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kottke.org posts about language

Aussie vs NZ: How Do You Tell Very Similar Accents Apart?

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 31, 2019

In this video, dialect coach Erik Singer explains how to tell similar accents apart, like Australia & New Zealand, Philly & NYC, and North England & South England.

For each pair of languages, Singer provides a word or a phrase you can use to tell accents apart. For instance, ask natives from North England and South England to say “cut your foot” and you’ll know right away which is which.

Singer has done several other interesting videos on language and accents for Wired: 4 Amazing Things About Languages, Accent Expert Breaks Down 6 Fictional Languages From Film & TV, Movie Accent Expert Breaks Down 32 Actors’ Accents (and 28 more), and Movie Accent Expert Breaks Down 28 Actors Playing Presidents.

See also people sharing accents from all 50 states.

An Alternate ABC Song that Slows Down the Tricky LMNOP Bit

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 28, 2019

An alternate version of the ABC song that slows down the LMNOP part is currently going viral because of a tweet by Noah Garfinkel: “They changed the ABC song to clarify the LMNOP part, and it is life ruining.”

I tracked down the original video from 2012:

The alternate arrangement is by Matt Richelson, who runs a popular YouTube channel and several websites dedicated to offering free materials (songs, lesson plans, etc.) to help kids learn English. Here’s what Richelson says about his version of the ABC song:

About the slow l,m,n,o,p: I teach young learners of English as a foreign language, and have found this way the most effective for teaching the letters.

I love the ellemmennohpee bit as much as anyone, but his reasoning is solid.

Succession’s Preoccupation with the Power of Words (or Lack Thereof)

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 23, 2019

Have you been watching Succession? I feel bad about enjoying watching rich people be horrible to each other, but I do love the show. Evan Puschak rewatched both seasons with a careful eye and noticed the show’s preoccupation with language and how it is used and misused by the characters in the show.

Kendall: Words are just nothing. Complicated airflow.

One of the things I like most about the show is that I can’t figure out whether it’s a comedy or a drama. It’s bitingly funny and satirical but the whole thing is packaged like a drama and there are genuine emotional moments. I felt the same way about Fleabag and Transparent…the combination and subversion of these two familiar buckets of storytelling is part of what makes all of these shows great.

Boris Johnson, Shady SEO Master?

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 01, 2019

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson appears to be strategically using particular words and phrases in speeches and appearances as SEO bait to bury unfavorable news about himself in Google’s search results. My pal Matt Webb has collected three examples of this devious practice over the past month.

Not only has Boris used his infamous ‘dead cat strategy’ to move the conversation away from him and Carrie Symonds and his plans for Brexit, he’s managed to push down his past mistakes on Google, too — making it more difficult for people to get a quick snapshot of relevant information. He’s not just controlling the narrative here — he’s practically rewriting it. And judged by the standards of an SEO campaign, it’s hard to describe it as anything other than a resounding success.

In the latest instance, Johnson used the phrase “model of restraint” in a TV appearance, which then came up in search results for “boris johnson model” instead of articles about the allegations that he’d had a sexual relationship with a former model whose business he funneled money & favors to while mayor of London.

Boris Johnson SEO

Wired has more information on the PM’s potential SEO scam.

His speech in front of the police was meant to distract from reports that the police were called to the flat he shared with girlfriend Carrie Symonds following an alleged domestic dispute, while the kipper incident was meant to downplay connections with UKIP (whose supporters are called kippers). The claim about painting buses, finally, was supposedly intended to reframe search results about the contentious claim that the UK sends £350 million to Europe branded on the side of the Brexit campaign bus.

“It’s a really simple way of thinking about it, but at the end of the day it’s what a lot of SEO experts want to achieve,” says Jess Melia of Parallax, a Leeds-based company that identified the theory with Johnson’s claim to paint model buses.

“With the amount of press he’s got going on around him, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that someone on his team is saying: ‘Just go and talk about something else and this is the word I want you to use’,” says Melia.

Update: If you didn’t click through to the Wired article by Chris Stokel-Walker, the piece presents a number of reasons why Johnson’s supposed SEO trickery might not work:

For one thing, Google search results are weighted towards behavioural factors and sentiment of those searching for terms — which would mean that such a strategy of polishing search results would be shortsighted. The individual nuances of each user are reflected in the search results they see, and the search results are constantly updated.

“What we search for influences what we find,” says Rodgers. “Not all search results are the same. That front page of Google, depending on what I’ve searched for in the past. It’s very hard to game that organic search.”

Current searches for the terms in question show that any effect was indeed short-lived. On Twitter, Stokel-Walker says that “No, Boris Johnson isn’t seeding stories with odd keywords to reduce the number of embarrassing stories about him in Google search results” (and calls those who believe Johnson is doing so “conspiracy theorists” (perhaps in mock frustration)) but the piece itself doesn’t provide its readers such a definitive answer,1 instead offering something closer to “some experts say he probably isn’t deliberately seeding search keywords and others disagree, but even if he is, it is unlikely to work as a long-term strategy”. Since we don’t really know — and won’t, unless some Johnson staffer or PR agency fesses up to it — that seems like an entirely reasonable conclusion for now.

  1. And this is on purpose! Stokel-Walker isn’t writing an opinion piece here; he’s writing a news article about current events. He quotes reasonable experts on both sides of the debate. That’s what journalists do.

