Late Vulgar Adûni

Sunday, December 14th, 2014

As the appendices explain, The Lord of the Rings is simply Tolkien’s translation of the Red Book of Westmarch, an ancient manuscript written in Late Vulgar Adûni — which Austin Gilkeson decided to translate for himself:

Tolkien’s original translation is justly famous and beloved. He treeherds an unwieldy ancient text into lyrical modern English and captures the vast scope and romance of the epic.

It is also deeply flawed.

Tolkien refers to Quendi people as “elves,” a common term in his time, but considered highly offensive today. And while Tolkien was a great scholar of the Quenya and Sindarin languages, his command of Late Vulgar Adûni was rudimentary at best, and his translation of the Red Book suffers for it.

In the most infamous instance, Tolkien botched The Hobbit’s “Riddles in the Dark” chapter in the first edition. He was so confused by the text’s use of pronomial prefixes in the subjunctive that he has Gollum leading Bilbo to safety in the goblin caves, rather than pursuing him with murderous malice. Tolkien corrected this blunder in later editions, but the damage was done. Similarly, he describes there being nine Nazgûl, when in fact there were only three.

New Tool for Children With Speech Errors

Tuesday, November 4th, 2014

The letter r can be hard to pronounce, and some children never quite learn how, but a new tool could help:

Conventional speech therapy is often effective at helping to resolve speech errors from sounds that are made with the lips, such as “p,” “b,” “m” and “v.” Children can look in a mirror and imitate a therapist’s lips. But more complex sounds like “s,” “l” and “ch” are harder to fix because they involve movements of the tongue hidden inside the mouth.

Experts say “r” has a particularly complex tongue shape. Using ultrasound biofeedback allows children to see and visualize the tongue as it moves, something not possible in traditional speech therapy. Also, unlike other speech sounds, “r” isn’t always produced the same way; there are many different tongue variations that produce the same sound.

For some children, part of the problem may be an auditory-perceptual problem that makes it difficult for them to hear the difference between correct and incorrect “r” sounds, Dr. Byun said. Ultrasound images “replace the auditory channel with the visual channel,” she said.

To use the technology, an ultrasound probe is dabbed with gel and placed under a child’s chin. Sound waves capture real-time images of the tongue, which help patients and therapists see the outline of the tongue’s shape and position.


Among the most common tongue shapes for producing the correct “r” sound is the bunched “r,” where the tip of the tongue is pointed down or forward and the bulk of the tongue is raised up near the hard palate. Another is the retroflex “r,” where the tongue tip is curled up and slightly back.

In both these cases, parts of the tongue are doing different things at the same time. Generally the tongues of people who don’t pronounce the “r” sound correctly are making simpler or undifferentiated shapes.

“It’s a complicated sound to make. It requires some difficult and coordinated movements with the tongue,” said Jonathan Preston, an assistant professor in the department of communication sciences and disorders at Syracuse University. “Ultrasound makes it more obvious since people can visually adjust and they can learn to adjust in real time,” he said.


Sunday, October 26th, 2014

A transom is a horizontal beam separating a door from a window above it.

The phrase “over the transom” refers to works submitted without being solicited. Imagine a writer tossing a manuscript through the open window over the door of the publisher’s office.

Is Learning a Foreign Language Really Worth It?

Monday, March 24th, 2014

Is learning a foreign language really worth it?

Dubner: Saiz is from Barcelona — Barthelona — and he’s an economist at MIT, where he teaches urban planning. On today’s show we’re asking about the return on investment of learning a foreign language and, wouldn’t you know it, Saiz has calculated exactly that. He tracked about 9,000 college graduates to see how a foreign language affected their wages.He was surprised by what he found.

Saiz: Yeah, unfortunately, and I have to say, of course, because I try to speak three, I was pretty disappointed, and actually we found a very, very small return. What we did find is that after controlling for a host of characteristics, and using, a lot of experimental research designs that are basically trying to compare people who are identical for everything except for the second language, we did tend to find a premium in the labor market of about 2 percent of wages. In other words, if you speak a second language, you can expect to earn, on average, and that’s across many, many different people, on average you can be expected to earn about 2 percent higher wages. To contextualize this, think about your income or your wage being about $30,000, then you would expect to earn about $600 more per year.

Dubner: Now that’s not nothing. There are a lot of things you can do that won’t increase your earnings by even 2 percent. But still, that’s not a huge premium. And, I hate to tell this to our young Spanish speakers back at the Little Red School House in New York, but there is a rank order in terms of how different foreign languages translate into higher earnings.

