Shared posts

06 May 16:12

Friends, Romans, countrymen: a language newsletter

by Stan Carey

For the sake of my inbox, I keep my newsletter subscriptions to a minimum. Ken Grace’s Friends, Romans, countrymen… is one that makes the cut. Running since 2012, it’s a weekly update from New Zealand on ‘language, good writing and communication’, often exploring usage and etymology. So it’s right up my street.

After five years of the newsletter, Grace collected some of its highlights in a book titled Nerds, Snotrils and Ferroequines: A moderately reliable history of interesting words. It offers good humour and common sense about words and language use, written in a friendly, enthusiastic, educational style.

Since I’ve been writing about lost words and difficult words, I’ll mention an usual word to which the book introduced me: micromort. It means a one-in-a-million chance of dying. Driving 370 km in the UK gives you 1 micromort, apparently, as does driving 10 km on a motorbike, taking three flights, or travelling 10,000 km by train.

Grace has opinions about usage, but he knows that’s all they are. He can indulge a pet peeve without being dogmatic about other people’s use of language. Here, for example, is his reaction to a street sign that said Roadworks. Use alternate route:

What the roading company really means, I tell myself grumpily as I watch my fuel gauge plummet, is alternative. … Yet you often hear alternate used to mean alternative. “We’ll have to come up with an alternate plan,” for example. It offends my ear.

But my ear can take a running jump. One accepted definition of alternate (with the stress on the second syllable) is substitute. In fact, an understudy to the first choice actor in the theatre is often called exactly that: an alternate.

When the roading contractor says to use an alternate route, he has – at the very least, and whether he knows it or not – a reasonable case to support that usage, backed up by most dictionaries. Use a substitute route. Why not?

And what gives any dictionary the authority to declare what’s acceptable? Usage. Dictionaries are a reflection of how the language currently sounds and what native speakers regard as acceptable.

Circular as this argument may be, it’s the best we’ve got. Language does not arise out of a series of arbitrary rules, and certainly not out of logic. No, language arises out of custom. If enough people agree on a usage, then that usage is “right”, regardless of what you, I or my ear think.

Quite right, though I would clarify that dictionaries neither have nor would claim ‘the authority to declare what’s acceptable’ – that’s something readers project on them. They record the language, and may add labels to clarify a word’s status. But the authority of dictionaries is a complicated social epiphenomenon.

Friends, Romans, countrymen… seems to have stopped or gone on hiatus: issue 193 from June 2018 is the last one posted. But you can read the full archive or order the highlights in the form of Nerds, Snotrils and Ferroequines. (Disclosure: Grace sent me a copy of his book and said my writing on language influenced his newsletter.)

About those words in the title: Snotrils is what Grace’s nephew called nostrils as a child, and Grace uses the coinage as a peg to write an issue on metathesis: how horse came from hros, bird from brid, and so on. Ferroequinology, meanwhile, is a humorous word used by trainspotters to refer to their field of study – iron horses.

02 May 07:34

aeniith: Ladies, if he: -looks weird-is really old-has dubious origins-has lots of children but...


Ladies, if he: 

-looks weird
-is really old
-has dubious origins
-has lots of children but never had a partner
-is suspiciously fond of horses
-knows no word for ‘finger’, but two words for ‘to fart’

He’s not your man. He’s Proto-Indo-European. 

01 May 23:32

Happy May Day! “May the Firth Be With You”

by JenniferP

When the @DrunkAusten account tweeted out “May The Firth Be With You” with this incredible image this morning, I was reminded of the time when Colin Firth dropped by and requested that we rename the behavior where someone glares at you a lot and pretends they don’t even notice you and definitely don’t like you and then hits you out of the blue with “SURPRISE, I LOVE YOU!” feelings from “firthing” to “darcying“? (Whoever arranged this, please know that it made my month, possibly my year).

If you scroll down, you can read the part where people pointed out that he plays other characters who act like this, and Commander Logic and I wrote a bunch of sketch comedy about how other directors try to get Colin Firth to “darcy” in subsequent films. Mine:

When you create something iconic, people want you to do it all the time.

Love Actually Director Richard Curtis, to Mr. Firth: “Colin, I hate to ask you this.”
Firth: “Not again.”
Curtis: “I just need a little bit.”
Firth: “But this guy has nothing to do with Mr. Darcy. Darcy wears puffy shirts. Jamie wears soft turtlenecks that match his eyes. Darcy has never been in love and doesn’t believe in it. Jamie is nursing a heartbreak but he knows that love is theoretically possible. They’re nothing alike! They’re in totally different places in life!”
Curtis: “My dear fellow, I don’t want you to go full Darcy – you don’t have to pretend you smell a fart whenever Aurelia is in the room! I just want a little bit of that glowering thing.”
Firth: “Shan’t.”
Curtis: “Howabout a sexy lean?”
Firth: “No.”
Curtis: “Manufactured nonchalance?”
Firth: “Richard.”
Curtis: “There’s a scene where you have to ask her father’s permission to marry her, and there’s sort of a comedy of errors about that.”
Firth: “I’m calling my agent.”
Curtis: “One smolder.”
Firth: “Just the one?”
Curtis: “My hand to god.”
Firth: “And I can keep the sweater.”
Curtis: “You can keep the sweater.”
Firth: “Fine.”
Curtis: “Let’s roll it.”


Curtis: *manufactured nonchalance* hm?
Firth: There is a POND?
Curtis: mmmmm, well. It’s more a collected pool, the water is running, you see-
Firth: And you want me to jump into it.
Curtis: The woman jumps in first, and you feel a way about that and-
Firth: Richard. We talked about this.
Curtis: And you said “No ponds.”
Firth: Richard.
Curtis: As anyone can clearly see-
Firth: Richard
Curtis: The water is running. Into a small pool-
Firth: Richard, no.
Curtis: Colin, YES!
Firth: And I’m to jump into it.
Curtis: THAT’s the spirit!
Firth: The water.
Firth: … I’m keeping the sweater on.

That was a good day and this is why Search Terms posts are some of the best posts. 🙂 Also, Colin Firth is a brilliant, humane, gifted, wonderful, generous actor and possibly the world’s greatest sport. Like, the greatest sport of all time. I personally thought you were very good in Mama Mia.

