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kottke.org posts about language

“I Hate to Write, but I Love Having Written”

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 21, 2020

I was surprised and a little bit gutted to learn that the quote “I hate to write, but I love having written” cannot be attributed to Dorothy Parker. According to the Quote Investigator, there’s no evidence Parker ever wrote or said anything like that. The earliest instance of such a phrase was from a letter written by novelist Frank Norris prior to his death in 1902 (when Parker would have been 8 or 9 years old).

I write with great difficulty, but have managed somehow to accomplish 40 short stories (all published in fugitive fashion) and five novels within the last three years, and a lot of special unsigned articles. Believe my forte is the novel. Don’t like to write, but like having written. Hate the effort of driving pen from line to line, work only three hours a day, but work every day.

God, I’m getting nauseous just picturing what an insufferably pedantic snot I’m going sound like the next time someone tries that “Parker” quote on me. “Well, actually…”

But! This was a great excuse to dive into the deep well of Parker’s wit. Some of my favorite quotes of hers:

“Too fucking busy, and vice versa.” is an instant classic, up there with E.B. White’s “I must decline, for secret reasons.”

Oh, and one other thing I’d never heard about Parker: when she died, she left her estate to Martin Luther King Jr., even though the two had never met. When King was assassinated, her estate passed to the NAACP.

Extending American Sign Language Vocabulary With Signs for “Coronavirus” and “TikTok”

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 06, 2020

Coronavirus in sign language

The Instagram account thefamilyvocab features videos of words & phrases in sign language that are not part of standard ASL.

Our aim is to play with sign language and expand my child’s visual vocabulary with signs that are not part of standard ASL. It’s only 200 years old and still thriving and evolving.

I love this. So far, they’ve done words like pho, Black Lives Matter, TikTok (I really like this one), Brexit, coronavirus, emoji (I like this one too), gentrification, and dozens of others. They’re creating new signs, taking suggestions from followers, and sourcing signs from other sign languages from around the world. (via youngna)

Americans Can’t Stop Mask Debating

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 29, 2020

A compilation of TV news clips of people saying “mask debate” (which sounds very much like another unrelated word when spoken — try saying it out loud right now to see what I mean), stitched together by the folks at Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. It feels good to laugh at infuriating things sometimes.

BTW, the actual debate over masks will continue to wane — science and then culture will win most people over and it’ll just become a normal thing that most people do in public all the time, like wearing shoes or carrying a bag.

The Indigenous Peruvian Trap Music of Renata Flores

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 07, 2020

Quechua is an indigenous language family spoken by millions of people in the Andean region of South America, primarily in Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia. It was the main language of the Inca empire and today is the most widely spoken pre-Columbian language in the Americas. In her music, Peruvian singer/songwriter Renata Flores combines modern forms like hip hop, electronic, and trap music with native instruments and vocals sung in Quechua. Here’s the video for one of her most popular songs, Tijeras:

Flores also does covers of pop songs (Billie Eilish’s Bad Guy, Fallin’ by Alicia Keys) and she first captured people’s online attention with a Quechua cover of Michael Jackson’s The Way You Make Me Feel performed when she was 14 years old:

Rosa Chávez Yacila wrote an article for Vice about Flores and her music last year. Her use of Quechua in pop music brought the language out of private spaces into the public.

It’s very common for many Quechua speakers to not teach their children or grandchildren the language because they consider this knowledge as a burden. To explain the shortage of active bilingualism in Peru, the linguist Virginia Zavala uses the concept of “linguistic ideologies,” which are the ideas that people have about languages. For example: French is the language of love; German sounds rough; Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish are similar.

Quechua, similarly to other indigenous languages, is associated with poverty, rural life, and illiteracy. These ideas have been shaped by history and society to the point that people hold on to these beliefs as if they were universal truths. And these “truths” are deeply embedded in their conscious thought process. Value hierarchies also exist with languages. Some are “worth” more than others.

The end result is that many native Quechua speakers believe that using Quechua in public is unnecessary after learning Spanish. Either by shyness or shame, they reserve their maternal tongue for private spaces and intimate conversations.

