Archive for Language and culture

The humanities in an alternate universe

A couple of months ago, I got a copy of The Chronicle Review with a cover story by Arthur Krystal called "Neuroscience is ruining the humanities".

Actually there are two semi-falsehoods in that sentence.

In the first place, I actually got the physical publication in the mail about a week ago, even though the issue is dated November 28, and the online article is dated November 21. That's because I live in a university residence, and my university apparently picks up the mail from the post office from time to time, sends it somewhere to be sorted at leisure, and then delivers it to its various destinations by occasional caravan.

The second misleading statement concerns the article's title: the online version is now called "The shrinking world of ideas". Since the URL is still "https://chronicle.com/article/Neuroscience-Is-Ruining-the/150141/", we can guess that the online article's title was changed after the fact. Thereby hangs a tale, though I can only guess what it is.

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Predictable structure in songs, faces, words, & roles

From Gregory "Sir Mashalot" Todd, proof that all Country songs released in 2014 were underlyingly the same:

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Decreasing definiteness

During the course of the 20th century, the frequency of the English definite article the decreased gradually and radically. I first noticed this effect about a year ago, in a post about the history of State of the Union addresses ("SOTU evolution", 1/26/2014), where I observed, in reference to the graph on the right, that

The average frequency of the in the most recent 10 SOTU addresses (2004-2013) was 47,458 per million words; in the first 10 addresses (1790-1799, all delivered as speeches to Congress) it was 93,201 per million words, almost double the frequency.  And the decline during the 20th-century era of oral addresses seems to have been a gradual one.

I speculated that

Maybe the style of speeches has been getting gradually less formal, and therefore gradually less like written style. Or maybe even formal styles have been changing.

And I noted that a corresponding effect can be seen in two other sources, the BYU Corpus of Historical American English (COHA) and the Google Books N-Gram viewer (GNG), though it is considerably smaller in magnitude:

COHA and the Google Books data pretty much agree, which is reassuring; and they both suggest a slight decline in the frequency of the; but the change that they show is very modest compared to the change in SOTU frequencies. So I feel that the explanation for the SOTU change remains to be found.

At that point, I turned my attention to other aspects of SOTU evolution. But a student paper recently reminded me of this issue.

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A language of condensed words expressing condensed ideas

John Elfreth Watkins Jr.'s predictions about the then-upcoming 20th century ("What May Happen in the Next Hundred Years", The Ladies' Home Journal, December 1900) have been widely discussed in recent years on the web. You can read a transcribed version (with the predictions oddly re-ordered) here.

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Magi, myrrh, and mummies

'Tis the season!

We all know the story of the three Magi bringing gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the baby Jesus.  In this post, I'll write about the two "m" words of the story, "magi" and "myrrh", touching briefly on "magi", but going into a bit more detail on "myrrh".  I'll leave it to others to talk about gold and frankincense, should they so desire, and will turn to the mummies toward the end of the post.

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Mazel Tov, Molotov, whatever

Jessie Opoien, "The political pitfalls of cultural crossover: Scott Walker edition", The Capitol Times 12/10/2014:

In an undated letter unearthed by the liberal group One Wisconsin Now during the August release of documents from the first of two John Doe investigations related to the governor, Walker responded to a letter from Milwaukee attorney and chairman of the Wisconsin Center District Franklyn Gimbel.  

Walker told Gimbel his office would be happy to display a menorah celebrating "The Eight Days of Chanukah" at the Milwaukee County Courthouse, and asked Gimbel to have a representative from Lubavitch of Wisconsin contact Walker's secretary, Dorothy Moore, to set it up.  

The letter is signed, "Thank you again and Molotov."

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William Hazlitt on grammar

On a brief trip to London recently, I stayed in a small hotel named Hazlitt's, after William Hazlitt, who in 1830, the last year of his life, rented a small apartment in one of the buildings that the hotel now occupies. A copy of his 1802 self-portrait hangs by the registration desk, and there are various Hazlitt memorabilia scattered around, reminding me that I knew almost nothing about him.

Among the things that I thereupon learned about William Hazlitt is the fact that his family emigrated to Philadelphia in 1783, when he was five years old, on the first ship from Britain to America after the end of the Revolutionary War. They also spent time in Boston, where his father was involved in founding the first Unitarian church in America, before returning to England in 1786.

I also learned that in 1809 Hazlitt published A New and Improved Grammar of the English Tongue : for the use of Schools, In which the Genius of our Speech is especially attended to, And the Discoveries of Mr. Horne Tooke and other Modern Writers on the Formation of Language are for the first time incorporated. I haven't been able to find a copy of this work, but the Preface is available in the 1902 edition of his Collected Works, and contains some striking material.

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No word for fetch

By Drew Dernavich, originally published August 20, 2007, a cartoon addition to our No Word for X archive:

Or, to put it another way: "They have no words for anything, but they have no concept for 'fetch'."

[h/t Joan M.]

 

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Lexical bling: Vocabulary display and social status

A visitor from another galaxy, or perhaps just from another century, would notice that civilized people these days are obsessed with the rate of vocabulary display as a symbol of social status.  The latest symptom of this obsession is Matt Daniels, "The Largest Vocabulary in Hip Hop", May 2014:

Literary elites love to rep Shakespeare’s vocabulary: across his entire corpus, he uses 28,829 words, suggesting he knew over 100,000 words and arguably had the largest vocabulary, ever.  

I decided to compare this data point against the most famous artists in hip hop. I used each artist’s first 35,000 lyrics. That way, prolific artists, such as Jay-Z, could be compared to newer artists, such as Drake.

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Gotta catch 'em all

Don Seiffert, "Is it a drug, or is it a Pokemon?", bioflash 11/18/2014:

It was while trying to straighten up my 10-year-old son's room that I hit upon the answer to the age-old question of where do they come up with the names of new drugs.

The answer: It's got to be the same people who come up with the names of new Pokemon characters.

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Logic from the voice of the earth itself

On Friday, I gave a talk at the 46th Algonquian Conference. As the conference web page explains,

The 46th Algonquian Conference will be held in Uncasville, Connecticut, on the reservation of the Mohegan Tribal Nation.  This is the first time in 46 years that the conference will be held on sovereign Native territory.

The 46th Algonquian Conference coincides with the 20th Anniversary of the Mohegan Tribe winning its sovereignty through federal recognition.  The conference itself will be held in the Mohegan Sun Hotel and Convention Center at the Mohegan Sun Casino.

In our registration packet was a copy of Melissa Jayne Fawcett, The Lasting of the Mohegans, 1995.

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Women modifiers

Maddie York, "Why there are too many women doctors, women MPs, and women bosses", The Guardian 10/17/2014:

I am a subeditor at the Guardian. I am a woman. I am not a woman subeditor. But “woman” and its plural seem to be taking over the role of modifier, so that now, there is no such thing, as far as much of the media is concerned, as a female doctor, a female MP or a female chef. Instead you hear or read about a woman doctor, a woman MP and so on. […]

As far as the Guardian style guide is concerned, it is simply wrong to use “woman” and “women” in this way, because, it says, they are not adjectives.

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Matched guise among the tombstones

Lawrence Block's 1992 novel A Walk Among the Tombstones has been made into a recently-released movie. I haven't seen the movie, but in the book, the character TJ carries out what sociolinguists would call a "matched guise experiment".  This is a technique for measuring language attitudes by having the same speaker read a passage in two different ways, and asking hearers a series of questions about the speaker's intelligence, honesty, or whatever.

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