Wednesday, July 15, 2009


Herzog says: "my last resort in all this turmoil was language." Read the interview here.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

From yesterday's Radio West

7/7/09: The Power and Problems of Language

word. Photo by Melanie Cook on
(KUER) - NPR's Ombudsmen Alicia Shepard has been slammed with comments and e-mails after she explained in a blog post why NPR has decided not to use the word "torture" to describe the interrogation method known as waterboarding. Tuesday on RadioWest it's your turn to sound off on the subject. Shepard and others will join Doug to talk about the words we use in the issues we cover - the power and problems with language.

a side note:
If you want to skip the interview with Alicia Shepard (Neal Conan interviewed her on Talk of the Nation regarding this same subject, and she says pretty much the same things), then you can skip to about the halfway point in the program. Doug interviews William Lutz, which is when the discussion shifts from the debate regarding how the media handles the 'torture' vs. 'enhanced interrogation' issue to a discussion of the politics of language in general.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

English getting its MILLIONTH WORD? (from CNN)

(CNN) -- English contains more words than any other language on the planet and will add its millionth word early Wednesday, according to the Global Language Monitor, a Web site that uses a math formula to estimate how often words are created.

The Global Language Monitor says the millionth word will be added to English on Wednesday.

The Global Language Monitor says the millionth word will be added to English on Wednesday.

The site estimates the millionth word will be added Wednesday at 5:22 a.m. Its live ticker counted 999,985 English words as of early Tuesday evening.

The "Million Word March," however, has made the man who runs this word-counting project somewhat of a pariah in the linguistic community. Some linguists say it's impossible to count the number of words in a language because languages are always changing, and because defining what counts as a word is a fruitless endeavor.

Paul J.J. Payack, president and chief word analyst for the Global Language Monitor, says, however, that the million-word estimation isn't as important as the idea behind his project, which is to show that English has become a complex, global language.

"It's a people's language," he said.

Other languages, like French, Payack said, put big walls around their vocabularies. English brings others in.

"English has the tradition of swallowing new words whole," he said. "Other languages translate."

The Internet, global commerce and global travel have accelerated the trend by putting English in contact with many other linguistic groups. This has made English more rich and more complex -- hence all of the new terms, he said.

Still, Payack says he doesn't include all new words in his count. Words must make sense in at least 60 percent of the world to be official, he said. And they must make sense to different communities of people. A new technology term that's only understood in Silicon Valley wouldn't count as a mainstream word, he said.

His computer models check a total of 5,000 Web sites, dictionaries, scholarly publications and news articles to see how frequently words are used, he said. A word must make 25,000 appearances to be deemed legitimate. Learn about how other languages stack up »

Payack said news events have also fueled the rapid expansion of English, which he said has more words than any other language. Mandarin Chinese comes in second with about 450,000 words, he said.

English terms like "Obamamania," "defriend," "wardrobe malfunction," "zombie banks," "shovel ready" and "recessionista" all have grown out of recent news cycles about the presidential election, economic crash, online networking or a sports event, he said. Other languages might not have developed new terms to deal with such phenomena, he said.

Language experts who spoke with CNN said they disapprove of Payack's count, but they agree that English generally has more words than most, if not all, languages.

"This is stuff that you just can't count," said Jesse Sheidlower, editor at large of the Oxford English Dictionary. "No one can count it, and to pretend that you can is totally disingenuous. It simply can't be done."

The Oxford English Dictionary has about 600,000 entries, Sheidlower said. But that by no means includes all words, he said.

For example, Sheidlower said "great-great-great-great-great grandfather" could be considered a word, but wouldn't be in the dictionary. There's a similar problem with numbers, which may be counted up by their pieces -- "twenty" and "three" -- but not always as a group, as in "two-hundred twenty-three."

Part of what makes determining the number of words in a language so difficult is that there are so many root words and their variants, said Sarah Thomason, president of the Linguistic Society of America and a linguistics professor at the University of Michigan.

