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Posts Tagged ‘language

“Learning languages is like learning history from the inside out”*…

 

In a way that’s analogous to the evolution of morphology via mutation, the changes in the languages that we speak are driven by “mistakes” that get baked into practice.  For instance…

AMMUNITION

projectiles to be fired from a gun

It is common to misanalyze an article that precedes a word as if it were part of that word. Here the French phrase la munition was misanalyzed so the “a” of the article became part of the word, becoming l’ammunition

ARCHIPELAGO

a group of many islands in a large body of water

The etymology of archipelago seems like it should be from Greek arkhi meaning “chief” andpelagos “sea,” suggesting the importance of a sea with so many islands. The problem is that this form never occurs in ancient Greek, and the modern form is actually borrowed from Italian, with the intended meaning being “the Aegean Sea.” If that’s the case, then the archi- inarchipelago is actually a corrupted version of Aigaion, which is how you say “Aegean” in Greek…

More words that originated in error.

* Eric van Lustbader

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As we misspeak creatively, we might spare a thought for Baruch (or Benedict) de Spinoza, the Dutch philosopher who lived a quiet public life as a lens grinder– but whose rationalism and determinism put him in opposition to Descartes and helped lay the foundation for The Enlightenment, and whose pantheistic views led to his excommunication from the Jewish community in Amsterdam.  He died on this date in 1677.

As men’s habits of mind differ, so that some more readily embrace one form of faith, some another, for what moves one to pray may move another to scoff, I conclude … that everyone should be free to choose for himself the foundations of his creed, and that faith should be judged only by its fruits; each would then obey God freely with his whole heart, while nothing would be publicly honored save justice and charity.

Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, 1670

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Written by LW

February 21, 2015 at 1:01 am

“The past is always tense, the future perfect”*…

 

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Predicting the future of the English language is rather easy, in the short term.  The odds are, over the next few decades its New World dialects are going to gain increasing global dominance, accelerating the demise of thousands of less fortunate languages but at long last allowing a single advertisement to reach everybody in the world.  Then after a century or two of US dominance some other geopolitical grouping will gain the ascendancy, everyone will learn Chechen or Patagonian or whatever it is, and history will continue as usual.  Ho hum.  But apart from that… what might the language actually look like in a thousand years time?  For comparison, the English spoken at the turn of the last millennium looked like this:

1000 AD: Wé cildra biddaþ þé, éalá láréow, þæt þú tǽce ús sprecan rihte, forþám ungelǽrede wé sindon, and gewæmmodlíce we sprecaþ…
2000 AD: We children beg you, teacher, that you should teach us to speak correctly, because we are ignorant and we speak corruptly…

(1000 AD, from”The Colloquy of Aelfric.”)

So how far will another thousand years take it?…

Peek over the linguistic horizon at “FUTURESE- The American Language in 3000 AD.”

* Zadie Smith

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As we envision emergent etymologies, we might spare a thought for a wicked bender of English words, James Augustine Aloysius Joyce; he died on this date in 1941.  A poet and novelist best known for Ulysses, he was the preeminent figure in the Modernist avant-garde, and a formative influence on writers as various as (Joyce’s protege) Samuel Becket, Jorge Luis Borges, Salmon Rushdie, and Joesph Campbell.

In 1998, the Modern Library ranked Ulysses No. 1, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man No. 3, and Finnegans Wake No. 77, on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.  The next year, Time Magazine named Joyce one of its 100 Most Important People of the 20th century, observing that “Joyce … revolutionized 20th century fiction.”  And illustrating that Joyce’s influence was not confined to the arts:  physicist Murray Gell-Mann used the sentence “Three quarks for Muster Mark!” (in Joyce’s Finnegans Wake) as source for the elementary particle he was naming– the quark.

Photo of Joyce included in a printed subscription order form for Ulysses, published Paris, 1921

 

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Written by LW

January 13, 2015 at 1:01 am

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language / And next year’s words await another voice”*…

 

In Words in Time and Place, David Crystal explores fifteen fascinating sets of synonyms, using the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary.