While I’m all link-y: If you don’t follow my Patreon, I’ve got two recent pieces that are free to read and share up over there. One is from “The Half-Assed Activist” series, where I write about having depression and anxiety and also navigating the current United States political regime (where depression and anxiety are reasonable reactions). That one’s called “We Have Always Lived In Presidential Primary Season: A Half-Assed Activist Post About Getting Through This Shitshow Without Perpetuating Or Tolerating Bad Behavior And Keeping Some Tiny Spark Of Hope Alive.” It’s equal parts rant, manifesto, and some useful things people might actually do right now if they want to organize politically.

The other post is from today, it’s called Someone I Met Once Who Was Very Good At Their Job, it’s about one of my favorite coworkers of all time, solidarity with your coworkers, and the very end contains the sole justification in the history of the world for the “reply all” email function.

Have a good day, appreciate the people around you who are very good at their jobs, unionize your workplace, and try to share your feelings before you explode and declare your feelings.


01 May 15:33

mememic-bry: officialunitedstates: wife is pregnant, due any day suddenly the contractions...



wife is pregnant, due any day

suddenly the contractions start

“CAN’T, WON’T, I’M, HAVEN’T, DON’T, ISN’T"  she says

“doc, it appears the contractions are worsening,” the nurse says. 

in between breaths, the wife gasps and screeches, “Y’ALL’D’VE”

26 Apr 11:28

linguisticmaps: SPRACHBUNDS Areal zones, linguistic areas of...



Areal zones, linguistic areas of convergence or sprachbunds: they are areas that have different languages families but which, by prolonged contact, developed similar linguistc features, be it phonology or grammar. 

Northwest America (uvulars, aspirated consonants, ejectives, glotalized consonants, polysyntetic languages, 

Mesoamerican area (polysyntetic languages, uvulars, ejectives, rhotics, tones, nasal vowels, lateral fricatives)

Creole Caribbean (creole languages, analytical syntax)

The Andes region (highly agglutinative, uvulars, ejectives)

Standard Average Northwestern European (uvular rhotics, more analytic and fusional, obligatory subject pronouns/no null-subject, front rounded vowels)

North and Central Iberia (apical-alveolar sibilants and affricates, heavy verb conjugations, no b-v distinction)

The Balkans (definite articles as suffixes, simple vowel systems, romanian-slavic convergence)

The Caucasus (high number of phonemes, polysyntetic, ejectives, aspirates, retroflex consonants, ergativity)

Central and North Asia (correlated with Altaic) (SOV structure, vowel harmony, agglutination)

The Indian Subcontinent (retroflex plosives, split-ergativity, many cases and gendered classes or animated distinctions, vowel reduction)

China and Indochina (higly tonal languages, front rounded and back unrounded vowels, analytical syntax, few morphology)

Southern and Southwestern Africa (click consonants, simple noun class system)

Australian Aboriginal (no fricatives, no voicing distinction, many apical and retroflex distinctions, highly agglutinative)

23 Apr 09:01

Ten Reasons Not To Just Lie On The Floor And Howl

by S J Tamsett

Handy Reminders Not To Give Up When Frankly, Everything Is Fucked

Continue reading on Medium »

23 Apr 06:37

Linguistic prescriptivists make terrible zoologistsActually,...

Linguistic prescriptivists make terrible zoologists

Actually, you’re not in my book of animals, therefore you aren’t a real animal. 

Subspecies? Just a tiger that doesn’t know how to be a proper tiger! So lazy. 

That’s a mistake. Your species should only have 9 bands. Educate yourself.

Stop Evolving!

14 Apr 19:50

Sino-English neologisms

by Victor Mair

As I've mentioned before, Chinese feel that they have every right to experiment with English, make up their own English words, and compose their own locutions which have never before existed in the English-speaking world.  In recent years, they have become ever more playful and emboldened to create new English terms that they gloss or define in Chinese.  Here are ten such new English terms, or perhaps in some cases I should say modified English terms, together with their Chinese explanations:

1. Democrazy 特色民主 (tèsè mínzhǔ ["democracy with special characteristics"]) — "special Chinese characteristics" (Zhōngguó tèsè 中国特色), of course.

2. Z-turn 折腾 (zhēteng [lit. "fold / bend / break / fracture / bend / twist / roll over / snap soar / rise / leap / prance / gallop / hover";  "turn from side to side; toss about; do something over and over again; cause physical or mental suffering; jactitation {pathology} extremely restless tossing and twitching usually by a person with a severe illness"] — undoubtedly strongly influenced by President Hu Jintao's famous "bù zhēteng 不折腾", as explained by Caijing editor, Hu Shuli (胡舒立), in her March 25, 2009 blog entry (has been removed from the web):

Many translations of this term have so far come out among everyone from journalists to Chinese officials, including “don’t make trouble, “don’t do something that will finally prove useless,” “don’t do something that only wastes time,” and even “don’t flip flop,” “don’t get sidetracked,” “don’t sway back and forth” or “no dithering.” There is also the more down-to-earth version “no major changes.” But there has so far been no translation everyone is satisfied with. At a State Council Information Office press briefing on December 30, not long after the term first emerged, a use of the term by [Information Office director] Wang Chen (王晨) [VHM:  link removed from the web] was rendered simply [in pinyin] as “buzheteng."

[VHM:  I might add the following:  "prevaricate; waffle; waver; be evasive; beat about the bush; hedge; fence; shilly-shally; shuffle; dodge (the issue); sidestep (the issue); pussyfoot; equivocate; be noncommittal; parry questions; be vague; vacillate; quibble; cavil".  Whatever it was that Hu Jintao's "bù zhēteng 不折腾" pointed to in the Chinese sociopolitical psyche, it certainly struck a raw nerve.  The whole brouhaha over "bù zhēteng 不折腾" reminds me of one of my favorite Chinese expressions:  "dǎ bùdìng zhǔyì 打不定主意" {"indecisiveness; the 'ism' of being unable to make up one's mind; like an ass between two bundles of hay"}]

See David Bandurski, "Musings on a CCP buzzword that has everyone stumped", China Media Project (3/27/09).

