Archive for December, 2022

Extraterrestrial iron

Isaac Schultz, Gizmodo (12/20/22):

The Coolest Archaeological Discoveries of 2022

Let's revisit the best old stuff that made headlines this year.

Some of these are gruesome, e.g., the parasitic worms found in 2,700-year-old toilet, which reminds me of my experiences in Nepal.  Many of them have implications for language and linguistics (see the references and links below).  Most of them attest to cultural contacts across wide distances.

My favorite is King Tut's space dagger, made out of meteoritic iron, which is especially interesting, given that the Iron Age didn't begin until a century after King Tut's death.

The researchers did chemical analyses on the dagger and also turned to ancient Egyptian literature, where they found references to a special dagger gifted to King Tut’s grandfather by a foreign ruler.

(source:  here, here)

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The invention, development, and decipherment of writing

Long article by Josephine Quinn:

Alphabet Politics:
What prompted the development of systems of writing?

The New York Review (1/19/23 [online 12/19/22])

This is a detailed review of these two books:

The Greatest Invention: A History of the World in Nine Mysterious Scripts

by Silvia Ferrara, translated from the Italian by Todd Portnowitz
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 289 pp., $29.00

Inventing the Alphabet: The Origins of Letters from Antiquity to the Present

by Johanna Drucker
University of Chicago Press, 380 pp., $40.00

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Is Twitter an editorial media?

Ten days ago, Éric Freyssinet raised that question, which matters because Twitter might lose its immunity to libel suits under U.S. law if the company were acting as a publisher rather than as an "information service provider":

(Here's an image of the tweet, in case Twitter is down…)

But this is Language Log, not Defamation Law Log, so the topic here is the singular phrase "an editorial media". And as usual, the point is not to complain but to inquire.

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Starve Bird

As we were strolling through a mall on the outskirts of Dallas, this sign caught my son's attention:

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Upon seeing that word for the first time, I had only the vaguest idea of what it meant, though I suspected that it was closely related to the dog breed name:

schnauzer (n.)

breed of terrier with a bearded muzzle, 1923, from German Schnauzer, literally "growler," from schnauzen "to snarl, growl," from Schnauze "snout, muzzle," which is related to Middle English snute, snoute "snout" (see snout).


Next, I thought that surely it must be the German cognate of Yiddish schnoz[z] ("nose"), and that was unmistakably clear from the nickname and protuberant proboscis of Jimmy Durante (1893-1980), who often jocularly referred to his own nose as the schnozzola (Italianization of the American Yiddish slang word schnoz.

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Some Christmas-adjacent posts

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Perfect translation

Meme online from a Chinese forum (fortunately I have a screenshot). Hilarious, but sad, though, considering China’s reported covid conditions.

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"Fading Language"?

People get confused about languages, dialects, registers, and scripts — and when journalists try to help, they often make things worse. For a good recent example, see Mujib Mashal, "Where Romantic Poetry in a Fading Language Draws Stadium Crowds", NYT 12/18/2022:

That more than 300,000 people came to celebrate Urdu poetry during the three-day festival this month in New Delhi was testament to the peculiar reality of the language in India.

For centuries, Urdu was a prominent language of culture and poetry in India, at times promoted by Mughal rulers. Its literature and journalism — often advanced by writers who rebelled against religious dogma — played important roles in the country’s independence struggle against British colonial rule and in the spread of socialist fervor across the subcontinent later in the 20th century.

In more recent decades, the language has faced dual threats from communal politics and the quest for economic prosperity. Urdu is now stigmatized as foreign, the language of India’s archrival, Pakistan. Families increasingly prefer to enroll children in schools that teach English and other Indian languages better suited for the job market.

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Buzzwords of the year 2022 in China

As you might expect, they mostly have to do with the pandemic.  Here are the top ten from Zhang Ru and Xie Anran, Sixth Tone, "The Chinese Online Slang That Took Over the Internet in 2022" (12/20/22):

1. tiān xuǎn dǎgōng rén 天选打工人

The chosen laborers

Derived from the Chinese term da gong ren — a self-deprecating slang term meaning “laborers” or “working people” — “the chosen laborers” refers to those workers whose residential compounds have not been locked down, allowing or forcing them to go to work every day. Some use the term sarcastically to express envy about their coworkers who can stay home, while other “chosen laborers” are just happy they can go out for a walk.

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Hiberno-English on the rise

Krišjānis Kariņš has been in the news a lot recently, but this was special.

Naomi O'Leary, "The curious case of the Latvian prime minister’s Irish accent", The Irish Times 12/21/2022:

Subhead: Brogues to be found in unexpected places as Hiberno-English on the rise since the departure of Britain from the EU

On his entry to Prague Castle to join a summit of European Union leaders, Latvian prime minister Krisjanis Karins was accosted by the bank of waiting journalists.

“What do you think about the price cap?” one reporter asked him, looking for a comment on the issue of the day.

In an unmistakably Irish accent, Karins replied: “A price cap on gas, if that could be achieved, would be grand.”

I shared a clip of the incident on social media and it quickly took off. “If you close your eyes, he could be a school principal in Tipperary,” one user marvelled.

Here's the clip that Ms.O'Leary shared:

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ChatGPT writes Haiku

[This is a guest post by Bill Benzon]

I’ve been spending a LOT of time with ChatGPT. So naturally, I decided to have it create some haiku.  [VHM:  See the link to Bill's blogpost after the page break.]  This post is about that, but also about a most remarkable woman, Margaret Masterman (1910-1986). She’d studied with Wittgenstein in the 1930s and then went on to create the Cambridge Research Unit in Linguistics in the 1950s. There she became one of the founders of computational linguistics and had a computer generate haiku in 1969. As far as I know, it’s the first time that’s been done.
Take at look at the very end. I’ve taken to closing my dialogs by thanking ChatGPT. I know it’s not conscious, nor sentient, but why not? It’s fun. This time I decided to thank it in Japanese. Except that I neither speak nor read Japanese. But I can use Google Translate. I thought ChatGPT would have no trouble, but I do think its reply was rather clever.
Best of the season to you, and the rest of the Log.

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Book price puzzle

On yesterday:

\$33,634.25 for a book that's in 464 libraries, and is available on for \$17.76 (at least it's not \$19.84 :-) or \$49.00 plus shipping?

I've seen unreasonable amazon prices for out-of-print books before, but in the thousands of dollars, not the tens of thousands.

Is this an out-of-control re-pricing bot? Or a money-laundering scam? Or what?

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No more "turkey", please

Article by Vivian Salama and Jared Malsin in WSJ (11/27/22)

Turkey’s Push to Change How the World Pronounces its Name Causes a Flap

In part weary of bird comparisons, the country wants everyone to say ‘Tour-key-yeh.’ The rebranding has been a head-scratcher for many people.

In truth, I don't blame them, especially not since so many other countries and cities around the world have changed their names in recent decades.

Talking turkey is a pastime in the halls of government around the world. Yet what to call Turkey, the country, is something many can’t agree on.

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