McWhorter’s Similes

When Mike Vuolo and Bob Garfield said they would be abandoning Lexicon Valley, my beloved linguistics podcast, for other projects, I was crestfallen. Not even withstanding the fascinating content of the show, half of the reason I listen is for that comic pairing. Who could justifiably replace them?

Though the name John McWhorter didn’t mean anything at the time, the Columbia Professor has acquitted himself as the solo host well, and uniquely so. The best moments of these episodes is when his speech breaks out into a sort of trot: fast enough that it stops sounding like a monologue and starts sounding like a manic brainiac talking to himself. In these moments, he fires off similes that make you stop what you’re doing and rewind… just to make sure you heard him right. Here’s a sampling.

Feb-RU-ary sounds like a shoe on the wrong foot.

Why does English put “is” in simple sentences like “she is my sister?” Other languages don’t do it. Little things get stuck into sentences, like food getting caught in your teeth.

English kept becoming easier. Things just started blowing away as if English was a sick tree and the leaves were falling off.

But of course “yall” and “youse” and “yuns” are things that we giggle at. If you’re synaestheitc, you think of “yall” and “youse” and “yuns” as smelling like a sandwich full of cured meats with various sauces. It’s somehow not something that you bring out for formal occasions.

“He” probably did not become “she” because “h” gradually came to be pronounced “sh.” There was some support for the case but it was always thin. It was like a fence blowing in a tornado.

Languages don’t borrow pronouns much [from each other]. it’s kind of like people don’t use each other’s toothbrushes very much.

If I say “tell each student that they can hand in their paper tomorrow,” is that wrong because “they” is plural when we all understand that in that particular usage “they” is singular? Of course, some of us like to keep our food apart on the plate. I am one of those people, actually….

When you have an “r” at the end of a syllable, it’s kind of like fingernails, they get worn down. Because sounds are always changing like clouds are always blowing away in the sky.

So, “he,” “she,” “it:” it used to be “he,” “heo,” and then, was it “it”? No, it was tidy. They all began with “h.” They were ducks in a row. Quack. It was “he” “heo”… “hit.”

26057828-john-mcwhorter-yall

Keep it up, McWhorter.

Irony rescues Drama

There is a phenomenon in linguistics that I cannot remember the name of. It happens when a young, contemporary word slowly expands its usage and meaning until it replaces its predecessor. In other words, an offspring overthrows its parent. It isn’t universally true, but it is deliciously borne of the dynamics of culture, making it something of a moving target and not easily broken down by rules or historical facts (as linguists would like). Have I lost everyone? Case study coming up.

The word “drama” has, as we can expect, roots in Greek. Originally taken from the verb “to act,” i.e. to perform an action, a noun was created that described this very fundamental concept of carrying out something through something else. “Drama,” in its lineage, speaks to the very nature of human existence: we are agents of change.

Theatrical scene on a Greek amphora, c. 6th century BC. Property of the British Museum. Found on uncrated.wordpress.com.

In the early 19th century, as live music and acting began to find common ground, there came an increase in the number of shows using the cuff-and-collar origins of opera, chamber concerti, etc. but with a populist spin. The difference between these and what we normally call “folk music” is that this type of performance was subversive, appealing to the growing middle class who were educated enough to acknowledge the significance of highbrow music but were more prone to make merry in local watering holes.

A gap began to grow between “serious” and “popular” forms of the performing arts. In the latter case, music played the role of accompanying actors. Sometimes they read poetry, sometimes they acted scenes, often they were loosely structured, more sketches than whole narrative constructions– sound familiar? It was the hip-hop of its day. Drama plus an incidental melody became known as “melodrama” (Greek: melo+drama = song+acting). Since this was regarded as lowbrow entertainment, the reputation stuck.

“A Tale Of Mystery” by dramatist Thomas Holcroft, 1802. One of the first English melo-drames. Image via archive.org.

This model stayed quite adaptable through developments in film, recording, and gathering. Once the original types of performance fell out of fashion, things like films replaced them, retaining short narrative structure and the reliance on music. But the name remained. Fast forward to today, and the definition of “melodrama” is simply a sensationalist performance of any kind. That definition appears above the original in the dictionary. And now the final step: distilled in this episode of Laguna Biotch from Mad TV.

The word “drama” here is now used to describe a social situation with an excess of sensationalism like plot twists and emotional outbursts. “Drama” has replaced “melodrama.” It’s not a simple shortening of the latter. Perhaps it is a way of injecting more meaning into our words by reviving or reappropriating existing words. In this instance, we need a word to meaningfully describe our obsession with teenage social mores, which up close are frequently theater-worthy. To reenact that theater, to give ourselves the agency to observe and critique that world, we have to give new agency to old words. This is a form of irony, where perhaps an earnest presentation of the actions conceals a subversive and critical undertone. Irony ranks high among modernity’s pastimes, and here it comes to the rescue of language, giving new life to “drama” by injecting it with the meaning of “melodrama.”

