“Um” and other filled pauses

From Atlas Obscura: The Mystery and Occasional Poetry of, Uh, Filled Pauses.

Nearly every language and every culture has what are called “filled pauses,” a notoriously difficult-to-define concept that generally refers to sounds or words that a speaker uses when, well, not exactly speaking. In American English, the most common are “uh” and “um.”

Until about 20 years ago, few linguists paid filled pauses much attention. They were seen as not very interesting, a mere expulsion of sound to take up space while the speaker figures out what to say next. (In Russian, filled pauses are called “parasite sounds,” which is kind of rude.) But since then, interest in filled pauses has exploded. There are conferences about them. Researchers around the globe, in dozens of different languages, dedicate themselves to studying them. And yet they still remain poorly understood, especially as new forms of discourse begin popping up. (…)

But researchers digging into the weird world of filled pauses have turned up some crazy, fascinating stuff. Some have taken sentences full of “ums” and “uhs” and edited them out to find out if people react more positively to someone who doesn’t use them. (They do.) Some are putting people in MRI machines to find out what weird neural stuff is going on when people use filled pauses. (Definitely some stuff.) And in Japan, researchers are trying to puzzle out how and why Japanese filled pauses are so unusual. [continue]

Although I do read Atlas Obscura, I somehow missed this article. The Language Hat blog did not, though, so I found the link through the this post at LanguageHat.

How colour terms arise

From the Boston Globe: Roses are red; violets are — red? How color terms arise”.

Since the turn of the 20th century, scientists have examined how humans around the world name colors in an attempt to answer one question: Does our language shape our worldview, or does our worldview shape our language?

Hannah Haynie, a postdoctoral associate at Colorado State University, teamed up with Yale University linguist Claire Bowern to find out. Their study analyzed a sort of evolutionary tree built from massive data found in field notes, dictionaries, and 20th-century records. The tree visualizes how color names potentially changed over time in the Pama-Nyungan language family, a group of indigenous Australian languages dating as far back as 6,000 years.

“It’s just like how, if you look at genes in people, you can look back at how they were transmitted along a tree,” Haynie said. “This brings a bunch of different sciences together to look at how language, our minds, and our world interacts together.” [continue]

A linguist explains “gifting”

Christine Friar has ranted about how she hates the use of gift as a verb. Wondering why that usage annoys her so, she went off and spoke with a linguist, and now she’s published A Linguist Explains “Gifting”.

…so I talked to linguist Arika Okrent to see if we could get to the bottom of things. She told me there’s a set of steps a language professional walks through when examining questions like these: [continue]

Well, cool!

The cozy linguistics of hygge and other “untranslatable” words

Perhaps you’ve heard the word hygge? It’s a Norwegian and Danish word, and it has become a bit famous in recent years due to articles like How ‘hygge’ can help you get through winter from mnn.com. There’s no equivalent word in English.

Anyway. Now JSTOR Daily has published The Cozy Linguistics of Hygge and Other “Untranslatable” Words:

Examples like hygge and koselig actually follow a long line of foreign words that fascinate us. In English, we tend to borrow quite a few “untranslatable” words and idioms, like the ever-popular German Schadenfreude (pleasure at another’s misfortune) and the Sanskrit karma (a Buddhist concept of destiny being influenced by a person’s actions). Perhaps they don’t always mean what they originally meant, but we’ve made them our own.

Just what is it about “untranslatable” words that fascinate us so much? There are endless lists and articles on these beautiful words, so apparently alien to English, that are simply “untranslatable” or even the hardest words in the world to translate… but then they’re subsequently translated anyway, in English sentences, just not in words that are directly equivalent. Untranslatable words aren’t really untranslatable at all. When we unpack this concept it raises a number of curious questions.

