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  • The Diacritics 6:37 am on May 28, 2012 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: grammar girl, podcast   

    The Diacritics on Grammar Girl 

    One of Sandeep’s posts was adapted for a podcast produced by Grammar Girl.

    Read it and listen to it here, or download the podcast on iTunes.

  • The Diacritics 7:32 pm on January 7, 2012 Permalink | Reply  


    Ladies and Gentlemen, we’ve reached a milestone. Our domain is now officially http://www.thediacritics.com!

    Subscribers, don’t worry–you don’t need to change anything. Also, our WordPress domain will redirect you to the new site automatically.

    Oh, and new posts to come soon!

    -John and Sandeep

  • The Diacritics 4:19 pm on January 3, 2012 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , cyrillic, dear leader, dprk, hangul, hanja, hanzi, kim il-sung, kim jong-il, kim jong-il looking at things, korean, , naming conventions, north korea, russia   

    What’s in a Kim? 

    (Posted by Sandeep)

    I’ve been fascinated by North Korea’s late Dear Leader Kim Jong-il for a while now — not just because he liked to look at things or because he died, although many people agree that those were two of his more positive qualities.

    Kim Jong-il looking at a leaflet.

    The reclusive state that he, and his father before him, maintained affected the development of the Korean language in the North by setting forth new standards (via official pronouncements in 1964, 1966, and 1987), which solidified differences between the Seoul and Pyongyang dialects. And while general daily vocabulary is based on a pre-partition standard, South Korean uses a lot of foreign borrowings from languages like English, whose influence is all but absent in the North.

    I was also surprised to learn that Kim Jong-il was born in Siberia with the name Yuri Irsenovich Kim. I couldn’t find any information about that discrepancy, so I did a little sleuthing.

    Kim Jong-il looking at names

    Korean naming conventions place the family name (here, Kim) at the beginning of the name. The name 김, Kim (pronounced /kim/, often mistakenly heard as “gim” because the /k/ is unaspirated) is the most common surname in Korea, with nearly 22% of Koreans named Kim. The name is derived from the Chinese hanzi (called hanja in Korean) 金, jīn, which means gold. In fact, nearly all popular Korean names derive their meaning from Chinese, and are often written in hanzi as well.

    The second part of Kim Jong-il’s name is derived from 正, zhèng (hanja), written 정 jeong (hangul), which means “straight” or “correct.” The third part is derived from 日, (hanja), written 일 il (hangul), which means “day.”

    Kim Jong-il named his sons using a generational name, keeping the character 정 jeong in all of them — Kim Jong-nam, Kim Jong-chul, and finally Kim Jong-un (the current Supreme Leader), although he didn’t do the same for his eldest child, a daughter, Kim Sul-song. Kim Jong-il’s father, Kim Il-sung, kept the character 일 il in his son’s name.

    That all does little, of course, to illuminate Kim Jong-il’s Russian name, Yuri Irsenovich Kim. For that we turn to the Slavs, whose naming conventions differ widely from the Koreans.

    Who is Kim Ir Sen?

    Russians place the family name (Kim) at the end. For males, the second name is a patronym, which means that it’s derived from the father’s name. If Yuri’s father’s name was Ivan, then his second name would be Ivanovich, like cosmonaut Yuri Ivanovich Malechenko. If Vladimir’s father’s name was Vladimir, then his second name would be Vladimirovich, like Russian President Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.

    So this means that Kim Jong-il’s father’s name was Irsen, right? Right.

    Wait, what? Sort of.

    Kim Jong-il’s father, as we all know, was Kim Il-sung, the Eternal President of North Korea. In Russian, his name was transliterated Ким Ир Сен, Kim Ir Sen. That form is the most commonly used Cyrillic transliteration of Kim Il-sung’s name. However, under the standardized Kontsevich system of transliterating Korean hangul into Cyrillic, his name would be spelled Ким Ильсо́н, Kim Il’són. The Kontsevich system is the main system for Korean transliteration in Russia, but proper nouns such as names are still often treated differently. (Indians can relate to this discrepancy — for example, while my name would be transliterated saṃdīp, it’s most commonly written in English as Sandeep.)

    What a happy brutal autocrat!

