Archive for Language and music

Elle Cordova puts a beat on medicinal rat-a-tat

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Shoebox skull: an old neologism

"Bones from German cave rewrite early history of Homo sapiens in Europe", by Will Dunham, Reuters (1/31/24)

Bone fragments unearthed in a cave in central Germany show that our species ventured into Europe's cold higher latitudes more than 45,000 years ago – much earlier than previously known – in a finding that rewrites the early history of Homo sapiens on a continent still inhabited then by our cousins the Neanderthals.

Scientists said on Wednesday they identified through ancient DNA 13 Homo sapiens skeletal remains in Ilsenhöhle cave, situated below a medieval hilltop castle in the German town of Ranis. The bones were determined to be up to 47,500 years old. Until now, the oldest Homo sapiens remains from northern central and northwestern Europe were about 40,000 years old.

"These fragments are directly dated by radiocarbon and yielded well preserved DNA of Homo sapiens," said paleoanthropologist and research leader Jean-Jacques Hublin of Collège de France in Paris.

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Chinese YMCA dance

I still remember clearly the first time I tried the Y.M.C.A. dance.  That was about twenty years ago in New Haven when we celebrated Valerie Hansen's ascension to tenure at Yale.  When it comes to ballroom / partner dancing, I'm a total klutz, but I hoof it with abandon when it's single swirling-twirling-whirling.

There was a lively band with a talented singer who led us through the steps and motions of the YMCA dance.  It was a blast!

The other day I thought to myself, what would it be like if you tried to create such a dance for the Chinese equivalent of "Y.M.C.A."?

Jīdūjiàoqīngniánhuì 基督教青年会 ("YMCA")

Even if we abbreviate it as "青年会", the last three characters of the Chinese name, it would still be very hard to dance like the English YMCA version.

The iconic "YMCA" moves begin as 0:57 here:

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Viral pushback against the imperial dragon in a dragon year

A sarcastic song for the new year by the awesome Namewee (Huáng Míngzhì 黃明志), featuring Winnie Poohpooh (aka Xi Dada) clad in imperial dragon robe:

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Stochastic popinjay and Perso-Arabic art / adab

‘Stochastic Parrot’: A Name for AI That Sounds a Bit Less Intelligent

An ancient Greek word for guesswork fuels a term that suggests supersmart computer programs are just mimicking whatever they see

Ben Zimmer, WSJ, Word on the Street (January 18, 2024)

In his capacity as chair of the American Dialect Society's 2023 Word of the Year competition new words committee, our Language Log colleague Ben Zimmer oversaw the selection of candidates from the "special ad-hoc category related to one of the most buzzed-about stories of 2023: artificial intelligence."

Our new category included an array of AI heavy hitters. There was “ChatGPT,” the name for OpenAI’s chatbot, which is so successful it often gets used generically for any generative AI system. There was “LLM,” short for “large language model,” the machine-learning algorithm trained on mountains of text that powers AI programs. And there was “hallucination,” for AI-generated responses that are untethered from reality.

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Degendering "maestro"

Masterful essay by the Music Director of Symphony Nova Scotia.

"Maestro, Maestra, or Holly?"

We asked our Music Director Holly Mathieson how she prefers to be referred to on the podium!

Her reply may surprise you — or not:

The earliest record we have of the Italian term Maestro in connection to music is from 1724 (maestro di cappella, which translates as Master of the Chapel, similar to the German Kapellmeister). By the end of that century, there is evidence of it being used more generally in Italy as a single word, referring to a master or great teacher of music, or a composer. Etymologically, it shares its roots with the Latin magister, the offshoots of which include the musical term Maestoso, which instructs us to play majestically or in a stately manner, as well as more common language descendants such as magisterial and magistrate, words which connect to ideas of qualified authority.

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Auld Lang Syne in Cantonese

[from a long-time Language Log reader]

One of the well known Cantonese versions of Auld Lang Syne: 友誼萬歲 jau5 ji4 maan6 seoi3 “Long Live Friendship” from Hong Kong:

朋友 再見聲聲 往昔歡笑 來日記取
pang4 jau5  zoi3 gin3 seng1 seng1  wong5 sik1 fun1 siu3  loi4 jat6 gei3 ceoi2
Farewell friends, happy memories of the past, 
Retrieving in the future.

