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Posts Tagged ‘lingusitics

“The only thing that will redeem mankind is cooperation”*…

 

harvest

You take a flight from New York to London. Thousands and perhaps millions of people — including ticket agents, baggage handlers, security personnel, air traffic controllers, pilots, and flight attendants, but behind the scenes also airline administrators, meteorologists, engineers, aircraft designers, and many others — cooperated to get you there safely. No one stole your luggage, no one ate your in-flight food, and no one tried to sit in your seat. In fact, the hundreds of people on the airplane, despite being mainly strangers, behaved in an entirely civilized and respectful manner throughout.

For most of us in the industrialized world, every aspect of our lives is utterly reliant on thousands of such cooperative interactions with millions of individuals from hundreds of countries, the vast majority of whom we never see, don’t know, and indeed never knew existed. Just how exceptional in nature such intricate coordination is — with many unrelated individuals performing many different roles — remains hard to appreciate. Notwithstanding the familiar examples of ants, bees, and other species known for coordinating their behavior, largely with relatives, nothing remotely as complex as human cooperation is found in any of the other millions of species on the planet. And although modern marvels like air travel are very striking examples of large-scale cooperation, human societies have engaged in impressive feats of organized cooperation for many thousands of years. Carving terraces out of mountains, planting and harvesting crops, building granaries, and managing city-states all involved extraordinary levels of cooperation among community members. Hunter-gatherers also coordinated their actions in cooperative endeavors such as group hunting and foraging, as well as through sharing food, labor, and childcare, and when hostility or disputes with other societies arose. How is it that humans came to be the most cooperative species on earth? And how can understanding our evolutionary history help to explain human cultural, cooperative achievements, whether technological or artistic, linguistic or moral?…

Find out at “On the Origin of Cooperation.”

* Bertrand Russell

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As we share and share alike, we might send foresightful birthday greetings to Erasmus Darwin; he was born on this date in 1731.  Erasmus was an accomplished doctor (he declined an offer to be personal physician to Charles III).  He was also a restless inventor, devising both a copying machine and a speaking machine to impress his friends (inventions he shared rather than patenting).  But he is better remembered as a key thinker in the “Midlands Enlightenment”– a founder of the Lunar Society of Birmingham and author of (among other works) The Botanic Garden, a poem that anticipates the Big Bang theory in its description of an explosion, a “mass” which “starts into a million suns,” and Zoonomia, or, The Laws of Organic Life, which contained one of the first formal theories of evolution… one that foreshadowed the theories of Erasmus’ reader– and grandson– Charles.

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Written by LW

December 12, 2018 at 1:01 am

“A graceful taunt is worth a thousand insults”*…

 

cards

Bumblepuppist

Definition – a bad whist player

Every so often you need a specific insult, and bumblepuppist is about as specific as they get. We will grant you that the game of whist is not as popular as it once was, having been edged out by newfangled card games such as euchre and canasta, but once upon a time whist was the most deucedly popular card game in the land. This ranks pretty high on the list of words which are likely inapplicable in your life, but imagine how excited you will be if you do meet someone who not only plays whist, but is bad at it, and you have the appropriate descriptor.

Bumblepuppist is also sometimes rendered as bumblepupper, and the word for “whist played poorly or without regard for rules” is bumblepuppy (from bumble and puppy).

“Bumblepuppy,” as defined by a renowned authority upon whist, is a game played by people who imagine that they are playing whist, but who in reality know nothing of that intricate game.
— The New York Times, 1 Jul. 1883

Just one in a collection of put-downs bigger than the sum of their parts: “8 Insults Made Up of a Noun and a Verb.”

