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Of Interest:

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The English language is a vast, wonderful thing. It is, in fact, the language with the largest number of words, and arguably the best documented, with most every word tracked to its sources, etymology and first use in print courtesy of the Oxford English Dictionary

We note with pleasure
a new attempt to corral a large number of the words we have in English which have no apparent derivation - ‘orphan’ words, in the field. Prof. Anatoly Liberman at the University of Minnesota has made this effort is life’s work.

He seeks to account for words we use every day, but which have no apparent source or discernible etymology. Words like frog, boy, girl, oat, dwarf or heifer seem to have shown up out of nowhere, and while getting a first date of use for many of these will be easy, sorting out their backstory seems nigh on impossible to us.

Brave lexicographer, credit to linguists everywhere...

Double Plus Ungood

We noted an article over the weekend that got our goat good. Apparently, the fine folks at the TSA now take the position that being upset at TSA screening procedures is indication of terrorist intentions. So now expressing concern that one’s constitutional rights are being abrogated is sufficient cause to have those rights taken away. So much for freedom of speech, or from unreasonable search & seizure. George Orwell’s ghost must be jealous he didn’t come up with this idea first.

A more considered response...

To follow up on yesterday’s post regarding the latest theory in the field of historical linguistics, Sam had posted this comment in a thread elsewhere on the web:

“[...] There is no such thing as a constant rate of change when we talk about language. Contemporary Icelandic is, for all intents and purposes, exactly the same as Old Norse, such so that a schoolchild in Iceland can read the thousand year old eddas and sagas in the original with no issues. Compare English, and how we almost need a dictionary for Shakespeare, written only four hundred years back. "Glottochronology" is pseudoscience and woo. Comparative Historical Linguistics, as an academic pursuit, relies on actual evidence when reconstructing protoforms, and thus can only make claims about the common ancestor of two or more languages of which we have actual evidence, usually of the written variety. This pretty much only goes back about 5,000 years, with the Sanskrit of the Rig Veda being the oldest attested Indo-European language we have, therefore closest to the protoform. In the same way that one can reconstruct Latin if one knows about French, Italian, Spanish, Romanche, etc., it is possible to reconstruct I-E with knowledge of Old Church Slavonic, Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, Hittite, etc. I know of no proof of efficacy for any attempt to posit relations between the larger language families like Semitic, Altaic, Bantu, Sino-Tibetan, and I-E, etc., and call anyone out on the verifiability of any such claims.

We have an awful lot more than a few words in proto-Indo-European, actually, and a very good idea of the society and belief system in which they were spoken. Even some of the laws and religious beliefs and practices. Here's a good cocktail fact for example: the words 'naked' and 'night' are, in fact, etymologically related -so we can posit that the Indo-European speakers probably wore no pyjamas...

The methodology used for the study is also suspect, in my opinion. The claim is that the phonemic inventory (i.e., the set of allowable sounds within a given language) shrinks the further one gets from southwest central Africa, but they've only sampled 504 languages. It is generally agreed that there are about 5,000 to 7,000 languages in the world, so why is the sample so small? The grammars of most all of these languages have been published over the years, so the data are available...

Nonetheless, the article is making some ripples in the unusually staid waters of the field. Closer inspection is warranted... “

We’d be glad to have your thoughts on the matter.

Could it be? Naaah...

Some news in the unusually dusty and arcane field of historical linguistics today, as an article in Science Magazine posits evidence of a single origin point for all of human language, as well as a time frame. Without getting into the academic and political considerations, this is a controversial position to take. However, from what we’ve read about the article, we’re skeptical.

Aside from the obvious impossibility of proving anything about spoken communications that may have occurred tens of thousands of years before anything like a record of a language exists, we note that the crux of the argument relies on an [admittedly clever] count of phonemic inventories - allowable sounds in a given language - across a geographic swath ranging from Southwest Africa to the Pacific Island, it apparently only looks at a sample size of 500 languages. As linguists generally place the number of living languages across the globe at somewhere between five and seven thousand, we see red flags at the conclusions being drawn from the size of the sample...

We’d love to hear the arguments, and welcome more technical questions form the readership. We’ll be following this one pretty closely...

Metaphors Make This World

We’re delighted to see David Brooks’ column (currently the top most emailed article from make prominent mention of a book we consider central to our way of seeing the world and a foundation of our approach to naming. Lakoff and Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By, a classic now in a second edition, broke new ground in linguistic analysis by categorizing, classifying and organizing the metaphors that pervade our everyday speech. We recommend the book to anyone who wants to better hear the poetry that surrounds us every day.

The Monkey's Eyebrows

We’ve just come across a delightful bit of linguistic history in the form of a dictionary [or perhaps more accurately a phrasebook] of slang from the 1920s taken from an issue of Flapper magazine.

