Category Archive 'Language'
30 Jul 2017

Pie Chart of World’s Most Spoken Languages

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11 Jul 2017

More Linguistic Purging at Yale

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As Freshmen first we came to Yale,
Fol de rol de rol rol rol!
Examinations made us pale.
Fol de rol de rol rol rol!

Chorus:
Eli Eli Eli Yale,
Fol de rol de rol rol rol!
Eli Eli Eli Yale,
Fol de rol de rol rol rol!

A lot of Yale alumni look forward to the bimonthly arrival of the Alumni Magazine with roughly the same enthusiasm with which we look forward to our next dental procedure.

There is always the triumphant announcement of Peter Salovey’s invertebrate administration’s latest surrender to leftist insanity; accompanied by all the usual gloating over this, that, and the other cases of recent worldly success by this Yale graduate or that one; the advertising columns offering vacation rentals in Tuscany or Provence for thousands a week; and the Class Notes (at my age typically telling you who died).

The Yale Administration is cowardly and conformist, and has no enemies to the Left, but there is still usually in evidence the Yale tradition of competence, particularly in formal areas involving language. Yale’s English Department was always traditionally the best in the country.

So, it is even more depressing than usual to learn that the Administration is caving to feminist crackpots and eliminating the word “Freshman.” It was not very long ago that every educated person recognized that “man” was in the English language a generic plural for all of mankind, male and female, with no particular offense intended to females, children, hermaphrodites, or the family dog.

It was not very long ago that some belligerent female trying to make an issue out of this particular feature of ordinary language would simply have been dismissed universally as a nuisance and a crank.

All this has changed recently with respect to the very center of the American Establishment. Today, no preposterous complaint, no demand for grotesque change, no utter and complete absurdity emanating from the ranks of society’s demoniacs will not be rapidly complied with.

I was marveling over all this, and asking myself how and why this came about, and the best answer I am able to come up with is to echo Bill Deresiewicz’s 2008 Essay, which argues that what our most elite schools have evolved into is engines of production of “really excellent sheep.

The radicals are the wolves and Peter Salovey, the rest of the Administration, and the Yale Corporation are all the very best little girls and boys, all with their medals for deportment clinking away, all of them too nice and too tame, domesticated, and civilized to stand up to an adversary prepared to use Alinskyite tactics.

Yale men of yore, the kind of Yalies who won their place on the Fence as Freshmen by physically ejecting the Sophomore Class, the kind of Yalies who used to go out to Dragon led by the Class Bully, wielding his badge of office bully club, to fight with sailors, are extinct. The American elite of today is made up of Deresiewicz’s “really excellent sheep,” i.e. utterly conformist tools, competent at the job but always with a keen eye fixed completely on the main chance, the kind of people ready to eat any toad required to get ahead.

All you can say is: A country gets the kind of elite that it deserves and God help the country that deserves this elite.

The alumni mag:

Strictly speaking, the term “freshman” became obsolete at Yale in 1969, when women were first admitted as undergraduates. But language moves a little more slowly than reality, so the Yale College Dean’s Office only recently resolved to use the gender-neutral “first-year” in official materials. “This has been talked about for years,” says Dean of Student Affairs Camille Lizarribar. “We’ve been asked about it by students and parents, and it’s become more and more clear that what you call things does matter.” The new terminology will start appearing in Yale publications this fall, but Lizarribar expects that in conversation the two terms will coexist for a while. (“Nobody’s going to say, ‘Oh my god, you used the wrong word!’”) Freshman counselors will be known this fall as first-year counselors, but Lizarribar says the informal portmanteau “fro-co” isn’t going anywhere. As for other time-honored phrases of undergrad tradition, we have a feeling it will be case by case.

24 Jun 2017

The School of British Accents

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First preview episode of a new YouTube video series in which seven native speakers teach immigrants to Britain how to speak Cockney, Scottish, Scouse, Welsh, Wes Country, Yorkshire, and Geordie.

HT: Karen L. Myers.

14 Jun 2017

Typography and Politics

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Ben Hersh, at Backchannel, discusses the ability of different fonts to make cultural and political statements.

The US is not so different from the rest of the world when it comes to tribalism and conflicted identity. This has crystalized in last few months, and we’ve seen typography play a substantial role.

Hillary Clinton ran for president with a slick logo befitting a Fortune 100 company. It had detractors, but I think we’ll remember it fondly as a symbol of what could have been — clarity, professionalism, and restraint.

Donald Trump countered with a garish baseball cap that looked like it had been designed in a Google Doc by the man himself. This proved to be an effective way of selling Trump’s unique brand.

