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Posts Tagged ‘linguistics’

Elizabethan Warts and All, and Other News

July 2, 2014 | by

L0023521EB Arzneibuch. Western Manuscript 990, page 84, detail

Detail from “Treatment for lachrimal fistula performed on a nun,” an illustration from a seventeenth-century surgical guide. Via Wellcome Library.

  • A report by British dermatologists makes the audacious claim that Shakespeare is responsible for Western society’s obsession with clear skin. “Shakespeare’s works have survived the intervening centuries; has his success led to the perpetuation of Elizabethan negativity toward skin disease?” Apparently, too many of his plays feature insults about skin disease—poxes, boils, carbuncles, moles, blots, blemishes, plagues—an excess of abscesses, a sebaceous surfeit.
  • “One of the most intriguing questions I get from readers of my movie reviews is: ‘But did you like the film?’ … The binary scale of good and bad, like and dislike, is essentially pointless. Movies are complex experiences—even those that are simplistic or clumsily made are rich in substance—and sometimes criticism is like the science of medicine, with advances coming from diagnoses of some dread disease that you wouldn’t want to have.”
  • A linguist’s cri de coeur: death to Whorfianism! “What Whorfianism claims, in its strongest form, is that our thoughts are limited and shaped by the specific words and grammar we use”—but linguists have found only “fairly negligible differences … between language speakers.”
  • These hand-painted posters from Russian cinemas make movies like Shrek 2 and 50 First Dates look like surrealist masterworks.
  • You can live in the house from Twin Peaks. (Leland Palmer not included. Or is he?)

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Clitics

May 8, 2014 | by

Life in the linguistics lab.

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Image via Giphy

In August 2009, I took a job as a “confederate” at the “MIXER” project, run by the linguistics lab of a university in the Philadelphia area. The goal of the MIXER project was to gather recorded interviews for a database of conversational American speech. Over the previous five years, the lab had recorded thousands of speakers; having secured a grant from an undisclosed sponsor, they were gearing up for another year. For three hundred dollars a week, my only responsibility was to receive the participants that came to the lab and to get them to speak.

The interviews were conducted in a recording booth known as the Mermaid Lounge, so named for the amphibian girl and paint-by-numbers fish characters painted on the far wall. Inside the Lounge was a single desk where two computer monitors sat head-to-head, surrounded by cameras and all kinds of microphones: clip-ons, standalones, condensers. At the other end of the hallway was the HIVE, a seminar room that served as base of operations for the MIXER-6 team—me, a secretary, and the lead confederate, who liaised with the sponsors. The lead confederate on MIXER-6 had participated in every study so far except MIXER-4, which she’d missed due to dental surgery. Now, after several complicated adjustments, she wore an elaborate dental fixture that rendered her effectively mute. She typically relayed messages through the secretary, Stabler, a burly little man with golden-blond hair and a bushy beard. Stabler was responsible for outreach; that meant flyering, Craigslist ads, and organizing participant data. Unfortunately, he was hamstrung by his terrible stammer, which was particularly pronounced whenever he spoke on the phone: “Hello, thank you for c-c-calling the l-l-ab … Are you r-r-responding to the a-a-ad?”

As a confederate, my responsibilities consisted of escorting the participants to the Mermaid Lounge, fitting them with a small, sensitive mic, and seeing them through three “sessions.” The first, the Prompt Session, was scripted. Participants read through a series of warm-up phrases as they scrolled across a monitor. These were mostly binomials like riff raff, hip-hop, flim flam, willy nilly, etc. Once the articulatory mechanisms were sufficiently exercised, I moved onto the Natural Session, during which I conversed with the participant on a topic of his or her choice. If necessary, we could discuss the algorithmically generated topic of the day, which might be Netflix, or terrorism, or gun control. Finally, after fifteen minutes, the participant put on a pair of headphones for the Noisy Session. An automated voiced counted down to zero, and then a steady stream of white noise came through the soft earpieces while I continued to converse with the participant. Read More »

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How the Future Dressed in the Past, and Other News

April 9, 2014 | by

1970s fashion

This is how one man in 1893 thought we would dress in the seventies. Image via the Public Domain Review

