Tag Language

Metaphor as metastasis

An op-ed worth reading, if only for the opening epigraph (and, come to think of it, the essential closing verb in the quotation below).

What if, instead of that playful word bubble, we tried something a bit more accurately descriptive when growth at any cost became the goal. Say, “tumor”: “the dot-com tumor,” “the subprime tumor,” “the derivatives tumor.”

Would anyone seriously gainsay the highest possible vigilance over the proper functioning of their own body or doubt the need for strong regulation? Who, facing the prospect of a tumorous outbreak or living with a body demonstrably prone to such outbreaks, would entrust that body to a band of physicians blithely committed to laissez faire regarding these fatal bubbles of flesh?

Words matter. Metaphors frame thought. Pay them heed and tend them well.

from “The trouble with bubbles,” by Walter Murch and Lawrence Weschler, Los Angeles Times, 23 May 2010

Originally published at culture-making.com.

Astonishment, Excitement, Embarrassment, Etc.

Bethany L. King/flickr

It is, I think you will agree, the rather rare headline that contains a total of eleven exclamation marks. Nonetheless, there it was, on the editorial page of the April 5 New York Times: “OMG!!! OED!!! LOL!!!!!“—a lighthearted, unsigned opinion celebrating the addition of a pair of Internet- and text-message-boosted Three-Letter Initialisms1 into the greatest TLI of them all: the Oxford English Dictionary.

There were a lot of similar headlines that week, conveying much the same news: that the OED had announced, as they do from time to time, a set of new and revised definitions—part of their lexicographers’ never-ending task of making sure the flagship dictionary of the English language remains up to date. Hence, this month, the new inclusion of fnarr-fnarr, singledom, banh mi, smack-talking, stonewash, tinfoil hat, behavioral economics, wassup, biker, runathon, happy camper, Second Coming, rumble-de-thumps (along with dozens of other R-words), and as a headliner, OMG: “colloq. (freq. in the language of electronic communications) . . . Expressing astonishment, excitement, embarrassment, etc.: ‘oh my God!'”

Love and language

I just finished Elif Batuman’s delightful, erudite, and hopelessly funny memoir of her love of Russian literature as lived out through seven at-times-harrowing years of comp lit grad school. Elif is a college acquaintance and sometime correspondent of mine, so it’s always a double treat to see her writing out in the wider world.

If I didn’t actually believe in my responsibility to tell Americans the truth about Turkey, nevertheless I did feel it was somehow wasteful to study Russian literature instead of Turkish literature. I had repeatedly been told in linguistics classes that all languages were universally complex, to a biologically determined degree. Didn’t that mean that all languages were, objectively speaking, equally interesting? And I already knew Turkish; it had happened without any work, like a gift, and here I was tossing it away to break my head on a bunch of declensions that came effortlessly to anyone who happened to grow up in Russia.

Today, this strikes me as terrible reasoning. I now understand that love is a rare and valuable thing, and you don’t get to choose its object. You just go around getting hung up on the all the least convenient things—and if the only obstacle in your way is a little extra work, then that’s the wonderful gift right there.

Originally published at culture-making.com.

The market and the story

I’m fascinated, more than troubled, by the interplay between the narrative impulse and theoretically rational pursuits. It’s why I love science (and the history of science) — you find some data, propose a story to fit it, then find some more and see if the story holds. Of course with the stock market, things move at a pace such that the half-life of a story is often rather short.

The point is that 60% of stock trades are being done by machines, operating according to a set of algorithms and inputs, which (I’m pretty sure) do not include natural language parsing of the news.

Yet whenever the stock market makes a move, the financial press constructs post hoc narratives that explain what’s happened as a reaction to the news of the day, as if the news is what was was motivating the trades. For example, here’s Reuters confidently explaining today’s nose-dive in terms of various events that made headlines, none of which are a computer glitch. (15 minutes later, Reuters tweeted the alternate explanation.)

This fascinates me. Most stock market trading is being done by machines, but the stories we tell ourselves are about humans responding to new information. You can’t interview an algorithm about why it made a certain choice. In the absence of that knowledge, it seems clear that the financial press just makes educated guesses and acts as if correlation is causation. It’s speculative fiction.

from “Glitch Trading,” by Tim Maly, Quiet Babylon, 8 May 2010

Originally published at culture-making.com.

Language that does not forget the world of nouns

What are novels for, in the age of Google and neuropsychology and what not else? Sven Birkerts takes a long reflective stab at the question. His conclusions are tentative but nonetheless resonant: “Concentration is no longer a given; it has to be strategized, fought for. But when it is achieved it can yield experiences that are more rewarding for being singular and hard-won.”

