Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Posts Tagged ‘language

Why We Speak More Weirdly at Home

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The implied comparison is to how we speak in public. I initially thought the comparison was to how we spoke at home before the pandemic. (I like it when comparisons are explicit.) Kathryn Hymes writes in the Atlantic:

I celebrated my second pandemic birthday recently. Many things were weird about it: opening presents on Zoom, my phone’s insistent photo reminders from “one year ago today” that could be mistaken for last month, my partner brightly wishing me “iki domuz,” a Turkish phrase that literally means “two pigs.”

Well, that last one is actually quite normal in our house. Long ago, I took my first steps into adult language lessons and tried to impress my Turkish American boyfriend on his special day. My younger self nervously bungled through new vocabulary—The numbers! The animals! The months!—to wish him “iki domuz” instead of “happy birthday” (İyi ki doğdun) while we drank like pigs in his tiny apartment outside of UCLA. Now, more than a decade later, that slip-up is immortalized as our own peculiar greeting to each other twice a year.

Many of us have a secret language, the private lexicon of our home life. Perhaps you have a nickname from a parent that followed you into adulthood. Maybe you have an old joke or a shared reference to a song. Sometimes known as familects, these invented words, pet names, in-jokes, and personal memes swirl and emerge from the mess of lives spent in close quarters. During the pandemic, we’ve spent dramatically more time in those quarters, and our in-group slang has changed accordingly.

Cynthia Gordon, an associate linguistics professor at Georgetown University and the author of Making Meanings, Creating Family, has spent much of her working life in the strange land of family discourse. “Any group of people that has extended contact over time and sees itself as distinctive is going to have some specialized uses of language,” Gordon told me. “Listening to recordings of other families is like being immersed in a different world.”

We speak differently in different settings—this is no surprise—depending on whom we’re talking to and what the purpose is. Whether the formalities of a work presentation for colleagues or awkward small talk on a first date, our language shifts as the context and audience change.

Familects are a part of the intimate register of language, the way we talk “backstage” with the people we are closest to. They’re our home slang, if you will, where we can be our nonpublic selves in all their weird glory. Familects can emerge from any type of family: big, small, chosen, or your “quaranteam,” as a friend calls it. Over time, these terms may become sticky in your inner circle.

What inspires this family-language invention? In general, sufficient time logged together and shared experiences as a unit. Children are frequently the architects of new words, especially while they’re learning to speak. As kids fumble and play with sounds and meaning, their cutesy word experiments can be picked up by the whole family, sometimes to be passed on between generations as verbal heirlooms of sorts. Many new familect terms are also forged in the building stage of close relationships, when couples or friends are creating private ways to show affection or navigate tricky conversations as they cross the fuzzy boundary from acquaintance to intimacy.

Mignon Fogarty, host of the Grammar Girl podcast, has been collecting these family words for years. Listeners call the podcast to offer their own family lingo and the stories behind it, giving the audience a glimpse into their relationship dynamics. “Families have their own famous people,” Fogarty told me, before sharing a recent example. “This family went to the dog park and there was a woman who looked just like her dog, named Stanley. Now whenever someone looks a lot like their pet, well, they have a Stanley situation on their hands.”

Familects help us feel like family. Private in-group language fosters intimacy and establishes identity. In a study on the use of idiosyncratic

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Written by Leisureguy

14 May 2021 at 2:45 pm

Posted in Daily life, Memes

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The Vatican’s Latinist

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John Byron Kuhner wrote in The New Criterion in 2017:

I1970, the Procurator General of the Discalced Carmelite Order, Finian Monahan, was summoned to the Vatican for a meeting. The subject of the meeting was a promising young American priest by the name of Reginald Foster. The head Latinist of the Vatican’s State Department had tapped Foster to write papal correspondence, which was at the time composed entirely in Latin. Foster wanted the job but was bound by a vow of obedience, and the decision would be made by his superiors. Monahan intended to resist. Foster, thirty years of age, had proven himself to be both supremely intellectually gifted and utterly reliable—a precious thing at a time when the Catholic Church’s religious orders were hemorrhaging priests. Monahan thought Latin was a dead end. He didn’t want to lose one of his best to a Vatican department that would only get less and less important every year. He said Foster would go to the Vatican “over my dead body.”