Doublespeak: Language Designed to Mislead While Pretending Otherwise

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 07, 2020

Linguist William Lutz, former editor of the Quarterly Review of Doublespeak, went on CSPAN in 1989 to promote his book, Doublespeak. The video above is a 7-minute distillation of his thoughts on what he calls “language designed to mislead while pretending not to”. (Watch Lutz’s full interview here.)

You can read the first chapter of Doublespeak; an excerpt:

Doublespeak is not the product of carelessness or sloppy thinking. Indeed, most doublespeak is the product of clear thinking and carefully designed and constructed to appear to communicate when in fact it doesn’t. It is language designed not to lead but mislead. It is language designed to distort reality and corrupt thought… In the world created by doublespeak, if it’s not a tax increase, but rather “revenue enhancement” or “tax base broadening”, how can you complain about higher taxes? If it’s not acid rain, but rather “poorly buffered precipitation”, how can you worry about all those dead trees?

See also On Bullshit and Donald Trump. (via dunstan)

Law Professor Skillfully Handles a “Black Lives Matter” Complaint From Her Students

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 25, 2020

Patricia Leary Black Lives Matter

For the curious and open-minded, many explanations of what “Black Lives Matter” means and what it doesn’t (e.g. White lives don’t matter) are readily available online. But in terms of pure clarity, it’s hard to beat what Whittier Law School professor Patricia Leary wrote in response to a letter sent to her by an anonymous group of students in 2016. This group of students was offended by Leary wearing a “Black Lives Matter” t-shirt on campus, writing in part:

We write this letter to you with concern about your inappropriate conduct at XXXXXXX Law School.

Specifically, you have presented yourself on campus, on at least one occasion, wearing a “Black Lives Matter” t-shirt. We believe this is an inappropriate and unnecessary statement that has no legitimate place within our institution of higher learning. The statement you represented and endorsed is also highly offensive and extremely inflammatory. We are here to learn the law. We do not spend three years of our lives and tens of thousands of dollars to be subjected to indoctrination or personal opinions of our professors.

XXXXXXX Law School has prided itself on the diverse demographics represented within the student body. Your actions however, clearly represent your View that some of those demographics matter more than others. That alienates and isolates all non-black groups.

As someone who is charged to teach criminal law, it should be abundantly clear to you and beyond any question that ALL lives matter, as it is expressed unequivocally in the law. Furthermore, the “Black Lives Matter” statement is racist and anti-law enforcement and has been known to incite violence in this country. As someone who is paid to teach the law, you should be ashamed of yourself.

If you’re going to argue with law professors, you should bring your A game, and Leary wastes no time in informing these students that they did not do so.

Premise: You are not paying for my opinion.

Critique: You are not paying me to pretend I don’t have one.

And on the meaning of “Black Lives Matter”:

Premise: There is an invisible “only” in front of the words “Black Lives Matter.”

Critique: There is a difference between focus and exclusion. If something matters, this does not imply that nothing else does. If I say “Law Students Matter” it does not imply that my colleagues, friends, and family do not. Here is something else that matters: context. The Black Lives Matter movement arose in a context of evidence that they don’t. When people are receiving messages from the culture in which they live that their lives are less important than other lives, it is a cruel distortion of reality to scold them for not being inclusive enough.

As applied specifically to the context in which I wore my Black Lives Matter shirt, I did this on a day in Criminal Procedure when we were explicitly discussing violence against the black community by police.

There are some implicit words that precede “Black Lives Matter,” and they go something like this:

“Because of the brutalizing and killing of black people at the hands of the police and the indifference of society in general and the criminal justice system in particular. It is important that we say that…”

This is, of course, far too long to fit on a shirt.

Black Lives Matter is about focus, not exclusion. As a general matter, seeing the world and the people in it in mutually exclusive, either/or terms impedes your own thought processes. If you wish to bear that intellectual consequence of a constricting ideology, that’s your decision. But this does not entitle you to project your either/or ideology onto people who do not share it.

The rest of her response is worth a read, particularly the part about the misconception that “what you think something means is the same as what it actually means”.

