Archive for Language and culture

The bearded barbarian

Ben Zimmer mentioned to me that he was on the Slate podcast Lexicon Valley talking about the origins of the word "gringo":

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One for Diogenes

The philosopher Diogenes of Sinope was eccentric, to say the least — he begged for a living, slept in a large ceramic jar in the marketplace, and discarded the wooden bowl that was his only possession, deciding that it was excess baggage. He refuted the Platonic definition of human as "featherless biped" by exhibiting a plucked chicken. In response to the hypothesis that humans are rational animals, he wandered about in daylight with a lantern, explaining that he was looking for a rational individual — usually described in modern versions as looking for an honest man. Plato described him as "a Socrates gone mad".

But if Diogenes were still around, I'd put a tetradrachm or two in his hand, and urge him to go have a talk with Keith Chen.

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Inuit dialect names

Helen DeWitt's wonderful novel The Last Samurai has unfortunately gone out of print, so I was happy to learn from her yesterday that a new edition is planned.

What follows is an epistolary post, consisting of her note to me, her letter to Kenn Harper, and his response to her.

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Julian Harrison, "Help Us Decipher This Inscription", British Library Medieval Manuscripts Blog, 8/3/2015:

Visitors to Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy may have noticed that we have one or two objects on display, in addition to the many manuscripts and documents telling Magna Carta's 800-year-old story. One of those objects is a double-edged sword, found in the first section of the exhibition, on loan to the British Library from our friends at the British Museum. The item in question was found in the River Witham, Lincolnshire, in July 1825, and was presented to the Royal Archaeological Institute by the registrar to the Bishop of Lincoln. […]

An intriguing feature of this sword is an as yet indecipherable inscription, found along one of its edges and inlaid in gold wire. It has been speculated that this is a religious invocation, since the language is unknown. Can you have a go at trying to decipher it for us? Here's what the inscription seems to read:


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Pop Japonesque nonsense?

[This is a guest post by Nathan Hopson]

Amazon's App Store for Android features a free daily app. The selection of a few days ago caught my eye not for the content of the app itself, but for the nonsensical (and incorrect) use of Japanese.

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Emily Landau, "Why Person-First Language Doesn’t Always Put the Person First", Think Inclusive 7/20/2015:

There are two main types of language used to refer disability: person-first language and what is known as identity-first language (IFL). PFL as a concept originated among people who wanted to fight back against stigma. In a society that perceived disability as dehumanizing, advocates wanted those around them to remember that having a disability does not, in fact, lessen your personhood. As such, the PFL movement encouraged the use of phrases like “person with disability,” “girl with autism” or “boy who is deaf.” In speaking this way and putting the person first, it was considered a show of respect.  

PFL was adopted as a general linguistic rule, moving from use by the people who initiated the movement towards heavy use by those in professional spheres. It essentially became the law of the land. Teachers, doctors, nurses, social service professionals, government officials… everyone was told that they should use only PFL. Using a term such as “disabled person?” A cardinal sin.  

However, as with almost any major activism movement, PFL sparked a countermovement, known as identity-first. IFL is a linguistic concept embraced and actually preferred by countless people within the disability community. In the ideology of identity-first, “disabled” is a perfectly acceptable way for a person to identify. Instead of going out of your way to say “person with a disability,” when using IFL you would instead say “disabled person.” This is how I personally choose to identify myself. I am a disabled person.

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Failing words in Myanmar

Thomas Fuller, "Those Who Would Remake Myanmar Find That Words Fail Them", NYT 7/19/2015:

It’s the dawn of democracy in Myanmar. If only the Burmese had their own word for it.  As this former dictatorship opens to the world, language is a stumbling block.  

For half a century, Myanmar was so cut off from the outside world that people were jailed for owning an unauthorized fax machine. As the rest of the world was hurtling into the information age, the strict censorship of publications, limited access to global media and creaking connections to the Internet stunted the evolution of the Burmese language, leaving it without many words that are elsewhere deemed essential parts of the modern political and technical vocabulary.

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Reality v. Brooks

David Zweig, "The facts vs. David Brooks: Startling inaccuracies raise questions about his latest book", Salon 6/15/2015 ("Factual discrepancies in the NYT columnist's new book raise some alarming questions about his research & methods"):

For at least the past four years David Brooks, the New York Times columnist, TV pundit, bestselling author and lecture-circuit thought leader, has been publicly talking and writing about humility. Central to his thesis is the idea that humility has waned among Americans in recent years, and he wants us to harken to an earlier, better time.  

One of the key talking points (if not the key talking point) cited by Brooks in lectures, interviews, and in the opening chapter of his current bestseller, “The Road to Character,” is a particular set of statistics — one so resonant that in the wake of the book’s release this spring, it has been seized upon by a seemingly endless number of reviewers and talking heads. There’s just one problem: Nearly every detail in this passage – which Brooks has repeated relentlessly, and which the media has echoed, also relentlessly — is wrong.

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More on Dior's "Quiproquo" cocktail dress

Last week (6/5/15), we examined the fantastic calligraphy on a dress created by the great French fashion designer, Christian Dior (1905-1957), that is currently on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art:

"Christian Dior's 'Quiproquo' cocktail dress and the florid rhubarb prescription written on it"

During the course of the discussion carried on in the comments to the post, many fascinating details about the dress and its former owner were brought to light.

I am pleased to report that two members of the staff at the Met have kindly provided additional information that sheds further light on this most impressive cultural artifact.

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"Double Happiness": symbol of Confucianism as a religion

An image composed of a circle of fourteen symbols of major world religions has been circulating on the web:

The example pictured here is from this site.

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Shakespeare's formless plays and the degenerate 18th century in France

Following up on the grammar published in 1780 by C.F. Lhomond, I took a look at the La Grammarie Genérale et Raisonée de Port-Royal, Par Arnauld et Lancelot. But the edition that Gallica steered me to turned out to be preceded by an "Essai sur l'origine et les progrès de la Langue françoise", by Claude Bernard Petitot (1772-1825).

This introductory essay is 246 pages long, so it took me a while to page through it to find the actual Port-Royal grammar. And as it scrolled by, it revealed itself as a curious screed, with essentially no connection with the grammar that it introduces. In the guise of a history of French literature, M. Petitot argues that French language, literature and culture became sadly degenerate in the 18th century. And apparently it was all the fault of the barbaric English, aided by those villains Voltaire and Rousseau.

[Warning: I found this interesting, as a reflection of one influential intellectual bureaucrat's thinking in the France of 1803 — the year of the Louisiana Purchase, the Haitian Revolution, and the start of the Napoleonic Wars. It's surprising that in 1803, just 14 years after the French revolution, the man in charge of public education in the Paris area is pining in print for the perfect politeness of Louis XIV's court, and railing against the "empty theories" of 18th-century political philosophy. Petitot's opinions about socio-culture degeneration strike me as analogous, mutatis mutandis, to those of some figures on the current American political scene. But you may well disagree, certainly about the interest and perhaps also about the analogy.]

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The kitchen sink

Randy Alexander asks:

How do you say this in Chinese?

This seems to be another one of those things where there is no standard name for it. Almost everyone I ask has a different name for it, and they have to think for a moment when I ask then how to say it in Chinese.

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Cassia Forest

Chilin Shih is spending the summer doing fieldwork in China, and she has started a weblog, Cassia Forest, to document her journey.

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