Foster remembers the meeting vividly. “So we arrive there, and we’re ushered into this office, and who do we find there but Ioannes Benelli,” Foster says, using Benelli’s Latin name, as was customary at the Vatican at that time. He continues:

Benelli was Paul VI’s hatchet man—whenever he wanted something to get done, he called on Benelli. He was very energetic—got things done, and no nonsense. Everyone was terrified of him. I was too, and now here we were in the room with him, and he turns to Monahan and says, “This is Foster?” The General said yes. Then Benelli said, “Thank you very much, we won’t be needing you anymore.” And he took me by the hand and brought me down to the State Department and that was the end of that. Monahan didn’t say a word. I was now working for the Pope, and it was like I was more or less out of the Carmelite Order. A lot of the time the Order didn’t even really know what I was doing.

Foster would spend the next forty years at the Vatican, part of a small team of scribes who composed the pope’s correspondence, translated his encyclicals, and wrote copy for internal church documents. His somewhat unique position between the Carmelite Order and the Vatican bureaucracy meant that in fact he had a great deal of freedom for a priest. Later in his career his loose tongue—some in the church called it a loose cannon—would attract the notice of journalists looking for interesting copy. “Sacred language?” he said when asked about Latin as the “sacred language” of the church. “In the first century every prostitute in Rome spoke it fluently—and much better than most people in the Roman Curia.” The Minnesota Star Tribune quoted him as saying “I like to say mass in the nude,” which caused a small Curial kerfuffle (Foster claims he was misquoted). He appeared in Bill Maher’s movie Religulous, which featured him agreeing with the proposition that the Vatican itself was at odds with the message of Jesus, that the pope should not be living in a palace, and that hell and “that Old Catholic stuff” was “finished” and “gone.” Foster says the pope received complaints from bishops and cardinals about his appearance. “They said ‘Who is this Latinist of yours and what the hell is he doing?’ They would have fired me for sure. But by the time the film came out I was sick and a few months away from retirement anyway. So they just waited it out and let me go quietly.” He had already been fired from his post at the pontifical Gregorian University for allowing dozens of students to take his classes without paying for them.

Besides being the Pope’s Latinist and “one of the Vatican’s most colorful characters” (as the Catholic News Service called him), Foster has been a tireless champion of Latin in the classroom. Indeed, Foster’s greatest legacy may be as a teacher. “The most influential Latin teacher in the last half-century is Reggie Foster,” says Dr. Nancy Llewellyn, professor of Latin at Wyoming Catholic College. “That’s not just my opinion—that’s a fact. For decades, he had the power to change lives like no other teacher in our field. I saw him for an hour in Rome in 1985 and that one hour completely changed my life. His approach was completely different from every other Latin teacher out there, and it was totally transformative.”

A humanist par excellence, Latin for Foster was not something to be dissected by linguistic analysis or serve as the raw data for a theory of gender or poetics: it was a language, a medium of human connection. I first met Foster in 1995, at his summer school, and couldn’t get enough: I returned seven times. No one on Earth was reading as much Latin as he and his students were, but he was more like an old-school newspaper editor than an academic: he wanted the story. But for that you actually had to know Latin, and know it well. Foster was ruthless about ignorance, and equally ruthless about anything that to him looked like mere academic posturing. “I don’t care about your garbage literary theory!” he barked at his students one day. “I can tell in about ten seconds if you know the Latin or if you are making it all up.” “Latin is the best thing that ever happened to humanity. It leaves you zero room for nonsense. You don’t have to be a genius. But it requires laser-sharp concentration and total maturity. If you don’t know what time of day it is, or what your name is, or where you are, don’t try Latin because it will smear you on the wall like an oil spot.” The number of Foster’s students runs into the thousands, and many of them are now themselves some of the most dedicated teachers in the field. “When I was in college I asked people, ‘Hey, we all know Latin is a language. Does anybody actually speak it anymore?’ And they told me there was one guy, some guy at the Vatican, who still spoke the language, and that was Fr. Foster,” says Dr. Michael Fontaine, a professor of Classics at Cornell University. “I said to myself, ‘I have to study with this guy.’ And that changed everything for me.” Dr. Paul Gwynne, professor of Medieval and Renaissance Studies at the American University of Rome, said of Foster, “He is not just the best Latin teacher I’ve ever seen, he’s simply the best teacher I’ve ever seen. Studying Latin with the Pope’s apostolic secretary, for whom the language is alive, using the city of Rome as a classroom . . . it changed my whole outlook on life, really.”