    The border between the liquids /l/ and /ɾ/ is frail in Korean, and a word spelled using /l/ can be pronounced as /ɾ/ depending on its position between vowels or at the end of words. However, the “l” in Il-sung is not located in one of those places. Instead, the Russian transliteration of Il-sung as Ир Сен Ir Sen seems to be a sound change that occurred in Russian, not Korean. I’m not familiar with Russian phonology, so maybe somebody can explain in the comments why his name is spelled with “р” r, not “л” l.

    But… Yuri?

    The name “Yuri” is derived from the Greek word γεωργός geōrgos, which roughly means farmer. It’s unlikely that naming Kim Jong-il “Yuri” was an attempt to translate “Jong-il” into Russian, because the component parts of Jong-il translate into “straight” and “day.” Maybe Kim Il-sung just really liked the name Yuri for his son.

    Yuri is a nice name, although if Kim Jong-il had kept it, he probably would have been teased on the playground — Yuri (유리, transliterated yuli but pronounced /ju:ɾi/) is a girl’s name in Korea.

    And nobody — nobody — teases the Dear Leader.

    So there you have it — a “look” at Korean and Russian names. Kim Jong-il — sorry, I mean Yuri Irsenovich Kim — would have been proud:

    Yuri Kim looking at jam.

  • The Diacritics 9:00 am on December 30, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: ape, cormac mccarthy, , evolutionary anthropology, , monkey,   

    Aping McCarthy 

    [This is a guest post from my friend and former research colleague Joel Bray, a junior at Duke studying evolutionary anthropology. He is recently back from projects and adventures in Uganda and Madagascar and writes about his experiences and all things primate here. -S.]

    I just finished Cormac McCarthy’s masterpiece, Blood Meridian, an epic tale about the depravity and brutality of the American Old West, revolving around a teenage boy who joins a band of Native American scalp hunters. An unpleasant read, to say the least.

    I was struck, however, as any good primatologist should be, by McCarthy’s obsession with the word “ape.” He uses it not once, not twice, but nine times throughout the story to describe the primitiveness and wretchedness of humanity. For example:

    • “Men whose speech sounds like the grunting of apes.”
    • “He turned to the men and smiled and they once again began to hoot and to pummel one another like apes.”
    • “They were half naked and they sucked their teeth and snuffled and stirred and picked at themselves like apes.”
    • “…where the company sat among the rocks without fire or bread or camaraderie any more than banded apes.”

    The frequent use of “ape” got me thinking about the word’s etymology and current popular usage. I did some browsing on the web, and it appears that the word can be traced to pre-12th century and has its roots in Middle English, from the Old English apa. Its origin is uncertain, possibly alluding to animal chatter, but it seems to have first referred to all primates and was a synonym for “monkey.” Since medieval times, it was believed that apes were prone to imitative human behavior, and the word was used to describe a “fool,” leading to the modern, secondary definitions of “ape” as a mimic, or large uncouth person. Recent cognitive studies suggest, however, that humans are in fact the expert imitators, which explains why you see children mimicking ape behavior at the zoo more often than the reverse.

    As the use of “ape” among the public changed over the centuries, so did the biological definition evolve over time with advances in our scientific understanding of primates. For a long period, and even among some holdouts today, it was used to describe all members of Hominoidea except humans. Homo sapiens remained exceptional until recently, when they were finally placed within the other apes — chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, orangutans, and gibbons — a victory for monophyly (grouping all descendants of a common ancestor together).

    Colloquially, “ape” and monkey” continue to be used interchangeably to the constant vexation of primatologists (shortcut: monkeys have tails, apes do not). From personal experience, if and when people do differentiate, “monkey” simply refers to all primates while “ape” retains some specificity. To be fair, even “monkey” refers to a paraphyletic group (a group descended from a common ancestor, but not including all descendants) and thus is not reflective of true evolutionary history, but that’s a discussion for another day.

    An amateur investigation at Google Translator suggests that most languages (Spanish, Dutch, French, Korean, Portuguese, Arabic, German – exceptions include Japanese and Chinese) do not even distinguish between the two and use the same word or character for both. For example, in Spanish “mono” means both “monkey” and “ape,” although due to English influence there seems to be a movement for the less-used “simio” to signify “ape,” though traditionally it too refers to both. Complementing this usage is the phrase “grandes simios,” or great apes, which parallels the English in referring to all apes except gibbons.

