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Posts Tagged ‘language

“That’s what music’s all about, messing with people’s heads”*…

 

Musicians and dancers, stair riser, Pakistan, first century.

I look at music and language in their deep histories, reaching back to a point before there was any music or language in their modern forms. So we’re talking, say, a 500,000-year stretch, perhaps all the way back to Homo heidelbergensis. I see the antecedents of these things falling into place along parallel tracks that overlap one another but are not the same track, and I follow the parallelism and the distinctness of those tracks from a very deep period. Which is to say that what we are left with as human beings in the world today, as the product of those tracks, is in fact a set of overlapping yet distinct capacities, functions, and capabilities in dealing with our world and our environment and in our social interactions with each other.

And so these things are loaded into both language and music in very complex but different ways…

Explore the deep history of humans and music with Gary Tomlinson, author of A Million Years of Music: “The Prehistory of Music.”

* Jimi Hendrix (whose third album, Electric Ladyland, was released on this date in 1968)

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As we get the beat, we might recall that it was on this date in 1965 that the Velvet Underground (see also here and here) made their live debut, playing at Summit High School in New Jersey; the group was paid $75 for the show.

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“I quote others only in order the better to express myself”*…

 

A recent query to the always-illuminating Language Log:

I’m reading my new copy of Soonish and came across a reference to air quotes and I got to wondering about the meme. I remember using them at least 30 years or more ago, entirely un-ironically. How does one go about looking up the history of such a thing? How would you reconcile the discoverable print references to its presumably earlier emergence as a metalinguistic thing in itself? At what point do the words, “air quotes” show up to stand for actual physically-performed “Air Quotes”?

Find the answers at: “Air Quotes.”

* Michel de Montaigne

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As we admit that there’s probably no pithier way to be ironic, mocking, or disingenuous, we might recall that it was on this date in 1726 that Jonathan Swift’s Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World. In Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships— much better known as Gulliver’s Travels— was first published.  A satire both of human nature and of the “travelers’ tales” literary subgenre popular at the time, it was an immediate hit (John Gay wrote in a 1726 letter to Swift that “It is universally read, from the cabinet council to the nursery”).  It has, of course, become a classic.

From the first edition

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Written by LW

October 28, 2017 at 1:01 am

“I’ve not never heard of that”*…

 

This website [is] devoted to the speech of one of the country’s most interesting but most often misunderstood regions—southern and central Appalachia, which stretches from north Georgia to West Virginia.  Some have romanticized the English spoken there as the language of Shakespeare and admired its authenticity and inventiveness.  Others have scorned or dismissed it as uneducated, bad grammar, or worse.  Too rarely has it been appreciated for what it is—the native speech of millions of Americans that has a distinguished history and that makes Appalachia what it is just as the region’s extraordinary music does.

Appalachian English is an umbrella term referring to the social and geographical varieties found in a large mountain and valley region encompassing all or parts of eight southern states: West Virginia, eastern Kentucky and Tennessee, western Virginia and North Carolina, northern Georgia and Alabama, and northwestern South Carolina.  Historically and structurally it is closely related to Ozark English, and it shares many features with varieties of English spoken in the Deep South.

At this site you’ll find a wealth of information and resources.  There’s enjoyment to be had in exploring, but if you’re looking for a site that’s just for entertainment or one with funny spellings, you’ve come to the wrong place.  Too many of them are around already.  As two natives of East Tennessee who have heard hill speech for a long time and have written about it, we have designed this site to present not only how Aplapachian people talk, but also some of the history and the flavor of that talk.  It focuses especially on the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina, but the speech of the Smokies is typical of much of what you’ll hear elsewhere in the region, though not as strongly as a couple of generations back.

