How Y’all, Youse, and You Guys Talk: The New York Times Dialect Quiz

This is a very cool interactive quiz you can take on New York Times‘s website to see how your dialect compares to the rest of the United States. There are twenty five questions in all. I answered “I have no word for this” to five questions. This is what my heat map looked like at the end:

My dialect per New York Times's quiz.

My dialect per New York Times’s quiz.

So of course, I am most similar to speaking like a Southerner (I do say “y’all” when referring to a group of two or more people, after all), but it’s strange that the two cities I am most similar to are Baltimore and Newark.

How about you?

A History of Meh, from Leo Rosten to W.H. Auden to The Simpsons

I’m loving the new Slate blog on words and vocabulary. It’s got a great name: Lexicon Valley. In their most recent post, they trace the development of the now-common “meh” to signify boredom or indifference:

First, a consideration from the early 1990s:

A variant of meh, namely mnyeh, famously appears in the works of the late academic and humorist Leo Rosten, with extended treatment in his Hooray for Yiddish. But Rosten’s work is often disparaged by experts in Yiddishology, and, in any case, there’s no evidence that mnyeh is even a Yiddish word.

The British poet W.H. Auden didn’t think much of the first lunar landing, and he wrote a poem about it (but used “Mneh”):

Worth going to see? I can well believe it.
Worth seeing? Mneh! I once rode through a desert
     and was not charmed: give me a watered
     lively garden, remote from blatherers

Finally, the tracing of “meh” to The Simpsons:

Though Swartzwelder is the most prolific of all Simpsons writers, he has led a reclusive lifewriting novels since leaving the show in 2004. After finding a way to send him a message, I was amazed to actually get a response from the man called “the J. D. Salinger of comedy writing.” He didn’t recall putting meh on the show before his “Hungry Hungry Homer” episode, which aired in 2001, some seven seasons after meh began to be used by Simpsons characters. Oakley, though, suspects meh might have appeared in an early Swartzwelder-penned scene that never made it to air. And Swartzwelder did have a memory of where he first came acrossmeh, though it wasn’t in Mad. “I had originally heard the word from an advertising writer named Howie Krakow back in 1970 or 1971 who insisted it was the funniest word in the world,” he told me. So let’s thank Mr. Krakow for his unwitting role in the spread of the meh meme.

 

Wikipedia has this to add about “Meh“: the word’s first mainstream print usage occurred in Canadian newspaper the Edmonton Sun in 2003: “Ryan Opray got voted off Survivor. Meh.”

On the Origin of the Picnic

I am having one myself this weekend, so it seems apropos to read this short piece in The New York Times on the origin of the picnic:

The word “picnic,” however, is of more recent vintage. An early mention can be traced to a 1649 satirical French poem, which features the Frères Pique-nicques, known for visiting friends “armed with bottles and dishes.” In 1802, the term made a hop to Britain after a group of Francophiles in London formed a Pic-Nic Society to gorge, guzzle and perform amateur theatricals. Participants drew lots to determine who would supply which dish — from calf’s-foot jelly to blancmange.


Read the rest here.
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When Lawyers and Courts Rely on Urban Dictionary

What do lawyers do when a witness or a defendant uses slang that can’t be found in the Webster’s Dictionary? Why, rely on the online site Urban Dictionary, as The New York Times reports:

The online site, created by a college freshman in 1999, has found itself in the thick of cases involving everything from sexual harassment to armed robbery to requests for personalized license plates, as courts look to discern meaning and intent in the modern lexicon.

Last month, Urban Dictionary was cited in a financial restitution case in Wisconsin, where an appeals court was reviewing the term “jack” because a convicted robber and his companion had referred to themselves as the “jack boys.”

The court noted, however, that according to Urban Dictionary, “jack” means “to steal, or take from an unsuspecting person or store.” It then rejected the convicted man’s claim that he should not have to make restitution to the owner of a van he stole to use in a robbery.

Awesome. Can’t tell you how often UD saved me from embarrassment.

Linguists Identify 15,000-year-old Ultraconserved Words

You, hear me! Give this fire to that old man. Pull the black worm off the bark and give it to the mother. And no spitting in the ashes!

According to this Washington Post piece summarizing this study, many of the words in the above sentence would have been understood by someone living 15,000 years ago:

That’s because all of the nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs in the four sentences are words that have descended largely unchanged from a language that died out as the glaciers retreated at the end of the last Ice Age. Those few words mean the same thing, and sound almost the same, as they did then.