    Other languages likely have similar etymological histories. However, since English is the modern language of science, it may have been the prime mover in officially separating the two words and their meanings. That being said, I’d be curious to know if languages from regions of the world that are home to both apes and monkeys (e.g. equatorial Africa, Indonesia) have historically had more subtle terminology to describe them. [The English word “orangutan” comes from the Indonesian/Malay words orang hutan, forest man, suggesting that Indonesians viewed orangutans as more similar to humans. The word kera is translated as both “monkey” and “ape,” but in a scientific context monyet is “monkey” and kera is “ape.” –ed.]

    Ultimately, with such a complicated and dynamic etymological and evolutionary history, it’s no surprise that the public can hardly keep up with the wishes of primatologists on what to call the primates. I won’t give up the good fight, but I realize that it’s pretty much a big deal to fewer than a hundred people on the entire planet.

    Thinking back to the connotations in Blood Meridian though, I would like to know how other people perceive the word “ape” and what it suggests to them. So I ask you: does ape make you think smart, thoughtful, creative? Or primitive, nonhuman, backwards? Do you imagine monkeys? Savages? King Kong? Yourself?

  • The Diacritics 1:11 pm on December 19, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , english teachers, , , , ,   

    Speaking with precision 

    (posted by John)

    My first semester of law school is drawing to a close, so I thought I would write about something I heard on my very first day. I’ve been mulling it over since then, partially because at first blush it runs so against my beliefs about prescriptivism and the ‘rightness’ of one person’s language over another’s. Professor John Langbein finished his riveting orientation talk on the history of law schools in America with a lament about the debasement of the English language my generation is committing. My immediate reaction, as you might guess, was a bit of haughty “This old fogey just doesn’t get it. Prescriptivism is dumb!”

    But on at least some level, he was right. Professor Langbein’s point was not that language shouldn’t change because change is bad. His point was that it’s easy to lose some of the aspects of language most valuable—especially to someone trying to become a lawyer. To me his most potent example was the loss of precision in language, which he blamed on the overlarge number of outlets for spewing our thoughts to others. Cell phone, text, facebook, twitter—you catch the drift I’m sure. It seems every major newspaper has a bi-monthly requirement for an editorial talking about the over-share phenomenon of Facebook status and twitter updates.

    Langbein wasn’t quite talking about this, though. Think about a recent conversation you’ve had, in which you related the contents of an interaction with another person. Did it run something along the lines of “I was like . . .Then he was like . . . Then I was just like whatever and left.” It may not have, but if you do some good ol’ eavesdropping on the street you’re sure to hear something like it. (Or if you’re lucky you might get “And I was all . . . Then she was all . . . Then I was all . . . .” ). This is one of the things (<– there’s another one of them) that dismayed Professor Langbein. “Is that really what you were like?” He asked us. He gave other examples, too. Overusing “thing” was one of them. Another was prefacing a point we haven’t fully thought out and can’t very well express with “You know, uh, . . . ,” and then proceeding on our muddled way. Another was compensating for a poorly-thought-out sentence by ending it with an “. . . or whatever.”

    We can all get our point across using imprecise language, and the linguist in me recoils at the thought of saying it’s actually ‘wrong’ to do so. But you can be sure that being imprecise is the one of the quickest routes to becoming an inept law student (not to mention a bad lawyer).

    So I’ll cede the point: it is worthwhile to attempt to be precise in language. If we don’t use linguistic vagaries like “or whatever” and if we avoid saying “thing” whenever the right word doesn’t immediately come to mind, it forces us to organize our thoughts more clearly. Using precise language makes us think more precisely. I tried spending a day saying precisely what I meant every time I spoke. It was exceedingly difficult, but it seemed helpful in terms of my mental organization.

    Based on our knowledge of how language allows us to think complex thoughts in the first place, it makes sense that being more precise in our speech would make us more precise in our thinking. I wrote a post a while back looking at some of Liz Spelke’s experiments that suggest language lets otherwise distinct, insulated modules of intelligence interact, thereby making us ‘smart’ compared to other species. One experiment I didn’t discuss there shows that language allows us to grasp the concept of “sets of individuals.” Babies and monkeys can distinguish “individuals” and they can distinguish “sets,” and when the set is less than four items large, they recognize that adding or subtracting an individual changes the size of the set. But when the set is larger than four, they cannot combine the representations of ‘set’ and ‘individual’ to understand that it is a “set of individuals” such that adding or subtracting one changes the quantity. Only once we have language is this possible.