Euphemisms for Death Collected from Obituaries

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 16, 2019

Writer Rachel Monroe recently shared a bunch of “odd synonyms for ‘died’” that her mother collects from obituaries. Here’s an excerpt from her charmingly handwritten notes:

Died Synonyms

Among the highlights:

(via @tedgioia)

Hoi Toider, an American Dialect that Doesn’t Sound American

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 02, 2019

Hoi Toider is a dialect spoken by long-time residents of Ocracoke, North Carolina. It sometimes sounds more Australian, Scottish, or like Elizabethan English than American English.

When older Ocracoke natives, or O’cockers as they call themselves, speak, the ‘I’ sound is an ‘oi’, so they say ‘hoi’ instead of ‘high’. That’s where the Hoi Toider name comes from: it’s based on how the O’cockers say ‘high tide’.

Then there are the phrases and vocabulary, many of which are also kept over from the original settlers. For example, when you’re on Ocracoke, someone might ‘mommuck a buck before going up the beach’, which means ‘to tease a friend before going off the island’.

“We have a lot of words that have been morphed to make our own,” said Amy Howard, another of William Howard’s descendants, who runs the Village Craftsmen, a local arts and crafts store. “[Hoi Toider] is a combination from a whole blend of cultures. A lot of the early settlers were well travelled, so they ran into lots of different types of people. For example, the word ‘pizer’ we use comes from the Italian word ‘piazza’, which means porch. So if you’re going to be sitting on your pizer, you’re sitting on your porch.”

You can hear some folks speaking Hoi Toider is these videos:

100 Fun Facts About Language

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 18, 2019

To celebrate their 100th episode, The Allusionist podcast shared 100 Things We’ve Learned About Language from The Allusionist (transcript). Here are a few of my favorites from the list:

3. ‘Girl’ could originally be used to refer to a child of any gender — it didn’t specifically denote a female child until the late 14th century.

12. The best thing I’ve learned from the Allusionist is that the dictionary is a record and not a rule book! And language is too dynamic and complex for there to be a right and a wrong.

14. Dictionaries: can’t trust them, they’ve got deliberately fake words, or mountweazels, as copyright traps.

20. A few more quick eponyms: the saxophone is named after its inventor Adolphe Sax. He also invented the saxhorn, saxotromba, and saxtuba which didn’t all catch on.

27. Words like laser, scuba, taser — and the care in ‘care package’, those are all acronyms. [Whoa, I did not know about CARE package! -j]

45. I looked up the step in stepchild or stepparent and found it meant ‘grief’. I know some of you use different terms; since the episode, I’ve been borrowing ‘bonus’.

54. My favourite portmanteau discovery: ‘Velcro’ is a portmanteau — of velour and crochet.

56. Also very literal: ‘log in’, after the log on a knotted rope that would be thrown overboard from a ship to measure its speed — calculated by the length of rope unspooled over a particular time — and that would be logged in the log book.

100. ‘Arseropes’. What a wonderful word for the human intestines! Why don’t we use it still? [From John Wycliffe’s translation of the Bible -j]

(via recs)

One-Word Book Titles

posted by Jason Kottke   May 14, 2019

Merriam-Webster asked 11 authors how they came up with their single-word book titles. Here’s A.S. Byatt talking about Possession:

The book began with a word — the title — Possession. Earlier novels have begun with characters, or themes, but Possession began when I was watching the great Canadian Coleridge scholar, Kathleen Coburn, working in the British Museum and thought — “she cannot have had a thought that was not his thought for the last 30 or 40 years.” And then I thought — “and what I know about him is mediated through her - she edited all his notebooks, checked the sources of the quotations, etc.”

And then I thought, “I could write a novel called Possession about the relationship between a dead poet and a living scholar.” And the word possession would have all sorts of senses — daemonism, ownership, obsession……

And Jeffrey Eugenides on Middlesex:

A good title tells you what the book’s about. It reminds you, when you lose heart, why you started writing it in the first place. I saw an interview with Francis Ford Coppola once where he said that he likes to boil down his films into one word. For The Godfather, the word was “succession.” Whenever Coppola decided something, even a small thing like a costume detail, he reminded himself of his theme in order to make everything cohere, from the storyline right down to the gangsters’ hats.

With two of my novels, The Virgin Suicides and The Marriage Plot, I knew the titles before I even started writing. I wasn’t so lucky with Middlesex. For years I had a terrible working title for that book, so bad I won’t even mention it here.

(via @john_overholt)

The Limitations of Language Apps

posted by Jason Kottke   May 07, 2019

For the NY Times, Eric Ravenscraft writes about the limitations of language apps like Duolingo in teaching you how to speak a foreign language.

After I accumulated a Duolingo streak in excess of 500 days — a feat that, thanks to the app’s notoriously insistent reminders, has now come to define my self-worth — I found myself in a better place to judge just how much an app alone can really teach you. The short answer is that you can definitely learn some things from an app, but if you want to become fluent in a language — or even conversational — they won’t be enough.

The CEFR is a standard for describing how proficient people are at language, with levels progression from Basic (A1 & A2) to Independent (B1 & B2) to Proficient (C1 & C2).

Level B1 starts to introduce more complex ideas like explaining their opinions, dreams, and ambitions, or handling complex tasks while traveling. Level B2 expects speakers to be able to speak with native speakers of a language without straining, and have complex technical discussions related to their field of expertise. These two levels make up the Independent stage.

