Quotulatiousness

October 30, 2014

Words mean exactly what we want them to mean, except when we don’t

Filed under: Media — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 08:10

In a post from earlier this year, Scott Alexander discusses a common example of what has been described as a “motte-and-bailey” argument:

I recently learned there is a term for the thing social justice does. But first, a png from racism school dot tumblr dot com.

Check your privilege from Tumblr

So, it turns out that privilege gets used perfectly reasonably. All it means is that you’re interjecting yourself into other people’s conversations and demanding their pain be about you. I think I speak for all straight white men when I say that sounds really bad and if I was doing it I’m sorry and will try to avoid ever doing it again. Problem solved, right? Can’t believe that took us however many centuries to sort out.

A sinking feeling tells me it probably isn’t that easy.

In the comments section of the last disaster of a social justice post on my blog, someone started talking about how much they hated the term “mansplaining”, and someone else popped in to — ironically — explain what “mansplaining” was and why it was a valuable concept that couldn’t be dismissed so easily. Their explanation was lucid and reasonable. At this point I jumped in and commented:

    I feel like every single term in social justice terminology has a totally unobjectionable and obviously important meaning — and then is actually used a completely different way.

    The closest analogy I can think of is those religious people who say “God is just another word for the order and beauty in the Universe” — and then later pray to God to smite their enemies. And if you criticize them for doing the latter, they say “But God just means there is order and beauty in the universe, surely you’re not objecting to that?”

    The result is that people can accuse people of “privilege” or “mansplaining” no matter what they do, and then when people criticize the concept of “privilege” they retreat back to “but ‘privilege’ just means you’re interrupting women in a women-only safe space. Surely no one can object to criticizing people who do that?”

    …even though I get accused of “privilege” for writing things on my blog, even though there’s no possible way that could be “interrupting” or “in a women only safe space”.

    When you bring this up, people just deny they’re doing it and call you paranoid.

    When you record examples of yourself and others getting accused of privilege or mansplaining, and show people the list, and point out that exactly zero percent of them are anything remotely related to “interrupting women in a women-only safe space” and one hundred percent are “making a correct argument that somebody wants to shut down”, then your interlocutor can just say “You’re deliberately only engaging with straw-man feminists who don’t represent the strongest part of the movement, you can’t hold me responsible for what they do” and continue to insist that anyone who is upset by the uses of the word “privilege” just doesn’t understand that it’s wrong to interrupt women in safe spaces.

    I have yet to find a good way around this tactic.

My suspicion about the gif from racism school dot tumblr dot com is that the statements on the top show the ways the majority of people will encounter “privilege” actually being used, and the statements on the bottom show the uncontroversial truisms that people will defensively claim “privilege” means if anyone calls them on it or challenges them. As such it should be taken as a sort of weird Rosetta Stone of social justicing, and I can only hope that similarly illustrative explanations are made of other equally charged terms.

H/T to Sam Bowman for the link.

October 16, 2014

QotD: The art of writing

Filed under: Humour, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

I’d like to say it’s great to be back from vacation, but frankly it’s not. A lot of people think the biggest problem with being a pundit is all the blood sacrifice and unlicensed steel-cage shovel fighting. That’s true. But there’s obviously nothing to be done about that. Another problem is that when you usually write several thousand words a week — at least — you build up muscle memory. It’s like exercise — I’m told. When you train yourself to run every day, taking a week off doesn’t make running easier, but harder. Since I’ve been back, I haven’t been able to find my groove (this isn’t it). I had to delete the first 700 words of this “news”letter because it turned into a lengthy poem in Esperanto about chinchillas. Frankly, I nailed the iambic pentameter. Maybe someday I will publish “Kiam la Chinchilla vekas el sia dormado en la pantalono de mia koro” (Loosely: “When the chinchilla awakes from his slumber in the trousers of my heart”), but today is not that day.

Jonah Goldberg, “The Goldberg File”, 2014-04-04

October 5, 2014

QotD: “What happened to France?”

