Shared posts

12 Jan 15:02

Why do we move our hands when we talk? My latest collab video...

Why do we move our hands when we talk? 

My latest collab video with Tom Scott is about gesture

11 Jan 07:43

therussianmajor: Interpretation! And! Translation! Are! Hard!...


Interpretation! And! Translation! Are! Hard! F*cking! Work!

These fields deserve so much more respect and reverence.

25 Dec 14:51

allthingslinguistic: “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” in...


“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” in Anglo-Saxon meter, by Philip Craig Chapman-Bell. Via Etymonline on Facebook, who says “An Internet classic; but I can no longer find it where I first found it (Cathy Ball’s Old English reference pages).”

Incipit gestis Rudolphi rangifer tarandus

Hwæt, Hrodulf readnosa hrandeor –
Næfde þæt nieten unsciende næsðyrlas!
Glitenode and gladode godlice nosgrisele.
Ða hofberendas mid huscwordum hine gehefigodon;
Nolden þa geneatas Hrodulf næftig
To gomene hraniscum geador ætsomne.
Þa in Cristesmæsseæfne stormigum clommum,
Halga Claus þæt gemunde to him maðelode:
“Neahfreond nihteage nosubeorhtende!
Min hroden hrædwæn gelæd ðu, Hrodulf!”
Ða gelufodon hira laddeor þa lyftflogan –
Wæs glædnes and gliwdream; hornede sum gegieddode
“Hwæt, Hrodulf readnosa hrandeor,
Brad springð þin blæd: breme eart þu!”

Rendered literally into modern English:

Here begins the deeds of Rudolph, Tundra-Wanderer

Lo, Hrodulf the red-nosed reindeer –
That beast didn’t have unshiny nostrils!
The goodly nose-cartilage glittered and glowed.
The hoof-bearers taunted him with proud words;
The comrades wouldn’t allow wretched Hrodulf
To join the reindeer games.
Then, on Christmas Eve bound in storms
Santa Claus remembered that, spoke formally to him:
“Dear night-sighted friend, nose-bright one!
You, Hrodulf, shall lead my adorned rapid-wagon!”
Then the sky-flyers praised their lead-deer –
There was gladness and music; one of the horned ones sang
“Lo, Hrodulf the red-nosed reindeer,
Your fame spreads broadly, you are renowned!”

01 Dec 20:51

Apostropocalypse again

by Mark Liberman

"'Laziness has won': apostrophe society admits its defeat", The Guardian 12/1/2019:

John Richards, who worked in journalism for much of his career, started the Apostrophe Protection Society in 2001 after he retired.

Now 96, Richards is calling time on the society, which lists the three simple rules for correct use of the punctuation mark.

Writing on the society's website, he said: "Fewer organisations and individuals are now caring about the correct use of the apostrophe in the English language.

"We, and our many supporters worldwide, have done our best but the ignorance and laziness present in modern times have won!"

That would be the "ignorance and laziness" found in John Donne and William Shakespeare ("Apostropocalypse Now", 1/15/2012), or Thomas Jefferson ("A soul candidly acknowleging it's fault", 6/9/2004), or Emily Dickinson (e.g. "The Brain, within it's Groove / Runs evenly — and true –"), or any other elite writer before the a century and a half ago, when the current (and entirely illogical) set of conventions for apostrophe usage in English was established.

See also:

Odile Piton and Hélène Pignot, "Mind your p's and q's": or the peregrinations of an apostrophe in 17th Century English;
Stan Carey, "Apostrophe apostasy", Macmillan Dictionary Blog;
"October and the Apostrophe", The English Project 2015.

From the last reference:

One reason for the battered state of the mark is that orthodox deployment demands an orthodox education, one most easily obtained at a private school. Those who have not been to a private school look as though they have if they use an orthodox apostrophe. That may be its main function, and it is well to use it well in applications for the higher jobs.

In the U.S., better-class public schools also teach the apostrophic complexities. But in any case, orthodox apostrophe usage is certainly a form of cultural capital — a property it shares with the rest of the current English orthographic system, as well as most other orthograpic systems. And those who are most anxious about preserving "the rules" are presumably also those who are most anxious about the value of their own cultural bank accounts.

[h/t Michael Glazer]


28 Nov 05:16

Mic drop

by Mo
17 Nov 13:34

Part I - What is a Weird Internet Career?

Lately, as I’ve been doing fancy things like publishing a NYT bestselling book about internet linguistics and writing a column about internet linguistics for Wired, I’ve also been hearing things from people like “how did those come about?” or “I want to be you when I grow up.” 

The bad news is, there’s no magical shortcut. The good news is also, there’s no magical shortcut. What there is, is a series of smaller and less glamorous things that I did as I was starting out, which eventually built into something larger and more glamorous. So this is a series about the early days of building all these things that came to fruition in the past year or so, in the hopes that it may be useful for other people.

I call myself an internet linguist for two reasons: one is that I analyze the language of the internet and two is that I do so in a very internettish sort of way. In other words, I have a Weird Internet Career for linguistics. You may never have encountered an internet linguist before (hello, welcome!), but you’ve definitely encountered other people with Weird Internet Careers. 

Weird Internet Careers are the kinds of jobs that are impossible to explain to your parents, people who somehow make a living from the internet, generally involving a changing mix of revenue streams. Weird Internet Career is a term I made up (it had no google results in quotes before I started using it), but once you start noticing them, you’ll see them everywhere. 

Weird Internet Careers are weird because there is no one else who does exactly what they do. They’re internet because they rely on the internet as a cornerstone, such as bloggers, webcomics, youtubers, artists, podcasters, writers, developers, subject-matter experts, and other people in very specific niches. And they’re careers because they somehow manage to support themselves, often making money from some combination of ad revenue, t-shirt sales, other merch, ongoing membership/subscription (Patreon, Substack), crowdfunding (Kickstarter, Indiegogo, Ko-Fi), sponsorship deals, conventional book deals, self-published ebooks, selling online courses, selling products or apps or services, public speaking, and consulting. 

But there isn’t necessarily much relationship between the type of weird internet thing someone makes and how they make money from it — one webcomic artist and one youtuber may both support themselves from t-shirt sales and ad revenue, while another webcomic artist and another youtuber may both support themselves from Patreon and conventional book deals. Some Weird Internet Careers have entirely transparent incomes through crowdfunding or posting their finances online; some have mysterious revenue that’s entirely surmise (or may not be enough to actually be a career). 

People who have Weird Internet Careers sometimes start out unintentionally, by making things for personal expression or because they like being helpful, but they eventually realize that they’re providing a thing that people need or want, and that there’s a version of it that someone will buy, and that they’ve build up the kind of reputation which means that people will buy from them. (You can also definitely make things that stay being just about your personal expression, as long as you’re aiming for a hobby rather than a career. Hobbies are great, you don’t have to monetize your hobbies, they’re just not what this series is about.) But I think a person could also start a Weird Internet Career more intentionally, or at least be more intentional about building an existing “making things for free on the internet” habit into a career, which is why I’m writing this series. Also, I want more people doing public-facing linguistics, at a purely personal level. 

