A great fucking explanation of expletive in-fucking-sertion

The English language is full of weird, unofficial rules that dictate certain grammatical changes for seemingly arbitrary reasons other than "it just feels right."

Consider: inserting the word "fuck" into another word for emphasis.

The Language Nerds have a great new blog post, where they look into this phenomenon that they call "expletive infixation."

One of these precise and fine-tuned rules is one called expletive infixation. How often do you hear people say un-fucking-believable, or abso-bloody-lutely? How about Phila-fucking-delphia? As you can see, this is a process whereby a profane word, such as fuckingbloodyfreaking, etc, is shoved into another word for intensification. You'd think at first glance that this is probably random; you just go ahead and insert the word somewhere. Well, no! It turns out that this process is not random and is incredibly rule-governed, systematic, and precise.

Take a look at the following examples: Fantastic: *fanta-fucking-stick. Absolutely: *Ab-fucking-solutely Independent: *Indep-fucking-endent.

Something sounds horribly wrong about the examples above, right?

It's a short post, with a succinct explanation, but it is also sufficiently de-fucking-lightful.

F***ing Insertion is Systematic, And This Is How It Works. [The Language Nerds]

Image: Loozer Boy / Flickr Read the rest

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary has officially changed the definition of "racism."

On Thursday, June 4, 2020, a 22-year-old activist named Kennedy Mitchum reached out to the publishers of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary to express her frustration with their definition of the word "racist:"

A belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.

Mitchum felt this was inadequate to fully cover the scope of systemic issues and unconscious biases that affect race relations in America. Growing up in Florissant, Missouri — just a few miles away from Ferguson — she'd grown tired of trying to explain to people that racism can come in different forms than cross burning in white hoods. It's not always a conscious, intentional, or deliberate attitude of hateful violence; it's often something more insidious. As she explained to CNN, "That definition is not representative of what is actually happening in the world. The way that racism occurs in real life is not just prejudice it's the systemic racism that is happening for a lot of black Americans."

Mitchum didn't expect to hear anything back from Merriam-Webster. But to her surprise, they responded the very next day — and after a brief back-and-forth, they were sufficiently convinced of Mitchum's point, and agreed to update the entry. "This revision would not have been made without your persistence in contacting us about this problem," wrote Editor Alex Chambers in an email. "We sincerely thank you for repeatedly writing in and apologize for the harm and offense we have caused in failing to address this issue sooner." Read the rest

What is "garbage language" and why is it so hard to avoid using?

Lawyers have their legalese. Academics have their own intra-academialogical post-linguistic theories. And it was only before the MBAs joined the fray with their own self-important syntax. If you've ever been in the sleek office setting of a start-up or some tech-savvy corporation, you've heard it. You may have even picked up on its tics to help you sound smarter, too; after all, that's how it works.

Molly Young has a great new piece at Vulture about this phenomenon, which she has coined "Garbage Language." Her article is full of insight not only into the ways that we do and don't communicate, but also how that reflects the other issues inherent in these kinds of office cultures:

[G]arbage language works because garbage is what we produce mindlessly in the course of our days and because it smells horrible and looks ugly and we don’t think about it except when we’re saying that it’s bad, as I am right now.

But unlike garbage, which we contain in wastebaskets and landfills, the hideous nature of these words — their facility to warp and impede communication — is also their purpose. Garbage language permeates the ways we think of our jobs and shapes our identities as workers. It is obvious that the point is concealment; it is less obvious what so many of us are trying to hide.

[…]

When we adopt words that connect us to a larger project — that simultaneously fold us into an institutional organism and insist on that institution’s worthiness — it is easier to pretend that our jobs are more interesting than they seem.

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A fascinating map of the most spoken languages in every US state besides English and Spanish

The United States has never had a single "official" language. While English is broadly accepted accepted as the common tongue and typically used in schooling as well as government documents, it doesn't necessarily have to be that way. Spanish is also used frequently across the country — but there are a lot more languages than that at play throughout the States.