My secret thanks to Slate’s Lexicon Valley podcast, hosted by Mike Vuolo and Bob Garfield, which was in my mind throughout this writing. The way they structure and unfold their linguistic research was my template.

Politics of the English Language

A must-read. There are strong lessons here for poets and speech-writers in equal measure. Unfortunately, what Charlotte, Ezequiel, and I recently concluded on the definition of poetry– that it is the economy of language– applies here to any form of writing at all. Just the way it should be.
 
i. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
ii. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
iii. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
iv. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
v. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
vi. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
If you haven’t seen Detachment by Tony Kaye, see it. One of the best moments of the film comes when Adrien Brody delivers a talk to the class on the continuing significance of George Orwell.
“How are you to imagine anything– if the images are always provided for you?”
The ubiquitous assimilation described about images is the same for words.
It is the risky task of invention to attempt to oppose that assimilation, to contribute something to the world around you instead of the other way around, and to put up a firewall to the numbing ideas promoted by those talking loudest. One battle at a time.

Appendix 2014.01.06:

An article from Cracked perfectly highlighting the continuing significance of Orwell’s point.

http://www.cracked.com/blog/4-reasons-viral-content-stopped-mattering-in-2013/

Words for snow / words for dairy

We can learn a lot about a culture by just investigating its vocabulary. Common trivia holds that Eskimos have about two dozen words for snow. As kids, when we first hear this, we are of course blown away– until we realize that the words are in fact used to describe different kinds of snow: falling or still, icy or sleety, vertical or horizontal, matte or glittering, white or yellow, November or March. The conclusion is that the people of the Arctic obviously benefit from differentiating amongst all these different guises of flaky frozen water in order to live more efficient lives– lives every moment of which is spent surrounded by the stuff.
 
Finland has a similar situation. Everything2 is impressively in-depth, although in my opinion Uncyclopedia captures it much better. One of Charlotte’s favorite digs at Finland (inserted without fail into every introduction to the country in conversation) is its retention of a word for horizontal sleet. “Would anyone in their right mind,” she says, “want to move to a place that has lovingly given a name to horizontal sleet?” I have only my Scandinavian stolidity to summon in defense.
A few nights ago, while plunging into some goat cheese, I caught a taste of tvorok. Tvorok is Russian for what’s commonly called curd cheese: fresh, white, and mild (but no resemblance to baby Jesus). I suddenly realized: just like Finland has its myriad words for snow, Russia has about a dozen distinct words for various dairy products.
Tvorok (cottage cheese):
Z’gushhenka (condensed milk):
Moloko (milk):
Smetana (sour cream):
Bryinza (Eastern European feta):
Kefir (drinkable yogurt):
Morozhenoe (ice cream):
Prostokvasha (soured milk):
Ryazhenka (baked soured milk):
Slivki (cream):
Syr (cheese):
Snezhok (sugary milk drink):
Of course we have our names for these in English, with varying specificity, but notice how most of them use a root term like “cheese” or “cream”, and simply modify it with a second word. It is tellingly practical, excuse the stereotype, of the English to be so dry and fact-oriented, while the Russian seems hopelessly bound to poeticize. Admittedly, many of the Russian words above are derived from adjectives (morozhenoe from ‘frozen’, slivki from ‘skimmed’) which supposedly used to rely on a base noun but which eventually got dropped. But nonetheless it demonstrates both the flexibility of the Russian language and the extent to which its daily user can exploit it to better catalog the objects it describes.
 
A thing like creme fraiche is the combination of the two opposing tendencies above: a name that started simply as a clear description in one culture, but which became directly transplanted to another culture without transliteration. Hence no fresh cream in the English language. One can begin to see, of course, how cultural factors play into this, it being probable that creme fraiche as a name was important to keep in order to best preserve the upperclass allure of the desserts it adorned. Speaking of desserts, creme brulee is another excellent example. I am certain that any native French speakers could name half a dozen more. Would all of them be desserts? Oh, the French…
Avec fraises, naturellement!
In language, a new word is like a badge of honor for an object or concept. English might very well identify the difference between heavy cream, sour cream, ice cream, clotted cream, cream cheese, cheddar cheese, cottage cheese, curd cheese… but it doesn’t draw enough of a line to merit a whole new word. Russian crafted distinct words for all of these various forms of dairy, relating to how it’s prepared, how it looks, etc. based on these products’ usage, and thus also on their significance to the Russian cultural identity.
 