Apps have trouble getting people past the B1 stage. Reading this I thought, aha, this is an opportunity for the internet to connect native speakers from around the world with language learners. I got all excited thinking about how to build something to facilitate this when I remembered that, duh, the internet is mature enough that someone has already built this. Tandem is one such service; they’ve got an app that allows students to video chat their way to fluency with native speaking tutors. Other sites that help connect you with native speakers are Verbling and Italki, and HelloTalk.

Has anyone tried a service like this? Is video conversation a worthy substitute for in-person conversational language learning?

Talking Chewbacca: “Where the Hell Have You Been?”

posted by Jason Kottke   May 06, 2019

This is neat: Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca speaking English to Harrison Ford’s Han Solo in a scene from Empire Strikes Back:

Mayhew’s dialogue provided context for Ford to play off of. Chewbacca’s more familiar voice was dubbed over the on-set dialogue in post production — listen to Star Wars sound designer Ben Burtt describe how he created Chewie’s voice in this video at ~26:18. Mayhew passed away last week at the age of 74.

See also David Prowse’s on-set dialogue as Darth Vader, or as the other cast members called him, Darth Farmer (at 6:05 in the video). (via laughing squid)

The Devil and the Explicit Lyrics Sticker

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 16, 2019

In the first episode of season two of Earworm, Estelle Caswell explains where the “Explicit Lyrics” sticker found on many of your favorite music albums came from. The story involves heavy metal, Prince, the rise of the religious right, the Satanic panic, Tipper Gore, and lots of amazing hair.

The very public discussion around the advisory label involved the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), a group led by the wives of Washington politicians, and a few musicians including Frank Zappa, Dee Snider, and John Denver.

While the PMRC’s involvement was allegedly sparked by some raunchy lyrics from Prince’s 1984 album Purple Rain, the debate over rock lyrics had been infiltrating American culture and politics for a decade. The driving force behind that debate was the rise of heavy metal, a genre that saw explosive popularity with the launch of MTV in 1981, and the growing influence of the religious right, who saw rock music as a powerful threat to Christianity.

One of the main sources for the video is Eric Nuzum’s book, Parental Advisory: Music Censorship in America.

Why Do Some Asian Accents Swap Ls and Rs in English?

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 28, 2019

Asian speakers switching their Rs and Ls is an old Hollywood trope that you may have seen in movies like A Christmas Story, Lethal Weapon 4, and even Lost in Translation. In this video, Joss Fong explains where that linguistic stereotype comes from and how it does and doesn’t apply to speakers of different Asian languages.

A foreign accent is when someone speaks a second language with the rules of their first language, and one of the most persistent and well-studied foreign-accent features is a lack of L/R contrast among native Japanese speakers learning English.

It’s so well-known that American soldiers in World War II reportedly used codewords like “lallapalooza” to distinguish Japanese spies from Chinese allies. But American movies and TV shows have applied this linguistic stereotype to Korean and Chinese characters too, like Kim Jong Il in Team America: World Police, or Chinese restaurant employees singing “fa ra ra ra ra” in A Christmas Story.

However, Japanese, Korean, and Chinese are completely different languages that each handle L-sound and R-sounds differently. In this episode of Vox Observatory, we take a look at each language and how it affects pronunciation for English-language learners.

See also A Phonetic Map of the Human Mouth.

The Impossibility of Translating Homer into English

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 27, 2019

Emily Wilson, who produced this banging translation of The Odyssey and is currently at work on The Iliad, recently tweeted a list of “reasons why it’s more or less impossible to translate Homer into English in a satisfactory way”. Here are a few of those reasons:

2. There aren’t enough onomatopoeic words for very loud chaotic noises.

3. “Many”, especially when repeated over and over, sounds childish; repeating “lots of” sounds worse. There are not enough words for large numbers of people or objects, and those we have (“multitude”, “plethora”, “myriad”) are often too pompous to use repeatedly.

6. Terms for social rank imply a particular wrong social order. “King” suggests monarchy. “Chief” has several connotations, none quite right. “General”, “Marshal”, “Officer” etc. suggest an established military hierarchy. “Mr” & “Sir” suggest business suits.

Last year, Wilson shared her process behind translating the first two lines of The Odyssey.

How much of Troy did he sack? ptoliethron is the lengthened form of polis, “city” (later, city-state). Sometimes =central part of city. But sacking just part of Troy isn’t really enough… Shd. the translator make it non-dumb if possible, or not worry about that?

There’s alliteration (polla/ plangthe … ptolietron epersen, notice the “p” sounds). What, if anything, should or can a translator do, when the sound of every word in her language is different from the words of the original? And, what to do about meter? Genre? Tone?

What’s the judgment, if any? Or narrative perspective? Do we feel OK about Odysseus being defined, instantly, as a city-sacker (ptoliporthos, one of his standard epithets)? Is the narrative voice invested in one side or another? It’s very hard to say. A judgment call.

And it goes on like that for more than a dozen tweets…for just two lines!

A Phonetic Map of the Human Mouth

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 22, 2019

This infographic from Language Base Camp shows where the sounds that English speakers use are produced in the mouth and throat.

A Phonetic Map of the Human Mouth

I’ve had zero voice training in my life, so it was really illuminating to speak all of the different sounds while paying close attention to where in my mouth they were happening. Try it!