Andy Kiersz and Ivan De Luce at Business Insider crunched some data based on the individual-level responses from the 2017 American Community Survey  assembled and published by the Minnesota Population Center's Integrated Public Use Microdata Series program, to find out what other languages are most commonly used in the United States.

There are a lot of thought-provoking takeaways from the data as presented here. Some things may seem obvious — there's a lot of French, of course, particularly in Louisiana and the states that border eastern Canada. While I didn't know that Tagalog was as popular in California and Nevada until now, I can't say I'm surprised. The abundance of Haitian Creole in Florida makes sense, too, but its presence in Delaware is much more interesting. As someone with an interest in indigenous tongues after colonization, it's somewhat comforting to see that Ilocano, Aleut-Eskimo, and Dakota/Lakota/Nakota/Sioux languages are all still hanging on. Read the rest

Dante's Hell re-imagined as linguistic sins

I just happened upon this McSweeny's post, Dante’s Nine Circles of Hell, Reimagined for Linguistic Transgressions, by poet and software engineer, John Rauschenberg, that they published a few years ago.

What did they miss? Which transgression would you move closer to Lake Cocytus?

First Circle (Limbo): Autocorrect

Here wander the otherwise virtuous souls who were forced into grievous errors by autocorrect programs. They sit in silent masturbation, only rising once every hour to chant eerie koans such as “ducking auto cat rectal.”

Second Circle: The Serial Comma

One half of this circle is populated by souls who are cursed to make arguments that nobody cares about except their own mothers, howling gorgons and the infernal mistresses of hell. The other half are cursed to make arguments that nobody cares about except their own mothers, howling gorgons, and the infernal mistresses of hell. The difference between these two situations seems to matter a lot to both halves. Neither side will listen to you when you suggest that they could avoid this level entirely.

And what does he have in the finally circle?

Ninth Circle: Literally, the Ninth Circle

It is literally the worst circle ever.

[Image: The Fifth Circle, by Stradanus, Public Domain] Read the rest

The Merriam-Webster dictionary's word of the year is...

The Merriam-Webster dictionary's word of the year is... "They." According to Merriam-Webster, online dictionary look-ups for the word "they" increased by 313% this year. Others top look-ups include "quid pro quo," "impeach," and "egregious. Makes sense. And it's great that more people are learning that the word "they" is sometimes "used to refer to a single person whose gender identity is nonbinary," according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary definition. From Merriam-Webster:

English famously lacks a gender-neutral singular pronoun to correspond neatly with singular pronouns like everyone or someone, and as a consequence they has been used for this purpose for over 600 years.

More recently, though, they has also been used to refer to one person whose gender identity is nonbinary, a sense that is increasingly common in published, edited text, as well as social media and in daily personal interactions between English speakers.

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Fun interactive way to see what words were first used in print in a particular year

Visit Merriam-Webster's "Time Traveler" and select a year from the drop-down menu. Instantly you'll see the English words that were first used in print that year! More specifically, "the date is for the earliest written or printed use that the (dictionary) editors have been able to discover."

Above are the words first used in print in 1989, the year of the very first bOING bOING print 'zine! Cybernaut! Nanobot! Cyberporn! Those sure were the good ol' daze...

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How to speak chimpanzee

Evolutionary psychologist Katja Liebal literally wrote the book on Primate Communication. A professor of developmental psychology at the Freie Universität Berlin, Liebal's research focuses "on the cognitive and communicative skills that might be uniquely human and those shared with other primate species." According to BBC Earth, Liebal observes chimps in "hopes to compile the world's first chimpanzee dictionary."

I think learning chimpanzee should be an educational requirement beginning in elementary school to prepare our children for when, y'know, they take over.

(via The Kid Should See This) Read the rest

The colonialism behind fantasy's vaguely Irish Elves

Motherfoclóir is a delightful podcast about language and linguistics as they relate to Ireland ("foclóir" being the Irish word for "dictionary," and thus completely unrelated to that homophonic English-language word you're surely thinking of, c'mon). While that might seem like a niche topic outside of the Emerald Isle herself, a recent episode tackled something that's surely on everyone's mind: those fantastical pointy-eared aristocrats known only as elves.

