Friday 27 May 2016

sacrebleu ou tabarnouche, tabarnouche will you do the fandango?

Isolated from other French speaking populations and surrounded on all sides by Anglophones, the Quรฉbรฉcois have cultivated a quite charming arsenal of swears, as Atlas Obscura reports.
The essay is quite a good one and explores the broader nature of profanities and shifting intensities, and does well to remind us that our vocabulary of curses and what we find unspeakable usually reflects what we fear as a society and the fount of that power.  While the English borrowing fuckรฉe means merely broken (as in “La doorbell est fuckรฉe”), there’s a whole colourful litany of metaphors, interjections and expletives derived from the trappings of Catholic mass called sacres that aren’t to be used in polite company (with the vulgar context, at least). One might employ the diminutive of the French for tabernacle, tabarnouche, to express mild displeasure—like saying darn. The words for show-breads and the communion chalice convey far greater displeasure and are reserved for choicer occasions.

gonna put it in the want-ads

It was not until spying this delightful assortment on offer in a community newsletter whilst doing laundry at the laundromat that I realised I never wondered why they might be called “classifieds.” I assumed it was for taxonomic reasons—rather than some antithetical security designation—like automobiles, rooms for rink, or kitchen utensils, like this lovely Serving Tong: great for serving fries, asparagus. It turns out that they are called classified advertisements (regardless of how miscellaneous) to distinguish them in the print business from display advertisements, larger format ones and usually with photos or graphics. If there had to be a picture, however, I’d much rather have seen Sheep Pendulum Clock below. I’ve done my best to obscure the contact information for these rivals to Craig’s List, but I will have you know that these items and more come from the same individual’s emporium.

Wednesday 4 May 2016

om nom nom or singing for one’s supper

Via the resplendent Nag on the Lake, we learn that gorillas and other primates compose happy little songs of contentment to accompany their meals.
There are two distinct types of humming, one steady and seemingly like a dinner-bell (or saying grace) to signal to the group that it is now time to eat, and the other highly idiomatic and personalised that’s always varied and seem to express pleasure in the repast. This behaviour has been observed both in the wild and in zoos, but outside of captivity, social norms seem to prevail and only the dominant males, the silver-backs, sing—whereas in zoos, all gorillas do so. Studying these vocalisations may help researchers learn more about the development of language and socialisation. Listen to recorded samples of the hums at the link above.

Saturday 30 April 2016


Though recently outlawed (in the sense that retail outlets won’t be giving them out freely any longer) this map that shows the dialectical breakdown of the French terms for plastic shopping bags, uncovered by Mental Floss’ Arika Okrent, is no less intriguing. The source website, Franรงais de Nos Regions (en franรงais) illustrates lingual variations by French-speaking regions for a host of everyday items, like the soda-coke-pop continuum in the States or the isogloss in German-speaking areas know as the Speyer or Apfel-Appel Line that separates High German from Low German.

Thursday 28 April 2016

semantics, semiotics

Via Gizmodo comes a fascinating and rather unexpected insight into the way the brain processes and retains language, having created an intellectual atlas that plots how individual concepts, words exist in isolation and as a constellation by closely monitoring the crania of a test audience listening to an engaging story-hour.
The imaging reveals that words dwell in specific parts all over the brain—not confined to the left-hemisphere which is generally associated with communication—even betraying nuance and the different degrees of meaning and intent that words can convey. Following along with the transcript of the radio broadcast, researchers were able to pin-point the audience’s reactions to each line of exposition and learned that the homogenous listeners (all native English-speakers and presumably all sane) all have pretty much the same internal rainbows of syntax. I image those slight differences are even more intriguing. Neurologists believe that such maps, whose narrative was a challenge to capture beforehand, may facilitate the interface between mind and machine in the future and better understand cognitive maladies.

Tuesday 26 April 2016

someone once said pflegermaus

The German word for bat is Fledermaus (Flying Mouse) but I turned it into an ambulatory nursing mouse, like Krankenpleger. I suppose they’d also be good residents of one’s belfry.

Saturday 16 April 2016

calling doctor bombay, emergency! come right away

Though Czech is the adjectival form and perhaps the additional republic makes the country sound as if it has to legitimise its standing somehow, the proposal of the Czech Republic (ฤŒeskรก republika) to change its English and hence international handle to Czechia smacks to me like a page from Gregor Samsa’s metamorphosis, in waking up to find oneself transformed in order to keep up with the times—those times being rather fickle and unperturbable.
Since the divorce from Slovakia, the country has been known as Tschechien in the German Sprachraum, which to my ears sounded too close to Tschetsschenien (Chechnya) and I feel that this forced change is confusing as well—though not exactly without some historical precedence, going back to latinate-loving Englanders observing the Holy Roman Empire’s tenant states. One has to wonder about exonymy and endonymy and the success rate of rebranding.