Update: And after pronouncing the sounds yourself, take a few minutes to play around with Pink Trombone. Fun! (via @pixelcult)

Tiny Private Mind-Motions

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 11, 2019

Prompted by a line from a poem by Tracy K. Smith, Sam Anderson writes about the thoughts that come unbidden to our minds during the course of our day.

Every morning, when I screw the lid onto my steaming thermos of coffee, I think to myself, automatically, the phrase “heat capture.” I have no idea why. I’ve never used that phrase in any other context in my life. And yet I couldn’t stop it if I tried. After years of this, I finally mentioned it to my wife, who revealed a similar habit: Every night, when she shuts the bedroom blinds, she thinks to herself the ridiculous words, “Sleep Chamber: Complete.” She said she kind of hates it because it makes her feel as if she’s living in an episode of “Star Trek,” but she has no choice.

Anderson calls these involuntary thoughts “tiny, private mind-motions”. I have a bunch of these — saying “hey” to the tiny pareidolia faces hidden in my bathroom’s wood paneling, recasting the word “debris” as “derbis” — but the one I’ve been noticing the most lately is nearly every time I run across a two-syllable word or phrase, my brain responds with the Batman jingle.

Na na na na na na na na na na na na snack bags!
Na na na na na na na na na na na na passport!
Na na na na na na na na na na na na Meek Mill!
Na na na na na na na na na na na na sport mode!
Na na na na na na na na na na na na Kottke!

(via na na na na na na na na na na na na craig mod)

Crack Pie, Girly Drinks, and Problematic Food Language

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 05, 2019

Soleil Ho is the new restaurant critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. In a recent article, Ho shared a thoughtful list of the words that she isn’t going to use in her restaurant reviews. One of the words is “crack”:

In addition to being overly dramatic, it seems really callous to write that a bowl of bean dip is “like crack.” No matter how delicious something might be, its effect on me is nothing close to what crack does to people and their families. It’s supposed to be funny and edgy to compare a gourmet cupcake to crack because of how far the chi-chi bakery I’m standing in is from the kind of community that has historically been devastated by the crack epidemic. The ignorance is the joke.

One interesting example of its persistence is in the way we talk about Momofuku Milk Bar’s “Crack Pie.” Writers have called its creator, chef Christina Tosi, a “crack dealer” and used the language of addiction to describe the dish. Honestly, the company should have done the right thing and changed it by now.

Language is power and words are meaningful beyond their simple or intended definitions. For any given problematic word, there are so many other words you can use.

See also New Language for Slavery and the Civil War.

Stone Age Cave Symbols May All Be Part of a Single Prehistoric Proto-Writing System

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 04, 2019

While studying some of the oldest art in the world found in caves and engraved on animal bones or shells, paleoanthropologist Genevieve von Petzinger has found evidence of a proto-writing system that perhaps developed in Africa and then spread throughout the world.

Consistent Doodles

The research also reveals that modern humans were using two-thirds of these signs when they first settled in Europe, which creates another intriguing possibility. “This does not look like the start-up phase of a brand-new invention,” von Petzinger writes in her recently published book, The First Signs: Unlocking the mysteries of the world’s oldest symbols (Simon and Schuster). In other words, when modern humans first started moving into Europe from Africa, they must have brought a mental dictionary of symbols with them.

That fits well with the discovery of a 70,000-year-old block of ochre etched with cross-hatching in Blombos cave in South Africa. And when von Petzinger looked through archaeology papers for mentions or illustrations of symbols in cave art outside Europe, she found that many of her 32 signs were used around the world. There is even tantalising evidence that an earlier human, Homo erectus, deliberately etched a zigzag on a shell on Java some 500,000 years ago. “The ability of humans to produce a system of signs is clearly not something that starts 40,000 years ago. This capacity goes back at least 100,000 years,” says Francesco d’Errico from the University of Bordeaux, France.

Nonetheless, something quite special seems to have happened in ice age Europe. In various caves, von Petzinger frequently found certain symbols used together. For instance, starting 40,000 years ago, hand stencils are often found alongside dots. Later, between 28,000 and 22,000 years ago, they are joined by thumb stencils and finger fluting — parallel lines created by dragging fingers through soft cave deposits.

Von Petzinger lays out the results of her work in a 2016 book called The First Signs: Unlocking the Mysteries of the World’s Oldest Symbols and in a TED Talk from 2015:

It’s not writing (because the symbols don’t appear to be capable of representing the full range of spoken language) and it’s not an alphabet, but it’s definitely an intriguing something. (via open culture)

What Is a Vegetable? Do They Even Exist?

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 28, 2019

Last night at dinner, we were talking about our favorite vegetables1 and when my daughter said tomatoes might be her pick, my 11-year-old son, who is at that annoying know-it-all stage of his life and loves to shut down his sister on any minor quibble, said “tomatoes are a fruit”. I argued back that while a tomato might technically be a fruit, it is culturally considered a vegetable and that he was just being a pedantic dick in order to dunk on his sister (but not in those exact words).

This morning, I ran across this piece by Lynne Peskoe-Yang called Vegetables Don’t Exist, in which the author goes quite a bit deeper into what a vegetable is now (and has been in the past).