The cornerstone of a Weird Internet Career is that you a) make a thing on the internet that people value and b) provide a way to convert that value into money. (If you have the first but not the second, it’s not a career, at least not yet. If you have the second but not the first, well, you probably don’t have much in the way of career yet either.) The thing you make might be a recipe blog, and that money might be from ads and an associated cookbook, or it might be email advice on developing a new skill and the money from an e-course on the skill, or it might be a podcast and the money from bonus episodes and merch. And so on. I know one person whose Weird Internet Career is basically “making zines about Linux (some free, some paid).” There are so many niches.

You don’t need to be famous to have a Weird Internet Career, though it often involves building a certain amount of reputation for you or your thing in some corner of the internet, but most of that reputation is built by doing the thing, not by starting off as notable from something else. Some people start off with Weird Internet Careers as a springboard into more conventional jobs, some people have conventional jobs that they find unsatisfying and develop a Weird Internet Career in their spare time (that they may eventually quit their jobs for), some people keep going with both at the same time and enjoy how they feed off each other. 

So, I said I have a Weird Internet Career as a pop linguist. How did I get it? Well, I built it. The next part is about how that happened. 

I’m posting this series about Weird Internet Careers and how to build them to my blog over the next few weeks. However, if you want to get the whole series now as a single doc, with bonus Weird Internet Career-building questions to think about, you can sign up for my newsletter on Substack here, which will also get you monthly updates about my future Weird Internet Career activities as an Internet Linguist. 

Part I - What is a Weird Internet Career?
Part II - How I Built a Weird Internet Career as an Internet Linguist
Part III - How to start a Weird Internet Career
Part IV - How to make money doing a Weird Internet Career
Part V - What can a Weird Internet Career look like?
Part VI - Is it too late for me to start my Weird Internet Career?
Part VII - How to level up your Weird Internet Career

13 Nov 13:25

leftoversalad: Inspired by Rullmann Chemistry 101 prof: All...


Inspired by Rullmann

Chemistry 101 prof: All atoms have an equal number of electrons and protons. Yes, Kevin? 
Kevin (student): What about negatively charged ions? 
Chemistry 101 prof: Those are just BAD atoms. 

Surgeon: Another successful operation! 
Assistant: You think so? I mean, stomach sutures are supposed to be thread with sheep intestine. That’s how Hippocrates did it. 

Social studies teacher: So basically, all dudes like to ride horses. This is true because in ancient Rome, lots of dudes rode horses and they loved it. 
Student: But– I hate horses!
Social studies teacher: No you love horses because you’re a dude. 


07 Nov 10:00

Cushty Kazakh

by Nadia Christopher

With thousands of miles between the East End of London and the land of Kazakhs, cushty was the last word one expected to hear one warm spring afternoon in the streets of Astana (the capital of Kazakhstan, since renamed Nur-Sultan). The word cushty (meaning ‘great, very good, pleasing’) is usually associated with the Cockney dialect of the English language which originated in the East End of London.

Del Boy from Only Fools and Horses
Del Boy from Only Fools and Horses

Check out Del Boy’s Cockney sayings (Cushty from 4:04 to 4:41).

Cockney is still spoken in London now, and the word is often used to refer to anyone from London, although a true Cockney would disagree with that, and would proudly declare her East End origins. More specifically, a true ‘Bow-bell’ Cockney comes from the area within hearing distance of the church bells of St. Mary-le-Bow, Cheapside, London.

Due to its strong association with modern-day London, the word ‘Cockney’ might be perceived as being one with a fairly short history. This could not be further from the truth as its etymology goes back to a late Middle English 14th century word cokenay, which literally means a “cock’s egg” – a useless, small, and defective egg laid by a rooster (which does not actually produce eggs). This pejorative term was later used to denote a spoiled or pampered child, a milksop, and eventually came to mean a town resident who was seen as affected or puny.

The pronunciation of the Cockney dialect is thought to have been influenced by Essex and other dialects from the east of England, while the vocabulary contains many borrowings from Yiddish and Romany (cushty being one of those borrowings – we’ll get back to that in a bit!). One of the most prominent features of Cockney pronunciation is the glottalisation of the sound [t], which means that [t] is pronounced as a glottal stop: [ʔ]. Another interesting feature of Cockney pronunciation is called th-fronting, which means that the sounds usually induced by the letter combination th ([θ] as in ‘thanks’ and [ð] as in ‘there’ are replaced by the sounds [f] and [v]. These (and some other) phonological features characteristic of the Cockney dialect have now spread far and wide across London and other areas, partly thanks to the popularity of television shows like “Only Fools and Horses” and “EastEnders”.

As far as grammar is concerned, the Cockney dialect is distinguished by the use of me instead of my to indicate possession; heavy use of ain’t in place of am not, is not, are not, has not, have not; and the use of double negation which is ungrammatical in Standard British English: I ain’t saying nuffink to mean I am not saying anything.

Having borrowed words, Cockney also gave back generously, with derivatives from Cockney rhyming slang becoming a staple of the English vernacular. The rhyming slang tradition is believed to have started in the early to mid-19th century as a way for criminals and wheeler-dealers to code their speech beyond the understanding of police or ordinary folk. The code is constructed by way of rhyming a phrase with a common word, but only using the first word of that phrase to refer to the word. For example, the phrase apples and pears rhymes with the word stairs, so the first word of the phrase – apples – is then used to signify stairs: I’m going up the apples. Another popular and well-known example is dog and bone – telephone, so if a Cockney speaker asks to borrow your dog, do not rush to hand over your poodle!

Test your knowledge of Cockney rhyming slang!

Right, so did I encounter a Cockney walking down the field of wheat (street!) in Astana saying how cushty it was? Perhaps it was a Kazakh student who had recently returned from his studies in London and couldn’t quite switch back to Kazakh? No and no. It was a native speaker of Kazakh reacting in Kazakh to her interlocutor’s remark on the new book she’d purchased by saying күшті [kyʃ.tɨˈ] which sounds incredibly close to cushty [kʊˈʃ.ti]. The meanings of the words and contexts in which they can be used are remarkably similar too. The Kazakh күшті literally means ‘strong’, however, colloquially it is used to mean ‘wonderful, great, excellent’ – it really would not be out of place in any of Del Boy’s remarks in the YouTube video above! Surely, the two kushtis have to be related, right? Well…

Recall, that cushty is a borrowing from Romany (Indo-European) kushto/kushti, which, in turn, is known to have borrowed from Persian and Arabic. In the case of the Romany kushto/kushti, the borrowing could have been from the Persian khoši meaning ‘happiness’ or ‘pleasure’. It would have been very neat if this could be linked to the Kazakh күшті, however, there seems to be no connection there… Kazakh is a Turkic language and the etymology of күшті can be traced back to the Old Turkic root küč meaning ‘power’, which does not seem to have been borrowed from or connected with Persian. Certainly, had we been able to go back far enough, we might have found a common Indo-European-Turkic root in some Proto-Proto-Proto-Language. As things stand now, all we can do is admire what appears to be a wonderful coincidence, and enjoy the journeys on which a two-syllable word you’d overheard in the street might take you.

24 Oct 08:53

prokopetz:We say “English doesn’t make any sense” because saying “English is unusual in that, when...


