Posts Tagged ‘linguistics’
June 25, 2015 | by Damion Searls
How the Erie Canal changed our vowel sounds.
One thing you can learn from Timescapes, the surprisingly moving twenty-two-minute video at the Museum of the City of New York, is how big a deal the Erie Canal was. In the early nineteenth century, New York companies were already sending ships down the coast so reliably that it was cheaper for Southern merchants to send their goods to Europe via New York than to ship them directly. But everything in the Midwest—everything on the other side of the Appalachians—was stuck there, cut off from coastal and worldwide markets. It took weeks to get to Cleveland. Grain, bulky and relatively cheap, was especially not worth hauling east. The canal linking the Great Lakes to the Hudson, opened in 1825, was about twenty times faster than portage: shipping costs dropped 90 percent. It turned Manhattan into a modern metropolis, made New York the Empire State, and created America the economic superpower. Every major city in New York except Binghamton and Elmira is located along its trade route from Rochester and Buffalo through Schenectady, Utica, and Syracuse to Albany and New York City. Easy traffic made the Midwest “Northern” in the Civil War; before the canal, the Midwest had been predominantly settled by Southerners.
The canal was also the biggest thing to hit English-language short vowels in a thousand years. Read More »
February 2, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- “Among twenty reasonable comments, / The only livid thing / Was the caw of the trollbird.” From an anonymous versificator striking at the very quintessence of the contemporary experience: “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Trollbird.”
- The paintings of Piero di Cosimo, a Renaissance-era artist who ate nothing but boiled eggs and painted scenes of alarming violence and sensuality, are coming to America for the first time in seventy-five years. “While Michelangelo, Botticelli, and Leonardo da Vinci were all making worlds of ideal perfection, their contemporary, Piero di Cosimo, had set out on a different, more twisted path, bewitching his fellow Florentines with his visual fables and mythological fantasies … Piero’s ability to conjure the macabre, the monstrous and the miraculous offers its own distinctive pleasures and a rare insight into the more neurotic recesses of the Renaissance imagination.”
- On Prince Albert Hunt, a twentieth-century fiddler from Texas who met a grisly end: “Prince Albert recorded only nine sides … and they are fiercely sought after due to their forceful, bluesy nature … Although Hunt didn’t alter the course of vernacular folk music, and his influence on Western swing is minimal, he did leave a testament etched in the shellac grooves of his few recordings to an idiosyncratic sound that reflected the mongrel eccentricities of his time and place. Hunt played exactly what the people of Deep Ellum wanted: uninhibited fiddle dance pieces and an occasional waltz.”
- How to destroy the history of painting: make a black square on a white background, hang it on the wall of a Soviet gallery in 1915, and tell others to jump through it, where “the free white sea, infinity, lies before you.” Kazimir Malevich did this. Worked like a charm.
- The “quotative like” (“I’m like, What do you mean I have to be in by ten?”) is now “one of our language’s most popular methods of talking about talking … linguists see these expressions as something like the Swiss Army knives of reported conversation. Their versatility and usefulness means they’ll probably be around for a long time.”
September 24, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
- The Western is an integral part of the Hollywood canon, but European filmmakers weren’t about to let Americans have all the fun. Germany and France produced scores of Westerns, in part because “once you found a wide-open landscape vaguely redolent of the American West, they were relatively cheap to make.” But it was Italy that arguably perfected the European Western: “The Spaghetti Westerns, with their multiple aliases (Leone’s A Fistful of Dynamite is variously also known as Once Upon a Time ... the Revolution and Duck, You Sucker!), their badly-dubbed voices, their sweaty, sunburned close-ups and their loud, redounding music, were both gothic and grand guignol. They could also be incredibly sophisticated amid all the alarum.”
- Today in pointless but strangely gratifying thought experiments: What would the longest book in the world look like? (“If there’s a new major character introduced every hundred pages or so, you’d have 100 billion main characters … ”)
- A second novel is rarely greeted with the exuberance of a first. To help stop “Second Novel Syndrome,” the Whiting Foundation and Slate are compiling a list of under-recognized second novels from the past five years and reminding readers of their joys.
- The radical linguists of the early twentieth century: “Historically, it was languages that were swept in with strong political, economic, or religious backing—Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, Hebrew, Arabic, Persian, and Chinese in the Eurasian core—that were held to be the oldest, the holiest, and the most perfect in structure, their ‘classical’ status cemented by the received weight of canonical tradition … It was just over a century ago when a group of linguists made an effort to go beyond the language politics of imperialism and nationalism.”
- Taking a cue from Cheever’s “The Swimmer,” a woman attempts to swim every (public) pool in Manhattan. (Unlike Cheever’s Neddy Merrill, she is not an alcoholic.)
July 2, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
- 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?)
May 8, 2014 | by Timothy Leonido
Life in the linguistics lab.
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 »
April 9, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
- 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.”