Posts Tagged ‘linguistics’
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.”
March 1, 2016 | by Dan Piepenbring
- 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.”
December 11, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- 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.”
August 18, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- 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.”
August 13, 2015 | by Damion Searls
How rebracketing gives us new words.
How is a helipad like a cheeseburger? It’s all about arms being legs, and having an ear.
There are words that sound right in a language and words that sound wrong, and the latter often, as the gangsters say, go on a little trip. A sound or two will be dropped like a stool pigeon with cement shoes (from the front, apheresis: [k]nife; from the back, apocope: memo[randum]), or added or modified, and the word will be domesticated. What’s easier or lazier than changing anything is to leave it as is and see it differently: a process known in life as getting a new perspective or reframing, and in linguistics as rebracketing.
Unusually for such technicalia, rebracketing is a good, solid English word, not Latin or Greek. Other terms for the same thing, false splitting or juncture loss, are also easy to grasp, and in fact each more poignant than the last. False splitting, juncture loss—they sound so lovelorn. It hurts to see things that go together come apart. Read More »