    There are also sad but interesting cases of so-called ‘feral children‘ who have been deprived of exposure to language from a very young age.  These people never fully learn a language. They also are unable to perform tasks indicative of ‘higher’ human intelligence—for example distinguishing which of two massed quantities is larger.  According to still more research by Spelke and others, children without language and other animals like monkeys can distinguish between larger and smaller quantities at a ratio of about 2:1. If the quantitates get much closer in number, it becomes difficult for them to guess correctly. Humans with language can do this at a considerably better rate.

    Finally, the emergence of language, some have argued, is associated with a cultural explosion of sorts; more complex tools, recursive patterns on bits of pottery, even materials that look like they could be used to go fishing. The idea is that language allowed us to do the ‘higher thought’ necessary to develop culture.

    All of this evidence suggests that we are able to think complex, highly structured thoughts in large part because we have language. It also suggests I should take Professor Langbein’s advice: you know, try not to be like, “Let’s speak more clearly or whatever.”

    • John Cowan 3:47 pm on December 19, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Your first judgement on Langbein was right. I was all/like is a perfectly sensible quotative form, and not the least bit vague or ambiguous. Taking it literally is a ludicrous rhetorical strategy suitable only for bonking a captive audience on the head, like complaining about It was colder than hell because Hell is traditionally a place of fire. Does he criticize people for using the vague word said when so many other “more precise” terms such as shouted, hissed, shrieked, muttered, babbled, grunted, ejaculated, or bloviated are available? I suspect not.

      And I doubt he would have a word to say to anyone who used such older hedges as as it were, in a sense, in a manner of speaking, if you will and so on, though they too are used to mark “a point we haven’t fully thought out and can’t very well express”. Human beings are not expected to formulate all their thoughts in advance and spew them out in perfectly formed standard prose — unless they are giving speeches, and even then, the speech will not sound natural if they do.

      No, let Langbein stick to law or learn the facts about what he’s talking about.

    • Phil 12:29 am on December 23, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      What your professor is really bemoaning is the demise of a world where the uneducated working classes were denied access to the means with which to publish their thoughts.

      Once upon a time, the only way your ideas were ever permitted to be put on paper is if they were first rigidly screened by arch-conservative editors, and if you’d spent years at a private school, being caned for ending sentences with prepositions, and having all originality beat out of you.

      Today, the uneducated masses have Twitter, blogs, tabloids, Facebook, Tumblr, and god knows what else. The foremost triumph of democracy is the expansion of access to ‘voice’, as political scientists would term it.

      They may not be able to express themselves as clearly as we’d like, but the question arises whether that is due to their lack of ability, or our lack of flexibility. We are accustomed to seeing information presented in a certain manner, but this does not harm intelligibility, this is merely a reflection of systemic elitism.

      For instance, we undeniably understand that “she was like, no way, i wasn’t there!!1lol” equates perfectly well to “She vehemently denied her involvement”, and yet we can’t help form certain preconceptions about the authors of the two statements which make it far easier to dismiss the former out of hand. Perhaps that is what we ought to work on, not on trying to make the masses conform to our narrow class-based preconception of how intelligence correlates with register.

  • The Diacritics 4:18 pm on December 13, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: bad lip reading, dubs, fake english, funny, history of english, , , mcgurk effect, , videos   

    Lots of language videos 

    Stephen Fry rails against pedantic prescriptivists: “Sod them to Hades!”

    Bad Lip Reading, whose hilarious dubs bring to mind the McGurk Effect, reimagines the words of disgraced Republican candidate Herman Cain: “Mexican people don’t eat sugar, especially when it’s a mixture of lice and tiger DNA!”

    The Open University describes the history of English in a charming cartoon video.

    Finally, short film capturing the cadences and sounds of normal spoken English, but utterly nonsensical. Apparently intended to show how American English sounds to others. (Family Guy trades it back, making fun of how British English sounds to Americans.)

    • krish 1:05 am on December 20, 2011 Permalink | Reply


  • The Diacritics 12:35 pm on December 8, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: alcohol, , crazy english, drinking, inhibition, language learning, second language,   

    Drinking in language 

    (Posted by Sandeep)

    This article originally appeared in The (Duke) Chronicle on October 21, 2010.

    My friends and I were on the C-1 bus a few weekends ago, leaving an off-East Campus house to get to West and catch the Robertson bus to Chapel Hill. I had just turned 21, and I was looking forward to my first night out barhopping since I had come back stateside.