We can see what objects and concepts were of vital importance for the Finns and Russians to articulate…

Books and Bosons

In applause of Peter Higgs, and the legacy of over 5 decades of research– I will attempt to outline another implication for the (near-certain) discovery of the god particle.
The relationship of matter to mass. How does former attain latter? In the case of particle physics, it’s by moving through the Higgs field. In the case of thoughts and information, it’s through language [beneath which I cram all literature, art, speech, media, etc.]. In order for thoughts to attain mass, they need to be (to the regret of some) slowed, downgraded, passed through the Higgs Field equivalent, and given shape by some communicable medium. This is in itself a profound step.
Charlotte was vexed by my conclusive point in Figuration to Abstraction— that humans may soon evolve out of language. Where will all the magic of communication go? The core joy of art and literature, she says, (the following metaphor is hers; I fittingly couldn’t come up with a better one) is the friction of ideas against language; of the originally articulated thought against its conveyance and the perceptive cortexes of its recipients. The heat arising from this friction is fertile and volatile– her favorite moments are born upon the discovery of unexpected meanings through miscommunication. From a strictly technical point of view, the challenge is finding in language the perfect match for your thoughts. (Now my metaphor. Dumber.) It is going shopping for a word. The perfect word to match your thought is like the perfect shoe or dress. In fact, that one can never find a perfect match because the two are of a different nature serves to give thoughts even more meaning. There is something behind every painting, every critical essay, that simply cannot be communicated no matter how you articulate yourself. That something is the original thought. We both are trying to give form to something inherently formless, and which should structurally remain so if we are to proceed with our lives in any coherent way– we keep the ghost, the expelled language-heat, at arm’s length on purpose.
Thus, all that stuff we love is really just residue of the cosmic thought-soup. This is further emphasized by the fact that, like CERN says, the universe is defined less by the planets and stars and chunks of matter than by the void surrounding them. What does this imply? It implies that the language around us is really an illusory blip on the radar of thoughts. If thoughts are the universe, language is the light-matter. Dark matter equates the realm of dreams, ideas, feelings, emotions, memories, regrets, hopes, opinions, instincts– all that which has not yet congealed. This has repercussion both in past and future thoughts: most of us have probably been thinking about thoughts unrealized; before the fact. But just as interesting are thoughts that were once turned into art but have since dissolved. The number of these may be far greater than initially imagined. Stuart Kelly wrinkles these waters in The Book of Lost Books.
“Hence, perpetually and essentially, texts run the risk of becoming definitively lost. Who will ever know of such disappearances?” -Jacques Derrida, “Plato’s Pharmacy”.
 
A delightful read. But after meandering through its passages I was overrun by the dreadful sense that life and all its exigencies is a failed struggle against the relentless tide of our disintegration into that dark soup.
Time itself may be such a struggling element. Time seems to be a rupture in the perfect balance of all things, the tendency for all matter to equalize and dissolve like sugar in water. As we are learning, time is anything but constant and is in fact a function of relationships. The reason time appears as it does to us (passing, flowing through everything like a breeze) is because the speed at which we move compared to the speed at which light and the edges of the universe move is a fairly fixed ratio. Speed up, halve the ratio, and things start to change…. Same thing in reverse. All that would happen is the discovery of new patterns in things close to you to help exercise that part of the brain which maintains that despite the building evidence, the illusion is real and discrete things can be sorted and organized. Not that everything is everything, but that there is permanent difference. And with that illusion in closer focus, so do answers to questions beginning with “why” appear simpler to reach.

Figuration to Abstraction, our evolution out of language

Yarn I:
It seems one of the primary artistic trends of the 20th century (with spillover, maybe the last two centuries) was the increased acceptance of sketches and raw, undeveloped ideas as legitimate “works of art” ripe for an audience. The beginning of the last millennium would not have indicated this, though– the market and prevailing aesthetic became awfully formalized and refined, to clientele richer and to art with corresponding burdens of grandeur. Art was occupied with things entirely other than presenting an idea. Most of it was advertisement and record-keeping for posterity. Here we have some Medicis, history’s greatest accountants.

Cosimo II, patron of Galileo.

Lorenzo (the Magnificent), famous patron of the Arts.

Medici Chapel in Florence. The two best-known tombs, seen on the left and right, are those of Lorenzo’s kid and grandkid.
Memory in space.

