Archives for January 2017

Planet Word.

Last year I posted about a language museum in Paris; now there may be one coming to Washington, DC, according to this piece by Kriston Capps:

The Franklin School in downtown Washington, D.C., has sat vacant since 2008, but the city abandoned the building decades earlier. Designed by Adolf Cluss, the architect who built the Smithsonian Institution’s Castle and its Arts and Industries Building, the revival-style gem survived many efforts to demolish it. More recently, it’s been the focus of everything from mayoral redevelopment schemes to an Occupy demonstration in 2011.

Now another group will take a stab at the historic Franklin School. On Wednesday, the city announced plans to turn the building into a museum of linguistics. Led by philanthropist Ann B. Friedman (wife of New York Times columnist Tom Friedman), “Planet Word” will be an interactive center dedicated to language arts, in the vein of the National Museum of Mathematics in New York, according to the city. […]

So what does one do at a linguistics museum? It’s not entirely clear yet. On the Planet Word site, founder Friedman invites future visitors to “[i]dentify accents, tell us how you say soda and hoagie, learn tips from professional dialect coaches, and climb a Tower of Babel or tunnel through a prepositional playground.” The museum could potentially occupy the space once claimed by the now-defunct Children’s Museum as the D.C. institution with the kid-friendliest programming.

Obviously this project is only in the beginning stages; it may never come to anything, and if it opens it may not be anything like what one would hope, but I can’t help but wish it well. Thanks, Trevor!

Update. See this Lingua Franca piece by Anne Curzan, who’s on the board of the museum and has a fair amount to say about it:

Rethinking K-12 language education in a more linguistically informed way is an ambitious undertaking. At its core is the key realization that linguistics is relevant to our understanding of the language we see and hear every day. My goal, which I share with students in my introductory linguistics course, is to see language incorporated into the curriculum in a much more exploratory way, where students are exploring how language works. As Kirk Hazen at West Virginia University has argued, students should be learning a little linguistics in early grades in the same way that they are learning a little geology, a little chemistry, a little biology, and so on. There is nothing more human than language, and students should learn about how language evolves, how dialects work, how they create new slang, how humans and computers learn language, and more — as they also learn the conventions of standard, formal writing (which right now too often gets equated with “what students need to know about language”). Kids love to play with language, and we could exploit that much more in the elementary- and secondary-school curriculum than we do.

This new museum promises to set the tone for language exploration for people of all ages. The description of Planet Word proposes “to make reading, writing, words, and language surprising, fun, fascinating, and relevant.” We hope to let people experiment with language technologies in a working language-research lab. Exhibits will feature language in all its variation, both spoken and written. The auditorium will host lectures on language, poetry readings, and the like. Most importantly, visitors will have the chance to play with language throughout the museum and seek answers to the questions they may bring (e.g., What makes a word a word? Do men and women speak differently? How could the New York Times dialect quiz pinpoint where I was from? How do puns really work?).

Montaigne’s Latin.

AJP Crown posted this remarkable passage from Montaigne on Facebook; since it was new to me and I figure will be new to at least some of my readership, I thought I’d rescue it from the oblivion that is the fate of all FB posts and copy it here:

The expedient [for learning Latin] found by my father was to place me, while still at the breast and before my tongue was untied, in the care of a German (who subsequently died in France as a famous doctor); he was totally ignorant of our language but very well versed in Latin. He had been brought over expressly and engaged at a very high fee: he had me continuously on his hands. He had two others with him, less learned: their task was to follow me about and provide him with some relief. They never addressed me in any other language but Latin. As for the rest of the household, it was an inviolable rule that neither he nor my mother nor a manservant nor a housemaid ever spoke in my presence anything except such words of Latin as they had learned in order to chatter a bit with me. It is wonderful how much they all got from it. My father and mother learned in this way sufficient Latin to understand it and acquired enough to be able to be able to talk it when they had to, as did those other members of the household who were most closely devoted to my service. In short we became so latinized that it spilled over into neighbouring villages, where, resulting from this usage, you can still find several Latin names for tools and for artisans. As for me I was six years old before I knew French any more than I knew the patois of Périgord or Arabic. And so, without art, without books, without grammar, without rules, without whips and without tears, I had learned Latin as pure as that which my schoolteacher knew – for I had no means of corrupting it or contaminating it. So if they wanted me to assay writing a prose (as other boys do in the colleges by translating from French) they had to give me some bad Latin to turn into good. And Nicholas Grouchy, Guillaume Guerente (who wrote a commentary on Aristotle), George Buchanan, that great Scottish poet, Marc-Antoine Muret whom France and Italy recognise as the best prose-writer in his day, who were my private tutors, have often told me that in my infancy I had that language so fluent and so ready that they were afraid to approach me.
  —On Educating Children 1:26, M.A. Screech translation