Filed under: Europe, History, Quotations — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

Here we should pause and ask an important question: What happened to France? To that savoir faire? And to French culture? To the country that we all loved enough to make allowances to put up with the casual hauteur and the studied rudeness? Because, after all, this was la belle France, and they could teach us a thing or two. They had something worth sharing.

But when was that? When was the last time you enjoyed, say, a contemporary French film? How many must-see French actors are there? Their most famous actor has now taken out Russian citizenship (and moved to Belgium). Name a living French painter worth the wall space. Name a great French musician. A novelist, apart from Michel Houellebecq — and the French hate him. Their vaunted cuisine has become a moribund tourist performance. Unable to change, terrified of innovation, France has become the Bourbons, who famously forgot nothing and learned nothing.

The language that committees of old academics protect, like maids fussing over a cabinet of bone china, has been ransacked, seduced, and impregnated with bastard usages by movies, pop music, the Internet, and the global need to speak English. And now even some French universities have begun teaching science and computing classes in English, because no one wants to come to France to study them in French.

The pre-eminence of French culture has evaporated, before our very eyes, within a generation. The fear that innovation might damage or detract from their weighty heritage has left it like an angry child, with its eyes closed and its hands over its ears, la-la-la-ing “Je ne regrette rien.” French civilization went from the brilliant clamor of the streets to the musty hush of the museum. Instead of creating, they have dusting.

A. A. Gill, Liberté! Egalité! Fatigué!“, Vanity Fair, 2014-04

October 1, 2014

QotD: Primitive belief systems and “sorcerism”

Filed under: Environment, Quotations, Religion — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

Many primitive societies believe that maleficent spirits cause all sorts of human misfortune that in the modern West we have learned to attribute to natural causes — cattle dying, crops failing, disease, drought, that sort of thing. A few societies have developed a more peculiar form of supernaturalism, in which evil spirits recede into the background and all misfortune is caused by the action of maleficent human sorcerers who must be found and rooted out to end the harm.

A society like that may be a grim, paranoid place with everyone constantly on the hunt for sorcerers — but a sorcerer can be punished or killed more easily than a spirit or a blind force of nature. Therein lies the perverse appeal of this sort of belief system, what I’ll call “sorcerism” — you may not be able to stop your cattle from dying, but at least you can find the bastard who did it and hurt him until you feel better. Maybe you can even prevent the next cattle-death. You are not powerless.

English needs, I think, a word for “beliefs which are motivated by the terror of being powerless against large threats”. I think I tripped over this in an odd place today, and it makes me wonder if our society may be talking itself into a belief system not essentially different from sorcerism.

Eric S. Raymond, “Heavy weather and bad juju”, Armed and Dangerous, 2011-02-03.

September 3, 2014

Economic growth as a language extinction factor

Filed under: Economics, History — Tags: — Nicholas @ 10:01

In Forbes, Tim Worstall talks about a recent paper in the Proceedings of the Royal Society which notes that minority languages are at greater threat of extinction as the speakers of that language experience economic prosperity:

Here’s an interesting little economic finding: the extinction of minority languages seems to be largely driven by economic growth and success. It’s perhaps not one of those explanations that we would immediately think of but once it has been brought to our attention it seems obvious enough given what is actually economic growth. In terms of public policy this perhaps means that we shouldn’t worry too much about languages disappearing: because that is a signal that economic development is happening, people are becoming less poor. But people ceasing to use a language because it no longer fits their needs is one thing: we should still study, analyse and record those languages as they’re all part of our shared human experience.

The paper is in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B and can be found here:

    By contrast, recent speaker declines have mainly occurred at high latitudes and are strongly linked to high economic growth. Threatened languages are numerous in the tropics, the Himalayas and northwestern North America. These results indicate that small-population languages remaining in economically developed regions are seriously threatened by continued speaker declines. However, risks of future language losses are especially high in the tropics and in the Himalayas, as these regions harbour many small-population languages and are undergoing rapid economic growth.

