Notes about language

October 5, 2011 permalink

The cannibal curse of corporate prose

From the NY Times review of the updated 2011 “digital” edition of How to Win Friends and Influence People:

The following sentence, which appears on Page 80, is so inept that it may actually be an ancient curse and to read it more than three times aloud is to summon the cannibal undead: “Today’s biggest enemy of lasting influence is the sector of both personal and corporate musing that concerns itself with the art of creating impressions without consulting the science of need ascertainment.”

I don’t think they like the book’s modernized language.

August 20, 2011 permalink

On gunpowder, ice cream, and sound symbolism

From the post Language of Food: Ice Cream, a fascinating article linking the history of gunpowder, ice cream, linguistics, and even a bit of marketing insight:

Something similarly beautiful was created as saltpeter and snow, sherbet and salt, were passed along and extended from the Chinese to the Arabs to the Mughals to the Neapolitans, to create the sweet lusciousness of ice cream. And it’s a nice thought that saltpeter, applied originally to war, became the key hundreds of years later to inventing something that makes us all smile on a hot summer day.

If you like food, language, or science, the full post is worth a read.

(Via Language Log)

December 5, 2010 permalink

The Metrics of Rap

Language Log drops the science on the metrics of rap and hiphop, as part of a larger article on Yale University’s recently-published, transcription-error-prone The Anthology of Rap. The above image illustrates the meter of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s SuperRappin’.

As always in such cases, there’s an interesting question whether this should be thought of as a superficial deviation from an underlyingly square rhythm, or rather as a different draw from a set of available polyrhythmic patterns. For some more discussion, see e.g. “Rock syncopation: Stress shifts or polyrhythms?”, 11/26/2007. Note in any case that the mixture of four-beat and three-beat (lyric) lines evokes the traditional English ballad meter, whatever we’re to make of the variations in alignment.

September 27, 2010 permalink

The accent of elision

Probably one of the very worst things about the English writing system (and it has a huge long list of bad things about it) is that it very clearly employs 27 letters in the spelling of words but there is a huge and long-standing conspiracy to market it as having only 26. Insane, but that’s what English has done.

From an appropriately enigmatic post on Language Log regarding our forgotten letter.

September 6, 2010 permalink

Somewhere between Mozart and Bach

From Scientific American’s Observations blog, a report on a shared emotional code between music and speech:

Almost everyone thinks “Greensleeves” is a sad song—but why? Apart from the melancholy lyrics, it’s because the melody prominently features a musical construct called the minor third, which musicians have used to express sadness since at least the 17th century. The minor third’s emotional sway is closely related to the popular idea that, at least for Western music, songs written in a major key (like “Happy Birthday”) are generally upbeat, while those in a minor key (think of The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby”) tend towards the doleful.

The tangible relationship between music and emotion is no surprise to anyone, but a study in the June issue of Emotion suggests the minor third isn’t a facet of musical communication alone—it’s how we convey sadness in speech, too. When it comes to sorrow, music and human speech might speak the same language.

Or to quote Nigel Tufnel: “It’s part of a trilogy, a musical trilogy I’m working on in D minor which is the saddest of all keys, I find. People weep instantly when they hear it, and I don’t know why.”

April 25, 2010 permalink

Ebooks

At no point has it even occurred to me, until right now, that I’m in fact typing e-words or e-sentences. I’ve not thought about adding an e-carriage return to separate this e-paragraph from the next e-paragraph.

From Brett McLaughlin’s post on O'Reilly Radar asking why publishers and vendors are still using the term e-books when it’s simply literary content that’s appearing on a different platform. You could also argue that the term book itself is beginning to get slippery. In any case, “ebooks” has been sounding dated for a while now, so I’ll give him that.

March 1, 2010 permalink

C’est l’heure d’or

Designers love noodling about perfecting the design of chairs. Linguists seem to love discussing why “cellar door” is cited as the most beautiful phrase in English. From Language Log’s The Romantic Side of Familiar Words:

And in fact the specific meaning of cellar door isn’t quite as irrelevant as people imagine. The undeniable charm of the story — the source of the delight and enchantment that C. S. Lewis reported when he saw  cellar door rendered as Selladore –– lies the sudden falling away of the repressions imposed by orthography (which is to say, civilization) to reveal what Dickens called “the romantic side of familiar things." It’s the benign cousin of the disquietude we may feel when familiar things are suddenly charged with strange and troubling feelings, which Freud analyzed in his essay on the Unheimlich or uncanny. As Freud observed, heimlich can mean either “homey, familiar,” or “"concealed, withheld, kept from sight.” He goes on: “‘Unheimlich’ is customarily used, we are told, as the contrary only of the first signification of’ heimlich’, and not of the second. …” But he notes that the second meaning is always present as well: “everything is unheimlich that ought to have remained secret and hidden but has come to light.” Something is unheimlich, he says, because it “fulfils the condition of touching those residues of animistic mental activity within us and bringing them to expression.“