AJP adds: “His tutor was Albert Horstanus (aka Dr Horst, the anus is a Latin version).”


Matt Burgess of Wired reports on a new project called Localingual:

Its premise is simple: a world map shows each country and breaks it down to regions as you zoom in. When you click on a region, if sound has been uploaded the dialect and voice from that location will play.

The website launched on January 8 and has already had around 500,000 visitors recording 18,000 different voices. Anyone, on Android or desktop, can click on their region to record their voice if it’s missing. The iOS APIs don’t allow it to work on Apple devices.

“I was wandering around Ukraine when the idea came to me to put all the different languages and dialects I was hearing on the web,” Ding told WIRED. “One of the more difficult aspects of the project was acquiring the flag and emblem image for every region and city in the world. I had to write a primitive data-mining bot that scoured search engines and Wikipedia for these images.” […]

Eventually, Ding wants Localingual to become a “Wikipedia of languages and dialects spoken around the world”.

It’s a great premise, no question, but at the moment (and I realize it’s still in the earliest stages), the execution is… well, I went to Russia and so far have been unable to find an actual example of a dialect being spoken; I have found several sound files of names of cities, and when I clicked on “Leningrad” got the following list of cities:

suka blyat Сука блядь
Volkhov Волхов
Slantsy Сланцы
Vyborg Выборг
Gatchina Гатчина

The first one, Сука блядь, is actually a phrase meaning more or less ‘fucking whore.’ So yeah, kind of like Wikipedia except that vandalism doesn’t get swooped down on and removed by vigilant editors. On the plus side, if you click on “Сука блядь” the pronunciation is impeccable. (Thanks, Trevor!)

Cracking the Indus Script.

Mallory Locklear has a piece at the Verge on an old and probably unsolvable problem, the Indus Valley script. She writes that “new work from researchers using sophisticated algorithms, machine learning, and even cognitive science are finally helping push us to the edge of cracking the Indus script,” but that’s your basic science-journalism hype — that edge is a long way from the crack, and the crack is purely hypothetical. Be that as it may, if you’re interested in the problem, this is a useful summary of the current situation, with descriptions of techniques like conditional entropy and Markov models, and even some juicy academic brawling:

“You would be better off getting medical advice from your garbage man than you would getting ideas about the Indus script from listening to Steve Farmer,” says Wells. “None of the three authors have a degree in archaeology, epigraphy, or anything to do with ancient writing. Their underlying subtext is, ‘We’re all so brilliant and we can’t decipher it so it can’t be writing.’ It’s ludicrous.”

Thanks, Trevor!

Erik Singer on Actors’ Accents.

Angela Watercutter at Wired writes:

Sometimes bad actors can do good accents. Sometimes great actors do terrible ones. In the video here, dialect coach Erik Singer analyzes the accents of 32 different actors to see who aces the accent test. Turns out, Idris Elba is one of greatest around. From his performance as Nelson Mandela in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom to his mastery of the Baltimore accent in The Wire, he’s amazing. But he’s rare. Actors ranging from Brad Pitt to Will Smith have struggled with their ability to sound like they’re from somewhere else. Watch Singer analyze the best (and worst) in the biz above.

