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Exciting linguistic developments of 2013


The American Dialect Society's 2013 Words of the Year (PDF) (voted on earlier this week -- "because" won, because Internet) had some fascinating entries.

I liked "Most Productive" (such as "-(el)fie: (from selfie) type of self-portrait (drelfie ‘drunk selfie,’ twofie ‘selfie with two people’)" and "Most Euphemistic" (" least untruthful: involving the smallest necessary lie (used by intelligence director James Clapper)").

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"Content" has the stink of failure (and it's a lie, besides)

Tim Bray's "Content-free" is a great piece on why the term "content" is so objectionable. He raises some good arguments, but misses my favorite one -- one of the origins of the term "content" in technical speech is the idea that you can separate the "content" of a Web-page from the "presentation." Indeed, scripts that present "content" to users are sometimes called "decorators."

Now that the Web's in its second decade of common use, it's pretty clear that "content" and "presentation" are never fully separable. This is a lesson that was already learned in other media -- for example, when movies progressed from being a single, locked-off camera recording a stage-play and instead began to integrate the limitations and the capabilities of film into the "content" of that film.

John Perry Barlow made this point well in his introduction to my essay collection Content (a title chosen for largely ironic reasons). It's also a point that David Byrne makes very well in the brilliant How Music Works, where he discusses the move to record each musician separately and mix the "content" in the studio, and how that produced a manifestly different kind of music than music where all the musicians played together.

In other words, "content" isn't just pernicious for Tim Bray's excellent reason ("'Content' has the stink of failure; of hustlers building businesses they don't actually care about"), but because it implies a harmful untruth: that there is a clean line that can be drawn between "content" and "form." Where this untruth flourishes, people who produce "content" that is, in fact, optimized for the form of "content whose form will be determined later" go about claiming that they have found the neutral, form-free, platonic ideal of content. Instead, they've constrained their content by eliminating all the form-dependent elements, and thereby constrained their ability to communicate the full range of human ideas.

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NewYearsResolution: Avoid InCaps


This year, I resolve to minimize my use of incaps when writing about commercial products and companies. An incap changes a word into a logo, and has no place in journalism or commentary -- it's branding activity that colonizes everyday communications. It's free advertising.

So: "Iphone," not "iPhone" and "Paypal," not "PayPal."

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Late sixties "Internet" brand transistor radio


Mark Hill found this Internet Radio Product Ltd-branded "Internet" radio from the late sixties in a Dutch junk-market. It's an interesting find, not least because it suggests that the official etymologies of "Internet," dating to the seventies and the Arpanet crowd, is a bit muddier than previously thought.

Was ‘Internet’ First Used For A Transistor Radio? (via M1k3y)

Because is a new, Internet-driven preposition, because grammar

The English language has a new preposition, driven by Internet conventions: "Because." It's not clear where this originates, but I like the theory that's it's a contraction of "$SOMETHING is $MESSED_UP, because, hey, politics!"

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Animated history of the English language

If you've got 10 minutes, you can learn the history of English — including some interesting background on where specific words and phrases came from. (If you don't have 10 minutes, you can also watch the whole thing one chapter at a time in less-than-two-minute segments.) Interesting note: The equal importance of both The King James Bible and early scientific publications/societies to the formation of English as we speak it today.

Video Link

Pinky and the Brain's greatest tongue-twister of all time

A reminder that Animaniacs/Pinky and the Brain were a high-water mark in kids' animation: the greatest English-language tongue-twister of all time!

Pinky and the Brain, Tongue Twister (via Reddit)

"Huh" is the universal word

"Is 'Huh?' a universal word? Conversational infrastructure and the convergent evolution of linguistic items is a new paper in PLoS One by researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, the Netherlands. The authors propose that "Huh" is a word, and that convergent evolution has driven multiple, unrelated languages to produce it. The key findings summary shows just how special and interesting this is: "Huh" is not innate (other primates don't say it), but the circumstances of its use (needing to quickly and briefly prompt another speaker to repeat herself) are universal, so languages that share no commonalities still converged on this word.

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Explaining the banned phrases in a Chinese microblogging client

LINE is a Twitter-like service chat app popular in Asia. @hirakujira discovered that its Chinese-language client, Lianwo, had a file listing 24 150 forbidden phrases that set to trigger an error reading "Your message contains sensitive words, please adjust and send again" (though this was not yet enabled). The Blocked on Weibo Tumblr has begun a series of posts listing every one of these banned phrases and explaining their context -- for example, Zhejiang’s receipt-signing Brother (浙江签单哥) refers to an embezzlement scandal involving Zhejiang's Vice Minister of Propaganda.

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Understanding NSA boss James Clapper's France-spying "denial"

NSA boss James Clapper has officially responded to the allegations that the agency intercepted 70,000,000 French phone calls with a narrowly worded, misleading denial. Tim Cushing at Techdirt does us the kremlinological service of finely parsing the NSA word-game and showing us what Clapper doesn't deny:

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Why Q was illegal in Turkey until last month

Last month, Turkey repealed its 1928 Alphabet Law, and legalized the letter Q. In a short, illuminating piece in the London Review of Books, Yasmine Searle describes the history of Romanicization of Turkish writing, which was part of a larger project to assimilate Turkish minorities by standardizing the language and its spelling, and, in the process, banning many of the keys from the left side of the typewriter.

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Tea Party insult generator

The collapse of the GOP-engineered shutdown has the Tea Party in a fury, and they're showing their wrath with a series of vicious posts to John Boehner's Facebook. The Tea Party Insult Generator teases these insults apart and recombines them to make them stronger, faster, better than before.

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Listen to a story told in a 6000-year-old extinct language

English — along with a whole host of languages spoken in Europe, India, and the Middle East — can be traced back to an ancient language that scholars call Proto Indo-European. Now, for all intents and purposes, Proto Indo-European is an imaginary language. Sort of. It's not like Klingon or anything. It is reasonable to believe it once existed. But nobody every wrote it down so we don't know exactly what "it" really was. Instead, what we know is that there are hundreds of languages that share similarities in syntax and vocabulary, suggesting that they all evolved from a common ancestor.

Of course, that very quickly leads to attempts to reconstruct what said ancestral language might have sounded like. In the track above, you can listen to University of Kentucky linguist Andrew Byrd recite a fable in reconstructed Proto Indo-European. Archaeology magazine helpfully provides a translation:

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Extreme Puritan baby-naming


As found in Curiosities of Puritan nomenclature (1888), a collection of Puritan names chosen "to remind the child about sin and pain." My favorite? "Kill-sin Pimple."

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Decoding NSA doublespeak

The Electronic Frontier Foundation's Trevor Timm has a handy guide to decoding NSA doublespeak. The spookocracy has a pathetically transparent way of lying their way out of direct questions, but the press (and, more importantly, Congress) seems incapable of detecting the low-grade BS emanating from the smoke-filled rooms. For example, when you ask the NSA if they can read Americans' email without a warrant, they reply "we cannot target Americans’ email without a warrant." The amazing thing about this stuff isn't that the NSA tries it on, but that its nominal supervision doesn't notice it. My five year old is better at this than they are.

This makes a great addition to the glossary of NSAspeak compiled by the ACLU's Jameel Jaffer and Brett Max Kaufman.

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