Botanically speaking, it’s still clear: eggplants, tomatoes, bell peppers, and squash are all fruits. It’s equally clear that mushrooms and truffles are fungi, more closely related to humans than they are to plants. But these are all, also, in common usage, “vegetables.” Yet when an authority like the Oxford English Dictionary should provide clarity on what a vegetable actually is, it instead defines vegetables as a specific set of certain cultivated plant parts, “such as a cabbage, potato, turnip, or bean.” And since carrots and turnips are roots, potatoes are tubers, broccoli is a flower, cabbage is a leaf, and celery is a stem, we find that “vegetable” rarely applies to the entire plant (or to the same parts of the plant), while it also has a way of applying to things that aren’t actually vegetables. It is a category both broader and more specific that the thing it’s supposed to describe.

The piece also references my favorite thing about the English language (which I first learned about in Bill Bryson’s The Mother Tongue) about why the food that results from pigs & cows are called pork & beef:

During Norman and early Plantagenet rule, the farm-to-table divide was less of a foodie buzzword than a class distinction: the upper class were served in French while serfs and servants planted, harvested, raised, butchered, and cooked in Anglo-Saxon. The French word for the served food lived alongside the Germanic word for its source. When Anglo-Saxon chickens were slaughtered, they became poultry for the Normans to eat. Food and animal were class-divided döppelgangers: Anglo-Saxon sheep, cows, swine, and doves were transformed into French mouton (mutton), boeuf (beef), porc (pork), and pigeons (pigeons).

(via @legalnomads)

Update: Apparently there is no such thing as a fish either.

If you choose to describe fish as, say, all the animals descended from the salmon lineage, then you’ve left out lungfish. Oops. If you choose to include both the salmon and the lungfish, you’ll see that one descendant of that original fishy-fish that gave rise to salmon and lungfish likewise gave rise to the cow. Suddenly, you’re stuck with either having the fish include the cows and humans, which no one wants, or no fish at all. Hello, modern evolutionary science; goodbye, fish.

(thx, paul)

  1. The whole thing came up because I remembered how amazing Momofuku’s brussels sprouts are and told the kids its one of my all-time favorite veggie dishes. Other favorites include corn on the cob (from a particular farm in Massachusetts), a perfectly ripe tomato (in caprese salad or on a BLT), asparagus, the snap peas I get from the local farmers’ market in the summer, hen of the woods mushrooms, and beets.

Rembrandtness and the Art of Art Authentication

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 28, 2019

Russell Shorto has a piece in this weekend’s NY Times Magazine about two previously undiscovered Rembrandt paintings, the man who found them both, and the art-world controversy that followed. Here’s one of the newly claimed Rembrandts, bought for $173,000 at auction:

Portrait Gentleman Rembrandt

The article is interesting throughout — it’s a neat little bow of a story by the author of the fantastic Island at the Center of the World — but I wanted to highlight this bit on “Rembrandtness” (what a term!) and the fuzziness of authenticating a painting like this:

Six next lined up prominent scholars to support his attribution of the painting to Rembrandt. It’s worth noting that some were unwilling to do so — not because they definitively believed otherwise, but as part of a shift toward acknowledging the gray areas in art history. For such a painting, which seemingly came out of nowhere, there is no way to achieve absolute certainty about its provenance. “When Jan came to me with his painting, I had to admit I couldn’t contest his arguments,” said Gary Schwartz, an American Rembrandt biographer and an authority on 17th-century Dutch art. “And I told him I wouldn’t express doubts about Rembrandt’s authorship. But it doesn’t make me happy” to be so definitive. He went on to elaborate the particular difficulties that Rembrandt poses for authenticators: the variety of styles he painted in, his many pupils, the likelihood that in his studio more than one person worked on a given painting. A painting that is determined to be, say, by “the studio of Rembrandt,” rather than by Rembrandt himself, would be of lesser value. Schwartz is one of a number of art historians who, when it comes to questions of the authenticity of works by famous painters, would like people to focus less on the artist and the monetary worth of the painting than on the work itself. He uses the term “Rembrandtness” and argues for assigning shades of likelihood that a painting is by the artist himself. Regarding the Rembrandtness of this particular portrait, he said, “The attribution to Rembrandt is the hypothesis to beat, but it may not be unbeatable.”

Museums try to respect “Rembrandtness.” The National Gallery of Art in London, for instance, labels “An Old Man in an Armchair” as “probably by Rembrandt,” and the Mauritshuis museum recently announced that it is mounting an exhaustive study of two of its supposed Rembrandts to try to determine the likelihood of their being by the master. “I think ‘Rembrandtness’ is a smart idea,” said Ronni Baer, senior curator of European paintings at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. “But people aren’t going to be content with it because there’s so much money involved in attribution.”

I wonder what the true Rembrandtness is of all the paintings in museums or expensive collections that are currently attributed to only his hand? Or the da Vinciness of Salvator Mundi?

Speaking of Rembrandt, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam is currently displaying all of their extensive collection of works by the artist in an exhibition called All the Rembrandts.1

In addition, the most important painting in the collection, Night Watch, will be restored in place over the next several years so that museum visitors can observe the process.

  1. To paraphrase the classic Onion article about razors: “Fuck everything, we’re doing all the Rembrandts!”

The Celebrity Name Spelling Test

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 26, 2019

Last month, I wrote about Colin Morris’ flow diagrams that show how people most frequently misspell difficult words. The crew over at The Pudding turned this into an interactive feature where you can test your spelling of the names of celebrities like football player & activist Colin K., actor & comedian Zach G., and musician Alanis M. As you type, you get a flow diagram of your letter choices compared to everyone else’s. Here’s my diagram for Zach G., which only 15% of people got correct (with the correct spelling blocked out):

Zach Misspell

I only got 8 right…how did you do?

