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Posts Tagged ‘language

“I like good strong words that mean something”*…

 

Lox

 

“One of my favorite words is lox,” says Gregory Guy, a professor of linguistics at New York University. There is hardly a more quintessential New York food than a lox bagel—a century-old popular appetizing store, Russ & Daughters, calls it “The Classic.” But Guy, who has lived in the city for the past 17 years, is passionate about lox for a different reason. “The pronunciation in the Proto-Indo-European was probably ‘lox,’ and that’s exactly how it is pronounced in modern English,” he says. “Then, it meant salmon, and now it specifically means ‘smoked salmon.’ It’s really cool that that word hasn’t changed its pronunciation at all in 8,000 years and still refers to a particular fish.”

How scholars have traced the word’s pronunciation over thousands of years is also really cool. The story goes back to Thomas Young, also known as “The Last Person Who Knew Everything.” The 18th-century British polymath came up with the wave theory of light, first described astigmatism, and played a key role in deciphering the Rosetta Stone. Like some people before him, Young noticed eerie similarities between Indic and European languages. He went further, analyzing 400 languages spread across continents and millennia and proved that the overlap between some of them was too extensive to be an accident. A single coincidence meant nothing, but each additional one increased the chance of an underlying connection. In 1813, Young declared that all those languages belong to one family. He named it “Indo-European.”…

Delight in the detective work recounted at “The English Word That Hasn’t Changed in Sound or Meaning in 8,000 Years.”

* Louisa May Alcott, Little Women

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As we celebrate continuity, we might spare a thought for James Burnett, Lord Monboddo; he died on this date in 1799.  a Scottish judge and scholar of linguistic evolution, he is best remembered a one of the founders of the modern field of comparative historical linguistics.

Monboddo was one of a number of scholars involved at the time in development of early concepts of biological evolution. Some credit him with anticipating in principle the idea of natural selection in papers that were read by (and acknowledged in the writings of) Erasmus Darwin.  Charles Darwin read the works of his grandfather Erasmus and, of course, later developed the ideas into a scientific theory.

Lord_Monboddo01 source

 

“If thou thou’st him some thrice, it will not be amiss”*…

 

You

 

‘You’ is the fourteenth most frequently used word in the English language, following closely behind its fellow pronouns ‘it’ at number eight and ‘I’ at number eleven:

The fact that you follows closely behind I in popularity is probably attributable to its being an eight-way word: both subject and object, both singular and plural, and both formal and familiar. The all-purpose second person is an unusual feature of English, as middle-schoolers realize when they start taking French, Spanish, or, especially German, which offers a choice of seven different singular versions of you. It’s relatively new in our language. In early modern English, beginning  in the late fifteenth century, thou, thee and thy were singular forms for the subjective, objective and possessive, and ye, you and your were plural. In the 1500s and 1600s, ye and then the thou/thee/thy forms, faded away, to be replaced by the all-purpose you. But approaches to this second person were interesting in this period of flux. David Crystal writes in The Cambridge Encyclopedia of English that by Shakespeare’s time, you “was used by people of lower rank or status to those above them (such as ordinary people to nobles, children to parents, servants to masters, nobles to the monarch), and was also the standard way for the upper classes to talk to each other. … By contrast, thou/thee were used by people of higher rank to those beneath them, and by the lower classes to each other; also in elevated poetic style, in addressing God, and in talking to witches, ghosts and other supernatural  beings.” The OED cites a 1675 quotation: “No Man will You God but will use the pronoun Thou to him.”

“Needless to say, this ambiguity and variability were gold in the hand of a writer like Shakespeare, and he played with it endlessly, sometimes having a character switch modes of address within a speech to indicate a change in attitude.” [see the title of this post, for example]…

More of this excerpt from Ben Yagoda’s When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It: The Parts of Speech, for Better and/or Worse  at “You.”

