Mouth to Mouth.

I’m surprised I haven’t posted about Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, whom I knew briefly before her death in 1982 (the NY Times, inattentive as usual to anything outside its archaic notions of what’s fit to print, didn’t give her an obit until last year), since she was centrally concerned with issues of language — as Jonathan Morse says in this 2020 comment, “Or, specifically about language and its hats, you could save the time and expense by reading Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s experimental prose piece Dictée, with its English, French and Korean and its photographs.” At any rate, I was scrolling down the very interesting list 101 Hidden Gems: The Greatest Films You’ve Never Seen when I hit this, which I hadn’t known about:

51. Mouth to Mouth (1975)

Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, US/South Korea

Mouth to Mouth swallowed me whole. But watching it also felt like breathing it in. Korean-American artist Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s eight-minute video is a visual poem on the mother tongue and displacement. After a patient pan across written English and Korean, video static fills the screen. A mouth appears to enunciate but no words can be heard; instead, streams of running water and brushes of wind fill the soundscape. The noisy screen surface inhales the mouth; erotic and abject co-exist from moment to moment. With simple ingredients, Cha sinks into a well of emotions: home might be far away, but always with us.

And it turns out it’s available on Vimeo, so I’m posting it. If you don’t like experimental film, you won’t like it, but if you do, you might. Anyway, consider this my belated tribute to a remarkable woman.

Arabic Discovery Catalog.

Via a Facebook post by our old pal Slavomír Čéplö a/k/a bulbul, the Arabic Discovery Catalog:

OCLC has introduced the Arabic Discovery Catalog, a new initiative that brings together bibliographic records from libraries located in Arab countries into one catalog to enhance the discoverability and visibility of these collections for international research.

The Arabic Discovery Catalog currently includes records of more than 3.8 million Arabic resources and continues to grow, making it one of the most comprehensive bibliographic resources of Arabic culture.

OCLC staff have indexed records in Arabic and taken steps to ensure that sorting and searching of results are accurately displayed to deliver an intuitive and seamless discovery experience using Arabic script. The Arabic Discovery Catalog is built on the WorldCat Discovery platform, the discovery solution developed by OCLC that makes it possible for people easily find and get resources available in libraries worldwide through a single search.

Also, “Happy Birthday” to the Linguistic Society of America (it turns 100 in January), and — just for the hell of it — Wikipedia’s list of bodies that consider themselves to be authorities on standard languages, often called language academies (note the pungent parenthetical on Yiddish: “YIVO does not regulate or hold any sway over the Yiddish used in Ultra-Orthodox circles where the Yiddish language is most used in current times”).


I don’t know if I’d ever thought about the history of the word blizzard, but it turns out to be confused and confusing; Merriam-Webster:

The earliest recorded appearance of the word blizzard meaning “a severe snowstorm” was in the April 23, 1870 issue of a newspaper published in Estherville, Iowa. Blizzard shows up again during the following years in several newspapers in Iowa and neighboring states, and by 1888, when a snowstorm paralyzed the Eastern seaboard, the word was well-known nationally. However, in other senses, the word blizzard existed earlier. Davy Crockett, for instance, used it twice in the 1830s, once to mean a rifle blast and once to mean for a blast of words. All of these uses seem related, but the ultimate origin of the word is still unclear.


Originally a mid-19th century regional American term (Western United States), perhaps from earlier American regional blizzard, a stunning blow (suggested by BLAST, BLOW, BLUSTER, etc.), or perhaps a compound of blizz- (either of imitative origin, or from 18-century American regional (Virginia) blizz, powerful rainstorm (of unknown origin)) + -ARD.

The OED entry, alas, is still in its 1887 form, so it can be safely ignored. At any rate, it’s a very satisfying word, much better than snowstorm.

Crispy R.

Dan Nosowitz writes in Atlas Obscura about what may or may not be an actual phenomenon:

In November 2021, linguists from around the world met in Lausanne, Switzerland, for the seventh edition of a conference focusing specifically on the “R” sound. The conference, called ‘R-Atics, included a presentation on the intrusive R used in the Falkland Islands, a reconstruction of what R sounded like in historical Armenian, and a discussion of the R sounds in Shiwiar, an indigenous Ecuadorian language spoken by well under 10,000 people, among other events and talks. Don’t be too surprised if, at a future ‘R-Atics conference, the “crispy R” joins the ranks of esoteric presentations from linguists obsessed with the weirdness and variation of this particular sound.