At a professional conference some years ago, one of us on our bus tour happened to sit next to a linguist from the University of California (who is now at an Ivy League school).  He asked me what my special interest was, and I said, “Appalachian English.”  He responded, “Oh, Appalachian English is one of my favorite dialects. Does anyone still speak it?”  The question sort of took me aback, but I looked at him for a moment and replied, “Yes, I’d say about twenty million people do.”  He seemed a bit confused, so I explained that plenty of people from the region actually choose to talk the way they do and that their distinctive English is probably here to stay.  Their speech helps define who they are, whether they live in Kentucky or have moved to Detroit to work in a plant.  He looked out the window…

Explore Appalachian English— and be sure to take the vocabulary quiz.

* an exemplary Appalachian English sentence

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As we head for the hills, we might send free-thinking birthday greetings to Henri Bergson; he was born on this date in 1859.  A philosopher especially influential in the first half of the 20th Century, Bergson convinced many of the primacy of immediate experience and intuition over rationalism and science for the understanding reality…. many, but not the likes of Wittgenstein, Russell, Moore, and Santayana, who thought that he willfully misunderstood the scientific method in order to justify his “projection of subjectivity onto the physical world.”  Still, in 1927 Bergson won the Nobel Prize (in Literature); and in 1930, received France’s highest honor, the Grand-Croix de la Legion d’honneur.

Bergson’s influence waned mightily later in the century.  To the extent that there’s been a bit of a resurgence of interest, it’s largely the result of Gilles Deleuze’s appropriation of Bergson’s concept of “mulitplicity” and his treatment of duration, which Deleuze used in his critique of Hegel’s dialectic.

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Written by LW

October 18, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Talk sense to a fool and he calls you foolish”*…

 

… and sometimes, it turns out, the reverse is true:

About 20 per cent of the United States population (60 million out of 300 million people) are non-native speakers of English. Speaking multiple languages has advantages – for example, you get to talk to people from different cultures. But being a non-native or second-language (L2) speaker also has its challenges. In addition to often feeling self-conscious about their accents, L2 speakers can be viewed by native speakers as less intelligent, and less trustworthy.

Thus it might come as a surprise that, in 1980, Henry Kissinger (the former US secretary of state and a non-native English speaker, originally from Germany) told Arianna Huffington (the Greek immigrant and entrepreneur/writer who would eventually start The Huffington Post) not to worry about [her] accent, ‘because you can never, in American public life, underestimate the advantages of complete and total incomprehensibility’…

We can think of the errors in non-native English as a noisier language model than a native-speaker model. Listeners expect more errors and are therefore more likely to think that L2 speakers mean something sensible when they say something implausible. But if a native speaker says something nonsensical, listeners are more likely to take them literally, because they know their language model has less noise. Kissinger was advising Huffington that, given her accent, listeners would likely give her the benefit of the doubt…

An MIT cognitive scientist explains “The unexpected benefits of getting lost in translation.”

* Euripides, The Bacchae

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As we filter signal from noise, we might recall that it was on this date in 1535 that The Bible, that is the Holy Scripture of the Old and New Testament, faithfully translated into English— better known as the Coverdale Bible— came off the press in Antwerp.  Prepared by Myles Coverdale, it was the first complete Modern English translation of the Bible (not just the Old Testament or New Testament), and the first complete printed translation into English (using William Tyndale‘s New Testament work together with Coverdale’s own translations from the Latin Vulgate or German text).

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Written by LW

October 4, 2017 at 1:01 am

“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world”*…

 

In 1872 a British general named Alexander Cunningham, excavating an area in what was then British-controlled northern India, came across something peculiar. Buried in some ruins, he uncovered a small, one inch by one inch square piece of what he described as smooth, black, unpolished stone engraved with strange symbols — lines, interlocking ovals, something resembling a fish — and what looked like a bull etched underneath. The general, not recognizing the symbols and finding the bull to be unlike other Indian animals, assumed the artifact wasn’t Indian at all but some misplaced foreign token. The stone, along with similar ones found over the next few years, ended up in the British Museum. In the 1920s many more of these artifacts, by then known as seals, were found and identified as evidence of a 4,000-year-old culture now known as the Indus Valley Civilization, the oldest known Indian civilization to date.