Worth thinking through the different types of economic growth that we traditionally identify. The first is Malthusian growth. Here an advance in technology (say, a new, higher productivity, farming method) leads to there being more resources to support the new generation. More of them survive to then have their own children and the population increases. At some point in the future living standards return to where they were given that larger population. This is a reasonable description of near all economic growth before 1750 or so (and made the Rev. Malthus correct in his gloomy predictions about economic growth for pretty much all of history before he sat down to write had indeed been like this). Malthusian growth is likely to increase the population speaking whatever language it is that that society speaks. For the obvious reason that the growth is morphing into more people to speak that language.

The second form of growth is Smithian growth. Here, growth is coming from the division and specialisation of labour and the resultant trade in the increased production this enables. Almost by definition this requires that the network of people that one is trading with, dividing labour with, expands. To the point that one is, at some point, going to start doing so with people outside one’s clan, tribe or language. The cooperation of trade requires that there be some ability to converse and therefore there’s pressure to adopt some language which is mutually compatible. As large groups meet large groups then we might find some synthesis of language going on: as say English is an obvious synthesis of Romance and Germanic languages. Where small groups are meeting larger and trading with them then we’re more likely to see the adoption of the larger group language and the extinction of the smaller.

September 2, 2014

British government “austerity”

Filed under: Britain, Economics, Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 14:29

Theodore Dalrymple explains why changing the name of something does not actually change the thing being described, no matter how much politicians or journalists wish it did:

… some errors are important, and one sees them more insistently the older one grows. For example, the other day I read an article in Le Monde about the forthcoming referendum in Scotland on independence from the United Kingdom. The author of the article was clearly sympathetic to the cause of independence, but that was not the cause of my irritation with the article, nor the fact that he quoted an old man, a former trade union militant, who said that he was in favor of independence, among other reasons, because the United Kingdom was the fourth most unequal country in the world. If old men in Scotland can be as ignorant of the world as that, it is an interesting sociological observation; and the author of the article is almost certainly right that those in favor of Scottish independence favor a state even more extensive in the name of equality than the one that they already have.

No, I was irritated rather by the fact that the author of the article accepted that the policy of the present British government can properly be described as one of austerity. What the alleged austerity amounts to is this: that in the current year the government will borrow only one in six of the pounds it spends instead of one in five, as it did last year. As to the reasons for this less than startling decline in its borrowing requirements, it was not because the government was spending less but because it was receiving more taxes, from the speculative housing bubble which it has done much to fuel. If that bubble should burst, the borrowing necessary to maintain current levels of expenditure (already very high) would rise again, possibly higher than ever.

This is not a question of whether the economic policy followed by the government is the right one or not: perhaps it is and perhaps it isn’t. It is a question of the honest use of words. One would not say of a man who passed from smoking sixty cigarettes a day to fifty that he had given up smoking, or that he had exercised great self-denial. And one would not, or rather should not, say of an organization that had balanced its budget once in fifty years (the British government) that it was practicing austerity merely because it had to borrow a slightly lower percentage of what it spent than it did the year before. This is to deprive words of their meaning.

But does this matter? As the philosopher Bishop Butler once said, everything is what it is and not another thing. A budget deficit is a budget deficit, whether you call it profligacy or austerity. A thing is not changed by being called something different.

Unfortunately, matters are not quite as clear-cut as that. In human affairs, words matter, as much because of their connotations as of their denotations. Austerity means stern treatment and self-discipline. It means harshness and astringency. Needless to say, harshness in their government is not what most people look or will vote for. If reducing the rate at which you overspend and accumulate debt is called austerity, no one will dare go any further in that direction, though it were the right direction in which to go. Words, said Hobbes, are wise men’s counters but the money of fools: so that many men will take the name for the thing itself. Whether more active attempts to balance the budget would be advisable I leave to economists to decide (they can’t, of course).

August 25, 2014

QotD: Words have meanings

Filed under: Liberty, Politics, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

There is a price to be paid for divorcing actions and concepts from the words that describe them. Government, and the law that undergirds it, is made up of words. Devalue the words, strip them of meaning, and you do the same thing to the concepts those words describe. Action follows Thought, and for Thought to exist there must be the Word.