* Louis Nizer

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As we test the limits of civility, we might send fascinating birthday greetings to Fernando Arrabal Terán; he was born on this date in 1932.  A playwright, screenwriter, film director, novelist, and poet, the New York Times’ Mel Gussow has called him the last survivor among the “three avatars of modernism.”  In 1962, Arrabal co-founded the Panic Movement with Alejandro Jodorowsky and Roland Topor, inspired by the god Pan.  In 1990 he was elected Transcendent Satrap of The Collège de ‘Pataphysique, a “society committed to learned and inutilious research” (“inutilious” = “useless”).  Forty other Transcendent Satraps have been elected over the past half-century, including Marcel Duchamp, Eugène Ionesco, Man Ray, Boris Vian, Dario Fo, Umberto Eco, and Jean Baudrillard.  Arrabal spent three years as a member of André Breton’s surrealist group and was a friend of Andy Warhol and Tristan Tzara.  A chess fanatic (a passion he shared with Duchamp), Arrabal wrote a chess column for the French weekly L’Express for over thirty years.

200px-Fernando_Arrabal,_2012 source

 

Written by LW

August 11, 2018 at 1:01 am

“The conquest of learning is achieved through the knowledge of languages”*…

 

“When humanity loses a language, we also lose the potential for greater diversity in art, music, literature, and oral traditions,” says Bogre Udell. “Would Cervantes have written the same stories had he been forced to write in a language other than Spanish? Would the music of Beyoncé be the same in a language other than English?”

Between 1950 and 2010, 230 languages went extinct, according to the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger. Today, a third of the world’s languages have fewer than 1,000 speakers left. Every two weeks a language dies with its last speaker, 50 to 90 percent of them are predicted to disappear by the next century…

Every two weeks a language dies: Wikitongues wants to save them: “The Race to Save the World’s Disappearing Languages.”

And for a more in depth– and fascinating– discussion of the subject, listen to Mary Kay Magistad‘s conversation with Laura Welcher, the director of the Rosetta Project at The Long Now Foundation: “Why half the world’s languages may disappear in this century.”

* Roger Bacon

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As we contemplate conserving the capacity to converse, we might spare a thought for Archibald MacLeish; he died on this date in 1982.  A poet, dramatist, writer, and lawyer, he is probably best remembered for his poem  “Ars Poetica” and his play JB.  But MacLeish also served, from 1939 to 1944 as Librarian of Congress, where he oversaw the modernization of the institution and helped promote The Library– and libraries, the arts, and culture more generally– in public opinion.  Over his career, he won three Pulitzer Prizes, a Bollingen Prize, a National Book Award, a Tony Award (for JB), was named a Commandeur de la Legion d’honneur, and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

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“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language / And next year’s words await another voice”*…

 

A few of the words first used in the year of your correspondent’s birth…

Enter a year (in recorded history) and find the words first used then: Merriam-Webster’s Time Traveler.

* T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets

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As we root around for roots, we might recall that it was on this date in 1961 that the Beatles played their first evening gig at the Cavern Club in Liverpool.  One month earlier, fresh back from Hamburg, they had played a lunchtime set; the club, which had focused until then on jazz, was experimenting with rock.  The test was a success, so the club’s owner, Ray McFall, declared Tuesday nights “Blue Jean Guest Night,” and kicked off with Dale Roberts & The Jay Walkers, The Remo Four, and the Beatles.  The band swiftly became a regular fixture at the Cavern, attracting a loyal audience to over 290 performances until their final appearance on August 3, 1963.  It was, of course, at the Cavern Club that Brian Epstein first saw the Beatles.

The Beatles (with Pete Best on drums) at the Cavern Club. Best was replaced by Ringo the following year.

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Written by LW

March 21, 2018 at 1:01 am

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language / And next year’s words await another voice”*…

 

A crescent-shaped, wooden neck ornament from Easter Island made some time in the first half of the nineteenth century. The artifact, decorated with two bearded male heads on either end, contains a line of rongorongo glyphs along its bottom edge. Courtesy: British Museum

Of all the literatures in the world, the smallest and most enigmatic belongs without question to the people of Easter Island. It is written in a script—rongorongo—that no one can decipher. Experts cannot even agree whether it is an alphabet, a syllabary, a mnemonic, or a rebus. Its entire corpus consists of two dozen texts. The longest, consisting of a few thousand signs, winds its way around a magnificent ceremonial staff. The shortest texts—if they can even be called that—consist of barely more than a single sign. One took the form of a tattoo on a man’s back. Another was carved onto a human skull…

Rongorongo is the only script native to the Pacific. Like so much else, it makes Easter Island unique….  Where did the rongorongo script come from? What do its texts communicate?…

The full, fascinating story at “Language at the End of the World.”