    Some of our fellow passengers had been drinking, and the heady odor of beer and rushed vodka shots overpowered the bus and began to give me a healthy buzz.

    More than the stench, though, my mind was on the two red-faced freshmen next to me, who were engaged in an enthusiastic, but obviously slurred, conversation in Spanish. Their grammar was poor and their pronunciation worse, but it sure looked like they were having fun. If they were in the middle of an oral exam, they would have scored low on structure but high on confidence.

    Does drinking alcohol help people speak other languages?

    Every student knows that being embarrassed is one of the cornerstones of the difficult process of learning another language. After all, we students are visitors in a new world. For those who are used to easy academic success, stumbling over verbs or gendered nouns can be stressful or disheartening.

    So in response, we inhibit. We mumble when we’re called on in class, or we clamp up in conversation. We don’t speak the language outside of the classroom. We’re intimidated by students whose abilities seem greater than our own. Our teachers tell us to be fluid and open to mistakes—practicing is important, after all—but their pleas aren’t always convincing.

    This, my friends, is where alcohol comes in.

    We all know what drinking does, whether through observation or participation. People with “liquid courage” are more likely to do or say things that they might have been reluctant to while sober.

    The fear of embarrassment fades away with every ounce of rum. Inhibitory control slips out of our hands like a wet beer can. People loosen up, and some of us are more sociable and talkative after a few. Many of the neurological processes at work when your roommate jumps on top of the bar at Shooters are the same as when he later whispers je t’aime in the ears of his dancing partner. Our uninhibited behavior is mirrored in our speech.

    And maybe because some of us drink to become someone else—a party alter ego—speaking a foreign language fulfills some sort of urbane, globetrotting identity that we aspire to embody.

    I’m not recommending downing a dozen steins whenever you need to practice German. Yes, moderate amounts of alcohol might help with practicing a language. And associating positive memories with foreign language use can prime you to perform better. You might even form a good friendship with a foreigner over a few bilingual drinks.

    But drinking probably won’t help you learn the basics of a language, because studying demands a clear mind.

    Researchers studying second-language acquisition have identified two aspects of learning another language: one that is automatic (e.g., an understanding of simple grammar based on one’s mother tongue) and another that is memorized (e.g., vocabulary). Students usually feel comfortable with the first and stumble over the second. When people drink, though, their loss of inhibition probably facilitates memorized language, even if they are making mistakes.

    As with all things alcoholic, using language under the influence presents a mixed bag. The rewards are there, but they are lost when people binge.

    People’s inhibition disappears with every sip in a binge, and so does their awareness. Very drunk people might believe that they are smooth or charming or balanced, but they are often none of those. Similarly, when drunken foreign language speakers believe that they are using proper grammar and pronunciation, they are often sloppy and incoherent. And practice is useless if you don’t remember it the next morning.

    But maybe we don’t even have to drink to take advantage of the benefits of alcohol.

    Li Yang, a Chinese entrepreneur, certainly thinks so. His “Crazy English” program centers on his conviction that orthodox teaching is ineffective. Instead, Li’s students jump up and shout English phrases in the classroom, on buses and from rooftops. The goal is to eliminate embarrassment, curb inhibition and facilitate a positive social environment.

    Crazy English sounds a little bit like last weekend’s Crazy Party. But it ditches the spiked punch and concentrates on making language learning fun and communal. It has been astoundingly successful: over 20 million people have taken a Crazy English course in the last 15 years.

    The success of this program demonstrates that a student doesn’t necessarily need to drink before her oral exam to get a good grade. Language students can be uninhibited without alcohol. Maybe a fun, worldly identity can be crafted without it, too. Whether or not you drink, your learning experience is affected by your confidence.

    Maybe next time you’re studying for a language exam, you should try the Crazy method and shout for practice. Lose control. Make a fool of yourself. Climb onto a rooftop and let the quad echo with vocabulary from Haitian Creole or Arabic 125. Imagine you’re fully bilingual. Drink in the language experience.

    Whether or not this study session requires alcohol is none of my business, of course. Liquid or dry, the courage is the same. I just hope I overhear you on the bus next weekend.

    • stuartnz 1:38 pm on December 8, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      I have a significant physical intolerance to alcohol, even the smell of it induces the urge to vomit, so I won’t be resorting to Dutch courage to assist me in trying out my mediocre language skills on others. With any language I’ve tried to learn, from Italian to Hinjabi, I’ve found that an absence of ego will work just as well. That’s why I like the Crazy English idea more, it is an idea I can get behind – simply accepting that I will screw up, a lot, and that I will provide amusement to those who hear me butchering their language and that the easiest thing to do is laugh right along with them. No nasty, stinking, rotted sugar beverages required.

