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Posts Tagged ‘linguistics

“The sort of twee person who thinks swearing is in any way a sign of a lack of education or a lack of verbal interest is just a f–king lunatic”*…

Scene from The New Art and Mystery of Gossiping, Being a Genuine Account of All the Women’s Clubs in and about the City and Suburbs of London, c.1760. [British Library]

Rude words are a constant; but, as Suzannah Lipscomb explains, their ability to cause offense is in flux…

I stumbled upon this question as a historical consultant for a new drama set in the 16th century, when I needed to assess whether certain curse words in the script would have been familiar to the Tudors. The revelation – given away in the title of Melissa Mohr’s wonderful book Holy Sh*t – is that all swear words concern what is sacred or what is scatological. In the Middle Ages, the worst words had been about what was holy; by the 18th century they were about bodily functions. The 16th century was a period when what was considered obscene was in flux.

The most offensive words still used God’s name: God’s blood, God’s wounds, God’s bones, death, flesh, foot, heart, arms, nails, body, sides, guts, tongue, eyes. A statute of 1606 forbade the use of words that ‘iestingly or prophanely’ spoke the name of God in plays. Damn and hell were early modern variations of such blasphemous oaths (bloody came later), as were the euphemistic asseverations, gad, gog and egad.

Many words we consider, at best, crude were medieval common-or-garden words of description – arse, shit, fart, bollocks, prick, piss, turd – and were not considered obscene. To say ‘I’m going to piss’ was the equivalent of saying ‘I’m going to wee’ today and was politer than the new 16th-century vulgarity, ‘I’m going to take a leak’. Putting body parts or products where they shouldn’t normally be created delightfully defiant phrases such as ‘turd in your teeth’, which appears in the 1509 compendium of the Oxford don John Stanbridge. Non-literal uses of these words – which is what tends to be required for swearing – like ‘take the piss’, ‘on the piss’, ‘piss off’ – all seem to be 20th-century flourishes. For the latter, the Tudors would have substituted something diabolical – ‘the devil rot thee’ – or epidemiological – ‘a pox on you’.

But the scatological was starting to become obscene. Sard, swive, and fuck were all slightly rude words for sexual intercourse. An early recorded use of the f-word was a piece of marginalia by an anonymous monk writing in 1528 in a manuscript copy of Cicero’s De officiis (a treatise on moral philosophy). The inscription reads: ‘O d fuckin Abbot’. Given that the use of the f-word as an intensifier didn’t catch on for another three centuries, this is likely a punchy comment on the abbot’s immoral behaviour…

The chronicles of cursing: “Explicit Content,” from @sixteenthCgirl.

See also: “I’ve been accused of vulgarity. I say that’s bullshit” and “All slang is metaphor, and all metaphor is poetry.”

* Stephen Fry

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As we choose our words, we might recall that it was on this date in 1960 that “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polkadot Bikini” hit #1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart. A novelty song written by Paul Vance and Lee Pockriss and first released in June 1960 by Brian Hyland, it tells the tale of a shy young lady wearing her new swimsuit for the first time. Hyland’s recording also sailed up the charts in the rest of the Anglophone world, and subsequent versions topped the charts in France and Germany.

The tune is believed to have had a broader impact: the bikini had been introduced over a decade before, but hadn’t found wide acceptance; after Hyland’s hit two-pieces began to fly off the racks… and teen “surf movies” became the rage.

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“I resemble that remark”*…

Swiss linguist and philosopher Ferdinand de Saussure articulated the modern version of a belief that dates from Plato, and extended through Locke to modern linguistic scholarship…

… that the letters and words in many writing and language systems have no relationship to what they refer to. The word “cat” doesn’t have anything particularly cat-like about it. The reason that “cat” means cat is because English speakers have decided so—it’s a social convention, not anything ingrained in the letters c-a-t. (According to Saussure, a language like Chinese, where each written character stands for a whole word, was a separate writing system, and his ideas were directed towards writing systems made up of letters or syllables.) 

But new research calls this foundational assumption into question. “The Color Game,” created by researchers at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History to study the evolution of language, suggests that there may be a representational relationship after all…

…the idea that words, or other signs, do actually relate to what they’re describing has been gaining ground. This is called iconicity: when a spoken or written word, or a gestured sign, is iconic in some way to what it’s referring to…

… research now suggests that our languages are riddled with iconicity, and that it may play a role in language evolution, and how we learn and process language. Along with this evidence from The Color Game, in the last decade and a half, an increase in cross-cultural studies has re-upped the attention on iconicity, and pushed back against the doctrine of arbitrariness. 