We say “English doesn’t make any sense” because saying “English is unusual in that, when it borrows vocabulary from other languages, it tends to partially retain the morphology of the originating language group rather than adapting the word in question to English morphology, which is why we have twelve different ways to construct a plural” takes too long.

15 Oct 04:32

"Hospitals named after sandwiches kill five"

by Ben Zimmer

Sherlocution Holmes is an entertaining UK-based Twitter presence with a bio that reads, "Consultant detective tracking down the best (and worst!) linguistics and language examples." Many of the tweets are humorous illustrations of structural or semantic ambiguity, including many examples of "crash blossoms" — those double-take headlines that are ambiguous enough to be laughably misinterpreted. Here's one popular recent tweet.

It turns out that this is recycled from a tweet last June from the author Adam Macqueen:

The headline appeared in the (UK) Times on June 18, though the online version of the article now features slightly different wording: "Hospital trusts named after sandwiches kill five." (The headline was also noted in the Straight Dope and Black Cat Bone forums.)

Here are tree diagrams for the two possible readings of the headline:

In the intended reading, "named" is the main verb (with the copula "are" deleted as is typical in headlinese), while in the misparsed version, "named" is the verb in the reduced relative clause "named after sandwiches." It's similar to the type of ambiguity found in the classic garden-path sentence, "The horse raced past the barn fell" (where "raced" can be interpreted as the main verb or as the verb in the reduced relative clause "raced past the barn").

Replies to the tweets from Macqueen and Sherlocution Holmes took the idea of "hospitals named after sandwiches" and ran with it.

And so on.

14 Oct 01:51

I’m…not actually sure if I asked them to make the...

I’m…not actually sure if I asked them to make the word “multicolored” actually multicoloured but I am extremely pleased they did

Shoutout to the Kindle app for handling all the absurd formatting in Gretchen McCulloch’s amazing book Because Internet

10 Oct 16:13

"I think, like many linguists, I have a difficult time turning the linguistics part of my brain off...."

I think, like many linguists, I have a difficult time turning the linguistics part of my brain off. If you get me at the pub, I may be trying to listen to what you’re saying and then get distracted by your vowels. So to be interested in the way people talk on the internet is just a natural extension of being interested in how people talk around me on an everyday basis. […]

I think it’s easy to see people doing something different from you, and assume it must be haphazard, random, or they must not know “the right way” to do it. In reality, people are acting for deliberate reasons, and I’m figuring out what those reasons are.

I think that it can come as a tremendous relief to realise that you don’t have to be angry about language, you don’t have to be annoyed about people doing something different from you.

- Internet linguist Gretchen McCulloch: ‘I’m still figuring out what’s going on with the comma ellipsis’
09 Oct 02:57

Mars Is Heaven!

by Phil Plait

You probably hear a lot of news from NASA's many amazing Mars missions: the Curiosity rover, InSight, MRO, and more. NASA is good at promoting their stuff of course, but also the images returned from all these missions are truly wonderful.

You may not hear as much from the European Space Agency's Mars Express mission. Well, you may have heard about the lander Beagle 2: It set down safely on the surface, but two of the four solar panels didn't deploy, dooming that part of that mission.

But the orbiter part of the spacecraft has been running now for nearly 16 years. It takes images of the surface, maps the minerals there, and has lots of other instruments to poke and prod at the Red Planet to learn what's there. The science from the mission has been extremely valuable.

And so have the images. A lot of sweeping imagery has been returned by the mission, but one recently released made me literally gasp when I saw it. It's incredible:

An image of Mars, pole-to-pole, taken by the Mars Express mission on June 17, 2019. Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

This was taken on June 17, 2019, so just a couple of months ago. Now have a care here: The original image is a massive 2,772 x 7,526 pixels. I had to shrink it by a factor of two to fit the blog here, and I also dropped the resolution (i.e. used JPEG compression) to keep the file size from being so big our servers would've choked on it. Grab the full-res version and just scan around it. It's magnificent.

The colors are exaggerated; what's shown as blue here is mostly grayish basaltic regions, though the wispy clouds seen near the north pole (top) do tend to look blue.

Speaking of, here's the north pole of Mars at near full resolution to give you a taste of this:

The north pole of Mars, seen by the Mars Express orbiter. Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

Wow. The north polar cap is mostly water ice with dust mixed in, with a thin layer of carbon dioxide ice that sublimates (turns to gas) every Martian summer. There are deep canyons there that you can see radiating away from the pole. Off to the right, just off the edge of the planet are more clouds seen edge-on.

Farther south, near the equator, is this incredible region:

The heavily cratered Arabia Terra region near the equator of Mars. Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

This is the northeast corner of the vast Arabia Terra, a huge plain on Mars about 4,500 kilometers wide. The crater on the left is Cassini, which itself is over 400 km across. Whatever hit Mars to form it was big. Way bigger than the Dinosaur Killer that hit Earth 66 million years ago.

The 170-km-wide crater on the right (with the two smaller craters on its edge) is called Flammarion, named after astronomer Camille Flammarion, who studied Mars. He was quite an interesting character, and thought the canali seen by the Italian astronomer Schiaparelli were truly canals dug by a Martian civilization. Wealthy American astronomer Percival Lowell thought so as well, and built an observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona just to observe Mars. He popularized the idea of Martians as a dying species, and, wrong as it was, even today that idea still resonates.

I urge you to grab the big image and just look around it. The ESA page has a lot more information about it, including a description of the weird topography of the planet. Head over there and give it a read; you'll get a deeper (haha) appreciation for how strange a world Mars is.

P.S. If you're wondering about the title of this article, you should read more Ray Bradbury.

24 Sep 21:21

"When you think of communication back in the early 21st century, you probably think of it as the..."

When you think of communication back in the early 21st century, you probably think of it as the beginnings of the modern phone. But you may not realize that it’s also the origin point for many words and linguistic constructions that we’re still using now, 200 years later. I’ve
been using the records at the Internet Archive to research the English of this fascinating historical era, and my research has led me to believe that we should take a more relaxed and curious attitude toward our own language changes in the 23rd century.

For example, did you know that there was a period between the 17th and the 20th centuries when English didn’t make a distinction between formal and informal ways of addressing someone? Shakespeare distinguished between formal “you” and informal “thou,” but our presentday distinction between formal “you” and informal “u” dates back only to the beginning of the internet age. How could people of this unfortunate era have had a true understanding of the Bard when they had no way to fully grasp the intimacy of the sonnets (“shall i compare u to a summer’s day / u are more lovely and more temperate”)?


So you’d imagine that early-21st-century people would have been really excited about this fascinating era that they were living in, right?

In my research, I came across so many doommongering quotes about how texting was ruining the English language, when we obviously now know it as a cultural renaissance in writing that ushered in the new genre of the textolary novel and other kinds of microfiction, not to mention creating now-classic nonfiction formats like the thread. (I drafted this op-ed as a thread myself, as any sensible writer would do, because how else would I stresstest each of my sentences to make sure they were all pithy and vital?)