The crispy R is a phenomenon that some linguists had noticed, but which had gone largely unstudied—until the phrase “crispy R” was bestowed on it by Brian Michael Firkus, better known as Trixie Mattel, the winner of the third season of RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars, and later popularized via TikTok. The sound is easier to point out than it is to either describe or reproduce. Some of the most frequent users of this unusual-sounding R include Kourtney Kardashian, Max Greenfield of New Girl fame, Stassi from Vanderpump Rules, and Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend. It sounds, to me at least, like a sort of elongated, curled sound, a laconic way of saying R.

Here, just watch this video.

To figure out what’s going on with this linguistic quirk, I pored over spectrograms of a podcast I like, ranking various spoken words on their degree of crispiness. I silently mouthed the word “crispy” over and over during interviews with several linguists who, I have to say, were at least as interested and enthusiastic about the crispy R as Katya (Brian Joseph McCook, Firkus’s frequent collaborator and cohost), who literally screams several times upon hearing the sound.

The linguists were careful to note that any conclusions about the crispy R at this stage are still preliminary. They’ll have to do more listening surveys, more spectrograms, and ideally capture one of these rare natural crispy R speakers and try to get an ultrasound of the way their tongues move inside their mouths. But to understand their explanation, we first need to explain what a weird, distinctive, unusual thing the R sound is.

Go to the link for much more about R’s in general (retroflex and bunched) and the alleged crispy R in particular (“Every crispy R seems to be retroflex, but not every retroflex R sounds audibly crispy”); I myself can’t hear what he’s talking about, so I take it all on faith (and am glad I didn’t try to become a phonetician). All thoughts, as always, welcome. Thanks, Nick!

Origin of South Caucasian Languages.

The time and place of origin of South Caucasian languages,” by Alexander Gavashelishvili, Merab Chukhua, Kakhi Sakhltkhutsishvili, Dilek Koptekin, and Mehmet Somel (Sci Rep 13, 21133 [2023]), looks quite interesting, and it’s open access, so you can check it out freely. The abstract:

This study re-examines the linguistic phylogeny of the South Caucasian linguistic family (aka the Kartvelian linguistic family) and attempts to identify its Urheimat. We apply Bayesian phylogenetics to infer a dated phylogeny of the South Caucasian languages. We infer the Urheimat and the reasons for the split of the Kartvelian languages by taking into consideration (1) the past distribution ranges of wildlife elements whose names can be traced back to proto-Kartvelian roots, (2) the distribution ranges of past cultures and (3) the genetic variations of past and extant human populations. Our best-fit Bayesian phylogenetic model is in agreement with the widely accepted topology suggested by previous studies. However, in contrast to these studies, our model suggests earlier mean split dates, according to which the divergence between Svan and Karto-Zan occurred in the early Copper Age, while Georgian and Zan diverged in the early Iron Age. The split of Zan into Megrelian and Laz is widely attributed to the spread of Georgian and/or Georgian speakers in the seventh-eighth centuries CE. Our analyses place the Kartvelian Urheimat in an area that largely intersects the Colchis glacial refugium in the South Caucasus. The divergence of Kartvelian languages is strongly associated with differences in the rate of technological expansions in relation to landscape heterogeneity, as well as the emergence of state-run communities. Neolithic societies could not colonize dense forests, whereas Copper Age societies made limited progress in this regard, but not to the same degree of success achieved by Bronze and Iron Age societies. The paper also discusses the importance of glacial refugia in laying the foundation for linguistic families and where Indo-European languages might have originated.

And the introduction ends:

There is linguistic evidence that points either to possible structural relationship or to prolonged contacts between Kartvelian and Indo-European languages in the South Caucasus. This is supported by recently discovered genetic evidence of a ghost population in or near the South Caucasus, which acted as the link connecting the Proto-Indo-European-speaking Yamnaya with the speakers of Anatolian languages. In this context our findings will help reduce the search area for the homeland of Indo-European languages and provide more clarity about the nature of ties between Kartvelian and Indo-European languages.

Thanks, Dmitry!

To Gesture Like a Native Speaker.

Is Seeing Gesture Necessary to Gesture Like a Native Speaker?” by Şeyda Özçalışkan, Ché Lucero, and Susan Goldin-Meadow (Psychol Sci. 2016 May;27(5):737-47) is an intriguing study; the abstract:

Speakers of all languages gesture, but there are differences in the gestures that they produce. Do speakers learn language-specific gestures by watching others gesture or by learning to speak a particular language? We examined this question by studying the speech and gestures produced by 40 congenitally blind adult native speakers of English and Turkish (n = 20/language), and comparing them with the speech and gestures of 40 sighted adult speakers in each language (20 wearing blindfolds, 20 not wearing blindfolds). We focused on speakers’ descriptions of physical motion, which display strong cross-linguistic differences in patterns of speech and gesture use. Congenitally blind speakers of English and Turkish produced speech that resembled the speech produced by sighted speakers of their native language. More important, blind speakers of each language used gestures that resembled the gestures of sighted speakers of that language. Our results suggest that hearing a particular language is sufficient to gesture like a native speaker of that language.