This was George Orwell’s central insight when he invented Newspeak for his novel 1984. Language doesn’t just describe what we think about, and allow us to communicate with each other; in a major way, it actually determines what we think about, and how we think. We conceptualize the way we do, even in the abstract, using constructs of language — even mathematics and computer code is a kind of language. Orwell understood that the Word could actually be turned into a weapon, an invisible knife to cut away a man’s ability to think (and thus, to act). All you have to do is convince a man that the Word he’s hearing means something other than what he thought it meant … or can mean anything, really. Or nothing at all. Science, history, literature, even music — they evaporate like a puddle in the hot sun because the Words used to build them stop conveying meaning.

Words have meaning. They must have meaning, for if we are to communicate at all we must transmit meaning from one person to another. This is perhaps the most unforgivable part of the postmodernist assault on the language itself: it has weakened our ability to even describe the loss of meaning.

Monty, “In the beginning was the Word”, Ace of Spades HQ, 2014-01-27.

July 29, 2014

QotD: Austria’s post-1867 parliament

Filed under: Europe, History, Politics, Quotations — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

Nowhere were the frictions generated by nationalist politics more in evidence than in the Cisleithanian [the non-Hungarian half of Austria-Hungary] parliament, which met from 1883 in a handsome neo-classical building on Vienna’s Ringstrasse. In this 516-seat legislature, the largest in Europe, the familiar spectrum of political ideological diversity was cross-cut by national affiliations producing a panoply of splinter groups and grouplets. Among the thirty-odd parties that held mandates after the 1907 elections, for example, were twenty-eight Czech Agrarians, eighteen Young Czechs (Radical nationalists), seventeen Czech Conservatives, seven Old Czechs (moderate nationalists), two Czech-Progressives (Realist tendency), one ‘wild’ (independent) Czech and nine Czech National Socialists. The Poles, the Germans, the Italians and even the Slovenes and the Ruthenes were similarly divided along ideological lines.

Since there was no official language in Cisleithania (by contrast with the Kingdom of Hungary), there was no single official language of parliamentary procedure. German,Czech, Polish, Ruthenian, Croat, Serbian, Slovenian, Italian, Romanian and Russian were all permitted. But no interpreters were provided, and there was no facility for recording or monitoring the content of the speeches that were not in German, unless the deputy in question himself chose to supply the house with a translated text of his speech. Deputies from even the most insignificant factions could thus block unwelcome initiatives by delivering long speeches in a language that only a handful of their colleagues understood. Whether they were actually addressing the issues raised by the current motion, or simply reciting long poems in their own national idiom, was difficult to ascertain. The Czechs in particular were renowned for the baroque extravagance of their filibustering. The Cisleithanian parliament became a celebrated tourist attraction, especially in winter, when Viennese pleasure-seekers crowded into the heated visitors’ galleries. By contrast with the city’s theatres and opera houses, a Berlin journalist wrily observed, entry to parliamentary sessions was free.*

    * Among those who came to watch the antics of the deputies was the young drifter Adolf Hitler. Between February 1908 and the summer of 1909, when Czech obstructionism was at its height, he was often to be found in the visitors’ gallery. He would later claim that the experience had ‘cured’ him of his youthful admiration for the parliamentary system.

Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went To War In 1914, 2012.

July 13, 2014

QotD: Teaching children how to read

Filed under: Quotations, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

This is Cargo Cult stuff. They did the same thing with their new innovations in Whole Word learning (reading a word at a glance), when they got rid of Phonics (sounding a word out, letter by letter), and doomed a generation to being bad readers.

Here’s the Cargo Cult part:

Professional Highly-Educated Education Researchers noted that high-level early readers were usually just identifying words at a glance — reading in a “whole word” way. While kids using Phonics read more slowly. Phonics kids were slower readers and struggled with it more.

So hey — let’s stop teaching kids this slow method of reading called Phonics and just teach them “Whole Word” reading!!! Win, win, win!!! It’s easier for the students, and even easier for the teachers, as they don’t have to teach the step-by-step Phonics method of reading. They can just say the word “horse” is horse and keep saying it until these stupid kids start learning that “horse” means horse.

