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Of Interest:
language change

Chatty Catty

Sign of the impending apocalypse? Proof that animals have souls?

As the kids say, whatisthisIdon’teven...

Kitty stays on message, and addresses his target audience in a language they can understand...

Art & Artifice, Language & Logs

We love this art project underway in Vermont, where a gentleman whose passion runs toward preserving endangered alphabets is in the process of creating a sculpture which features a poem transcribed into languages including Baybayin, Inuktitut, Bugis, Mandaic, Tifinagh and Nom.

He rightly notes

“Writing has become so dominated by a small number of global cultures that those 6,000-7,000 languages are written in fewer than 100 alphabets. Moreover, at least a third of the world’s remaining alphabets are endangered–-no longer taught in schools, no longer used for commerce or government, understood only by a few elders, restricted to a few monasteries or used only in ceremonial documents, magic spells, or secret love letters.

While we acknowledge that it is the nature of language to change, we agree that something essentially human is lost when a form of expression passes from this world.

Reason to Win

An interesting theory is making the rounds, wherein it is argued that the development of reason and logic was prompted not by a noble search for truth, but for the more prosaic cause of winning arguments. This, of course, presupposes the existence of language and communication before the constraints of critical thinking. I guess we’ve all seen examples of that earlier state even today...

comments on the article are again interesting in their own right.

We delight in the recursive quality of the arguments about argumentation...

The Sacred in Science

A lovely blog post at NPR’s “13.7” is the most recent to use the Shakespearean “what is in a name?” trope in asking about the use of the word ‘sacred’ in modern times, and how the religious/scientific divide we’ve come to know has separated the scientific community from the etymological roots of that word, once closely related to the focus and attention that we now associate with a scientific world view. We particularly liked this quote, pointing out the truism that language change is constant:

“Every generation has the right, indeed the responsibility, to take the language it was given, listen to its resonances and use them for the purposes at hand. To do anything less would be to kill the language through atrophy.”

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.

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.

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.


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.