3. Departyment 国家部门 (guójiā bùmén ["state / national department / sector"])

4. Chinsumer 中国购物人 (Zhōngguó gòuwù rén ["Chinese shopper"]) — that looks bland and innocent enough, but it has a deeper meaning that exposes some troubling global aspects of the Chinese economy.  Namely, any transnational reference to "Chinese shoppers" unavoidably evokes the phenomenon of the dàigòu 代购 ("purchase on behalf of; act as a purchasing agent") phenomenon, for which see:

"Daigou: a Mandarin borrowing-in-progress in English" (10/27/16)

The daigou are especially conspicuous in Australia, but I've also seen abundant evidence of their existence right here in Philadelphia, and they are active in Japan and elsewhere.  Basically, what the daigou do is go overseas and buy things like milk powder, medicines, fancy toilets, high tech rice cookers, fashion accessories, name brand cosmetics, expensive handbags, etc. in considerable quantity, then transport them back to China to sell at a handsome profit.  This type of under-the-radar commerce flourishes as a means for Chinese consumers to avoid taxes, tariffs, surcharges, quotas, and so forth.

5. Gunvernment 枪杆子政权 (qiānggǎnzǐ zhèngquán ["gun barrel regime"]

6. Propoorty 房地产 (fángdìchǎn ["real estate"])

7. Shitizen 屁民 (pìmín ["buttocks / fart / shit people / civilians"])

8. Smilence 笑而不语 (xiào ér bù yǔ ["smile without speaking"]) — presented as a literary phrase

9. Vegesteal 偷菜 (tōu cài ["steal vegetables"} — a part of gaming culture

10. Circusee 围观者 (wéiguānzhě ["onlookers"])

It is clear that the Chinese take great delight in coining these new English terms.  One serious side-aspect of such terms that we should not overlook is their ability to function as social and political critique.


[Thanks to Zhou Ying]

14 Apr 01:41

"In theory, you can make a programming language out of any symbols. The computer doesn’t care...."

In theory, you can make a programming language out of any symbols. The computer doesn’t care. The computer is already running an invisible program (a compiler) to translate your IF or body  into the 1s and 0s that it functions in, and it would function just as effectively if we used a potato emoji 🥔 to stand for IF and the obscure 15th century Cyrillic symbol multiocular O ꙮ to stand for body. The fact that programming languages often resemble English words like “body” or “if” is a convenient accommodation for our puny human meatbrains, which are much better at remembering commands that look like words we already know.

But only some of us already know the words of these commands: those of us who speak English. The “initial promise of the web” was only ever a promise to its English-speaking users, whether native English-speaking or with access to the kind of elite education that produces fluent second-language English speakers in non-English-dominant areas.

- Coding Is for Everyone—as Long as You Speak English (Gretchen McCulloch in Wired) 
14 Apr 01:24

What do we lose when we lose a language?

by Marina Chumakina

By the end of this century we are likely to lose half of the world’s six thousand languages. With each lost language a whole world of thought, customs, traditions, poems, songs, jokes, myths, legends and history gets lost. Knowledge of local plants, herbs, mushrooms and berries, their medicinal and culinary uses disappears, together with names for small rivers, mountains, valleys and forests. And this is only a tiny fragment of what we lose when we lose a language.

For a linguist, a loss of a language is first and foremost a loss of system with a unique set of properties and rules which make it work. If there are any universal principles behind the architecture of human language, our only hope to figure them out is by studying the multitude of languages still existing on the planet. And endangered languages – those that we were lucky enough to have time and resources to study – show us time and again how vast is the range of linguistic variability. For example, it has been thought and stated by linguists and psychologists that grammatical tense can be marked by verbs only, as hundreds and hundreds of languages behave this way. Then we discovered that Kayardild, a morbidly endangered language of Australia, marks tense on nouns as well as verbs, making us reconsider this ‘universal’.

Archi, a language spoken in one village the highlands of Daghestan (Caucasus, Russia), is an endangered language which I have been working on since 2004. There are only about 1300 speakers of this language and, as far as we know, there never have been more than that. Yet for centuries it was spoken in the Archi village (below) and passed to younger generations without being under any threat.

Being so small, there was never a writing system invented for Archi – people in the village did not need to write to each other, and all communication with the outsiders happened in one of the larger languages of the area. Until the 1940s this was Lak, then Avar (two large languages of Daghestan), and in the past 40 years, these have been increasingly replaced by Russian. Archi people lived a hard but self-sufficient life keeping sheep in the mountains for themselves and for trading (the alpine pastures within walking distance of Archi village make their lamb hard to compete with) and growing grains, mostly rye, on terraces: narrow strips of land dug into the steep mountain slopes. These grains were just for their own consumption, as it was too hard a job to grow any more than they needed to survive.

We cannot even say that the arrival of television, mobile phones and the internet – which happened more or less at the same time in Archi – is responsible for language decline. It is just that  life in the mountains is very hard, so the Archi people start moving to the cities, abandoning their traditional way of life and their language. Since I started working with Archi, two of the village’s primary schools have been closed and others are struggling as young people continue to leave. Kids abandon Archi as soon as they go to school or nursery in town, and their parents tend to follow suit. Older people in the village still wear traditional dress and keep up traditional skills, but the younger generation is moving away from these traditions. And when the last school closes in the village and no more children live there, the language’s fate will be sealed.

What will we lose once Archi is lost? We will lose a verbal system which boasts the largest number of verb forms registered – Archi verb has up to 1.5 million forms. With this, we will forever lose the opportunity to figure out how the human brain can operate such a humongous system; we won’t be able to watch children learning such a complex language, going through stages of acquisition, making telling mistakes and the overgeneralisations (like English kids do when they go through the stage of producing forms like goed, readed, telled, eated etc). We will have the knowledge that a system such as the Archi verb existed, but we will never know how it functioned.