[Via the ever-illuminating Delanceyplace.com]

* Sir Toby Belch to Sir Andrew Aguecheek, in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night

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As we muse on modes of address, we might send elegantly phrased and eclectic birthday greetings to Persian polymath Omar Khayyam; the philosopher, mathematician, astronomer, epigrammatist, and poet was born on this date in 1048. While he’s probably best known to English-speakers as a poet, via Edward FitzGerald’s famous translation of (what he called) the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, Fitzgerald’s attribution of the book’s poetry to Omar (as opposed to the aphorisms and other quotes in the volume) is now questionable to many scholars (who believe those verses to be by several different Persian authors).

In any case, Omar was unquestionably one of the major mathematicians and astronomers of the medieval period.  He is the author of one of the most important treatises on algebra written before modern times, the Treatise on Demonstration of Problems of Algebra, which includes a geometric method for solving cubic equations by intersecting a hyperbola with a circle.  His astronomical observations contributed to the reform of the Persian calendar.  And he made important contributions to mechanics, geography, mineralogy, music, climatology and Islamic theology.

 source

 

 

Written by LW

May 15, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Roughly speaking: to say of two things that they are identical is nonsense”*…

 

410px-Library_of_Ashurbanipal_synonym_list_tablet

Synonym list in cuneiform on a clay tablet, Neo-Assyrian period

 

synonym is a word or phrase that means exactly or nearly the same as another lexeme (word or phrase) in the same language. Words that are synonyms are said to be synonymous, and the state of being a synonym is called synonymy. For example, the words beginstartcommence, and initiate are all synonyms of one another. Words are typically synonymous in one particular sense: for example, long and extended in the context long time or extended time are synonymous, but long cannot be used in the phrase extended family

Synonyms have several close cousins:  cognitive synonyms like metonyms (e.g., “Washington” for “the federal government”) and words with inexactly similar meanings, near-synonyms, plesionyms or poecilonyms (e.g., “wrecked” or “tipsy” for “inebriated”).

But, pace Wittgenstein, does “synonym” have a synonym?

[Quote and image above: source]

* Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

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As we calculate the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin, we might send speculative birthday greetings to Hervé Le Tellier; he was born on this date in 1957.  A linguist and writer, he is a member of the the international literary group Oulipo (Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle, which translates roughly as “workshop of potential literature”), which has also included Raymond QueneauGeorges PerecItalo Calvino,  Jacques RoubaudJean Lescure and Harry Mathews.

220px-Hervé_Le_Tellier source

 

Written by LW

April 21, 2019 at 1:01 am

“We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary”*…

 

Terms of Sale

 

In the early history of international trade, when exotic goods traveled to new regions, their native names sometimes hitchhiked along with them.

Naturally, the Germans have a term – Wanderwörter – for these extraordinary loanwords that journey around the globe, mutating subtly along the way…

See the map above in larger format, and learn more about each of the examples it illustrates at: “Mapping the Spread of Words Along Trade Routes.” [sourced from Lapham’s Quarterly]

* James Nicoll

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As we ponder the provenance of our produce, we might recall that it was on this date 1397 that Geoffrey Chaucer “told” The Canterbury Tales for the first time at the court of Richard II.

220px-Canterbury_Tales

A woodcut from William Caxton‘s second edition of The Canterbury Tales, printed in 1483

source

 

Written by LW

April 17, 2019 at 1:01 am

“I don’t like the ALPHAbet. I’m going to wait for the BETA version.”*…

 

alphabet zoomable version here

 

The chart shows how the letters used to write English (and many other languages) evolved from Proto-Sinaitic, through Phoenician, early Greek and early Latin, to their present forms. You can see how some letters were dropped and others ended up evolving into more than one letter…

From Matt Baker of UsefulCharts, this chart traces the evolution of our familiar alphabet from its Proto-Sinaitic roots circa 1850-1550 BC.  As Kottke observes, it’s tough to see how the pictographic forms of the original script evolved into our letters; aside from the T and maybe M & O, there’s little resemblance.  Helpfully, Baker also produced a video:

* Anthony T. Hincks

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As we follow the thread, we might spare a thought for John Butler Yeats; he died on this date in 1922.  An artist many of whose works are displayed in the National Gallery of Ireland, he was the father of poet William Butler Yeats (and his accomplished siblings Lily YeatsElizabeth Corbett “Lolly” Yeats and Jack B. Yeats).