The traditional view is that words can’t survive for more than 8,000 to 9,000 years. Evolution, linguistic “weathering” and the adoption of replacements from other languages eventually drive ancient words to extinction, just like the dinosaurs of the Jurassic era.

A new study, however, suggests that’s not always true.

A team of researchers has come up with a list of two dozen “ultraconserved words” that have survived 150 centuries. It includes some predictable entries: “mother,” “not,” “what,” “to hear” and “man.” It also contains surprises: “to flow,” “ashes” and “worm.”

Fascinating.

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Full paper from The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciencesultraconserved_words.

Did Geoffrey Chaucer Coin the Word Twitter?

The Oxford English Online tweeted the word cloud below to showcase a few of Geoffrey Chaucer’s contributions to the English language, among them, womanhood, fattish, caterwaul, sluttish, poppet, dotard, and crude. But also, the word twitter:

Chaucer word cloud

The Atlantic Wire summarizes:

Chaucer provides our earliest ex. of twitter, verb: of a bird: to utter a succession of light tremulous notes; to chirp continuously.” On their Oxford Words blog they add that though Chaucer is frequently considered “the venerable but crude uncle of English poetry, always ready with an inappropriate story, quite likely, even when it seems as if his tale can’t get any funnier or more scurrilous”—that bawdy poet our high school English teachers assigned us to read—he was much more.

Dryden dubbed him ‘the Father of English Poetry,’ and while it’s debatable whether he really did invent English poetry as we know it, Chaucer remains considered one of the formidable, formative masters of English language and literature. He’s the man behind expressions like “Love is blind,” “Love conquers all,” “Time and tide wait for no man,” and “shaking like a leaf” or, Right as an aspen lefe she gan to quake. Also, “Marriage is a wonderful invention; but, then again, so is a bicycle repair kit.” Like Shakespeare, he was unafraid to play with words, and to create new ones: “There are around 2,000 words for which the works of Chaucer currently provide evidence of first use in the Oxford English Dictionary. Just over half of these borrowings are from French or Latin roots (mostly French), almost all the rest are new formations based on existing English words,” they write. We still use quite a lot of those words today, tweeting or not, and others are just kind of great: messagery, mishappy, whippletree, corny, poop, Martian, bodkin, bragget, vulgar, snort, scissors, and more.

Interesting.

You should follow me on Twitter here.

The Life and Death of Words

An intriguing new paper by Alexander M. Petersen et al. presents the findings of Google’s digitization project (scanning millions of books). From their abstract:

We analyze the dynamic properties of 107 words recorded in English, Spanish and Hebrew over the period 1800–2008 in order to gain insight into the coevolution of language and culture. We report language independent patterns useful as benchmarks for theoretical models of language evolution. A significantly decreasing (increasing) trend in the birth (death) rate of words indicates a recent shift in the selection laws governing word use. For new words, we observe a peak in the growth-rate fluctuations around 40 years after introduction, consistent with the typical entry time into standard dictionaries and the human generational timescale. Pronounced changes in the dynamics of language during periods of war shows that word correlations, occurring across time and between words, are largely influenced by coevolutionary social, technological, and political factors. We quantify cultural memory by analyzing the long-term correlations in the use of individual words using detrended fluctuation analysis.

How many words are in the English language? The paper gave the best-yet estimate of the true number of words in English—a million, far more than any dictionary has recorded (the 2002 Webster’s Third New International Dictionary has 348,000). More than half of the language, the authors wrote, is “dark matter” that has evaded standard dictionaries.

The paper also tracked word usage through time (each year, for instance, 1% of the world’s English-speaking population switches from “sneaked” to “snuck”). It also showed that we seem to be putting history behind us more quickly, judging by the speed with which terms fall out of use. References to the year “1880” dropped by half in the 32 years after that date, while the half-life of “1973” was a mere decade.

Finally, the authors identified a universal “tipping point” in the life cycle of new words. Roughly 30 to 50 years after their birth, words either enter the long-term lexicon or fall off into oblivion. How that’s for a half-life?

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(via Wall Street Journal)

Why Being Bilingual Makes You Smarter

This is a good piece in The New York Times on the advantages of being a bilingual:

The collective evidence from a number of studies suggests that the bilingual experience improves the brain’s so-called executive function — a command system that directs the attention processes that we use for planning, solving problems and performing various other mentally demanding tasks. These processes include ignoring distractions to stay focused, switching attention willfully from one thing to another and holding information in mind — like remembering a sequence of directions while driving.

