Poet Voice.

Cara Giaimo writes about a too-little-discussed topic:

Many performance-related professions and avocations have developed an associated “voice”: a set of specific vocal tics or decisions. Taken together, these mannerisms make up a kind of sonic uniform, immediately clueing a listener into who or what they’re listening to. There’s “Newscaster’s Voice,” for example, characterized by a slow cadence and a refusal to drop letters. There is “NPR” or “Podcast Voice”, which the writer Teddy Wayne has diagnosed as a “plague of pregnant pauses and off-kilter pronunciations,” and which radio host Ira Glass once said arose in direct response to those butter-smooth anchors.

And then there’s Poet Voice, scourge of the open mic and the Pulitzer podium alike. Unsurprisingly, poets are the best at describing Poet Voice: Rich Smith, in CityArts, calls it “a precious, lilting cadence,” in which “every other line [ends] on a down note,” and there are “pauses, within sentences, where pauses, need not go.” According to Smith, today’s egregious Poet Voicers include Louise Glück and Natasha Trethewey, whose fantastic poems are obscured, in performance, by this tendency of their authors. “Poet Voice [ruins] everybody’s evening,” he writes. “[It is] a thick cloud of oratorial perfume.”

Marit J. MacArthur has heard her fair share of Poet Voice. As an English professor and scholar, she has been listening to it for years. […] In a new study published in Cultural Analytics, MacArthur and two colleagues, Georgia Zellou and Lee M. Miller, skipped the human middleman and ran various recorded readings through a rigorous sonic analysis. In other words, they tried to use data to nail down Poet Voice.

You can read the results, and ruminations on the implications at the link; I confess I have mixed feelings. Yes, Poet Voice can easily be overdone, and often is, but on the other hand I despise the reading of poetry as if it were either normal conversation (ignoring line breaks and everything else poetic about it) or as if it were high drama (actors, of course, are frequent offenders here, larding every… line… with emphasis!). Lots of poets, like lots of other people, are simply not good at reading poetry; it’s a specialized skill. I’m reminded of the fate of the New Journalism, which started off as a reaction against the boring just-the-facts style of old-school reporting (“those butter-smooth anchors”) and produced spectacular results in the 1960s when applied by people suited to it, but which quickly degenerated into a tiresome set of mannerisms (as Tom Wolfe said, you have to do the research before you can do the writing). There is no one-size-fits-all way to read poetry (or, indeed, to do most things worth doing). Thanks, Trevor!

The Language Window.

BBC News reports on a study that’s suggestive even if it relies on an internet poll:

There is a critical cut-off age for learning a language fluently, according to research. If you want to have native-like knowledge of English grammar, for example, you should ideally start before age 10, say the researchers. People remain highly skilled learners until 17 or 18, when ability tails off.

The findings, in the journal Cognition, come from an online grammar test taken by nearly 670,000 people of different ages and nationalities. […]

When the researchers analysed the data using a computer model, the best explanation for the findings was that grammar-learning was strongest in childhood, persists into teenage years and then drops at adulthood. […]

Study co-author Josh Tenenbaum, a professor of brain and cognitive sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US, said: “It’s possible that there’s a biological change. It’s also possible that it’s something social or cultural. […]”

Thanks, Eric! And if you’re into TED talks, here‘s one on “How language shapes the way we think” by Lera Boroditsky (previously on LH); Bathrobe, who sent it to me, says “I didn’t realise that German speakers regarded bridges as graceful and beautiful while Spanish speakers describe them as long and strong.”


Jacob Mikanowski’s LARB essay “A Silver Thread: Islam in Eastern Europe” is somewhat scattershot, basically an excuse to tell a bunch of stories (and good stories they are — I particularly recommend the Evliya Çelebi “strange and comical adventure, a wondrous and foolish gaza,” though it’s not for the squeamish), but this passage is obvious LH material:

The world of Islamic Eastern Europe is an undiscovered continent. Exploring its history means spelunking in obscure journals and forgotten offprints. Even with a good research library at your back, it is a struggle. For literature, the situation is even worse. But there are treasures waiting for the enterprising translator. The task will be difficult though, requiring not just a knowledge of languages and scripts, but an understanding of a whole world of cultural referents that have all but disappeared. To read Naim Frashëri requires not only a command of Albanian, but also of classical and modern Greek, French, Italian, and the high Islamic tradition he absorbed through Arabic, Turkish, and Persian verse.

