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kottke.org posts about language

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.

Fly Me to the Moonmoon

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 11, 2018

Moonmoon

In a paper called “Can Moons Have Moons?”, a pair of astronomers says that some of the solar system’s moons, including ours, are large enough and far enough away from their host planets to have their own sizable moons.

We find that 10 km-scale submoons can only survive around large (1000 km-scale) moons on wide-separation orbits. Tidal dissipation destabilizes the orbits of submoons around moons that are small or too close to their host planet; this is the case for most of the Solar System’s moons. A handful of known moons are, however, capable of hosting long-lived submoons: Saturn’s moons Titan and Iapetus, Jupiter’s moon Callisto, and Earth’s Moon.

Throughout the paper, the authors refer to these possible moons of moons as “submoons” but a much more compelling name has been put forward: “moonmoons”.

Moonmoon is an example of the linguistic process of reduplication, which is often deployed in English to make things more cute and whimsical. In the pure form of reduplication, you get words like bonbon, choo-choo, bye-bye, there there, and moonmoon but relaxing the rules a little to incorporate rhymes and near-rhymes yields hip-hop, zig-zag, fancy-shmancy, super-duper, pitter-patter, and okey-dokey. And with contrastive reduplication, in which a word repeats as a modifier to itself:

“It’s tuna salad, not salad-salad.”
“Does she like me or like-like me?”
“The party is fancy but not fancy-fancy.”
“The car isn’t mine-mine, it’s my mom’s.”

Fun! And astronomy should be fun too. Let’s definitely call them moonmoons.

Miniature Replicas of Japanese Kodokushi (“Lonely Deaths”)

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 10, 2018

Dying alone in Japan is so common that they have a term for it: kodokushi (“lonely death”). Miyu Kojima works for a company that cleans up apartments after people die and for awhile now, she’s been creating miniature replicas of some of the rooms that she’s cleaned. Note: some of these images might be a little disturbing.

Kodokushi Kojima

Kodokushi Kojima

Kodokushi Kojima

Kojima has been working for the clean-up company for about 4 years and explains that she cleans on average 300 rooms per year. To preserve and document the scene, the company always takes photographs of the rooms in case relatives want to see them. However, Kojima noticed that the photographs really don’t capture the sadness of the incident. And while she had no formal art training, she decided to go to her local craft store and buy supplies, which she used to create her replicas. She sometimes uses color-copies of the photographs, which she then sculpts into miniature objects. Kojima says that she spends about 1 month on each replica.

Pantsdrunk, the Finnish Art of Relaxation

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 10, 2018

Kalsarikanni

You’ve likely heard of hygge, the Danish word for a special feeling of coziness that’s been productized on Instagram and elsewhere to within an inch of its charming life. The Finns have a slightly different take on the good life called kalsarikännit, which roughly translates to “pantsdrunk” in English. A promotional site from the Finnish government defines it as “the feeling when you are going to get drunk home alone in your underwear — with no intention of going out”. They made the emoji above to illustrate pantsdrunkenness.1

Finnish journalist Miska Rantanen has written a book on kalsarikännit called Päntsdrunk (Kalsarikänni): The Finnish Path to Relaxation.

When it comes to happiness rankings, Finland always scores near the top. Many Finnish phenomena set the bar high: the best education system, gender equality, a flourishing welfare state, sisu or bull-headed pluck. Behind all of these accomplishments lies a Finnish ability to stay calm, healthy and content in a riptide of endless tasks and temptations. The ability comes from the practice of “kalsarikanni” translated as pantsdrunk.

Peel off your clothes down to your underwear. Place savory or sweet snacks within reach alongside your bed or sofa. Make sure your television remote control is nearby along with any and all devices to access social media. Open your preferred alcohol. Your journey toward inner strength, higher quality of life, and peace of mind has begun.

Kalsarikännit isn’t as photogenic as hygge but there is some evidence of it on Instagram. As Rantanen explains, this lack of performance is part of the point:

“Pantsdrunk” doesn’t demand that you deny yourself the little things that make you happy or that you spend a fortune on Instagrammable Scandi furniture and load your house with more altar candles than a Catholic church. Affordability is its hallmark, offering a realistic remedy to everyday stress. Which is why this lifestyle choice is the antithesis of posing and pretence: one does not post atmospheric images on Instagram whilst pantsdrunk. Pantsdrunk is real. It’s about letting go and being yourself, no affectation and no performance.

I have been off alcohol lately, but kalsarikännit is usually one of my favorite forms of relaxation, particularly after a hard week.

  1. That’s right, the Finnish government made emoji of people getting pantsdrunk. Americans are suuuuuper uptight.

How Did “OK” Become One of the Most Popular Words in the World?

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 13, 2018

Where did the word “OK” come from and how did it become so popular?

