(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘linguistics

“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)

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* 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

“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.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

May 26, 2019 at 1:01 am

“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.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

May 15, 2019 at 1:01 am

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