We will lose a system of deictic pronouns (like English ‘this’ and ‘that’) which had five words in it. These mark not just the proximity to the speaker (like English this), but also the perspective of the listener, and the vertical position in regard to the speaker (see below). Even if these are not unique as lexical items, the whole linguistic system in which they operate is unique. We don’t know yet how these pronouns work in stories as opposed to conversation, and at the moment we have no good techniques to find this out.

jat this, close to the speaker
jamut ‘this, close to the hearer’
tot ‘that, far away from the speaker’
godot ‘that, far away and lower than the speaker’
ʁodot  (the first sound is a bit like the French pronunciation of r) ‘that, far away and higher than the speaker’


We will lose a system where subject and object in the sentence work differently from what we are used to in European languages. In most European languages, the subjects of transitive and intransitive verbs have the same form (as in He arrived and He brought her along), while the object gets a different marking  (She arrived vs. He brought her along). In Archi, the subject of an intransitive verb such as ‘arrive’ is marked the same as the object of a transitive verb such as ‘bring’:

Tuw qa ‘he arrived’

Tormi tuw χir uwli ‘She brought him’.

This is called Ergative-Absolutive alignment, and was first brought to the attention of  linguists by the Australian language Dyirbal, which is now already dead. Several other linguistic families of the world use the same way of making sentences, including Archi. As not many Dyirbal materials have been recorded, it is Archi and other endangered Daghestanian languages that have been making linguists reconsider universals about subject, object and verb relations.

This is only a glimpse of the impact that endangered languages have on linguistics as a discipline. In the last few decades, linguists have become much more aware of how invaluable endangered languages are and how fragile their futures, and more and more efforts are now directed to documenting and – whenever possible – preserving the linguistic diversity of the world.

14 Apr 00:54

A new paper about how people with synesthesia map colours onto...

A new paper about how people with synesthesia map colours onto vowels. Abstract: 

We report associations between vowel sounds, graphemes, and colors collected online from over 1,000 Dutch speakers. 

We also provide open materials, including a Python implementation of the structure measure and code for a single-page web application to run simple cross-modal tasks. We also provide a full dataset of color–vowel associations from 1,164 participants, including over 200 synesthetes identified using consistency measures. Our analysis reveals salient patterns in the cross-modal associations and introduces a novel measure of isomorphism in cross-modal mappings. 

We found that, while the acoustic features of vowels significantly predict certain mappings (replicating prior work), both vowel phoneme category and grapheme category are even better predictors of color choice. Phoneme category is the best predictor of color choice overall, pointing to the importance of phonological representations in addition to acoustic cues. 

Generally, high/front vowels are lighter, more green, and more yellow than low/back vowels. Synesthetes respond more strongly on some dimensions, choosing lighter and more yellow colors for high and mid front vowels than do nonsynesthetes. 

We also present a novel measure of cross-modal mappings adapted from ecology, which uses a simulated distribution of mappings to measure the extent to which participants’ actual mappings are structured isomorphically across modalities. Synesthetes have mappings that tend to be more structured than nonsynesthetes’, and more consistent color choices across trials correlate with higher structure scores. 

Nevertheless, the large majority (~ 70%) of participants produce structured mappings, indicating that the capacity to make isomorphically structured mappings across distinct modalities is shared to a large extent, even if the exact nature of the mappings varies across individuals. Overall, this novel structure measure suggests a distribution of structured cross-modal association in the population, with synesthetes at one extreme and participants with unstructured associations at the other.

Read the whole paper (open access) or read a summary as a twitter thread.

12 Apr 06:17

Today’s SMBC comic namechecks our Lingthusiasm NOT JUDGING YOUR...


I would want a bag that says "I'm silently judging your grammar prescriptivism" except I'm FAR from silent about it. ;)

Today’s SMBC comic namechecks our Lingthusiasm NOT JUDGING YOUR GRAMMAR, JUST ANALYSING IT tote bags which I’m pretty sure means we’ve Officially Arrived. 

11 Apr 20:27

M87 Black Hole Size Comparison

I think Voyager 1 would be just past the event horizon, but slightly less than halfway to the bright ring.
05 Apr 17:29

'It's a very emotional experience': Indigenous millennials share their journey of language reclamation | CBC News

'It's a very emotional experience': Indigenous millennials share their journey of language reclamation | CBC News:

Sandra Warriors, 28, knows time is running out to finish learning the dialect of her father’s family line.

One of the last living fluent speakers of nxa'amčin (Moses-Columbia), Pauline Stensgar, is 91.

“It’s a very emotional experience,” said Warriors.

“It’s kind of like a looming fear that’s overlooking me. [Pauline] provides a lot of insight that’s so valuable. She’s done a lot of work to preserve the language through recordings, teachings … She’s pretty tired now.”

Nxa'amčin is a southern Interior Salish language that UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger lists as critically endangered. Warriors’ father attended boarding school in Washington state and was punished for speaking his Indigenous language, losing most of his ability to speak it as a child.

Warriors grew up on the Colville Confederated Tribes reservation in northeastern Washington state. It’s comprised of 12 bands, including the Okanagan tribe her mother is from. The Okanagan tribes in British Columbia are related to the Colville Confederated Tribes; the communities were split apart when the U.S.-Canada boundary was drawn west of the Rockies in 1846.

Now Warriors is on a mission to learn the nxa'amčin language of her father and the nselxcin (Okanagan) — another Interior Salish language — of her mother’s family.

“I never imagined how much of an emotional process it is,” she said.

“I have moments I feel overwhelmingly happy. Other times I break down crying, doubting myself, getting angry. It still is a struggle.”

Read the whole thing.

02 Apr 23:29

Sequoyah’s syllabary for the Cherokee language

by Stan Carey

Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs and Steel has an engrossing chapter on the evolution of writing as a communication technology. It includes a brief account of the development of a syllabary – a set of written characters that represent syllables – for the Cherokee language. The syllabary looks like this:

Original Cherokee syllabary, via Wikipedia

Some of the signs (or ‘syllabograms’) will look familiar, others like variations of familiar shapes. But any similarity to the Roman, Greek, and Hebrew alphabets is misleading. For example, in a nice demonstration of the arbitrariness of the sign, the first three, R, D, W, encode the sounds e, a, la. So what’s going on?