In the language of people who are native to Alaska, she said, there are dozens of words for snow, but many of them are linked together and wouldn't be counted individually. Does that mean, she asked, that "slush," "powder" and other snow words in English should be counted as one entry?

Thomason called the million-word count a "sexy idea" that is "all hype and no substance."

Linguists and lexicographers run into further complications when trying to count words that are spelled one way but can have several meanings, said Allan Metcalf, an English professor at MacMurray College in Illinois, and an officer at the American Dialect Society.

"The word bear, b-e-a-r -- is that two words or one, for example? You have a noun that's a wild creature and then you have b-e-a-r, [which means] to bear left or to bear right, and there's many other things," he said. "So you really can't be exact about a millionth word."

Payack said he doesn't consider his to be the definitive count, just an interesting estimation based on set criteria he has helped develop.


"It's always an estimation," he said. "It's like the height of Mount Everest is an estimation. The height of Mount Everest has changed five times in my lifetime because as we get better tools, the estimates get better."

He said the count is meant to be a celebration of English as a global language. And, while he says other languages are being stamped out by English's expansion, it's a powerful thing that so many people today are able to communicate with such a vast list of words.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Neuroscience and the Spoken Word

From last week's Science Friday

How We Hear 

You can probably recognize your friend's voice over the phone with just one "hello" -- but how? Several studies published in the June issue of the journal Nature Neuroscience try to tackle what we do and don't know about the sense of hearing. In this segment, we'll talk about what's going on inside your brain as it attempts to decode the spoken word.

Listen to the broadcast here. (It's on the top left of the page)

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The universal grammar of birdsong is genetically encoded

Human cultural traits such as language, dress, religion and values are generally said to be passed from one generation to the next by social learning. And in animal species which have language, the same is true; male song birds, for example, learn the songs with which they serenade potential mates from older male relatives.

A new study, published online in the journal Nature, shows that the songs of isolated zebra finches evolve over multiple generations to resemble those of birds in natural colonies. These findings show that song learning in birds is not purely the product of nurture, but has a strong genetic basis, and suggest that bird song has a universal grammar, or an intrinsic structure which is present at birth.

Birdsong shares similarities with, and is considered by some to be analagous to, human language. For example, both have grammar and syntax, and the songbird brain contains brain areas which are analogs of the speech centres in the human brain. Also, birdsong is passed down from one generation to the next, just like human speech. Male zebra finches learn their song by imitating an adult male relative - usually their father, or an uncle. The song is based on a template which consists of stereotyped syllables that are repeated in a fixed order. However, each individual bird introduces small variations into this template, and thus has its own unique song.

In the new study, Partha Mitra of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York and his colleagues investigated the songs of zebra finches which were raised in isolation, and thus not exposed to singing males during development. They placed juvenile finches in sound chambers, between 30 and 130 days after hatching, a period of development which is known to be critical for song learning. As expected, the isolated birds produced songs which were markedly different from those of the wild-types, or birds raised in natural colonies or with other birds in the laboratory. The songs had an irregular rhythm and were less structured, containing noisy broadband notes and high-pitched upsweeps. Some of the syllables were also prolonged, and often monotonous or stuttered.

Newly-hatched finches were then placed into the sound chambers with the isolated males. These "pupils" readily imitated the songs produced by their "tutors", producing accurate copies. However, closer examination showed that they changed certain of the songs' characteristics - copies of syllables which were longer than a given length (about one quarter of a second) were, on average, 30% shorter than the originals, and the relative frequency of highly abundant syllables was reduced.

When this first generation of pupils matured, a new batch of hatchlings was placed into sound chambers with them. This second generation of pupils also imitated their tutors' songs, but again, they introduced minor variations into their otherwise faithful copies. The variations thus accumulated over successive generations, such that, over the course of three to four generations, the songs had evolved to sound more like the songs of wild-types than those of the isolated colony founders.