A large portion of art was also used by the church to convey extant episodes of morality and ethics in the grand story of Christ et al. There seemed to be stricter rules, or at least expectations, in place about the conception and reception of artwork. Slowly that formality has eroded and now an artist can display almost anything, and almost nothing– a single line, an empty frame, a person standing still– to an audience, giving the latter more interpretive work to do.
Or so you’d think. Because instead of compensating for new forms by expanding its visual vocabulary, the audience has duly complied with the artists’ lead and become lazy at its end. Nowadays, the simpler a piece looks to the average gaze, the more likely it is to need explanation– and hence, justification. It’s obvious that if an artwork needs excessive analysis and explanation by experts on behalf of the masses, then you have a problem.
Perhaps this all conceals another truth: that what we call art has in fact changed its scope of services to society entirely in the past millennium. Before, it served even the poorest churchgoer, with strong, understandable language of form as its base, and practicality and relevance as its engine for communication. Since then, the art world has dwindled to serve, and with decisively less practicality, the intellectual accumulation of a select few.* In a way, though, this has given painters and sculptors the freedom and the license to conceive of almost anything, trying always to break that next ceiling in the endless skyscraper of taboo. The first steps of that: adoration of the sketch, and the slow and ultimately successful creep towards accepting things in a raw and newborn state. Here is a rough visual timeline, from the 1850s on:

1850s, Courbet….

1850s, Powers….

1860s, Carpeaux….

1860s, Manet….

1870s, Rodin….

1870s, Monet….

1880s, Sargent….

1890s, Toulouse-Lautrec….

1910s, Modigliani….

1910s, Heckel….

1920s, Hausmann….

1920s, Matisse….

1930s, The Futurists….

1940s, Giacometti….

1950s, Moore….

1960s, Warhol….
 

1970s, Noguchi….

1970s, Twombly….

1980s, Dumas….

You could read many things from this trend, such as the effects of war on mankind. But I am presenting these simply as visuals, as images experienced here and now.

Yarn II:
With rawness now accepted pretty much as a style, it has begun translating into our daily lives. The artist’s sketch does two things for us: 1) it evokes those emotional responses that art is so good at doing, and better that something overly worked-on (and potentially heavy-handed) and 2) inspires us to say “my kid could paint that. Heck, I could paint that!” Steadily, it seems technology has given us just that ability. We are now given the option of entering a constant stream of auto-biography, with every next piece of technology promising things delivered in “real-time.” Compared to earlier when I had to wait months to get a book published, I can now type a little and click a little and have my book online and available to anyone within one night. With Twitter, I’m not even confined to my laptop anymore. There is increasing legitimacy given to the most mundane musings. Check out Conan’s Twitter feed.
Now before I make my next statement, picture language (that is: English etc.) abstractly, as nothing more than a tool or mechanism for communicating ideas. Like smartphones, it is a brilliant thing. But also like smartphones, it is imperfect. There are some ideas that the English vocabulary somehow cannot grasp, and on top of that, think of how laborious it is: before the person across from you understands your thought, you have to figure out what to communicate, communicate it, then they have to receive that sound (pretend you are just talking with no visuals– on the phone, for example) and process it themselves. On average this transaction takes roughly 2-5 seconds. Quite inefficient, isn’t it? Why that second processing phase? And isn’t there a way to actually make communication real-time? That is, I don’t have to find equivalents in the realm of words and gestures to convey my thought– I can literally put that thought in an interlocutor’s head.
Well, herein I make my prediction (which is extrapolated to occur sometime in the 100th millennium (100,000 AD): imagine moment in our evolution when we reach some level when we are able to communicate our thoughts to each other purely and instantaneously. In a way, it won’t be communication at all, because communication implies that primitive slog of processing and gesturing and so on. It will be more like us floating in an ether: an ether that receives a thought from one person in it and which would instantly be understood by everyone else in the soup. To get a feel for it, try thinking of something, then communicating it to yourself. You see, the need for communication is gone, because you had that thought in your mind already. It is maybe very similar to Nirvana. This, I envision, is going to be a huge step in the evolution of man. But that’s obvious, because you must have already concluded that. (Case in point?)

*Evidence: those de Koonings at MoMA (hanging for the benefit of the public). The reason they are up there is not because the public immediately got their underlying message 50 years ago, but because some highly reputable individuals did, and explained it to us, upon hearing which we collectively uttered “Ooooooooh…”
Furthermore, their intimacy is leagues separated from shock art featuring Jesus and heads of state, and encroaching on that feels completely at odds with their white-box homes. These paintings might belong in the studio.

:this, not this:

Though its schism from the church was a good thing in my opinion, there is one thing from that time that is missed in fine art: its ability to communicate powerful messages, cheaply and quickly, to and for the benefit of many. I guess film & television now hold those reigns.