Where the $&%@# Did Grawlixes Come From?

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 25, 2019

A grawlix is a string of typographic characters that represent obscene language, often found in comics. In this video Phil Edwards traces the history of the grawlix back to the early 20th century, right around when the comic form was invented.

Known as the “grawlix” — a term invented by Beetle Bailey cartoonist Mort Walker — this string of symbols is almost as old as comics, extending back to the early 1900s. Comics like The Katzenjammer Kids and Lady Bountiful were truly inventing the art form and, in the process, had to figure out a way to show obscenities to kids. Enter #*@!$ like this. The grawlix performs a censorship function while, at the same time, revealing that something naughty is going on.

What Is Intersectionality?

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 19, 2019

Maybe you’ve heard the term “intersectionality” used on social media — in the context of feminism or racism — and you know in a hand-wavy sort of way what it means but don’t really know its exact definition or where it came from. Well, Kat Blaque has you covered. In this YouTube video and in this Twitter thread, she explains that intersectionality was first described by Kimberlé Crenshaw, now Professor of Law at UCLA and Columbia Law School, in a 1989 article called Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.

Blaque’s summary of the paper on Twitter is crisp and concise:

To summarize what she meant when she defined intersectionality: It was about how black women were erased in conversations about discrimination because the feminist movement and the civil rights movement focused largely on its most privileged members.

So feminism, at the time (and arguably still) focused largely on white women’s experiences with sexism and the civil rights movement focused, at the time (and arguably still) focused on how black men experienced racism. So black women’s experiences had to be measured against that.

Meaning that in several legal cases, explained in the document and my video, if a black woman’s experiences with discrimination weren’t paralleled to how black men experience racism and white women experience sexism, their cases were dismissed or thrown out.

So you had cases where black women would sue a company for racial discrimination and then you’d have the judge say that it was impossible for that to be true, because they currently employed black people. The problem was, the black people were all men.

There’s obviously a lot more in Crenshaw’s paper, including this point near the end:

It is somewhat ironic that those concerned with alleviating the ills of racism and sexism should adopt such a top-down approach to discrimination. If their efforts instead began with addressing the needs and problems of those who are most disadvantaged and with restructuring and remaking the world where necessary, then others who are singularly disadvantaged would also benefit. In addition, it seems that placing those who currently are marginalized in the center is the most effective way to resist efforts to compartmentalize experiences and undermine potential collective action.

(via @john_overholt)

The Atlas of Endangered Alphabets

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 05, 2019

Yi Script

The Atlas of Endangered Alphabets is a collection of “indigenous and minority writing systems”, gathered together in the hopes of collecting information about reviving interest in these alphabets. From the about page:

In 2009, when I started work on the first series of carvings that became the Endangered Alphabets Project, times were dark for indigenous and minority cultures. The lightning spread of television and the Internet were driving a kind of cultural imperialism into every corner of the world. Everyone had a screen or wanted a screen, and the English language and the Latin alphabet (or one of the half-dozen other major writing systems) were on every screen and every keyboard. Every other culture was left with a bleak choice: learn the mainstream script or type a series of meaningless tofu squares.

Yet 2019 is a remarkable time in the history of writing systems. In spite of creeping globalization, political oppression, and economic inequalities, minority cultures are starting to revive interest in their traditional scripts. Across the world, calligraphy is turning writing into art; letters are turning up as earrings, words as pendants, proverbs as clothing designs. Individuals, groups, organizations and even governments are showing interest in preserving and protecting traditional writing systems or even creating new ones as way to take back their cultural identity.

You can access the alphabets from a map on the front page or alphabetically here. The project is also looking for information on a number of possible scripts that may or not be still in use.

The image above is an example of the Yi alphabet, a script created during the Tang dynasty in China (618-907 AD).

More on Ancient Scripts and the History of Writing

posted by Tim Carmody   Feb 01, 2019

World's Writing Systems.png

One post last week that y’all loved was The Evolution of the Alphabet. I loved it too; anything breaking down the history of writing in ways that are (get it) decipherable is just to me. But since then, even more great links on the history of writing have come in. To which I say, it is our duty, nay—our pleasure—to round those links up.

First, a riff on Jason’s post from the man himself, Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall. Josh, like me, is obsessed with the history of writing. He recommends two books (Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World by Nicholas Oster and The Writing Revolution: Cuneiform to the Internet by Amalia E. Gnanadesikan) and adds this reflection:

Historians of writing believe that our current alphabet originated as a sort of quick-and-dirty adaptation of Egyptian hieroglyphics into a simpler and more flexible way of writing. You take a small number of hieroglyphic characters representing specific things, decide to use them not for their meaning but for their sound and then use this as a way to encode the sound of words in almost any language. In this particular case it was to encode a Semitic language related to and ancestral to Hebrew and Phoenician. It was likely devised by soldiers of traders operating either in Egypt or between Egypt and what’s now Israel and Jordan.