Saiz: We know that the lowest return is Spanish, where you get about 1.5 percent, and then French 2.7 percent, and then German 4 percent. So you know learning a second language is something that’s worth to do by itself, but as a financial decision, probably, if you’re focusing on financial returns, they’re relatively low, and you should focus on languages that are rarely spoken in the United States.


Dubner: So as Bryan Caplan sees it, learning a foreign language, especially in school, just may not be worth it. Unless — that foreign language is English. Remember what Albert Saiz told us? His study of college graduates found only a 2 percent wage premium for learning a foreign language. But those were American college graduates:

Saiz: I can tell you that there’s research in other countries. Actually the findings in the United States do contrast with what other people following the same methodology found in Turkey, in Russia and in Israel. In these three countries, actually speaking English, which would be the second language, was associated with a substantial return of around 10 to 20 percent. So it’s really I think English speaking countries where that effect is relatively low. And again I think the explanation is very clear. English is the lingua franca.

The Mammoth Cometh

Thursday, February 27th, 2014

The New York Times Magazine piece is titled The Mammoth Cometh, but it’s more about the potential de-extinction of the passenger pigeon.

One mistake caught my eye:

The biologists would next introduce these living cells into a band-tailed-pigeon embryo. No hocus-pocus is involved here: You chop off the top of a pigeon egg, inject the passenger-pigeon cells inside and cover the hole with a material that looks like Saran wrap. The genetically engineered germ cells integrate into the embryo; into its gonads, to be specific. When the chick hatches, it should look and act like a band-tailed pigeon. But it will have a secret. If it is a male, it carries passenger-pigeon sperm; if it is a female, its eggs are passenger-pigeon eggs. These creatures — band-tailed pigeons on the outside and passenger pigeons on the inside — are called “chimeras” (from the Middle English for “wild fantasy”). Chimeras would be bred with one another in an effort to produce passenger pigeons. Novak hopes to observe the birth of his first passenger-pigeon chick by 2020, though he suspects 2025 is more likely.

Chimera is the name of an ancient Greek mythological beast — part lion, part goat, part serpent. (And all fire-breather.)

The Best of All Translations

Monday, January 27th, 2014

The title of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World refers to Miranda’s speech in Shakespeare’s The Tempest:

O wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in’t.
— William Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act V, Scene I

It’s ironic:

Miranda was raised for most of her life on an isolated island, and the only people she ever knew were her father and his servants, an enslaved savage, and spirits, notably Ariel. When she sees other people for the first time, she is understandably overcome with excitement, and utters, among other praise, the famous line above.

However, what she is actually observing is not men acting in a refined or civilised manner, but rather drunken sailors staggering off the wreckage of their ship. Huxley employs the same irony when the “savage” John refers to what he sees as a “brave new world”.

So, how do you translate the title?

Translations of the title often allude to similar expressions used in domestic works of literature in an attempt to capture the same irony: the French edition of the work is entitled Le Meilleur des mondes (“The Best of All Worlds”), an allusion to an expression used by the philosopher Gottfried Leibniz[6] and satirised in Candide, Ou l’Optimisme by Voltaire (1759).

A Strange and Romantic Continent

Tuesday, December 31st, 2013

A cartographer with an interest in etymology “started to exchange real names for rue names and the world became a strange romantic continent“:

The New Navel of the Moon. It’s so poetic, isn’t it? (And sure, maybe a bit anatomically confusing.) That’s the real meaning behind the state name New Mexico, and it’s one of many etymological gems uncovered by cartographers Stephan Hormes and Silke Peust while they were creating this U.S. map depicting the original, literal meanings behind the states and cities we know today.

United States of the Home Ruler

Of course, most state names aren’t nearly as gorgeous as New Mexico’s moon navel. For every Idaho “Light on the Mountains,” there is a Missouri “Land of the People with Dugout Canoes.” Many states, of course, simply describe geography, which works out well for Mississippi “Land of the Great River” but a bit less elegantly for Washington “Marsh Farm Land.”

Can We Disrupt Poverty by Changing How Poor Parents Talk to Their Kids?

Friday, December 27th, 2013

Can we disrupt poverty by changing how poor parents talk to their kids?

By the time poor children are 3, researchers believe they have heard on average about 30 million fewer words than children the same age from better-off families, setting back their vocabulary, cognitive development, and future reading skills before the first day of school. This disadvantage is “already almost irreversible,” says Kenneth Wong, a professor of education policy at Brown University.

