Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder

What does it mean for a word to be beautiful? That question is what Robert Beard (Dr. Goodword) tackled when he compiled the list of the 100 most beautiful words in the English language.

After looking through the words, I am guessing he was going for sound and not meaning; otherwise, words like beleaguer and untoward surely wouldn't have made the list. But there must have been more than just sound being considered because words like bucolic and ripple just don't sound any more "beautiful" to me than other words that didn't make the cut.

I would imagine that most people would find less common words to be more beautiful than more common ones (after all, people tend to be more attracted by the things they don't encounter as often), and many English speakers would probably find borrowed words more beautiful than native Germanic words (I'm going with the foreign-is-exotic-and-thus-beautiful theory on that one). I've long been fond of words like facetious, quotidian, felicity, draconian, stygian, inveigle, fastidious, melodic, and phenomena because of the way they roll off the tongue--their meaning doesn't add beauty or intrigue (especially words like quotidian, stygian, and draconian), but they sound nice to me. It's entirely subjective, though--I can't say why one word sounds "pretty" but another doesn't. And the words that sound pretty to me probably don't sound pretty to other people. All these examples are of English, yet other languages have words that can be deemed as more beautiful than others by its speakers or by its learners. I rather enjoyed saying αληθεια and αμαξια while learning Ancient Greek (pardon my lack of diacritics on the words)--even moreso than the other words I learned.

If you read the description that's on the website, Dr. Goodword wants to help people beautify their language use, and yet I'm not sure what it means to have beautiful language. What do you think? Can words be beautiful? And if they can, what makes one word more beautiful than another? And, more importantly, what words do you find "beautiful"?

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Crazy Measurements

Americans have long been the oddballs in the measurement world with our inability to accept the universal measurements like grams and meters, preferring instead our feet and inches and pounds. In fact, if someone tells me something in 3 centimeters, it won't mean much to me until they say it's just over an inch. You can tell me you ran 10 kilometers, but I won't really be impressed until I figure out that's just over 6 miles. We like our measuring units that we've grown to love even if we don't fully understand them (what's an acre, anyway?).

I'm rather fond of our measuring system, but I might be willing to add new units of measurement to that system, especially if they're anything like these that were posted on the Mental Floss blog. Now I can say, with pride, that I am roughly one smoot tall. That sounds so much cooler than 5'7".

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Conlanging, how I love thee

Since I was a kid, invented languages have been near and dear to my heart; in fact, I attempted to invent my own language (with very little success) when I was young, and then I grew up to teach a course on invented languages, for which I finally invented my own language. In the spirit of sharing the love of invented languages, I am sharing these six very cool websites about or promoting invented languages:

The first five are about specific invented languages while the last link is for anyone interested in becoming a conlanger (that is, someone who invents languages (or constructs them)). There are many, many more websites about invented languages, but these are some of the most helpful for anyone interested in a specific language or in what goes on behind the scenes with inventing a language.

As I'm closing this post, I realized I focused solely on creative invented languages, but I'd be remiss if I didn't at least mention that some languages were constructed to serve as auxiliary languages, such as Esperanto. While such languages are interesting in their own right, I think the fictional languages have more life because they're meant to reflect an entire culture of a fictionalized civilization. I will also say that while I have never learned to speak any of these languages, I can spend hours learning about them metalinguistically without once getting bored.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

British vs. American

The other day I stumbled across the Best of British website, which provides a rather large list of British slang words defined for us Americans who don't know how to speak British. Some of the funniest ones were blow me and blow off, but there are some other great entries. I have no idea how accurate it is, but it's great fun to go through.

The website reminds me of when Ellen Degeneres had Hugh Laurie on her show and held a contest of sorts to see who could understand more slang--Hugh gave Ellen examples of British slang, and she had to guess the words' meanings; Ellen gave Hugh examples of American slang, and he had to guess the words' meanings. You can see the video below, or you can go here and see it on YouTube.

So let's table ideas on slang words and waffle on about sweet fanny adams until we're zonked or until some bladdered tosser who's legging it brasses us off by interrupting our chin wag. It'll be awesome! (Anyone who's British can feel free to openly mock my inability to apply newly learned slang correctly.)