What’s so special about a single word capturing a concept, as opposed to a phrase or a sentence? If a language doesn’t have a word for something, does it mean its speakers have a harder time understanding that concept cognitively? For instance, if a language, such as Tarahumara, a Uto-Aztecan language of northern Mexico, has no name or lexical distinction for a particular color perception, such as between green and blue, are speakers of that language cognitively unable to differentiate between the two colors? Likewise if some Eskimo languages have many distinctive words for snow, are we as English speakers completely unable to tell the difference between all the kinds of snowy precipitation there can be? [continue]

Linguist explains secret language of Gulliver’s Travels

From Science Daily: Linguist explains secret language of Gulliver’s Travels.

Irving N. Rothman, a professor of English literature and Jewish studies at UH, says the mystery words are, in fact, variations of Hebrew. His conclusions are published in the summer 2015 edition of Swift Studies, an annual review of scholarship on the work of novelist Jonathan Swift from the Ehrenpreis Center.

In the article, “The ‘Hnea Yahoo’ of Gulliver’s Travels and Jonathan Swift’s Hebrew Neologisms,” Rothman points out a number of clues he used to reach this conclusion. Swift, he notes, was an Anglican minister who studied Hebrew at Trinity College.

“Gulliver’s Travels,” published in 1726, is Swift’s best-known work, a satire on human nature, politics and the traveler’s tales popular at the time. [continue]

How do you speak American? Mostly, just make up words

From Atlas Obscura: How Do You Speak American? Mostly, Just Make Up Words.

Residents of the United States hung on to words that dropped out of British English: guess, gotten, cabin, junk, molasses. We also began using words lifted from native languages—maize, canoe. But, mostly, Americans would just make words up. Thomas Jefferson, who described himself as “a friend to neology,” created the word “belittle.” British writers despaired over it; he simply made up more.

And ever since, speaking American has meant enjoying the use of a whole vocabulary that originated here. We have stolen words from other languages, massaged them into new words, turned nouns into verbs and verbs into nouns, and smushed two words together to make new ones.

For starters, just think about some words we borrowed from Dutch and decided to keep: boss, cookie, stoop, scow, sleigh, snoop, waffle, poppycock, pit, when used to describe the seed of a stone fruit. Dumb might be Dutch, or it might be German, or it might be a bit of both, but it’s a uniquely American bit of English.[continue]

Rewilding our language of landscape

If it’s words you like, hurry over to The Guardian to read The word-hoard: Robert Macfarlane on rewilding our language of landscape.

I sought out the users, keepers and makers of place words. In the Norfolk Fens – introduced by the photographer Justin Partyka – I met Eric Wortley, a 98-year-old farmer who had worked his family farm throughout his long life, who had been twice to the East Anglian coast, once to Norwich and never to London, and whose speech was thick with Fenland dialect terms. I came to know the cartographer, artist and writer Tim Robinson, who has spent 40 years documenting the terrain of the west of Ireland: a region where, as he puts it, “the landscape … speaks Irish”. Robinson’s belief in the importance of “the language we breathe” as part of “our frontage onto the natural world” has been inspiring to me, as has his commitment to recording subtleties of usage and history in Irish place names, before they are lost forever: Scrios Buaile na bhFeadog, “the open tract of the pasture of the lapwings”; Eiscir, “a ridge of glacial deposits marking the course of a river that flowed under the ice of the last glaciation”. [continue]

You’ll want to read it all, of course. And what is your favourite of all the obscure words listed in the article?

‘Thank you’ in Hindi and English mean very different things

Is it polite to thank people? Not in all cultures, it seems. From the Atlantic: ‘I’ve Never Thanked My Parents for Anything’.

I grew up in the northern Indian city of Lucknow, in a culture in which saying thank you is not done lightly. I learned to say thank you in English in elementary school, and when I thanked anyone, I said it in English, which was less awkward and more casual than doing so in Hindi. I reserved my thanks for those who had done huge favors for me. And I rarely thanked my friends or classmates. When I did, they either smiled quizzically at me or interpreted the act as a kind of joke—a playful way to practice English. I’ve never thanked my parents for anything. In the Hindi language, in everyday gestures and culture, there is an unspoken understanding of gratitude.