Time seems to bend around Foster, and past and present intertwine. When I wrote to Fr. Antonio Salvi, the current head of the Vatican’s Latin department, for comment about Foster, he responded entirely in Latin, beginning with four words that sounded like an old soldier praising Cato—“Probus vir, parvo contentus.” An upright man. Content with little. And in many ways Foster’s resembles the life of a medieval saint: at the age of six, he would play priest, ripping up old sheets as vestments. He entered seminary at thirteen. He said he wanted only three things in life: to be a priest, to be a Carmelite, and to do Latin. He has spent his entire life in great personal poverty. His cell had no mattress: he slept on the tile floor with a thin blanket. His clothes were notorious in Rome: believing that . . .

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Full disclosure: The Younger Daughter teaches Latin and Classical Greek.

Written by Leisureguy

27 December 2020 at 8:42 am

Posted in Daily life, Education, Religion

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Revisiting Ithkuil

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I happened across this old post this morning, and was once again fascinated by the language and by a couple of bad design decisions (at least IMO). There’s much more information on the language at

At right is a sample of written Ithkuil (see this page), so you can see that it is mostly an academic exercise — if Esperanto could not catch on, then Ithkuil has no chance. This particular bit of text serves as an example to show that (and I quote):

the only purely phonological information conveyed by the written form of this sentence consists of the consonantal groupings /gr/ /rţ/ /gl/ and /n/. The remainder conveys solely morphological/grammatical information by which the reader “re-constructs” the pronunciation based on his/her knowledge of Ithkuil morpho-syntax and the various optional ways in which it maps to the language’s morpho-phonology. The non-alphabetic nature of the script, along with the flexibility of Ithkuil morpho-phonology, allows the written form of this sentence to be read in many equivalent ways, such as:

Igrawileiţrar  oi  eglulôn.

Oi  eirţ  igrawilar  ôn  eglul.

Çtar-ryigraleiţrar  eglulôn.

The quotation above includes transliterations of three possible reconstructions of what the writing conveys. An English-language translation might be “If only the physician wouldn’t eat his food in one gulp like that.”

So there’s one reason Ithkuil will not take the world by storm, though as an investigation it is indeed quite interesting.

The first bad design decision is the written form of the language, which doesn’t seem to allow for writing with (say) a ball-point pen or a pencil or even an italic nib on a fountain pen. The characters are almost constructed and writing them would seem to require a calligrapher skilled with a square-tipped brush. Esperanto met with some resistance just because it used a few diacritical marks.

The second bad design decision is that Ithkuil is written boustrophedon, as early Greek was written: lines are alternately written with characters going left to right and right to left. (There is also no upper-case/lower-case distinction, so only one case is used for the example.)


“Boustrophedon” does not really mean “zig-zag,” which implies a slant. It means (literally) “turning like an ox” (as in plowing: rows are plowed alternately E —> W and W —> E). Boustrophedon was common in several ancient languages and makes sense if you read as a semi-literate does, sounding out a word character by character. However, a skilled reader reads word by word (or even phrase by phrase for common phrases) and not character by character.

That is, a reader of an alphabetic language doesn’t really focus on the individual letters but on the group of letters, seen almost like an ideogram (cf. how written Mandarin is read). And since “normalization” doesn’t look at all like “noitazilamron,” reading boustrophedon really forces a plodding character-by-character reading (or requires twice as much sight-vocabulary so that the adaptive unconscious can immediately map both “normalization” and “noitazilamron” to the same concept).