I love the way correlation is treated as causation. How many different English words do affluent children with a nanny hear, by the way?

The Providence Talks project is spending its $5 million grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies on a pedometer for words:

The device, a 2-ounce specialized recorder about the size of a deck of cards, maps the intensity of communication between parents and children. The infants and toddlers in Providence Talks will wear it twice a month, tucked into a custom-made vest, for 12 to 16 hours at a time. The recorder then plugs into a computer, where software automatically converts the audio files into charts that can be used by Meeting Street to coach the parents on how and when they might speak to their children more often.

As always, these things devolve into self-parody:

For years, we didn’t notice this inequality of vocabulary — or the extent of it — because it was a painstaking thing to measure before the advent of smarter recorders and software. A seminal study, published in 1995 by two child psychologists at the University of Kansas, Betty Hart and Todd Risley, manually identified the effect.

They spent two-and-a-half years studying 42 Kansas City families of varying incomes with children who were, at the start of the study, 7 to 9 months old. For an hour each month, Hart and Risley recorded and observed everything that took place in a home around a child. They ultimately spent four years transcribing and analyzing 1,300 hours of observation. Their results showed that children in families on welfare heard half as many words per hour as children of working-class parents, and a third as many as children of professional parents.

Over time, the children also came to mirror their parents in vocabulary and interactions. “When we listened to the children,” Hart and Risley wrote, “we seemed to hear their parents speaking.”

Really? No one noticed the difference in speech patterns between poor children and rich? And only now do we realize that children sound like their parents?

The goal is clear:

Suskind is eager to see this strategy, backed by more research, help more than a handful of families. Imagine, for example, if aggregated data from a project like this could help cities make the case for more library funding in neighborhoods where children do not hear as many words.

“We need this to succeed. We want this to succeed,” Suskind says of Providence Talks, whose advisory board she has joined. “If this can be shown to be effective on a larger scale, it would be a great thing.”

Clear Your Mind

Monday, October 21st, 2013

John Derbyshire shares one of his favorite quotes from Dr. Johnson, recorded by Boswell:

Says the sage: “My dear friend, clear your mind of cant. You may talk as other people do: you may say to a man, ‘Sir, I am your most humble servant.’ You are not his most humble servant….You tell a man, ‘I am sorry you had such bad weather the last day of your journey, and were so much wet.’ You don’t care six-pence whether he was wet or dry. You may talk in this manner; it is a mode of talking in society: but don’t think foolishly.”

The italics in that opening commandment are absolutely necessary, as the rest make clear. Johnson did not object to people speaking insincerely for the purpose of lubricating social exchanges. Most of us agree with him on this, and the few who don’t are annoying and unpersuasive.

Well, the other day I Googled “clear your mind of cant,” for some reason I’ve forgotten, and learned that it has been repurposed to a motivational motto. There are instances here, here, and here.

What’s happened there is that Johnson’s word “cant” has been mistakenly read as, or deliberately transformed into “can’t” with an apostrophe, making it motivational: “Clear your mind of CAN’T!”

How hard is English?

Saturday, September 7th, 2013

How hard is it to learn a language? It depends on how close it is to your native tongue. But is it possible to describe a language’s difficulty in the abstract?

English-speakers often point to a language like Latin or Ancient Greek. Next to them, in one important respect, English is easy. The distinction involves a language’s “inflectional morphology”, or the bits and pieces added to a noun or adjective or verb to make it match up with other pieces in a sentence. An English verb has a maximum of five forms (speak, speaks, speaking, spoke, spoken), whereas verbs in Spanish or Latin can take dozens of forms. An English noun usually has only two forms (singular and plural), whereas the Greek or Russian noun takes numerous forms showing grammatical gender, number and case.

This kind of inflection is not a terrible proxy for that slippery idea of “difficulty”. Where are the world’s hardest languages, then? Is English one of them? One study, by Gary Lupyan and Rick Dale in 2010, looked closely at inflection. It found that highly inflected languages tend to be spoken by a small number of speakers, and have few neighbours. But languages with big groups of speakers, or many neighbouring languages, systematically tend to have fewer inflections. Why is that? The hypothesis is that as a language spreads over centuries, it is learned by many non-natives (trading partners, conquered subjects and the like). Adults, learning a foreign language imperfectly, avoid using non-necessary endings. And many endings in any language are non-necessary, if other clues (like word order in a sentence) can be recruited to do the same things that word endings do — say, distinguishing the subject of a sentence from its direct object. As languages spread and grow, they are more likely to rely on clues like word order than on word-endings. So “big” languages are “simple”. Under this schema, English fits both criteria: relatively big and relatively simple.