      • The Diacritics 7:43 pm on January 7, 2012 Permalink | Reply

        Yup, exactly — it doesn’t matter whether you’re using alcohol or not, it’s the lack of inhibition that’s the important part!

    • David 3:07 am on December 9, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      I’m not sure that the financial success of Crazy English is necessarily backed up by any pedagogical success…

      • The Diacritics 12:53 pm on December 9, 2011 Permalink | Reply

        Fair enough. There haven’t been any studies yet on its effectiveness (as far as I could find), but many people did use the course to learn basic English before the 2008 Olympics, and they seem to have gotten through that all right. I’ll keep looking for more info.

    • Khadijah Élisabeth 12:16 pm on December 11, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Alcohol aside, one of the biggest “breakthroughs” I made in language-learning, was realizing that it DIDN’T matter if I made mistakes in front of native speakers. When I hear people speaking broken English, I don’t feel that they are stupid or inferior, I have no desire to laugh at them, but rather I’m impressed at what they do know, and the effort they are putting into learning. Applying reverse psychology, I realized that when I speak broken Arabic with my in-laws, it shouldn’t be embarassing but rather, they are likely pleased at my attempts, no matter how basic. That simple realization in itself was enough to overcome the ‘inhibition’ – no alcohol needed 🙂

      • The Diacritics 7:44 pm on January 7, 2012 Permalink | Reply

        Hmm, good point — but I wonder if English speakers are more hesitant to make language mistakes in front of others because native English speakers are often rude or impatient to non-native speakers who are struggling.

  • The Diacritics 11:59 am on December 5, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , statutory interpretation, wordplay   

    Why context matters 

    (posted by John)

    I was thinking I’d write about why context matters in the interpretation of law, but I decided I’ve been doing enough law-related things of late. Nonetheless, perhaps as a sign that I’ll never escape, it was my torts professor Guido Calabresi who made this observation in class recently. He put it this way:

    Why does context matter? Because “You should’ve passed, dummy” means something different between bridge hands and at halftime of the Superbowl. [Not to mention when visiting a potential benefactor at the hospital…]

    -Guido Calabresi

    He was indeed talking about using context to interpret laws and apply them to fact patterns. But today I’d just like to point out ten common phrases that are important to take in context:

    1. “I really need to go.” Pretty self-explanatory.
    2. “When are you getting off today?” Pardon the innuendo–let’s hope you’re talking about when they’re leaving work.
    3. “Let’s take a shot.” … on an investment? To the endzone before halftime? Or is it time to head to the bar?
    4. “He’s stupid.” This is an interesting newish bit of slang. A person can be “stupid” at something, meaning they are extraordinarily good at it. I’ve often heard it in the context of sports–someone being stupid good at basketball. I’ve even heard “He is stupid smart.”
    5. “He’s nasty” or “He’s dirty.” Correspondents of the previous example, these again are often used in the context of sports to describe someone’s extraordinary ability. They also have some obvious other meanings.
    6. “I’m late.” …
    7. “I’m sitting on something big.” If someone doesn’t know your part of the press corps…
    8. “He’s no longer with us.” A nice way of saying that someone was fired?
    9. If you’re an American in England: “She seldom wears pants to work.” Pants are the British word for underwear.
    10. “I beat her.” I hope you were playing tennis or something.

    There is much more to be said on this subject. But not by me, at least not right now. Maybe others have good phrases to add to the mix?

    • John Cowan 12:22 pm on December 5, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      You can’t really understand North American English unless you know exactly what Johnny went to the bathroom in his pants means.

  • The Diacritics 9:00 am on December 1, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , emoticon, greek, hindi, internet, , know your meme, meme, wiktionary   

    A look of disapproval 

    (Posted by Sandeep)

    In an apparent continuation of my quest of late to write about totally non-serious topics, here’s one more post topic dredged up from the dark corners of the Internet. (I owe a substantive post, and I promise it’s coming–probably not until after law school exams, though.)

    According to Know Your Meme, a new emoticon is sweeping message boards all across the world. And it’s not happy.