The unheimlich object, that is, is a kind of portal to the romance and passion that lie just beneath the surface of the everyday. In the world of fantasy, that role is suggested literally in the form of a rabbit hole, a wardrobe, a brick wall at platform 9¾. Cellar door is the same kind of thing, the expression people keep falling on to illustrate how civilization and literacy put the primitive sensory experience of language at a remove from conscious experience – "under a spell, so the wrong ones can’t find it” — until it’s suddenly thrown open. It would be hard make that point using rag mop.

January 9, 2010 permalink

You are in a maze of twisty passages, all alike.

[I]t raises the question of how this particular nonsense word came into wide use at MIT. It seems reasonable to pursue this question, and reasonable that there would be some discernable answer. After all, there’s a whole official document, RFC 3092, explaining the etymology of “foobar.” It could be interesting to know what sort of nonsense word “zork” is, since it’s quite a different thing, with very different resonances, to borrow a “nonsense” term from Edward Lear or Lewis Carroll as opposed to Hugo Ball or Tristan Tzara. “Zork,” of course, doesn’t seem to derive from either humorous English nonsense poetry or Dada; the possibilities for its origins are more complex.

From Post Position’s “A Note on the Word ‘Zork’”, investigating the nonsense term that would in the late 70’s would become synonymous with interactive fiction and the birth of popular computer gaming. Maybe Get Lamp will soon clear up some of this for us.

(Via 5cience)

October 19, 2009 permalink

The Pundit’s Dilemma

There’s been a bit of a blogstorm over the impending release of the sequel to Freakonomics, the obviously-titled SuperFreakonomics. The authors are being taken to task for allegedly questionable science and statistics work, accused of oversimplifying or distorting their results for the sake of contrariness. There’s good discussion and links on Language Log’s post on the controversy:

Overall, the promotion of interesting stories in preference to accurate ones is always in the immediate economic self-interest of the promoter. It’s interesting stories, not accurate ones, that pump up ratings for Beck and Limbaugh.  But it’s also interesting stories that bring readers to The Huffington Post and to Maureen Dowd’s column, and it’s interesting stories that sell copies of Freakonomics and Super Freakonomics.  In this respect, Levitt and Dubner are exactly like Beck and Limbaugh.

We might call this the Pundit’s Dilemma — a game, like the Prisoner’s Dilemma, in which the player’s best move always seems to be to take the low road, and in which the aggregate welfare of the community always seems fated to fall. And this isn’t just a game for pundits. Scientists face similar choices every day, in deciding whether to over-sell their results, or for that matter to manufacture results for optimal appeal.

In the end, scientists usually over-interpret only a little, and rarely cheat, because the penalties for being caught are extreme.  As a result, in an iterated version of the game, it’s generally better to play it fairly straight.  Pundits (and regular journalists) also play an iterated version of this game — but empirical observation suggests that the penalties for many forms of bad behavior are too small and uncertain to have much effect. Certainly, the reputational effects of mere sensationalism and exaggeration seem to be negligible.

October 19, 2009 permalink

Ockham’s Broom

A new editorial series in the Journal of Biology, Ockham’s Broom:

Although it is increasingly difficult to gauge what people can be expected to know, it is probably safe to assume that most readers are familiar with Ockham’s razor – roughly, the principle whereby gratuitous suppositions are shaved from the interpretation of facts – enunciated by a Franciscan monk, William of Ockham, in the fourteenth century. Ockham’s broom is a somewhat more recent conceit, attributable to Sydney Brenner, and embodies the principle whereby inconvenient facts are swept under the carpet in the interests of a clear interpretation of a messy reality.

To elaborate that point briefly – While Ockham’s razor clearly has an established important and honourable place in the philosophy and practice of science, there is, despite its somewhat pejorative connotations, an honourable place for the broom as well. Biology, as many have pointed out, is untidy and accidental, and it is arguably unlikely that all the facts can be accounted for early in the investigation of any given biological phenomenon. For example, if only Charles Darwin had swept under the carpet the variation he faithfully recorded in the ratios of inherited traits in his primulas, as Mendel did with his peas, we might be talking of Darwinian inheritance and not Mendelian (see [3]). Clearly, though, it takes some special sophistication, or intuition, to judge what to ignore.

Further commentary at Language Log.

Pagination