As ridiculous as the fears of the past seem, when I read them, I found myself seeing with new light the fears of the present. We’ve all heard the complaints about how the youths are communicating these days — many of us even have complained about it ourselves. But what will the people of the 25th century think, looking back at our 23rd-century rants about kids refusing to say “no worries” in response to “thank you?” Won’t they be totally accustomed to hearing “it’s nothing” or its even more reviled short form “snothin” by then?


How arrogant of us to think that, amid all of the possible eras of the English language, it somehow peaked exactly one generation ago, in the 22nd century. How foolish the critics of those bygone years look in their disdain for their own century and reverence for the 20th or the 21st. How clear it is, from the perspective of history, that when we mythologize the English of a previous age, all we’re doing is creating a moving target that we can never quite hit.

We can break this cycle. We don’t have to wait until the 23rd century passes into history before we start appreciating its linguistic innovations. We don’t have to use language as a tool for demonstrating intellectual superiority when we could be using it as a way of connecting with each other.


Gretchen McCulloch, How Can You Appreciate 23rd-Century English? Look Back 200 Years

Part of the New York Times Op-Eds From the Future series, in which science fiction authors, futurists, philosophers and scientists write Op-Eds that they imagine we might read 10, 50 or even 200 years from now. 

17 Sep 20:38

funereal-disease: As promised, here’s the masterpost of names once considered “made up” or otherwise...


As promised, here’s the masterpost of names once considered “made up” or otherwise bizarre that are perfectly cromulent today: 

  • Shirley: Derived from a place name meaning “bright clearing”, this was originally a surname. It was almost unheard of as a given name until actress Shirley Temple’s popularity engendered a huge spike, around 1935. 
  • Vanessa: Invented by Jonathan Swift in 1726 for his poem “Cadenus and Vanessa”. 
  • Madison: An English surname meaning “son of Maud”, it was almost completely unheard of as a first name (at least for girls) until the movie Splash
  • Ashley: A surname derived from the Old English for “ash tree clearing”. An exclusively male name until the 1960s. 
  • Beverly: Another place surname, this one meaning “beaver stream”. Used for boys since the 19th century, became popular for girls after the 1904 novel Beverly of Graustark
  • Lorelei: A rock headland on the Rhine. 
  • Eleanor: Literally “the other Aenor”. More here
  • Percival: Invented by 12th-century poet Chrétien de Troyes. 
  • Jessica: Invented by Shakespeare in 1596, possibly based on the Hebrew Jescha
  • Lucinda: A variant of Lucia first used by Miguel de Cervantes in Don Quixote (1605). 
  • Norma: Seldom used before 1831, when it was popularized by Felice Romani’s opera of the same name.
  • Elaine: Popularized after Tennyson’s Arthurian epic Idylls of the King (1859). 
  • Nemo: Means “nobody” in Latin. First used as a name by Jules Verne in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870).

There’s plenty more where that came from. This is merely a sample to indicate that there’s no need to clutch your pearls over the crazy names “moms these days” are making up. “Making it up out of thin air” or “pointing to a nearby object” are as historically legitimate a means of naming your child as anything else. 

My personal favourite example of a made-up name that now doesn’t register as made-up is Wendy, which JM Barrie created for Peter Pan “from the nickname fwendy “friend”, given to the author by a young friend.” 

13 Sep 21:07

Earth-Like Exoplanet

Fire is actually a potential biosignature, since it means something is filling the atmosphere with an unstable gas like oxygen. If we find a planet covered in flames, it might be an indicator that it supports life. Or used to, anyway, before the fire.
12 Sep 14:14

Swot swat?

by Mark Liberman

Boris Johnson called  Jeremy Corbyn a "big girl's blouse"  in parliament last Wednesday, and on Friday it was revealed that he had referred to David Cameron as a "girly swot" in a cabinet note.  For Americans not versed in British slang, the OED tells us that a swot is "one who studies hard", and explains that swot as an abstract noun refers to "Work or study at school or college; in early use spec. mathematics". The Guardian story tells us that

It is not the first time Johnson has used the insult about the former prime minister. In 2013, when he was London mayor, Johnson called Cameron and his brother, Jo, "girly swots" for gaining first-class degrees at university, when the current prime minister had to make do with a 2:1.

and links to a tweet from MP Allison McGovern asking "What is it about big smart women Boris Johnson doesn't like?"

A possible clue emerged during the Leo Varadkar's contribution to yesterday's joint press conference with Johnson:

The Irish Prime Minister said:

If there is no deal,
it'll cause severe disruption
for British and Irish people alike.
Not so much on the continent.
And whatever happens,
we'll have to get back to the negotiating table quite quickly.
And when we do,
the first items on the agenda
will be citizens' rights,
the financial settlement,
and the Irish border —
all issues which we had resolved
in the withdrawal agreement made with your predecessor,
an agreement made in good faith by twenty eight governments.
But if there is a deal,
and I think it's possible,
we'll enter talks on a future relationship agreement
between the E.U. and the U.K.
It's going to be very tough,
we'll have to deal with issues like tariffs,
fishing rights, product standards, state aid.
And it will then have to be ratified by 31 parliaments.
Prime minister, negotiating F.T.A.s with the E.U. and the U.S.,
and securing their ratification in less than three years,
I think is going to be a herculean task for you.
But we do want to be your friend, and your ally —
your Athena —
in doing so.

As the Guardian explains ("Why did Varadkar say he wanted to be Athena to Johnson's Hercules? The Irish PM cited a Greek goddess famous for knocking Hercules out to prevent him causing further damage", 9/9/2019):

In Greek mythology, the goddess Athena did assist Hercules as an ally during the performance of his 12 labours. She provided, for example, bronze krotala – noise-makers similar to castanets – to help him scare off the flock of Stymphalian birds. And in some versions of the tale she was also of service to him by returning to their rightful place the golden apples of the gods that Hercules had been asked to obtain.

But it is perhaps her most dramatic intervention in the life of Hercules that Varadkar was obliquely referring to.

Hercules was obliged to perform the 12 labours as an act of penitence after he had descended into madness and murdered his wife, Megara, and his children. At the moment he was about to go on and kill the man who had fostered him, Amphitryon, Athena intervened. Seeing that he had gone mad, she struck Hercules down and knocked him out to prevent him causing more bloodshed and doing more damage than he had already done.

Very much what you would hope for from a friend and ally, but maybe not what you would want to hear on the international stage at a moment of tense diplomacy.

Athena is the goddess of "wisdom, courage, inspiration, civilization, law and justice, strategic warfare, mathematics, strength, strategy, the arts, crafts, and skill" — the original "girly (goddess of) swot", here threatening to deliver another well-deserved swat.


11 Sep 16:06


by S J Tamsett

For Jonah

For year and years,

I thought I had invented it.

A collage from stories,

Nature documentaries,

And Time Life picture books;

You can’t forget something so huge!

But no one remembered the whale.

No one but me.

My visual memories are rare and scattered,

So why would one be

Blubber and whale skin,

A strange, chthonic smell,

And size, oh, sweet Jesus,

The monstrous size of it.

It’s deathly pale underbelly

That massive gaping jaw,

And it’s dead, empty eye.

So vacant, and yet so sad.

I remember I wanted to touch it.

That strange, cold, fishy flesh.

