Archives for May 2003


Gather round, children; it’s time once again to hurl insults at that bastion of smug insularity, the New York Times. In today’s Metro section there’s a touching story by Corey Kilgannon about a NYC doctor, Ian Zlotolow (a gold star, incidentally, to anyone who can explain to me the morphology of that name, which is clearly based somehow on Slavic zlat-/z(o)lot- ‘gold’), who first treated and then adopted a boy from Sierra Leone. So far, so good, but in an attempt to dramatize the boy’s change of surroundings, the reporter produces the following:

Early last year, Lansana spoke only his tribal dialect, Mende, and hoarded food in the house. He had never been to a city, watched television, flushed a toilet or taken a shower. He had never had a real change of clothing.
But once in New York, the boy picked up English quickly, and, with his magnetic personality, made friends just by walking down the block…. When some West African cabdrivers and a college professor engaged him in dialect, he ignored them.

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My wife asked, out of the blue, “What does ‘it stands to reason’ mean? When you think about it, it doesn’t make any sense.” I thought about it, and sure enough, it didn’t make any sense. So I did a little research and discovered that it’s a reminder of an obsolete phrase “to stand to,” meaning (in the OED’s words) ‘To submit oneself to, abide by (a trial, award); to obey, accede to, be bound by (another’s judgement, decision, opinion, etc.).’ So originally something “stood to (obeyed) reason” in the same way as a person “stood to a judgment”; when the verbal phrase was eroded by time, the cliché remained behind, a lone outcropping, as puzzling as one of the oddly shaped mesas of Coconino County.
Some examples of the earlier usage:

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The estimable Invisible Adjunct has an entry expressing her distaste for the word “blog.” This is a distaste that many other people seem to share, but I’m at a loss to account for it. Phonetically, it’s a perfectly standard English word, stop + liquid + vowel + stop; I fail to see how it’s any uglier than, say, “block,” “plug,” or “log.” To my mind, it’s a clear improvement over “weblog,” which is harder to use as a verb or combine with other words. It’s a nice short English monosyllable. True, it’s new, and the new always makes people nervous, but I would think the blogging community would embrace their very own novelty. At any rate, I wanted to get some feedback: any thoughts on why the word is disliked? If you dislike it, how do you feel about the comparison with the phonetically similar words I mentioned?


I have absolutely no comment on this story, for which I have Maureen to thank (thanks, Maureen!):

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A computer program can allegedly distinguish between male and female authors with 80% accuracy. If this can be independently verified, I guess you can’t argue with success, but I’m deeply suspicious of anything that runs on this kind of fuel:

“Women have a more interactive style,” said Shlomo Argamon, a computer scientist at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago who developed the program. “They want to create a relationship between the writer and the reader.”
Men, on the other hand, use more numbers, adjectives and determiners – words such as “the,” “this” and “that” – because they apparently care more than women do about conveying specific information.

Uh huh. Anyway, read all about it in the Jewish World Review story (which I chose out of a bunch of identical ones from different newspapers because it has the URL of a site where you can examine Argamon’s research); thanks to Laputan Logic for the story (he gives a link to The Age, but it’s the same old applesauce).
Addendum. Related MetaFilter thread.


Neighbouring groups in Papua New Guinea had contact through intermarriage, trade and warfare, leading to a certain amount of bilingualism or competence in other dialects. A sizeable minority of New Guinean women have had the experience of being linguistic ‘foreigners’ in the village into which they have married.
‘We might well ask why such contacts did not lead to a lessening of linguistic differences. A partial explanation probably lies in the fact that New Guineans often make use of other-language and other-dialect knowledge in rhetoric and verbal art, highlighting the known differences between their own and neighbouring speech varieties. It appears that contacts with and awareness of other languages have led not to levelling but to heightened consciousness of and pride in difference.’
Gillian Sankoff, The social life of language (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1980) pp. 9-10, abridged

Quoted in Andrew Dalby, Dictionary of Languages (Columbia University Press, 1998) p. 491

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Turns out there’s a 150-year-old German community in Texas that is in the final stages of assimilation; the Texas German Dialect Project is trying to record as much as possible of the dialect before it disappears for good. From a Daily Texan article by Lori Slaughenhoupt:

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A wide-ranging 1996 interview in which Kai Kresse, editor of polylog, talks with Kwasi Wiredu, a Ghanaian philosopher, contains a section in which issues relevant to both the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and the possibility of translation are discussed in terms of Wiredu’s native language, Akan (map):

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The LA Times has a nice story by Louise Roug about the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative (a joint project of UCLA and the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science), connecting it with the recent destruction in Iraq:

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Renee is doing a series of entries on the Old Norse heroic poem Völundarkvíða (Völundarkvitha, if you can’t see the long i and edh; it means ‘lay of Völundr’). She gives what she calls a multimedia presentation:

There will be 16 parts. Each part will include a cutout panel illustration, a portion of text and my translation. It will also have an mp3 file with my reading in Old Norse – it is not really dramatic, I am afraid… I have tried to keep close to what I perceive as Old Norse pronunciation; my interpretation may be quite off the mark, so I’d be happy to discuss this.

Here are Part One (Intro and stanzas 1-3) and Part Two (4-5); enjoy, and keep following the series!