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Of Interest:

Yogi, Magic, and Big Baby

A clever article that brought to light a trend we had not noticed: nicknames in sports have become far less popular in recent years, and some ascribe that trend to the forces of marketing - the players have become their own brands. See “Be Like Mike” for an example. Another suggestion: the personal names of the players have become far more varied than they had been back in the day. There was a practical reason for being able to tell one Joe, Mark or John from another, whereas these days, there aren’t too many LeBrons, Tikis, or Hidekis on the field at the same time...

Cocktail fact 1: the word ‘nickname’ was once actually an ‘ic nama’ - “a name I call myself”... Like ‘apron’ [once “a napron”] and orange [once “a norange” - see Spanish “naranja”], it picked up a change along the way.

Cocktail fact 2: George Herman Ruth wasn’t called “Babe” until he signed with the Orioles, who already had a George in the line-up.

Put In Words

We came across a rather lyrical and enthralling article which describes the job of being a lexicographer - one who compiles dictionaries. Written by a working lexicographer, of whom there are few in this world, the article describes the process and the history of this noble and obscure profession.

We are reminded of a story told by the late economist John Kenneth Galbraith at a Harvard luncheon, where he told of his experience testifying before a congressional panel on the economy. A senator, being unfamiliar with a word the Professor had used in his presentation, had an aide look up the word for him. He then addressed the speaker, saying he’d had an aide look up the word ‘febrile,’ and went on to say that Galbraith had used the word incorrectly.

The Professor responded thusly: “Being that I sit on the Usage Committee of the American Heritage Dictionary, I shall have them emend the entry.”


Play On

While it may be a small stretch to see this as ‘on topic,’ we’re gobsmacked and delighted to note the Library of Congress has built a virtual national jukebox with selections of now-public-domain recordings from wax cylinders, old Victrolas, 78s and the like. A true link to the past, these recordings offer a way for the contemporary listener to forge a sensory link with the day-to-day life of our predecessors.

The brain regions associated with playing music are the same as those linked to both language and to chess, located roughly above the left ear. One can see some evidence of the linkage in children’s songs, where simple tunes serve to reinforce lessons on language rules and usage - even the alphabet song performs a similar function. Neat cocktail fact: the alphabet song uses the same tune as ‘Baa baa, Black Sheep” - and a Mozart concerto.

And Thanks For All The Fish

We note with excitement the reports of an experimental effort being called CHAT, for Cetacean Hearing and Telemetry, which for the first time seeks to establish a two-way communication with dolphins. While researchers have been working on communicating with dolphins using pictures and sound since the 1960s, all previous efforts have been, in essence, one way, with humans directing the dolphin’s activities - and with no opportunity for the dolphins to communicate their needs to the humans. Remarkable things have been shown through these earlier efforts, including the dolphins’ ability to recognize and keep track of more than 100 words, and to respond appropriately to changes in syntax [‘bring the surfboard to the man’ versus ‘bring the man to the surfboard.’]. In this new experiment, divers are working with the dolphins to create a mutually agreed upon series of sounds to represent concepts.

This is the first real step towards true interspecies communications, and we’re excited about the possibilities, and what can be built on the outcome of these experiments. We’re especially pleased to know the researchers are really getting down to basics and examining the preconceptions, going so far as to wonder if dolphins even have words, as we understand them.

We’ll be keeping our eye on this one...

Science Diction

We like this nice list of snappy zingers from scientists across the centuries, and hope it will add some cheer to your weekend. Comments at the link are worth a readthrough, too.

From A to Chimpanzee

You thought we were kidding about monkey news, eh? The BBC is reporting on an article in the journal Animal Cognition regarding the cataloguing of the ‘gestural repertoire’ of chimpanzees [yes, we know chimpanzees are apes, not monkeys] studied in the wild by a team from the University of St. Andrews. Yes, a dictionary of deliberate movements and their meanings.

There are, apparently, as many as 66 recognizable signals, which more than doubles the roughly 30 that had been observed in chimps in captivity. Perhaps most interestingly, by comparing the films to those made of orangutans and gorillas, the researchers are seeing a significant number of overlaps, and this suggests that the common ancestor of all great apes - including humans - used at least some of the same gestures still used today.

No Bones About It

An interesting article in the International Herald Tribune regarding the history and changing perception of one of the western world’s earliest and most easily recognized logos or brands - that of the skull and crossbones.

