Archive for Language and culture

E.B. White and quotative inversion

For some documentation and discussion of the New Yorker magazine's curious aversion to quotative inversion, see "Quotative inversion again", 10/29/2009. And against that background, consider this sentence from E.B. White's 1957 piece "Letter from the East", quoted in my earlier post:

"Omit needless words!" cries the author on page 21, and into that imperative Will Strunk really put his heart and soul.

A careless slip of the red pencil? Or was E.B. White exempt from the dictum? Or was the no-quotative-inversion diktat imposed by a post-1957 New Yorker style maven? Perhaps someone who knows more about the history of that publication's quirks can tell us.

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Removing needless words

Yesterday I was skimming randomly-selected sentences from a collection of English-language novels, and happened on this one from George Orwell's 1949 novel Nineteen Eighty-Four: "It's a beautiful thing, the destruction of words." This brought to mind two things I had never put together before, Orwell on Newspeak and Strunk on style.

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A long short-term memory of Gertrude Stein

As just observed ("What a tangled web they weave"), successive repetitions of short sequences of Japanese, Korean, Thai (and perhaps other types of) characters cause Google's Neural Machine Translation system to generate surprisingly varied and poetic English equivalents.

Thus if we repeat 1 through 25 times the two-character Thai sequence ไๅ

|ไ| 0x0E44 "THAI CHARACTER SARA AI MAIMALAI"
|ๅ| 0x0E45 "THAI CHARACTER LAKKHANGYAO"

the system, "a deep LSTM network with 8 encoder and 8 decoder layers using attention, residual connections, and trans-temporal chthonic affinity", establishes a pretty solid spiritual connection with Gertrude Stein:

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On the overt verbal expression of romantic love as a modern habit

In a comment to this post, "A trilingual, biscriptal note (with emoji)" (2/5/17), liuyao remarked,

Interesting that 愛 to mean (romantic) love might be a modern invention. A search in Dream of the Red Chamber (which is regarded as Beijing Mandarin in 18th century) reveals that all instances of it are in fact "to like" (something or someone). 愛吃的 = (what he) likes to eat; 不愛唸書 = doesn't like to read books/study.

liuyao's observation is so noteworthy that I promised to write a separate post on ài 愛 — herewith I am delivering on that promise.

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New Year's massacre

Boris Kootzenko spotted this truly bizarre banner at a service area on the highway leading west from Shanghai in Anhui Province:

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Chicken is down

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n't is the new not

[h/t Larry Horn]

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Multiculturalism meets international trade

From Bill Thomas via John Rohsenow:

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Bread-salt ice cream

AntC took this photograph today at the "Sun Moon Lake" Visitor Centre / main bus station in Taiwan:

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Offal is not awful

My son sent me this wonderful, learned post called "The best bits" from the "Old European culture" blog (12/7/2015).  It begins:

Offal, also called variety meats or organ meats, refers to the internal organs and entrails of a butchered animal. The word does not refer to a particular list of edible organs, which varies by culture and region, but includes most internal organs excluding muscle and bone.

The word shares its etymology with several Germanic words: Frisian ôffal, German Abfall (offall in some Western German dialects), afval in Dutch and Afrikaans, avfall in Norwegian and Swedish, and affald in Danish. These Germanic words all mean "garbage", or —literally— "off-fall", referring to that which has fallen off during butchering. However, these words are not often used to refer to food with the exception of Afrikaans in the agglutination afvalvleis (lit. "off-fall-meat") which does indeed mean offal. For instance, the German word for offal is Innereien meaning innards. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word entered Middle English from Middle Dutch in the form afval, derived from af (off) and vallen (fall).

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Reindeer lore

Yuletide is upon us, so it's time for some more reindeer talk.  The guest post below comes from Juha Janhunen, to whom I put the following questions:

Do any of the following ride reindeer?  Sami, Lapp, Evenks (or other Siberian people)

How long ago did the Sami, Lapp, Evenks (or other Siberian people) domesticate reindeer?

There's no price of admission to read this post, but a suggested donation, in the spirit of the season and in the tradition of this blog, is that you tell us how to say "reindeer" in your language and perhaps in a few other languages with which you are familiar.

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Trevor Noah reflects on language and identity

In my introductory undergraduate course on English words, and in most undergraduate introductory courses on linguistics, students are invited to reflect on language and identity—how the way you speak communicates information about who you are—which they are typically very interested in. This isn't my beat, professionally speaking, but as a linguist I have a duty to help my students think through some of these issues (and, if they get interested, point them in the right direction to get really educated). To get started, I often play this one-minute clip of a Meshach Taylor Fresh Air interview from 1990, which is usually a good starting point for some discussion.

But Fresh Air (yes I'm a Terry Gross fangirl) also recently ran an interview with the biracial South African host of the Daily Show, Trevor Noah, which contained this ten-minute motherlode of a reflection on multilingualism, language choice, racism, acceptable targets of mimicry, vocabulary size, Trump's communicative abilities, resentment of accented speech… whew. I'm just going to leave it here for your edification and enjoyment. Maybe one of our more sociolinguistically expert Language Loggers will provide some more detailed commentary later. For my part — well, I just invite you to think about what kind of 500-word essay you'd write for a Ling 101 class with this 10-minute clip as your prompt.

To hear the whole interview, or read the transcript, visit the NPR Fresh Air page.

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Look out kid

Since Bob Dylan got the Nobel Prize for Literature, here's an old music video with some words to open discussion:

(I'm in China for ten days — Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai — so posting may be a bit erratic…)

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