The authors note that their findings resemble the well-known case of a large group of deaf children in the Nicaraguan capital Managua, who in the 1970s and 80s spontaneously developed a unique form of sign language called Idioma de Señas Nicaragüense (ISN). They conclude that the results show that zebra finch song is not just a product of environmental influences, but is at least partly genetically encoded. Evidently, it is an extended developmental process, which emerges over multiple generations. In other words, zebra finch songs seem to exhibit what Noam Chomsky referred to as universal grammar: is natural to expect a close relation between innate properties of the mind and features of linguistic structure; for language, after all, has no existence apart from its mental representation. Whatever properties it has must be those that are given to it by the innate mental processes of the organism that has invented it and that invents it anew with each succeeding generation, along with whatever properties are associated with the conditions of its use.

Essentially, Chomsky argues that the brain contains a limited set of rules for structuring language, which are not learnt, but are present at birth. These rules are flexible, but ultimately constrain the diversity of human language. Thus, all of the approximately 6,000 human languages share a basic grammatical structure, which facilitates their acquisition. Applied to the new study, this innate language structure sets limits upon the variations in the pupils' songs, and perhaps drives those variations - towards the wild-type song structure.

The study focused on the acoustic properties of the songs produced by the isolated birds and the multiple generations of birds they tutored. The effects of song variation on mating behaviour were not explored, so it remains to be seen whether females have an increasing preference for the songs of successive generations of pupils over those of their tutors. And, as it is well established that the vocal centres in the song bird brain are regenerated anew every mating season, it would be interesting to investigate whether the progressive changes in the pupils' songs are associated with changes in neurogenesis, cellular organization, or gene expression.

Loosely speaking, birdsong serves as a biological model of culture. It is learnt by social interactions, but it also shares another important feature with human language: it exhibits diversity, with geographically separated groups of finches having "dialects" of song which are distinct from those of other groups. As language is a defining feature of culture, the wider implication of these new findings is that it and other aspects of culture - in birds, and perhaps even humans - may be partly encoded in the genome.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The good ones copy, the great ones steal

Howdy fellow word nerds!

Found this little nugget on 12 oz. Prophet today and hit me right where I live (to borrow a little saying that Caldiero is fond of). Thought I'd share it here:

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Roy Blount Jr.'s 'Alphabet Juice'

Excerpt: 'Alphabet Juice'
by Roy Blount Jr.
Cover of Roy Blount Jr.'s 'Alphabet Juice'
Alphabet Juice: The Energies, Gists, and Spirits of Letters, Words, and Combinations Thereof; Their Roots, Bones, Innards, Piths, Pips, and Secret Parts, ... With Examples of Their Usage Foul and Savory
By Roy Blount Jr.
Hardcover, 384 pages
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
List price: $25.00, October 21, 2008 · According to scholars of linguistics, the relation between a word and its meaning is arbitrary. In proof, they point to pigs. Steven Pinker, in Words and Rules, observes that pigs go oink oink in English, nøff nøff in Norwegian, and in Russian chrjo chrjo. That may look arbitrary. As if it went something like this:

English committee member #1
What'll we put down for pig noise?
Member #2 (whose motives are unclear)
Let's name it for my uncle Oink.
Member #3
No, we need to capture more of that grunh, grunh . . .
Weary groan arises.
Member #4
In Russia…
He or she is shouted down.
Committee chairman
People. We have to move on.

Have you ever tried to spell any of the various sounds that pigs make? It isn't easy. It's damn well worth trying, but eventually you have to settle on something close. (Chickens being more articulate, you'll find their noises to be pretty similar the world round. Baby chicks go peep peep in English, pío pío in Spanish, piyo piyo in Japanese.)

And I'm not sure Pinker is playing fair with that chrjo. It's not Russian letters. How am I supposed to know how Russian people or pigs pronounce it? Fortunately, by Googling "Russian pigs go," I have obtained the input of an online chatperson (at named "MrAnonymous," who sounds like he knows what he is talking about:

In Russian, pigs go hroo, hroo. Note that these are rolled r's and the h is more of a hk sound, like when you try to build a loogie. (Don't try and pronounce the K, just flem up the H.)