Here’s the problem: This is Cargo Cult mneliaty. Yes, the high-lanrneig, early-raednig kids are in fact using the Wlohe Wrod raenidg mhoted, just as you, reading that gibberish I just wrote, employed Whole Word reading — looking at the first and last letters of the word and using context and years and years of experience in how the written language works, and what words are expected to come in which place in a sentence to read, fairly easily, a bunch of misspelled words as the words I intended.

But the high-learning, early-reading kids are only doing that because they started reading earlier than the other kids. All kids — including the early readers — go through the Phonics phase. [...]

Now, having gone through the Phonics phase at age 3 or 4, by age five I was reading quite a bit, especially Peanuts (I had whole books, decades’ worth of Peanuts cartoons). And I had moved from “mostly Phonics” to “mostly Whole Word reading,” at least as far as common words. The unfamiliar words I still had to sound out, Phonics-style.

So sure — the accomplished 6-year-old readers are indeed mostly using whole word, at least for common words. Spoiler alert: That’s because they already went through the Phonics phase at age 4 or 5.

The Cargo Cult mistake of these “Educators” is to think that Whole Word reading is a shortcut to teaching reading. No — Whole Word reading is the endpoint of learning to read. First you read letter by letter, then syllable by syllable (as you have begun to compile, in your Reading Memory, a large list of common syllables). Then you start just reading Whole Word.

You have to go through the letter-by-letter process to get to the Whole Word level. [...]

By denying kids their first step in reading — teaching them to read letter-by-letter — educators have not advanced Whole Word reading. They’ve retarded it. You can’t do whole word until you’re an ace at letter by letter.

They’re making the same mistake here with this jackass method of teaching math. The method they’re teaching is what I’d term a secondary insight. [...]

But once again the “Experts” are demonstrating their Cargo Cult mentality when it comes to pedagogy. Because kids will start intuiting these things after they’ve mastered the rote-memorization and drilling routine of arithmetic and the times tables, hey, let’s just cut out the middleman and teach the Advanced Secondary Insights explicitly! And skip all that tedious rote-memorization and drilling!

Ace, “Common Core is Pretty Dumb”, Ace of Spades HQ, 2014-01-21

June 25, 2014

Long live the Oxford Comma

Filed under: Humour, Media — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 11:03

Sonny Bunch on the serial comma, single-spaces after periods and other pressing concerns:

Via 538, I’m proud to announce that those of us who support using the serial, or Oxford, comma are on The Right Side of History™:

    The poll of 1,129 Americans, conducted from June 3 to 5, showed that the pro-Oxford comma crowd has a somewhat substantial lead overall: 57 percent to 43 percent. …

    Readers had asked how the responses broke down by age, so here’s a chart to show who falls into each comma camp. The younger crowd overwhelmingly prefers the Oxford comma.

This makes sense, since refusing to use the Oxford comma is stupid and barbaric, a product of a bygone era. See also:

I don’t know who made this originally, but they’re a genius.

I don’t know who made this originally, but they’re a genius.

June 22, 2014

A Frisian translation of Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Hallowed Hunt

Filed under: Europe, Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 00:02

Lois McMaster Bujold posted an image to her Goodreads page, showing the cover of a new translation of The Hallowed Hunt into a language I didn’t think was still spoken:

LMB - Hallowed Hunt in Frisian

She also posted a letter from the translator, which discusses some of the problems inherent in translating a fantasy novel into a language which only really became a written language quite recently:

Originally (we’re talking the early Middle Ages here), Frisian was the language closest related to English, but after more than a millennium of being heavily influenced by Dutch and German, this is no longer the case. Over the centuries, Dutch, German and the Low Saxon dialects of the eastern Netherlands and northern Germany have made such inroads into the original Frisian language area (once stretching all along the North Sea coast from what is now Belgium to Denmark), that it has crumbled into several small — or smallish — enclaves, which are still shrinking or at least remain under constant pressure. In the outside world, the term “Frisian” is generally used as if it were a monolithic language, but in fact there are three different Frisian languages, which are mutually quite incomprehensible and have been so for a long time.

• North Frisian is spoken in northern Germany, in an area along the North Sea coast and on the nearby islands directly south of the Danish border, by about 10,000 people.