Young Boston intellectuals in the early 1800s used a humorous code of abbreviated phrases, like “KC,” or “knuff ced”; “KY,” “know yuse”; and “OW,” “oll wright.” And while most of them eventually fell out of fashion, one abbreviation persisted: “OK,” or “oll korrect.”

OK started off as the LOL of its time. Then Martin Van Buren’s presidential campaign popularized it and its brevity proved useful for sending telegraph messages. You can read more about the history of the word in Allan Metcalf’s book, OK: The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word.

Offering a more progressive definition of freedom

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 30, 2018

Pete Buttigieg is the mayor of South Bend, Indiana. He is a progressive Democrat, Rhodes scholar, served a tour of duty in Afghanistan during his time as mayor, and is openly gay. In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, Buttigieg talked about the need for progressives to recast concepts that conservatives have traditionally “owned” — like freedom, family, and patriotism — in more progressive terms.

You’ll hear me talk all the time about freedom. Because I think there is a failure on our side if we allow conservatives to monopolize the idea of freedom — especially now that they’ve produced an authoritarian president. But what actually gives people freedom in their lives? The most profound freedoms of my everyday existence have been safeguarded by progressive policies, mostly. The freedom to marry who I choose, for one, but also the freedom that comes with paved roads and stop lights. Freedom from some obscure regulation is so much more abstract. But that’s the freedom that conservatism has now come down to.

Or think about the idea of family, in the context of everyday life. It’s one thing to talk about family values as a theme, or a wedge — but what’s it actually like to have a family? Your family does better if you get a fair wage, if there’s good public education, if there’s good health care when you need it. These things intuitively make sense, but we’re out of practice talking about them.

I also think we need to talk about a different kind of patriotism: a fidelity to American greatness in its truest sense. You think about this as a local official, of course, but a truly great country is made of great communities. What makes a country great isn’t chauvinism. It’s the kinds of lives you enable people to lead. I think about wastewater management as freedom. If a resident of our city doesn’t have to give it a second thought, she’s freer.

Clean drinking water is freedom. Good public education is freedom. Universal healthcare is freedom. Fair wages are freedom. Policing by consent is freedom. Gun control is freedom. Fighting climate change is freedom. A non-punitive criminal justice system is freedom. Affirmative action is freedom. Decriminalizing poverty is freedom. Easy & secure voting is freedom. This is an idea of freedom I can get behind.

The (mostly) true story of hobo graffiti

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 23, 2018

TIL that the hieroglyphic hobo code probably wasn’t used as extensively as the internet suggests. However, hobos and tramps did tag bridges, water towers, and train cars with tramp writing, which usually consisted of their moniker (i.e. their hobo name), the date, and the direction they were heading in.

Hobos, or tramps, were itinerant workers and wanderers who illegally hopped freight cars on the newly expanding railroad in the United States in the late 19th century. They used graffiti, also known as tramp writing, as a messaging system to tell their fellow travelers where they were and where they were going. Hobos would carve or draw their road persona, or moniker, on stationary objects near railroad tracks, like water towers and bridges.

More on hobo graffiti from CityLab. (via open culture)

Auctioneer chanting, “the poetry of capitalism”

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 15, 2018

Auction Competition 2018

For the New Yorker, photographer David Williams visited the 2018 World Livestock Auctioneer Championship in Bloomington, Wisconsin. Amanda Petrusich wrote about the competition and his photos here.

This year’s champion, Jared Miller, of Leon, Iowa, took home a customized 2018 Chevrolet Silverado truck to drive for his yearlong reign; he also won six thousand dollars, a world-champion belt buckle, a world-champion ring, a money clip, and a bespoke leather briefcase. In interviews, Miller, like many successful auctioneers, appears personable and polite. When he begins his chant, his mouth only opens so much — when you’re talking as fast as he is, the tongue does most of the work — but what comes out sounds something like a undulating yodel, or a less guttural take on the Inuit tradition of throat singing. Once you tune in to its particular rhythms — and it can take a few minutes to acclimate to the crests and swells — the prices become discernible: “One dollar bid, now two, now two, would you give me two?”

You can listen to Miller’s winning chant on Facebook.

I hadn’t realized Werner Herzog made a 45-minute documentary about auctioneers at the same competition in 1976 called How Much Wood Would a Woodchuck Chuck. You can watch the whole thing on YouTube, although the audio isn’t synced that well:

According to the article, Herzog called auctioneering “the last poetry possible, the poetry of capitalism”. This poetry can be difficult to follow, so this auctioneer explained what he and his fellow chanters are saying up on the stand.