And then in part 2 of the letter, she rips the batteries right out of the anonymous students by critiquing how they wrote the letter.

Frame the issue precisely and then focus on it. Don’t overgeneralize. You begin by stating that the issue is my “inappropriate conduct,” which sounds very general. Then you narrow the issue to “specifically” one event that occurred on a particular day last semester. Your use of hyperbolic rhetoric throughout the memo suggests that you really are angry about more than just a T-shirt. If it really is about just the T-shirt, then by overgeneralizing from a specific occurrence, your message is swamped by exaggeration. If it really is about other “conduct” on my part, I can’t tell what that is. By the end of the memo you have lost focus completely, generalizing (in statements that are unexplained and inexplicable) about bar passage and about the faculty and administration of the entire law school.

Well, they did ask her to teach…

Covid-19 Superspreading Events and “Speech Superemitters”

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 25, 2020

From Christie Aschwanden’s Scientific American article about How ‘Superspreading’ Events Drive Most COVID-19 Spread comes this speculation by a group of scientists that the way in which some people talk or breathe might spread many more potential coronavirus-carrying droplets than other people.

The scientists also have found intriguing evidence that a small subset of people may behave as “speech superemitters” — individuals who consistently broadcast an order of magnitude more respiratory particles than their peers. “It is very difficult to identify who is going to be a superemitter ahead of time,” he says. “One of the superemitters was a very petite young woman. And I was a bigger, bulkier guy and was not a superemitter.”

I don’t know why I find this so interesting, but I do. Add “speech superemitter” to the list of new Covid-19 vocabulary.

Kadir Nelson’s Powerful New Yorker Cover Honors the Black Victims of Police Violence

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 14, 2020

Kadir Nelson New Yorker Cover

This week’s issue of the New Yorker features a cover designed by artist Kadir Nelson. The magazine has an interactive version of the cover online that identifies the people shown, along with their stories. Along with George Floyd, there’s Tony McDade, Trayvon Martin, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Breonna Taylor, Tamir Rice, Martin Luther King, Jr., Medgar Evers, Emmett Till, Rodney King, the victims of the Tulsa Race Massacre, and too many others. The cover also features periwinkles, which have been used to locate the often unmarked graves of slaves.

The Periwinkle Initiative derives its name from the flower that certain scholars believe was the most common wildflower brought to gravesites of enslaved Americans. This perennial flower has guided researchers to many abandoned burial grounds that would have otherwise gone undetected. The resilient Periwinkle is a perfect symbol to represent the endurance of enslaved Americans and their legacy.

One other thing. According to the NYer, the name of the cover is “Say Their Names”. This is a take on the #SayHerName hashtag that was created to bring “awareness to the often invisible names and stories of Black women and girls who have been victimized by racist police violence”. Phrases and associated hashtags like “Say His Name” and “Say Their Names” have been used over the past few weeks, but some activists say that co-opting specifically takes the spotlight away from the victims the original hashtag was meant to highlight. Here’s Precious Fondren for Teen Vogue:

Since Floyd’s death, there have been uprisings around the country. There’s also been an influx of people using hashtags like #SayHisName and #SayTheirNames to remember the names of other male victims of police violence. While everyone deserves to be honored and remembered, especially when they are being murdered at the hands of those sworn to protect us, it should be noted that such hashtags muddle the very reasoning behind the creation of the #SayHerName.

Conceived in 2014 by the African American Policy Forum and the Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies, the #SayHerName hashtag was meant to amplify the names and narratives of Black women and girls who have also been the victims of police killings; people simply couldn’t name them the way they can name Tamir Rice, Mike Brown, or Freddie Gray.

Racism Is Death

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 12, 2020

In yesterday’s post about police abolition, I linked to a two-part podcast conversation between Chenjerai Kumanyika and Ruth Wilson Gilmore. I listened to the first part yesterday afternoon after posting and it was excellent, full of serious knowledge and deep context about a massive and complex American problem. But I wanted to focus here on something from the closing moments of the episode that I had never heard before: Gilmore’s definition of racism. Acknowledging that it’s a “mouthful”, she defined racism in her book Golden Gulag as “the state-sanctioned and/or extra-legal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death”.

