Cataloguing lost languages in New York

NYTimes.com has a pretty touching article this morning about linguistic research in New York City.

Many small immigrant groups there are the largest speech communities remaining for their rare languages. Linguists are combing these enclaves and recording the speech of some of the last surviving users of dozens of languages.

It was an interesting thought experiment for me to wonder what it would be like to be the last speaker of a language. What would that language mean to you? How would you teach it to your kids, and why?

And from the linguists' viewpoint, there's obviously value in saving a record of the diversity of these languages, especially if globalization really is the threat that some imagine. But there's much more to a language than what technology allows us to capture. One of the researchers puts it well:
“It’s hard to use a word like preserve with a language,” said Robert Holman, who teaches at Columbia and New York University ... “It’s not like putting jelly in a jar. A language is used. Language is consciousness. Everybody wants to speak English, but those lullabies that allow you to go to sleep at night and dream — that’s what we’re talking about.”


Dude, what's the meaning of 420?

Normal Joint DiagramThe internet is abuzz this 4/20 with stories of high-class weed smoking promotional events in California and college pot heads run amok.

But HuffingtonPost has a great article, claiming to tell the 'true story' of the origin of the term that connects pot smoking to April 20, and 4:20pm.

While I, like many people, always thought that 420 was a reference to the police code for the crime of smoking pot, the HuffPo article traces the term to a group of teenagers known as the 'Waldos' in Marin County, Ca., through their association with the Grateful Dead, and out into the mainstream via High Times magazine.

It's always interesting to contemplate how a term, especially one that's necessarily associated with a subculture (because of its illegality), becomes widespread. People often make half-hearted attempts to 'start' a slang term, and have it become a 'big thing.' But I think the meandering, luck-filled tale depicted here shows just how difficult it is to do something like this intentionally. You would have to have a group that was already dedicated to using the term casually -- in this case, the Waldos used the term more because it was a convenient euphemism that authority figures didn't recognize -- and then they would have to have social access to some important cultural group like a band, or a magazine, who would only adopt the phrase if it was useful and genuinely being used -- not pushed.

Besides that, most users of the phrase would never know the true origin story, and certainly wouldn't associate it with the individuals that started it. The Waldos have lived in relative obscurity all this time, despite reaching out to High Times to claim the term at some point. And even with the prestige an article like this one finally brings, as one of the Waldos says, "We never made a dime on the thing".


Breaking news: Scrabble to allow proper nouns

Well, I am really torn about this one.

Mattel has announced that the new Scrabble rules, out in July, will allow ... sigh... proper nouns. On the one hand, change is inevitable, and I'm generally in favor of increased laxity in prescriptive grammar rules. On the other hand, as I've written before, Scrabble is a game, and as such, has to have an arbitrary set of rules designed to govern it in the way that makes it most pleasant to play.

That arbitrary rule set is based on the dictionary, which is a nice leveler. In theory, everyone could have the same access to the dictionary, and it provides arbitration on questions of spelling, pluralization, etc. Proper nouns generally don't have such an authority. For example, how is Al Qaeda spelled? Each large newspaper has determined a set spelling, but there are several different accepted versions. Is it one word or two? Is it disallowed because it's transliterated? Or because it is a foreign word? What proper noun isn't, ultimately, a foreign word?!

Granted, I haven't seen the new rules yet. Maybe Mattel has a way of resolving these looming arguments, but I'm having trouble imagining how such questions could be easily settled about proper nouns.

So it appears I've come down on the side of 'shocked and appalled'. If meaning is use, then maybe by continuing to use the old rules, we can maintain their legitimacy.


Types of bitches

I was just directed to a hilarious post over at 'And I am Not Lying', called 'Types of Bitches', about a list written by third graders at an inner-city Washington DC school, detailing almost 100 types of bitches.

I'm blown away by the ingenuity of whoever wrote this. No way I could come up with that many types of bitches (or most things, for that matter) if I needed to. Clearly, these are kids who are absorbing a ton of language, and remembering it and recombining it at an impressive rate. I think we rarely see written examples of that.

But the real linguistic gem is the blogger's subsequent post, analyzing the comments people (presumably mostly adult, educated people) left on the original post. The blogger and some of the commenters he quotes really seem to get that a language prejudice issue arose out of this.
Stop being so judgemental. Damning her, her values, her upbringing, her likely future is ridiculous. She might be a “reflection of our future” but these are just a few sheets of paper not a manifesto or a clear indicator of a life rife with turmoil.
This is language practice -- a big part of what kids do with words is categorize, recombine -- test it out. It might tell us something about what the author hears a lot, but I don't think it tells us too much else about her. Certainly not that the "kid has issues", as one commenter put it. These are probably really powerful words in this kid's community -- words that let people exclude each other and seem better than each other, for example. What kid wouldn't want to play with that?


The Language of Signs on Slate

Slate is running a really nice series of articles about signage this week.

Road signs are one of the, well, sign systems that got invented usage started, so I'm excited to see them examined in depth.

The first part in the series discusses the guy at left, who dressed up as a Caltrans worker and posted his own interstate sign because he was so fed up with the poor signage.

The second part provides an neat tour and analysis of what can go wrong in a poor sign system. I'm also looking forward to part four, about the informal maps we draw each other. These semiotic systems all fall under the heading of 'wayfinding', which is not just about making nice signs, but rather covers the whole science of how people will use signs to find their way. Wayfinding designers consider common use cases and other possible routes users might take -- a lot of the same steps user interface designers go through when planning a web site.

One of the most interesting things about linguistics and semiotics is the fact that people use language systems almost unconsciously (until the systems fail). That's the starting point of the Slate article ('They're the most useful thing you pay no attention to.'), so I'm already on board.

Thanks to Sonia for sending this over.


Tomorrow is National Grammar Day

Not sure how excited to be about this, but I suppose, if invented usage celebrates any day, it should celebrate National Grammar Day.

It's certainly nice to see that the usage blog community is alive and well -- I found out via twitter about this grammar limerick contest.

I'm entertained enough that I will participate by pretending it's about cognitive grammar, and maybe grammatology, rather than the pedantic lack-of-error grammar and a celebration of cringes. I intend to have a grammartini, at the very least.

(Thanks to Maveric for the tip!)

Update: Unfortunately, his week is also National Procrastination Week, so grammar will have to wait.



"Prisencolinensinainciusol" is a song composed by Adriano Celentano, and performed by Celentano and Raffaella CarrĂ . It was first released as a single on November 3, 1972, later also on his album Nostalrock. The lyrics are pure gibberish, intended to sound like American English as heard by a non English-speaker. In an interview, Celentano explains that the song is about "incommunicability" because in modern times people are not able to communicate to each other anymore. He added the only word we need is "prisencolinensinainciusol" which is supposed to stand for "universal love." (from wikipedia)