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Posts tagged language

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

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 "Everyone Speaks Text Message," by Tina Rosenberg, The New York TImes, 9 December 2011

“For a long time, technology was the enemy,” says Inée Slaughter, executive director of the New Mexico-based Indigenous Language Institute, which teaches Native Americans and other indigenous peoples how to use digital technologies to keep their languages vital. Heritage languages were being killed off by increasing urbanization, the spread of formal education and the shift to cash crops, which ended the isolation of indigenous communities. Advances in technology seemed to intensify the decline. “Even in 1999 or 2000, people were saying technology killed their language,” Slaughter says. “Community elders worried about it. As television came into homes, English became pervasive 24/7. Mainstream culture infiltrated, and young kids want to be like that. It was a huge, huge problem, and it’s still there. But now we know ways technology can be helpful.”

from "Kerala: mad about books," by Mridula Koshy, Le Monde diplomatique, June 2009; cover image from M.T. Vasudevan Nair's Bandhanam, DC Books :: via :: first posted here 12 June 2009


Outside the big cities, a very small minority of Indians – only seven to eight million – read in English. India has an overall rate of 65% literacy – measured in people’s own mother tongues. But where India drops into the Indian Ocean, in the state of Kerala, home of Malayalam literature, literacy is close to 100%. Not surprisingly, the population of Kerala – some 31 million – reads books.

Malayalam writers are in the enviable position of writing for [2008 Booker-prize-winning White Tiger author Aravind] Adiga’s rickshaw puller and not just about him.

Paul Zacharia, one of the best-known contemporary writers in Malayalam, says: “In the Indian picture, Kerala’s book readers are a record. They are the product both of the literacy movement and the earlier library movement spearheaded by a one-man army called PN Paniker [the founding father of the literacy movement in Kerala]. A whole world of grassroots readers keep emerging from the villages.” ...

In a recent report in The Hindu, Ravi DC, CEO of DC Books, Kerala’s leading publishing house, said the sale of Malayalam books has been growing by at least 30% a year. At the sixth international book fair, which DC Books organised in Kerala in November 2008, sales had doubled in a year. And, he added, “the demand for books in rural areas is on the increase”. The marketing strategy was now based on the concept that “books should go to people instead of people coming to book houses”.

As the philosopher Albert Borgmann has observed, human cultures have the strange yet fortunate property of always being full. No culture experiences itself as thin or incomplete. Consider language. No human language seems to its speakers to lack the capacity to describe everything they experience—or, at least, all our languages fail at the same limits of mystery. Even though our languages divide up the color spectrum very differently from one another, for example, every human language has a name for every color its speakers can see. No one is waiting for a new word to come along so they can begin talking about yellow.

Culture Making, p. 67

Creativity is not something just for “creatives”—we all have given being to some sentence the world had never heard before, and may never hear again. In all likelihood, unless we are stuck in a dull job and have dull friends, we have done so this very day. Where did that sentence come from? It was potentially present in the grammar and vocabulary of our language; it may well bear a resemblance to words we and others have thought and said before; but it did not exist before, and it does now. Had we not spoken it, it would have gone unsaid.

Culture Making, p.104


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.

by Nate Barksdale for Culture Making

My latest essay for Comment is online now: an illustrated meditation on the history and execution movie subtitles (their color, their language, their grammatical tricks) and why I find them so, well, fascinating. Read it here.

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

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 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

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.’

by Nate Barksdale for Culture Making

I’ve just launched my latest passion project, A graphical analysis of national anthem lyrics, with attention to religious expression, Olympic performance, and general bloodthirstiness.

from "Umberto Eco: We Like Lists Because We Don't Want to Die," interview by Susanne Beyer and Lothar Gorris, SPIEGEL ONLINE - News - International, 11 November 2009 :: via The Morning News

The list is the origin of culture. It’s part of the history of art and literature. What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible. It also wants to create order—not always, but often. And how, as a human being, does one face infinity? How does one attempt to grasp the incomprehensible? Through lists, through catalogs, through collections in museums and through encyclopedias and dictionaries. ... We also have completely practical lists—the shopping list, the will, the menu—that are also cultural achievements in their own right. ...

The list doesn’t destroy culture; it creates it. Wherever you look in cultural history, you will find lists. In fact, there is a dizzying array: lists of saints, armies and medicinal plants, or of treasures and book titles. Think of the nature collections of the 16th century. My novels, by the way, are full of lists.

by Nate Barksdale for Culture Making

I have a new essay up on the Comment Magazine website, a brief historical meditation on the word hello and its connections to one of the most influential cultural artifacts of the last 150 years, the telephone.


