Archive for Language and culture

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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Linguistic reaction at The New Yorker

Mary Norris, "Comma Queen: The Singular 'Their'", The New Yorker 3/4/2016:

Last year, at the convention of the American Copy Editors Society (ACES), in Pittsburgh, everyone was talking about “the singular ‘their.’ ” It is the people’s choice for the gender-neutral third-person-singular pronoun that the English language sadly lacks.  

Many ACES stalwarts—copy editors, journalists, grammarians, lexicographers, and linguists—stand ready to embrace the singular “their.” But not us. We avoid it whenever we can.

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Linguistic wrestling in the Mongol court

This post brings together current American politics with Victor's recent post on wrestling terminology, by quoting a passage from Jack Watherford's Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, about a debate staged by Mongke Khan in September of 1254.

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Chinese-English rap

Thorin Engeseth writes:

I am a big fan of the English musician Tricky, who recently released an album with a song on it called "Beijing to Berlin".

According to an email his marketing team sent out:

The enigmatic voice on the single's A-side, "Beijing To Berlin," belongs to the Chinese rapper and producer Ivy 艾菲. Tricky explains: "I was in Beijing for a show and I met this guy who managed her. She's so different! So raw! The strange thing is, I've had the track for a while but I only just found out that she’s not rapping in Chinese. I ain’t got a clue what language it is. I have no idea. It might be completely made up but whatever it is, it sounds wicked."

I'm attaching a link to a video of the song here. I know very little about the languages of China, and am wondering if this song (a rap song) could just be in very heavily accented English, or is she making sounds up as she goes?

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Solaar pleure carrément?

In my limited experience of French hiphop, I've gotten the impression that it's rhythmically rather "square", in the sense that the syncopations or polyrhythms that are common in the corresponding American genres are relatively rare. As a first tentative step in evaluating this (perhaps quite wrong) idea, I analyzed the word-to-beat alignments of MC Solaar's popular 2001 piece Solaar Pleure. Here's the official video on YouTube:

And there's a set of annotated lyrics at genius.com.

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N Cultures

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