Specifically, it's a conversation with Irish writer Orla Ní Dhúill, whose blog about elves, Irishness, and colonialism gained a lot of traction among fantasy fans across the globe.

Growing up as a nerdy Irish-American kid, I always understood there to be something vaguely Gael-ish about elves. Even though I didn't know why. Even though I knew it didn't make sense. Even though I knew that Tolkien himself was not particularly fond of the Irish (the language, at least, if not the people). Was it because they used an cló gaelach, the insular font so often associated with Irish Gaelic? Even in my later adolescence, as I wasted my measly weekend job wages on Warhammer 40K, I couldn't help but notice the inherent Irishness in the names and terms of the mystical Eldar alien race who are basically space elves anyway (spoiler: it turns out the Eldar language is, in fact, mostly just bastardized lines from Irish Gaelic proverbs).

The podcast episode is full of insightful exchanges on language and colonialism between Ní Dhúill and host Peader Kavanagh. You can listen below, or on your preferred podcasting platform. Read the rest

Open archive of 240,000 hours' worth of talk radio, including 2.8 billion words of machine-transcription

A group of MIT Media Lab researchers have published Radiotalk, a massive corpus of talk radio audio with machine-generated transcriptions, with a total of 240,000 hours' worth of speech, marked up with machine-readable metadata. Read the rest

Because Internet: the new linguistics of informal English

Conversational language is not the same as formal language: chatter over the dinner table does not follow the same rules as a speech from a podium. Informal language follows its own fluid, fast-moving rules, and most of what we know about historic informal language has been gleaned from written fragments, like old letters and diaries -- but now, the internet has produced a wealth of linguistic data on informal language, which is explored in Canadian linguist Gretchen McCulloch's new book, Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language. Read the rest

Guess what languages these people are speaking

These people are pretty bad at recognizing different languages. And so am I.

Bonus facts I happened to find on Ethnologue, a fascinating directory of languages: Apparently there are more than 7,000 living languages in the world. Half the world's population speaks one of the top 23 most-used languages, with the top five being Chinese, Spanish, English, Arabic, and Hindi. One-third of the 7,000 languages are endangered, "that is, loss of all individuals who continue to identify the language as being related to their identity." Read the rest

You can hear the smile in someone's voice even when you can't

We often unconsciously mirror the behavior of people we interact with. This can include mirroring posture, gestures, and voice patterns. A recent paper in Current Biology reports that we can mirror a smile based on speech alone, and even do so without actually detecting the smile.

The researchers applied a signal processing technique for altering recorded speech under a neutral mouth position to what it would have sounded like had the speaker been smiling. They played 60 such recordings (some manipulated, some not) to 35 subjects, and asked them to judge whether the speaker was smiling. The researchers also measured the responses of two subject muscle groups while listening, the zygomatic (smiling) muscles and the corrugator (frowning) muscles.

When the subjects correctly reported neutral expression or smiling in the speech, both of their muscle groups accurately mirrored the speech while listening (e.g., for smiling speakers, zygomatic tensing and corrugator relaxing). Interestingly, even when the subjects were wrong, their zygomatic muscles still mirrored correctly. This was not true for the corrugators, which instead reflected the subjects' report.

Our mirroring capabilities go well beyond what we see, or even perceive. Read the rest

How Amazonian drum communication sounds (and acts) like human speech

In the forests of the Amazon, West Africa, and Asia, villagers often beat on large drums to send messages miles away. While you may think that the patterns are similar to Morse Code, they're actually simplified versions of the villagers' spoken languages, "without consonants or vowels but with enough connection to the original language that speakers can reliably interpret what they mean." In newly published research, University of Cologne linguist Frank Seifart and his colleagues reveal how it's done. From Science:

All but one of the 20 or so drummed speech systems come from tonal languages, including Yoruba in Nigeria, Banda-Linda in the Central African Republic, and Chin in Myanmar. Spoken Bora has two tones, which are recreated using two different drums made from hollowed logs, called manguaré. The thinner “male” has a higher tone, and the thicker “female” has a lower one.