Friday 15 April 2016

brav und borrel or thesaurus of feels

Professor and contributor to The Journal of Positive Psychology, Tim Lomas, aims to enrich our emotional landscape with a collection of some two hundred terms that have no equivalent in English. One can see the abstract at the journal’s website that began this continuing undertaking, but Boing Boing goes one further, sharing a selection of some of the terms of endearment (and they are positive and fulfilling sentiments in the main).

It’s hard to say if stocking our quivers with more precise, nuanced words improves our emotive literacy but I agree that the project and further investigation is worthwhile for its own sake. Some of my favourites included:

Rare English: grok—understanding so thoroughly that the observer becomes part of the observed

Icelandic: aรฐ jenna—perseverance for seeing a boring chore through

Hindi: talanoa—gossip as a social-adhesive

Greek: ฮพฮตฮฝฮฏฮฑ—recognising the importance of hospitality

Be sure to check out Boing Boing’s choices and learn more about the study, perhaps finding a new way of expressing what resonates with you. I especially appreciated how the article was categorized with the tag “the meaning of liff,” in reference to the Douglas Adams collaboration to fill lexical gaps for relatable experiences for which there was beforehand no adequate expression.

Tuesday 12 April 2016


Previously we’ve looked into how emojis are rendered differently across different platforms, a sort of diglossic code-switching between sender and receiver, should they have different devices, but here’s a deeper, academic investigation into the potential for misinterpretation by the differences in emotion, sentiment that they signal. Hannah Miller’s thesis abstract is pretty interesting. Via Kottke’s latest batch of quick links, one supposes that through this study (provided that competition extends into the future and allows the time needed for dialogues and regional accents to foment) the way the symbols are used might fracture from the mother language into increasingly non-mutually intelligible and distinct languages, sort of like the Romance tongues emerging as splintered versions of Latin.

Thursday 31 March 2016

swan song or pangloss

As classical and liturgical music has done a good job of preserving Latin—and how antique sounding constructs are fossilised in Christmas carols, some ethnographically-minded composers are doing what they know best in order to try to help save some snatches of the estimated three-thousand languages that are threatened the vanish or become moribund over the next century.
The New York Times has fascinating coverage of this global collaboration, which does not aim to set obscure and unintelligible speech to music necessarily but rather transform them into music. Sadly, many of the resulting compositions are dirges as the quarry and quiver available to linguists is limited and the world is a bit poorer for the loss of the last native speakers of Bawm, Karaim, Chamling, Faroese, Istriot or Manx. Languages have always been subject to extinction but a few dominant languages and mass communication have accelerated the process and lingual diversity has probably never been so meagre since before the Tower of Babel. Some creative minds, nonetheless, are employing interesting and hopeful strategies to promote learning, curiosity and perhaps conservancy. The European Day of Languages (all two hundred twenty-five of them), promoting plurilingualist, is observed on 26 September and UNESCO celebrates International Mother Language Day on 21 February but any day is a good day to safeguard a rarity by any means at one’s disposal.

Tuesday 15 March 2016

lingual emancipation or english as she is spoke

Thanks to an informative article from Weird Universe, we learn that from 1923 to 1969, the official language of the State of Illinois was designated as “American” before “English” was finally restored. A congressman from Montana originally championed this movement on a national level—citing the defining vernacular that writers like Mark Twain and James Fennimore Cooper crafted to distinguish America’s literary canon from its British roots:
“Let our writers drop their top-coats, spats and swagger-sticks, and assume occasionally their buckskin, moccasins, and tomahawks”—but the measure was voted down, except in Illinois. Though some may argue that Americans don’t speak the Queen’s English, I doubt this point of contention was ever as patriotic or harboured royalist sympathies as it was made out to be. The US constitutional framers intentional failed to specify an official, national language, because if the matter had been put to a vote, German might have won out over English, but later adherence to this policy was to ensure that no language was privileged over another. Illinois quietly retracted this amendment almost five decades later, realizing English was still being taught and spoken either in ignorance or in defiance of this law.

Friday 11 March 2016

steeple bumpstead and chignal smeally

The always marvellous Nag on the Lake poses the question why many British toponyms are so odd, eliciting sniggering or a blush but also some really fascinating history of occupation, migration and conquest.
A Sunday drive through the Midlands connecting Wednesbury, Newton Burgoland and Ashby-de-la-Zouch also conveys one through ages from the Celts, the Romans, the arrival of the Scandinavians, through to Norman times. Despite all the diverse influences and upheavals, these place names are retain a certain Englishness whether or not original rooted in that language, which is just as adaptive and with the same pedigree. Many others, of course, are later Anglicisations of places on the peripheries of the isle. I recall when we were travelling in County Cork passing through a fine and picturesque village called in Irish Bรฉal รtha Leice (meaning the flat stone at the mouth of the bay) which was unfortunately transliterated as Ballylickey on the road signs. There is also a fun, interactive map that gives select etymologies of England’s town and villages.