At the end of the day, language death is, ironically, a symptom of people coming together. Globalization means hitherto isolated peoples migrating and sharing space. For them to do so and still maintain distinct languages across generations happens only amidst unusually tenacious self-isolation—such as that of the Amish—or brutal segregation. (Jews did not speak Yiddish in order to revel in their diversity but because they lived in an apartheid society.) Crucially, it is black Americans, the Americans whose English is most distinct from that of the mainstream, who are the ones most likely to live separately from whites geographically and spiritually.

The alternative, it would seem, is indigenous groups left to live in isolation—complete with the maltreatment of women and lack of access to modern medicine and technology typical of such societies. Few could countenance this as morally justified, and attempts to find some happy medium in such cases are frustrated by the simple fact that such peoples, upon exposure to the West, tend to seek membership in it.

As we assess our linguistic future as a species, a basic question remains. Would it be inherently evil if there were not 6,000 spoken languages but one?

from "A Common Nomenclature for Lego Families," by Giles Turnbull, The Morning News, 4 November 2009 :: via

Then, when another seven-year-old came round for tea after school one day, I overheard the two of them, busy in the spaceship construction yard that used to be our living room, get into a linguistic thicket.

“Can you see any clippy bits?” my son asked his friend. The friend was flummoxed. “Do you mean handy bits?” he asked, pointing.

“Yes,” replied my boy. “Clippy bits.”

Of course! This language of Lego isn’t just something our family has invented; every Lego-building family must have its own vocabulary. And the words they use (mostly invented by the children, not the adults) are likely to be different every time. But how different? And what sort of words?

From "Speech Communities," by Paul Roberts, in Language: Introductory Readings, Virginia Clark, Paul Eschholz, Alfred Rosa, and Beth Lee Simon, eds., 7th Ed., 2008

The child’s language learning, now and later, is governed by two obvious motives: the desire to communicate and the desire to be admired. He imitates what he hears. More or less successful imitations usually bring action and reward and tend to be repeated. Unsuccessful ones usually don’t bring action and reward and tend to be discarded.

But since language is complicated business it is sometimes the unsuccessful imitations that bring the reward. The child, making a stab at the word mother, comes out with muzzer. The family decides that this is just too cute for anything and beams and repeats muzzer, and the child, feeling that he’s scored a bull’s eye, goes on saying muzzer long after he has mastered other and brother. Baby talk is not so much invented by the child as sponsored by the parent.

Eventually the child moves out of the family and into another speech community - other children of his neighborhood. He goes to kindergarten and immediately encounters speech habits that conflict with those he has learned. If he goes to school and talks about his muzzer, it will be borne in on him by his colleagues that the word is not well chosen. Even mother may not pass the muster, and he may discover that he gets better results and is altogether happier if he refers to his female parent as his ma or even his old lady.

from "'s Nate Barksdale," interviewed by Christy Tennant, IAM Conversations, 08 October 2009
Chak De! India (DVD Menu), Yash Raj Films, 2007 :: via Netflix
from "When Words Become Endangered," by Anne Keisman, National Wildlife Magazine, October/November 2009

The revised book could be viewed as another example of adults contributing to the growing disconnection between children and the natural world—a trend that was identified by a study conducted a few years ago by two zoologists at Cambridge University. Reporting in the journal Science, the researchers revealed that a typical 8-year-old could name 78 percent of the 150 characters in the popular video game Pokémon, but could identify less than half of the common British plants and animals in pictures.

Which brings us to one final irony: The concept of the Pokémon universe stems from the hobby of insect collecting, a popular pastime of the game’s inventor when he was a child in Japan.

"Human Language Series 4: Variety," by Gene Searchinger, Linguistic Society of America Video Archive
excerpt Love letters
from "South Korea's Latest Export: Its Alphabet," by Choe Sang-Hun, The New York Times, 11 September 2009, image from Wikipedia

By sharing the [Korean] script with others, Ms. Lee said, she is simply expressing the will of her ancestor King Sejong, who promulgated the script. (She is a direct descendant, 21 generations removed.)

The national holiday, Hangul Day, on Oct. 9, celebrates the king’s introduction of the script in 1446. Before that, Koreans had no writing system of their own. The elite studied Chinese characters to record the meaning, but not the sound, of Korean.

“Many of my illiterate subjects who want to communicate cannot express their concerns,” the king is recorded to have said in explaining the reason for Hunminjeongeum, the original name for Hangul. “I feel sorry for them. Therefore I have created 28 letters.”

“The king propagated Hangul out of love of his people,” Ms. Lee said. “It’s time for Koreans to expand his love for mankind by propagating Hangul globally. This is an era of globalization.”