Category Archives: Spoken language

by

A Brown Eyed Handsome Man

Screen Shot 2017-03-23 at 1.25.19 PMI’ve been mourning a gifted African-American poet who died this week. Charles Edward Anderson Berry was 90. The news media talked mainly about his brilliance as a guitarist and showman and his historical importance as perhaps the prime creator of rock and roll, and all that was true, of course. But what I always admired most of all about Chuck Berry was the extraordinary verbal fluidity and imagination of the songs he wrote.

Berry loved to tell stories in song. “Maybellene” (1955), his first rec…

by

The ‘Boom!’ Boom

I’ve been seeing this commercial a fair amount:

The thing that strikes me is how Neil Patrick Harris says, “They said it was impossible to have a great-tasting light beer. Boom!”

The onomatopoeic word boom has done an awful lot of service over the years: for example, the nickname of Bernie (Boom Boom) Geoffrion, David Rabe’s play In the Boom Boom Room, and the 1968 Liz Taylor-Richard Burton film Boom! In music, there’s Eddie Cantor’s 1929 novelty number “I Faw Down an’ Go Boom” and Randy Newman’…

by

Thinking in Mayan

wicked-mayan-hieroglyphs-mexico-cityI am writing this in Mérida, Mexico, where my husband and I lucked out in avoiding the snowstorm that hit the Northeast this week. We are baking in the Yucatán sunshine and visiting nearby Mayan sites. Our second day here, in a city park, we bumped into a professor of Mayan studies at a nearby college who wanted to practice his English. Many of the edifices in Mérida were built from the five pyramids of the Mayan city that once occupied this site, and he pointed out to us a series of hierogly…

by

A Dash of Zhouzh

a4395f381cf4a0f070e8acd1cc5ca721I’ve been told that my posts could use a little more zhoozh. If only I knew what it means, and how to spell it! Is it zhush, zhuzh, tjuz, tjuzs, joozh, zoozh, or —? Is that a noun, or maybe a verb? Let’s see. …

It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that zhouzh. If Duke Ellington (right) had been a millennial, that’s the word he might have used in place of “swing” — though admittedly there would have been a problem with the rhyme.

The word became prominent a decade ago in the reality TV show Quee…

by

Data Mining for Personally Targeted Politics

Brexit vote mapRegular Lingua Franca readers may recall that I am a skeptic about both machine intelligence and the dangers of computers invading our privacy. But do not imagine that I am dismissive of all developments in the fields bracketed under the misnomer “artificial intelligence”: Some of the claims made about what computers can do are true, even a little scary.

I know I mocked the pathetic artificial stupidity exhibited by the devices that purport to communicate linguistically with us. I dissed 2013-vi…

by

Still Looking for a Triple

embeddedReading an article about the latest apparent murder by the North Korean royal family in this week’s Economist (February 18, 2017), I came upon this remarkable example of English hypotaxis:

Kim Kwang-jin, a defector who once worked in North Korea’s “royal court” economy, says that even if rumours that China had hoped to install Jong-nam if Jong-un fell from power are far-fetched, China would nonetheless have seen Jong-nam as useful leverage.

Hypotaxis is packing clauses inside other clauses as su…

by

How Not to Teach Chinese

Chinese_characters_logoVictor Mair wrote on Language Log last month about a test in what appears to have been a third-year class in Chinese at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt High School, in New York. What made it news in China (see in particular this story in the South China Morning Post) was that the test involved giving synonyms for a number of words written with Chinese characters so rare and archaic that many Chinese people were prepared to admit on social-media sites that they would not have been able to pass the …

by

Sewer Trouble

Map_of_downtown_Rome_during_the_Roman_Empire_large-annotated

Rome’s Cloaca Maxima, shown by a red line: not the sewist’s realm.

A friend writes that she’s looking forward to putting energies into being a sewist, a word that made me reach for the Oxford English Dictionary, the smelling salts not being handy. While the OED was silent, the subject, and the term, have recently been discussed on the Grammarphobia blog.

Sewist seems to be a relatively new coinage — a decade or so old — providing an alternative to sewer, meaning one who sews, either professional…

by

Recovering My Heritage

RobertBurns

It’s January 25, and as everyone knows, that is the birthday of the Bard of Ayrshire: Robert Burns.

And since a small conference on the Scots language is being held today at the University of Edinburgh, there is surely only one possible choice for what to do tonight: We’re having a traditional Burns Night Supper.

A Burns Supper, though the format is informal and flexible, typically involves certain rituals, and of course certain characteristic foods. The food at our gathering will be fully in l…

by

Why Did the Van Gogh Brothers Write in French?

Vincent_van_Gogh_-_Letter_VGM_491_-_The_Yellow_House_F1453_JH_1590
The Yellow House at Arles in letter 691, to Theo Van Gogh, September 1888. (Image courtesy of Christie’s and Wikimedia Commons.)

“The limits of my language signify the limits of my world.” – Ludwig Wittgenstein
“To have another language is to possess a second soul.” – Charlemagne

Zundert. Borinage. Paris. Arles. Auvers-sur-Oise. These names boom through art history like reports from a distant cannon. When it was too dark to paint in them, Vincent Van Gogh read prodigiously and compiled a tr…