  • The CIA used many strange tools to fight the commies. One of them? Doctor Zhivago. According to a CIA memo, “This book has great propaganda value … not only for its intrinsic message and thought-provoking nature, but also for the circumstances of its publication: we have the opportunity to make Soviet citizens wonder what is wrong with their government, when a fine literary work by the man acknowledged to be the greatest living Russian writer is not even available in his own country in his own language for his own people to read.”
  • Remembering the poet Ian Hamilton and the New Review, which was, “depending on your point of view, either the best literary periodical of the past fifty years or an elitist folly lavishly bankrolled by the taxpayer.”
  • In 1893, W. Cade Gall published the “Future Dictates of Fashion,” in which he speculated as to the garb of years to come, all the way up to 1993. His conjectures were … wildly inaccurate.
  • Difficult-to-parse news item of the day: “A 49-year-old Santa Cruz man died late Thursday night while crossing Mission Street after being struck by a car.” “Pretty plucky of him to cross the street after he had been hit, I thought.”
  • Damien Hirst is writing an autobiography. “It will include a barely known first act—a black and hilarious account of Hirst’s youth, growing up in a semi-criminal, often violent milieu, while sharing with his friends an unlikely, but binding passion for art.”

 

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High-Altitude Language, and Other News

July 10, 2013 | by

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  • Reading can affect the behavior of those who identify strongly with the central characters, a new study (and a million Twi-hards) finds.
  • In other research news: a controversial linguistics study suggests that high altitude can directly impact the development of languages.
  • “Civil libertarians and consumer advocates call it digital book-burning: censoring, erasing, altering or restricting access to books in electronic formats.” 
  • The activist group Geeks Out has called for a boycott of the upcoming Ender’s Game film in protest of author Orson Scott Card, who opposes same-sex marriage. Card responds, in part, “Ender’s Game is set more than a century in the future and has nothing to do with political issues that did not exist when the book was written in 1984.”
  • In less fraught lit-cinematic news, Charlie Kaufman is taking on the adaptation of Slaughterhouse-Five.

 

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Meet Me on the Bridge

June 25, 2013 | by

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One afternoon I decided to read Groucho Marx in French, because, well, why not? I had temporarily switched Boston for New York on the larkiest of larks, had accidentally been charged $9,000 for a pulled pork sandwich (where my saying “It’s that much because it comes with a little waiter who grows when you pour water on him, right?” fell unbelievably flat), and—with nothing in the immediate particular to do on that May afternoon—felt the moment was right for a book.

Groucho and Me was translated into French in 1981 as Mémoire capitales, and it begins so: “L’ennui avec une autobiographie, c’est que l’on ne peut pas s’ecarter de la verite. Quand on ecrit sur un autre, on peut se permettre des retouches, voire carrement de la broderie anglaise.” (The trouble with an autobiography is that we cannot depart from the truth. When one writes of another, one is permitted alterations, even downright English embroidery.)

Groucho wrote it like this: “The trouble with writing a book about yourself is that you can’t fool around. If you write about someone else, you can stretch the truth from here to Finland.” Read More »

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Poetry Must Still Dance: An Interview with Ange Mlinko

June 17, 2013 | by

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The Spring issue of The Paris Review includes a long poem by Ange Mlinko, “Wingandecoia.” It took me a few rereads, but, after a bout of Google searching, I saw this poem trace its arc in several directions—those of time, of place, and of musical imagination. Along the way to understanding, Mlinko treats the reader to lines that feel both alive and spectral. Some are even like incantatory but welcome earworms.

Mlinko has also published three books of poetry—Matinees, Starred Wire, and Shoulder Season. And this fall her next book, Marvelous Things Overheard, will be published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Between books, she writes on language and the arts for The Nation. 

Like the two poems you published in issue 199 of The Paris Review, “Wingandecoia” contains many unfamiliar words and names. How do you see these poems, and that idea, figuring into your forthcoming book, Marvelous Things Overheard?

The book is partly an exploration of time. The sixth-century brigand poet, the Macedonian general, and the ineffectual managers of the lost colony at Roanoke are allowed a measure of strangeness through the language each poem invokes. It amounts to a kind of foreign language within our familiar one. I grew up listening to languages my immigrant parents didn’t want to teach me, so I get a regressive pleasure out of feeling my way through sounds to their possible meanings. Not “getting” a word, or a line, or a poem at first read was never an obstacle for me—in fact, it was a seduction.

And then, obviously, these words are beautiful. Wingandecoia is a beautiful word. So is psittacines. So is pot pot chee. They suggest rhymes, anagrams, and puns. They make music, which I think is an indispensible pleasure. Read More »

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