That, although it should be "try to pronounce" and phlegm, is not bad. Over the years and around the world, generation building upon generation, people have put much mimetic effort into the spelling of pig utterance.

For that matter, grunt works for me, and I resent any insinuation that I have been programmed by random convention. Dictionaries in their grudging way call grunt "probably imitative." The word is a distinct refinement, or counterrefinement, of the Old English grunettan, and although the parallel Greek gry, in comparison, looks less than fully swinish, you can see the resemblance. The French for "to grunt" is grogner. You know what the French for the growl of a car is? Vroum!

That car is running on alphabet juice. So, less obviously, are spice and tang and strength (do you think that word fits its meaning no better than would, say, delicacy?) and, excuse me, sphincter, which shares a root, incidentally, with the Sphinx.

Marshall McLuhan, whom we celebrate for coming up with such memes as "the global village" and "the medium is the message," played fast and loose with the roots of words, according to his biographer, Philip Marchand: he "pored over etymologies in the OED as if they were mystic runes," and irritated colleagues at Cambridge by making up fanciful derivations to support his theories. I prefer a firmer grip on etymology—"the wheel-ruts of modern English," as puts it.

So I am not going to think of the mysterious statue and say sph- is soft (face of a woman, and we may think of sphagnum moss), the middle part is retentive-sounding, and the x is for unknown. I am going to consult several reliable lexicographical sources, and report to you that the original Sphinx, the monster whose riddle Oedipus solved, was named by the Greeks from their verb sphingein, to squeeze, because she strangled her victims. Pronouncing sphincter, or squeeze, constricts the throat.

Oddly enough, McLuhan did his Ph.D. dissertation on Thomas Nashe, who described a comely maid as "fat and plum every part of her as a plover, a skin as slick and soft as the back of a swan, it doth me good when I remember her. Like a birde she tript on the ground, and bare out her belly as majestical as an Estrich." (In one or two places I have slightly modernized Nashe's Elizabethan spelling, but I wouldn't touch Estrich. Another old version of ostrich was Austridge. The roots go back, via the Latin avis struthio, to the Greek strouthokamelos, camel-sparrow.)

I say "oddly enough" because McLuhan, according to Marchand, "was never interested in the 'music of words.'" In Understanding Media, McLuhan maintained that the phonetic alphabet—"in which semantically meaningless letters are used to correspond to semantically meaningless sounds"—had alienated people from the body. The ink had hardly dried on that notion when the Free Speech Movement broke out at Berkeley, and pretty soon people were running naked and letting their hair grow wild.

Maybe many of them were trying to break away from the alphabet, but I wasn't. To me, letters have always been a robust medium of sublimation. I don't remember what I was like before I learned my ABC's, but for as long as I can remember I have made them with my fingers and felt them in my bones. Where are we, at the moment? We're in the midst of a bunch of letters, and if you're like me, you feel like a pig in mud.

What a great word mud is. And muddle, and muffle, and mumble . . .

You know the expression "Mum's the word." The word mum is a representation of lips pressed together. Since it's not merely a sound, mmmm, but a word, to say it we have to move our lips. For the separator we choose that utterly unintellectual (though it's what we say when trying to think) vowel sound uh, which thrusts at the heart of push and shove and grunt and love.

The great majority of languages start the word for "mother" with an m sound. The word mammal comes from the mammary gland. Which comes from baby talk: mama. To sound like a grownup, we refine mama into mother; the Romans made it mater, from which: matter. And matrix. Our word for the kind of animal we are, and our word for the stuff that everything is made of, and our word for a big cult movie all derive from baby talk.

What are we saying when we say mmmm? We are saying yummy. In the pronunciation of which we move our lips the way nursing babies move theirs. The fact that we can spell something that fundamental, and connect it however tenuously to mellifluous and manna and milk and me (see M), strikes me as marvelous. You know the expression "a magic spell"—

Here the scholar cries, Aha! (See H.)