I’ll let Diamond tell most of the story. First, a step back. The Cherokee syllabary is an example of what he calls ‘idea diffusion’, as opposed to other, more direct means of transmission:

While blueprint copying and modification are the most straightforward option for transmitting technology, that option is sometimes unavailable. Blueprints may be kept secret, or they may be unreadable to someone not already steeped in the technology. Word may trickle through about an invention made somewhere far away, but the details may not get transmitted. Perhaps only the basic idea is known: someone has succeeded, somehow, in achieving a certain final result. That knowledge may nevertheless inspire others, by idea diffusion, to devise their own routes to such a result.

The Cherokee syllabary, in Diamond’s view, exemplifies this. It was devised in Arkansas in the early 1800s by a Cherokee named Sequoyah:

Sequoyah observed that white people made marks on paper, and that they derived great advantage by using those marks to record and repeat lengthy speeches. However, the detailed operations of those marks remained a mystery to him, since (like most Cherokees before 1820) Sequoyah was illiterate and could neither speak nor read English. Because he was a blacksmith, Sequoyah began by devising an accounting system to help him keep track of his customers’ debts. He drew a picture of each customer; then he drew circles and lines of various sizes to represent the amount of money owed.

Sequoyah saw the potential for a Cherokee writing system, and began this ambitious project in a similar vein to his accounting system. Pictures, however, he found ‘too complicated and too artistically demanding’. Next he tried inventing a sign for each word, but he abandoned that approach when their quantity became unwieldy.

Then he had a breakthrough:

Sequoyah realized that words were made up of modest numbers of different sound bites that recurred in many different words—what we would call syllables. He initially devised 200 syllabic signs and gradually reduced them to 85, most of them for combinations of one consonant and one vowel.

As one source of the signs themselves, Sequoyah practiced copying the letters from an English spelling book given to him by a schoolteacher. About two dozen of his Cherokee syllabic signs were taken directly from those letters, though of course with completely changed meanings…

Other signs resulted from Sequoyah modifying English (or other) letters or inventing entirely new symbols – initially cursive, then more type-friendly. Here’s a chart showing his syllabograms and their common transliterations as arranged by the missionary Samuel Worcester (via Wikipedia; click to embiggen):

Sequoyah’s syllabary, Jared Diamond writes,

is widely admired by professional linguists for its good fit to Cherokee sounds, and for the ease with which it can be learned. Within a short time, the Cherokees achieved almost 100 percent literacy in the syllabary, bought a printing press, had Sequoyah’s signs cast as type, and began printing books and newspapers.

He concludes:

Cherokee writing remains one of the best-attested examples of a script that arose through idea diffusion. We know that Sequoyah received paper and other writing materials, the idea of a writing system, the idea of using separate marks, and the forms of several dozen marks. Since, however, he could neither read nor write English, he acquired no details or even principles from the existing scripts around him. Surrounded by alphabets he could not understand, he instead independently reinvented a syllabary, unaware that the Minoans of Crete had already invented another syllabary 3,500 years previously.

Wikipedia has what seem to be solid, well-referenced pages on the Cherokee language and Cherokee syllabary, while Omniglot has additional resources, including maps and video. The Wikipedia page on Sequoyah himself contains a memorable account of how the syllabary caught on among the Cherokee:

Lithograph of Sequoyah by George Lehman & Peter Duval, based on a painting by Charles Bird King

Sequoyah first taught the syllabary to his six-year-old daughter, Ayokeh (also spelled Ayoka), because he could not find adults willing to learn it. He traveled to the Indian Reserves in the Arkansaw Territory where some Cherokee had settled. When he tried to convince the local leaders of the syllabary’s usefulness, they doubted him.

Sequoyah asked each leader to say a word, which he wrote down, and then called his daughter in to read the words back. This demonstration convinced the leaders to let him teach the syllabary to a few more people. This took several months, during which it was rumored that he might be using the students for sorcery. After completing the lessons, Sequoyah wrote a dictated letter to each student, and read a dictated response. This test convinced the western Cherokee that he had created a practical writing system.

When Sequoyah returned east, he brought a sealed envelope containing a written speech from one of the Arkansas Cherokee leaders. By reading this speech, he convinced the eastern Cherokee also to learn the system, after which it spread rapidly.

Diamond’s discussion is in the context of writing systems being invented in many societies around the Mediterranean and Near East over the course of a few centuries, after many millennia of human existence without them. He suggests that idea diffusion of one type or another may lie behind their rapid spread. This in turn is embedded in broader questions of why only some societies – and which ones – developed writing, given the great power it confers.

And how has the Cherokee syllabary fared since? I’m happy to see that it’s moving with the times (video via Language Hat):

02 Apr 16:09

"Brexit quiz": blank…

by Mark Liberman

It's a good joke, but probably just an accidental one — "Quiz: What kind of Brexit are you? MPs can’t agree on what form, if any, Brexit should take. Can you do better?", 4/1/2019, as of 14:30 Philadelphia time, is just a few inches of blank space, with no questions, no answers, no links, no way forward…

02 Apr 16:06

New corpus of latrinalia starting up

by Barbara Partee

I just learned via the mosling mailing list that a Russian team has established a multilingual corpus of toilet graffiti, which in their English language home page they call the Corpus of Latrinalia. I haven't looked at it and know nothing about it – I'm just reporting its existence. They have warnings on the front page that it contains obscenities "as well as racist and other insulting inscriptions", which do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of the corpus gatherers. But I find the project too amusing not to report.

And it was done with the support of the Russian Science Foundation. Good for them. ("them" – both.) Let's hope they get some good research out of it so that the RSF doesn't regret the decision and react badly to future non-standard proposals!

28 Mar 09:04

swampxwitchxhattie: couldbeglorious: roseverdict: enquires-state-building: not-to-be-a-tea-but-br...













any noun can become a verb if you don’t care enough

This point is invalid unless you use an example in your sentence



you see thats why i love english

I like to velociraptor around my house at 2 in the morning.


My headache makes me want to clothesline into a wall

why do these make some semblance of sense 😨

Because brains don’t brain logically

Brains do brain logically! But when english doesn’t logic englishly, brain brains by itself to logic that english !