Why does the tussle between two simultaneously active language systems improve these aspects of cognition? Until recently, researchers thought the bilingual advantage stemmed primarily from an ability for inhibition that was honed by the exercise of suppressing one language system: this suppression, it was thought, would help train the bilingual mind to ignore distractions in other contexts. But that explanation increasingly appears to be inadequate, since studies have shown that bilinguals perform better than monolinguals even at tasks that do not require inhibition, like threading a line through an ascending series of numbers scattered randomly on a page.

The key difference between bilinguals and monolinguals may be more basic: a heightened ability to monitor the environment. “Bilinguals have to switch languages quite often — you may talk to your father in one language and to your mother in another language,” says Albert Costa, a researcher at the University of Pompea Fabra in Spain. “It requires keeping track of changes around you in the same way that we monitor our surroundings when driving.” In a study comparing German-Italian bilinguals with Italian monolinguals on monitoring tasks, Mr. Costa and his colleagues found that the bilingual subjects not only performed better, but they also did so with less activity in parts of the brain involved in monitoring, indicating that they were more efficient at it.

The benefits of bilingualism stay with you throughout your life as well. Bilinguals, compared to those who speak one language, are more resistant to the onset of dementia and other symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.

It’s good to be bilingual.

Wordnik, a Dictionary for the Modern Age

If you like words, their definitions, and the evolution of language, you will enjoy Wordnik. It’s profiled in The New York Times today, and what sets this dictionary apart from others is that it is constantly being updated. The founder of the site Erin McKean explains: “Language changes every day, and the lexicographer should get out of the way…You can type in anything, and we’ll show you what data we have.”

According to The Times,

Wordnik’s automatic programs search the Internet, combing the texts of news feeds, archived broadcasts, the blogosphere, Twitter posts and dozens of other sources for the raw material of Wordnik citations…The site processes a vast reservoir of language, keeping tabs on more than six million words automatically.

My favorite part of this online dictionary is that in addition to a definition of a word, you’ll see an entire column of how the word is being used on the Web. It’s really nifty.

Of course, the site also includes a word of the day (for which you can sign up to receive updates by email). So go ahead and give Wordnik a whirl.

Links of the Day (02/08/10)

Here’s what I’ve been reading recently:

(1) “Will You Be E-Mailing This Column? It’s Awesome” [New York Times] – I am not e-mailing this column, but I am blogging about it. The New York Times conducted a six month study to determine which articles were the most popular ones (as measured by number of times the articles were e-mailed):

To make sense of these trends in “virality,” the Penn researchers tracked more than 7,500 articles published from August 2008 to February 2009. They assessed each article’s popularity after controlling for factors like the time of day it was published online, the section in which it appeared and how much promotion it received on the Web home page.

The results of the study are interesting. Most people preferred to send out emotional articles (in particular, those articles that were positive or happy in nature). I also found it surprising that people preferred to share articles which were longer in length (perhaps because longer articles are better researched or more compelling in general). The New York Times elaborates:

Sharing recipes or financial tips or medical advice makes sense according to classic economic utility theory: I give you something of practical value in the hope that you’ll someday return the favor. There can also be self-interested reasons for sharing surprising articles: I get to show off how well informed I am by sending news that will shock you.

The only thing left to do is for you, Dear Reader, to email that article to your friends (or you can just tell them about this blog).

(2) “The Time It Takes to Win It All” [Wall Street Journal] – The New Orleans Saints defeated the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLIV last night. This article explores the amount of work that players and coaches spend working in a typical NFL season. The most eye-opening paragraph:

According to an operational study of National Football League teams prepared for The Wall Street Journal by Boston Consulting Group, the typical NFL season requires 514,000 hours of labor per team. That’s about eight times the effort it took to conceptualize, build and market Apple’s iPod, according to BCG, and enough time to build 25 America’s Cup yachts. If both Super Bowl teams dedicated themselves to construction rather than football, their members could have built the Empire State Building in seven seasons.

It’s a well-researched article and definitely worth reading.

(3) “In Search of the World’s Hardest Language” [The Economist] – this article is from December 2009, but I just read it the other day in my print version of The Economist. I recommend reading the entire piece (did you know that in Turkish you can create a sentence such as “Çekoslovakyalilastiramadiklarimizdanmissiniz?”, which means “Were you one of those people whom we could not make into a Czechoslovakian?”) but if you’re curious, the Economist’s conclusion for the world’s hardest language:

With all that in mind, which is the hardest language? On balance The Economist would go for Tuyuca, of the eastern Amazon. It has a sound system with simple consonants and a few nasal vowels, so is not as hard to speak as Ubykh or !Xóõ.