Indeed, written English really does resemble ideograms in that the collection of letters may not represent the spoken word very much at all. You may recall George Bernard Shaw pointed out that “fish” can equally well be spelled (in English) as “ghoti”:

gh as in “enough”
o as in “women”
ti as in “nation”

And one drawback of the Shaw alphabet (which I used quite a bit back in the early 60’s) was that it was a phonetic alphabet intended to convey the pronunciation rather than acting as an ideogram where the same word is pronounced differently by different people — for example, “park” is pronounced by some with an “r” sound and by others without it (“pahk” your “cah” in the “Hahavahd yahd”). But both pronunciations havethe same meaning (and the same spelling). Another example: the famous two pronunciations of “tomato,” to-may-to and to-mah-to, but the word and spelling are the same for both pronunciations.

Then there are different spellings (i.e., different ideograms) for the same sound, with the different spellings indicating different meanings: “suite” and “sweet,” or “to,” “too,” and “two.” In a phonetic language, words that sound the same are be spelled the same.

And there are the same spellings for different sounds—not possible in a phonetic language and demonstrating the ideogrammatic nature of written English: “read” which can signify the sound “reed” (“Please read along”) and “red” (“I read that yesterday”); or “lead” (the metal) and “lead” (what a president is supposed to do). (And “lead” (the metal) and “led” (past tense of “to lead”) are an example of different spellings for the same sound to show differences in meaning).

At any rate, the Shaw alphabet, in attempting a phonetic alphabet for English, ran afoul of the variations in pronunciation, something familiar to me since I come from a region where “pin” and “pen” are pronounced the same, which has several times confused The Wife, in whose speech they sound distinctly different.

That said, boustrophedon may make sense for Ithkuil, since rather than “words,” written text provides (in effect) instructions for reconstructing the meaning, so you might well be “reading” (interpreting) the written symbols character by character.

UPDATE: From 2012, a wonderful New Yorker article by Joshua Foer (Moonwalking with Einstein) about Ithkuil and its creator.

Written by Leisureguy

10 January 2020 at 12:23 pm

Posted in Daily life

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Toppling the Grammar Patriarchy

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Carmel McCoubrey writes in the NY Times:

I still remember my sense of indignation when my high school French teacher told us about the rule: French nouns have a gender, even seemingly sexless ones like “table.” And if you had a mixed group of masculine and female nouns — say, a bunch of male students (étudiants) and female students (étudiantes) — you had to describe them, as a group, in the masculine.

“What if there are 99 female students and one male student?” I demanded.

It didn’t matter, the teacher said. What’s more, if you wrote a sentence about attractive (beaux) étudiants and attractive (belles) étudiantes, the adjective used to describe them had to be masculine, too: “Les étudiants et les étudiantes sont beaux.”

That was just the way French was, she said.

The sexism of that stung. And that was even before I discovered that one of the rationales for this rule in which one man trumped an infinite number of women was that the masculine gender is deemed more noble than the feminine gender because of the superiority of man over woman.”

That line, from a 1767 grammar book, was cited last week in a declaration signed by 314 teachers in France that they would no longer teach the rule that “the masculine prevails over the feminine” when it came to plural nouns.

The teachers’ objection was not just philosophical; it was philological. The rule, they said in the French version of Slate, was a parvenu (it was enunciated in the 17th century and became widely taught only in the 19th century) and politically motivated (it buttressed French laws that denied women equal rights). Besides that, they said, the rule encourages children “to accept the domination of one sex over the other” to the detriment of women.

In its place, the teachers suggested using “the rule of proximity,” in which the adjective matches the gender of the noun closest to it, which was common practice for centuries. Or they said, people could use “majority agreement,” with the adjective matching the gender of the noun with the biggest number of members. Or even, they said, writer’s choice.

Unsurprisingly, in a country that defends its language with an official grammar arbiter and has a fondness for the circumflex, efforts to make French more gender-inclusive have been met with dismay; members of the grammar-policing French Academy complained that they put French in “mortal peril.”Even the French minister for equality between men and women, Marlène Schiappa, seemed taken aback by the teachers’ declaration, though she said it was a worthy topic of discussion by language experts. Naturally, she was careful to describe such experts as both “grammairiens” (masculine) and “grammairiennes” (feminine).