I’m not interested in whether Clinton or Trump had good logos. I’m interested in the different values they reveal. Clinton’s typography embodies the spirit of modernism and enlightenment values. It was designed to appeal to smart, progressive people who like visual puns. They appreciate the serendipity of an arrow that completes a lettermark while also symbolizing progress. In other words, coastal elites who like “design.”

Trump’s typography speaks with a more primal, and seemingly earnest voice. “Make America Great Again” symbolizes “Make America Great Again.” It tells everyone what team you’re on, and what you believe in. Period. It speaks to a distrust of “clean” corporate aesthetics and snobs who think they’re better than Times New Roman on a baseball cap. Its mere existence is a political statement.

The two typographies are mutually intelligible at first glance, but a lot gets lost in translation. We live in a divided country, split on typographic lines as cleanly as the Serbs and the Croats.

RTWT

15 May 2017

The Chinese Have a Pejorative Term for Holier-Than-Thou Western Liberals: “Baizuo” [白左]

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Chenchen Zhang informs us that the educated Chinese despise “baizuo,” soft-headed and soft-hearted Western liberals. And who can blame them?

If you look at any thread about Trump, Islam or immigration on a Chinese social media platform these days, it’s impossible to avoid encountering the term baizuo, or literally, the ‘white left’. It first emerged about two years ago, and yet has quickly become one of the most popular derogatory descriptions for Chinese netizens to discredit their opponents in online debates.

So what does ‘white left’ mean in the Chinese context, and what’s behind the rise of its (negative) popularity? It might not be an easy task to define the term, for as a social media buzzword and very often an instrument for ad hominem attack, it could mean different things for different people. A thread on “why well-educated elites in the west are seen as naïve “white left” in China” on Zhihu, a question-and-answer website said to have a high percentage of active users who are professionals and intellectuals, might serve as a starting point.

The question has received more than 400 answers from Zhihu users, which include some of the most representative perceptions of the ‘white left’. Although the emphasis varies, baizuo is used generally to describe those who “only care about topics such as immigration, minorities, LGBT and the environment” and “have no sense of real problems in the real world”; they are hypocritical humanitarians who advocate for peace and equality only to “satisfy their own feeling of moral superiority”; they are “obsessed with political correctness” to the extent that they “tolerate backwards Islamic values for the sake of multiculturalism”; they believe in the welfare state that “benefits only the idle and the free riders”; they are the “ignorant and arrogant westerners” who “pity the rest of the world and think they are saviours”. …

In fact, heated discussions about baizuo on Chinese social media websites rarely make reference to domestic issues, except for occasionally and unsurprisingly insulting Chinese Muslims for being “unintegrated” or “complicit in the spread of Islam extremism”. The stigmatization of the ‘white left’ is driven first and foremost by Chinese netizens’ understanding of ‘western’ problems. It is a symptom and weakness of the Other.

The term first became influential amidst the European refugee crisis, and Angela Merkel was the first western politician to be labelled as a baizuo for her open-door refugee policy. Hungary, on the other hand, was praised by Chinese netizens for its hard line on refugees, if not for its authoritarian leader. Around the same time another derogatory name that was often used alongside baizuo was shengmu – literally the ‘holy mother’ – which according to its users refers to those who are ‘overemotional’, ‘hypocritical’ and ‘have too much empathy’. The criticisms of baizuo and shengmu soon became an online smear campaign targeted at not only public figures such as J. K. Rowling and Emma Watson, but also volunteers, social workers and all other ordinary citizens, whether in Europe or China, who express any sympathy with international refugees. …

The anti-baizuo discourse in Chinese social media gained stronger momentum during the US presidential election campaign. If criticisms of the ‘white left’ in the context of the refugee crisis were mainly about disapproval of ‘moralist humanitarianism’ mixed with Islamophobia, they became politically more elaborate as Chinese critics of the ‘white left’ discovered Donald J. Trump, whom they both identify with and take inspirations from. Following the debates in the US, a number of other issues such as welfare reforms, affirmative action and minority rights were introduced into online discussions on the ‘white left’. Baizuo critics now began to identify Obama and Clinton as the new epitome of the ‘white left’, despite the fact that they were neither particularly humanitarian nor particularly kind to migrants. Trump was taken as the champion of everything the ‘white left’ were against, and baizuo critics naturally became his enthusiastic supporters. …

From a domestic perspective, the proliferation of anti-baizuo sentiment is clearly in line with the dominance of a kind of brutal, demoralized pragmatism in post-socialist China. Many of the attacks on the welfare state and the idea that states have obligations towards international refugees appeal to the same social Darwinist logic of ‘survival of the fittest’. It is assumed that individuals should take responsibility for their own misery, whether it is war or poverty, and should not be helped by others. The rationale goes hand in hand with the view that inequality is inevitable in a market-economy-cum-Hobbesian-society. Although economic disparity in China has been worsening in recent years, sociologist Yu Xie found that most Chinese people regard it as an inevitable consequence of economic growth, and that inequality is unlikely to give rise to political or social unrest.