The terror associated with the mark taps in to a primal fear of death, and the symbol was used to indicate death well before it started showing up on pirate ships - we note the tombstone of a Colonial-era governor buried nearby dating from 1680, featuring a primitive and spooky version. Nowadays, we see little skull-and-crossbones prints on baby blankets and clothes, or dog collars, and the like. The design has been sapped of its capacity to sow fear, and where once its display was cause enough for hanging, it now seems to indicate not much more than a wee bit of naughtiness.

While there has been much written about
semantic drift in words, it’s pretty cool to see a visual brand change meaning across time...

Turning to Japanese...

The New York Times reports today on recent academic investigations on the origins of Japanese and the Japanese people. The findings suggest a much later arrival of the language than commonly held, and thus that the indigenous Jomon hunter-gatherer culture, whose presence has been dated to 30,000 years ago, were not the immediate forebears of the Japanese of today. Instead, the study seems to indicate the Yayoi people brought the language that became Japanese with them when they brought their agricultural “wet rice” culture to the Japanese islands from the Korean peninsula about 2,200 years ago.

We have some reservations concerning the fact that the lead researcher is not an historical linguist, and that the methodology relies on something called
Bayesian phylogeny and computer-generated charts of language relation later sampled for statistical relevance. We can see a lot of potential problems here, but some professionals in the field - with far more knowledge of the actual work done than we have - are lauding the findings and suggesting it fits with previously known facts about the culture and settlement activity in the area.

The internal and sociopolitical repercussions amongst the famously insular Japanese will be something to watch.

Dated Puns

As was pointed out this morning in the shop, today is apparently Star Wars Day, as in “May the 4th be with you.”

We’ll be celebrating with ewok burgers and beers after work.


Linkfest the First

As promised earlier, here’s a quick rundown of some of the stories that caught our eye over the past week:

One of the features that we humans had held as self-defining
has now been observed in monkeys, namely, the ability to recall qualities and positions of objects that are not present. The more we learn about what our primate relatives can do, the more alike we seem...

A new study claims to show a link between personalities and language in multilingual individuals, with different perceptions and ways of behaving when using different languages. We’re not so sure about this one...

Uhhh, like, y’know...
Hesitation particles are an important part of a child’s first language acquisition, as they serve as verbal cues that the upcoming word is potentially important or, ummm, new...

After 120 years, Oscar Wilde’s
The Picture of Dorian Gray will finally be issued in its uncensored form. Huzzah for freedom of speech, boo to censorship...

We noted
a fantastic introductory guide to the field of Historical Linguistics, with great comments worth reading through...

Well, if we thought we could stop Skynet from becoming self-aware using humor, we’re out of luck, as
a program has been developed which allows computers to recognize and produce dirty jokes of the “that’s what she said” variety.

We think we’re going to love
this book by Arthur Phillips, a novel about the purported discovery of a lost play by Shakespeare. The final third of the book features the manuscript in question, and the reviewers are crowing about the fantastic faux-Shakespeare presented therein.

We have a soft spot for Ludwig Wittgenstein, the Viennese philosopher of language who changed the way we think about the world, and the role of language in thought and perception. Having published only one volume in his lifetime -
the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus - it is beyond amazing to learn of a discovery of a trunkful of his notes and writings that will revolutionize our understanding of the man and his mind.

The New York Times
bemoans the incipient loss of cursive, or script, writing. We’re right there with ‘em.

A seventeenth-century book, whose popularity was rife but which seemed to be unremarkable, turns out to be a very discreet sex manual of sorts, with enough metaphors to make it past the censors of the day...

Well, that should do for now... Stay tuned for more soon.


Our Worst Nightmare

An article in today’s Science section of the New York Times discusses a less-well-known form of dementia which affects the language region of the brain, known as Primary Progressive Aphasia. Similar to, but not related to Alzheimer’s, this degenerative disease robs those who suffer from it of their ability to find or use the right word, or even use sign language, as that relies on the same area of the brain. The most terrifying aspect is that the patient is painfully aware of the progression, and the eventual disintegration of the faculty of speech.

As people who work in the world of words, and who view the world through that particular lens, the thought of losing our ability to communicate - or interact with the world - fills us with the worst kind of dread.

Tempus Fugit

Holy Molé!

It has been more than a week since the last update - no way to start our blog.... We’re pleased to have been busy, but have let many interesting and thematically relevant stories get by us. Check back later today for some good reading, and a whole bunch of catching up.

As for the title of this post, here’s a neat little experiment in parsing: how many different ways can you understand the following sentence?

Time flies like an arrow.