Wednesday 9 March 2016


The Atlantic (fair warning: scholastics via repulsive celebrity) features an excellent article on how LOL (here’s the first recorded use of the shorthand) has become stripped of its meaning (not haha funny, rather LOL funny) and has become something more like a punctuation mark.
The treatment reminds me of how a few years ago an English professor made note of her students employing the slash not as either/or but as a grammatical xor in a novel way.  Though very much transformed from the early days of text-messaging when one wanted to moderate tone in his or her dispatches, LOL is not on the decline like 1337 or the higher magnitudes of laughing-out-loud and is still preferred over other symbols able to impart the same sense—none really stating “oh, this shall make you laugh” or even chuckle to oneself. Incidentally, LOL is not an international sentiment with many other equivalent ways to encode it that one can learn about in The Atlantic’s related articles, and while not the originator of the term, lol means fun in Danish—hence lollig for funny, and the word means nonsense in Welsh, both very ร  propos.

Monday 29 February 2016


Like realising that to the rest of the world, in normal parlance the abbreviation LWOP would probably not signal “leave without pay” but “life without parole,” a conceit fit more for a country-western lament rather than the docket, I discovered that for most of the world the phrase quid pro quo does not connote primarily reciprocation—tit-for-tat—but rather misapprehension or even substitution, to mistake one thing for another or appearing in cookbooks as QPQ when one can use olive oil in place of tallow and for prescriptions when one medicine was unavailable.
Similarly while quis might now be a gauge for user- friendliness in the Questionnaire for User- Interaction Satisfaction, a battery of tools used to rate the experience for different platforms—it used to signify something quite different in schoolyard vernacular. If we could borrow a page of dialogue from the salad days, courtesy of Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the day, quis, the Latin pronoun akin to who, was often used as a much more elegant and compact way of inquiring “who among you wants this particular thing which I am offering?” Quis? The claimant would respond with ego, me. Whether any bright young things ever had such an exchange outside of Brideshead Revisited, I’m not sure, but it ought to be brought back, nonetheless.

Saturday 27 February 2016

yoiking and taxonomy

Recently, as the large settlement of Tromsรธ was anticipating the return of the sun after six weeks of perpetual night (surely an event to celebrate but it was not as if the locals were emerging from dread and depression after this long, dark, sacred night, though I can’t say I was not very relieved to see the days waxing longer) and heralded the first patch of daylight with song.
The city and region that’s traditionally Sร mi (the older and rather pejorative term for the people was Laplander) is a big music scene—including the for a sort of ancient tone-poem called a yoik or joik. These chants, though wordless, are very evocative and full of meaning, and it’s said that the Sร mi peoples were taught yoiking by the elves and fairies and at birth, a yoik is composed for an individual, this personal signature being as important as one’s name—admitting later improvisations, of course. Places, animals, plants and the elements have their own special tunes as well. As with many aboriginal customs, joiking was regarded with suspicion and condemned as spell-casting and suppressed (along with their language) for generations but both have seen a strong resurgence in recent years—migrant children hosted in these northern communities are excited to receive yoiks of their very own. A lot more than just a salutation of the sun, one can listen to a selection of yoiks here or by searching the internet for more of these hauntingly beautiful folk chants, perhaps even composing your own signature sound.

Sunday 21 February 2016


It is really a grave challenge to try to eulogise great authors and thinkers, more acute than other forms of celebrity or political gravitas, as it’s almost as if not enough could be said that's not their canon-entire and what went unsaid, we'll of course never have that privilege and no one's—even those closest to great minds, like Oliver Sacks that passed away not too long ago or Harper Lee whose death only happened on the cusp of the day prior—qualified to speak on their behalf, that is until there's a tacit but agreed-upon mourning-period that's almost akin to copyright expiry after which it’s again seemly to ply footnotes.
Maybe because there’s too much to say about cultural influences, that we shy away from saying anything altogether, and it’s no time to parade out some obscure facts because either one knew his or her work or did not. Among many other heartfelt retrospectives for one of my favourite philosophers was BLDGBlog’s (ever a go-to resource) encomium (not an obituary) of Professor Umberto Eco. I’ve read many of Eco’s fiction publications and especially what Mister Manaugh commented about the general disdainful reception of Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum about the need for deeper conspiracy that will revise, manifest and assert itself despite a notable connection to reality, really resonated with me (I was an angsty teenager when I read it and without the benefit of mass-media cabals and ought to revisit it). In academics, Eco taught semiotics—which is the study of imparting meaning to things, but which no one can really say what it is, especially after the professor quipped that every phenomenon ought to be dissected as form of communication. I guess if no one understands it (though I think we all intuit it) one is perfectly right and free to invent one’s calling and occupation independently.