I do not have the expertise or desire to wade into the often-contentious debate about what racism is or is not (see here for instance), but what I like about Gilmore’s take is how it explicitly includes the consequence of racism as an integral part of the definition. Racism is death — there’s a sense of moral urgency when you describe it like that, a clarity that’s absent if you’re just talking about a belief in the superiority of one race over another or even the systemic application or sanction of such prejudice.

Covid-19 Slang and How Language Evolves Quickly in Stressful Times

posted by Jason Kottke   May 13, 2020

Couchella

Kate Burridge and Howard Manns recently wrote a piece about how the Covid-19 pandemic is changing the English language. It’s written from an Australian perspective, so some of the slang might be a bit hard to follow for Americans et al.

In these times of COVID-19, there are the usual suspects: shortenings like “sanny” (hand sanitizer) and “iso” (isolation), abbreviations like BCV (before corona virus) and WFH (working from home), also compounds “corona moaner” (the whingers) and “zoombombing” (the intrusion into a video conference).

Plenty of nouns have been “verbed” too — the toilet paper/pasta/tinned tomatoes have been “magpied”. Even rhyming slang has made a bit of a comeback with Miley Cyrus lending her name to the virus (already end-clipped to “the Miley”). Some combine more than one process — “the isodesk” (or is that “the isobar”) is where many of us are currently spending our days.

“I’ve got the Miley”…I’ve always been a fan of rhyming slang. Linguist Tony Thorne, who specializes in slang & jargon, has compiled a list of new language introduced to (and by) the general public because of the pandemic.

Quarantimes - a hashtag or label for the prevailing circumstances under lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic

Rona, Lady Rona, roni, rone - the coronavirus personified/familiarised

Boomer remover - the coronavirus viewed as a phenomenon resulting in the decimation of the baby boomer demographic

Covidiot - a person behaving irresponsibly in conditions of containment

Doomscrolling/doomsurfing - obsessively accessing upsetting news online

Infits - outfits worn in conditions of confinement

Zoom mullet - a hairstyle developed in lockdown which is ‘camera-ready’ (presentable to a webcam) at front and sides and dishevelled at the rear

Covid waltz - manoeuvring to avoid close contact with passers-by while distance restrictions are in place

Apropos Couchella illustration by the awesome Gemma Correll. (via lera boroditsky)

The Best New York Accent

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 16, 2020

Stuck at home during the pandemic, filmmaker Nicolas Heller decided to hold a contest on Instagram to find the person with the best New York accent.

It would be impolitic to say that the New York accent is the signature American accent. You could argue, though, that the New York accent is the accent of the current crisis. It’s there in the burly roundness of the words coming out of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s mouth, or the acidity in the tone of Dr. Anthony Fauci, or the way President Trump scrapes all of his syllables together. (Senator Bernie Sanders’s howling woof counts here, too.)

For New Yorkers, that’s made the conversation around the coronavirus feel as local as the pandemic’s actual impact. Watching the news can feel like watching quarrels between grouchy neighbors.

In this climate, the #BestNYAccent challenge was even more reassuring. A reminder of local resilience and stubbornness in the face of global trauma. A monument to history and place standing firm against titanic winds. A middle finger to life’s cruel dice roll.

The Pandemic Has Driven Twitter to New Lows in Happiness

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 07, 2020

Since 2008, the Hedonometer has been tracking the language we use on Twitter to assign a daily score that measures how collectively happy we are (English tweets only). From the data, you can see that happiness spikes on holidays & after notable news events (same-sex marriage legalization) and unhappiness follows mass shootings, terrorist events, and Trump’s election. But the Covid-19 pandemic has brought Twitter’s collective happiness rating to an overall new low and its first sustained period of unhappiness.

Twitter Happy Pandemic

The day they identify as the unhappiest is March 12, 2020, which is the day after Americans finally took Covid-19 seriously. Within the space of a few hours on March 11, the NBA announced it was suspending its season, Tom Hanks revealed that he and his wife Rita Wilson had Covid-19, the WHO declared Covid-19 a pandemic, Donald Trump went on primetime TV to address the nation, and the DJIA closed down 1400 points (it would drop another 2350 points on Mar 12).

