Archive for December, 2010

Opera characterized

A Carrier friend recently told me, somewhat to my surprise, that his father, who passed away in 1995 at the age of 95 and never went to school, had liked opera. He called it “shun be lhehudulh” ᙖᐣ ᗫ ᘱᐳᑐᒡ [ʃʌn be ɬehʌdʌɬ] = “they fight each other with songs”. I’m not sure how much Italian he understood, but he seems to have understood opera pretty well.

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There aren’t as many plants as we thought

It is well known that the same organism may be known by different common names in different areas (e.g. “cougar”, “panther”, “puma”, and “mountain lion”) and that the same common name may be used for different organisms in different areas (e.g. “blackberry”), but the assumption is that (pseudo-)Latin scientific names like Achillea millefolium “yarrow” are unique. Recent work by Kew Gardens and the Missouri Botanical Garden, with numerous collaborators, has revealed that this is not quite true: of 1.04 million species-level names, they classified only about 300,00 (29%) as accepted names. They classified 480,000 names (46%) as synonyms for accepted names and 260,000 (25%) as unresolved, meaning that the available data is not sufficient to determine whether or not they designate distinct species. By way of example, a query for Achillea millefolium reveals that it has synonyms such as Achillea ambigua, Achillea angustissima, Achillea borealis, and even some in other genera, such as Chamaemelum tanacetifolium. You can look things up yourself at The Plant List.

No word yet on beetles.

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A classic overnegation

Miguel Helft, “Twins’ Facebook Fight Rages On“, NYT 12/30/2010 (emphasis added):

As they talked about the Facebook case, no detail was too small to omit, from where they first met Mr. Zuckerberg (the Kirkland House dining room) to the layout of Mr. Zuckerberg’s dorm room, to the content of the e-mails he had sent them after they asked him to do computer programming for a Web site called Harvard Connection.

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In discussing the relatively low rate of contraction in Charles Portis’s novel True Grit, I suggested several different explanations. It might be false archaism, or it might be a way to bring out the personality of the narrator, Mattie Ross. Another option, of course, would be that it’s a quirk of the author’s style. We can eliminate this last possibility by checking another of his novels, Norwood, which (according to Wikipedia)

… follows its namesake protagonist on a misadventurous road trip from his hometown of Ralph, Texas, to New York City and back. During the trip, Norwood is exposed to a comic array of personalities and lifestyles. The novel is a noteworthy example of Portis’ particular skill rendering Southern dialect and conversation.

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Spam trends

Comment spam isn’t getting any better, but it’s certainly getting more frequent. Akismet is now catching more than a thousand LL spam comments (or what it identifies as spam comments) every day.

Some very small but non-zero percentage of this is not in fact spam. So I used to scan everything in Akismet’s grease trap, in order to rescue the real stuff. In the past, I’ve salvaged worthwhile contributions from John Cowan, Language Hat, and others. However, the volume is now so great that I usually don’t have time to do this.  If your genuine contribution is trapped and flushed, I apologize in advance — let me know by email if you think this has happened.

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True Grit isn’t true

It isn’t linguistically true, at least. David Fried writes:

What’s with the movie convention of representing 19th century American speech as lacking contractions? I was just enjoying the new version of “True Grit” by the Coen brothers—in fact it’s been a long time since I had so much fun at a movie. As I figure it the action is set in 1878. Much of the pleasure of the movie is the oddly formal and elaborate diction of the characters, taken straight from the Charles Portis novel. I actually find a lot of it true to my conception of the period, if rather stylized, except for the absurdity of pronouncing all contracted auxiliaries in full. Ethan Coen was specifically asked about this in a Newsweek review, and replied rather ambiguously “We’ve been told that the language and all that formality is faithful to how people talked in the period.”

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Brow inflation?

Andrew Gelman has some interesting things to say about “Brow Inflation” on his blog Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science. He quotes Brooks Barnes (“Hollywood moves away from middlebrow“, 12/26/2010),

“Inception,” a complicated thriller about dream invaders, racked up more than $825 million in global ticket sales; “The Social Network” has so far delivered $192 million, a stellar result for a highbrow drama. . . . the message that the year sent about quality and originality is real enough that studios are tweaking their operating strategies.

and observes that

Standards have certainly changed when a Spiderman sequel, and a 21 Jump Street remake, and a ride at Disneyland are defined as “highbrow.”

The cultural products described in the article–big-money popular entertainments that are well-reviewed and have some association with quality–are classic middlebrow. Back around 1950, Russell Lynes and Dwight Macdonald were all over this.

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The Assimilation of English in Chinese

The varieties of Chinese English are so numerous as to defy complete listing.  To name only the better known, we have pidgin, Chinglish, Singlish, Zhonglish, China English, Chinese-English, and sinographically transcribed English.  Martian Language, Internet Language, and much scientific, technological, and academic prose also are more or less saturated with English words.  Advertising language is particularly fond of using English words and phrases, often in very clever and unusual ways that are particularly well suited to the Chinese linguistic and cultural environment.

There have even been attempts to write English words in the shape of Chinese characters, the most famous being the “Square-Word Calligraphy” of the artist Xu Bing:  whole passage; character for “excellence“; character for “respect“; character for “elegance“; character for “design“.

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“A pretentious and altogether lamentable affectation”

I’ve long since given up writing about the fakeness of the term “nor’easter” (see “Nor’easter considered fake“, 1/25/2004; “The storm is real, the word is still fake“, 1/22/2005), partly because it’s futile, and partly because it doesn’t matter, and mostly because people are entitled to use phony dialect forms if they want — here as elsewhere, usage is et ius et norma loquendi.

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Ilse Lehiste again

Arnold’s news yesterday about Ilse Lehiste’s passing was a sad coda to Christmas.  What a tremendous loss to the field of linguistics — Ilse’s exuberant reactions to all things linguistic made her a joy to be around

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Oh great

For those who think that irony “is almost always indicated by tone of voice”, a little quiz:

  1. [audio:]
  2. [audio:]
  3. [audio:]
  4. [audio:]
  5. [audio:]
  6. [audio:]

Which of these are literal (positive evaluation of something) and which are ironic (negative evaluation of something)?

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Txt and contxt

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Ilse Lehiste

News from Brian Joseph: our colleague and dear friend Ilse Lehiste, Professor Emeritus of Linguistics at Ohio State University, died on Christmas Day, of complications from pneumonia.

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