One function of slang is to define group boundaries - you either understand and you’re “in,” or you don’t, and you’re “out” - and we are made privy to the concerns and mindset of the cool kids of our (great-) grampa’s generation with this peek. While the number of terms relating to dancing as a social function seems outsized to the contemporary reader, there are an awful lot of entries dealing with sex and drugs.
Plus ça change... Some of the definitions themselves seem to be wink-wink end runs around the censor - or the disapproving parent. This all makes for entertaining reading.

We note the number of phrases that still pepper contemporary English: a swan, a grubber, ‘the bee’s knees,’ and those whose usage is lost to time, even if the topic is still regularly broached: “Mustard Plaster”? An “unwelcome guy who sticks around.” These days, actual mustard plasters have been replaced by adhesive bandages, which we usually call “bandaids” - but we’ll address that whole brand dilution kettle of fish some other time.

Like any window to another world, we enjoy this article for opening our eyes and teaching us something about our recent past. As a snapshot of the ever-changing river that is language, we’re grateful for the wisdom we can glean from this find.

Ways of Being, and the Power of Words

We’re big fans of Virginia Heffernan, and glad to see she now has her own column in the Sunday New York Times. On today’s op-ed page, she has a piece exploring the way we use words to shape opinion, with specific reference to “internet addiction.” We found the article to be thoughtful and thought provoking on several levels, and the comments in response were good reading in their own right.

She observes: “In general, if a pastime is not classy, those who love it are “addicted.” Opera and poetry buffs are “passionate.””

This echoes
George Lakoff’s work on “Framing” rather pithily. The words we use to describe an object or condition have everything to do with how we perceive it, individually or as part of a group. To paraphrase the Simpsons, a rose would not smell as sweet if it were called a stench blossom, or a crapweed.

At Nomenon, we’re keenly aware of the power and effect of words well-chosen, and we’d be glad to bring our expertise to bear on your naming and branding needs, ensuring positive response in your target market.


In the wake of the recent announcement that the Oxford English DIctionary will be including ‘LOL’ and ‘OMG’ in the future editions, an article on the BBC News web site takes a look at some aspects of ‘txt.’ The article makes some interesting observations on language chance, written vs. spoken language, etymology, and other things that float our boat around here. The comments on the article are just as interesting. We particularly enjoyed the sidebar on non-English variations on the theme:

LOL around the world

mdr (and derivatives)
French version, from the initials of "mort de rire" which roughly translated means "dying of laughter"

Hebrew version. The letter
ח is pronounced 'kh' and ה is pronounced 'h'. Putting them together makes "khakhakha"

Thai variation of LOL. "5" in Thai is pronounced "ha", three of them being "hahaha"

Swedish abbreviation of the term Asgarv, meaning intense laughter

Afghan abbreviation of the Dari phrase "ma khanda mikonom", which means "I am laughing"

Know Your Meme)

Moral of the story: be sure to know the colloquialisms of the target market you are aiming for, in terms of both geography and language, or your product name could have people ROFL[T]AO. Nomenon’s Native Speaker Language Checks can ensure that no one giggles at your big overseas launch.

Shakespeare, again?

Well, this one doesn’t show any signs of slowing down...

Another scholar seeks to diminish The Bard asserting proof of Shakespeare as “collaborator” - there’s a loaded word - as divined by computer analysis of the text of his 58 (?) plays. The evidence is that a three-word phrase appears once in Henry V, and then nowhere else in Elizabethan plays but a fourth edition of Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy.

Perhaps we’re straw-manning it a bit, but that seems a tough one to swallow. The most interesting bit about the story is the
existence of a program built to spot plagiarism in the work of law students. What, do they doubt the ethics of those who seek to enter that noble profession?


Well, we’re up and running with the new site. I’m sure there will be a few kinks to be sorted during this ‘shakedown cruise,’ and we’d be glad to hear about any issues on any platform or browsers, etc. We’ve activated comments on the blog, and hope to build a regular readership and an active set of fans.

We’d be glad for your edits or notes on any element of our new site, suggestion on topics you’d like to see addressed here, or a simple hello from friends old and new, and those not yet met.

Hello Wor(l)d

After many years of talking about it, we’re getting down to business and arriving fashionably late to Web2.0.

We see this forum as an opportunity to let folks know what goes on in the minds of the word-oriented people who work here, what news captures our attention, how we see language in action in all parts of the world, what we think about new product names, or names and language in the news.

A regular reader will find plenty of cocktail facts, advances in linguistics and language research, monkeys in the news, and discussion of things we find interesting. Check back regularly for the latest word, or for a bit of knowledge to make any day a day where you have learned something new.