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Echoes and Mirrors » linguistics

Archive for the ‘linguistics’ Category


Sunday, August 10th, 2014

From Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch:

“Are you vexed with me?” Family language: vexed. A word Andy had used when we were children.

Seems like a bit of Lampshade Hanging used to make you ignore that word — vexed — rather than for a particular detail or plot point (some of which require a pretty solid suspension of disbelief in this novel). It’s almost as if Tartt was adamant she would use this word and would justify it any way she could. It’s an indulgence, and one that I think works.

I say good on her for it, too. That line made me chuckle as much as it did strike me as an interesting use of trope.

What may be most interesting to me about it, though, is the fact that a line like this would get ripped up in a workshop. Not that a workshop doesn’t have its value (a tremendous amount of it, in fact) but the notion of a workshop is necessarily attuned to find and destroy things like this, despite how clever it is. It is designed to destroy indulgences, especially of the linguistic variety.

I would never give up my workshop experiences (and would welcome more) but it holds true that the best lessons about writing happen outside of the classroom, and always will. Mostly, they happen while reading.


In Which I Ponder Language and Philosophy, Causing Me to Nerdgasm Publicly… Again

Monday, August 22nd, 2011

Language is fine; people are the problem

It is neither rational nor moral to suggest that words have some—let me risk lifting a word from Dr. Hart’s field—ousia or Platonic essence. Words mean only what people choose them to mean. That is precisely why nice no longer means “lewd.” Transpire came to mean something in English beyond its roots in Latin, from “giving off breath or vapor” to “coming to light.” And it is increasingly in use meaning “occur.” Over time, the vulgar, who created English in the first place, have their way.

This is essentially what Wittgenstein elucidates in his Philosophical Investigations: that words do not have any intrinsic meaning, but only gain meaning through use. Although Wittgenstein is not mentioned in the debate, the points their arguing are Wittgensteinian in nature.

To insist that words are intrinsically bound to their meaning is a referentialist argument (which some may recall is the basis for the Tractatus) and leads to paradoxes that wind up mucking up any rational explanations for anything. This is ethically unsound as it produces a situation where the word ‘ethic’ must refer to some thing that is ethical, the essence of ethics. Which, if we disregard that the word necessarily refers to some thing, but understand that the word simply means what we intend it to mean, through its use, then we arrive at a more truthful meaning of the word. That meaning, however, is fluid, not fixed.


Glenn Beck rumours?

Wednesday, October 21st, 2009

This Fark.com thread is making me all sorts of stupid happy right now. The arguments about memeology (is that correct?) are funny, but the whole Glenn Beck “controversy” is pure gold.

Father_Jack 2009-10-21 02:29:18 PM
So you are saying its ok to take out an add in your hometown Newspaper saying you raped and murdered a girl in the 90s?

no, because that is slander.

but to ask an open-ended question, “DID FATHER_JACK RAPE AND MURDER A GIRL IN THE 90s?” is protected by free speech, evidently.

there’s a great daily show entry called “punctuation punditry” that calls out the whole “open ended question” sleazy yet legal way to slander. Fox News pioneered it, and now its being used by these guys against their boy.

Having to explain it sucks, but apparently some people just don’t get it.

Ctrl-Alt-Del 2009-10-21 02:45:33 PM
I Like Bread: Wait, I thought it was “murdered and raped”. But then, I guess there’d be no rape since dead girls can’t say ‘no’. Either way, it’s horrible what he did.

You mean it’s horrible what he is rumored to have done. There is currently no convincing evidence that Glenn beck raped and murdered a girl in 1990

However, his continuing refusal to even issue a simple denial of these absolutely horrific allegations does lead one to wonder, doesn’t it?

And the fact that Glenn Beck is now trying to circumvent the US justice system and use a foriegn regulatory body to quietly shut down the website that is investigating these allegations, makes it look even worse.

Glenn Beck, why won’t you just come out and simply deny these rumors? Then this whole sorry mess would just disappear. What possible reason could Glenn Beck have to NOT deny this?