    The emoticon is known as the “look of disapproval,” and it’s easy to see why. Those bushy eyebrows. The flat, expressionless mouth. Those eyeballs staring right into your soul.

    But the face didn’t draw my attention for its utility — there are plenty of expressive emoticons out there. I noticed it because the character ಠ * is drawn directly from my first language, Kannada.

    The character represents the letter “ṭha,” the retroflex aspirated unvoiced consonant /ʈʰa/, for example in the word ಠಕ್ಕ ṭhakka, thief.  It is formed by curling the tongue back (a retroflex position) and striking the palate while releasing a small puff of air.

    In my previous post about Indian abugidas, I explained how most Indian alphabets are organized in a systematic chart of voicing, aspiration, and tongue position. The letter ṭha appears after the unaspirated voiceless retroflex plosive ṭa (/ʈa/) and before the unaspirated and aspirated voiced retroflex plosives ḍa (/ɖa/) and ḍha (/ɖʰa/).

    The character’s form is developmentally related to the Devanagari (Hindi, Marathi, Nepali, etc.) character ठ *, which represents the same sound /ʈʰa/. Both the Kannada and Devanagari character evolved from the Brahmi character O. The Brahmi character may, in turn, have evolved (although this is disputed) from the Phoenician character letter teth (to the right), which also gave rise to the Greek letter θ, theta.

    In Ancient Greek, θ represented the aspirated voiceless dental plosive /t̪ʰ/ but Modern Greek uses a voiceless dental fricative /θ/ (English “thin”). Some Indian linguists believe that Phoenician teth also gave rise to the characters for the aspirated voiceless dental plosive (identical to the Ancient Greek pronunciation of theta) characters in Kannada (ಥ *) and Hindi (थ *) as well.

    Anyway, it’s pretty amusing to what lengths people have taken the ಠ_ಠ meme. One woman even created a pillow so she could express her disapproval all the time.

    While it bothers me that few people know where the character comes from (a message board I saw suggested “Indian,” “Malaysian or something equally ethnic,” and Telugu before someone pointed out that it was from Kannada), it’s probably all harmless fun. Wiktionary has an entry on the emoticon and has a proper etymology. There’s a page dedicated to it on Facebook. Someone also designed a website where the eyes follow your mouse around.

    This is all bizarre to me. But I guess the letter does look like an eye. And it’s not like other languages’ characters are immune to becoming emoticons (a current favorite: (ノ° 益 °)ノ彡┻━┻, which uses the Chinese characters yì and shān).

    I guess this means I hesitantly approve. (Is there an emoticon for that?)


    *- Some people, mostly Mac users, don’t have Indian language functionality. Just in case, here is what each of the characters looks like.

    Kannada ṭha (unvoiced aspirated retroflex plosive): 

    Kannada tha (unvoiced aspirated dental plosive): 

    Hindi ṭha (unvoiced aspirated retroflex plosive): 

    Hindi tha (unvoiced aspirated dental plosive): 

    • stuartnz 2:32 pm on December 1, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      When learning to read Gurmukhi, I was delighted to see that ” ठ ” is exactly the same in that script – why the Gurus decided they needed a new script for Panjabi when Devanagari does just fine is beyond me, but at least that one letter made the cut.

      • johnwcowan 12:53 pm on December 8, 2011 Permalink | Reply

        Gurmukhi was not an ad hoc invention, nor is it derived from Nagari. The scripts have a common ancestor in Brahmi, to be sure, but represent centuries of independent evolution.

        • stuartnz 1:47 pm on December 8, 2011 Permalink

          I know it’s not derived from devanagari, although some of its characters are taken from it and others were consciously influenced by it. Although the script as a whole is a development of that used for a language spoken prior to “modern” Panjabi, the gurus DID codify, for want of of a better word, the current Gurmukhi script, and that at a time when there was already a perfectly serviceable alternative, one that Hindi, Nepali, Marathi et al. have all found works just fine. At least from the point of view of this lay learner, who loves the simplicity and clarity of devanagari.

    • pam 9:27 am on January 4, 2012 Permalink | Reply

      sandeep! I am loving this meme. i thought you might enjoy this mandarin character, which deserves a meme all of its own (just read about it on wikipedia. it’s already had its moment in the sun):

      pronounced “jiong” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jiong
      used as an emoticon because it looks like a sad face with wailing mouth and downturned eyebrows. 😀
      better yet
      (sad man kneeling on ground).