Saying dhanyavaad, or “thank you” in Hindi, would almost be sarcastic. It seems inadequate. When I thank anyone in Hindi, I make sure to look the person in the eye. Saying dhanyavaad to someone without looking at him or her is just as good as not saying it at all. As a kid, I never heard anyone my age say thank you in Hindi. I did hear my father say dhanyavaad to people his age, but he did it as sincerely as possible, with his hands joined in front of his chest in the solemn gesture of namaste. He wasn’t just thanking someone for something, but asking for an opportunity to return the favor. That’s how I came to understand expressions of gratitude.

In America, by contrast, saying thank you often marks an end to the transaction, an end to the conversation, an end to the interaction. It is like a period at the end of a sentence. Only in the United States have people offered thanks for coming to their homes or parties. Initially I was surprised when people thanked me for visiting their house when they were the ones who’d invited me, but then I learned that, “Thank you for coming to my home” actually meant, “It’s time for you to get out of my house.” [continue]

Clickbait

From the Wall Street Journal: You Won’t Believe What Word This Column Is About!

“Clickbait” came together as a compound as early as 1999. That year, Network Magazine reported on a “‘clickbait’ Web page” that exhorted, “Click here to become a millionaire in five minutes.” Clicking on that link caused some hacker’s malicious code to be downloaded.

Nowadays, “clickbait” by and large merely induces the casual reader to click through to some inane Web feature that can never measure up to its hyperbolic headline. [continue]

Yeah, that’s a good summary. Do you read websites that feature clickbaity headlines? I try to avoid them.

1,500 ultrasound tongue recordings reveals secrets of our accents

From phys.org: 1,500 ultrasound tongue recordings reveals secrets of our accents.

Phonetics experts have completed a project to reveal the hidden workings of our tongues and vocal tracts using 1,500 ultrasound videos. The unique corpus of ultrasound videos was compiled as part of a research project looking at how speakers of different accents move their tongue and lips.

Researchers on the Dynamic Dialects project, led from the University of Glasgow used Ultrasound Tongue Imaging equipment to reveal how the hidden mechanics of our lips and tongues, combine to produce the distinct accents from different speakers of English around the world.

The most extensive study of its kind, the project looked at native English speakers from 48 regions and 16 different countries around the world, building up a comprehensive picture of how and why different accents of English are distinct from one another. [continue]

Byrhtferth’s Ogham enigma

This Babelstone post on Byrhtferth’s Ogham Enigma is fascinating, detailed, and includes great images.

It probably comes as a surprise to most people to find out that the earliest extant manuscript to include any text written in the Ogham script is an early 12th century English manuscript copy of a work by the late Anglo-Saxon monk Byrhtferth (Byrhtferð) rather than one of the more famous Irish manuscripts that include descriptions of the Ogham script, such as the Book of Ballymote or the Yellow Book of Lecan. But although the origin of Old Irish texts about Ogham such as Auraicept na n-Éces (“The Scholar’s Primer”) and In Lebor Ogaim (“The Book of Oghams”) undoubtedly predates Byrhtferth’s work, the only extant manuscript copies of these texts are later than the Byrhtferth manuscript. [continue]

Byrhtferth was a monk who worked at the Abbey of Ramsey in Huntingdonshire during the late 10th and early 11th centuries. He is mainly remembered for his Enchiridion or Handbōc (Ashmolean MS 328), a work on the arts of computus and numerology which exhibits an obsession with ordering the universe on a numerological basis. Various other texts derived from a now lost computistical miscellany by Byrhtferth are preserved in two other manuscripts: [continue]

Absquatulate

From World Wide Words: absquatulate.

ABSQUATULATE

To make off, decamp, or abscond.

The 1830s — a period of great vigour and expansiveness in the US — was also a decade of inventiveness in language, featuring a fashion for word play, obscure abbreviations, fanciful coinages, and puns. Only a few inventions of that period have survived to our times, such as sockdologer, skedaddle and hornswoggle. Among those that haven’t lasted the distance were blustrification (the action of celebrating boisterously), goshbustified (excessively pleased and gratified), and dumfungled (used up).