I wanted to stroke it, to soothe it somehow.

I felt it wanted comforting, that it was lonely.

Perhaps I sensed somehow

That he was missing his brothers.

I saw a whale! It stuck in my head.

It was at Belle Vue Zoo,

Because where else would it be?

Lying, beached, on a flatbed truck,

Labelled as if it were a frog

In a school science lesson.

The stench of formaldehyde

Wreathing the air all around.

Someone must have been with me

That day, when I saw it.

Someone must have taken me.

I was only a child.

But no one remembered.

And for so long it seemed like some mad dream.

No mention in the press.

It’s as if no one noticed

A dead whale being driven around the country.

It’s not something surely

You can do without one person

Thinking they might take a snap?

So it just became the strange thing

That I made up one day,

And I couldn’t explain why

When I saw pictures of whales,

I felt so odd, so melancholy.

As if there was something I needed to remember,

But had forgotten how.

Like finding my way back to the sea.

When I was at high school,

There were specimens

Preserved in formaldehyde

And the smell made me feel

Like I missed the sea, for no reason

I could really name.

And I longed to set the long-dead

Invertebrates free from their jars.

Like a modern Frankenstein

Of the fourth form.

I unscrewed too many lids

And some were never the same again.

Then one day, very recently,

I saw someone had created an art exhibit

To commemorate three long dead whales.

And their names were Goliath,

Jonah and Hercules,

And they had toured Europe

From the 50s until the 70s

On the back of three huge trucks.

And I felt like I could cry

For that beautiful sad whale

I saw, so long ago.

Who wasn’t ever a dream.

And who had never found his way

Back to the sea again.

The story goes that he’s frozen

Somewhere in storage,

Like a fairytale princess.

And now I dream about him again

That I wake him from decades of slumber.

And one day at last,

He finds his way back

To the sea again,

And he returns to the deep dark places

Where he always belonged.

02 Sep 18:16

culmaer: at this point I think we’re all familiar with the etymologies, that the animals “chicken,...


at this point I think we’re all familiar with the etymologies, that the animals “chicken, cow, sheep, pig” are all Germanic, Anglosaxon, words, but the culinary equivalents “poultry, beef, mutton, pork” all derive from Norman French

but 〜fun fact〜 almost the exact same phenomenon exists in isiXhosa !!!

inkuku and inkomo are refer to the animals, chicken and cow, while the meats are usually called ichicken and ibeef. there’s still an awareness that they’re loans, which is why the spelling isn’t *itshigini for example, but it’s ubiquitous in the spoken language

apparently, mutton and pork are usually still called inyama yegusha and inyama yehagu (lit. sheep meat and pig meat) and I’ve definitely never heard *imutton before so that checks out (though *ipork sounds familiar ?)… and in formal, written contexts one uses those same constructions for beef and chicken : inyama yenkomo and inyama yenkuku

02 Sep 14:01


by Jed

On Tumblr a year or two back, in a discussion of Leonard Cohen’s song “Hallelujah,” user bigscaryd noted that the phrase “tag your favorite line of hallelujah” scans to the meter of the song.

Which led to other people creating new meta-verses to the song. Like this from animatedamerican:

you tried to read the words as prose

but noticed how its scansion goes

and now you can’t unhear the tune, so screw ya

recall the phrase you love the most

then once again reblog this post

and tag your fav’rite line of hallelujah

For a few more comments along similar lines, see amatalefay’s response.

29 Aug 19:41

To people who use "þ" as an aesthetic "p"


This brings me so much joy and also I've learned a couple more Cyrillic letters (until I inevitably forget again).











þink again.

getting thorny in the linguistics fandom


That also goes for using ß as an aesthetic B. 

On my old server, there was a character named ßillyßadass.

This never failed to make me laugh, because that letter is not pronounced like B. It is a sharp S. 

That guy named himself SsillySsadass. 

Also to people who you Σ as an aesthetic E

that’s an S too, Σo maybe check next time

oh boy

Д as an aesthetic A? Дon’t be a дumbass.

И as an aesthetic N? don’t be sillи.

П as another aesthetic N? stoп it.

У as an aesthetic Y? ty bad.

Ш or Щ as an aesthetic W? nope. it’s “sh” and “shch”!

Я as an aesthetic R? surprise! it’s “ya”.

ah yes, that classic horror film SNYEYAPOVUL DIAYAIES

This is pronounced Stargoat.

Reblogging for Stargoat.


Hello Muddah, hello Á é í ó ú .
Here I am at Camp Granada.
Camp is very entertaining.
And they say we’ll have some fun if it stops raining

That’s the Camp Granada song, sung with an Irish accent.

THE Irish accent…

…which is called a fada


23 Aug 22:49

Book review: Because Internet, by Gretchen McCulloch

by Stan Carey

Language is always changing, and on a macro level some of the most radical changes have resulted from technology. Writing is the prime example. Millennia after its development, telephony reshaped our communication; mere decades later, computers arrived, became networked, and here I am, typing something for you to read on your PC or phone, however many miles away.

The internet’s effects on our use of language are still being unpacked. We are in the midst of a dizzying surge in interconnectivity, and it can be hard to step back and understand just what is happening to language in the early 21st century. Why are full stops often omitted now? What exactly are emoji doing? Why do people lol if they’re not laughing? With memes, can you even?

Book cover is bright yellow, with text in black. The subtitle is highlighted in blue, with pins bracketing it, like on a phone.Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language is a new book by linguist Gretchen McCulloch that sets out to demystify some of the strange shifts going on in language right now. It provides a friendly yet substantial snapshot of linguistic trends and phenomena online, and it explains with clarity and ebullience what underpins them – socially, psychologically, technologically, linguistically.

‘When future historians look back on this era,’ McCulloch writes,

they’ll find our changes just as fascinating as we now find innovative words from Shakespeare or Latin or Norman French. So let’s adopt the perspective of these future historians now, and explore the revolutionary period in linguistic history that we’re living through from a place of excitement and curiosity.

Because Internet is a book about language change: where we pick up new usages, and why, and what it all means. Such changes depend on both weak ties (acquaintances, colleagues), to introduce new forms, and strong ties (family, friends), to spread them. The internet accelerates language change, essentially, because it leads to many more weak ties:

It’s not an accident that Twitter, where you’re encouraged to follow people you don’t already know, has given rise to more linguistic innovation (not to mention memes and social movements) than Facebook, where you primarily friend people you already know offline.

Context is everything. For centuries, formal writing was culturally privileged: with the standardisation of English came rules and norms that people saw as important, even intrinsic to the language. Things might loosen up in notes and letters, but in general there was a firm stylistic dichotomy between prose, which was formal, and speech, which was not.

The internet, with its democratising structure, subverts this:

Regardless of the specific linguistic circles we hang out with online, we’re all speakers of internet language because the shape of our language is influenced by the internet as a cultural context. Every language online is becoming decentralized, getting more of its informal register written down. Every speaker is learning how to write exquisite layers of social nuance that we once reserved for speech …

In forums, social media, and instant messaging, these nuances are expressed in ways that constitute a ‘distinct genre with its own goals’. Words are coined and mutated; formatting is refashioned; punctuation and symbols are repurposed. How this is executed and interpreted varies with context, age, and background – including where and when we first learned the local customs of online chat.

