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Posts Tagged ‘linguistics

“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

“For most of human history, ‘literature’… has been narrated, not written — heard, not read”*…

 

Bradshaw_rock_paintings

Bradshaw rock paintings help Aboriginal people record knowledge to memory

 

In preliterate societies, oral stories were likewise relied upon as necessary and meaningful—and they conveyed a range of knowledge and human experiences. In some instances, particularly in harsh environments like Australia where certain information was key to survival, rigid methods of intergenerational knowledge transfer were in place. Essential knowledge, such as that for finding water and shelter, or for knowing what food was present where, was passed down along patriarchal lines but routinely cross-checked for accuracy and completeness between those lines.

But knowledge was also exchanged from generation to generation through song, dance, and performance. Geography and history in Aboriginal Australian societies were told as people moved along songlines, which were remembered routes across the land. Their memories were prompted by particular landforms. Even ancient rock art may have been created as memory aids, prompts to help storytellers recall particular pieces of information. Today many Aboriginal groups keep alive their ancient memories of songlines.

Such oral traditions could be viewed as “books” that were kept in the mental libraries of those who had actually heard and memorized them. Knowledge was passed on by “reading” those books out loud to young people, some of whom memorized them and would later “read” them to others. And so these ancient stories are still alive today—from memorable events like the formation of Crater Lake or the drowning of land along the Australian fringe to information about the names of places and their associations.

Now pause to consider what this means.

Humanity has direct memories of events that occurred 10 millennia ago…

Evidence gathered in recent years shows that some ancient narratives contain remarkably reliable records of real events– records that have survived for thousands of years: “The Oldest True Stories in the World.”

See also: “How oral cultures memorise so much information” (the source of the image above).

* Angela Carter

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As we sing along, we might recall that it was on this date in 1869 that The Aboriginal Protection Act was enacted in Britain’s colony of Victoria– Australia, as now we know it.  At a time when democratic reforms were being introduced for most of the population, (including the extension of the franchise from the wealthy to all adult males and the provision of free public education), Aboriginal people were losing their freedom: pursuant to the Act, the government developed controls over where Aboriginal people could live and work, what they could do, and who they could meet or marry.– and most horrifyingly, it removed Aboriginal children from their families, starting the process that created the Stolen Generation.  Still, the Aboriginal oral tradition has survived.

apa source

 

“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

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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

“Being crazy isn’t enough”*…

 

There are only three foodstuffs in American English the names of which can also mean “crazy”; learn the (fascinating) story of each at “Why Are Bananas, Nuts, and Crackers the Only Foods That Say ‘Crazy’?”

* Dr. Seuss

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As we entitle insanity, we might spare a thought for the man who introduced “crazy” to literature, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra; he died on this date in 1616 (though some scholars put it a day earlier)– the same day as Shakespeare died, and (most likely) Shakespeare’s birthday.  As Somerset Maugham said,”casting my mind’s eye over the whole of fiction, the only absolutely original creation that I can think of is Don Quixote.”

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Written by LW

April 23, 2018 at 1:01 am

“There’s no such thing as an unabridged dictionary”*…

 

For OED’s editors, this world is both exhilarating and, one senses, mildly overwhelming. The digital era has enabled Oxford lexicographers to run dragnets deeper and deeper through the language, but it has also threatened to capsize the operation. When you’re making a historical dictionary and are required to check each and every resource, then recheck those resources when, say, a corpus of handwritten 17th-century letters comes on stream, the problem of keeping the dictionary up to date expands to even more nightmarish proportions. Adding to that dictionary to accommodate new words – themselves visible in greater numbers than ever before, mutating ever-faster – increases the nightmare exponentially. “In the early years of digital, we were a little out of control,” Peter Gilliver told me. “It’s never-ending,” one OED lexicographer agreed. “You can feel like you’re falling into the wormhole.”

Adding to the challenge is a story that has become wearily familiar: while more people are consulting dictionary-like resources than ever, almost no one wants to shell out. Sales of hard-copy dictionaries have collapsed, far more calamitously than in other sectors. (OUP refused to give me figures, citing “commercial sensitivities”. “I don’t think you’ll get any publisher to fess up about this,” Michael Rundell told me.) While reference publishers amalgamate or go to the wall, information giants such as Google and Apple get fat by using our own search terms to sell us stuff. If you can get a definition by holding your thumb over a word on your smartphone, why bother picking up a book?…

As Andrew Dickson explains, for centuries lexicographers have attempted to capture the entire English language. Technology might soon turn this dream into reality – but will it spell the end for dictionaries?  The fascinating story of the Oxford English Dictionary‘s ongoing attempt to outrun that fate: “Inside the OED: can the world’s biggest dictionary survive the internet?

* Jack Lynch, The Lexicographer’s Dilemma: The Evolution of “Proper” English, from Shakespeare to South Park

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As we look it up, we might send carefully-defined birthday greetings to Wilhelm Heinrich Immanuel Bleek; he was born on this date in 1827.  A linguist, he created  A Comparative Grammar of South African Languages.  But his great project (jointly executed with his sister-in-law, Lucy Lloyd) was “The Bleek and Lloyd Archive of ǀxam and !kun texts”– a shortened form of which eventually reached press as Specimens of Bushman Folklore (on which Laurens van der Post drew heavily for his book, The Heart of the Hunter and for his BBC series The Lost World of the Kalahari).

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Happy International Women’s Day!

Written by LW

March 8, 2018 at 1:01 am

“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

source

 

Written by LW

October 28, 2017 at 1:01 am

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