This basic A B C D formulation is the foundation of the writing systems for not only all languages that use the Latin alphabet but also those which use the Greek, Cyrillic and Arabic alphabets along with numerous others. What is particularly fascinating is that most historians of writing believe that this invention - the alphabet, designed by and for sub-literate Semites living on the borderlands of Egypt about 4,000 years ago - is likely the origin point of all modern alphabets. In some cases, it’s a direct lineal descent as in Canaanite to Greek to Latin to our modern alphabet. But the creators of the alphabets that now dominate South Asia (originating 2500 to 3000 years ago) also seem to have borrowed at least the idea of the alphabet from these Semitic innovators, though others believe they are an indigenous creation.

The deep history of these letters we are now communicating through is like the DNA - or perhaps rather the record of the DNA - of human cognition and thought, processed through language and encoded into writing.

The second link comes from linguist Gretchen McCulloch. It’s The World Writing Systems, a site that doesn’t focus narrowly on our updated Latin alphabet and its antecedent forms, but on every system of writing that ever is or has been. It lets you search, browse, sort, and generally geek out to your heart’s content. It also lets you know whether the scripts are supported by Unicode (a surprising number are not), and links you to Wikipedia entries about them. So you can easily read about the Cypriot Syllabary, an Iron Age script and descendant of Linear A that was eventually replaced by the Greek alphabet.

Differences between Cypriot syllabary and Linear B
The main difference between the two lies not in the structure of the syllabary but the use of the symbols. Final consonants in the Cypriot syllabary are marked by a final, silent e. For example, final consonants, n, s and r are noted by using ne, re and se. Groups of consonants are created using extra vowels. Diphthongs such as ae, au, eu and ei are spelled out completely. In addition, nasal consonants that occur before another consonant are omitted completely.

See, you just learned something!

Now, many of the Aegean writing systems (including Linear A) are still undeciphered. For that, you want classicist Anna P. Judson’s “A very short introduction to the undeciphered Aegean writing systems” from her blog, “It’s All Greek To Me.” (Hat tip here to the polymath sportswriter Zito Madu.)

Here’s what Judson has to say about Linear A (which unlike Linear B, wasn’t used to write Greek, but a related language called Minoan):

It’s generally agreed that at least some Linear A signs, and quite plausibly the majority of them, can be ‘read’, since they are likely to have had similar sound-values to their Linear B equivalents (Linear B was adapted directly from Linear A in order to write in Greek); but it’s still not possible to identify the language involved or to understand any of its grammatical features, the meanings of most words, etc. As an example, the word AB81-02, or KU-RO if transliterated using Linear B sound-values, is one of the few words whose meaning we do know: it appears at the end of lists next to the sum of all the listed numerals, and so clearly means ‘total’. But we still don’t actually know how to pronounce this word, or what part of speech it is, and we can’t identify it with any similar words in any known languages.

The most promising set of inscriptions for analysing linguistic features is the so-called ‘libation formula’ - texts found on stone vases used in religious rituals (‘libation tables’), which are probably dedications (so probably say something like “Person X gives/dedicates/offers this object/offering to Deity Y”), and across which similar elements often recur in the same position in the text. In principle, having a ‘formula’ of this kind should let us identify grammatical elements via the slight variations between texts - e.g. if a particular variation in one word seemed to correlate with the number of dedicators listed, we might be able to infer that that was a verb with singular or plural marking. Unfortunately, there simply aren’t enough examples of these texts to establish this kind of linguistic detail - every analysis conducted so far has identified a different element as being the name of the donor, the name of the deity, the verb of offering, etc., so it’s still not possible to draw any certain conclusions from this ‘formula’.

Cretan Hieroglyphic and its variants are even less well understood than Linear A! Some of them are only attested in single inscriptions! God, writing isn’t a smooth series of adaptations leading to a clear final goal! Writing is a total mess! How did anyone ever make sense of it at all?

But they did; and that’s how and why we’re all here, communicating with each other on these alphanumeric encoding machines to this very day.

The Evolution of the Alphabet

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 24, 2019

Evolution Alphabet

From Matt Baker of UsefulCharts, this chart traces the evolution of our familiar alphabet from its Proto-Sinaitic roots circa 1850-1550 BC. It’s tough to see how the pictographic forms of the original script evolved into our letters; aside from the T and maybe M & O, there’s little resemblance. Prints are available. (via the morning news)

Update: Baker did a corresponding video on the history of the alphabet that explains where the characters in our familiar Latin alphabet came from.

(via @dokas)

How We Talk About Racism in America is Wrong

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 17, 2019

For Vox, Jane Coaston writes about why Republicans took 15 years to act on House member Steve King’s racism. I found her point about how racism has become an insult to be wielded or avoided (depending on your perspective) rather than a useful descriptive term of behavior or views really interesting.

The way we talk about race and racism in the United States is wrong. In short, we think of “racist” as an insult rather than as an adjective. And we have narrowed down the concept of racism to an almost ludicrous extent, in effect often excusing real racism — such as that espoused by people like King — and its impact on nonwhite Americans because it is not literally wearing a hood or setting a cross alight on a lawn.

Later on in the piece, she quotes historian Ibram X. Kendi (who was a frequent guest on the excellent Seeing White podcast series) about this unhelpful shift.

“I think that the way a better part of America defines what a racist is someone who self identifies as a white nationalist or a white supremacist,” said Ibram X. Kendi, a historian at American University and author of Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. “Someone who is in the Ku Klux Klan, someone who says the n-word, someone who engages in racial violence. Anything else, according to them, is not racist.”