And who will be the first to unlock the world of Balkan aljamiado literature, that is, literature composed in Bosnian and Albanian (and less frequently in Polish and Belarusian) but written in Arabic letters? Also known as Arebica, this is a type of writing that serves as a perfect metaphor for the region: hybrid in form, plural in content, permeable to influence from east and west. A starting point might be Fejzo Softa’s Ašiklijski Elif-ba, that poet’s erotic introduction to the Arabic script, from which our enterprising translator could move on to the work of Umihana Čuvidina, a Bosnian war widow who commemorated her dead in her 79-verse-long epos The Men of Sarajevo March to War Against Serbia.

So much unknown material out there, and yet they keep translating the same warhorses over and over!

The Hovercraft and the Eels.

It’s kind of amazing that in over fifteen years of blogging about language I have never had a post about one of the most famous examples of linguistic humor (though commenters have mentioned it frequently), so herewith (via Anatoly, who focuses on Slavic versions) Omniglot’s My hovercraft is full of eels in many languages. If you’re not familiar with the Monty Python sketch where it originated, there are links to a video and a transcript; the introduction says:

It’s possibly the most useful phrase there is, and a handy one to have when you’re asked to say something in a language you’re learning.

Click on any of the phrases that are links to hear them spoken. If you can provide recordings, corrections or additional translations, please contact me.

There follows a long, long list, from Afrikaans (“My skeertuig is vol palings”) to Zulu (“Umkhumbi wami ugcwele ngenyoka zemanzini”) as well as auxiliary and constructed languages; there are Albanian versions in both Gheg and Tosk, and Amharic versions with ‘fish’ and ‘snakes,’ with the sad and surprising explanation “(there is no word for eels in Amharic).” And it ends with “some new idioms I came up with based on this phrase,” from “a few eels short of a hovercraft = somewhat stupid / crazy” to “I could eat a hovercraft full of eels = I could eat a horse.” Enjoy!


Georgina Kenyon’s BBC Travel piece on the Yanyuwa language is (inevitably) larded with nonsense about how “Yanyuwa is a beautiful, poetic language” whose “rhythms sound like the sea it so perfectly describes” and “the Yanyuwa language is intertwined with the animal” (!), but this passage is interesting (and backed up by the Wikipedia article linked above):

What’s especially unusual about Yanyuwa is that it’s one of the few languages in the world where men and women speak different dialects. Only three women speak the women’s dialect fluently now, and Friday is one of few males who still speaks the men’s. Aboriginal people in previous decades were forced to speak English, and now there are only a few elderly people left who remember the language.

Friday told me that the women in his family taught him to speak their tongue as a child. Then in early adolescence, he learned the men’s language from his male relatives. While women have a passive understanding of men’s language, they do not speak it, and vice versa for the men. […]

Women’s words for the shark describe its nurturing side, as a bringer of food and life, while men’s words are more akin to ‘creator’ or ‘ancestor’.

You could be punished if you didn’t speak the right dialect at the right time.

“See, there, to those rocks, if you broke the rules, you could be sent there!” Stephen said, as he gestured towards the barren Vanderlin Rocks. […]

But Yanyuwa does not stop at just dialects for men and women – there are yet more for ceremony and respectful language, too. There was also ‘signing language’, according to Bradley, useful for hunting when people needed to be quiet or sometimes to signal when travellers were entering a sacred place, but few people remember many sign words now. Children also learned ‘string language’ – tying straw or string together in specific patterns to represent sea creatures and food.

Preserving the Yanyuwa language is tied to preserving the culture and creatures of the sea. Linguists like Bradley are working with Friday and other Yanyuwa people to preserve this language in written form. Without their language, it will be hard for the Yanyuwa to preserve their deep understanding of the sea and their home.

Thanks, Trevor!