This last factor should not be underestimated. McCulloch devotes a chapter to mapping out a workable taxonomy of ‘Internet People’ based on their age, use of the internet, and entry to its social spaces. These groups’ particular styles and assumptions are a common source of mutual misunderstanding:

The dot dot dot is especially perilous. For people with experience of informal writing offline, it’s a generic separation character, as we just saw. But for internet-oriented writers, the generic separator is the line break or new message, which has left the dot dot dot open to taking on a further meaning of something left unsaid.

Irony in text is notoriously tricky: history has seen many failed efforts to codify it with a special mark. Irony’s risks, and rewards, are high: if it fails it can ‘gravely injure the conversation’, but if it succeeds there is ‘the sublime joy of feeling purely understood’. It is, in McCulloch’s phrase, ‘a linguistic trust fall’.

We may finally be getting somewhere. Irony online is now commonly conveyed (in some communities) with a range of unconventional typography: respellings, quirky capitalisation, tildes, and minimalist punctuation – a constellation of devices that emerged on Tumblr and Twitter since 2012. It’s complicated ‘because irony itself is complicated’.

Linguist Llama meme: a llama in the centre, facing you, on a background of large blue triangles. Text at the top: Language changes faster now. Text at the bottom: Because internetAnd then there are emoji, which critics accuse of dumbing down the language or even replacing it. Not only will McCulloch put your mind at rest on those fronts (I mean, really 🤨😂), she also makes a persuasive case that what emoji are doing is very like what gesture does for speech. There are differences, of course:

gestures are good at movement, while emoji are better at detail. … But their core function, the way that they fit into our systems of communication, has too many similarities to be an accident.

Nor is it accidental that the emoji we use the most tend to represent our faces and hands: ‘We use emoji less to describe the world around us, and more to be fully ourselves in an online world.’ They play a crucial role in conveying tone, as emoticons did before them: a vital service in many ways:

When we learn to write in ways that communicate our tone of voice, not just our mastery of rules, we learn to see writing not as a way of asserting our intellectual superiority, but as a way of listening to each other better.

Because Internet does more than reveal the historical patterns and linguistic mechanisms behind our new modes of communicating. It also celebrates our endless creativity in pushing language in fresh directions. Its insights will appeal equally to fluent users of internet language and less-online people who may be baffled by or suspicious of its jargon and in-jokes (Remember the fuss over because X?).

McCulloch’s book is thought-provoking, page-turning, witty, and delightful, and will go a long way towards bridging the communicative gaps between tribes and generations online. You can order Because Internet from Riverhead Books (a division of Penguin), and also read a chapter there.

[Disclosure: The publisher sent me a review copy, and I know the author online: we follow each other on Twitter, and she has written for Strong Language, a blog about swearing that I co-founded with James Harbeck.]
15 Aug 17:03

Between pee and bad

by Victor Mair

Two delightful Chinglish specimens submitted by Karen Yang:

The Chinese on the sign reads:

xiǎobiàn jiān
"urinal room; pissoir"

The key to understanding this mistranslation is that, while xiǎobiàn 小便 does indeed mean "pee; urine", jiān 间 does not mean "between" (one possible translation in other contexts), but "room; compartment; apartment".  Most references to xiǎobiàn jiān 小便间 have to do with Paris or other French cities, so that's why I have translated it as "pissoir" here.

Here's the second one:

The Chinese on this sign reads:

cǐ mén yǐ huài
"this door is broken / bad / out of order"

The person who wrote this sign was trying to wax a bit literary and / or was trying to save space, so they used the classical demonstrative cǐ 此 for "this" and the classical adverb yǐ 已 to indicate that a condition is already in existence from some past time (hence, "has been").

It's always risky to rely on software or inadequate knowledge of literary usage to translate from Chinese that is not based on common, high frequency Mandarin to other languages.

Selected readings

15 Aug 01:36

4000 exoplanets, in sight and sound

by Phil Plait

In mid-June, the field of exoplanetary astronomy hit a big milestone: The discovery of the 4000th exoplanet.

Wow. That’s a lot of alien worlds!

The very first exoplanet was announced in 1992 (literally immediately after a previous announcement was retracted). At first the pace of discovery was slow, as methods were tried out and refined. But then things picked up considerably.

How much have things accelerated? Well, you can see for yourself… and hear it too.

I just saw that APOD featured an amazing video, created by Matt Russo and Andrew Santaguida of System Sounds. They make wonderful animations about astronomy and space, combining art and science in a fascinating and compelling way.

The video, called 4000 Exoplanets, is just terrific. Watch it, and then I’ll explain…

The video starts off in 1992, at the first announcement of the planets orbiting the pulsar PSR B1257+12. The entire sky is displayed (it’s distorted at the top and bottom due to mapping a spherical surface (we see the sky as the inside of a giant sphere around us) to a rectangle. The curvy band across it is the disk of the Milky Way, the flat spiral galaxy we live in. It is straight when you see it in the sky, but curved like this again due to remapping the sky into a rectangle.

As time goes on, more planets appear. Each time, you hear a piano note. The pitch of the note corresponds to orbital period (the year) of the planet; higher pitches are shorter periods and lower pitches longer periods. The volume of the note shows how many planets with similar periods were announced at that time. One planet is a quiet note, while many together makes for a louder note.

The colors represent how the planet was found. Planets found using the transit method are purple, planets found via radial velocity are pink, direct imaging (literally, images of the planets themselves) in orange, gravitational microlensing in cyan, orbital brightness modulation (where the gravity of the planet changes the shape of the star, which can be detected as a change in the brightness of the star) in yellow, transit timing variations (changes in a planet’s period due to the gravitational influence of another planet in the system, for example) in red, and astrometry (the gravity of the planet making the star’s motion through space wiggle as it orbits) in gray.

Now let me ask you a question: Can you figure out when the Kepler space telescope came online, and where it was pointed?

OK, spoilers: It started finding planets in 2009, and it spent years staring at one spot in space in the constellation Cygnus, which in the video is in the Milky Way to the upper left. By the end of the primary mission it had found about half of all exoplanets known! That’s pretty obvious in the video.

But now we have TESS scanning the skies, and it’s already reaping rewards… and astronomers going through its observations have found only a tiny fraction of the planets predicted to be waiting in the data.

It took 27 years to get to 4,000 exoplanets. We won’t have to wait nearly that long to reach 8,000.

What planets still await us? What strange new worlds are still out there to be found, big ones, small ones, hot one, cold ones, ones with just the right amount of light from their stars and just the right chemistry to be hauntingly familiar to us, ones with liquid water on their surface and nitrogen-oxygen atmospheres, ones with curious features in their spectra that could be from starlight absorbed by the output of living creatures?

There are a lot of planets out there. Billions. Hundreds of billions.

4,000 is just the very, very first start.

