Archive for Language and literature

Kids Bong

Bill Benzon spotted this on Facebook:

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"I am a cat" t-shirt

Thorin Engeseth sent in these two photographs of a Zara brand shirt that his wife bought yesterday:

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Gilded Age diglossia

A couple of weeks ago, Larry Hyman and I walked through the Berkeley Hills to visit John and Manju Ohala, who live not far from Grizzly Peak. We followed instructions from Google Maps on my cellphone — except that there was one segment of the route that we couldn't find, Bret Harte Lane. On the way back, we realized that Bret Harte Lane was just where the map said it should be, but had been given a new name (and a new street sign): Ina Coolbrith Path.

As the plaque (which we missed on the way up) explains:

Ina Donna Coolbrith, California’s first poet laureate and the nation’s first state laureate, was considered “the pearl of all her tribe” by her 19th century colleagues during the Bay Area’s first literary heyday.

Born Josephine Donna Smith, a niece of Mormon founder Joseph Smith, she came west with her family during California’s Gold Rush. Coolbrith was fifteen and living in Los Angeles when her poetry was first published. After she divorced her husband at age twenty-one, she changed her name to Ina Donna Coolbrith, concealed her Mormon ancestry, and moved to San Francisco, where her celebrity as a poet grew. Coolbrith became Oakland’s first public librarian and a mentor to Jack London, guiding him in his reading. She died in Berkeley and is buried in Oakland’s Mountain View Cemetery.

When byways in the Berkeley hills were named after Bret Harte, Charles Warren Stoddard, Mark Twain, and other literati in her circle, women were not included. This path was renamed for Coolbrith in 2016.

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Jewish uptalk?

Corey Robin, "Was Bigger Thomas an Uptalker?" (10/18/2017), describes a bit of fictional forensic sociolinguistics:

The funniest moment in Native Son (not a novel known for its comedy, I know): when the detective, Mr. Britten, is asking the housekeeper, Peggy, a bunch of questions about Bigger Thomas, to see if Thomas is in fact a Communist.

Britten: When he talks, does he wave his hands around a lot, like he’s been around a lot of Jews?

Peggy: I never noticed, Mr. Britten.

Britten: Now, listen, Peggy. Think and try to remember if his voice goes up when he talks, like Jews, when they talk. Know what I mean? You see, Peggy, I’m trying to find out if he’s been around Communists.

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Chinese characters in the 21st century

We've been having a vigorous debate on the nature of Sinograms:  "Character crises".  It started on June 15, but it is still going on quite actively in the comments section.  A new reader of Language Log, a scholar of late medieval Chinese literature from Beijing was prompted by her reading of this lively discussion and other LL posts to which it led her to send in the following remarks:

Thanks to your blogs, I begin to be aware of some amusing aspects of Chinese languages, though I am still struggling with the terminology.

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Mighty Maithili, monstrous Mandarin

In case you're in need of some intensely elegiac and panegyric reading material, this lovely volume just might fit the bill:

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Linguistic divergence and convergence

In Elizabeth George's recent novel The Punishment She Deserves, there's a passage where someone uses a sociolinguistic choice to communicate her attitude towards an interaction. This reminded me of another fictional example of the same thing, and I'm sure that readers will come up with more.

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The elegance of Google Translate

When I was in graduate school, some of my best friends were mathematicians.  I was always intrigued by their approach to problem solving.  They told me that merely solving problems was not satisfying to them.  Rather, their goal was to solve problems elegantly.

This morning, I was reminded of the modus operandi of mathematicians when I asked Google Translate (GT) to render a short passage of German into English.

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Xi Jinping as a living bodhisattva

Everybody's talking about Xi's Buddhist sanctification since it hit the headlines in this article:  "Xi Jinping's latest tag – living Buddhist deity, Chinese official says" (Reuters [3/9,18].

Speaking on Wednesday on the sidelines of China’s annual meeting of parliament, the party boss of the remote northwestern province of Qinghai, birthplace of the Dalai Lama, said Tibetans who lived there had been saying they view Xi as a deity.

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Poetic dynamism

Well, the dynamic range of the amplitude of syllables in poetry readings, anyhow:

What IS that?

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Quotes and endings

Following up on "Proportion of dialogue in novels" (12/29/2017), I've taken a look at the same numbers for Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer novels (which as before Yves Schabes and I have been analyzing for reasons irrelevant to this post).

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Proportion of dialogue in novels

For reasons not strictly relevant to what follows, Yves Schabes and I have been analyzing the novels of Agatha Christie. (For the not-strictly-relevant background, see Xuan Le et al., "Longitudinal detection of dementia through lexical and syntactic changes in writing: a case study of three British novelists", Literary and Linguistic Computing 2011, and Graeme Hirst & Vanessa Feng, "Changes in Style in Authors with Alzheimer's Disease", English Studies 2012.)

It occurred to me to wonder whether the proportion of quoted dialogue might vary from text to text — and since the textual properties of dialogue are likely to be different from those of the narrative voice, this might influence the results of comparisons. So I ran a quick check on seven of Christie's novels, using as proxy the proportion of characters in the novels' texts in spans between quotation marks.

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Annotating the First Page of the First Navajo-English Dictionary

Don't miss Danielle Geller's remarkable, moving personal essay in The New Yorker, "Annotating the First Page of the First Navajo-English Dictionary." Here's how it starts:

The first, incomplete Navajo-English Dictionary was compiled, in 1958, by Leon Wall, an official in the U.S. government’s Bureau of Indian Affairs. Wall, who was in charge of a literacy program on the Navajo reservation, worked on the dictionary with William Morgan, a Navajo translator.

’ąą’: “well (anticipation, as when a person approaches one as though to speak but says nothing)”

I could begin and end here. My mother was a full-blooded Navajo woman, raised on the reservation, but she was never taught to speak her mother’s language. There was a time when most words were better left unspoken. I am still drawn to the nasal vowels and slushy consonants, though I feel no hope of ever learning the language. It is one thing to play dress-up, to imitate pronunciations and understanding; it is another thing to think or dream or live in a language not your own.

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