• East Frisian was once spoken in the German coastal area adjacent to the Dutch border, but has gone extinct there, except for one small inland area, Saterland, which was originally surrounded by almost impassable peat bogs. Saterlandic, or Saterland Frisian, is still spoken today, by some 2,200 people.

• In the Dutch province of Friesland, Frisian is still spoken as a first language by about 350,000 people (out of a total provincial population of c.630,000). It has official status equal to Dutch, here, and some 110,000 inhabitants of the province speak it as a second language. There are a lot of Frisians who for the sake of (better) employment have moved away from Friesland, bringing the total number of native Frisian speakers in the Netherlands to c.450,000. From this point, I will refer to this language, my native tongue, as “Frisian”, which is the name we have for it (Frysk), but FYI, in English it is often called “West Frisian” (a somewhat confusing name, since in the Netherlands, that is what we call a Dutch dialect spoken in northern tip of the province of North Holland).

Today, Frisian is a minority language used by about 3% of the total Dutch population, and although a lot of things have changed for the better since the beginning of the 20th century, when the Frisian language movement first emerged, we still have to fight for our rights more often than not. To give you an impression of the situation we have to deal with, a 1994 survey showed that of the total number of inhabitants of Friesland (now c.630,000), 94% can understand Frisian, 74% can speak it, 65% can read it, and 17% can write it. (These are still the most recent numbers available; I’ve read that they’re in the process of doing a follow-up survey, but apparently the results aren’t in yet.)

On the subject of literary translations, it should be understood that this is a relatively new phenomenon for the Frisian language. The Bible was not published in Frisian until 1943, and Shakespeare’s entire oeuvre appeared in our language in eight big omnibus editions between 1955 and 1976 (although some plays, like Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, had already been published separately in the twenties and thirties).

For any native Frisian readers who’d like to read this excellent book in your own language, you can buy the translation here.

May 19, 2014

Exercising your ears – accents in Sherlock

Filed under: Britain, Media — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 09:16

I’m a fan of the ongoing BBC series Sherlock starring Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch (or “Cummerband Bandersnatch” as his name seems to cause the yips in some people). At Firestorm over London there’s a brief discussion of British accents in general, and the specific variants in use among the actors in the show:

An introduction to the rich variety of British accents and an analysis of accents used in Sherlock. I explore the distinctive regional accents and of course the ubiquitous BBC pronunciation, what the accents can tell us about the characters. A short, not too serious guide by someone who has no linguistics expertise.

Islands of Contrast

An accent for the purposes of this essay is a manner of pronunciation that is particular to an individual, community or location.

The British Isles are geographically small but the accents that have evolved are incredibly diverse. I grew up in the North West of England where, even though the motorway links are brilliant, travelling a mere 60 miles or so will completely change the accents that you hear.

The most ubiquitous accent in the UK is BBC pronunciation. It used to be called “Received Pronunciation” but that term has fallen out of favour. If you’ve ever watched BBC News or listened to the English programs on the BBC World Service that is the accent I am referring to. This is not a regional accent — although it is more common in South of England. When people in the UK say that someone doesn’t have an accent, they really mean the person uses BBC pronunciation.

I haven’t been back to visit England in several years, but on my last few visits the number of times I heard RP seemed fewer than any regional accent everywhere we went. Even the BBC News presenters all seemed to have regional accents rather than speaking in RP. I’m originally from Middlesbrough, which boasts one of the least attractive regional accents you’ll ever hear (the closest you’d find would be a Newcastle “Geordie” accent … but less comprehensible). It’s been so long since I lived there that I now have trouble understanding it myself…

Many fans have identified Mycroft Holmes’ accent as “posh”. There is not an official “posh accent” — and even if there was Mycroft Holmes does not have it.

Posh is a very subjective description. Where I grew up anyone who didn’t have a regional accent was “posh”. After coming to University in the South, I have realised that BBC pronunciation is not considered “posh” but “standard”. Posh was defined as the rather over-exaggerated accent people often use to pantomime the rich. There are a small minority of people who have that stereotypical accent but “posh” on its own is not a very good way of describing anyone’s accent.