As a person in the 21st century, I have to applaud the teachers’ revolt; as a person whose job it is to make sure writers are using correct grammar, I worry about my mortgage. Still, given how slowly French has changed over the centuries, at least compared with English, it seems likely that this is a debate that could continue for, well, centuries. (It’s not just French, by the way. Other languages, including Spanish and Arabic, also give the masculine the starring role.)

But before we Anglophones congratulate ourselves on having a language that has pretty much jettisoned grammatical gender, we should consider “everybody” and the default “he.”

Everybody is a problem. It’s singular, and so when it’s the subject of a sentence, it gets a singular verb. But then what happens later when it’s time for a possessive pronoun? Logically, grammatically, it should be singular too. But what sex is everybody?

Like many Americans, I was taught that the answer was male by default, with the classic example being “Everybody brought his own lunch.” Yet it’s rare to hear such a construction in spoken speech, and in my experience as an editor, increasingly rare in writing. “Everyone is bringing their own lunch,” or “Everybody sees themselves differently,” we say, swapping the matching singular pronoun for a plural one.

That default he no longer sits right with us, while alternating he and she may come across as intrusive or self-conscious. Yet The Times’s stylebook is adamant: “Anybody, anyone, everybody, everyone, no one, someone, all require he or she (never they) on further reference: Has anybody lost his ticket?” It goes on to say, “As a last resort, the awkward his or her is tolerable; a plural pronoun with a singular antecedent is not.”

Most of the time, it’s easy enough to rewrite to avoid both the jarring default he and the agreement error, but sometimes I stare at a sentence and long for the day the “singular they” (which, Merriam-Webster says, has been used since the 1300s) is acceptable everywhere. That seems to be the case in Britain; with everybody, Fowler’s Modern English Usage approves of the use of a singular verb and a plural pronoun.

Oddly enough, it’s French, with all its gendered nouns, that sidesteps the everybody problem: . . .

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Written by Leisureguy

16 November 2017 at 11:11 am

Posted in Daily life, Education

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Fun with words: Google Ngrams

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Fascinating post.

Written by Leisureguy

29 October 2012 at 11:27 am

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Language and its rules

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I’m glad to see the extremes of descriptive grammar die—the idea that native speakers of a language never make mistakes: whatever they write or say is, ipso facto, correct. That was a nutty notion, and I note that those who once held it have abandoned it without acknowledging their own error, the craven dogs.

Here’s the article. As you can tell, I tilt toward the prescriptive side, but it’s a continuum.

Written by Leisureguy

3 October 2012 at 9:05 am

Posted in Daily life, Education

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Learning an easy language: Esperanto

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The last few days I have been somewhat frantically massaging my brain to soak up more Spanish: I’m facing an oral exam on Thursday in which I must chatter on about things with my limited vocabulary. The problem is getting into a sentence and then finding I’m trapped: no vocabulary with which to escape. I suppose I can jump overboard and escape the sentence with “… es intersante, ¿verdad?” but I’d rather speak as though I were not a babbling idiot.

I have to admit that I miss Esperanto and its wonderful vocabulary structure. For example, the correlatives:

“Correlatives” in general are words that function together, such as (in English) “either… or” and “neither… nor” and “not only … but also”. Esperanto uses the term for a set of useful words that are related, like “who”, “someone”, “what”, “where”, “then”, “always”, etc.

Two other words may be used in conjunction with these, where appropriate:

  • ĉi – indicates proximity. For example, tio = that, tio ĉi or ĉi tio = this.
  • ajn – indicates “any”. For example, tio = that (thing), tio ajn = anything; io = something, io ajn = anything at all.