A purely evil tactic. One I’ve successfully employed on a number of occasions – for bad and good, mind you -and wholly encourage the use of it.

Why is it funny though?

tuxedobob 2009-10-21 02:55:00 PM
pd771: daychilde: Also, “by using his tactics”, you acknowledge that those are his tactics. What the hell is a parody, except a satirical reportrayal of someone?

My argument is that the spite in the creation along without any wit makes not fall under the category of parody. I think John Stewart understood this, and that’s the reason he was so against it. Maybe if were in any way creative or funny I’d understand, but I know I’m not going to change any minds on this, so have at this stupidity.

I don’t know, I think it’s pretty funny to see him at the other end of his own modus operandi.

Because this is just too hilarious. Yes it is funny. Turnabout is fair play.

I personally disapprove of Glenn Beck’s socially conservative stance and fear-mongering, much the same way I disapprove of Olberman, Malkin or any other number of political pundits. But the key to their success is that they serve as a sort of Cliff’s Notes for politics to many Americans. Granted, many people need someone to boil it down and summarize the political climate into something quickly digestible. The problem is that the people doing it are ideologically polemic.

The question of whether or not Glenn Beck raped and murdered a girl in 1990 is interesting because it links the idea of the crime with the name and puts the burden of proof on Glenn Beck. This is the same reason our courts are designed to adhere to innocent until proven guilty. The panopticon does not operate in this manner. There are moral and ethical implications, but those have zero impact on the effectiveness of this tactic. Machiavelli would be proud.



Friday, October 16th, 2009

Today’s OED Word of the Day:

narcocracy, n.

1. A body of people responsible for the implementation of drug laws. rare.

1983 National Rev. (Nexis) 29 Apr. 492 The National Research Council report of June 21, 1982..was promptly suppressed by the narcocracy because it questions the efficacy of marijuana prohibition and advocates complete decriminalization and the consideration of legalization.

2. An elite or dominant group of people whose wealth derives from the trade in illegal drugs; a government or state dominated by such a group. Cf. NARCOKLEPTOCRACY n.

1985 A. HENMAN in A. Henman et al. Big Deal v. 141 Informal narcocracy would..come to mean a political system which..is governed by a legal and ideological need to appear to be suppressing its principal economic activity, the production of illicit drugs. 1987 Times 18 Dec. 7/5 The temperature has hit 20°C in Palermo this week, causing something of a problem for the wives of the new rich, the ‘narcocracy’,..itching to wear their fur coats. 1995 Arkansas Democrat-Gaz. (Nexis) 18 July 7B, It’s really disgusting… A complete sellout to the narcocracy. 2000 Bangkok Post (Nexis) 10 Dec., Colombia, to be blunt, has been known as a narcocracy for a decade.

This should be brought back into mainstream use. Also, the OED’s WOTD is fantastic and often much more interesting than anywhere else I’ve seen it.


Lake Balls

Monday, October 12th, 2009

His online company www.lakeballs.co.uk have been retailing “lake balls” for almost 10 years, but even his powers of retrieval would be challenged by the monstrous task of recovering balls from the bottom of loch.

Lake Balls sounds like a medical condition. I’m actually a bit disappointed it’s not Loch Balls.

By my own code of honor, I am now on a mission of critical importance: Introduce the phrase Lake Balls into the lexicon of slang. If I don’t see it on Urban Dictionary within the year, I will feel myself a failure.


How language affects public discourse

Wednesday, September 30th, 2009

How Schools Fail Democracy

A principal cause of this catastrophic educational failure has been the dominance within the school world of a faulty how-to theory of language mastery. Full membership in any speech community and in any democracy involves mastery not just of grammar and pronunciation, but also of commonly shared knowledge—often unspoken and unwritten—that is equally essential to communication. All effective writers and speakers have learned the convention of tacit knowledge. They know that a baseball metaphor like “he struck out” can be confidently used, but a cricket metaphor like “he was leg before” cannot. Their audience will know the name Franklin D. Roosevelt, but not necessarily Harold L. Ickes.