I hate that this makes sense

Languages making up new words and using old words in new ways is a feature, not a bug! 

Think how dull it would be (not to mention, difficult to talk about new things) if we didn’t have ways of making new words! New metaphors, so we don’t get bored with old cliches! New verbs, for when the old ones don’t vivid enough! New slang, so that kids can differentiate themselves from their elders! 

It’s not just an English thing, it’s an every language thing, and that’s because it’s actually vital to how language works that it’s flexible and adaptable and we can express ourselves and figure out meaning even when words aren’t quite grammaring – otherwise we’d have a hard time understanding small children or new language learners or people with food in their mouths.

English IS logicking Englishly, because part of the logic of a language is its creativity.  If you could only ever do things in a language that you’d heard someone else do already, we’d just gradually lose things and never grow anything new to replace them. And that is not a way I want to world. 

28 Mar 09:00

Why the Pronunciation of GIF Really Can Go Either Way

Why the Pronunciation of GIF Really Can Go Either Way:


I’m weighing in on the gif pronunciation wars at Mental Floss with the help of corpus linguistics: 

Sure, the creator of the gif, Steve Wilhite, prefers a soft g, and sure, gif originated as an acronym for graphics interchange format, but inventors aren’t always good at naming (the zipper was originally called the “clasp locker”), and acronyms aren’t always pronounced like their roots (the “a” in NATO isn’t the same as the “a” in Atlantic). In truth, language is far more democratic.

So Michael Dow, a linguistics professor at Université de Montréal, decided to investigate a different way, and I talked with him about his findings. The idea is, people decide how to pronounce a new word based on its resemblance to words they’re already familiar with. So we can all agree on how to pronounce snapchat because it’s made up of familiar words snap and chat, and we don’t have any problems with blog because it rhymes with frog, log, slog, and so on, but we have no idea how to pronounce doge because there aren’t any other common English words that end in -oge.

The problem with gif isn’t the back half—we already know how to pronounce if. The problem is the front half: Does the i make the g soft or not? It’s clearly not an absolute yes or no—there are English words in both categories: gift has a hard g before i, whereas gin has a soft g before i. What matters is the frequency. So Dow looked at a large corpus of 40,000 unique words with their frequency and pronunciation taken from The English Lexicon Project. Of these words, how many were like gift (hard g) and how many were like gin (soft g)?

[Read the rest.]

Bringing this back since I hear we’re fighting about the pronunciation of “gif” again. 

14 Mar 07:04

Bringing An Inuit Language Into The Digital Age

Bringing An Inuit Language Into The Digital Age:

An interesting article about creating and adapting Inuktitut vocabulary for the digital age. Excerpt: 

I’m sitting at a patio table with two of Nunavut’s foremost language experts, Leena Evic and Eva Aariak. We’re in Eva’s backyard drinking tea, eating homemade cookies and talking about the internet. And they’re about to blow my mind.

The Inuktitut word for internet, “ikiaqqijjut,” is often translated as “the tool to travel through layers.” But Eva stresses that it needs more explanation.

“The idea is that when shamans are in their trance, they can go anywhere around the world, including the moon,” Eva says. “When our elders heard there was the first man on the moon, they said, ‘They are not the first. We have been there and done that,’ because shamans have been there. Shamans would travel in a trance; if they want to check on their family far away, they can visit them and see how they’re doing.”

“While their body is right here,” says Leena.

“That’s what internet does, eh?” says Eva, “Especially with Facebook now, too, you can see how your family is doing.”

Read the whole thing.

12 Mar 17:42

White feminists’ views on Shamima Begum are a failure for all young women of colour

by Media Diversified
Reaction to the news of Shamima Begum’s loss of her son are still lacking in humanity and empathy, even from white feminists, and as Shaista Aziz writes, that has a real impact on young women of colour A young 19-year-old teenage mother born in Bethnal Green London has lost her third child in the space… Read More
11 Mar 09:27

History of British and Irish languages: an interesting gif by...

History of British and Irish languages: an interesting gif by Starkey Comics

The original post contains still versions of all the maps with nice concise explanations. 

09 Mar 17:22

Opting Out Of Oxbow Lakes

by (Jen)
Many readers will have noticed the story in the media about "LGBT lessons" in a Birmingham school and how lots of people who have somehow been entrusted with the care of small children want them protected from being told about how two men can marry nowadays, because if the teacher doesn't mention it no-one will ever find out that Suzie has three mums cos it'll never come up in the playground, and if it does there won't be any bullying because groups of children never stigmatise something they don't understand.

You can't help think these are people who have not contemplated how a vengeful gay son choosing the quality of their care home thirty years hence might behave. 

It seems to vary depending which sources you read whether a these 'grown ups' have succeeded in ending these lessons, or whether the school is continuing them after the Easter break, but it has all got very heated as a clique of parents insist that children are property, not people. Following on from the leafleting we've seen recently equating trans people with paedophiles and rapists, Birmingham has started to have equivalent pamphlets circulating demanding that a section 28 style law is brought in so as to protect kids from not self-harming.  The neon-nazi playbook of targets follows a predictable path.

It is hideous, but it in this story it also leads to a peculiar demand.

Some of the parents are quoted as saying that the curriculum has been updated and it is unfair because they were not consulted.

Now first I have to note that teaching about the existence of something does not inherently make children want to do it. At school, I learned about the existence of things like hockey and rugby, and remained utterly uninterested. Other people might like that sort of thing and all jolly nice for them, but for me, we invented the indoors for a reason, and it's a bit of my cultural heritage I have a lot of time for. Similarly I was taught about oxbow lakes with such diligence that it is one of only two things I remember from five whole years of geography lessons. At no point did I decide I wanted to be one when I grew up. Didn't even have a lake-curious phase as a teen where I wondered about being fed from a river (and no, my regular and committed drinking of neat vodka between the ages of 18 and 21 doesn't count).

So what's interesting about this is that the dangers-to-their-own-kids parents at the heart of this story want control over RSE but don't expect to decide the rest of the curriculum.  How dare they.  If you are going to dictate what children should know about relationships from their schooling as if you had some sort of educational expertise, you should have to do the rest of the curriculum too.

