Archive for November, 2023

Spelling and intuition

Long have we pondered the overwhelming dominance by individuals of Indian heritage over the spelling bees.  Do they have some sort of mysterious power or secret for memorizing hundreds of thousands of obscure words? 

Now we have an answer from one of the masters himself, Dev Shah, a ninth-grader living in Largo, Florida, who won the Scripps National Spelling Bee in June of this year.


I won the National Spelling Bee

This is what it takes to master spelling.

By Dev Shah, WSJ


I never expected to win. I had lost more than two dozen spelling bees since I started competing in the fourth grade, and last year, I didn’t even qualify for the national competition. If that wasn’t enough pressure, this was my final year of eligibility. This spelling bee was my last shot.

The annual Scripps National Spelling Bee is an incredible event. Each year, some 11 million students from across the country take part in the spelling bee circuit, all vying for the championship title. After competing in rigorous local bees, about 200 spellers make it to the national stage, and a handful of them qualify for the grand finals. Of course, only one can be crowned the National Spelling Bee champion. This year that student was me.

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Sanskrit is far from extinct

[This is the first of two consecutive posts on things Indian.  After reading them, if someone is prompted to send me material for a third, I'll be happy to make it a trifecta.]

Our entry point to the linguistically compelling topic of today's post is this Nikkei Asia (11/29/23) article by Barkha Shah in its "Tea Leaves" section:

Why it's worth learning ancient Sanskrit in the modern world:

India’s classical language is making a comeback via Telegram and YouTube

The author begins with a brief introduction to the language:

The language had its heyday in ancient India. The Vedas, a collection of poems and hymns, were written in Sanskrit between 1500 and 1200 B.C., along with other literary texts now known as the Upanishads, Granths and Vedangas. But while Sanskrit became the foundation for many (though not all) modern Indian languages, including Hindi, it faded away as a living tongue.

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Charlie Chaplin in French class

In addition to a proto-regular-expression for English monosyllables, Benjamin Lee Whorf's 12/1940 Technology Review article has a weird diagram showing how a linguist (?) would organize French language instruction along the lines of mid-20th-century factory work:

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Cancel your taem sher

Driving to work this morning, I heard an advertisement on the radio that left me mightily perplexed till the last 5-10 seconds when I finally figured out what the speaker was talking about.

He had a thick southern accent and kept talking about how bad it was to have a "taem sher".  The first word sounded like it was between "tam" and "tem", so I give the makeshift transcription "taem".

I had no idea what he was decrying, but it was something very bad for "you and your family", so bad that apparently it could bankrupt you.  Moreover, it was something that was very hard to get rid of.

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Slap varieties

Sunny Jhatti wrote to me: "I didn't know what 'pimp slap' meant till I saw this."

After witnessing her astonishing diatribe, Conal Boyce said:

I felt like I needed to take a shower.

(Adding insult to injury, google failed to elucidate 'Skims' for me. Had to look elsewhere to get an inkling of what that recurrent theme was about.)

I found the presenter's self-introduction here. She even has her own YouTube channel and other social media platforms.  Her handle is Genevieve Akal.  She is a Gnostic Priestess and Nun.  From the pieties expressed on her homepage, I would never have imagined that she could indulge in such vile vitriol.

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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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Whorf invents generative phonology?

After stumbling on Benjamin Lee Whorf's affiliation with the Theosophical Society, I read two articles that he contributed to the MIT Technology Review in 1940: "Science and Linguistics" in the April issue, and "Linguistics as an Exact Science" in the December issue. Something in the second article surprised me.

Whorf gives a formal account of English syllable structure in terms of what he calls "pattern symbolics", presenting the term and a sketch of the associated formalism as if they were standard linguistic theory, like "Maxwell's equations" in physics. But I've never heard the phrase "pattern symbolics" before, and web search turns up no examples other than this article. And the formalism seems similarly idiosyncratic.

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Theosophical racism

Today's SMBC:

Those first four panels resonated with my recent experience skimming Helena Blavatsky's The Secret Doctrine: The Synthesis of Science, Religion, and Philosophy. Vol II — Anthropogensis (1888). I learned of Blavatsky's existence due to the restaurant located in her former residence, and my sense of her influence in Philadelphia was reinforced by years of walking past the United Lodge of Theosophists.

I expected The Secret Doctrine to be nuttier than squirrel poop, as indeed it is. But I wasn't prepared for its extreme mythic racism, endorsement of (fantastical versions of) eugenics, and so on. In retrospect, I should have realized that late 19th-century fantasy would be like that. I'll spare you the details of Blavatsky's theories of lost continents and their associated "root races" — you can read Wikipedia's summary, or dive into the 1888 tome yourself if care. But I'll reproduce a few illustrative quotes from the book.

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Sauerkraut fish

All right, I know it sounds funny, but it's a thing in Taiwan, as at this Taichung restaurant:

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Eddie Bauer

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Mr. Mark

Storefront in Taichung, Taiwan:

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Come The Felicity The Door

From Charles Belov:

Sending along a photo from a videodisc cover I encountered in a little free library.

The Chinese title 幸福来敲门 is translated into English as "Come The Felicity The Door".

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Confusing coffee and tea: blowing hot and cold

Klaus Nuber, who four years ago sent us this amusing post, "Restaurant logo with a dingus" (5/29/19), has contributed another droll Anekdote.

The following article is in today's Süddeutsche Zeitung, "Kannste knicken?"* (11/23/23) — herewith the second anecdote of three from all over the world:

*VHM:  The meaning of the article title escapes me — can you fold / bend [it]?

Mitten in … Zhejiang

Weiter weg geht es kaum von der Großstadt Peking: Neun Stunden mit dem Zug, dann eine lange Autofahrt die Täler entlang, jetzt ist der Hunger groß. Im Restaurant? Keine Karte, bestellt werden kann, was im Kühlschrank liegt. Ein paar Karotten, zwei Kartoffeln, ein platt gedrückter Tintenfisch. Kommt sofort! Dafür um die Ecke, kaum zu glauben, ein Café! Draußen das ländliche China mit seinen Reisfeldern und Kohlelastern, drinnen brummt die Espresso-Maschine. Der lang ersehnte Schluck, aber was ist das? Der Kaffee – eiskalt! Vorsichtige Frage an den Barista, ob es den auch in heiß gäbe? Sein Blick zunächst: totale Entgeisterung, dann folgt schallendes Gelächter. "Diese Ausländer!", ruft er und alle gucken. "Hört mal her. Jetzt trinken die ihren Kaffee auch noch wie Tee!" So was Amüsantes haben die Menschen hier schon lange nicht mehr gehört. Lea Sahay

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