See also the previous low point after the Las Vegas shootings and my initial post on the Hedonometer from July 2016. In that initial post, I shared a hunch that Twitter’s happiness seemed to have reached a peak in early 2016. With four years of additional data, it’s obvious that the happiness peaked in late 2015 or early 2016 (at least according to their methodology).

Twitter Happy Overall

Weird Internet Careers

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 09, 2020

Gretchen McCulloch, author of Because Internet, has developed a Weird Internet Career as an internet linguist. In the first installment in a series on such jobs, McCulloch explains what they are:

Weird Internet Careers are the kinds of jobs that are impossible to explain to your parents, people who somehow make a living from the internet, generally involving a changing mix of revenue streams. Weird Internet Career is a term I made up (it had no google results in quotes before I started using it), but once you start noticing them, you’ll see them everywhere.

Weird Internet Careers are weird because there is no one else who does exactly what they do. They’re internet because they rely on the internet as a cornerstone, such as bloggers, webcomics, youtubers, artists, podcasters, writers, developers, subject-matter experts, and other people in very specific niches. And they’re careers because they somehow manage to support themselves, often making money from some combination of ad revenue, t-shirt sales, other merch, ongoing membership/subscription (Patreon, Substack), crowdfunding (Kickstarter, Indiegogo, Ko-Fi), sponsorship deals, conventional book deals, self-published ebooks, selling online courses, selling products or apps or services, public speaking, and consulting.

I’ve had a Weird Internet Career for more than 15 years and even though it’s much more normalized now than when I started (folks generally know that people make money from being popular on YouTube or Instagram), it’s still a struggle to explain. Usually someone will ask me what I do and I tell them. Them, wide-eyed: “That’s your job?!” Then there’s a long pause and eventually their curiosity overwhelms their politeness and they tentatively say: “Can I ask…uh…how do you make money doing that?”

For awhile, in an attempt to have more symmetrical relationships with new friends — because 5 minutes of googling yields so much about who I am, leading to weird information imbalances — I would be vague about my profession, saying that I managed a website and not offering any further information. This approach often backfired because you’ve essentially given people a mystery, and mysteries must be solved. More than one person looked at me with a cocked eyebrow and asked, “Do you run a porn site? Is that why you don’t want to tell me?” *facepalm*

Linguistic Constellations

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 04, 2020

Linguistic Constellations

Linguistic Constellations

Illustrator Jerry M. Wilson has drawn a series of constellations that explore the etymology of the constellations’ names and related words in several languages. So for example, “Taurus” is Latin for “bull”, which is “toro” in Spanish & Italian and “tyr” in Danish. And then you also have associated words like “toreador” (“bullfighter” in Spanish) and “teurastamo” (Finnish for “slaughterhouse”)…a constellation of words related to “Taurus”.

Smaht Pahk

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 28, 2020

There’s nothing more entertaining than watching Boston-area natives do over-the-top Bawston accents, but it’s always a precarious undertaking. If you don’t get the accent right…yeesh. When Hyundai named their new automated parking feature “Smart Park”, those two words demanded that they give the Boston angle a shot, and the team of Chris Evans, John Krasinski, and Rachel Dratch delivered. The bit that really set the hook for me was when Krasinski called Evans “kid”.

The Stop Motion of the Ocean

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 28, 2020

This clever stop motion animation by Charlotte Arene features a bedroom taking on the characteristics of an increasingly angry sea, before the morning calm sets in. Pillows, the comforter, a sleeping woman’s hair, candles on the windowsill, they all move like waves washing ashore to a seaside soundtrack.

The name of the short is “La mer à boire”, which Google translates as “unrealizable” but is literally something more like “drinking the sea”.1 “Ce n’est pas la mer à boire” is a French expression that means “it’s not that big a deal” (it’s not like drinking the sea), which is what the Google translation is hinting at, I think. Anyway, good title! (via colossal)

  1. It’s kind of amazing that Google returns the figurative meaning of the phrase rather than the literal meaning.

Presidential Candidates Ranked By Popularity of First Name

posted by Aaron Cohen   Jan 10, 2020

This is a big ass field of presidential candidates, though it’s gotten smaller in recent weeks. There are plenty of polls circulating which rank the candidates via the scientific method of asking strangers who they’re supporting and then weighting those responses to create a list of candidates. The candidates are then listed in descending order by level of support.