So henceforth a bit of the typical Brummie school day can go like this:

Teacher: ...So that is how U-shaped and V-shaped valleys are formed and the difference between them.  Except for Mattie and Dave - so far as you are concerned, they just happen and, just you two, write this in your books, "no-one knows why, what do you mean they are shapes, and why are you asking me all this shit about valleys what are we Welsh my children don't need to know about that?" 
That's enough Geography for now 4C, so you can put your Geography notebooks away and take out your English Lesson books as we move on to Spelling And Grammer, a word which ends in an 'er' after a poll of your parents.  Today we are going to learn about the correct use of apostrophe'ses', and believe me this is going to be one of your goodest lesson's ever.  Oh wait, Mx Jenkins from class 2A is at the door, they must need to have a quick word with me about something - what's that?  No, Katie, I cannot tell you what the title Mx means nor how to spell it, not without half the class getting to go for morning break early. Nice try though."
08 Mar 02:58

What Sabrina Needs to Do to Depict Blindness Realistically

by Elsa Sjunneson-Henry

“I just can’t imagine what it would be like to be… like you.” This statement is often accompanied by a gesture, usually to my face, sometimes to my cane. They are referencing my blindness, my cataract, my hearing aids.

They can’t imagine what it would be like to live with one eye, with limited vision, with no vision at all.

It isn’t that they have no imagination, but rather, it’s because the stories we’ve been told about what it’s like to be blind are so filled with fear and falsehoods, that I empathize. It would be impossible to imagine a life within the darkness, or even within the partial light, without fear.

As a blind consumer of media, I often find myself frustrated by these depictions of blindness, which give people little hope in a world full of it.

So we’re going to talk about it. This essay serves as the beginning of Constructing Blindness, a monthly series which will delve into how abled people are shown what blindness looks like, and what the reality of blindness is off the page, stage, or screen. The first new piece of media we’ll tackle is The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. Because here, we can talk not just about how blindness is depicted, but also about how blind people access media.

I don’t want to be the killjoy—I never want to be killjoy—but lots of people have talked about the problems that lie within Sabrina’s plot and storytelling, and this is just one more problem to add to the list. Roz comes from a long line of women endowed with “The Cunning,” a psychic sight, which in addition to giving you said powers, also renders you blind. It’s said to be part of a curse that was handed down by a witch in Greendale’s past.

In other words, it’s a blindness punishment which happens to come with a powerful perk.

This isn’t really an essay about blindness as punishment, because of course, the punishment isn’t over something Roz did. Roz is an innocent, aside from her bloodline linking her to those who did something which required recompense. What I have a problem with is that when Roz realizes that she is finally beginning to go blind—something which her family has known about for years, which she has known would happen to her—she cries about the fact that she won’t be able to read all the books she’s ever wanted to.

Because she’s going blind.

(Insert Blank Stare Gif Here)

Screenshot: Netflix

Do you want to tell me how many books I read in a week? How many stories I devour? Let me tell you about some of my friends, notorious book lovers, who are blinder than I am.

Some blind people learn how to read braille, and use their fingers to access stories.

Others become rabid fans of the audiobook.

I know folks who use DAISY, or who get access to large print and audiobooks through programs specifically designed for the purpose of giving blind people access to stories.

Those of us with enough eyesight use Kindles and other e-readers, bumping the font up to “can be read over our shoulders” levels.

In other words: Just because someone is blind doesn’t mean they can’t read, and it certainly doesn’t mean that they have been excommunicated from the land of story, chapter and verse.

Buy it Now

But with this simple line from Roz about losing the world of books, the show reveals a larger problem with their story.

Because if Roz’ grandmother is blind, if the women of her family go blind as a part of this curse… why aren’t they well versed in the language of blindness, and in the adaptive aids which make living with it possible?

Why didn’t I see a single white cane in the background? How come there wasn’t a guide dog snoring on the floor next to her blind grandma?

Setting aside my problems with the whole trope of the blind psychic, this just doesn’t depict a kind or supportive family. A family that cares about the emotional health of the blind people in their midst. There are no visual cues that tell me the family knows how to manage blindness, and Roz’ terror tells me that she has no concept of the future that awaits her.

Will she bring a guide dog to Greendale High? Or would she use a white cane?

It’s important to acknowledge that it is scary to lose vision when you don’t know how to cope. Of course it would be frightening to Roz—but what bothers me is that her family treats it like it should be frightening, rather than giving her the adaptive tools to lead a life she’d be happy with. In a family that knows what blindness is like, a holistic approach that would give Roz safety and security seems like something I would expect—and something I’d love to see depicted on screen. A family that copes through knowledge and adaptability; a family (like the one in A Quiet Place) that understands and utilizes interdependence to create access.

As someone who lives with the knowledge that my sight may get worse, I’ve made choices that will hopefully make my life easier in the future. Getting a guide dog (at the time this publishes I will literally be at guide dog school), learning braille, learning how to use a white cane. I have availed myself of skillset training and knowledge to find my place in a sighted world. It isn’t always fun, but it is manageable.

It shouldn’t be a source of indescribable terror.

Screenshot: Netflix

This is the problem that I had with The Chilling Adventures. Like every other story that features blindness as a subplot, it makes no plans for its blind characters to live their lives, to independently pursue hobbies. It offers no assurances that being blind isn’t going to render you a member of the deserted island of the blind. It doesn’t tell the viewer that Roz will be okay, because the ultimate sacrifice here is that she will lose her vision—and as a bonus, she will lose the things she loves along with it.

We have to do better by blind readers and consumers of media. We have to tell stories that don’t shove blind people into assumed isolation. Because that’s not how we live our lives.

I ski, I ice skate, I ride horses.

I read and write books.

I have blind friends who fence and skydive, who’ve worked in the U.S. Government, who teach, who are moms and dads.

Roz has a beautiful future ahead of her. More stories to read, more books to consume.

Roz has a beautiful future—but only if her creators allow her to grasp it.