Absquatulate has had a good run and is still to be found in modern American dictionaries. It was common enough that it became one of the favourite bêtes noires of writers on style in the latter part of the century. One such was [continue].

Sudan statue find gives clues to ancient language

From Reuters: Sudan statue find gives clues to ancient language.

Archaeologists said on Tuesday they had discovered three ancient statues in Sudan with inscriptions that could bring them closer to deciphering one of Africa’s oldest languages.

The stone rams, representing the god Amun, were carved during the Meroe empire, a period of kingly rule that lasted from about 300 BC to AD 450 and left hundreds of remains along the River Nile north of Khartoum.

Vincent Rondot, director of the dig carried out by the French Section of Sudan’s Directorate of Antiquities, said each statue displayed an inscription written in Meroitic script, the oldest written language in sub-Saharan Africa. [continue]

‘Oldest Hebrew script’ is found

From the Beeb: ‘Oldest Hebrew script’ is found.

Five lines of ancient script on a shard of pottery could be the oldest example of Hebrew writing ever discovered, an archaeologist in Israel says.

The shard was found by a teenage volunteer during a dig about 20km (12 miles) south-west of Jerusalem.

Experts at Hebrew University said dating showed it was written 3,000 years ago – about 1,000 years earlier than the Dead Sea Scrolls. [continue].

E-mail error ends up on road sign

From BBC Wales: E-mail error ends up on road sign.

When officials asked for the Welsh translation of a road sign, they thought the reply was what they needed.

Unfortunately, the e-mail response to Swansea council said in Welsh: "I am not in the office at the moment. Please send any work to be translated".

So that was what went up under the English version which barred lorries from a road near a supermarket. [continue, see photo]

Québecois accent may have its roots in royal courts

From csmonitor.com: Québecois: maligned accent may have its roots in royal courts.

Québec’s francophones have long been ridiculed by the Parisian French – the scholars, elites, and aesthetes from the ancestral homeland. They have deemed the Québecois accent an "abomination" of what they consider the most beautiful language.

They shouldn’t sneer.

The Québeckers’ much-maligned accent can be traced back to the 17th-century court of Louis XIV. At least that’s the argument put forth by a prominent Québec scholar, Laval University’s Jean-Denis Gendron, a retired linguist. "The Québecois accent is one from the noblesse of the time, it is a relaxed, natural accent," Professor Gendron, explains in the most recent issue of the journal, Québec Sciences. "It’s only much later that our accent came to be viewed as an abomination." [continue].

Mossenger: graffiti made of moss

I bet Anna Garforth has more fun making graffiti than anybody else; certainly she has more impressive results. For her Mossenger project (Mossenger part one, Mossenger part two) Anna made letters out of moss, then affixed them to a brick wall. She sprays the text with water to keep it alive.

Erasmuspc.com includes Anna’s explanation:

Being interested in public art and ecology, it led me to thinking about sustainable grafitti. I collected a common moss that grows well on brick walls and glued it to the wall using a mixture of natural (bio active) yoghurt and sugar.

I blogged about moss graffiti years ago, but that was the paint-on method. I suspect that Anna’s lettercutting approach allows for much more precision.

Continue reading

Italians vote for ugliest English words

From The Telegraph: Italians vote for ugliest English words.

For years it was the French who worked themselves into a lather over their native tongue being infected by English.

Now it is their southern neighbours across the Alps who are wringing their hands at the growing incursion of Anglo-Saxon words and phrases into every day use.

From ‘il weekend’ to ‘lo stress’ and ‘le leadership’, Italians increasingly sprinkle their conversations with English terms, some of them comically mangled and bizarre sounding to a native English speaker.

‘Baby parking’, for example, is a strange conflation which means child care centre or nursery.

A ‘baby gang’, on the other hand, is a more sinister construct. It means a group of young criminals or hoodlums.

As with the French and their use of Franglais, Italians sometimes throw in English words to appear worldly and cosmopolitan, and at other times to describe things slightly alien to the Italian mindset, from ‘il fitness’ to ‘il full immersion training’.