“It is now generally accepted that natural languages feature plenty of non-arbitrary ways to link form and meaning, and that some forms of iconicity are pretty pervasive,” said Mark Dingemanse, a linguist at Radboud University, who said that he too learned in Linguistics 101 that “the sign is arbitrary.” “Iconicity has become impossible to ignore.”…

Iconicity has always been around. One familiar example is onomatopoeias, like “ding-dong,” “chirp,” or “swish”—words that sound like what they’re referring to. Those words aren’t random, they have a direct relationship to what they represent. Yet, onomatopoeias were thought to be the exception to a wholly arbitrary set of signifiers, said Marcus Perlman, a lecturer in English language and linguistics at the University of Birmingham. This belief persisted despite hints that other words might have some connection to what they signified…

There could also be iconicity in what the letters themselves look like, and not just the sounds or gestures of words. In 2017, linguists Nora Turoman and Suzy Styles showed people who spoke unfamiliar languages different letters and asked them to guess which made the /i/ sound (“ee” in feet), and which was /u/ (“oo” sound in shoe). The participants were able to do so better than chance just by looking at the shape of the letters…

Language is most likely a mix of arbitrariness and iconicity, Perlman said, along with something called systematicity, when relationships form between words and meaning that aren’t necessarily iconic. (An example is words that start with gl- in English often are related to light, like glisten, glitter, gleam, and glow. There’s nothing necessarily light-like about the sound gl-, but the relationship is still there.)

Morin thinks of iconicity as the “icing on the cake” of language. It makes words more intuitive, more easy to guess. Iconicity might make languages easier to learn; Kim said there’s a saying about Hangul, that: “A wise man can learn it in a morning, and a fool can learn it in the space of ten days.”…  

Rethinking our most fundamental tool, as new research reveals a connection between what words look and sound like, and what they mean: “Why Are Letters Shaped the Way They Are?,” from @shayla__love in @motherboard.

* Curly, in The Three Stooges’ “Idle Roomers

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As we reflect on resemblance, we might spare a thought for a champion of a different sort of mimesis: James Morrison Steele (“Steele”) MacKaye; he died on this date in 1894.  A well-known theatrical actor, dramatist, producer, and scenic innovator in his time, he is best remembered for his revolutionary contributions to theatrical design.  MacKaye opened the Madison Square Theatre in 1879, where he created a huge elevator with two stages stacked one on top of the other so that elaborate furnishings could be changed quickly between scenes.  MacKaye was the first to light a New York theatre– the Lyceum, which he founded in 1884– entirely by electricity.  And he invented and installed overhead and indirect stage lighting, movable stage wagons, artificial ventilation, the disappearing orchestra pit, and folding seats.  In all, MacKaye patented over a hundred inventions, mostly for the improvement of theatrical production and its experience.

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“H as in How in the World Are We Going to Escape?”*…

A treatise on the the letter “H,” on the occasion of its becoming an arbiter of class in the later 19th century…

In George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion (1913), which inspired the musical My Fair Lady, a fictional linguist describes a phonetic endemic: missed employment opportunities due to the connotations of a person’s accent. Addressing the “many thousands of men and women who have sloughed off their native dialects and acquired a new tongue”, the professor insists that “the thing has to be done scientifically, or the last state of the aspirant may be worse than the first”. Shaw’s wit shows through in the near homonym: aspirations of social mobility, in this period, often included pronunciationary emulation — the breathy aitch sounds of aspirated consonants.

Alfred Leach, who Steven Connor, in Beyond Words, calls one of the “doughiest defenders of the h”, believed that English’s aspirated aitch (or rather, haitch) signaled a direct inheritance from Classical antiquity. In the pronounced h of words like “herb” — notably lacking from American English — he heard the “spiritus asper” of Hellenism. Leach was writing in a period when linguists began reflecting on the shifting history of aspirates and the role they played in indicating status, class, and education. These traits continue into our present day. The historian of language Henry Hitchings, whose own name is uncannily reminiscent of Shaw’s Henry Higgins, argues that the pronunciation of this letter is “still a significant shibboleth”, and quotes Leach’s contemporary, Oxford scholar Henry Sweet, who called it “an almost infallible test of education and refinement”.

