had an ethical commitment to documentary, and a temperamental suspicion of artifice, and during the war his insistence on the literal, visceral truth reflected the biases of the filmmakers themselves, who often battled Army censors over how much unvarnished reality they could show.”

Camping for Everyone, and Other News

August 18, 2015 | by

campingladies

From Wiser Counselors, Better Camps, Happier Children, 1929.

  • Anyone who maintains that writers play a pivotal role in advancing and transforming our language is dead wrong—the real engines for linguistic change are teenage girls, who have served as “disruptors” since the fifteenth century, if not earlier. Linguists who have studied six thousand letters from 1417 to 1681 “found that female letter-writers changed the way they wrote faster than male letter-writers, spearheading the adoption of new words and discarding words like doth and maketh.”
  • Next year will see the release of a new Cormac McCarthy novel called The Passenger, the first since 2006’s The Road. (There’s a joke to be made here about how The Road and The Passenger together sound like a spin-off of Car and Driver, but … ah, forget it.) The new book, scuttlebutt suggests, is “set in New Orleans around 1980. It has to do with a brother and sister. When the book opens she’s already committed suicide, and it’s about how he deals with it. She’s an interesting girl.” As for McCarthy, he spends most of his time “at a science and mathematics think tank in New Mexico, the Santa Fe Institute (SFI), where he is a trustee.”
  • Reminder: Ottessa Moshfegh doesn’t need your praise or acceptance. “I don’t care about being a literary personality—that doesn’t appeal to me, especially because the literary world doesn’t appeal to me. I actually don’t feel like I even belong in it … If this was high school, I would be sitting with the goths, looking at everyone, being like, Whatever.”
  • In the early twentieth century, with the nineteenth amendment finally ratified, the writers of camping guides realized at last that women can enjoy camping, too—thus ensued a slew of new camping and hunting books for women. “Somehow, out of the neglect, arose the impression that woods’ joys were for men alone,” Woodcraft for Women begins. “Gradually a few women discovered that the lazy drifting down a pine and rock-bound stream calms feminine as well as masculine nerves and that the dimly blazed trail into an unknown country arouses the pioneering instinct in them as truly as it does a man.”
  • Looking back at Claude Lévi-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques: “If the voice of this French anthropologist conveys to you nothing more than academic curmudgeonliness, let’s leave it there. But isn’t it a kind of fastidiousness that seems to belong to a vanished intellectual world? It seems a promise that he feels his discoveries too important not to be told, and perhaps they are.”