Her future certainly contains people telling her that they can’t imagine living the life that she lives. Her future also could contain a guide dog, or a white cane. Roz could do anything she wanted—but only if the narrow, outdated conceptions of blindness change in the world that she inhabits.

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 Uncanny, Fireside,, CNN and The Boston Globe. She writes from a dragon lair in NJ, and can be found on the web @snarkbat and

28 Feb 21:44

The revoking of Shamima Begum’s citizenship sets a worrying precedent for the children of immigrants

by Media Diversified
Following her discovery by a British journalist in Syria, The Home Office has written to Shamima Begum’s parents to revoke her British citizenship. Shahnaz Ahsan writes that it is a reminder that children of immigrants will never be British enough. British Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, has announced that he will be using his special privileges… Read More
27 Feb 21:10

rob-walks: New favourite example of Latin morphology being semi-transparent to English speakers. 


New favourite example of Latin morphology being semi-transparent to English speakers. 

17 Feb 10:40


16 Feb 09:04

"I want to be careful here not to say that language creates or structures thought, and I also want to..."

“I want to be careful here not to say that language creates or structures thought, and I also want to be careful here not to say that language does not create or structure thought. Because I have a nice life, and I don’t want it to be ruined by linguists.”

- John Green (Indianapolis and Love at First Sight)
14 Feb 09:26

Linguist twitter takes on the Roses are red meme, again. 

12 Feb 10:07

Vulvagate: When mansplaining goes so wrong the dictionary itself has to step in

by David Futrelle

Holy shit I'm so mad this guy slandered not only descriptivism (which I knew about from seeing stories like this previously) but the euphemism treadmill! Which is a real thing that I love! And nothing to do with how wrong he is!

No vulva, only grapefruit

By David Futrelle

On Saturday. The Guardian posted a story called “Me and My Vulva,” looking at photographer Laura Dodsworth’s attempt to, as writer Liv Little put it, tell “the stories of 100 women and gender non-conforming people through portraits of their vulvas.” The Guardian featured some of these portraits alongside interviews in which the vulva-havers in question discussed their complicated feelings about their own vulvas and vaginas.

Well, it turns out that some cis men have complicated feelings about vulvas as well, feelings so complicated that they can’t quite believe that the word “vulva” is a specific word, with a specific meaning, that’s worth including in sentences from time to time.

Enter one overconfident fellow called Paul Bullen, who offered what he saw as a correction to the Guardian’s headline:

Since the correct word was in fact “vulva” — Dodsworth’s photos are pictures of the external genitalia — a number of Twitterers stepped up to correct his correction.

One of the correctors was San Francisco OB/GYN Jen Gunter, an actual world-famous expert on, you know, that whole area down there, and the media’s go-to Gwyneth Paltrow-debunker when the actress and would-be wellness maven tries to convince those with vaginas to do things like steam or stick rocks in them, both of which are evidently very bad ideas. Dr. Gunter has literally written the book on vaginas, or at least a book, titled The Vagina Bible, which will be out in August.

Dr. Gunter tweeted:

Here’s the link, by the way.

But Bullen, like many men in similar situations, refused to accept his defeat, and simply kept going, suggesting that those who refused to accept his “correction” were simply a bunch of vulva snobs.

Er,”euphemism treadmill psychology?”

Er, I’m pretty sure that the Vagina Monologues involved considerable discussion of things going into vaginas so I’m going to say no to that.

When it came to Dr. Gunter’s quite specific expertise on this issue, Bullen evidently felt it was outweighed by his confidence as a man with opinions on the internet.

He’s using an awful lot of words to basically say: “Ok, the ‘correct’ definition I used isn’t actually correct, according to the dictionary, but since people use the word incorrectly a lot this incorrect usage is actually the correct one and all you correcty-pants people are actually incorrect with all your fancy correctness, I am very smart.”

Ultimately, THE DICTIONARY ITSELF (or at least Dictionary,com) felt compelled to intervene, noting that the word “vulva” is indeed the correct word for the external genitalia — which is, again, what
Dodsworth’s photos depict.

Bullen wasn’t fazed by all the talk of dictionary definitions because, in his mind, he’s smarter than the dictionary too.

When some critics accused him of mansplaining, he tried to mainsplain mansplaining to them:

That’s an incorrect use of the word mansplaining. :-). Not that I want to legitimize the term, but by its own definition it requires more than just having just a man who is explaining something. Even if some in the audience are women.

Dr. Gunter gently corrected him on that:

She also reiterated the rather basic point — which Bullen seemed unable to grasp — that the photos in question were photos of vulvas, not vaginas.

So @paulbullen here is where you mansplained to me — the correct use for the article was vulva, the common use vagina could not have applied here as it was specifically about loving vulvas and not a general lower repro tract article

Last night I felt compelled to weigh in myself:

None of this — not even my especially brilliant tweet — stopped Bullen from endlessly repeating his point, and the, er, “debate” went on and on and on until, only a few hours ago, Bullen finally decided to stop posting on the subject.

In case you’re wondering if Paul Bullen has bad opinions on any other subjects aside from the correct use of the terms “vagina” and “vulva,” the answer is yes.

Bullen has also recently retweeted white nationalist congressman Steve King, white nationalist “journalist” Faith Goldy, and the white nationalist website VDare. You may notice a trend here. Not that Bullen would necessarily agree that any of these white nationalists are in fact white nationalists. Indeed, he has already used his powerful MAN LOGIC to convince himself that King has never said anything even vaguely white supremacist-ish.

For example, it was obvious to me that King did not say anything in support of "white supremacy." All we have to do is assume that King is rational. It took a an application of the principle of invidiousness to construe what he said that way.

But there’s more! Turns out Bullen is one of those people who contends that the Covington Catholic students photographed several years ago wearing blackface were not wearing blackface.

But, hey, at least his love life is going well:

I don’t know if Bullen has yet managed to make contact with either this woman’s vulva or her vagina.

H/T — To all those who tweeted funny stuff about this, including @Chinchillazllla,, @TakedownMRAs and @mistressmatisse.

We Hunted the Mammoth is independent and ad-free, and relies entirely on readers like you for its survival. If you appreciate our work, please send a few bucks our way! Thanks!