If we are going to talk about poshness — I believe it’s better to view it as a “gradation of poshness” which is superimposed on BBC pronunciation, rather than a distinct “posh accent”.

BBC pronunciation and the “gradation of poshness” are not good reflectors of social status in today’s society.

Traditionally BBC pronunciation was considered the preserve of the middle classes. It was something that set you apart from the common masses with their regional accents. I wouldn’t say that class has no role in today’s society, but BBC pronunciation itself has become less of a hallmark of class. Many people who would identify themselves as working class do not have a regional accent, whilst the middle-classes are more accepting of regional accents. The BBC has worked hard to introduce presenters with regional accents onto prime time television. Therefore it is hard to judge the social status of a person purely based on how “posh” they sound. Their accent will not always match your expectations of their material circumstances.

[...]

John Watson

John had me rather puzzled but my conclusion is that his accent qualifies as BBC pronunciation but unlike Mycroft or Sherlock, he has not superimposed any of those “upper class” vowels on his pronunciation. For example his “a” vowel sounds are much shorter as evidenced in words such as “pass”. John is a much better presentation of what a great number of people in the UK actually sound like.

Here is an amusing map of how the “a” vowel varies in pronunciation between different geographic areas:

British pronunciation of the letter a

John fits in very much with the blue group. His rendition of the “a” vowel is still correct and technically BBC pronunciation. However it is considered less “posh” than pronouncing the “a” vowel as “ah”.

His rhythm of speech and accentuations within words may contribute to the overall impression that his accent is different to Sherlock’s. This is true because Sherlock doesn’t have exact BBC pronunciation and neither does John. Though they deviate in different ways I would say their accents overall qualify as BBC pronunciation. It is certainly hard to pinpoint a location for the original of John’s accent.

H/T to ESR, who asked about the Sherlock accents on Google+ (the link to Firestorm was provided in the comments to his post).

QotD: Communism and language

Filed under: Media, Politics, Quotations — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

It is not a new thought that Communism debased language and, with language, thought. There is a Communist jargon recognizable after a single sentence. Few people in Europe have not joked in their time about “concrete steps,” “contradictions,” “the interpenetration of opposites,” and the rest.

The first time I saw that mind-deadening slogans had the power to take wing and fly far from their origins was in the 1950s when I read an article in The Times of London and saw them in use. “The demo last Saturday was irrefutable proof that the concrete situation…” Words confined to the left as corralled animals had passed into general use and, with them, ideas. One might read whole articles in the conservative and liberal press that were Marxist, but the writers did not know it. But there is an aspect of this heritage that is much harder to see.

Even five, six years ago, Izvestia, Pravda and a thousand other Communist papers were written in a language that seemed designed to fill up as much space as possible without actually saying anything. Because, of course, it was dangerous to take up positions that might have to be defended. Now all these newspapers have rediscovered the use of language. But the heritage of dead and empty language these days is to be found in academia, and particularly in some areas of sociology and psychology.

Doris Lessing, “Questions You Should Never Ask a Writer”, New York Times, 1992-06-26 (reprinted 2007-10-13)

May 9, 2014

Shakespeare: Original pronunciation

Filed under: Britain, History, Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 13:04

Jon, my former virtual landlord sent along an interesting link:

An introduction by David and Ben Crystal to the ‘Original Pronunciation’ production of Shakespeare and what they reveal about the history of the English language.

April 21, 2014

English borrowings from Chinese

Filed under: China — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 08:20

The Wall Street Journal‘s China Real Time section wonders why we haven’t seen much linguistic small change from China filtering into everyday English:

As languages go, English is a notoriously promiscuous one, borrowing caricatures from Italian, chutzpah from Yiddish and faux pas from French.

And yet despite the English-speaking world’s deep and wide confluences with Chinese culture, for some reason, few Chinese words have lately entered the English-speaking world’s vocabulary.

China’s state media is hoping that could change: Last week, it cited several Chinese entries that have recently appeared [at] UrbanDictionary.com. “English speakers may soon be saying ‘you can you up, no can no bb’ in response to criticism,” the official Xinhua news agency said, referring to a Chinese phrase that means if you can do it, do it, and if you can’t, don’t criticize others. (The original Chinese is你行你上,不行别BB. In Beijing dialect, “BB” means to nag or complain.)