What thou lovest well remains—and for me it is language in this condition of alert, sensuous precision, language that does not forget the world of nouns. I’m thinking that one part of this project will need to be a close reading of and reflection upon certain passages that are for me certifiably great. I have to find occasion to ask—and examine closely—what happens when a string of words gets something exactly right.

from “Reading in a Digital Age,” by Sven Birkerts, The American Scholar, Spring 2010 :: via languagehat

Originally published at culture-making.com.

The Garifuna Mass

New York City, this article says, is the most linguistically diverse city in the world. In a few cases it’s easier to find speakers of endangered languages there than in the languages’ home regions.

At a Roman Catholic Church in the Morrisania section of the Bronx, Mass is said once a month in Garifuna, an Arawakan language that originated with descendants of African slaves shipwrecked near St. Vincent in the Caribbean and later exiled to Central America. Today, Garifuna is virtually as common in the Bronx and in Brooklyn as in Honduras and Belize.

from “The Lost Languages, Found in New York,” by Sam Roberts, NYTimes.com, 28 April 2010

Originally published at culture-making.com.

As sherp as muckle needles

The absurdly prolific author Alexander McCall Smith has a new book for younger readers featuring the characters from the bestselling No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. As part of a promotion with the Scottish Arts Council, it is currently only available in a Scots translation in its first year of publication. It’s a fun and fascinating way to affirm and promote the Scots language—and even gain it new worldwide readers, as it’s close enough to English for a patient reader to puzzle it out with pleasure.

Whit wid ye dae if ye fund yersel face tae face wi a muckle lion? Staund as still as a stookie? Mak yer feet yer freens and rin? Creep awa quiet-like? Mibbe ye wid jist steek yer een and hope that ye were haein a dream – which is whit Obed did at first when he saw the frichtsome lion starin strecht at him. But when he opened his een again, the lion wis aye there, and whit wis waur, wis stertin tae open its muckle mooth. Precious sooked in her braith. ‘Did ye see his teeth?’ she spiered. Obed noddit his heid. ‘The moonlicht wis gey bricht,’ he said. ‘His teeth were white and as sherp as muckle needles.’

from Precious and the Puggies, Chapter Twa, by Alexander McCall Smith, translatit intae Scots by James Robertson and wi bonnie illustrations by Iain McIntosh, 2010 :: via MetaFilter

Originally published at culture-making.com.

Medieval helpdesk

You put your cultural product out there, but it’s still up to individual people (and their oft long-suffering helpers) to let it succeed or fail. I love that this sketch is from a decade ago but feels perfect for the current tech-nerd-philosophical debates about the iPad, the Kindle, and the future of the book.

Medieval helpdesk,” from the show Øystein og jeg, Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK), 2001 :: via languagehat

Originally published at culture-making.com.

Indian schoolroom posters

Some of my favorite souvenirs from India are posters for schoolchildren of the sort sold in bookshops and street-side newsstands. They’re always approachable and informative (you know, for kids!) and in me at least inspire lots of far-reaching thoughts about culture and categories. When you have an outsider’s vantage, it’s easier to notice the whims of taxonomy: why display this sort of thing, and not that one. The odd notes always seem most resonant and mysterious: is the strange language and selection a product of shoddy research (Types of Rocks: Volcanic, Metamorphic, Sedimentary, Igneous, Layerd, Sharp, Small, Big, Smooth), or a sign that the obvious groupings don’t always hold up across cultures?


Newsprint and laminated schoolroom posters, 2–50 Rupees each, from the vast semi-online catalog of Indian Book Depot (Map House), New Delhi, India :: via things magazine

Originally published at culture-making.com.

You had me at ‘hello’

Telephone Booths

image cc Richard Stowey/flickr

A few days ago I followed a link to Omniglot, a treasure-trove of comparative linguistics for laymen and the lovers of global alphabets, of which I am both. The page I landed on was titled Translations of Hello in many languages and featured a giant three-column table offering standard greetings in 182 languages, scrolling from goeie dag (Afrikaans) all the way to sanibonani (Zulu). Perusing this chart brought two questions to my mind. First, why do I have a link to Kanye West’s blog on my browser’s toolbar, but not one for Omniglot? And second, wait, a three-column chart? For along with “Language” and “Hello” there was the distinct-yet-apparently-essential column labelled “Hello (on phone).”