Since then, thousands more of these tiny seals have been uncovered. Most of them feature one line of symbols at the top with a picture, usually of an animal, carved below. The animals pictured include bulls, rhinoceros, elephants, and puzzlingly, unicorns. They’ve been found in a swath of territory that covers present-day India and Pakistan and along trade routes, with seals being found as far as present-day Iraq. And the symbols, which range from geometric designs to representations of fish or jars, have also been found on signs, tablets, copper plates, tools, and pottery.

Though we now have thousands of examples of these symbols, we have very little idea what they mean. Over a century after Cunningham’s discovery, the seals remain undeciphered, their messages lost to us. Are they the letters of an ancient language? Or are they just religious, familial, or political symbols? Those hotly contested questions have sparked infighting among scholars and exacerbated cultural rivalries over who can claim the script as their heritage. But new work from researchers using sophisticated algorithms, machine learning, and even cognitive science are finally helping push us to the edge of cracking the Indus script…

A tale of antiquities, A.I., and academic rivalry: “Cypher Wars.”

* Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (5.6)

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As we dig in, we might send carefully-excavated birthday greetings to Gertrude Caton Thompson; she was born on this date in 1888.  An influential English archaeologist at a time when it was unusual for women to be allowed to lead in the field (pun intended), she distinguished two prehistoric cultures in the Al-Fayyum depression of Upper Egypt (the older dating to about 5000 BC and the younger to about 4500 BC.), and she demonstrated that the ruins in southeastern Zimbabwe near Lake Mutirikwe known since the 16th century as Great Zimbabwe were the product of a “native civilization” (not outsiders, as some others had asserted).

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Written by LW

February 1, 2017 at 1:01 am

“‘Heresy,’ by the way, simply means ‘choice.’ It came to mean ‘thoughtcrime,’ implying it was blasphemy to presume to choose your own belief”*…

 

Frontispiece to Francis van Helmont’s Alphabeti vere Naturalis Hebraici (1667)

Largely forgotten today, the 17th-century Flemish alchemist Francis van Helmont influenced and was friends with the likes of Locke, Boyle, and Leibniz.  While imprisoned by the Inquisition, in between torture sessions, he wrote his Alphabet of Nature on the idea of a universal “natural” language.

The full– and fascinating– story at “Francis van Helmont and the Alphabet of Nature.”

* Robert M. Price

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As we fumble for fundamentals, we might send apostate birthday greetings to Govaert Wendelen (Latinized Godefridus Wendelinus, or sometimes Vendelinus); he was born on this date in 1580.  A clergyman and astronomer, he was– in conflict with the Church’s teachings at the time– a vigorous proponent of the Copernican theory that the planets orbit around the sun.  Wendelen is regarded as first to formulate a law for the variation of the obliquity of the ecliptic (for which Newton cited him in his Principia).  The crater Vendelinus on the Moon is named for him.

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Written by LW

June 6, 2016 at 1:01 am

“In Japanese and Italian, the response to [‘How are you?’] is ‘I’m fine, and you?’ In German it’s answered with a sigh and a slight pause, followed by ‘Not so good’.”*…

 

If you own a smartphone and are trying to learn a language, you probably have Duolingo. At this very moment the app—which tries to turn language learning into a rewarding game—may be not-so-subtly suggesting that you are overdue for some Spanish vocabulary practice.

 How many other people are learning Spanish, and where do they live?

Duolingo recently answered such questions by running the numbers on their 120 million users, spanning every country on the planet. The company identified the most popular language for each country, among the 19 it offers…

More at “The languages the world is trying to learn, according to Duolingo.” [Note the absence of Mandarin, Japanese, Arabic and other Asian and Middle Eastern languages– surely a reflection, at least in large part, of the offers available on Duolingo, which teaches in more languages than it teaches…]

* David Sedaris, Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls

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As we prepare to conjugate, 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 the quatrains that comprise the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, Omar was 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.

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Written by LW

May 15, 2016 at 1:01 am

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