And the scholar has a point. I'm not here to play tricks (see abracadabra), but to find traction. I am saying arbitrary, schmabitrary. Linguisticians will concede me onomatopoeia: snap, crackle, pop, and so on. But they marginalize these words by throwing up the inconstancy of pig sounds, and then they get on with their theories. Steven Pinker does allow that some people might channel their magical thinking into "sound symbolism (words such as sneer, cantankerous, and mellifluous that naturally call to mind the things they mean)."

As it happens, scrutiny of the term symbolic in that sense has led me to find a discrepancy in the greatest lexicographical work in English, the Oxford English Dictionary, but I won't dwell on that (see wh-). I will say that theorizing stands and falls on its examples. Here is Pinker:

Sound symbolism, for its part, was no friend of the American woman in the throes of labor who overheard what struck her as the most beautiful word in the English language and named her newborn daughter Meconium, the medical word for fetal excrement.

This has the ring of an urban legend, a tendentious one, like Ronald Reagan's mink-coated woman stepping from a limousine to claim her welfare check. If there was a woman who gave her baby girl such a name, she had a highly idiosyncratic ear. (Of the thousand most common female names according to the 1990 census, Miriam was the only one ending in m, and it was 285th.) Salmonella, maybe, or Campho-Phenique, but Meconium? No. This mother—I will stop short of saying that linguisticians conjured her up, consciously or unconsciously, to reinforce their denial of so much evidence of the senses, but I will say that this mother is not, in this respect, a good example.

The Japanese, I am told, have two different words for two different kinds of imitative language: giseigo, mimic-voice-language, for instance potsu-potsu, rainfall of medium force; and gitiago, mimic-condition-language, for instance pittari, to fit exactly. Neither of those examples may seem intuitive to English speakers, but every language has its deep aesthetic network of sonic correspondences. The very consistency of English is inconsistent—don't expect remember to be the opposite of dismember, or pitch, because its vowel sound is like the first one in sphincter, to betoken a withered peach. But all language, at some level, is body language. (Or anyway, all English is body English. See the quote from Allen Tate at spin.) Who wants a tongue to be cut-and-dried?

It beats me why any writer would want to minimize the connection between high-fiber words (squelch, for instance, or wobble or sniffle [see -le], or the flinch and wince family, or the -udge's, or prestidigitation) and the bodily maneuvers from which they emanate and those they evoke. But I don't claim to be a scientist. Science naturally abhors what it can't universalize. For many years, the dominant theory in the science of linguistics has been Noam Chomsky's, that all human language is made possible by a universal, recursive (that is to say, allowing of insertions such as this one) grammar, hardwired in our genes.

Now hardwired, objectively, refers to metal drawn out into threads. (Hard has a harder sound than soft, and what a fine word wire is: thin— wiry—and sonically drawn out, like its French counterpart, fil. The German Draht is more broadly evocative of the drawing out.) But okay, chromosomes are threads. (And what a kinesthetic word thread is. It's one of several palpably transmissive thr- words: through, thorough, thrill, throat, throw, thrum, and throb.) Chromosomes are not exactly laid end to end, as I understand them, but never mind, mental activity is demonstrably electric (see electricity/chewing tobacco). But what travels through the wires? What force through the green fuse?

Alphabet juice. The quirky but venerable squiggles which through centuries of knockabout breeding and intimate contact with the human body have absorbed the uncanny power to carry the ring of truth.

If you handle them right. The fact that I have made a living for forty years selling combinations of letters on the open market, in every medium, print or electronic, except greeting cards, does not entitle me to tell you how to write or talk. I do hope you realize that every time you use disinterested to mean uninterested, an angel dies, and every time you write very unique, or "We will hire whomever is more qualified," thousands of literate people lose yet another little smidgen of hope. And please promise me you will never lose your grip on the subjunctive to the extent that someone did in this sentence from USA Today: "If Ramirez stayed in Cleveland, the Indians may not be seven victories shy of their first World Series title since 1948."

"If Ramirez had stayed," I cry aloud. "The Indians might not be! Damn! Damn! Damn!"