[...]

On the English side, resistance to Chinese words doesn’t seem to be a simple difficulty of pronunciation: though Mandarin’s different tones may be daunting, the basic syllables are easy enough, and the trickiness of French or Japanese pronunciation (coup d’etat, karaoke) hasn’t stopped English from embracing words from either language.

And there are plenty of words that would seem ripe to jump the Pacific: Here at China Real Time, one particularly accessible term, mafan — meaning a hassle, or difficulty — could be easily adopted by English speakers (and in fact already has been by many on staff). And who could resist the roll-off-the-tongue ease of mamahuhu, a term that means “so-so”? (The literal translation is “horse horse tiger tiger.”) Maybe, as some theorize, it’s just a matter of time, as China’s reach grows, and exchanges continue to deepen.

Oddly, some of the most colourful terms listed here haven’t yet become common:

15) Stupid Inbred Stack of Meat
笨天生的一堆肉。・ BUN tyen-shung duh ee-DWAY-RO
On a visit to one of Mal’s old Army buddies, Monty, on an uninhabited moon, Mal and crew encounter “Saffron”, the beautiful con-artist who once tricked Mal into marriage, and nearly stole his ship (played by the absolutely magnificent Christina Hendricks); this time, she’s taken the name “Bridget” and married Monty. A short tussle ensues between her and Mal (lucky bastard) which Monty breaks up as Mal explains the details of their shared history. When Saffron, who had been denying everything, lets it slip that she knows Mal’s name, Monty abandons her on the barren lunar surface. She screams this bit of Mandarin to the heavens as his ship departs. This phrase is also noteworthy for its use on the back cover of Serenity: The Official Visual Companion, where Chinese characters inform prospective buyers: “If you don’t buy this book, your friends will think you’re a stupid inbred stack of meat.”

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6) Filthy Fornicators of Livestock
喝畜生雜交的髒貨 ・ Huh choo-shung tza-jiao duh tzang-huo
As a clergyman, Shepherd Book is usually denied the use of the kind of innovative vulgarity the rest of the crew enjoys. Sometimes, however, a particular sight inspires even a man of the cloth to throw down with the best obscenity slingers. Book offers this exclamation in response to crime boss Adelai Niska’s reprehensible act of sending the Serenity‘s crew their kidnapped Captain’s severed ear. Fun fact: the Firefly-Serenity Pinyinary offers translations of not only the entire phrase, but of the component words. We mention this in case anyone might be wondering if this translation is simply a more polite way of saying “Dirty Cow Fuckers”. It isn’t. Foreign languages are fun, huh?

5) Motherless Goats of All Motherless Goats
羔羊中的孤羊 ・ Gao yang jong duh goo yang
Another slice of pure Mandarin what-the-fuckery, this time from Wash, who has the honor of delivering some of the most outrageous Chinese dialogue this side of a Beijing mental hospital. Wash mutters this under his breath when he learns that Magistrate Higgins has put a landlock on the ship — his consternation doesn’t last long, for only a moment after noticing the lock, it was removed. Only Inara knows why (she was hired to deflower the Magistrate’s son, and accomplished making a man of him a bit too well for the senior Higgins’ liking).

4) Holy Mother of God and All Her Wacky Nephews
我的媽和她的瘋狂的外甥都 ・ Wuh duh ma huh tah duh fong kwong duh wai shung
This may be the most awesome phrase we’ve ever heard in any language; only its lack of vulgarity kept it from breaking the Top Three. Once again, it issues forth from the mouth of Wash. In “Our Mrs. Reynolds,” we first encounter the deliciously devious ginger con-babe, Saffron. After leading Mal to the “Special Hell”, she proceeds to the cockpit where she puts the moves on poor Wash. Only his devotion to Zoe keeps him from succumbing to Saffron’s charms — devotion that earns him a roundhouse kick to the head. This marvelous line is his singular response to Saffron’s advances.

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