Posts Tagged ‘language’
Readers will likely have heard of the recent research that has identified a list of two dozen “ultraconserved words” that have survived 150 centuries. It includes some predictable entries: “mother,” “not,” “what,” “to hear” and “man.” It also contains some surprises: “to flow,” “ashes” and “worm.” As the Washington Post observes,
You, hear me! Give this fire to that old man. Pull the black worm off the bark and give it to the mother. And no spitting in the ashes!
It’s an odd little speech. But if you went back 15,000 years and spoke these words to hunter-gatherers in Asia in any one of hundreds of modern languages, there is a chance they would understand at least some of what you were saying.
But then there’s the other end of the spectrum…
The Guardian recounts the tale of the last two remaining speakers of Ayapaneco:
The language of Ayapaneco has been spoken in the land now known as Mexico for centuries. It has survived the Spanish conquest, seen off wars, revolutions, famines and floods. But now, like so many other indigenous languages, it’s at risk of extinction.
There are just two people left who can speak it fluently – but they refuse to talk to each other. Manuel Segovia, 75, and Isidro Velazquez, 69, live 500 metres apart in the village of Ayapa in the tropical lowlands of the southern state of Tabasco. It is not clear whether there is a long-buried argument behind their mutual avoidance, but people who know them say they have never really enjoyed each other’s company…
Read the whole sad story here… and remember: use it, or lose it.
* Peter Drucker
As we lament languages that have languished, we might send joint birthday greetings to Chang and Eng; they were born on this date in 1811. The original “Siamese Twins,” they were joined at the waist by a band of cartilage, about 8 in. circumference and 4 in. long. In 1828 British merchant Robert Hunter ”discovered” them and paid their family to let them be exhibited as a curiosity during a world tour; at the end of that engagement, the brothers went into business for themselves. In 1839, they visited Wilkesboro, N.C. with P. T. Barnum; they found the town appealing, settled there, took the surname “Bunker,” became United States citizens, and in 1843 married two sisters with whom they raised 10 children. Only after their death was it discovered that the cartilage that connected them could have been easily and safely removed.
Click here for Mark Twain’s short story, “The Siamese Twins,” based on Chang and Eng.
Here’s an ambiguous sentence for you: “Because of the agency’s oversight, the corporation’s behavior was sanctioned.” Does that mean, ‘Because the agency oversaw the company’s behavior, they imposed a penalty for some transgression’ or does it mean, ‘Because the agency was inattentive, they overlooked the misbehavior and gave it their approval by default’? We’ve stumbled into the looking-glass world of “contronyms”—words that are their own antonyms.
1. Sanction (via French, from Latin sanctio(n-), from sancire ‘ratify,’) can mean ‘give official permission or approval for (an action)’ or conversely, ‘impose a penalty on.’
Find a baker’s dozen other words that are their own opposites at Mental Floss.
As we acquiesce to ambiguity, we might send litigious birthday greetings to Scott Frederick Turow; he was born on this date in 1949. A practicing lawyer whose first published work was a law school memoir (One L), Turow pioneered the legal thriller with his 1987 novel Presumed Innocent (as close readers of the book will know, perhaps the best title ever). He has gone on to write eight more novels, edit two fiction collections, and publish another non-fiction work, which have together been translated into over 20 languages, sold over 25 million copies, and in many cases, been made into movies. Turow has argued cases that have won the release of inmates serving time for crimes they did not commit, has served on Federal Judicial appointment committees, and has served as President of The Authors Guild. If he has a fault, it is that by demonstrating the marketability of legal thrillers, he opened the way for John Grisham.
(Turow’s day job pays well enough to keep him comfortable; but in his capacity as head of The Authors Guild, he worries about the future of American authors. Other observers of the literary scene disagree. In any case, as Dave Pell notes, “for better or worse, the lack of money being paid to some incredibly well-reviewed authors has led some of them to move over to writing TV scripts. This is the golden age of television for a reason.”)
… or they could.
With 10-digit strings we can distinguish roughly 10,000,000,000 phones from each other. That assumes someone can have the number 000-000-0000, which is probably God’s number; and sure, maybe Satan has laid claim to 666-666-6666, so it’s not available; but we’re only being approximate here. The bottom line is that there’s enough space in principle for everyone in the USA to have 20 or 30 different cell phone numbers, if we use it efficiently.
