Archive for Books

Cupertinos in the spotlight

About seven years ago, in March 2006, I wrote a Language Log post about "the Cupertino effect," a term to describe spellchecker-aided "miscorrections" that might turn, say, Pakistan's Muttahida Quami Movement into the Muttonhead Quail Movement. It owes its name to European Union translators who had noticed the word cooperation getting replaced with Cupertino by a spellchecker that lacked the unhyphenated form of the word in its dictionary. Since then, I've had occasion to hold forth on the Cupertino effect in various venues (OUPblog, Der Spiegel, Radiolab, the New York Times, etc.). Now, Cupertinos are getting yet another flurry of publicity, thanks to a new book by the British tech writer Tom Chatfield called Netymology.

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Once Bookstore

This beautiful establishment in Amoy (Xiamen) 厦门 (facing Taiwan across the strait that separates the PRC from the ROC) is perhaps the only pro-democracy (private) bookstore in the People's Republic of China — I applaud its moral courage. In this article about Once Bookstore, we find the following photograph of a sign in front of the store and the cover of a book that is most likely sold in it:

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How to be ignored (?)

Last year, Alexander Clark and Shalom Lappin published a book under the title Linguistic Nativism and the Poverty of the Stimulus. The background of the book was a course on "The Poverty of the Stimulus, Machine Learning, and Language Acquisition", which the authors gave at the LSA Summer Institute at Stanford in 2007. In the preface, the authors thank an impressive collection of linguists, computer scientists, psychologists, and philosophers "for helpful discussion of many of the issues that we address in this monograph".

An hour-long discussion between the authors and Chris Cummins was just released as a podcast in the New Books in Language section of the New Books Network. Cummins' online intro to the podcast opens with this bit of snark:

In linguistics, if a book is ever described as a “must read for X”, it generally means that (i) it is trenchantly opposed to whatever X does and (ii) X will completely ignore it. Alexander Clark and Shalom Lappin, Linguistic Nativism and the Poverty of the Stimulus (Wiley-Blackwell, 2011) is described, on its dust-jacket, as a “must read for generative linguists”.  Apparently generative linguists have so far taken the hint.  This is a great pity, as this book is not only very pertinent, but also succeeds in eschewing most of the polemical excess that tends to engulf us all in this field.

Richard Sproat, who contributed the cited jacket blurb, quipped in an email that "Apparently I did you a disservice by saying it was a must read".

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Stupid robot-generated spambook garbage

Last October 24 the brilliant Daniel Kahneman's book Thinking, Fast and Slow was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. And on the same day another book was also published, by an alleged publisher called CreateSpace: It was called Fast and Slow Thinking, and advertised as having an author named Karl Daniels.

Only it is not really a book. It is a compilation of snippets from Wikipedia articles and the like, dressed up like a book. Edited by robots for you to buy by mistake. It's a spam book, part of the "gigantic, unstoppable tsunami of what can only be described as bookspam" that I spoke of last June. It was created purely to swim in the wake of the Kahneman book and snap up some spilled morsels of money. It's not a commercial success: its sales rank is 359,109; but people have bought it. Some regretful consumers talk about it on the Amazon page. Targeted spam pseudobooks! Is it just me, or is the world getting scummier and scummier as day follows day?

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Boko Haram and Peggy burrito

From California, Julie Wei sends me "tidbits:  curious words":

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Time to celebrate the appearance of the last volume (5) of the Dictionary of American Regional English! Brief account on my blog, here; more extensive account on DARE's site, here.

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A multilingual book trailer

These days, newly published books often get promoted with video trailers, and there's one that just came out for Michael Erard's Babel No More: The Search for the World's Most Extraordinary Language Learners. In keeping with the book's theme of hyperpolyglottery, Erard rounded up speakers of different languages to create a multilingual reading of a story told in his book. (Direct link here — that's me at 1:05.)

And there's a contest! Here are the details from the trailer description:

How good are you at identifying spoken languages? I asked friends from all over to say one line of a story about Cardinal Giuseppe Mezzofanti, and all the lines are assembled here. Send an email message with 1) the name of each language and 2) in the order in which they appear to, and I'll put your name in a drawing for a signed copy of Babel No More. Deadline is February 23.

I'll keep the comments closed until the deadline to keep anyone from divulging the names of the languages. Good luck!

