Archive for October, 2018

Lexical orientation

In "Lexico-Cultural Decay", 10/9/2018, I examined Jonathan Merritt's Google-ngram-based argument that "traditional sacred speech is dying in the English-speaking world" ("The Death of Sacred Speech", The Week 9/10/2018). Today, as promised in that post, I'm returning to his neo-Whorfian conclusion:

Now, words have fallen out of usage at every point in history. Language is always changing, and humans keep marching on. Does this trend matter?

Actually, yes. An emerging body of research now reveals that the languages we hear and speak also influence our worldviews, memories, perceptions, and behaviors more than scientists once realized. Children who grow up speaking the same words tend to think in similar ways. Our minds don't just shape our words. Our words shape our minds, too.

A linguist named Lera Boroditsky once asked an audience of celebrated scholars at Harvard University to close their eyes and point north. Hands shot up around the auditorium like roman candles, aimed in all possible directions. She repeated the experiment at Princeton and Stanford, as well as in Moscow, London, and Beijing. The result was the same — an array of hands aimed at each of the four major directions and every point in between.

But when Boroditsky traveled to a community on the western shores of Australia's Cape York, she discovered that children as young as 5 can point north at all times with absolute precision.

Why the difference? The answer, as it turns out, is words.

Or maybe the answer is walls.

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Visual depiction of vowel elongation in Japanese

From Alex R:

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Lexico-cultural decay?

Jonathan Merritt, "The Death of Sacred Speech", The Week 9/10/2018:

America boasts more Christians than any other country on planet Earth. But you wouldn't know it from listening to us.

According to Google Ngram Viewer data, a searchable database of millions of printed works stretching back 500 years, most of the central terms in the Christian vocabulary are rapidly declining. One 2012 study in the Journal of Positive Psychology, for example, analyzed 50 moral terms associated with Christianity and found that a whopping 74 percent were used less frequently over the course of the last century […]

"Whopping "? If the frequency of each word were following a random walk, we'd expect 50% of them to decline and 50% of them to increase. And to be confident that 74% is "whopping", or even meaningful, we'd need to do something that neither Merritt nor the cited paper do, namely verify that there's no overall bias in the data source for reasons other than changing "cultural salience", either towards decreasing frequency of certain types of words, or decreasing frequency of individual words in general, But in fact there's good reason to believe that both sorts of bias exist — see below.

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Political physics

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From a correspondent in Taiwan:

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Dangerous entrance

Photo taken by Ori Tavor in Beijing at the Bank of China next to Hepingmen subway station:

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Spacing within words

Speaking of spaces between syllables (but, as in this case, not all syllables), as we have been in recent posts, this photograph of a sign in China was sent in by Paul Midler:

But the lettering is very nice!

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X & X

Perhaps modeled on the rise of big brands like Abercrombie & Fitch, Crate & Barrel, etc. (though in our own history going back much further), but a bit different, in Asia, we have Nail & Nail, Lock & Lock, Bagel & Bagel, and so forth. Below are photographs of two shops in Asia with "X & X" names.

I should mention that the Chinese name of the first one is "rèlà shēnghuó 热辣生活" ("hot and spicy life").

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Easing burdensome regulations

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Word, syllable, morpheme, phoneme

What is the basic unit of discursive, communicative language — word, syllable, morpheme, or phoneme?

This topic came up in the comments to the following posts:

"The concept of word in Sinitic" (10/3/18)

"Words in Vietnamese" (10/2/18)

"Diacriticless Vietnamese on a sign in San Francisco" (9/30/18)

"Words in Mandarin: twin kle twin kle lit tle star" (8/14/12)

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Style shifting in student writing assignments

Along with Valerie Ross, Brighid Kelly, and Helen Jeoung from Penn's Critical Writing program, I've been looking at material from student writing assignments (as part of an NSF-funded study*). One of the many topics of interest is the extent to which students, collectively and individually, succeed in shifting their writing style to suit different genres and audiences. As a first trivial exploration of this question, I took a quick look at some simple properties of overall word choice, comparing submissions to two different types of assignment. One of these assignments is a "Public Argument", which I believe is something like a newspaper Op-Ed; the other is a "Literature Review", where the appropriate style is more academic.

This morning I'll look at some of the simplest results of two simple explorations of properties that should be related to style shifting — the choice of words, and the length of the words chosen.

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Not for circulation

On Wednesday, a woman tried to purchase a $5,000 prepaid Visa card at a Safeway store in Washington with 49 of these hundred-dollar bills:

Source: "Woman tried to pass off fake $100 bills with pink Chinese lettering written on them: police", by Greg Norman, Fox News (10/4/18).

It's easy to spot how this $100 bill is fake.

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"Go Ralph Club!"

Below I've reprinted a prominent intellectual's Facebook post. The recent upsurge of interest in 1980s-era American slang gives it some relevance to LLOG, but mostly I just admired the sentiment. Since it was not a public post, I asked permission to quote it, and the author responded:

Go ahead. It was briefly a tough decision – I sat there cynically thinking "but I have a reputation". Then I thought, you know what, that's the problem. We don't let people be human, so they lie and cheat and pretend they're angels instead. So yes, go ahead. 

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