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Posts Tagged ‘language

“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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“The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said”*…

 

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…

Manuel Segovia

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

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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.

Chang and Eng Bunker

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Written by LW

May 11, 2013 at 1:01 am

On the other hand…

“Trim”: adding or taking away

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.

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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.”)

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Written by LW

April 12, 2013 at 1:01 am

“Numbers constitute the only universal language”*…

 

… or they could.

 xkcd

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

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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.

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Written by LW

November 25, 2012 at 1:01 am

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