This list below, also reasonably scientific, though far less useful, ranks the candidates in the order of popularity of their first name according to the handy dandy Popular Baby Names website helpfully maintained by the Social Security Administration. So what does this list tell us? Not much! Former MA Governor Bill Weld probably isn’t going to top any other list this election cycle, while Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders will likely not be on the bottom anywhere else.

3. William Weld
13. Elizabeth Warren
14. Michael Bennet, Michael Bloomberg (Number 1 name from 1961-1998, so that’s a lot)
23. Joseph Biden, Joseph Walsh
27. John Delaney
43. Andrew Yang
49. Thomas Steyer
211. Peter Buttigieg
205. Amy Klobuchar
526. Donald Trump (Has really small hands)
904. Cory Booker
943. Bernard Sanders (Last ranked 2008)

Never ranked:
Tulsi Gabbard
Deval Patrick

Also notable: The name Donald is getting slowly but steadily less popular. Going from 217th most popular name in 2000, to 376th most popular name in 2010, to 526th most popular name in 2018.

(For the record, the name Aaron was ranked 60th and Jason was 100th, so eat it, nerd.)

Stella the Talking Dog

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 06, 2020

Meet Stella and her human, speech-language pathologist Christina Hunger. Using a soundboard of buttons that say words when they’re pressed, Hunger has taught Stella how to talk. Here’s a video from several months ago in which Stella asks to go to the beach, and when rebuffed, asks to play instead:

Stella’s latest progress is documented on Instagram: learning the meaning of “later”, asking where her owners are, and asking for more water and a toy.

Parasite’s Perfect Montage

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 02, 2020

From Evan Puschak, this is an analysis of a tightly edited five-minute montage in the middle of Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite in which a family of schemers removes the last obstacle in their way of a luxurious life of service.

(This next bit is way off topic…I am not even going to try and connect it to the movie or Puschak’s thoughts on editing.) In looking for an appropriate quote from the video, I went searching in YouTube’s automatically generated transcript of the video and instead discovered whatever fancy AI program they’ve employed for transcription had some problems with the Korean language spoken in the video:

well the Kogi’s held on crew could to work a contra cut under something crazy kangaroo hot lava could carry yours a tiny car would cause a huge bang engines in his element saw cars motherfuckers Christian wear boxers and couvent a easy call it to Minaj Monica City on criminals chief juniper gun and a car don’t belong back in case come on Joey tell him to cool on the cloud Coronas our tornado man hold it up on watch from Atlanta

Also, peaches are a thing now in movies!

A Map of the 637 Languages Spoken in NYC

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 04, 2019

NYC Language Map

The Endangered Language Alliance has produced a map of the 637 languages and dialects spoken by the residents of NYC (past and present).

It represents ELA’s ongoing effort to draw on all available sources, including thousands of interviews and discussions, to tell the continuing story of the city’s many languages and cultures. The patterns it reveals — the clustering of West African languages in Harlem and the Bronx, a microcosm of the former Soviet Union in south Brooklyn, the multifaceted Asian-language diversity of Queens, to name a few — only hint at the linguistic complexity of a city where a single building or block can host speakers of dozens of languages from across the globe.

The online map embedded in the page works ok, but a $50 donation to the organization will get you a 24″ x 36″ print for your wall.

According to a Gothamist post about the map, the size and diversity of the city sometimes means that a significant chunk of a language’s worldwide speakers live in NYC:

Seke is a language spoken in just a handful of towns in Nepal-worldwide, there are fewer than 700 people who speak it. More than 100 of those people live in Brooklyn and Queens, according to the Endangered Language Alliance, a group that seeks to document and preserve smaller, minority, and Indigenous languages across New York City.

(via gothamist)

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)