Why so much huffing about the letter H? Throughout the nineteenth century, this aspirated sound was on the rise. At the end of the previous century, Received Pronunciation (RP) became known as the accent of aristocracy, leading to aspirational elocution guides like Poor Letter H (1854). While words like “hotel” had once been pronounced in the French style (oh-tell), English speakers had begun to exhale audibly, as if yawning at the continued Norman influence on British tongues. Leach led the charge against “English Grammarians” who “conspired to withhold from us the means of propitiating this demon Aspirate”. In The Letter H, he ridicules those he calls “H-droppers”, speakers whose phonetic errors seem to snowball: “lost H’s have a knack of turning up in wrong places, when they return at all”. Leach is prone to hyperbole — “the early aspirative labours of a converted H-dropper give birth to monstrosities” — and sneers at Cockney speech: “Horkney hoysters, ‘amshire ‘am, and ‘am and heggs”…

More, from Hunter Dukes (@hunterdukes) in @PublicDomainRev: “Aspirated Aspirations: Alfred Leach’s The Letter H (1880)

(image above: source)

* Lemony Snicket (Daniel Handler), The Hostile Hospital

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As we ponder pronunciation, we might recall that it was on this date in 1961 that Coronation Street premiered in ITV in the UK. It holds the Guinness World Record for longest running soap opera.

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“True care, truth brings”*…

Blink-182 at the Whiskey in Los Angeles in 1996. (Photo: Daniel D’Auria/WikiCommons CC BY-SA 2.0)

Two decades have passed since pop-punk exploded in the American music scene, yet the quintessentially suburban, teen-centric music still seems to bounce around our collective skulls. Of all the elements of the Clinton-era mutation of punk music that embraced skate and surf culture, mild angst, goofiness, and incredibly hooky, catchy music, it’s the vocals that we remember. The very specific accent used in the mega-hits of the genre seems to still have a hold over anyone who was a teenager between 1993 and 2003: On Twitter you’ll see jokes made about the “pop punk voice” used by bands like the Offspring, New Found Glory, Avril Lavigne, and, especially, Blink-182. Their accents are a relic as strong as the Valley Girl voice.

There’s a whole Tumblr called Tom DeLonge Lyrics, dedicated to transliterating the spectacularly strange and exaggerated accent used by DeLonge, one of the singers of pop-punk band Blink-182… DeLonge is an extreme example but far from the only singer in the genre to adopt a very particular accent, usually described as sneering, whining, bratty, or snotty. By the early-2000s, with pop-punk nearing the apex of its popularity, singers from all over California had influenced singers from as far afield as Minnesota, Ontario, Maryland, and South Florida, all of whom sung pretty much just like DeLonge, who grew up just outside San Diego.

What’s going on here? How did that linguistic pattern take hold? From its start, punk has played with accents, with Americans sounding like Brits and vice versa, but this voice is different.

I called up a few linguists and music historians to try to get at the heart of the pop-punk voice. But it turns out that when you make a linguist listen to a Blink-182 song, you get more than you expected. Pop-punk vocals are on the forefront of shifting regional dialects and, especially, a major vocal change happening in California in the past few decades. The three-minute pop-punk song, one of the dumbest forms of music ever conceived (in a good way, I’d say), maybe isn’t so dumb, after all…

Knowledge is where you find it: “I Made a Linguistics Professor Listen to a Blink-182 Song and Analyze the Accent.”

* Blink-182, “All The Small Things,” Enema of the State

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As we listen carefully, we might recall that it was on this date in 1978 that 20-year-old Nancy Spungen bled to death on the bathroom floor of a room in the Chelsea Hotel in New York that she shared with her boyfriend Sid Vicious, the bassist of the (recently-disbanded) Sex Pistols; she had suffered a stab wound to her abdomen. Vicious (whose legal name was John Simon Ritchie) reported that he had found her after awakening from a drugged stupor.

Vicious was charged with her murder, but died of a drug overdose while awaiting trial…. thus marking for many observers the end of the Punk period… and creating the space for the emergence of pop-punk (and other post-punk sub-genre).

Nancy and Sid

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

October 12, 2020 at 1:01 am

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

 

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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.

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

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

April 17, 2020 at 1:01 am

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