Archive for Language and culture

Japan: crazy over portmanteaux

No matter where I go these days, I hear young people shouting to their friends, "I'm playing Pokémon Go", which they pronounce "pokey-mon go".  It would be an understatement to say that, for the past few weeks, Pokémon Go has been a veritable craze.  Yet most people who play the game probably do not realize that the name "Pokémon" is a Japanese portmanteau based on two English words:  poketto ポケット ("pocket") + monsutā モンスター ("monster"). 

"What's in a name — Pikachu, Beikaciu, Pikaqiu?" (5/31/16)

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Tom Wolfe takes on linguistics

Or maybe I should say, Tom Wolfe's take on linguistics.

I've been an avid reader of Tom Wolfe's works since the 60s:  The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, The Right Stuff, The Painted Word, Bonfire of the Vanities).  What I like most about his non-fiction is that, as a leader and exponent of the New Journalism, he writes with a flair that captures the reader's attention without sacrificing accuracy and objectivity.  What attracts me to his novels is that they convey the impression of having been based on a huge amount of research, without in the least being turgid or dull.

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Scotty: Sexist or just Scottish?

Wells Hansen writes:

I recently heard some grumbling at the local pub over the new Star Trek's "Scotty" referring to Lt Uhura as "lass" or "lassy". Have the writers of the most recent iteration of the ST franchise created a sexist or dismissive Scotty  …or just a Scottish one?

I haven't seen the movie, and am not competent in contemporary Scottish sociolinguistics, much less those of the 23rd century. So I'll leave this one for the commenters.

 

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Is language "analog"?

David Golumbia's 2009 book The Cultural Logic of Computation argues that "the current vogue for computation" covertly revives an "old belief system — that something like rational calculation might account for every part of the material world, and especially the social and mental worlds". Golumbia believes that this is a bad thing.

I have nothing to say here about the philosophical or cultural impact of computer technology. Rather, I want to address a claim (or perhaps I should call it an assumption) that Golumbia makes about speech and language, which I think is profoundly mistaken.

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Digital scholarship and cultural ideology

Daniel Allington, Sarah Brouillette and David Golumbia, "Neoliberal Tools (and Archives): A Political History of Digital Humanities", Los Angeles Review of Books 5/1/2016:

Advocates position Digital Humanities as a corrective to the “traditional” and outmoded approaches to literary study that supposedly plague English departments. Like much of the rhetoric surrounding Silicon Valley today, this discourse sees technological innovation as an end in itself and equates the development of disruptive business models with political progress. Yet despite the aggressive promotion of Digital Humanities as a radical insurgency, its institutional success has for the most part involved the displacement of politically progressive humanities scholarship and activism in favor of the manufacture of digital tools and archives. Advocates characterize the development of such tools as revolutionary and claim that other literary scholars fail to see their political import due to fear or ignorance of technology. But the unparalleled level of material support that Digital Humanities has received suggests that its most significant contribution to academic politics may lie in its (perhaps unintentional) facilitation of the neoliberal takeover of the university.

Allington et al. give a plausible account of the history of computational text analysis in the humanities. Their narrative is oriented towards literary studies, without much discussion of fields like history, archeology and musicology; and there's room to argue about their choice of people and works to feature. But from my perspective outside the field, they have cause and effect reversed. Digital Humanities is not a top-down neo-liberal conspiracy aimed at a corporatist restructuring of literary studies. Rather, it's the natural and inevitable response of students and younger scholars to the opportunities afforded by new technologies, entirely comparable to the consequences of the invention of printing.

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Shifty merchants with 251 secret words for trade

Lila Gleitman points out to me that in one of the slowly increasing number of articles passing round the pseudoscientific story about Yiddish originating in four villages in Turkey you can see that hallmark of non-serious language research, the X-people-have-Y-words-for-Z trope:

Putting together evidence from linguistic, history, and genetics, we concluded that the ancient Ashkenazic Jews were merchants who developed Yiddish as a secret language — with 251 words for "buy" and "sell" — to maintain their monopoly. They were known to trade in everything from fur to slaves.

You can see the article here, but don't take that as a recommendation; it looks to me like unsubstantiated drivel. Exactly 251 words for buying and selling? No examples cited, and no hint of how more than two basic words and a few random approximate synonyms could be the slightest bit useful? It looks like classic myth-repetition of the usual Eskimo-words-for-snow sort.

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The love organ of many names

British comedian Richard Herring is the author of a 2003 book entitled Talking Cock: A Celebration of Man and his Manhood, so he naturally seized upon the republicization opportunity provided by the recent story of the world's first successful penis transplant. He made it the topic of his weekly humor column in The Metro, the trashy free newspaper that I sometimes reluctantly peruse in my constant search for linguistic developments that might be of interest to Language Log readers.

In a bravura display of diversity of lexical choice, Herring contrived to use a different euphemism for the anatomical organ every time he could find an excuse for mentioning it, which, believe me, was a lot. And he left me pondering a serious lexicographical question: just how many euphemisms are there for the appendage in question?

[Unusually, this post is restricted to adult males. Please click "Read the rest of this entry" to confirm that you are male and over 18.]

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Stone Service

I'm in Portorož, Slovenia, for LREC2016; and so far the most interesting linguistic aspect of the place is the sometimes-surprising mixture of languages on signs. For example:

The longer explanation of the side of the van is in Slovenian — Restavriranje, brušenje, čiščenje in impregnacije naravnega kamna = "Restoration, grinding, cleaning and impregnation of natural stone". But the short version is in English: STONE SERVICE.

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Wikipedia article length

For various reasons I recently downloaded snapshots of Wikipedia in various languages, and I'd like to share with you some discoveries, starting with article length in the English Wikipedia.

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Poem or list of band names?

A few days ago, we looked at a propaganda poster in Beijing: "'Dangerous love'" (4/19/16).

In continuing research on this poster, I discovered that at one site where it was pasted on the wall, there was an enigmatic sequence of lines on another piece of paper pasted on the wall just to the right of the 16-panel poster that the whole world was talking about:


Sources: here and here (close-up).

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Data journalism and film dialogue

Hannah Anderson and Matt Daniels, "Film Dialogue from 2,000 screenplays, Broken Down by Gender and Age", A Polygraph Joint 2016:

Lately, Hollywood has been taking so much shit for rampant sexism and racism. The prevailing theme: white men dominate movie roles.

But it’s all rhetoric and no data, which gets us nowhere in terms of having an informed discussion. How many movies are actually about men? What changes by genre, era, or box-office revenue? What circumstances generate more diversity?

To begin answering these questions, we Googled our way to 8,000 screenplays and matched each character’s lines to an actor. From there, we compiled the number of lines for male and female characters across roughly 2,000 films, arguably the largest undertaking of script analysis, ever.

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Of precious swords and Old Sinitic reconstructions, part 5

Previous posts in the series:

As mentioned before, the following post is not about a sword or other type of weapon per se, but in terms of its ancient Eurasian outlook, it arguably belongs in the series:

Today's post is also not about a sword, but it is about a weapon, namely an arrow.

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Of felt hats, feathers, macaroni, and weasels

In my work on the Bronze Age mummies of Eastern Central Asia (ECA), one of the attributes that has struck me perhaps more powerfully than any other is their stupendous felt hats.  Here's a photograph of some of them:

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