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Let's verb that

A poem has been floating around in cyberspace about the "Verbing of America" with examples of verbalized nouns. The point of the poem is to show how enigmatic our language is in selecting which nouns can be used as verbs, and if they are used as verbs, what their meaning will be. I highly suggest reading through the entire poem; an example stanza is below:

If when we change a noun to verb
To come up with our `verbing,'
Why can't I, when I'm using herbs,
Refer to it as herbing?

It is rather intriguing to think of what can or cannot be used as a verb. I can friend someone (i can even unfriend someone), but I don't think I can boyfriend or husband someone. I can Facebook someone, but I can't Twitter or MySpace someone. I can Google a word or topic, but I can't Yahoo or Bing anything. I can Netflix a movie, but I sure wouldn't Blockbuster a movie. I can DVR or Tivo a show, but I never VCRed anything when I recorded shows via a VHS tape (for that matter, I've never VHSed anything).

It's no wonder non-native English speakers get lost in our vocabulary. These examples (and so many more) show how arbitrary the process is in deciding which nouns can be functionally shifted to be used as verbs.

What other instances of verbed words can you think of?

Monday, November 7, 2011

How linguists play telephone

Do you remember that classic game of telephone that most of us played when we were younger? It's that game where one person starts by whispering a line into someone else's ear. It could be something like I think she needs to wear a blue blouse tomorrow. It gets whispered from one person to the next until it reaches the last person in line, who says what (s)he heard out loud to the rest of the group. By the time it gets to the end, the sentence might have turned into something like She sees a blue mouse and wants to borrow it. Usually some of the same sounds stay in the words, but it's difficult to hear someone whispering in your ear, especially when there are usually anticipatory giggles erupting all around you as the other kids are waiting to see what the sentence will turn into. If you've never played it before, you should give it a go. You never know what stress relief playing a game of telephone might bring.

Pamela Fox, who must be a linguist--or at least must be one at heart, came up with a new version of telephone: Translation Telephone. When you go to the website, you'll see a text box; type a sentence into that text box and hit the "Go!" button right next to it. Your sentence will be translated (by Google Translate) into a different language and then from that language into another language, and from that language into yet another language... until it has been translated into 20 different languages. After the 20th language, it will get translated back into English for your amusement. Keep in mind that the chain of translation is being done by a machine, so it's not perfect, and also keep in mind that the translation is going from language to language and not from your original sentence into 20 different languages. Along the way, your sentence is going to get, um, misshapen, if you will. By the time your sentence comes back out of the translation telephone game, it will most likely look quite different.

For example, I typed the following sentence into the text box: I just drew a ghost for my son on his paper, and he colored it black. I waited (with some anticipatory giggling) and watched as it went from English to Catalan to Chinese to Albanian and on and on until it was finally translated back into English. The end result?
I have my thesis, my son, his spirit, and he was black.
After laughing, I can go back and trace through the languages I know enough of to see where the sentence started going wrong (ghost, as you might imagine is translated quite differently, depending on the language). You can see the whole train of translation here. Every time you do a translation, the languages and order of those languages will differ, which makes this even more fun.

What makes this priceless is that no machine will translate perfectly from one language to the next and that no two languages will word a sentence with the exact same words that have the exact same meaning, leaving some ambiguity for the next translation.

After you do some translation telephone games of your own, you should share your end results in the comments so we can all get a laugh!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Fun with punctuation?!

I can't even say how happy the (nonstandard) interrobang makes me. Who knew punctuation could be so much fun‽

Punctuation is only peripheral to the study of linguistics--punctuation is really just a standard set of conventions for breaking up and marking written language. While punctuation may not be central to linguistic study, it is interesting to see how the conventions of punctuation change and to find possibilities for new punctuation marks.

For example, I'm not sure when the current love affair with exclamation points began, but I see more and more students thinking academic writing can be spiced up by an exclamation point or three and that question marks are frequently followed by exclamation points. I also like how things......... that have no need of ellipses........ receive more than their fair share!!!!! Punctuation appears to be one more way people are playing with trying to put more contextual (or perhaps perceptual?) meaning into written language.

I don't know if the interrobang will ever become standard, but it would be handy if it did. It makes the punctuation at the end of a surprising question much more efficient.