Pragmatism with an emphasis on self-responsibility seems to be the ideology of our post-ideological times. It is, in UK prime minister Theresa May’s words, ‘living within our means’. This is combined with a general indifference towards race issues, or even worth, with certain social Darwinist beliefs that some races are superior to others, leading many mainland Chinese netizens to dismiss struggles against structural discriminations as naïve, pretentious or demanding undeserved privileges.

Seen from the perspective of international relations, the anti-baizuo discourse can be understood as part of what William A. Callahan calls ‘negative soft power’, that is, constructing the Chinese self through ‘the deliberate creation and then exclusion’ of Others as ‘barbarians’ or otherwise inferior. Criticisms of the ‘white left’ against the background of the European refugee crisis fit especially well with the ‘rising China’ versus ‘Europe in decline’ narrative. According to Baidu Trends, one of the most related keywords to baizuo was huimie: “to destroy”. Articles with titles such as ‘the white left are destroying Europe’ were widely circulated.

In an academic-style essay that was retweeted more than 7000 times on Weibo, a user named ‘fantasy lover Mr. Liu’ ‘reviewed’ European philosophy from Voltaire and Marx to Adorno and Foucault, concluding that the ‘white left’ as a ‘spiritual epidemic’ is on its way to self-destruction. He then stated that Trump’s win was only “a small victory over this spiritual epidemic of humankind”, but “western civilization is still far from its self-redemption”. However ridiculous it may appear, the post is illustrative of how a demonized Other is projected onto seemingly objective or academic criticisms of the ‘white left’. Ultimately, the more the ‘white left’ – whatever it means – represent the fatal weakness of democracy, the more institutional and normative security the Chinese regime enjoys. The grassroots campaign against the ‘white left’ thus echoes the officially-sanctioned campaign against ‘universal values’, providing a negative evidence for the superiority of the Chinese self.

RTWT

17 Apr 2017

Would “They” Go There?

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The Wall Street Journal reports that the Brown Admissions Office has lost its marbles.

Brown University in Providence, R.I. houses one of the country’s most selective undergraduate colleges. The Brown Daily Herald, a student-run newspaper, cites Dean of Admission Logan Powell in reporting that the school received a record-high 32,724 applications this year, and admitted just 8.3% of applicants.

Among those lucky few is the daughter of a Journal reader who is still trying to make sense of a letter the family received this week from Mr. Powell. Our reader’s bright daughter had already received news of her acceptance when a letter arrived that was addressed to her “Parent/Guardian.”

Oddly, the note referred to the accepted student not as “she” but as “they.” Dean Powell’s letter also stated that our reader’s daughter had no doubt worked hard and made positive contributions to “their” school and community. Our reader reports that his perplexed family initially thought that Brown had made a word-processing error. That was before they listened to a voice mail message from the school congratulating his daughter and referring to her as “them.”…

It turns out that the errors were intentional. Brown spokesman Brian Clark writes in an email that “our admission office typically refers to applicants either by first name or by using ‘they/their’ pronouns. While the grammatical construction may read as unfamiliar to some, it has been adopted by many newsrooms and other organizations as a gender-inclusive option.”

RTWT

13 Apr 2017

Now, There’s an Accent

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Incomprehensible Irish accent from County Kerry: 1:53 video. Something about some stolen sheep.

06 Apr 2017

“Miami English,” the Distinctive South Florida Dialect

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Atlas Obscura:

The Miami dialect is not a second-language accent, like you’d hear from a Cuban immigrant whose first language is Spanish. It is an American English dialect like New York City English, Southern American English, or any other dialect in this country: spoken by native-born Americans who speak English either as a first language or fluently along with the language of their parents. Which doesn’t stop the accent from seeming foreign to others: Carter says that his students will sometimes find themselves in a neighboring county, only to be asked what country they’re from.