15 Aug 00:52

Gricean (im)politeness

by Mark Liberman

Does Paul Grice's "cooperative principle" enjoin politeness? Jessica Wildfire sees it that way ("Maybe you're not rude after all", Splattered 6/29/2018):

A teacher sent me home for showing my underwear in fifth grade. The same year, I also got in trouble for asking a classmate about their gender identity. Stuff like that was always happening. I always managed to break some invisible rule out of social blindness. […]

I was a real trouble maker. So rude. Why couldn't I just be polite, like everyone else? […]

And then linguistics happened. Halfway through college, I started taking courses in language theory.

That's when I started to learn something important. Something that changed my life forever.

Most of our politeness rules are bullshit.

What was her crucial "language theory" insight?

You see, sociolinguists study how people talk. The more I read into language theory, the more these elusive, hidden, and unspoken rules and expectations became clear. My problems came into focus.

For example, you can make pretty decent conversation if you just follow four principles laid out by Paul Grice in the 70s — quantity, quality, relevance, and manner. That was revolutionary.

Grice taught me that when someone you barely know says, "How are you?" they actually don't give a shit. They're just being polite. You're supposed to observe the maxim of quantity and say, "I'm fine."

If you tell most of your friends or coworkers how you actually feel, they'll think you're unhinged. All because you offered more information than they wanted. I could go on, but you get the point.

See, quantity.

Paul Grice was a philosopher, not a sociolinguist. And the goal of his work on conversational maxims was to rescue the truth-conditional meanings of words such as not, and, or, if, all, some, the. He proposed to do this by explaining the apparent divergence of their ordinary-language use from simple truth-table meanings as cases of "conversational implicature", a "mistake [that] arises from an inadequate attention to the nature and importance of the conditions governing conversation".

But it's true that his 1967 analysis of "Logic and Conversation" is founded on what he calls the "Cooperative Principle":

Our talk exchanges do not normally consist of a succession of disconnected remarks, and would not be rational if they did. They are characteristically, to some degree at least, cooperative efforts; and each participant recognizes in them, to some extent, a common purpose or set of purposes, or at least a mutually accepted direction. This purpose or direction may be fixed from the start (e.g., by an initial proposal of a question for discussion), or it may evolve during the exchange; it may be fairly definite, or it may be so indefinite as to leave very considerable latitude to the participants (as in a casual conversation). But at each stage, SOME possible conversational moves would be excluded as conversationally unsuitable. We might then formulate a rough general principle which participants will be expected (ceteris paribus) to observe, namely: Make your conversational contribution such as is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged. One might label this the COOPERATIVE PRINCIPLE.

So can we summarize the cooperative principle as "Be Polite"?

Problem: many of Grice's own examples of conversational implicatures are downright nasty. For example, he invites us to

Compare the remarks:
(a) Miss X sang 'Home sweet home.'
(b) Miss X produced a series of sounds that corresponded closely with the score of 'Home sweet home'.

It's the maxim of quantity that allows version (b) to generate negative implicatures about Miss X's vocal stylings.

But maybe that example should actually be seen as a more polite way of saying "Her singing was horrible"?

In the end it seems that Jessica Wildfire is taking "polite" to mean "consistent with the norms of conversational interaction", from the perspective of someone who finds them opaque:

On the flip side, telling people exactly what you want is considered rude. Some of us fall into this trap all the time. If you visit my home, you're supposed to keep saying, "I'm thirsty" and wait for me to offer you water. You can't just ask me. And you definitely can't help yourself to my faucet. Don't be rude. Just pass out from dehydration.

This rule also sounds like bullshit. If you ever visit my house, just ask me for water. Or bourbon. I have both. I'm willing to share.

Most people learn these rules naturally. People like me, on the spectrum, have to learn them explicitly.

And maybe there really is a sort of positivity bias in conversational implicatures, such that "speaker's meaning" is generally in some sense more "polite" than a literal expression of the same content would be. This reminds me that in "Reverse sarcasm?" (10/27/2003) I discussed a perhaps-analogous sort of positivity bias in the case of sarcasm.


15 Aug 00:04

How Twitter is helping the Scots language thrive in the 21st century

How Twitter is helping the Scots language thrive in the 21st century:

An article in The Conversation about Scots Twitter and Computer-Mediated Communication (CMC). Excerpt: 

Scots on Twitter is a fascinating source of evidence about how aware people are of the subtle ways their speech differs from other people’s, and the creative ways they find to represent this.

Depending on exactly where someone comes from, their (spoken) Scots will include different sounds, words and sentence structures. We see this represented in Scots CMC. In Scots dictionaries, the word equivalent to English “can’t” is generally spelled in one of two ways, reflecting a traditional pronunciation difference: “canna” in the north, and “cannae” in the south. Indeed, a search for “canna” on Twitter finds tweets from the north east.

However, the spelling “cannae” appears to be quite rare in the southern Scots CMC. Instead, spellings like “canny” appear to be more common.

In Sadie Ryan’s research on the CMC of Glaswegian pre-teens, other spellings used included “cany”, “canni”, “cani” and “kani”. 

Read the whole thing.

10 Aug 15:54

Do not puke

by Victor Mair

Thai sign over a sink in a restroom, from Alexander Bukh on Facebook:

The Thai part of the sign reads:

ha:m uak! ha:m la:ŋ  kon dek! nai a:ŋ la:ŋ mɯː prab 500 ba:t

alternative transliteration:

H̄̂ām x̂wk! H̄̂ām l̂āng k̂n dĕk! Nı x̀āng l̂āngmụ̄x prạb 500 bāth

ห้ามอ้วก! ห้ามล้างก้นเด็ก! ในอ่างล้างมือ ปรับ 500 บาท

Do not vomit or wash a baby's bottom in the sink, (if you do these things) you will be fined 500 Thai baht.

The word over the crossed-out picture of the little girl vomiting (bottom left):



blech / blargh

If you really have to retch / barf / upchuck / puke / regurgitate / toss your cookies / blow your lunch, please do it in the toilet, and clean your baby's butt / bottom elsewhere, not in this sink.

[h.t. Nathan Hopson; thanks to Joyce White, Pattira Thaithosaeng, and Justin McDaniel]

10 Aug 14:51

Wikipedia Is Helping Keep Welsh Alive Online

Wikipedia Is Helping Keep Welsh Alive Online:

An article in Slate about the role of Wikipedia in creating language tools. Excerpt: 

Although Alexa still does not speak or understand Welsh, the Celtic language’s presence in tech has increased dramatically within a short period. Google announced in February that it had expanded its offerings in Docs, Sheets, Slides, and Drive to include Welsh. And Google Translate—infamous since 2009 for its Scymraeg, or scummy Welsh—has, according to the BBC, recently taken a great leap forward in terms of the accuracy and quality of its Welsh translations. Morlais and others attribute this in part to the fact that there are now more than 100,000 articles on the Welsh version of Wikipedia, known as Wicipedia.

Like other language editions, Wicipedia is a separate website with its own content, not simply a translation of English Wikipedia, a distinction that matters for both users and big tech companies. Back in 2017, Morlais observed, “There appears to be an indication that there is a link between the languages with the most Wikipedia articles or pages and the languages that are supported by the digital giants.” Google Translate and other technologies use artificial neural networks to learn from example, training themselves with language data from rich internet sources like Welsh Wikipedia.