Of course, what’s hard about English is its irregularity, especially when it comes to spelling and pronunciation.


Tuesday, August 13th, 2013

“The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog,” may be the most famous pangram in English, but there are others:

  • The five boxing wizards jump quickly. (31 letters)
  • Pack my box with five dozen liquor jugs. (32 letters)
  • A quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog. (33 letters)
  • The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog. (35 letters)
  • Pack my red box with five dozen quality jugs. (36 letters)
  • The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dogs. (37 letters)
  • Who packed five dozen old quart jars in my box? (37 letters)
  • My girl wove six dozen plaid jackets before she quit. (43 letters)
  • Few black taxis drive up major roads on quiet hazy nights. (47 letters)
  • A quick movement of the enemy will jeopardize six gunboats. (49 letters)

Twelve words fossilized in idioms

Monday, July 15th, 2013

Twelve words fossilized in idioms:

1. Wend
You rarely see a “wend” without a “way.” You can wend your way through a crowd or down a hill, but no one wends to bed or to school. However, there was a time when English speakers would wend to all kinds of places. “Wend” was just another word for “go” in Old English. The past tense of “wend” was “went” and the past tense of “go” was “gaed.” People used both until the 15th century, when “go” became the preferred verb, except in the past tense where “went” hung on, leaving us with an outrageously irregular verb.

2. Deserts
The “desert” from the phrase “just deserts” is not the dry and sandy kind, nor the sweet post-dinner kind. It comes from an Old French word for “deserve,” and it was used in English from the 13th century to mean “that which is deserved.” When you get your just deserts, you get your due. In some cases, that may mean you also get dessert, a word that comes from a later French borrowing.

3. Eke
If we see “eke” at all these days, it’s when we “eke out” a living, but it comes from an old verb meaning to add, supplement, or grow. It’s the same word that gave us “eke-name” for “additional name,” which later, through misanalysis of “an eke-name” became “nickname.”

4. Sleight
“Sleight of hand” is one tricky phrase. “Sleight” is often miswritten as “slight” and for good reason. Not only does the expression convey an image of light, nimble fingers, which fits well with the smallness implied by “slight,” but an alternate expression for the concept is “legerdemain,” from the French léger de main,” literally, “light of hand.” “Sleight” comes from a different source, a Middle English word meaning “cunning” or “trickery.” It’s a wily little word that lives up to its name.

5. Dint
“Dint” comes from the oldest of Old English where it originally referred to a blow struck with a sword or other weapon. It came to stand for the whole idea of subduing by force, and is now fossilized in our expression “by dint of X” where X can stand for your charisma, hard work, smarts, or anything you can use to accomplish something else.

6. Roughshod
Nowadays we see this word in the expression “to run/ride roughshod” over somebody or something, meaning to tyrannize or treat harshly. It came about as a way to describe the 17th century version of snow tires. A “rough-shod” horse had its shoes attached with protruding nail heads in order to get a better grip on slippery roads. It was great for keeping the horse on its feet, but not so great for anyone the horse might step on.

7. Fro
The “fro” in “to and fro” is a fossilized remnant of a Northern English or Scottish way of pronouncing “from.” It was also part of other expressions that didn’t stick around, like “fro and till,” “to do fro” (to remove), and “of or fro” (for or against).

8. Hue
The “hue” of “hue and cry,” the expression for the noisy clamor of a crowd, is not the same “hue” as the term we use for color. The color one comes from the Old English word híew, for “appearance.” This hue comes from the Old French hu or heu, which was basically an onomatopoeia, like “hoot.”

9. Kith
The “kith” part of “kith and kin” came from an Old English word referring to knowledge or acquaintance. It also stood for native land or country, the place you were most familiar with. The expression “kith and kin” originally meant your country and your family, but later came to have the wider sense of friends and family.

10. Lurch
When you leave someone “in the lurch,” you leave them in a jam, in a difficult position. But while getting left in the lurch may leave you staggering around and feeling off-balance, the “lurch” in this expression has a different origin than the staggery one. The balance-related lurch comes from nautical vocabulary, while the lurch you get left in comes from an old French backgammon-style game called lourche. Lurch became a general term for the situation of beating your opponent by a huge score. By extension it came to stand for the state of getting the better of someone or cheating them.