Rap music also has a claim on being “the poetry of capitalism” and Graham Heavenrich had the genius idea of layering auctioneer chants over beats; you can listen in on Instagram or with this compilation:

Ok and just for kicks, when I was searching for the auctioneer beats thing on YouTube, I ran across this young woman rapping the entirety of Rap God by Eminem (the part starting at 4:26 = fire). Sign her up for the 2019 World Livestock Auctioneer Championship!

How would English sound if it were phonetically consistent?

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 14, 2018

English is a marvelously and maddeningly inconsistent language. The words “rough”, “though”, “thought”, and “through” all contain “ough” but pronounced in a different way.

In this video, Aaron Alon gradually normalizes the vowel sounds in his speech down to one sound per letter. The end result sounds a little like Werner Herzog doing an impression of someone from Wales doing an impression of an Italian who doesn’t speak English that well. Which makes sense because that’s pretty much how the language came together in the first place!

Where do common sports idioms like “out of left field” come from?

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 08, 2018

Victor Mather wrote about the origin of sports idioms like “wild-goose chase”, “hands down”, and “sticky wicket” for the NY Times. Some of these I didn’t even know were sports terms. “Back to square one” is an interesting entry:

As with many terms, there is a colorful explanation of the origin and a more prosaic and realistic one, though both originate with competition.

First the colorful one: When soccer was first broadcast on the radio in the 1920s in Britain, there was concern that fans would not be able to visualize the field well. So the field was divided into numbered squares, with charts published in newspapers. That way the announcer could say, “The ball is passed into Square 4, then dribbled into Square 6,” and fans used to watching games in person would understand what was going on. Square 1 was the area with the goalie, so a pass back to Square 1 would be a restarting of an offensive move.

The Oxford English Dictionary deflates that theory though, pointing out that the term’s use really began in the 1950s, some decades after the soccer broadcasting scheme stopped. It suggests the term actually comes from board games like chutes and ladders, in which players can find themselves sent back to the start.

That soccer explanation is more compelling, even if untrue. It’s fun to hear how practitioners of early media tried to represent sports to people who couldn’t view the game. For a time, baseball games were broadcast to viewers using various machines and even actors who “played” the game as reports came in via telegraph.

“A novel feature of the report was the actual running of the bases by uniformed boys, who obeyed the telegraph instrument in their moves around the diamond. Great interest prevailed and all enjoyed the report,” read the Atlanta Constitution on April 17, 1886. (And as if that wasn’t enough to entice you, the paper also noted that “A great many ladies were present.”) Although this live-action reenactment attempted at the opera house in Atlanta may have been the closest approximation of a real baseball game, it does not seem to have ever spread beyond Georgia.

10 useful foreign language words without direct English translations

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 02, 2018

From The Guardian, 10 of the best words in the world that don’t have direct English translations. From Spain, “sobremesa”:

Lunch — and it is more usually lunch than dinner — will long since have yielded to the important act of the sobremesa, that languid time when food gives way to hours of talking, drinking and joking. Coffee and digestivos will have been taken, or perhaps the large gin and tonic that follows a meal rather than precedes it here.

The sobremesa is a digestive period that allows for the slow settling of food, gossip, ideas and conversations. It is also a sybaritic time; a recognition that there is more to life than working long hours and that few pleasures are greater than sharing a table and then chatting nonsense for a hefty portion of what remains of the day.

And from Iran, “Ta’arof”:

It is an etiquette that is seen almost in all aspects of Iranian life, from hosts insisting on guests taking more food from the table, to the exchanges in the bazaar. “How much is this carpet?” asks Ms A after choosing her favourite in the shop. “It’s worthless, you can just take it,” responds the seller, quite disingenuously.

Although Ms A in reality cannot take the carpet out of the shop without paying for it, the seller might insist up to three times that she should just do that, until the amount of the price is finally mentioned.

Here’s one not from the piece that I’ve seen floating around Twitter in recent days: the Japanese word “tsundoku”, which means to purchase books but never read them, letting them pile up on shelves or nightstands.

The etymology of “orange”: which came first, the color or the fruit?

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 02, 2018

Orange Painting

The human eye can see millions of colors but it can take awhile for language to catch up. Take the color orange. Until the 16th century, there was no word for that color in English and even then, when writers referenced it, they said something like “that thing that is the color of an orange”.

Orange, however, seems to be the only basic color word for which no other word exists in English. There is only orange, and the name comes from the fruit. Tangerine doesn’t really count. Its name also comes from a fruit, a variety of the orange, but it wasn’t until 1899 that “tangerine” appears in print as the name of a color-and it isn’t clear why we require a new word for it. This seems no less true for persimmon and for pumpkin. There is just orange. But there was no orange, at least before oranges came to Europe.