Compare “Why people gesture when they speak” by Jana M. Iverson and Susan Goldin-Meadow (Nature Vol. 396 [19 November 1998], p. 228): “Gesture does not depend on either a model or an observer, and thus appears to be integral to the speaking process itself.”

What It Takes to Master Spelling.

I’ve long been interested in spelling bees (see my lament in this 2006 post), and I was fascinated by the Washington Post column by Dev Shah, who won the National Spelling Bee in June and says “This is what it takes to master spelling”:

I never expected to win. I had lost more than two dozen spelling bees since I started competing in the fourth grade, and last year, I didn’t even qualify for the national competition. If that wasn’t enough pressure, this was my final year of eligibility. This spelling bee was my last shot. […]

How did I finally break through? There are almost half a million words in English dictionaries. Add in thousands of roots and hundreds of language patterns, and it is impossible to memorize everything. Once I realized that, I changed the way I trained and started focusing on sharpening my intuition.

The skill of guessing is everything. Though I could — and did — study words for hours on end, I knew my greatest asset would be learning to guess correctly. In stressful situations, sometimes you just have to breathe, steady yourself and leave things to chance.

[Read more…]

Grammars Across Time Analyzed.

Via Ionuț Zamfir’s Facebook post, Blum, F., Barrientos, C., Ingunza, A. et al., “Grammars Across Time Analyzed (GATA): A dataset of 52 languages” [Sci Data 10, 835 (2023)]; the abstract:

Grammars Across Time Analyzed (GATA) is a resource capturing two snapshots of the grammatical structure of a diverse range of languages separated in time, aimed at furthering research on historical linguistics, language evolution, and cultural change. GATA comprises grammatical information on 52 diverse languages across all continents, featuring morphological, syntactic, and phonological information based on published grammars of the same language at two different time points. Here we introduce the coding scheme and design features of GATA, and we describe some salient patterns related to language change and the coverage of grammatical descriptions over time.

It’s open access, so you can read the whole thing; if you have thoughts, please share. (And if you’re curious, Ionuț is the Romanian diminutive of Ion; the English equivalent is Johnny.)

By the way, a public service announcement: Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter’s given name is properly pronounced /ˈhjuːdi/; the 1900 Census lists him as “Hudy Ledbetter,” and if he’d kept that spelling it would have been easier on everyone. I mention it because I keep forgetting it, and was reminded once again today. So now you know, if you didn’t already.

Verge and Foliot.

We were watching the great 1978 series Connections (available at the Internet Archive), and James Burke (the creator, writer, and presenter), discussing the history of timepieces, referred to “verge and foliot clocks.” I was, of course, intrigued, and as soon as the episode ended I investigated. Verge, which can mean any sort of rod, shaft, pole, or wand as well as “The spindle or arbor of the balance in the old vertical escapement,” is from Old French verge < Latin virga ‘rod, etc.’; foliot is more interesting, having the senses “? Foolish matter. Obsolete. rare,” “A kind of goblin. Obsolete. rare,” and “A type of clock escapement consisting of a bar with adjustable weights on the ends. (Disused.)” The etymology:

? < Old French foliot.

The Old French word is recorded only as meaning watch-spring; but according to Hatzfeld & Darmesteter it is derived from the verb folier to play the fool, to dance about, and so may have had other meanings related to this verb. Compare the surname Foliot, known from 12th cent. in English. How Burton obtained the word there is nothing to show; he evidently connects it with Italian folletto, = French (esprit) follet, hobgoblin, properly a diminutive of fol foolish. Can it be a misprint for follet?

As you can probably guess, that’s an ancient unrevised entry (from 1897). I have to say it’s a very attractive word, and I regret that it’s disused.

Naming the Steve.

Jackie Wattles reports for CNN about an onomastic innovation that is personally pleasing to me:

Not all science is carried out by folks in white lab coats under the fluorescent lights of academic buildings. Occasionally, the trajectory of the scientific record is forever altered inside a pub over a pint of beer. Such is the case for the sweeping purple and green lights that can hover over the horizon in the Northern Hemisphere. The phenomenon looks like an aurora but is in fact something entirely different.

It’s called Steve.

The rare light spectacle has caused a bit of buzz this year as the sun is entering its most active period, ramping up the number of dazzling natural phenomena that appear in the night sky — and leading to new reports of people spotting Steve in areas it does not typically appear, such as parts of the United Kingdom. But about eight years ago, when Elizabeth MacDonald, a space physicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, was in Calgary, Alberta, for a seminar, she had never seen the phenomenon in person. And it did not yet have a name. […]

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