We cannot assume that such needed knowledge will come to everyone through the pores. Demonstrably, it has not done so. Yet the chief effort in the teaching of “reading” in the schools has been to drill students in how-to exercises like “finding the main idea” and “questioning the author” while neglecting systematic instruction in the background knowledge required for participation in the American public sphere.

Didn’t this guy get the memo? New Historicism is out, New Criticism is in. There is a problem with how we teach critical reading in high school. And the problem spills over into all language skills, resulting in this ‘language gap’ that we are now suffering from.

There are also a lot of people with strong political and economic opinions who have never read even a little bit of political philosophy or studied economics at all. And they can make a lot of noise.


Braaaaaaaaaaaaains! or How I Learned to Relax and The Remember that the Meta is Not Always Imaginary.

Friday, September 4th, 2009

Logic and language are not the same thing

It’s difficult for us to imagine what our mental lives would be like without language. Some theorists have even gone so far as to argue that language and logical thought are one and the same thing. A new brain imaging study challenges this notion by showing that logical inferences based on simple “not”, “or”, “if”, “then” terms activate a separate, though overlapping, network of brain regions compared with logical inferences based on grammatical judgements.

Martin Monti and colleagues scanned the brains of fifteen participants while they judged the accuracy of conclusions flowing from two kinds of logical argument. One kind was a more pure form of logic, such as “If both X and Z then not Y”, whilst the other kind was based on grammatical rules, such as “It was X that Y saw Z take”. The two types of inference were intended to be of comparable difficulty and to be equally valid (or invalid) but crucially only the grammatical version involved the interpretation of language-related roles such as “object” and “subject”.

Well, there goes my theory of symbiotic language virii that use humans as hosts and are the ‘source’ of our intelligence. A very neat.

Monti’s team said their findings were hard to reconcile “with the claim that language and logic are a unitary phenomenon”. Rather, they argued their results are consistent with language and logic being separate processes.

This will be in your psych 101 textbook next year.

Why Minds Are Not Like Computers

People who believe that the mind can be replicated on a computer tend to explain the mind in terms of a computer. When theorizing about the mind, especially to outsiders but also to one another, defenders of artificial intelligence (AI) often rely on computational concepts. They regularly describe the mind and brain as the “software and hardware” of thinking, the mind as a “pattern” and the brain as a “substrate,” senses as “inputs” and behaviors as “outputs,” neurons as “processing units” and synapses as “circuitry,” to give just a few common examples.

I don’t think they’re taking scale or complexity into consideration. Synapses don’t operate in a binary fashion and there are trillions of them in a human brain – computer processors only have a fraction of that.

Computers, then, have engineered layers of abstraction, each deriving its capabilities from joining together simpler instructions at a lower layer of abstraction. But each layer uses its own distinct concepts, and each layer is causally closed—meaning that it is possible to understand the behavior of one layer without recourse to the behavior of a higher or lower layer. For instance, think about your home or office computer. It has many abstraction layers, typically including (from highest to lowest): the user interface, a high-level programming language, a machine language running on the processor, the processor microarchitecture, Boolean logic gates, and transistors. Most computers will have many more layers than this, sitting between the ones listed. The higher and lower layers will likely be the most familiar to laymen: the user interface creates what you see on the screen when you interact with the computer, while Boolean logic gates and transistors give rise to the common description of the computer as “just ones and zeroes.”

The brain has more layers of abstraction and they probably aren’t mutually exclusive. But different areas of the brain are tuned to process specific things, and it operates in a very logical way. From the first article we can see that the prefrontal lobes handle logic, but language relies on other specific areas. When confronted with a grammar-logic problem, both areas are used.