202px-william_butler_yeats_by_john_butler_yeats_1900

W. B. Yeats, by his father J. B. Yeats [source]

183px-john_butler_yeats,_by_john_butler_yeats

Self-portrait, J. B. Yeats [source]

 

Written by LW

February 3, 2019 at 1:01 am

“We will meet; and there we may rehearse most obscenely and courageously”*…

crows

How did a group of crows become a murder? Or a group of starlings a murmuration? The truth is lost to history, but one theory is that many of the English language’s elaborate nouns of assemblage were concocted by a prioress for a 1486 gentleman’s guide called the Book of St. Albans, and mostly meant to show the user’s erudition and wit. Which is still what they do…

Everything that one could want to know about “Nouns of Assemblage.”

* Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, (Bottom, Act 1, Scene 2)

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As we come together, we might recall that it was on this date in 1910 that Dr Lee De Forest, the American inventor of the vacuum tube, conducted the first public demonstration of radio as we know it, broadcasting a live performance of Enrico Caruso from the Metropolitan Opera– a broadcast audible only by the small number of electronics hobbyists who had radio receivers. (He’d tried a “quiet experiment,” broadcasting part of Tosca the prior night.)  De Forest started regular nightly concerts in 1915, increasing interest in radio receivers, which at the time depended on the vacuum tubes manufactured by De Forest’s company.

While DeForest pioneered the commercialization of radio, Italian electrical engineer and inventor Guglielmo Marconi is traditionally recognized as its creator for his 1896 invention, which transmitted signals over more than a mile. By 1905, ships often used radios to communicate with stations on shore.  Marconi’s work earned him a share of the 1909 Nobel Prize in Physics; DeForest got rich… It prefigured, in a metaphorical way the relationship between Philo Farnsworth and David Sarnoff in the development of television.

Indeed, appropriately enough, it was on this same date 18 years later, in 1928, that the first experimental television sets– with 1.5 square inch screens– were installed in three homes in Schenectady, NY.

Lee DeForest

 

Written by LW

January 13, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Humanize your talk, and speak to be understood”*…

 

violet_personified

Personification is weird…yet entirely natural. It’s the odd practice of pretending things are people. When we personify, we apply human attributes to inanimate objects, to nature, to animals, or to abstract concepts, sometimes complete with dramatic stories about their social roles, emotions and intentions. We can observe this linguistically through features like unexpected pronoun use or certain animate verbs and adjectives that are usually only applied to people. A common example is how ships and other vessels traditionally have a feminine gender in English (even if the ship happens to be a “man-of-war“)… There’s a strange empathy in words like “she is alone” applied to an object that can’t possibly have a sense of loneliness. This isn’t the artifice of poetry, but everyday language. On the face of it, the concept of personification seems pretty crazy, the stuff of fantasy and magical thinking…

You might think, like many a respectable scientist, that it has no place in our earth logic, because not only is it not real, it is objectively false (and therefore unscientific), since inanimate objects do not have feelings or intentions (and if animals do, we can’t possibly know for sure). Yet personification is not only wildly popular in language use (even if we don’t always notice it), it’s a fascinating psychological phenomenon that reveals a lot about social cognition and how we might understand the world…

How the way we talk about the things around us both shapes and reflects our understanding of the world: “Personification Is Your Friend: The Language of Inanimate Objects.”

* Moliere

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As we muse on anthropomorphic metaphor and meaning, we might recall that today’s a relative-ly good day for it, as it was on this date in 1900 that German physicist Max Planck presented and published his study of the effect of radiation on a “black-body” substance (introducing what we’ve come to know as the Planck Postulate), and the quantum theory of modern physics– and for that matter, Twentieth Century modernity– were born.

Planck study demonstrated that in certain situations energy exhibits the characteristics of physical matter– something unthinkable at the time– and suggested that energy exists in discrete packets, which he called “quanta”… thus laying the foundation on which he, Einstein, Bohr, Schrodinger, Dirac, and others built our modern understanding.

220px-Max_Planck_1933Max Planck

 

Written by LW

December 14, 2018 at 1:01 am

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