But we don’t…
Read Geoffrey K. Pullam‘s thoughts on making more sensible use of our phone numbering system, in the always-illuminating Language Log.
* Nathaniel West
As we subscribe to sensible semiotics, we might recall that it was on this date in 1905 that the first U.S. advertisement for a radio receiver– the “Telimco Wireless Telegraph Outfit”– appeared in Scientific American.
source: Flickr/Tom Magliery.
I’ve noticed that I use semicolons a lot. That punctuational rut is partly a consequence of the years I spent in grad school reading the Victorian Sages (Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin, William Morris), who were capable of raging on in pages-long, semicolon-studded sentences about the evils of the Industrial Revolution. But there’s more to it than that. The semicolon is my psychological metaphor, my mascot. It’s the punctuation mark that qualifies, hesitates, and ties together ideas and parts of a life that shot off in different directions. I come from a world where most people still don’t read or hear what I have to say about books because they are oblivious to or downright suspicious of NPR, The New York Times, and all the other educated, upper-middle-class outlets where popular conversations about literature and culture take place; I now spend most of my time in a world where most people know who Stanley Fish is but have only the haziest notion of (and are even less interest in) what a shop steward does.
- Author, professor, and NPR book critic Maureen Corrigan
[To T. E. Lawrence, on Seven Pillars of Wisdom:] You practically do not use semicolons at all. This is a symptom of mental defectiveness, probably induced by camp life.
- George Bernard Shaw
More lexicographical love at “Writers’ Favorite Punctuation Marks.”
Feeling syntactically savvy? Take the Obscure Punctuation Quiz…
* “I’m tired of wasting letters when punctuation will do, period.” – Steve Martin
As we pledge ourselves to punctiliousness, we might spare a thought for Sarah Winnemucca; she died on this date in 1891 (as attested here, though some other sources give October 17). The daughter of Chief Winnemucca of the Northern Paiute people, and originally known by her Paiute name, Thocmetony (Shell Flower), Sarah was educated in the homes of U.S. Army officers who befriended her family. She became a prominent Native American activist and educator, and was the first Native American woman to secure a copyright and to publish in the English language (an autobiographical book, Life Among the Piutes: Their Wrongs and Claims, that tells of her people’s experiences during their first forty years of contact with white explorers and settlers– and that employs the full range of punctuation marks).
The curious art of diagramming sentences was invented 165 years ago by S.W. Clark, a schoolmaster in Homer, N.Y. His book, published in 1847, was called A Practical Grammar: In which Words, Phrases, and Sentences Are Classified According to Their Offices and Their Various Relations to One Another. His goal was to simplify the teaching of English grammar. It was more than 300 pages long, contained information on such things as unipersonal verbs and “rhetorico-grammatical figures,” and provided a long section on Prosody, which he defined as “that part of the Science of Language which treats of utterance.”
It may have been unwieldy, but this formidable tome was also quite revolutionary: out of the general murk of its tiny print, incessant repetitions, maze of definitions and uplifting examples emerged the profoundly innovative, dazzlingly ingenious and rather whimsical idea of analyzing sentences by turning them into pictures…
The full story– and lots of nifty diagrams– at Kitty Burns Florey’s “A Picture of Language” in the New York Times‘ Opinionator blog…
As we map our mumblings, we might pause to think some celebratory thoughts: today is Juneteenth.
Though the Emancipation Proclamation was issued on September 22, 1862 (effective January 1, 1863), word was slow to spread. On June 19, 1865, Union General Gordon Granger, who’d arrived in Galveston, Texas, with 2,000 federal troops to take possession of the state and enforce the emancipation of its slaves, read “General Order No. 3” from a local balcony:
The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.
Former slaves in Galveston celebrated in the streets; Juneteenth observances began across Texas the following year– and are now recognized as State Holidays by 41 states.
Ashton Villa in Glaveston, from whose front balcony the Emancipation Proclamation was read on June 19, 1865 (source)
Juneteenth celebration in Austin, c.1900 (source)