We tend to define racism in a way that will not implicate our own views or ideas. “I think people define racism in a way that exonerates them. If they can narrow [the definition of racism] as much as possible to things they are not saying or doing or are about, that leaves them off the hook,” Kendi continued.

In his view, rather than “racist” being “a descriptive term with a clear-cut definition,” we have turned it into a “fixed derogatory putdown,” an insult. He told me that “by conceiving it in this way, we create a culture of denial in which everyone denies being racist but very few people know what a racist is.”

In effect, the term “racist,” which has an actual meaning, has now been turned into a schoolyard insult.

Visualizing Dubious Spelling with Flow Diagrams

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 16, 2019

Colin Morris recently analyzed a corpus of comments from Reddit for misspellings by searching for words near uncertainty indicators like “(sp?)”. Among the words that provoked the most doubt were Kaepernick, comradery, adderall, Minaj, seizure, Galifianakis, loogie, and Gyllenhaal. Morris then used a Sankey diagram to visualize how people misspelled “Gyllenhaal” in different ways (with the arrow thickness denoting the frequency of each spelling):

Sankey Chart Gyllenhaal

Tag yourself! (I’m probably on the yellow “LL” arrow.) Sankey diagrams are typically used in science and engineering to visualize flows of energy in and out of a system, but this is a clever adaptation to linguistics (sp?). I’d to see one of these for rhythm. (via @kellianderson)

How Language Shapes the Way We Think

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 07, 2019

At the TEDWomen 2017 conference, cognitive scientist Lera Boroditsky gave a talk on how different languages affect how their speakers think about the world. It ended up being the most viewed online TED Talk in 2018. Boroditsky’s first example of how language shapes thought is the directional thinking of the Kuuk Thaayorre people of Australia.

I’ll start with an example from an Aboriginal community in Australia that I had the chance to work with. These are the Kuuk Thaayorre people. They live in Pormpuraaw at the very west edge of Cape York. What’s cool about Kuuk Thaayorre is, in Kuuk Thaayorre, they don’t use words like “left” and “right,” and instead, everything is in cardinal directions: north, south, east and west. And when I say everything, I really mean everything. You would say something like, “Oh, there’s an ant on your southwest leg.” Or, “Move your cup to the north-northeast a little bit.” In fact, the way that you say “hello” in Kuuk Thaayorre is you say, “Which way are you going?” And the answer should be, “North-northeast in the far distance. How about you?”

So imagine as you’re walking around your day, every person you greet, you have to report your heading direction.

Studying Humpback Whales to Better Communicate with Aliens

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 20, 2018

In this video, a pair of scientists talk about their work in studying the communication patterns of humpback whales to learn more about how we might someday communicate with a possible extraterrestrial intelligence. No, this isn’t Star Trek IV. For one thing, whales have tailored their communication style to long distances, when it may take hours to received a reply, an analog of the length of possible interplanetary & interstellar communications. The scientists are also using Claude Shannon’s information theory to study the complexity of the whales’ language and eventually hope to use their findings to better detect the level of intelligence in alien messages and perhaps even the social structure of the alien civilization itself.

P.S. Fascinating whale facts are sprinkled throughout the video. Humpback whales “have had the Ocean Internet for millions of years” and can communicate directly with each other up to 1000 km away. That means that a whale off the coast of Portland, OR can chat with another whale near San Francisco. (via @stewartbrand)

Protective Custody in Nazi Germany - Who Was Being Protected?

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 29, 2018

Another thing I learned on my visit to Topographie Des Terrors in Berlin was how the Nazis subtly twisted the meaning of “protective custody”. That term is typically thought of as a measure to safeguard an individual who might be harmed. It’s not always a positive term — “custody” after all is not freedom and in US prisons, protective custody often subjects the person being protected to solitary confinement.

Beginning in 1933, the Nazis began placing people deemed subversive to the Reich under protective custody, presumably so they would not be harmed by German people upset with their disruptive influence in society. But really, protective custody was a euphemism for jailing Jews, homosexuals, the disabled, Communists, the elderly, Roma, “work-shy”, and political opponents outside of the normal judicial system.

With the reinterpretation of “protective custody” (Schutzhaft) in 1933, police power became independent of judicial controls. In Nazi terminology, protective custody meant the arrest — without judicial review — of real and potential opponents of the regime. “Protective custody” prisoners were not confined within the normal prison system but in concentration camps under the exclusive authority of the SS (Schutzstaffel; the elite guard of the Nazi state).

No due process…these people went straight to concentration camps and were then often murdered. The entity being protected in protected custody was the Nazi regime. From a 1939 article in The Atlantic written by someone who had been imprisoned in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp::

In Germany the words ‘protective custody’ have a double meaning. Originally the term meant the incarceration of people who were threatened by others and who were guarded for their own safety so that they might be protected from their enemies. Now, however, men in protective custody are mostly those who are brought, for the ‘protection of the people and the State,’ into a concentration camp without hearing, without court sentence, without the possibility of redress, and for an indefinite time.

Language, as Orwell and others have long noted, is a powerful tool of fascists and authoritarians. In addition to “protective custody”, the Nazis referred to their plans for Jewish genocide as the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question” and murdering people as subjecting them to “special treatment”. It all sounds so civilized and palatable, easily digestible to normal folks.