I hope this book will be useful to anyone who wants to write better, including me. I have written some of the clumsiest, most clogged-yetvagrant, hobbledehoyish, hitch-slipping sentences ever conceived by the human mind. On the radio I can sometimes talk spontaneously to tolerable effect, with the help of voice tone and adrenaline; but almost nothing that pops into my head flows when I set it down in letters. (That's about the ninth time I have written that unremarkable sentence, a simple statement of fact, and even now I'm not sure that there is anything to be said for the kind of semi-sprung rhythm that has arisen in "head flows.") Fortunately, I enjoy fooling with letters, moving them around, going back over them, over and over, screaming . . . The terrible thing about writing is also the great thing about it: you can keep on changing it. "We say that we perfect diction," wrote Wallace Stevens. "We simply grow tired." (See simply.) But it's a good tired. That's an interesting expression: a good tired.

Do we adapt any other past participle to such purpose? I'm stumped. But it's a good stumped.

The franchise I claim is not prescriptive, but over the counter. Quality over the counter. People who mistreat English, or who, with no doubt the purest intentions, discount Sprachgefühl (see kinesthesia), are messing with the stuff I trade in. If the ABC's lose their savor, I will be hardpressed to pass along, not to mention get paid for passing along, such an intimate pleasure as I felt while listening to NPR's Fresh Air not long ago. The country singer Don Walser, now deceased, was being interviewed by Terry Gross. She asked him about his yodeling.

He said he did two different yodels, a cowboy yodel and a swish yodel.

A what? Walser was a big hearty Texan who didn't seem like the sort of performer who would get off on mocking sissy airs. Anyway, yodeling very nearly transcends gender. Even if you wanted to, how would you make a yodel sound nelly?

Then I realized: "Swiss yodel." When the soft s and the y-as-in-yummy glide together they make the sound that for some reason we spell sh-:

Oh how I wish you
Would wish I would kiss you.

I would be the last person to argue that the sounds of our letters are thoroughly explicable. (Did you know that Hells Angels refer to themselves as "AJ" because it sounds so much like "HA"?) They are a wonder on the tongue. And a tongue—although Robert Benchley called it "that awful-looking thing right back of your teeth"—is what a language is.

No doubt it would be superficial to liken the universal grammar theory to a virtual program wherein all the steps of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire are reduced to a flow chart, with no attention to Fred's ears or the ineffable things Ginger does with her shoulders. But I get no kick from genetics. For depth I prefer digging back to eldritch-grungy roots, Proto-Indo-European (PIE) or Semitic: wegh-, to go; reub-, to snatch; hsp, to be insolent.

In this I am motivated by a distant ancestor. In 1656, Thomas Blount produced the first English dictionary to go into the origins of words: Glossographia, or, a dictionary interpreting all such hard words, of whatsoever language, now used in our refined English tongue. In the New York Public Library I have turned the actual uncrumbling seventeenth-century pages of the fifth edition of Blount's Glossographia:

Coffa or Cauphe, a kind of drink among the Turks and Persians (and of late introduced among us) which is black, thick and bitter, destrained from berries of that nature, and name, thought good and very wholesome: they say it expels melancholy, purges choler . . .

Alphabet Juice is my glossographia. Juice as in au jus, juju, power, liquor, electricity. (Loose words and clauses left lying around are like loose live wires—they'll short-circuit, burn out, disempower your lights.) As in influence; as in squeezin's; as in, the other day I saw a woman walking down the street wearing some highly low-cut shorts. On her hourglass figure, the top of those shorts was at about, I would say (not a snap judgment), twenty minutes. Just below that part of the back where some people—she, for instance—have dimples was where her waistband cut across; and just below the waistband, in two-inch letters, was an inspired, if vulgar, brand name: Juicy. (See zaftig.)

Excerpted from Alphabet Juice: The Energies, Gists, and Spirits of Letters, Words, and Combinations Thereof; Their Roots, Bones, Innards, Piths, Pips, and Secret Parts, ... With Examples of Their Usage Foul and Savory by Roy Blount Jr. Copyright © 2008 by Roy Blount Jr. Published in September 2008 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.