Archive for September, 2013

Did Stalin really coin "American exceptionalism"?

The phrase "American exceptionalism" has been much in the news ever since Russian President Vladimir Putin wrote an op/ed piece in the New York Times taking issue with President Obama's statement that America's foreign policy "makes us exceptional." "I would rather disagree with a case he made on American exceptionalism," Putin countered. "It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation."

Putin's comments revived an old discussion about the origins of the phrase. On Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall addressed an article by Terrence McCoy that appeared last year on The Atlantic's website, "How Joseph Stalin Invented 'American Exceptionalism.'" And on Real Clear Politics, Robert Samuelson wrote that "the most interesting fact to surface in the ensuing debate over "American exceptionalism" is that the phrase was first coined by Putin's long-ago predecessor, Joseph Stalin." But should Stalin get the credit?

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Character amnesia and the emergence of digraphia

David Moser saw this photograph of a child's essay via Twitter:

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Variant pronunciations of the word for "brothers" in Mandarin

Yesterday morning in class, I had all the students from China pronounce a word I wrote on the board — gē'ermen 哥儿们 ("pals; buddies; brothers") — and everybody was astonished to hear with their own ears the enormous differences in the way the word was pronounced, even though each student thought they were speaking standard Mandarin.  This was not due to dialectal variation — because when I asked a few of the students to pronounce the word according to their home topolect, then it would come out in a quite different manner — but simply to individual differences in the realization of gē'ermen 哥儿们 in Mandarin.

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Theory of Mind Hacks

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There is wisdom that is like, whoa

From today's SMBC (click on the image for the full panel):

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Andrew Byrd reading Schleicher's Fable

Eric Powell, "Telling Tales in Proto-Indo-European", Archaeology Magazine:

In 1868, German linguist August Schleicher used reconstructed Proto-Indo-European vocabulary to create a fable in order to hear some approximation of PIE. Called “The Sheep and the Horses,” and also known today as Schleicher’s Fable, the short parable tells the story of a shorn sheep who encounters a group of unpleasant horses. As linguists have continued to discover more about PIE, this sonic experiment continues and the fable is periodically updated to reflect the most current understanding of how this extinct language would have sounded when it was spoken some six thousand years ago. Since there is considerable disagreement among scholars about PIE, no one version can be considered definitive. Here, University of Kentucky linguist Andrew Byrd recites his version of the fable using pronunciation informed by the latest insights into reconstructed PIE.

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Philip Spaelti wrote:

I was struck today by a *plural* s in a headline in Slate: "A tale of two Flint, Michigans"

I agree that "Flints, Michigan" sounds strange (stranger?), but it's still striking. One might argue that Flint, Michigan is a single name, but I'm wondering about the prosodic shape of the phrase. I feel that I pronounce this as two phrases.

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Zazaki: a West Iranian language

In the midst of our ongoing debates about whether Cantonese, Shanghainese, Taiwanese, and so forth are Sinitic languages or dialects, I continually find evidence that the custom of referring to them only as "dialects" is exceptional when compared with linguistic usage elsewhere (e.g., India, Europe, Africa).

Today I came across an Iranian language that I'd never heard of before, Zazaki, although — without knowing it — I probably met some of its speakers in Sweden, where there are many  Zazak refugees.  Also called Zaza, Kirmanjki, Kirdki, Dimli, and Dimili, Zazaki is found primarily in eastern Anatolia.  It belongs to the northwestern branch of the Iranian group of the Indo-European family.

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English prosodic phrasing

We can read a 10-digit sequence in the style of an American telephone number, 3+3+4 — e.g. 752-955-0354:

Or we could read the same sequence in a 3+2+3+2 pattern, 752-95-503-54:

It won't surprise you to learn that this changes the pattern of average digit durations:

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Bilingual bricks: Google as "Valley Song"

Here is a closeup of a remarkable work of installation art that is being shown at this year's Venice Biennale:

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Uyghur as ornament

The following restaurant sign in Uyghur and Chinese was sent in by Fangyi Cheng:

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The Story of Ain't

Next Tuesday, David Skinner's The Story of Ain't is coming out in a new paperback edition, with a new epilog. I'm happy to have this occasion to post an enthusiastic recommendation: You should immediately run out (virtually or physically) and buy this book, in any of its editions.

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On Interdisciplinary Collaboration and "Latent Personas"

This is a guest post by David Bamman, in response to the post by Dan Garrette ("Computational linguistics and literary scholarship", 9/12/2013).

The critique by Hannah Alpert-Abrams and Dan Garrette of our recent ACL paper ("Learning Latent Personas of Film Characters") and the ensuing discussion is raising interesting questions on the nature of interdisciplinary research, specifically between computer science and literary studies. Garrette frames our paper as "attempting to … answer questions in literary theory" and Alpert-Abrams argues that for a given work of this kind to be truly interdisciplinary, it "must be cutting edge in the field of literary scholarship too." To do truly meaningful work at the intersection of computer science and literary studies, they argue, parties from both sides need to be involved.

While I disagree with how Garrette and Alpert-Abrams have characterized our paper (as attempting to address literary theory), I fundamentally agree with their underlying point. I have a different understanding of how we get to that point, however; to illustrate this, let me offer here a different framing of our paper.

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