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Posts Tagged ‘linguistics

“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

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Written by LW

October 28, 2017 at 1:01 am

“I’ve not never heard of that”*…

 

This website [is] devoted to the speech of one of the country’s most interesting but most often misunderstood regions—southern and central Appalachia, which stretches from north Georgia to West Virginia.  Some have romanticized the English spoken there as the language of Shakespeare and admired its authenticity and inventiveness.  Others have scorned or dismissed it as uneducated, bad grammar, or worse.  Too rarely has it been appreciated for what it is—the native speech of millions of Americans that has a distinguished history and that makes Appalachia what it is just as the region’s extraordinary music does.

Appalachian English is an umbrella term referring to the social and geographical varieties found in a large mountain and valley region encompassing all or parts of eight southern states: West Virginia, eastern Kentucky and Tennessee, western Virginia and North Carolina, northern Georgia and Alabama, and northwestern South Carolina.  Historically and structurally it is closely related to Ozark English, and it shares many features with varieties of English spoken in the Deep South.

At this site you’ll find a wealth of information and resources.  There’s enjoyment to be had in exploring, but if you’re looking for a site that’s just for entertainment or one with funny spellings, you’ve come to the wrong place.  Too many of them are around already.  As two natives of East Tennessee who have heard hill speech for a long time and have written about it, we have designed this site to present not only how Aplapachian people talk, but also some of the history and the flavor of that talk.  It focuses especially on the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina, but the speech of the Smokies is typical of much of what you’ll hear elsewhere in the region, though not as strongly as a couple of generations back.

At a professional conference some years ago, one of us on our bus tour happened to sit next to a linguist from the University of California (who is now at an Ivy League school).  He asked me what my special interest was, and I said, “Appalachian English.”  He responded, “Oh, Appalachian English is one of my favorite dialects. Does anyone still speak it?”  The question sort of took me aback, but I looked at him for a moment and replied, “Yes, I’d say about twenty million people do.”  He seemed a bit confused, so I explained that plenty of people from the region actually choose to talk the way they do and that their distinctive English is probably here to stay.  Their speech helps define who they are, whether they live in Kentucky or have moved to Detroit to work in a plant.  He looked out the window…

Explore Appalachian English— and be sure to take the vocabulary quiz.

* an exemplary Appalachian English sentence

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As we head for the hills, we might send free-thinking birthday greetings to Henri Bergson; he was born on this date in 1859.  A philosopher especially influential in the first half of the 20th Century, Bergson convinced many of the primacy of immediate experience and intuition over rationalism and science for the understanding reality…. many, but not the likes of Wittgenstein, Russell, Moore, and Santayana, who thought that he willfully misunderstood the scientific method in order to justify his “projection of subjectivity onto the physical world.”  Still, in 1927 Bergson won the Nobel Prize (in Literature); and in 1930, received France’s highest honor, the Grand-Croix de la Legion d’honneur.

Bergson’s influence waned mightily later in the century.  To the extent that there’s been a bit of a resurgence of interest, it’s largely the result of Gilles Deleuze’s appropriation of Bergson’s concept of “mulitplicity” and his treatment of duration, which Deleuze used in his critique of Hegel’s dialectic.

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Written by LW

October 18, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Speech was given to man to disguise his thoughts”*…

 

Bare-handed speech synthesis: “Pink Trombone.”

[image above: source]

* Talleyrand

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As we hold our tongues, we might send exploratory birthday greetings to John Wesley “Wes” Powell; he was born on this date in 1834.  A geologist and ethnologist, he published the first classification of American Indian languages and was the first director of the U.S. Bureau of Ethnology (1879-1902).  In 1869, despite having lost his right arm in the Civil War, Powell outfitted a small party of men in wooden boats in Wyoming, and descended down into the then unknown Colorado River. Daring that mighty river for a thousand miles of huge, often horrifying rapids, unsuspected dangers, and endless hardship, he and his men were the first (white explorers) to challenge the Grand Canyon.

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