There’s a whole bunch of things that set Miami English apart from other dialects. Much of it comes from Spanish: words or sounds that are pronounced in a certain way in Spanish will eventually show up in English. An easy one is the word “salmon,” which in Miami is pronounced with the L: “sall-mon.” That comes directly from the Spanish word for the fish, which is, well, salmón. (In Spanish, all consonants make one sound and one sound only.*)

But that letter L gets even weirder. It turns out Spanish and English have different pronunciations of the letter, which are referred to as “light L” and “dark L.” English actually has both of them: a light L is found in words starting with L, like the word “light.” A dark L is found sometimes at the ends of words, as in the word “feel.” Say that out loud: can you hear how, in “feel,” it sounds almost like “fee-yul”? That “ull-” sound as the first part of the L sound, that’s a dark L, and it’s made with a slightly different shape of your tongue in your mouth. In Miami, all L sounds are dark, so a word like “literally” sounds more like “ull-iterally.”

Vowels also show some impact from Spanish. Elsewhere in the country, English speakers have a tendency to “front” some vowels. “Front” and “back” refers to the position of your tongue in your mouth, so “ee” is a front vowel, whereas “oh” and “ooh” are back vowels. In the South and Mid-Atlantic, English speakers will move their back vowels a little to the front, so “boat” sounds like “behh-oht.” But in Spanish, that’s absolutely not done, and that carries over to Miami English. Keeping “oh” in the back isn’t unique to Miami, but it is unique to Miami within the Southern U.S.

Another vowel thing: much of the U.S. does this weird thing with the “ah” sound in words like “hand.” When that vowel comes before a nasal consonant—M or N—it becomes kind of nasal and more complex, turning into more like “hay-and.” Miamians, though, don’t do that, so “hand” has the exact same vowel as “cat.” Try saying it out loud. It feels strange, right? Almost British-y.

Miami English also has lots and lots of calques, which are loan phrases: essentially direct translations of Spanish phrases. In Atlanta, New York, and Seattle—actually, basically anywhere besides Miami—you get out of a car. In Miami, you get down from a car, because “down from the car” is a direct translation from the Spanish, bajar del carro. There are dozens of these: in Miami you don’t get in line or wait in line, you make a line. You don’t get married to somebody, you get married with them. When talking about money, you don’t say “five ninety-nine” for $5.99; you say “five with ninety-nine.” If you’re not up to anything much, you might say “I’m eating shit,” the basic equivalent of “I’m not doing shit.” “Some of those English calques are based on Cuban Spanish, and my strong suspicion is that kids are learning the local variety of English unaware of the sources of the loan words,” says Carter.

The verbs “come” and “go” are also different in English and Spanish, and thus different in Miami English. “In English, the verbs ‘come’ and ‘go’ are really peculiar,” says Carter. “If you invite me to your house, I’ll say ‘I’m coming over now,’ even though what I meant to say is ‘I’m going over now.’” These words are based on “deiksis,” the relationship between the speaker and listener. Theoretically, “come” should mean heading toward the speaker or listener, and “go” should mean heading away from the speaker or listener. Come to where I am, go to this other location. But in English, it’s not that simple; we often get those totally wrong. Spanish speakers, and Miami English speakers, never get those wrong. An invitation to a birthday party in Miami might say, “Go celebrate Maria’s 10th birthday party at the zoo.” Sounds weird, but is actually correct: neither the sender nor the receiver of the invitation is at the zoo, so it should be “go.”

One of the hardest to nail down is in the actual rhythm of speech. Spanish is syllable-timed, meaning that each syllable is spoken for the same length of time. English is not; it is stress-timed, so certain syllables, especially one-syllable words, are shorter than others. (Think about “for,” “and,” and pronouns like “he” and “she.”) Miami English isn’t exactly syllable-timed, but it’s more regular than other English dialects, which makes it sound…different, somehow. “I have heard parodies of Latinos, or Latino characters who are putting on being Latino, where you’ll find them speaking in a very fast way which gives that impression,” says Carter. It’s not that Spanish-speakers speak more quickly, just that their timing is different than English. We don’t quite know how it’s different, but speaking very quickly can sort of trigger our conception of Spanish rhythms.

Miami English is not, though, the same as other Spanish-influenced dialects of English, like Chicano English in Southern California. Some of those calques, for example, are specific to Cuba or the Caribbean and not found in Mexico. One of the most telling examples of a Southern Californian accent is turning “ing” and “ink” endings into “eeng” and “eenk,” so “thinking” becomes “theenkeeng.” These are not found at all in Miami.

Miami English isn’t only spoken by Miami Latinos, though they are the predominant group that has this dialect. Carter has found that many Anglo whites in Miami will use this dialect—but not always. Miami English coexists with Spanglish and flat-out Spanish in Miami, and speakers will often switch between those depending on who they’re speaking to. A white teenager might use the Miami English dialect with friends, and a Northeast-like accent with parents—after all, there’s a good chance the teen’s parents hail from the North.