* T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets

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As we dedicate ourselves to de-cyphering, we might spare a thought for Edward Sapir; he died on this date in 1939.  One of the foremost anthropologists and linguists of his time, Sapir was a founder of ethnolinguistics– the consideration of  the relationship of culture to language– and he was a principal developer of the American (descriptive) school of structural linguistics.  Even more than the specifics of the cultures he studied, Sapir was interested in the more abstract connections between personality, linguistic expression, and socially-determined behavior.

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“Even a broken clock is right twice a day”*…

 

Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be, as the saying goes.

Lumberjack beards, old typewriters, old-timey drinks, thick rimmed glasses, your grandmother’s knitting, fixed gear bicycles, mason jars for every occasionworkaday heritage brands, you name it – if it’s oldish, it’s in. All things vintage have now become eagerly sought after status symbols by modern-day consumers of a particular stripe, albeit with an ironic twist, under the insidious guise of counterculture coolness.

These are some of the hallmarks of today’s so-called hipster, the caricatured figure of a subculture much mocked in the media and on the internet, yet who somehow persists in having a widespread impact on popular culture and counterculture as it moves, sometimes unwillingly, into mainstream consciousness…

So if all sorts of retro symbols from the past are being revived, consumed, and regurgitated by a fast-moving hipster culture, it’s a fair question for us language obsessives to ask: is vintage language, perchance, also making a comeback?

In this decidedly unscientific investigation, the answer seems to be a resounding: mayhaps?…

Do the linguistic lambada at “More Hipster than Thou: Is Vintage Language Back in Vogue?

* Proverbial

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As we twist our tongues, we might send improving birthday greetings to Samuel Smiles; he was born on this date in 1812.  A Scottish Chartist writer of many personal improvement books, his “masterpiece,” Self-Help (1859), promoted thrift and claimed that poverty was caused largely by irresponsible habits, even as it attacked materialism and laissez-faire government.  It has been called “the bible of mid-Victorian liberalism”, and turned Smiles into a celebrity overnight.

George Bernard Shaw called Smiles “the modern Plutarch”; but, as F. A. Hayek wrote, “It is probably a misfortune that, especially in the USA, popular writers like Samuel Smiles…have defended free enterprise on the ground that it regularly rewards the deserving, and it bodes ill for the future of the market order that this seems to have become the only defense of it which is understood by the general public. That it has largely become the basis of the self-esteem of the businessman often gives him an air of self-righteousness which does not make him more popular.”

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Your correspondent is headed, as he hopes readers are, into the warm embrace of family and friends for the Holidays; thus (Roughly) Daily is going into its customary Holiday hiatus.  Regular service will resume just after the New Year.  Many thanks for checking in throughout 2015.  Have the Happiest Holidays!

 

Written by LW

December 23, 2015 at 1:01 am

“Numbers constitute the only universal language”*…

 

… or they could.

 xkcd

With 10-digit strings we can distinguish roughly 10,000,000,000 phones from each other. That assumes someone can have the number 000-000-0000, which is probably God’s number; and sure, maybe Satan has laid claim to 666-666-6666, so it’s not available; but we’re only being approximate here. The bottom line is that there’s enough space in principle for everyone in the USA to have 20 or 30 different cell phone numbers, if we use it efficiently.

But we don’t…

Read Geoffrey K. Pullam‘s thoughts on making more sensible use of our phone numbering system, in the always-illuminating Language Log.

* Nathaniel West

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As we subscribe to sensible semiotics, we might recall that it was on this date in 1905 that the first U.S. advertisement for a radio receiver– the “Telimco Wireless Telegraph Outfit”– appeared in Scientific American.

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Written by LW

November 25, 2012 at 1:01 am

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