The Welsh community is not alone in using wiki-technology to promote its language. This year’s Celtic Knot conference in Cornwall, England, included several indigenous languages with their own Wikipedia editions. The original idea, as the name suggests, was to focus on Celtic languages, including Irish, Scots, Breton, Welsh, and Cornish, which was declared extinct merely a decade ago. But as word got out about a Wikipedia minority language conference, others began to join, representing, for example, the Sámi language spoken in parts of Norway, Finland, Sweden, and Russia; the Berber family of languages spoken in Northern Africa; and the Basque and Catalan communities. (In his 2017 presentation, Morlais noted that Catalan was one of the few minority languages supported by Google search, an accomplishment he linked to the fact that Catalan already had more than 500,000 articles on its language edition of Wikipedia.)

Read the whole thing.

07 Aug 09:07

maybe we’re finally getting through to peopleTIL the dictionary...

maybe we’re finally getting through to people

TIL the dictionary isn’t as much an instruction guide to the English language, as it is a record of how people are using it. Words aren’t added because they’re OK to use, but because a lot of people have been using them.

26 Jul 21:33

Your Face is Too Grubby: A Treatise on Face Touching

by Elsa Sjunneson-Henry

The blind woman’s hands graze the young man’s face after he urges her to do so. He eggs her on, saying she needs to feel his beauty. To him, it’s the only way that she’ll know what he looks like. Perhaps to an abled audience, this makes sense.

A scene later, and the blind woman finds a corpse in an alley. She feels the corpse’s face, and knows without a shred of doubt that it is her friend, whose face she just touched at the beginning of the episode.


I want you to try something.

Feel your own face—or if you’ve got someone who is willing to let you put your grubby paws all over their face, do that.

Close your eyes.

What do you feel? Do you feel every pore? Do you think your fingers really could tell the difference between the slope of your nose, and the slope of someone else’s? The curve of a cheekbone—will your memory remember the difference between one and the other?

Would you trust your ability to feel the difference between a corpse, skin that has become hardened in the moments after death, and identify it as the same face that was live, skin warm and pliant to your fingertips?

I’m blind, and I can’t.

I’m willing to bet that you can’t either.

I don’t know what the obsession is with the face-touching trope, but The CW’s show In The Dark leans into it, using it as a plot point in multiple episodes.

It is one of the many ways in which the show—which centers on Murphy Mason, the young blind woman who stumbles across her friend’s corpse in the first episode—fails to accurately depict blindness, specifically along the vector of blind physicality.

The physicality of blindness is a failure of many characterizations in film, however—In the Dark just happens to be the most recent, most egregious example.

Face touching, while an obvious example, is not the only one. Murphy’s No Light Perception blindness also falls into the archetype of there only being one kind of blindness, and of course, being played by a sighted actress doesn’t help with the realism. But the blind physicality presented here isn’t limited to touching a face…

During the spring of 2019 I became a guide dog handler. Murphy of In the Dark is also a guide dog handler. In fact, her parents opened a guide dog school so that they could help her.

Leaving aside the fact that guide dog schools are incredibly complex organizations, serving hundreds of guide dog teams, and the various inaccuracies in the depiction of the running of a dog school that I could see… Let’s talk about Murphy’s actual dog handling skills.

In the first place, we don’t know a whole lot about them—because the show chooses to only have Murphy bring her guide with her for select scenes: scenes where it is either dramatic or funny to have the dog on the screen. We frequently see Murphy using a white cane instead of bringing the dog along.

It is hard for me to think of times when I am without a dog. While I’m writing this essay, there is a black lab at my feet. When I am at a grocery store, there is a guide dog leading the way, when I am in a public bathroom—you guessed it, there’s a dog.

So the fact that Murphy at one point jokes about her dog being a stalker… yes, there are certainly feelings of never being physically alone, but as a dog handler I’d never ascribe that as a negative trait.

I am never alone. I am always accompanied by someone who can keep me safe. It is a great privilege to have a dog friend who is willing to stay by my side.

But it isn’t just about the fact that she rejects her partner in crime (investigation). It’s that the bond between dog and human is an absolutely vital part of the guide dog handling process. And there doesn’t seem to be any evidence of this bond in the world of In The Dark.

This undervalues the deep bond between dog and human that has to develop in order to make a guide partnership work. Yes, my dog goes with me everywhere. The few times that I leave him at home—typically to do something like go horseback riding or to get a massage—he stares at me as I leave. And I feel vaguely naked. There’s something missing when I leave the house without my dog.

The dog is not a sometimes adaptive device. Yes, there are times when he is not convenient, yes there are times when he cannot go with me. But those times are rare; they are very, very rare.

Yet Murphy leaves her dog all the time. She doesn’t value their relationship.

Buy it Now

When the dog is on screen, Murphy is constantly doing things like flinging a hand out in front of her to find a counter edge. I don’t read any trust in her physicality with the dog. The dog would bring her to the counter. The dog would always be there to support her.

But also, Murphy is a bad handler because she engages in bad behavior in public.

In one scene, Murphy is in a pizza shop, investigating her friend’s death. She picks the pepperoni off her pizza and feeds it to her adorable golden retriever guide (who is sitting up in a restaurant instead of lying underneath the table, safely out of the way). There’s so much wrong with this scenario, but honestly the biggest issue is that I’d never feed my dog anything off my plate in public—because that’s how you get a bad rep. That’s how you end up being kicked out of restaurants, being accused of not having a real guide. That’s behavior you’re told never to engage in, as a dog handler.

I get it: the writers wanted to write a Bad Blind Girl. But you know what? We haven’t had a good one yet.

Shows like In the Dark that show guide dog handlers participating in bad behavior in public don’t help with awareness or make it any easier for me to go places with my dog. They mean that I will be asked, over and over again, for my dog’s paperwork. That I will, in some places, have to fill out paperwork to be polite.

Characters like Murphy don’t scratch the itch of blind representation because they don’t actually represent me.

The failure of In the Dark is that at its core, In the Dark is using blindness as a set dressing to tell a story. It relies on tropes to develop a blindness narrative without ever really acknowledging what it is like to be blind.

Ultimately, that’s why so many blind people find the show to be a betrayal: because we don’t often get stories about blind people that aren’t about blindness.

If Murphy were a character whose blindness actually made sense, who used her adaptive devices well—if the guide dog school weren’t badly described set dressing, if her blindness weren’t so often a joke or a plot device—then I could love Murphy the Bad Blind Girl. Because we do need characters like her.

We do need blind people who have casual sex on TV. We need blind people who have pregnancy scares, who make bad decisions, who aren’t perfect.

But we also need them to be blind. We need them to still use their adaptive devices realistically.

We need more.

We need them to not touch faces… because dear god, why?

Screenshot: The CW

Elsa Sjunneson-Henry is a gimlet made from feminism and snark. She’s a deafblind speculative fiction author, and she writes disability focused nonfiction as well. Her work has appeared in, CNN, and The Boston Globe, and she is a 2019 Hugo Award finalist for Best Fan Writer, as well as a Best Semiprozine Hugo finalist for her work as an editor on Fireside Magazine and Uncanny Magazine’s Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction Special Issue. She writes from a dragon lair in NJ, and can be found on the web @snarkbat and