Tuesday 16 February 2016

majuscule and minusclue

A bicameral system of writing has two cases for its letters, usually distinct in form and not only size—like Latin-, Greek- and Armenian- derived alphabets, whereas Arabic, Hebrew and Persian make no differentiation.  I wonder if that makes reading a particular challenge, like the cursive-hand that is reportedly incomprehensible to young people.

Aside from รฆsthetic prerogatives of font and layout, mixed cases probably were cultivated for the sake of speed when copying out a running script—as opposed to headings or chapters that dominated most inscriptions, and the conventions were propagated with the printed word. Individual rules of orthography are as varied as language, where sometimes all nouns are germane or sometimes demonyms, the months and days of the week go with no special consideration and certain symbols and ligatures often only take one form, like the Eszett (รŸ) that’s never at the front of a word or the Latin alpha that can be single- or double-storey. If rules of capitalisation prove too complex, especially given an international venue, something called a “kebab-case” is employed where dashes replace spacing and no words are writ-large. Using underscore in a similar way is called snake-case. Not to dispense with proper punctuation altogether, words whose meaning changes with capitalisation like Mass (liturgy) or mass (physical property) and Hamlet (Danish prince) or hamlet (small village)—plus many others, especially having to do with place—is called a capitonym.

Monday 8 February 2016


The other day I was reading over one those build-your-vocabulary lists of words that merit immediate inclusion into common-parlance, and while I did sort of like the idea behind the nomonym (for something which tastes like something else—chicken’s the standard impression, I suppose) I was not so pleased with the rest of the nominees. While they all might be perfectly cromulent terms, they were kind of dark (reflections of anti-social behaviour or hyper-social conditioning) and not surpassingly clever or up-building, I certainly appreciated how the entry directed me to an analysis of the mechanisms behind neologism—that human need to expand our sanctioned lexicon with an annual supplement reaching to a thousand more words to augment the dated and unfashionable. Though whom among English-speakers holds the top-spot as greatest word-smith is subject to much debate, the devices that each of us employ when it comes to invention is rather better known. The most inspired—but probably also the least likely for adoption, are fashioned like nomonym and its class as portmanteaux, overlapping and fusing two separate meanings, from a French type of luggage that opens into equally-sized, separate compartments.

Sunday 7 February 2016

zut alors ou le oignon

Many francophiles and language purists are very upset with the universal arbiter, Academie Francaise, and the plan to enforce some institutional changes in spelling first proposed back in 1990.
More than two thousand minor changes to the orthography of French (including dropping the i from onion, reducing the ranks of hyphenated- words and vowels that take the little chapeau, the circumflex) have incite vocal dissatisfaction and downright militant opposition. The Academie (the national body which also assigns gender to newly discovered exoplanets and quantum particles) assures the public that both old and new spellings will be considered correct but I wonder what sort of diglossia will result. In Britain in the seventeen hundreds the circumflex-o was shorthand for -ough for economy’s sake and thus had thรด for though and (confusingly) brรดt for brought. Is getting rid of the รช possibly some concession to lazy typists and web-navigators?

Friday 29 January 2016

missing-link or not by the hair of my chinny-chin-chin

At first, I was a little sceptical about the claim and the mystery that the subject of the human race’s facial anatomy espouses, however, after reading the first few lines of this essay from The Atlantic, I began to really appreciate this puzzle.
Like those palaeontologists who are able to prestidigitate a complete dinosaur specimen out of a single length of bone, the subtle protrusion on our jaws that forms our chin has been pointing researchers in all sorts of different, wagging directions—and the question has been perplexing evolutionary biologists since the very beginnings. Not even our closest relatives—nor those branches of the family tree that withered away—possess the same sort of jaw-line (though some argue that elephants have a similar feature) and science, and not for a lack of speculation, chin scratching—has so far failed to deliver a plausible explanation. All the suggestions have been refuted—such a configuration would not have made it easier to chew or talk or act as an effective face-guard for cavemen fisticuffs. That last bit about duelling savages strikes me as particularly Victorian—like their unhealthy preoccupation with dinosaur husbandry and mating practises. What do you think? Chins couldn’t have become a dominate trait out of a need to stuff pillowcases or fold fitted-sheets, and the answer probably lies in a convergent constellation of factors that we’ve not yet untangled. It’s also funny how chins (as well with teeth for ducks) are one of those features we immediately anthropomorphise to the point where we’re blind to its absence.