But now a cultural guardian of the Italian language is saying ‘basta!’ – enough. [continue]

The secret code of diaries

From the BBC: The secret code of diaries.

The 300,000-word journal of Charles Wesley, the co-founder of the Methodist movement, which was written in an obscure shorthand, has been solved and the diary transcribed. It has taken nine years.

It appears that the shorthand was used not for speed, but for security. What was so important that it required the secrecy of a complex code?

(They tell you later on in the article.)

Wesley’s is not the only diary that has used a code, however, with everyone from Beatrix Potter to British prisoners of war using their secret diaries to express feelings that no-one else was meant to understand. [continue]

This kind of stuff fascinates me, partly because I’ve thought up a secret code system of my own, which I think would be awfully difficult for somebody to decode. Maybe one day I’ll develop it.

Sign language over cell phones

From the University of Washington: ‘Can you see me now?’ Sign language over cell phones comes to United States.

A group at the University of Washington has developed software that for the first time enables deaf and hard-of-hearing Americans to use sign language over a mobile phone. UW engineers got the phones working together this spring, and recently received a National Science Foundation grant for a 20-person field project that will begin next year in Seattle.

This is the first time two-way real-time video communication has been demonstrated over cell phones in the United States. Since posting a video of the working prototype on YouTube, deaf people around the country have been writing on a daily basis.

"A lot of people are excited about this," said principal investigator Eve Riskin, a UW professor of electrical engineering. (…)

For mobile communication, deaf people now communicate by cell phone using text messages. "But the point is you want to be able to communicate in your native language," Riskin said. "For deaf people that’s American Sign Language." [continue, see photo]

There’s more information here at Roland Piquepaille’s Technology Trends.

Fun for word-loving folk

Now first there’s the common words quiz. How many of the most common words in the English language can you list within five minutes? Go on now, we’ll wait here. I’ll even hold your beer for you.

Once you’re done with that, move on to the random sentence structure filler, which is more fun. The site explains what to do, and adds "It’s like Mad Libs… without the work!"

Ah, mad libs. Now that reminds me of a net classic from 1997, Spam Libs. Back in the day when spammers used their real email addresses, that technique led to some highly amusing results.

All of this is brought to you by stupidly high temperatures, which make innocent people surf the web instead of going outside the way they usually do.

An exercise in Ogham decipherment

This must be the most fascinating thing on the web today: A Throng of Fifty Warriors Routed by a Single Scholar: An Exercise in Ogham Decipherment.

The discovery of an Ogham stone during an episode of the cult British archaeology programme, Time Team, is something that I have been longing to blog about ever since I saw the first broadcast on January 14th last year. But the only images of the stone and its inscription available on the Time Team website are pitifully small and utterly useless, so I was unable to do anything meaningful … that is, until the programme was repeated last week, and thanks to 4oD (Channel 4’s TV and Film on Demand service) on Monday I was able to download the programme to my computer and take some good quality screen shots of the stone and its inscription.

The Ogham stone in question is a smallish slate slab (about 32cm x 20cm in size) that was found within the subsoil near a grave in Trench 2 of the Time Team excavation at the Speke Farm keeill (chapel) by the seventh fairway of the Mount Murray golf course five miles southwest of Douglas in the south of the Isle of Man. The keeill was built in about the early 11th century on the site of a Christian cemetary (with burials dating from as early as the late 6th century), which itself was on the site of a bronze age burial ground. [continue, see photos, be amazed.]

Young birds babble like babies

From discovery.com: Young Birds Babble Like Babies.

The happy babbling that entertains parents as their babies try to mimic speech turns out to have a parallel in the animal world.

Baby birds babble away before mastering their adult song, researchers report in Friday’s edition of the journal Science.

Michale S. Fee and colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology studied the brains of baby zebra finches as the little birds learned the unique song they would use as adults.

The baby birds practiced making sounds incessantly, the team reported.

"Birds start out by babbling, just as humans do," Fee said, while the adult bird produces a very precise pattern of sound. [continue]