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Posts Tagged ‘linguistics

“I got stood up by the letter Y, he was hanging around with his X”*…

 

How_Did_X_Become_the_Most_Edgy_Letter-1280x533

 

It’s perhaps not pornography’s fault that it’s cashing in on a global crisis. As, around the world, whole societies confine themselves to their quarters, traffic to major porn sites has been spiking everywhere, telling us all we need to know about how humans with a broadband connection tend to deal with exceptional levels of boredom and anxiety. From the point-of-view of page views, the season of self-isolation might well be the porn industry’s historical high point — but in terms of reputational damage, it also marks a new low for one of Western culture’s most enigmatic figures.

Once, the letter X was the holiest of all alphabetic symbols, standing for nothing less than the triumph of Christendom itself. The Roman emperor Constantine I imposed his adopted religion on Europe and the Middle East, with armies marching under the banner of an “X,” and for centuries, Latin scribes used it as shorthand for “Christ.”

But at the present moment… the 24th letter of the English alphabet is synonymous not even with professionally lit kissy porn, but rather the explicitier, extremier world of hardcore sharing platforms.

It’s a remarkably stratospheric fall from grace, especially for such a shy and retiring character — X is the second-least-common letter in written English (after Z), and the one that begins by far the fewest number of words. Oh X, what happened to you? Where did it all go so badly wrong that you’re hanging out in NSFW corners of the internet…?

From holiest hallmark to horniest sex symbol — the X-treme, X-haustive story of how the wild child of the alphabet lost its way: “How Did X Become the Edgiest Letter?

See also: “What’s So Fascinating About the Letter X?” and “Before X Was X: The Dark Horse Story Of The 24th Letter.”

* Norah Jones

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As we mark the spot, we might recall that it was on this date 1397 that Geoffrey Chaucer “told” (read aloud his ribald, if not X-rated) 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, 2020 at 1:01 am

“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”*…

 

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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

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