(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘language

“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

###

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

###

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

###

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)

###

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

###

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

“The language mint is more than a mint; it is a great manufacturing center, where all sorts of productive activities go on unceasingly”*…

 

Words

Language is, famously, a living thing.  Just how alive is powerfully demonstrated by Merriam-Webster’s Time Traveler: enter a date; see the words and phrases that “officially” entered the language that year.

Your correspondent entered the distant year of his birth… and got a list that ran from anti-matter and carpal tunnel syndrome through federal case and Maoism to sweat equity and tank top.

Try it for yourself.

* Mario Pei

###

As we contemplate coinage, we might recall that it was on this date in 1604 that Shakespeare’s Othello was performed for the first time, and on this date in 1611 that The Tempest premiered (both at the Whitehall Palace).

Shakespeare was a prodigious coiner of words and phrases, creating over 1,700 across his works, several hundred of which are still in common use.

blog_Shakespeare.words_-240x300 source

 

Written by LW

November 1, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die”*…

 

victor

One of dozens of definitions, from acrimony to wrath, that make up the language of resentment– “Glossary: Rivalry & Feud.”

* Carrie Fisher

###

As we slog through the swamp, we might recall that it was on this date in 1964 that Ronald Reagan delivered what is still considered one of the most effective political speeches ever made on behalf of a candidate, “A Time For Choosing,” an endorsement of Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign.  While Goldwater was roundly defeated the following month, the speech launched the political career of Reagan, who was, soon after, asked to run for Governor of California… and who carried the tag “the Great Communicator” for the rest of his life.

A_Time_for_Choosing_by_Ronald_Reagan.ogv source

 

Written by LW

October 27, 2018 at 1:01 am

%d bloggers like this: