Word Usage over Time in Movies and TV.

You like Google’s Ngram Viewer (LH post), right? Well, Benjamin Schmidt, an assistant professor of history at Northeastern University, has done the same for movies and TV. You can read about it, and see a couple of samples, here. Data keeps getting more searchable and useful!

References, Please.

I like Tim Parks. Mind you, I haven’t read any of his books, but I’ve always enjoyed his essays when I’ve come across them, usually in the NYRB. His latest blog post for them, however, makes me want to rap him across the knuckles. It’s an extended whine about how annoying it is to create scholarly references and how he wishes they wouldn’t make him do it any more. Hey, I know exactly how annoying it is; I do it routinely as part of my editing, fixing the references of authors who couldn’t be bothered to do a decent job (or who farmed it out to grad students or interns who, more understandably, couldn’t be bothered to do a decent job). But it’s got to be done unless you want to jettison the whole enterprise of verifiable scholarship and go back to the days of quotation from memory and “every schoolboy knows.” Here’s a paragraph where the absurdity of his idea (that he and other slackers should be spared the suffering) shows through plainly:

Of course it will be objected that Google is not always accurate and does not yet include everything. Who would disagree? Though my experience with literary texts is that Google Books, or again Project Gutenberg, or the online University of Adelaide Library are accurate in an overwhelming majority of cases. But if they are not, let’s insist they become more accurate and more comprehensive, particularly with all works that are now out of copyright.

You go right ahead and insist, Tim, and on the day when online metadata become thoroughly reliable, sometime in the thirty-fifth century, you have my permission to rely on them. Until then, suck it up and get those page numbers.

Update. Dave Wilton of Wordorigins.org has a far more thorough rebuttal of Parks’s silly idea; go read it. A sample (the Parks allegation is in itals):

Texts are available on the internet. If someone wants to verify a quotation from The Great Gatsby, yes it is easier and for most purposes just as valid to search Project Gutenberg than it is to track down the specific edition and then find the quotation in it, but I challenge anyone to do that with a quotation from one of Bede’s homilies. (I’ve been spending weeks trying to locate the source of just such a quotation because the scholar who quoted it did not provide adequate bibliographic information.) Furthermore, secondary sources are often behind firewalls and not readily searchable. Even if a scholar has digital access to the journal article through her university library, without knowing the journal title, issue, and date, finding the article is time consuming if not impossible.

The Language of Food.

A NY Times story by Jennifer Schuessler (thanks for the link, Bonnie!) draws attention to a new book, The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu by Dan Jurafsky, a linguistics professor at Stanford, which sounds fascinating:

In his book, Mr. Jurafsky traces the gradual fading of French as the lingua franca of “fancy” American restaurants. “Entree” has gone all but extinct at the high end, though there are some holdouts like “jus,” used at Root & Bone to describe the silky chicken gravy served alongside “Grandma Daisy’s Angel Biscuits,” dipping-sauce style.

The “Southern Peach Caprese,” on the other hand, built around an oozing ball of fried pimento cheese, testified to Italian food’s rising fortunes. “Caprese has become such a common word, we can now use it as a metaphor for something else,” he said. “You can expect your customer to know what it is.”

It also mentions Jurafsky’s blog The Language of Food, apparently newly revived after several years’ hiatus (which gives me hope for MMcM’s Polyglot Vegetarian); I’ve added it to my RSS feed and am hoping for more discussions like this from the latest post, Tea if by Sea:

The story begins where the far southwest of China’s Yunnan province meets northeastern Burma and Thailand, somewhere between the Mekong, Irawaddy, and Salween rivers. The tea plant, camellia sinensis, is native to a wide area that includes this region, and it was probably somewhere near here that it was domesticated. A number of linguistic groups arrived in this region very early, first speakers of Mon-Khmer (a proto-language that is the ancestor of Cambodian, Vietnamese and many smaller languages scattered around southeast Asia), and then Tibeto-Burman (the family that includes Burmese) and Tai-Kadai (the ancestor of Thai and other smaller languages). Tea plays many important roles in this region; as a beverage, a salad, a ritual item, and regional groups in northern Laos or Thailand even ferment tea leaves in bamboo tubes, sprinkle them with salt and chew them like plugs of chewing tobacco.

Victor H. Mair and Erling Hoh postulate in their terrific The True History of Tea (check out Appendix C which has the linguistic details) that the earliest Mon-Khmer used a word like *la (the * means a word in a hypothetical proto-language) to mean ‘tea’ or ‘leaf’. As other groups like the Tibeto-Burmans moved into the area, they borrowed *la; that’s the origin of the la (‘tea/leaf’) in Burmese tea laphet. Mair and Hoh postulate that early Chinese speakers borrowed the word *la too as they immigrated south into Yunnan, and over time *la changed to *lra and then, by sometime around 500 CE, the Middle Chinese form *dra.

For the next thousand years, tea culture and the word for tea developed in China. Tea slowly spread to neighboring countries, as the early Chinese powdered tea traditions ritualized in the matcha of the Japanese tea ceremony and yak-butter tea became a staple in Tibet. As the Chinese language diversified, words for tea began to diversify as well, becoming cha in Mandarin and Cantonese and te in the Southern Min dialect spoken in Fujian and Taiwan.

Roughly around the turn of the 17th century, tea began to spread around the globe, and languages around the world borrowed the word from Chinese, in two distinct forms. Some languages have a word starting with “t” like our tea (and German Tee and Spanish ), while others have a word starting with “ch” like cha in Japanese and Portuguese, or chai in Russian, Mongolian, and Hindi.

There are even maps, which gives bonus points as far as I’m concerned.

Who Can Save Ayapaneco?

Daniel Suslak, an associate professor of Anthropology at Indiana University, has an impassioned piece at SchwaFire on a dying Mexican language, the dedicated linguists and people of Ayapa (“Linguists started calling the language of the people here ‘Ayapaneco’ because it’s spoken in Ayapa and nowhere else”) who are trying to save it, and the telecom company that has been misrepresenting the story for their own benefit; it’s longish but worth the read. It’s just one of the many (59!) links at Stan’s latest Link love post, which I am slowly working my way through; I suggest you bookmark it and do the same. Lotsa good stuff.

So Your A Pedant?

OK, Bridie Jabour’s Guardian rant isn’t really anything I haven’t said and quoted many times before, but a good anti-peever rant is always worth seeing, and I like the in-your-face nature of this one and the emphasis in the conclusion on an important point that is sometimes not attended to:

That aside, there is a need for us to be literate, of course. Which brings me to what may be the most devastating revelation for the enthusiastic corrector: WE KNOW. Most of the time, serial manglers of the English language know the difference between “complimentary” and “complementary”.

Eight times out of 10, it will just be a simple typo made as we’re tweeting while ordering food, dodging traffic or pretending to work. But the glee with which typos, outside of news articles, is jumped on is tedious. Affectively, you’re just saying you are more educated than the person writing or speaking. Or you think you are. But just as Tony Abbott certainly knows what Canada is called, and Tanya Plibersek is clear that Africa is a continent, a slip on the keyboard is not a good reason for you to type your most patronising “*”.

Also: “The first person to spot all 10 errors and/or misuses of the English language gets a prize,” so act now — supplies are doubtless limited. (Thanks, Bathrobe!)

Metambesen.

Metambesen is one of those fine old Native American place names; as we read in the American Historical Register for 1896:

About 1680 Colonel Peter Schuyler purchased from the Indians a tract of land lying over against Magdalen island, and in 1688 obtained therefor, from Governor Thomas Dongan, a patent, in which the boundaries are thus defined. “Situated, lying, and being on the east side of Hudson’s river, in Dutchess county over against Magdalen island, beginning at a certain creek called Metambesen (now the Sawkill), running thence easterly to about two miles southeast of Upper Red Hook, thence northerly so far, till, upon a due east and west line, it reaches over against Sawyer’s creek, from thence due west to the Hudson river, and from thence southerly along said river to the said creek, called Metambesen.”

Robert Kelly is fond of the name; he’s used it in his poetry (from “Yesterbite”: “just/ the sunlight on Metambesen/ and Baron Delafield’s untrimmed woods,/ a business in land”), and his wife, the translator Charlotte Mandell, writes me that they’ve set up a website of that name:

As citizens in the commonwealth of language, we are anxious to make new work freely and easily available, using the swift herald of the internet to bring readers chapbooks and other texts they can read and download without cost. The first publication in this series is Eyeland, photos by Charlotte Mandell with texts by Lynn Behrendt, Billie Chernicoff, Robert Kelly, and Tamas Panitz.

In future weeks, we will make more texts available, including the long poem The Language of Eden by Robert Kelly.

This is a fine thing to have done, and I await with eagerness whatever texts they decide to share.

Sarkoboros.

Some of you will remember Alexander Kim’s earlier site (see this LH post); I am glad to report he is planning to move the archives to his new site, Sarkoboros, about which he says (on the About page):

I’m a researcher in David Reich’s lab at Harvard’s Department of Genetics who seeks to better understand the human past through ancient and modern genomes and their dialogue with archaeology, historical biogeography, linguistics, physical anthropology, ethnography, and other disciplines. My interests range widely through evolution, ecology, and history.

I wish him the best and look forward to seeing more such interesting posts as Helimski: Early European Avars were (in part) Tungusic speakers; I’m adding the URL to my RSS feed.

Stalinist Cosmopolitanism.

I’m reading Katerina Clark’s Moscow, the Fourth Rome: Stalinism, Cosmopolitanism, and the Evolution of Soviet Culture, 1931-1941, whose surprising thesis is that the Soviet 1930s, generally considered a time of socialism-in-one-country retrenchment in which contacts with the world beyond Russia’s borders were looked on with disfavor, actually involved a fair amount of such contact, and here’s a particularly surprising example:

The demise of RAPP [abolished in 1932] was for most writers liberating. The change was almost immediately reflected in Literaturnaia gazeta, where in recent years RAPP had been the driving force. Its editorial board was revamped—now to include Koltsov—and the amount of material it published about Western writers and intellectuals increased exponentially, with regular columns such as “Literary New York” and items on current developments in English culture by Prince Dmitry Sviatopolk-Mirsky, who had recently returned from London after twelve years in emigration.

Most striking were the intermittent articles extolling such members of the Western avant-garde as Joyce, Dos Passos, Picasso, and the French Surrealists. By 1935 a Pravda editorial, “The Style of Soviet Culture,” was citing Balzac, Goethe, Shakespeare, and Tolstoy as its models. And in 1932 Koltsov founded and edited a new journal, Za rubezhom (Abroad). “Boy” was not just meeting “tractor,” he was also encountering Western culture.

Who knew? Not me, anyway.

Addendum. A later paragraph that drives home the point:

The Soviets established their superiority over the Nazis in part with tremendous investment in publication of German books, boasting the largest publishing house of German books outside Germany (VEGAAR) and authorizing 250 titles in German a year at its height, not to mention a lot of German literature published in Russian or Ukrainian translation.

And both Joyce (Ulysses) and Céline were translated and published in the mid-’30s!

(E)special.

I forget how this came up, but I ran across something that made me wonder about the adjective especial, which I think of as an antiquated and/or British equivalent of special and have never (to the best of my knowledge) used. It turns out there is supposed to be a difference between the two; Bryan Garner, who can be relied upon for antiquated distinctions, says:

Traditionally, especial (= distinctive, significant, peculiar) is the opposite of ordinary. E.g.: “The public press is entitled to peculiar indulgence and has especial rights and privileges.” Special (= specific, particular) is the opposite of general <this community has special concerns>, though increasingly special is driving out especial.

The usually reliable Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage is unwontedly vague:

These words are etymologically the same, so they might be expected to be synonymous. That they are essentially synonymous is at least historically true, but in present-day English they are not synonymous very often. When they are, it is usually special and specially that are used like especial and especially rather than the other way around.

They do not, however, describe the lack of synonymousness, simply saying “Especial, as the less usual word, is therefore somewhat more emphatic.” So I turn to the Varied Reader: do you use the adjective especial, and if so, how do you see it as differing from special?

Little Words.

An NPR interview with James Pennebaker (whose book The Secret Life of Pronouns I briefly discussed here) brings up some interesting points:

One of the things that Pennebaker did was record and transcribe conversations that took place between people on speed dates. He fed these conversations into his program along with information about how the people themselves were perceiving the dates. What he found surprised him.

“We can predict by analyzing their language, who will go on a date — who will match — at rates better than the people themselves,” he says.

Specifically, what Pennebaker found was that when the language style of two people matched, when they used pronouns, prepositions, articles and so forth in similar ways at similar rates, they were much more likely to end up on a date.

“The more similar [they were] across all of these function words, the higher the probability that [they] would go on a date in a speed dating context,” Pennebaker says. “And this is even cooler: We can even look at … a young dating couple… [and] the more similar [they] are … using this language style matching metric, the more likely [they] will still be dating three months from now.”

This is not because similar people are attracted to each other, Pennebaker says; people can be very different. It’s that when we are around people that we have a genuine interest in, our language subtly shifts.
[ . . . ]

But some of his most interesting work has to do with power dynamics. He says that by analyzing language you can easily tell who among two people has power in a relationship, and their relative social status.

“It’s amazingly simple,” Pennebaker says, “Listen to the relative use of the word “I.”

What you find is completely different from what most people would think. The person with the higher status uses the word “I” less.

Visit the link for elaboration on the latter fact; it’s always nice to see preconceptions overturned (not that I expect media thumbsuckers to take note and stop babbling about how some public figure’s alleged overuse of the first person allegedly shows how overweening they are).