    • mbquilts 10:28 pm on September 15, 2012 Permalink | Reply

      Thanks for this – I went and immediately put kannada keyboard into my list – it’s quite easy on macs really. there’s a qwerty and non-qwerty version right in system preferences!

  • The Diacritics 11:43 am on November 28, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: chaucer, , language and gender, new york times, on language, , singular they,   

    They, their, and them 

    (posted by John)

    We all use ‘they’ as a singular pronoun when we want to be gender-neutral. It’s so common these days that we hardly notice it, and nobody has ever corrected me when I’ve said ‘they’ in conversation. But most of us have been told not to use ‘they’ as a singular pronoun when we’re writing something at all formal. As it turns out, though, we are in good company. The singular ‘they’ has been around for a long time, and it’s been used by some of history’s most famous and well-respected authors. Geoffrey Chaucer is credited by many as the first major author to use ‘they’ as a singular pronoun, albeit writing in Middle English.

    And whose fyndeth hym out of swich blame. / They wol come up . . .

    -Chaucer, “The Pardoner’s Prologue”

    Chaucer is credited with the first use of singular 'they.'

    This was all the way back at the end of the 14th century. And since then, according to the Merriam Webster Dictionary of English Usage, a number of other famous writers have done the same, including Shakespeare, Lord Byron, and Jane Austen.  The NY Times’ On Language cites more—Dickens, Eliot, and Trollope, among others.

    “And every one to rest themselves betake.”

    -Shakespeare, The Rape of Lucrece, 1594

    “Nobody here seems to look into an Author, ancient or modern, if they can avoid it”

    -Lord Byron, letter, 1805

    “I would have everybody marry if they can do it properly.”

    -Jane Austen, Mansfield Park, 1814

    Nevertheless, most ‘purists’ agree that the traditionally correct way to use a singular pronoun in ‘neutral’ situations is to use the masculine ‘he.’ This ends up at least sounding fine in most places. But Merriam-Webster points out that it is “awkward at best” to use ‘he’ in certain instances, for example when the pronoun’s antecedents are both male and female.

    “She and Louis had a game—who could find the ugliest photograph of himself.”

    -Joseph Lash, Eleanor and Franklin (in Reader’s Digest)

    “. . . the ideal that every boy and girl should be so equipped that he shall not be handicapped in his struggle for social progress.”

    -C.C. Fries, American English Grammar, 1940 (in Reader’s Digest)

    Reread those two examples with ‘they,’ ‘their,’ and ‘them,’ and see for yourself how much better they sound.

    Interestingly enough, the Times’ On Language credits a feminist grammar teacher by the name of Anne Fisher with popularizing the use of ‘he’ as the neutral pronoun.

     “If any single person is responsible for this male-centric usage, it’s Anne Fisher, an 18th-century British schoolmistress and the first woman to write an English grammar book, according to the sociohistorical linguist Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade. Fisher’s popular guide, “A New Grammar” (1745), ran to more than 30 editions, making it one of the most successful grammars of its time. More important, it’s believed to be the first to say that the pronoun he should apply to both sexes.”

    On Language, Patricia O’Connor and Stewart Kellerman, July 21, 2009

    For many, it’s not just an issue of sounding awkward in certain contexts. It is a major point of contention that the so-called ‘neutral’ pronoun is actually masculine–call it a symbol of continued male dominance in a world that should instead be striving for equality between the genders. And it without doubt sounds sexist to say that “Everyone should have his fair share” or “Everyone should be allowed to assert his rights.”

    However, attempts to find a good gender-neutral pronoun that’s not ‘they’ have been relatively futile. The On Lanugage article discusses a wave of Twitter-using grammarians tweeting about some of them, like hiser or shhe. I’ve also heard zhe (that first sound zh is supposed to be [ʒ] in IPA, like the first sound in the French name Jacques). None of these seem particularly satisfactory to me though.

    One frustrated tweeter agreed, simply saying “Damn you, English language!” — I guess everybody’s entitled to their (his? zheir?) own opinion, but maybe we should just be happy with what we’ve got, and what we’ve got is definitively ‘they.’

    Like I said, lots of people have an opinion on this issue. I hope my position is clear enough, but I would be interested to learn what other people think. Also, if anyone has any suggestions for, or has heard other good versions of, a gender-neutral pronoun, let us know! 

    • johnwcowan 11:54 am on November 28, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      “Man is the only animal who menstruates.” –old biology textbook

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