The servicemen in my family have been army and air force, not navy, so I had been unaware of the charming term “gedunk,” which (per HDAS) means both “ice cream or an ice-cream soda; candy or sweets; (broadly) a snack” (first attested 1927) and “a place where gedunk is sold; (hence) a restaurant, esp. on shipboard” (from 1956). I learned about it from this Wordorigins.org thread, where Richard Hershberger says the following about the origin of the word:

It comes from the comic strip “Harold Teen” that ran from 1919 to 1959. Harold spent much of his time at the Sugar Bowl soda shop eating “Gedunk sundaes.” This transferred to ice cream or other sweet snacks, and from there to where you obtained them.

The dictionary leaves open what was the source of “gedunk” in the comic strip. I think it is mock German for “dunk.” The cartoonist was Carl Frank Ludwig Ed and he went to a Lutheran college in Illinois, so I suspect he grew up with German. And then there is a letter to the editor from a reader “Gretchen” (published in the Belleville News Democrat of January 27, 1925, copied from the Chicago Tribune) complaining about the bad grammar of this vogue word and giving the proper forms. I particularly like the headline given the letter: “To Eingetunkt Is One Thing; To Gedunk Is Another.”

Faldage says “When I was in the Navy in the late ‘60s we pronounced it with the emphasis on the first syllable, /’gi: dʌŋk/,” and donkeyhotay concurs:

Same when I was in the Navy in the ‘80s. At Cecil Field, Florida (my squadron’s home port), I had to do my 90-days TAD with base supply. This took me to all the other squadrons delivering and picking up parts, and of course each squadron had their own geedunk. A couple of them were quite well-run. My favorites were the Marines’ at MAG-42 and VS-32 which called theirs “The Hungry Eye”.

So I thought I’d toss it out here and see if any Hatters have anything to say about it.


Sarah Zhang explains the odd divergence of the printed lowercase “g” from the one we write:

In a recent study delightfully titled “The Devil’s in the ‘g’-Tails,” researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that most people are unaware of the common form of the lowercase “g” that appears in books. […] [T]he letter has two closed loops, distinct from the way “g” is usually written by hand. […]

The double-story “g”—what is now the common printed form—is the original form of the lowercase “g” (the OG … ?), says Paul Shaw, a type designer who teaches at the New School. It originated in the eighth century among monks copying religious texts in Latin. The script they used became known as Carolingian script.

Over time, monks copying by hand introduced variations in their letters. And so, the single-story “g” emerged, most famously in black-letter or Gothic calligraphy. When Johannes Gutenberg started printing books in the mid-15th century, he naturally copied the monks’ Gothic script. The lowercase “g”s of the Gutenberg Bible resemble a single-story “g,” as do the lowercase “g”s of modern Gothic typefaces that imitate this style.

Then, plot twist: the return of the double-story “g.” “In the Renaissance,” says Shaw, “there was an interest in Roman and Greek culture by scholars that led to a revival of the Carolingian script.” Like Gutenberg, later Renaissance type cutters also imitated local scripts, and the Carolingian double-story “g” eventually became popular in print all over Europe. But single-story “g” prevails in handwriting, probably due to how much easier and quicker it is to write.

There are, of course, illustrations, as well as an excursus on the old Google double-story “g,” whose neck is too far to the right:

I called up Ruth Kedar, the designer who created the Google logo in 1999. “The font was chosen in many ways because of that very unusual ‘g,’” she confessed. (The font is Catull.) “This was the ’90s,” she said. “The internet was new, and the people did not really know how to use those things, computers.” Kedar wanted the logo to appear friendly but still convey an old-fashioned authority. This unusual yet familiar double-story “g” helped.

In 2015, with computers firmly entrenched in our lives, Google updated its logo to feature a more modern-looking sans-serif font and a single-story “g.”

I confess I’m still annoyed at the change. (Thanks, jack!)

Casaubon and the King James Version.

I wrote about Isaac Casaubon’s linguistic attainments back in 2011, and they are impressively borne out by Olivia Rudgard’s Telegraph article:

Research by Dr Nicholas Hardy at the University of Birmingham has found that Isaac Casaubon, an eminent French scholar, helped translate the Bible into English.