We’ve turned selections from six sections of Words in Time and Place into word clouds, arranged in a shape related to the topic in question…

The first is above; see the other five– terms of endearment, dying, fools, money, and the lavatory– at Oxford Dictionaries‘ “Spiflicated, mopsy, and spondulicks: historical synonyms for everyday things.”

Special bonus: Benjamin Franklin’s personal– and voluminous– list of synonyms for “Drunk.”

* T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets

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As we choose our words with care, we might send dangerous birthday greetings to Herbert Huncke he was born on this date in 1915.  A drifter and small-time thief, Huncke became an object of respect– even affection– for William S. Burroughs, in whose autobiography (Junkie) Huncke is described:

Waves of hostility and suspicion flowed out from his large brown eyes like some sort of television broadcast. The effect was almost like a physical impact. The man was small and very thin, his neck loose in the collar of his shirt. His complexion faded from brown to a mottled yellow, and pancake make-up had been heavily applied in an attempt to conceal a skin eruption. His mouth was drawn down at the corners in a grimace of petulant annoyance…

Huncke embodied a certain honest-criminal ethic so purely that Burroughs and his friends came to love him for it.  Huncke was said to have introduced Jack Kerouac to the term “beat”; in any case, Kerouac wrote adoringly of him (as Elmer Hassel) in On The Road.  And Allen Ginsberg shared his New York City apartment with him, even though he realized Huncke and his junkie friends were storing stolen goods there.  This phase ended in a dramatic police bust on Utopia Parkway in Bayside, Queens, during which Ginsberg frantically phoned Huncke and told him to “clean out the place” before the cops got there.  Ginsberg arrived at his apartment moments ahead of the cops to find that Huncke had taken him literally. He’d tidied up and swept the floor, but left the stolen goods in an orderly stack.  A forgiving Ginsberg later engaged Huncke as an instructor in the literary program he ran at Naropa Institute.

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Written by LW

January 9, 2015 at 1:01 am

“The English language has a deceptive air of simplicity; so have some little frocks; but neither are the kind of thing you can run up in half an hour with a machine”*…

 

Dr. Philip Durkin is Deputy Chief Editor of the Oxford English Dictionary. author of Borrowed Words: A History of Loanwords in English— and creator of the nifty interactive infographic pictured above:

I examine how words borrowed from different languages have influenced English throughout its history. The above feature summarizes some of the main data from the book, focusing on the 14 sources that have given the most words to English, as reflected by the new and revised entries in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Using the date buttons at the top of the graphic, you can compare the impact that different languages have made on English over time. In the “per period” view, you can see the proportions of words coming into English from each source in 50-year slices from 1150 up to the present day. Compare, for instance, how the input from German has grown and then declined again from 1800 to the present day. (The earliest period, pre-1150, is much longer than 50 years, because more precise dating of words from this early stage in the history of English is very problematic.)

If you switch to the “cumulative” view, then you can see how the total number of loanwords from each language has built up over time. Here the shifts from one 50-year period to another are rather less dramatic, but the long-term shifts are still very striking. You can see, for instance, how German, Spanish, and Italian all slowly come to greater prominence. You can see this very clearly if you select any start date and then press the “play” button. (If you would like to see the numbers behind the graphic, a selection of graphs and charts from Borrowed Words is available here.)…

Get a feel for the truly global scope of English’s borrowing, and at the same time, an appreciation of just how “dependent” we are on Latin and French– play with the interactive graphic at “The Many Origins of the English Language.”

* Dorothy L. Sayers

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As we marvel at the mash-up, we might recall that it was on this date in 1413 that Henry V became King of England.  Immortalized by Shakespeare as the slacker prince who redeems himself in battle (the Henry IV plays) and as the inspirational commander at Agincourt (Henry V), Henry does in fact seem to have been an effective monarch, pursuing a unifying domestic policy that led to relative calm during his reign. His foreign policy was dominated by a steady military campaign against France that continued to his death.

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Written by LW

March 21, 2014 at 1:01 am

The Annals of Semiotics, Vol. 27: Round and Round and Round We Go…

The image you see above is a “magic roundabout” in Colchester, England. It includes 5 mini-roundabouts embedded in a giant one. Imagine driving that on the left side of the road!

