Archive for Language and culture

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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"Like a bitch"?

The reaction to the video of Donald Trump's 2005 discussion with Billy Bush has focused primarily on its rape-culture aspects, including passages like this one:

Trump: I got to use some tictacs just in case I start kissing her
_______you know I'm automatically attracted to beautiful-
_______I just start kissing them

_______it's like a magnet just kiss
_______I don't even wait
_______and when you're a star they let you do it
_______you can do anything
Bush: whatever you want
Trump: grab em by the pussy
Bush: {laughs}
Trump: I can do anything

But I want to focus on one of Trump's phrases that's gotten less attention:

Trump: I moved on her like a bitch

When I first heard that, I thought Trump was using "'like a bitch" as a general-purpose intensifier applied to his own actions. But then I realized that canine similes are one of his favorite ways of dehumanizing others, and so he must have meant this one to apply to Nancy O'Dell, the woman that he "moved on" in this particular case.

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Code

Alex Kantrowitz, "Racist Social Media users Have A New Code To Avoid Censorship", BuzzFeed 10/1/2016:

Racist online communities have developed a new code for racial, homophobic and bigoted slurs in an attempt avoid censorship.

The code, using terms like Google, Skittle, and Yahoo as substitutes for offensive words describing blacks, Muslims and Mexicans, appears to be in use by various accounts on Twitter and elsewhere.

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Talk amongst yourselves

Please, talk to each other. It's important to linguists that there should be plenty of chat. We need language live, on the hoof. Millions of spoken word tokens everywhere, so that we can (for example) compare Donald Trump's amazingly high proportion of first-person singular pronouns to the average for non-narcissists like typical Language Log readers. tubechat

However, beware of engaging in chat to strangers on the subway if you are in London. A new campaign for people to wear a "Tube chat?" button when traveling on London Underground trains, intended to provoke random conversation with other passengers, has been met with horror and disdain by the misanthropic curmudgeons who use the services in question. No chat please; we're Londoners.

[Comments are turned off out of respect for readers in London.]

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Wentzylvania

I don't watch broadcast TV a lot, but over the past couple of days I've experienced more than four hours of live television — which turned out to be a surprisingly positive experience. Sunday afternoon I watched the Philadelphia Eagles play the Pittsburgh Steelers, and Monday evening I watched the first presidential debate.

My expectations for both events were low. I agreed with most Philadelphians in hoping that the Eagles and their rookie quarterback Carson Wentz could avoid embarrassing themselves, and maybe keep it close before losing. And I reckoned that the debate would be a sort of political duel of pro wrestling promos, maybe mixed with some reality-television tropes, where dominance theater would dominate.

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Alien encounters

The blurb for the movie Arrival, due to open in November:

When mysterious spacecrafts touch down across the globe, an elite team, lead by expert linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams), is brought together to investigate. As mankind teeters on the verge of global war, Banks and the team race against time for answers – and to find them, she will take a chance that could threaten her life, and quite possibly humanity.

Last week, a magazine writer asked me for a linguist's perspective on first-encounter communication strategies. She posed a set of interesting questions, starting with this:

  1. An alien is standing in front of you, apparently peaceably. What is the first thing you try, in an attempt to communicate with it? Is a greeting important? Are there any underlying rules for communication across cultures (and language barriers) that govern your decision?

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Eurasian eureka

After reading the the latest series of Language Log posts on long range connections (see below for a listing), Geoff Wade suggested that I title the next post in this series as I have this one.  If there ever was an occasion to do so, now is as good a moment as any, with the announcement of the publication of Chau Wu's extraordinary "Patterns of Sound Correspondence between Taiwanese and Germanic/Latin/Greek/Romance Lexicons, Part I", Sino-Platonic Papers, 262 (Aug., 2016), 239 pp. (free pdf).

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Ask Language Log: why is "inch" a family relationship in Korean?

Katie Odhner asks:

I have lately been teaching myself Korean and have become quite interested in Sino-Korean vocabulary. Recently two words in particular caught my attention: samchon 삼촌 ("paternal uncle"), from Chinese s ān cùn 三寸 ("three inches"), and sachon 사촌 ("cousin"), from Chinese sì cùn 四寸 ("four inches"). I wondered how "three inches" and "four inches" could turn into family members. According to one website I found, chon 寸 can refer to "degree (of kinship)", which makes some sense. But when I looked on ctext.org (Chinese Text Project), I couldn't find classical Chinese examples of this usage, so I'm thinking maybe it's a Korean invention.

Have you ever encountered cùn 寸 ("inch") in Classical Chinese to refer to degree of kinship? Do you think it's a Korean invention? And does "third degree of kinship" for uncle and "fourth degree of kinship" for cousin have any roots that you can think of in the Confucian tradition, or is that also a native Korean concept?

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Erdoğan

Below is a guest post by Bob Ladd:


Recent events in Turkey have meant that President Erdoğan is in headlines around the world – except that in many parts of the world, the headlines are about President “Erdogan”. A few newspapers outside Turkey faithfully reproduce the yumuşak G (the letter G with a short mark or caron, which between vowels is mostly silent in Turkish), but mostly they just use an unadorned G. So is this a matter of technology or ethnocentricity? That is, do newspapers ignore the diacritic on the G because inserting the correct character would be a time-consuming and potentially error-prone process? Or do they ignore it because it’s a weird letter in a weird language and nobody really cares anyway? There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that both factors play a role.

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"Facial expressions" in text-dominant online conversation

Christina Xu has written "A Field Guide to China's Most Indispensible Meme" (Motherboard, 8/1/16).  Her essay includes more than a dozen illustrations, the first of which is this one:

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