Which, What
Each, Every
(that one)
(no one)
(what kind)
(that kind)
(some kind)
(no kind)
(every kind)
(in that way)
(in some way)
(in no way)
(in every way)
(for that reason)
(for some reason)
(for no reason)
(for every reason)
(how much)
(that much)
(some quantity)
(no quantity)
(all of it)
(that one’s)
(no one’s)


The ki- words are used as both interrogatives and relatives. This set of words is enormously useful and easily learned, a characteristic in general of Esperanto vocabulary, which uses a system of affixes to derive many different words from a single root. For example, from the Wikipedia article on Esperanto vocabulary a few suffixes:

-aĉ- pejorative (expresses negative affect or a poor opinion of the object or action) skribaĉi (to scrawl, from ‘write’); veteraĉo (foul weather); domaĉo (a hovel); rigardaĉi (to gape at, from ‘look at’); belaĉa (tawdry, from ‘beautiful’); aĉigi (to screw up); aĉ ! (yuck!)
-adi, -ado frequent, repeated, or continual action (often imperfective); as  an action or process (-i indicates infinitive) or as a noun (-o indicates noun) kuradi (to keep on running); parolado (a speech); adi (to carry on); ada (continual)
-aĵo a concrete manifestation; (with a noun root) a product manĝaĵo (food, from ‘eat’); novaĵo (news, novelty); glaciaĵo (an ice[cream]); bovaĵo (beef); aĉaĵo (junk); aĵo (a thing);
-ano a member, follower, participant, inhabitant kristano (a Christian); marksano (a Marxist); usonano (a US American) [cf. amerikano (a continental American)]; ŝipano (a crew member); samkursano (a classmate, from ‘same’ and ‘course’); samideano (a kindred spirit, from ‘same’ and ‘idea’); ano (a member)
-aro a collective group without specific number arbaro (a forest, from ‘tree’); vortaro (a dictionary, from ‘word’ [a set expression]); homaro (humanity, from ‘human’ [a set expression; ‘crowd, mob’ is homamaso]); ŝafaro (a flock of sheep); ŝiparo (an armada, from ‘ship’); anaro (a society [group of members]); aro (a herd, group, set)

The text in the table includes an interesting example: a word made up of two suffixes clapped together: aĉigi.

The aĉ- part is a general pejorative, with the suffix -aĉ used to indicate a pejorative sense: hundo means “dog,” so hundaĉo would mean something like “cur” or “mongrel” (in the pejorative sense).

The -ig- means “to cause” — boli means “to boil” (intransitive, as in “water boils when heated enough”), so boligi means “to boil” in the transitive sense: to cause to boil, as in “I boil water for tea.” In English, of course, we use the same word and determine whether it’s transitive or not from context.

The final -i in aĉigi is simply the infinitive ending, which makes it a verb.

Take another root—verd- meaning “green,” most often encountered as an adjective: verda. But we can use -ig- to make verdigi, to make green: Mi verdigas la domo: I “green” the house—a succinct way of saying that one is painting the house green.

You can see that the system of affixes allows one to easily create words on the fly: grab the root that reflects the idea, snap on the affixes to tailor it to the context and the need, and Bob’s your uncle.

Esperanto is a lot of fun. Now, back to Spanish.

Written by Leisureguy

21 March 2011 at 7:56 am

Posted in Daily life, Education, Esperanto

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The future evolution of English

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English is now mostly spoken by non-native speakers of English, who import into it their own rules of pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary. The result is a different form of English—the evolution of the language, by the mass of speakers will thus be in that direction.

One benefit of using Esperanto as an international language is that it preserves the smaller languages that would otherwise die out. People can continue to speak their own family language and learn one other language—Esperanto—for general communication. English may soon feel the pinch that these smaller languages have long felt.

From an article by Michael Erard in Wired:

Thanks to globalization, the Allied victories in World War II, and American leadership in science and technology, English has become so successful across the world that it’s escaping the boundaries of what we think it should be. In part, this is because there are fewer of us: By 2020, native speakers will make up only 15 percent of the estimated 2 billion people who will be using or learning the language. Already, most conversations in English are between nonnative speakers who use it as a lingua franca.

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29 June 2008 at 11:05 am

Posted in Daily life

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Learning a language: another on-line option

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A commenter points to Live Mocha, yet another free way to learn a language. It has a good list of languages, though the list does not, alas, include Esperanto. Still, it looks like a good bet.

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22 October 2007 at 1:26 pm

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From gestures to words to language

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Mind Hacks:

Science News reviews two books that propose a thought-provoking hypothesis about the evolution of language: that our ability to communicate verbally evolved from hand gestures.