憶記舊日情誼 痛哭歡笑 在校園裡
jik1 gei3 gau6 jat6 cing4 ji4  tung3 huk1 fun1 siu3 zoi6 haau6 jyun4 leoi5
Recalling past sentimental bonds, crying and laughing at school.

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Old Long Since: Firefly light, snow on the window

Yesterday, on New Year's Eve, I was sending around, to family and friends, the lyrics and melody of the beloved song we sing at this time of year (here [The Choral Scholars of University College Dublin], here, [Rod Stewart]).  I also circulated the Wikipedia article so that people could know the ballads and folk songs that preceded Robert Burns' famous poem (1788).

This morning when I awoke, I received the following message from Martin Schwartz:

Shortly before midnight I googled Auld Lang Syne, which we were singing, and the first entry had the lyrics plus a Japanese translation.  It may be interesting to see how Burns' Scots lyrics were rendered in Japanese.

It is indeed interesting to see how these Scottish sentiments are presented in this East Asian language.  Thoughtfully, the source provided an English translation for the Japanese.

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The linguistic plenitude of Papua New Guinea

There are many things about Papua New Guinea (PNG) that make it unique (the abundance of its flora and fauna, its ritualistic cannibalism, its political complexity, etc.), but above all for me is the huge number of its languages, especially considering its relatively small population on such a large amount of land (see below for some details).

Papua New Guinea (abbreviated PNG; /ˈpæp(j)uə …ˈɡɪni, ˈpɑː-/ , also US: /ˈpɑːpwə-, ˈpɑːp(j)ə-/[12]) is a country in Oceania that comprises the eastern half of the island of New Guinea and its offshore islands in Melanesia (a region of the southwestern Pacific Ocean north of Australia). Officially the Independent State of Papua New Guinea (Tok Pisin: Independen Stet bilong Papua Niugini; Hiri Motu: Independen Stet bilong Papua Niu Gini), it shares its only land border with Indonesia to the west and it is directly adjacent to Australia to the south and the Solomon Islands to the east. Its capital, located along its southeastern coast, is Port Moresby. The country is the world's third largest island country, with an area of 462,840 km2 (178,700 sq mi).

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Vowel systems and musical sounds

[This is a guest post by H. Krishnapriyan]

Would you know of any ready reference that talks about vowels not getting articulated in specific places in the mouth, but rather being part of a system of vowels where the sound value of a vowel is determined by the vowel's relative position of articulation with respect to other vowels? I recall reading about this decades back, most likely, in a book by Henry Sweet.

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"Keereezmy"; "Kill his mind"

As I explained here in February of this year:

One time on an expedition around the western part of the Taklamakan Desert in the center of Asia more than a decade ago, the Chinese driver played Lady Gaga's "Poker Face" scores of times.  He had other discs, but he only played that song, and he played it over and over and over again.  I liked it the first 10-15 times I heard it, but after that it started to drive me insane, and finally I had to tell him to stop. He was not happy.  Then, a few hours later or the next day, he would launch the Lady Gaga "Poker Face" litany all over again.

(slightly modified)

There was one phrase that Lady Gaga repeated more than a dozen times (actually twenty), and I had no idea what she was saying.  I listened as hard as I could, but the best I could make out was "Keereezmy, keereezmy", though sometimes I thought it was "Kill his mind, kill his mind". 

Since that time, I've probably heard the same song another thirty or forty times, and the line in question still sounds like "Keereezmy, keereezmy" or "Kill his mind, kill his mind".

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I'm not the first person to use that word, but I probably mean it in a distinctive way.  What I'm talking about is not the usual sort of earworm / öhrwurm [recte ohrwurm] that gets stuck in your brain and you just can't make it go away.  That's the usual kind, and I get it fairly often, maybe once a week or so.  The attack I had this morning was more diabolical.

It seemed that every song I heard on the radio immediately became an earworm — including music without words.  After one song was embedded in my consciousness, the next one I heard would also intrude, until they all became a jumble.

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Hurrian hymn from Ugarit, Canaan in northern Syria, 1400 BC

"The Oldest (Known) Song of All Time"

Includes spectrograms of different reconstructions.

Although this YouTube was made three years ago, I am calling it to the attention of Language Log readers now that I know about it because it draws together many themes we have discussed in previous posts.

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