A major part of what makes Miami English special is how quickly and thoroughly immigrant groups have come to dominate the city. In, say, New York, even the biggest immigrant groups—Italian, Irish, Puerto Rican, Dominican, Chinese—are still comparatively minor parts of the whole. But Cubans, and then other Spanish-speakers, became the dominant force in Miami so quickly that, essentially, stranger calques and pronunciations and rhythms have been free to become the norm.

Read the whole thing.

14 Mar 2017

Elmer Keith Interviewed

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Elmer Keith (1899-1984)

The Library of Congress American English dialect recordings include a two-part interview with the late dean of the Big-Bore gun writers Elmer Keith himself. The gravel-voiced Keith was 82-years-old and living in Salmon, Idaho at the time.

1) 8:48 audio

2) 10:35 audio

Hat tip to Henry Bernatonis.

22 Aug 2016

Flatiron Building

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Flatiron2

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FlatironPC

The Fuller company, famed for its skyscraper designs, purchased a triangular plot in Manhattan on 23rd Street. The space was known as the Flatiron for its resemblance to a household clothes iron. Architect Daniel Burnham designed a building in the Beaux-Arts style, incorporating classical Roman features into a modern building with sculpted decoration. Upon completion in June 1902, the 22-story Flatiron Building was the tallest building in New York.

During its construction, many thought the wind would blow the building down, due to its odd height and shape. Thus, it was nicknamed “Burnham’s Folly.”

Due to the geography of the site, with Broadway on one side, Fifth Avenue on the other, and the open expanse of Madison Square and the park in front of it, the wind currents around the building could be treacherous. Wind from the north would split around the building, downdrafts from above and updrafts from the vaulted area under the street would combine to make the wind unpredictable. This is said to have given rise to the phrase “23 skidoo”, from what policemen would shout at men who tried to get glimpses of women’s dresses being blown up by the winds swirling around the building due to the strong downdrafts.

12 Aug 2016

Supernatural Collective Nouns

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SupernaturalCollectives1

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SupernaturalCollectives3

01 Jul 2016

How Language Becomes Simple & Efficient

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EfficientLanguage
35th Berlin Marathon

John McWhorter, in the Atlantic, compares the complexity of several languages.

When a language seems especially telegraphic, usually another factor has come into play: Enough adults learned it at a certain stage in its history that, given the difficulty of learning a new language after childhood, it became a kind of stripped-down “schoolroom” version of itself. Because all languages, are, to some extent, busier than they need to be, this streamlining leaves the language thoroughly complex and nuanced, just lighter on the bric-a-brac that so many languages pant under. Even today, Indonesian is a first language to only one in four of its speakers; the language has been used for many centuries as a lingua franca in a vast region, imposed on speakers of several hundred languages. This means that while other languages can be like overgrown lawns, Indonesian’s grammar has been regularly mowed, such that especially the colloquial forms are tidier. Lots of adult learning over long periods of time is also why, for example, the colloquial forms of Arabic like Egyptian and Moroccan are somewhat less elaborated than Modern Standard Arabic—they were imposed on new people as Islam spread after the seventh century.

In contrast, one cannot help suspecting that not too many adults have been tackling the likes of sǝq’ayǝƛaaɣwǝaɣhaś. Kabardian has been left to its own devices, and my, has it hoarded a lot of them. This is, as languages go, normal, even if Kabardian is rather extreme. By contrast, only a few languages have been taken up as vehicles of empire and imposed on millions of unsuspecting and underqualified adults. Long-dominant Mandarin, then, is less “busy” than Cantonese and Taiwanese, which have been imposed on fewer people. English came out the way it did because Vikings, who in the first millennium forged something of an empire of their own in northern and western Europe, imposed themselves on the Old English of the people they invaded and, as it were, mowed it. German, meanwhile, stayed “normal.”

25 Jun 2016

Nine Swiss German Words

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Bunzli

The Local:

Bünzli

This insult – based on a real Swiss surname – applies to those boring people who follow all the rules and make sure everyone else does too. A Bünzli is the sort of person who would never cross the street when the light is red, who never stays out too late and never gets too drunk.

He is also the person most likely to complain to the building president when you dare to do your washing on Sunday, or to ring the police when he sees someone parked in front of a fire hydrant. Think garden gnomes and socks paired with Adiletten and you have the idea.

Hat tip to Althouse.

25 Jun 2016

Trump’s Visit to Scotland Inspired Some Very Creative Profanity

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Quartz story

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A few samples:

TrumpScottishInsults

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