It is the first time a non-English speaker has been found to have worked on the famous work. […]

Letters unearthed by Dr Hardy show that English translator John Bois exchanged letters with French scholar Casaubon, who was visiting London towards the end of 1610.

Casaubon was at the time regarded as the most accomplished scholar of ancient languages, such as Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic, in the world, and is thought to have been brought in to help verify the work of less accomplished English translators. […]

[Read more…]

Kiowa Sign Language.

Jennifer Graber reports for OUPBlog:

In 1890, a strange letter with “hieroglyphic script” arrived at Pennsylvania’s Carlisle Indian Industrial School. It was sent from a reservation in the Oklahoma Territory to a Kiowa student named Belo Cozad. Cozad, who did not read or write in English, was able to understand the letter’s contents—namely, its symbols that offered an update about his family. The letter provided news about relatives’ health and employment, as well as details about religious practice on the reservation.

While Belo Cozad understood the letter, Americans working at the school did not. Neither did reservation officials who saw the letter once Cozad returned to Oklahoma. Anthropologists working there sent a copy to the Smithsonian’s Bureau of Ethnology, where a staff member set out to understand it. Interviewed back on the reservation, Cozad provided “translations” of the letter. The anthropologists concluded that several Kiowas, though hardly all, knew this writing system. […]

The marks on Cozad’s letter mimicked the signs for individual words. A circle followed by four loops signifies four brothers. Three horizontal lines stand for the number three. A box with vertical lines, followed by a swooping downward and then upward line, means that someone has been buried in a grave. Together, the signs tell Cozad that he no longer had four brothers, but only three. One had recently died and been buried.

With this letter, Cozad’s family took an old form, Plains Indian Sign Language, and adapted it for their new situation. With the hope of reaching their kin in boarding school, they had put signs onto paper and placed it in the US mail.

The images at the link are well worth viewing. (Kiowa previously on LH.)

Jigsaw Segmentation and the Vatican Archives.

When I saw the title of Sam Kean’s Atlantic article “Artificial Intelligence Is Cracking Open the Vatican’s Secret Archives” I groaned inwardly, assuming it was the usual excessive hype for what was probably a banal story. But no, it’s really something (though I still jib at the term “artificial intelligence”). It starts out with the fact that the Vatican Secret Archives is “one of the grandest historical collections in the world,” with 53 linear miles of shelving, but also “one of the most useless”:

Of those 53 miles, just a few millimeters’ worth of pages have been scanned and made available online. Even fewer pages have been transcribed into computer text and made searchable. If you want to peruse anything else, you have to apply for special access, schlep all the way to Rome, and go through every page by hand.

But a new project could change all that. Known as In Codice Ratio, it uses a combination of artificial intelligence and optical-character-recognition (OCR) software to scour these neglected texts and make their transcripts available for the very first time. If successful, the technology could also open up untold numbers of other documents at historical archives around the world.

Kean describes the difficulty of using OCR on handwritten text, then says:

In Codice Ratio sidesteps these problems through a new approach to handwritten OCR. The four main scientists behind the project—Paolo Merialdo, Donatella Firmani, and Elena Nieddu at Roma Tre University, and Marco Maiorino at the VSA—skirt Sayre’s paradox with an innovation called jigsaw segmentation. This process, as the team recently outlined in a paper, breaks words down not into letters but something closer to individual pen strokes. The OCR does this by dividing each word into a series of vertical and horizontal bands and looking for local minimums—the thinner portions, where there’s less ink (or really, fewer pixels). The software then carves the letters at these joints. The end result is a series of jigsaw pieces

The details are fascinating (the process involved help from high schoolers), but I’ll let you discover them at the link; the possibilities are exhilarating:

Like all artificial intelligence, the software will improve over time, as it digests more text. Even more exciting, the general strategy of In Codice Ratio—jigsaw segmentation, plus crowdsourced training of the software—could easily be adapted to read texts in other languages. This could potentially do for handwritten documents what Google Books did for printed matter: open up letters, journals, diaries, and other papers to researchers around the world, making it far easier to both read these documents and search for relevant material.

Thanks, jack!