The sixteen minutes go by quickly, in efficient bite-sized analyses; if you have any interest in the subject, check it out.

What’s a Woggin?

Cara Giaimo has a fascinating investigation of a whaling mystery in Atlas Obscura:

On December 20, 1792, the whaling ship Asia was making its way through the Desolation Islands, in the Indian Ocean, when the crew decided to stop for lunch. According to the log keeper, the meal was a great success: “At 1 PM Sent our Boat on Shore After Some refreshments,” he wrote. “She returned with A Plenty of Woggins we Cooked Some for Supper.”

Right about now, you may be feeling peckish. But you may also be wondering: What in the world is a woggin?

New species are discovered all the time. Unknown old species—extinct ones, found as fossils and then plugged into our historical understanding of the world—turn up a lot, too. But every once in a while, all we have to go on is a word. New or old, known or unknown, no one knew what a woggin was until Judith Lund, whaling historian, decided to find out.

I won’t tell you the solution, because getting there is half the fun, but rest assured the mystery is solved. (I presume the answer will be discussed in the comment thread, though.) Thanks, Trevor!

On Dropping Apostrophes.

Geoff Pullum has a typically witty and provocative post about the CIA report-writing style guide, Style Manual and Writers Guide for Intelligence Publications. There’s other stuff of interest (for instance, the CIA uses the Oxford comma), but what I want to highlight here is this passage:

Before I go on, though, I wonder if you have noticed three remarkable things already. First, the book’s title: No apostrophe on Writers! Did you spot that? Second, no apostrophe on Watchers in “Word Watchers List,” either. And third (I was toying with you) I deliberately followed suit two paragraphs back when I wrote “rogues gallery” (if the CIA can risk flouting international apostrophe conventions, so can I).

You may recall that in “Being an Apostrophe,” I reported that “I always use the apostrophe in the standard way, even when texting; I’m a conservative.” Not one of those long-haired pinko radical grammarians, the Happiness Boys. But I also said that “I wouldn’t shed a tear for it,” because “the level of harmful confusion attendant on dropping all apostrophes from written English would be zero.” Our intelligence agencies seem to take a similar view, and don’t bother to include apostrophes on modifier nouns. That way they don’t have to decide whether it should have been Writer’s Guide or Writers’ Guide. They just finesse the question. Very sensible.

I don’t think that had ever occurred to me, but sure enough, it is sensible. I’m normally a stylistic conservative myself, but like Pullum, I wouldn’t shed a tear if those apostrophes disappeared from the written language.

Ottoman Turkish.

Two links on an interesting topic:

1) When Turkish was written in the Greek, Armenian and even Syrian script, by Michael Erdman:

The two largest allographic communities were the Armenians and the Greeks. Armeno-Turkish – a rendering of Ottoman Turkish in Armenian letters – gave rise to a vibrant publishing industry and cultural community. The orthography was largely phonetic and based upon Western Armenian readings of the letters. It was in Armeno-Turkish that many French and other Western European works came into Turkish. This was a situation assisted by the reticence of the Sublime Porte to authorise Ottoman Turkish printing presses, despite the expansion of Armenian, Greek and Jewish ones. […]

Turkish written in Greek characters also laid the foundation for a vibrant publishing industry, with a heavy emphasis on religious materials. The language, known as Karamanlidika in Greek and Karamanlıca in Turkish, was the everyday idiom of the Turkish-speaking Greek Orthodox Christians of Anatolia. Despite being ethnically and linguistically Turkish, their religion required them to be classified as Rum or Greek Orthodox under the Ottoman system.

Lots of great illustrations; thanks, Trevor!

2) You should learn Ottoman Turkish, by David Selim Sayers:

If you reduced the Ottomans to Islam or Turkishness, they themselves would be the first to object. They rarely even used the word “Turk” without adding an insulting adjective like “idiotic,” “misshapen,” or “mad”. An Ottoman Empire consisting only of Turkishness would be just that: idiotic, misshapen, and mad.