But tone alone isn’t enough to distinguish all the words a drummer might want to say. So Seifart and his colleagues looked at what he calls a “neglected” quality in linguistics—-rhythm...

The intervals between beats changed in length depending on the sounds that followed each vowel. If a sound segment consisted of just one vowel, the time after the beat was quite short. But if that vowel was followed by a consonant, the time after the beat went up an average of 80 milliseconds. Two vowels followed by a consonant added another 40 milliseconds. And a vowel followed by two consonants added a final 30 milliseconds.

These short durations are enough to distinguish the drummed messages for “go fishing” and “bring firewood,” which are identical in tone, but not in their ordering of consonants and vowels.

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Why swearing can be a good fucking way to sound convincing

Emma Byrne, a science writer and artificial intelligence researcher, has just published a new book called Swearing is Good for You: The Amazing Science of Bad Language and it sounds fucking great. "If you ask people what they think about swearing, they tend to insist that it diminishes the speaker’s credibility and persuasiveness—-especially if the speaker is a woman," Byrne writes. But actually, a presenter's swears can sometimes make them damn more convincing. From Smithsonian:

In the book, Byrne cites one study that examined the rhetorical effects of swearing on an audience that was already sympathetic to the speaker’s message. For the study, psychologists Cory Scherer of Penn State University and Brad Sagarin from Northern Illinois University showed videotaped speeches to 88 undergraduate students. Participants listened to one of three different versions of a speech about lowering tuition rates at a university—one with no swearing, one that had a “damn” thrown in the middle, and one that opened with a “damn.” The rest of the speech was unchanged.

“The students who saw the video with the swearing at the beginning or in the middle rated the speaker as more intense, but no less credible, than the ones who saw the speech with no swearing,” Byrne summarizes in her book. “What’s more, the students who saw the videos with the swearing were significantly more in favor of lowering tuition fees after seeing the video than the students who didn’t hear the swear word.”

Byrne delineates between what she calls propositional swearing, which is deliberate and planned, and non-propositional swearing, which can happen when we’re surprised, or among friends or confidants.

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Watch Reese Witherspoon teach you some southern slang

Dern tootin', Reese! (Vanity Fair)

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The war over apostrophes in Kazakhstan's new alphabet

There's a fascinating linguistic fight brewing in Kazakhstan, due to the president's decision to adopt a new alphabet for writing their language, Kazakh.

The problem? It's got too many apostrophes!

For decades, Kazakhs have used the Cyrillic alphabet, which was imposed on them by the USSR back in the 30s. Now that Kazakhstan has started moving away from Russia -- including making Kazakh more central in education and public life -- the president decided he wanted to adopt a new alphabet, too. He wanted it based on the Latin one.

But! Kazakh has many unique sounds that can't be easily denoted using a Latin-style alphabet.

Kazakhstan's neighbors solved that problem by following the example of Turkey, where they use umlauts and phonetic symbols. But Kazkhstan's president didn't want that -- and instead has pushed for the use of tons of apostrophes instead.

Kazakhstan's linguists intellectuals think this is nuts, as the New York Times reports:

The Republic of Kazakhstan, for example, will be written in Kazakh as Qazaqstan Respy’bli’kasy.

Others complained the use of apostrophes will make it impossible to do Google searches for many Kazakh words or to create hashtags on Twitter.

“Nobody knows where he got this terrible idea from,” said Timur Kocaoglu, a professor of international relations and Turkish studies at Michigan State, who visited Kazakhstan last year. “Kazakh intellectuals are all laughing and asking: How can you read anything written like this?”

The proposed script, he said, “makes your eyes hurt.” [snip]

Under this new system, the Kazakh word for cherry will be written as s’i’i’e, and pronounced she-ee-ye.

Read the rest

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