I don’t have a link handy, but some scientists built a super-computer to simulate a single cortex of a rat’s brain. The thing is massive and uses a whole desktop cpu to simulate a single synapse. The brain is a computer, but on a much different scale. I think remembering the difference between a circle and a sphere is appropriate right now and remembering the adventures that took place in flatland (and flatterland) would be good.

Something tells me that the author of this article believes in dualism -that the brain and the mind are separate entities, which is a pleasant thought anyway.


Bums are like zombies, but lack the awesomeness of wanting to eat brains

Saturday, August 29th, 2009

Little guy gets stuck with homeless camp in Sacramento:

Merin said he has no ‘animus’ toward Hernandez. He called it a coincidence that he had filed the prior suit against Hernandez and now has sited a homeless camp behind his home.”

I’m not sure if it’s more in poor taste or simply unprofessional to single quote a word that somebody uses like that. It’s mocking and makes Merin sound like bourgeois trash flexing his vocabulary. Sort of like, “he could have said ‘i don’t mean to be mean-spirited’ but he chose to dime-word us instead like a pretentious lawyer douche.” (Yes, I just used dime-word as verb. That’s how I roll, bitches.)

The story seems to lean in favor of Hernandez, but it doesn’t seem clear to me that he has any sort of a claim against Merin. If the homeless are on his property, then yes, I would say he has every right to bitch. If they’re on an adjacent lot, then tough luck. California is no stranger to populism, however, and while I’m all for a safe campsite for the homeless, I’m also in favor of property rights.

A safe-haven camp ground for the homeless is much like a harm-reduction policy in relation to drug use: you can reduce the crimes related to an offense by decriminalizing the offense itself. On the other hand, you don’t provide any incentive to transition out of homelessness by rewarding an unhealthy lifestyle.

So is this post related to linuistics (diction, specifically), rhetoric or property rights? Your choice, I don’t know if I’m even coherent at this point.


I doubt the reverse is just as true

Wednesday, August 26th, 2009

On Language – Bierce’s Bugbears

And after all, why would we? We still read Conrad, Austen and Swift, a century or three later, without much difficulty; it’s reasonable to assume that the usage nits of their times were more or less the ones we’re still picking today.

Reasonable but not true, as Ambrose Bierce recently taught me. Bierce, the American journalist, satirist and Civil War memoirist, is as readable today as he was when he published “The Devil’s Dictionary” and “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” But his advice on English usage — published in 1909 as “Write It Right: A Little Blacklist of Literary Faults” — is often mysterious, perverse and bizarre.

Why was run a business “vulgar — hardly better than slang,” and dirt (for earth) “disagreeable,” and expectorate “offensive,” and electrocution “disgusting”? For a 100th-anniversary edition of the book, I set out to track down (as far as possible) the reasons behind the rules that seemed so important in 1909. Many of those rules are still in circulation, but a surprising number will probably be unfamiliar even to veteran sticklers.

Amusing stuff. Language is, and will always be, a fluid concept.


Grammar Dicks

Friday, August 21st, 2009

Grammar pet peeves:

”Across the world. Last time I checked, the world was still round. You don’t go across something round, you go around it.”

”Refer back, revert back, return back. I guess folks don’t understand that the re- prefix means back, again, anew.”

”Wa-lah. I’m not sure how it is spelled, because it is not a word. It is an uneducated person’s version of ‘voila.’ That’s French, folks. If you can’t pronounce the word, don’t use it.”


Quite amusing.

The Grammarphobia Blog: Fun and Games

Q: My husband and I have always said things like “That was such fun” or “This is so much fun.” Nowadays, I hear “That was so fun.” Is this new usage acceptable?

A: No, the usage isn’t acceptable, but it’s now so common that someday it just might be.

“Fun” is traditionally a noun (a thing, as in “We had fun”), not an adjective. So you usually wouldn’t use it as a modifier (“We had a fun day”). An exception would be when “fun” is a predicate nominative – a noun that follows a verb and modifies the subject (“This is fun”).

Because language evolves. “Fun Day” is a common noun phrase in the Army, referring to mandatory recreational events (at least where I was).