You should learn Ottoman Turkish. However, that isn’t enough. Once you know the language, you have to forget everything you’ve learned about the Ottoman Empire, stand up for those rotting and looted archives you’ve never seen, dig into them, and rewrite Ottoman history. You have to read everything —from the poems Mehmed the Conqueror wrote for young boys to the correspondences of the Young Turks regarding the Armenians— and you have to share what you read with everyone. You cannot entrust this task to anyone else. Because entrusting history to others means allowing others to dictate your identity, attitudes, and life.

Variations of the Name for a Fire Pit.

Elif Batuman has a story in last week’s New Yorker, “Constructed Worlds,” that appeals to me greatly. It’s an evocation of what it’s like to find yourself immersed in the college experience that is often laugh-out-loud funny (I did in fact laugh out loud, and even kept reading bits to my wife even though she had already read the story); furthermore, as you will see from the excerpts below, it might have been written expressly for me:

I got a free dictionary. The dictionary didn’t include “ratatouille” or “Tasmanian devil.” […]

“Hey—no one gave me a dictionary!”

“It doesn’t have ‘Tasmanian devil,’ ” I said.

She took the dictionary from my hands, riffling the pages. “It has plenty of words.”

I told her she could have it.
. . .

I went to Linguistics 101, to see what linguistics was about. It was about how language was a biological faculty, hardwired into the brain—infinite, regenerative, never the same twice. The highest law was “the intuition of a native speaker,” a law you couldn’t find in any grammar book or program into any computer. Maybe that was what I wanted to learn. Whenever my mother and I were talking about a book and I thought of something that she hadn’t thought of, she would look at me and say admiringly, “You really speak English.”

The linguistics professor, a gentle phonetician, specialized in Turkic tribal dialects. Sometimes he would give examples from Turkish to show how different morphology could be in non-Indo-European languages, and then he would smile at me and say, “I know we have some Turkish speakers here.” Once, in the hallway before class, he told me about his work on regional consonantal variations of the name for some kind of a fire pit that Turkic people dug somewhere.

I ended up taking a literature class, too, about the city and the novel in nineteenth-century Russia, England, and France. The professor often talked about the inadequacy of published translations, reading us passages from novels in French and Russian to show how bad the translations were. I didn’t understand anything he said in French or Russian, so I preferred the translations.
. . .

You were supposed to take only four classes, but when I found out that they didn’t charge extra for five I signed up for Beginning Russian.

The teacher, Barbara, was a graduate student from East Germany—she specifically said “East Germany.” She said that in Russian her name would be Varvara. We all had to choose Russian names, too. Greg became Grisha, Katie became Katya. There were two foreign students whose names didn’t change—Iván from Hungary and Svetlana from Yugoslavia. Svetlana asked if she could change her name to Zinaida, but Varvara said that Svetlana was already such a good Russian name. My name, on the other hand, though lovely, didn’t end with an –a or a –ya, which would cause complications when we learned cases. Varvara said I could choose any Russian name I wanted. Suddenly I couldn’t think of any. “Maybe I could be Zinaida,” I suggested.

Svetlana turned in her seat and stared into my face. “That is so unfair,” she told me. “You’re a perfect Zinaida.”

It somehow seemed to me that Varvara didn’t want anyone to be called Zinaida, and in the end my name was Sonya.

If every issue included a story with dictionaries and linguistics and literature and translations and Russian, I’d… oh, wait, I already subscribe. I guess I have nothing to bribe them with.

12 Words Peculiar to Irish English.

Stan Carey posts about words or usages “characteristic of Irish English (aka Hiberno-English), whether integral to its grammar or produced on occasions of unalloyed Irishness.” A couple of samples:

1. Plámás is an Irish word borrowed into Irish English meaning ‘empty flattery or wheedling’. It’s sometimes used witheringly in reference to political speech, for some reason.

5. Fooster (often foosther to evoke vernacular pronunciation) is a verb denoting fiddling or fidgeting, a kind of busy activity that is aimless or inefficient. You can stop foostering around now in search of an unsatisfying synonym.

This is the sort of thing I love. Thanks, David!