This is not to say that no one recognized the color, only that there was no specific name for it. In Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Nun’s Priest’s Tale,” the rooster Chaunticleer dreams of a threatening fox invading the barnyard, whose “color was betwixe yelow and reed.” The fox was orange, but in the 1390s Chaucer didn’t have a word for it. He had to mix it verbally. He wasn’t the first to do so. In Old English, the form of the language spoken between the 5th and 12th centuries, well before Chaucer’s Middle English, there was a word geoluhread (yellow-red). Orange could be seen, but the compound was the only word there was for it in English for almost 1,000 years.

Also, it has never occurred to me before reading this that “chromatically brown is a low-intensity orange”. !!! Anyway, this piece is an excerpt from the book On Color.

See also literature’s slow invention of the color blue. Orange painting by James Shull (via jodi)

“Today’s Masculinity Is Stifling”

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 13, 2018

For The Atlantic, Sarah Rich writes about how stifling masculinity can be for some children and their parents.

As much as feminism has worked to rebalance the power and privilege between the sexes, the dominant approach to launching young women into positions that garner greater respect, higher status, and better pay still mostly maintains the association between those gains and masculine qualities. Girls’ empowerment programs teach assertiveness, strength, and courage — and they must to equip young women for a world that still overwhelmingly favors men.

Last year, when the Boys Scouts of America announced that they would begin admitting girls into their dens, young women saw a wall come down around a territory that was now theirs to occupy. Parents across the country had argued that girls should have equal access to the activities and pursuits of boys’ scouting, saying that Girl Scouts is not a good fit for girls who are “more rough and tumble.” But the converse proposition was essentially non-existent: Not a single article that I could find mentioned the idea that boys might not find Boy Scouts to be a good fit — or, even more unspeakable, that they would want to join the Girl Scouts.

If it’s difficult to imagine a boy aspiring to the Girl Scouts’ merit badges (oriented far more than the boys’ toward friendship, caretaking, and community), what does that say about how American culture regards these traditionally feminine arenas? And what does it say to boys who think joining the Girl Scouts sounds fun? Even preschool-age boys know they’d be teased or shamed for disclosing such a dream.

While society is chipping away at giving girls broader access to life’s possibilities, it isn’t presenting boys with a full continuum of how they can be in the world. To carve out a masculine identity requires whittling away everything that falls outside the norms of boyhood. At the earliest ages, it’s about external signifiers like favorite colors, TV shows, and clothes. But later, the paring knife cuts away intimate friendships, emotional range, and open communication.

Rich talks about her young son’s current penchant for wearing dresses and wishes there was room in society for activity like that.

What I want for him, and for all boys, is for the process of becoming men to be expansive, not reductive.

Reading this, I thought about the amazing one-step process for getting a bikini body I read recently: “Put a bikini on your body.” It’s not perfect and this is a lot to ask of society, but perhaps an analogous definition for masculinity is that when a man or boy does something, that’s masculine.1 Chugging a beer is masculine. Wearing a dress is masculine. Being brave is masculine. Crying is masculine. Playing sports is masculine. Not playing sports is masculine. Comforting a friend whose team lost before celebrating with his team is masculine. Anything and everything is masculine. You might argue that broadening the definition of the word to this degree diminishes its power to denote anything meaningful. And you’d be right, that’s the point.

  1. Correspondingly, when a woman or a girl does something, that’s feminine. And when someone who identifies as, for instance, genderqueer does something, that’s genderqueer. Playing sports is feminine, wearing a dress is genderqueer, etc.

The Language of the Trump Administration Is the Language of Domestic Violence

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 12, 2018

Jessica Winter writing for the New Yorker:

In the final scene of Frederick Wiseman’s landmark documentary “Domestic Violence,” police in Tampa arrive late at night to the home of a man who is drunk and a woman who is sick. The man has called the police because he is angry that the woman, who is desperate to sleep, is “neglecting” him. Minute by minute, it becomes chillingly clear that the man wants her removed from the house before his anger turns into physical violence. In his mind, the woman’s misdeeds — to be ill; to need rest; to wish to remain in her own home — transform him into an instrument of pain, one that she is choosing to wield against herself. He raises his hands over his head in a gesture of surrender. It’s all her fault. He can’t help it. One of the abuser’s most effective tricks is this inversion of power, at the exact moment that his victim is most frightened and degraded: Look what you made me do.

Look what you made me do has emerged as the dominant ethos of the current White House. During the 2016 Presidential race, many observers drew parallels between the language of abusers and that of Trump on the campaign trail. Since his election, members of the Trump Administration have learned that language, too, and nowhere is this more vivid than in the rhetoric they use to discuss the Administration’s policies toward the Central American immigrants crossing the U.S. border.

As Tim tweeted the day after Inauguration Day in 2017, “The President is an abuser. A lot of us are (re)discovering, and (re)deciding, how we react to being abused.”