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The unbearable loss of words

Everyone has a private terror—often abetted by a checkered family medical history or having witnessed the torment of a loved one—of being struck with some particular affliction. For some, it's the ravages of a slow and painful cancer. For others, it's being caught in a freak accident that renders them quadriplegic in their prime. For me, it's the fear of surviving a stroke that blasts away tracts of neural tissue in the left hemisphere of my brain, leaving me with profound aphasia.

As usual, the degree of fear is based on a calculus of probability and of loss. In my case, there is the specter of probability: My father suffered a fatal stroke in his sixties. His own father, unluckier, was bedridden after a stroke in his early forties until another one finished him off a few years later. But it's the prospect of the loss that is overwhelming. How could I, ardent worshipper at the altar of language, ever cope with being left unable to talk or write fluently about language or anything else? For that matter, would I even be able to think about language? Or think in any meaningful way at all? It's the afflictions that strip you of who you are that seem most unthinkable.

So it was a sense of morbid attraction that led me to Diane Ackerman's newest book One Hundred Names for Love, in which she documents the stroke and subsequent language deficit suffered by her husband, novelist Paul West.

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Green's Dictionary of Slang: An Appeal

In the April 3, 2011 issue of the New York Times Book Review, I appraised Jonathon Green's wonderfully comprehensive three-volume reference work, Green's Dictionary of Slang (GDoS to its friends). I concluded the review essay thusly:

It's a never-ending challenge to keep up with the latest developments in the world of slang, but that is the lexicographer’s lot. Green plans to put his dictionary online for continuous revision, which is indeed the direction that many major reference works (including the O.E.D.) are now taking. In the meantime, his monument to the inventiveness of speakers from Auckland to Oakland takes its place as the pièce de résistance of English slang studies. To put it plain, it’s copacetic.

Now, at year's end, it turns out that Green's plan to make GDoS available online has run into some trouble. He asked me to post the following appeal on Language Log, responses to which should be directed to him (email address below).

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A big dictionary anniversary, and a smaller one

Congratulations to Oxford University Press (OUP) on a special morning: it is publication day for the newest edition of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, marking its 100th anniversary. The first edition was in 1911, and this is the 12th. But I also want to thank OUP for a personal kindness to me. Or rather to my dad, who was celebrating a smaller anniversary of his own.

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Saucily garbled blurb

To say the least, I was perplexed when a book that I co-edited with Mark Bender was described thus on Tao Blog:

In The river Anthology of Asiatic Folk and Popular Literature, digit of the world’s directive sinologists, Victor H. Mair and Mark Bender, getting the dimension of China’s oral-based literate heritage. This assemblage presents entireness worn from the super embody of test literature of some of China’s constituted social groups — including the Han, Yi, Miao, Tu, Daur, Tibetan, Uyghur, and Kazak — and the selections allow a difference of genres. Chapters counterbalance sept stories, songs, rituals, and drama, as substantially as poem traditions and professed storytelling, and feature both old and little-known texts, from the news of the blackamoor warrior Hua Mulan to the fuck stories of cityfied storytellers in the Yangtze delta, the priest rituals of the Manchu, and a hoaxer tale of the Daur grouping from the forests of the northeast. The Cannibal Grandmother of the Yi and another strange creatures and characters unsettle acknowledged notions of Asiatic story and literate form. Readers are introduced to phrase songs of the Tai and the Dong, who springy among the strange limestone hills of the Guangxi Tai Autonomous Region; impact and matchmaking songs of the mountain-dwelling She of Fujian province; and water songs of the Cantonese-speaking dish grouping of Hong Kong. The editors feature the Altaic poem poems of Geser Khan and Jangar; the depressing tale of the Qeo kinsfolk girl, from the Tu grouping of state and Qinghai provinces; and topical plays famous as “rice sprouts” from Hopeh province. These fascinating juxtapositions elicit comparisons among cultures, styles, and genres, and proficient translations preserves the individualist case of apiece thrillingly creative work.

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Sex in the brain

I realize this is Language Log, not Gender and Sexuality Blog, but these are topics we've often taken up, under the heading of how science is pursued and reported on. An announcement for a provocative Stanford talk coming up soon:

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We never make assertions

We never make assertions clip

That's the greatest philosopher in the world speaking, in a little book I'm reading so that I better understand the American spirit – Ayn Rand's Atlas shrugged, Random House, 1957; p. 735 in the 1992 edition.  Perhaps Rand had a really, really dry sense of humor.

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