Roundabout. Traffic Circle. Rotary. According to the Harvard Dialect Study, we Americans are pretty divided about what to call a traffic circle, which is my own word of choice, like nearly 40% of the rest of you

Read on at Deborah Fallows’ “Magical Roundabouts and the Language of Signs,” one of a fascinating on-going series of dispatches from Deb and her husband James Fallows in the Atlantic series “American Futures“– tales of “reinvention and resilience across the nation.”

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As we name that turn, we might recall that it was on this date in 1993 that the last segment of the Natchez Trace Parkway’s Double Arch Bridge was set into place in the Franklin Crossing, over Route 96 near Franklin, Tennessee.  The National Park Service had been paving the Natchez Trace a little bit at a time since 1938, turning it into a scenic modern highway.  The last stretch was the Franklin Crossing, where engineers had to figure out how to elevate the bridge over Route 96 and the densely wooded valley below while preserving the natural beauty of the site.  Engineer Eugene Figg settled on an open, double-arched bridge that supports its deck without spandrel columns, preserving most of the view across the valley– the first precast segmental concrete arch bridge to be built in the United States.

The bridge was officially opened in the Spring of the following year, and the Parkway was complete.

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Written by LW

October 6, 2013 at 1:01 am

Never going to happen…

One might express the exceedingly low probability that one might agree (that, say, Adam Sandler is the artistic and comedic rival of Buster Keaton) in a variety of ways.  Here in the U.S., it might be “when pigs fly” or “when Hell freezes over”.  Now, thanks to the good folks at Nautilus, one can answer with the appropriately idiomatic expression of improbability all over the world.  Just click the image above…

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As we substitute hyperbole for hyperventilation, we might recall that it was on this date in 2008 that Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy, setting off the worst financial crisis since the nineteen-thirties, a seven-hundred-billion-dollar bank bailout, and a painful recession.  On this dark anniversary, John Cassidy asks, “What Has Changed Since Lehman Failed?”  James Kwak answers, “5 Years Later, We’ve Learned Nothing From The Financial Crisis.  And for a really deep dive, leap in here.

Then-Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Paulson

Written by LW

September 15, 2013 at 1:01 am

“In general, every country has the language it deserves”*…

 

The folks at Idibon, a natural language processing company, spend a great deal deal of time thinking about how we say what we say.  Of late, they’ve become positively ruminative…

The language that is most different from the majority of all other languages in the world [that’s 2,67 other languages] is a verb-initial tonal languages spoken by 6,000 people in Oaxaca, Mexico, known as Chalcatongo Mixtec (aka San Miguel el Grande Mixtec). Number two is spoken in Siberia by 22,000 people: Nenets (that’s where we get the word parka from). Number three is Choctaw, spoken by about 10,000 people, mostly in Oklahoma.

But here’s the rub—some of the weirdest languages in the world are ones you’ve heard of: German, Dutch, Norwegian, Czech, Spanish, and Mandarin.  And actually English is #33 in the Language Weirdness Index.

The 25 weirdest languages of the world. In North America: Chalcatongo Mixtec, Choctaw, Mesa Grande Diegueño, Kutenai, and Zoque; in South America: Paumarí and Trumai; in Australia/Oceania: Pitjantjatjara and Lavukaleve; in Africa: Harar Oromo, Iraqw, Kongo, Mumuye, Ju|’hoan, and Khoekhoe; in Asia: Nenets, Eastern Armenian, Abkhaz, Ladakhi, and Mandarin; and in Europe: German, Dutch, Norwegian, Czech, and Spanish.

The five least-weird languages in the world?  Lithuanian, Indonesian, Turkish, Basque, and Cantonese.

Read the entire tale– from background and methodology to tongue-twisting examples– at “The Weirdest Languages.”

* Jorge Luis Borges’ wry twist on Wittgenstein’s insistence that “the limits of my language means the limits of my world”

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As we e-nun-ci-ate, we might recall that it was on this date in 1995 that Amazon.com made its first sale: a copy of Douglas Hofstadter’s Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies: Computer Models of the Fundamental Mechanisms of Thought.

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