The first book, Talking Hands is a study on a sign language developed by a Bedouin community only a short time ago that is used widely by both deaf and hearing members of the community.

As a relatively new phenomenon, it has allowed researchers to study a spontaneously created language as it develops.

The book also touches on the evolution of language and notes that while primates typically have poor control over their vocal chords, they have a precise control over their hands allowing huge scope for symbolic representation.

The second book, The Gestural Origin of Language directly addresses the issue and argues that sign, not spoken languages, are the original mode of human communication.

Armstrong and Wilcox, building on their earlier work with Stokoe, get around this problem by redefining language itself. In their hands, as it were, language is considered an embodied system whereby bodily gestures become ritualized and conventionalized into an accepted communication system. Given that our ancestors were tree-dwelling primates, our hands are well adapted to create four-dimensional space-time representations of the four-dimensional world. This ability was especially amenable to exploitation once our hominin forebears became bipedal and gained additional freedom of hand movement. With conventionalization, gestures become simplified and may lose their iconic aspect, but they are readily maintained through cultural transmission.

In this view, speech itself is a gestural system, composed of movements of the lips, velum and larynx, and the blade, body and root of the tongue. This is consistent with the so-called “motor theory of speech perception” developed at the Haskins Laboratories (a private research institute in New Haven, Connecticut) during the 1960s, which holds that the perception of speech is not so much an acoustic phenomenon as the recovery, through sound, of speech gestures. The arbitrary nature of speech sounds is not a fundamental property of language but is rather the consequence of the medium through which the gestures are expressed. The authors aptly quote the linguist Charles Hockett: “When a representation of some four-dimensional hunk of life has to be compressed into the single dimension of speech, most iconicity is necessarily squeezed out.” The concentration on speech may have created a myopic view of what language is really all about.

It’s a challenging hypothesis that asks us to reconsider that spoken language, often quoted as the defining feature of humanity, may be a relatively recent form of communication.

On a purely aesthetic level, I find sign language beautiful and utterly mesmerising and after a quick search on YouTube it seems there is a healthy online signing community.

One of my favourites is a video of someone signing Dusty Springfield’s Son of a Preacherman.

Written by Leisureguy

15 October 2007 at 4:19 pm

Posted in Daily life, Science

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Why we curse

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Interesting article by Stephen Pinker in the New Republic, beginning:

Fucking became the subject of congressional debate in 2003, after NBC broadcast the Golden Globe Awards. Bono, lead singer of the mega-band U2, was accepting a prize on behalf of the group and in his euphoria exclaimed, “This is really, really, fucking brilliant” on the air. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), charged with monitoring the nation’s airwaves for indecency, decided somewhat surprisingly not to sanction the network for failing to bleep out the word. Explaining its decision, the FCC noted that its guidelines define “indecency” as “material that describes or depicts sexual or excretory organs or activities” and Bono had used fucking as “an adjective or expletive to emphasize an exclamation.”

Cultural conservatives were outraged. California Representative Doug Ose tried to close the loophole in the FCC’s regulations with the filthiest piece of legislation ever considered by Congress. Had it passed, the Clean Airwaves Act would have forbade from broadcast

the words “shit”, “piss”, “fuck”, “cunt”, “asshole”, and the phrases “cock sucker”, “mother fucker”, and “ass hole”, compound use (including hyphenated compounds) of such words and phrases with each other or with other words or phrases, and other grammatical forms of such words and phrases (including verb, adjective, gerund, participle, and infinitive forms).

The episode highlights one of the many paradoxes that surround swearing. When it comes to political speech, we are living in a free-speech utopia. Late-night comedians can say rude things about their nation’s leaders that, in previous centuries, would have led to their tongues being cut out or worse. Yet, when it comes to certain words for copulation and excretion, we still allow the might of the government to bear down on what people can say in public. Swearing raises many other puzzles–linguistic, neurobiological, literary, political.

He goes on to discuss those puzzles.

Written by Leisureguy

12 October 2007 at 9:23 am

Posted in Daily life

Tagged with ,

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