11. Umbrage
“Umbrage” comes from the Old French ombrage (shade, shadow), and it was once used to talk about actual shade from the sun. It took on various figurative meanings having to do with doubt and suspicion or the giving and taking of offense. To give umbrage was to offend someone, to “throw shade.” However, these days when we see the term “umbrage” at all, it is more likely to be because someone is taking, rather than giving it.

12. Shrift
We might not know what a shrift is anymore, but we know we don’t want to get a short one. “Shrift” was a word for a confession, something it seems we might want to keep short, or a penance imposed by a priest, something we would definitely want to keep short. But the phrase “short shrift” came from the practice of allowing a little time for the condemned to make a confession before being executed. So in that context, shorter was not better.

(Hat tip to David Foster.)

Words and phrases have hinterlands

Wednesday, March 6th, 2013

Words and phrases have hinterlands, Theodore Dalrymple says:

In the late 1970s, people in Britain who received money from social security would say ‘I get my giro on Friday.’ (The giro was in effect a cheque.) Nowadays, however, they almost always say ‘I get paid on Friday.’

This new form of words is very revealing, and signifies (to adapt slightly a Gramscian formulation) the long march of dependence through the mentalities: for to get paid, in normal parlance, is to receive money in return for something that one has done for another person or entity. What is it, then, that they are paid for having done? The answer is and can only be: for having continued to exist since the receipt of the last money.

Let me add, lest I should be misunderstood, that I do not consider the position of people who are in this position of dependence to be enviable. Often not of the highest intelligence, they have been badly educated by the state and then supplied with, one might almost say contemptuously tossed, a bare material sufficiency; if they work they are scarcely better off than if they do not, for their labour is worth hardly more to any possible employer than the subventions they already receive. Their only luxury is time, oceans of it. It is not to be wondered at that they lack self-respect, that they self-destruct, that their choices are often of a fantastically unwise nature, for nothing much hangs on them except the most immediate consequences. They have seen the future, and it is more of the same.

My point, however, is that the language that they use is an important clue, or entry, into their mentality. In the 1970s, the term ‘I get my giro’ was a neutral description of a fact; it did not imply that the receipt of the giro was in return for anything. Thirty years later, continuing to exist, that is to say not having died, had become existentially equivalent (for people in this state of dependence) or even superior to going out to work and earning a living. Such a state of mind is not conducive to individual effort: the man who goes out to work five or six days a week and is no better off than such a person, but does so in the mere hope of bettering himself or even just to retain his self-respect, is more likely to be seen as a fool rather than a hero or someone worthy of imitation.

Perhaps it is inevitable that large-scale, de-industrialising societies will result in a class of people such as I have described, essentially paupers whose pauperisation is at a much higher standard of living than that of Victorian paupers because of the vast increase in our overall productivity and wealth; perhaps any alternative, for example a nearly complete absence of any form of subvention to the unemployed, would be worse (more than one opinion is possible on this subject, and it is almost always possible for situations to get worse as well as better).

What I think it illegitimate to doubt, however, is that there is a mentality of dependence brought about by the current system, at least in Britain; and that the things that they say — such as ‘I get paid on Friday,’ and I could cite other locutions — virtually proves it. Words and phrases have hinterlands.

Up Goer Five

Monday, November 12th, 2012

How do you describe the Saturn V using only the thousand most commonly used words in the English language?  First, you call it the Up Goer Five:

Is “whom” history?

Wednesday, October 17th, 2012

This anecdote raises the question, is “whom” history?

My 4 year old corrected my wife today. My wife used “whom” in a sentence (properly, mind you) and my daughter said “mama, sometimes you say a weird word, ‘whom’, when what you should be saying is ‘who’. ‘Whom’ is not a real word.”

The four-year-old is right, in a way:

What has my friend’s four-year-old learned? There’s a pronoun who. It’s a question word that can start sentences like “Who is that?” Adults also use it all the time in questions like “Who’d you invite over?” and “Who are you talking about?” It also can kick off a relative clause: “She’s the colleague who sits next to me,” and “She’s the colleague who I’ve started to become friends with.” In other words, the girl has heard revered, trusted adults (parents, teachers) using who as a subject, a direct object and an object of a preposition. Rule: who is used in all these roles.

And then comes this occasional weird variant. Every once in a while, mummy or daddy, for no obvious reason, uses whom in the exact same place they usually use whoGrown-ups are silly. They don’t let me cut my own hair, they insist on eating disgusting green plants, and they occasionally misspeak. Mommy, it’s who, not whom.

The thing is, the girl’s rule is right: who is used in all these roles. Geoffrey Pullum makes a distinction between Normal and Formal language, and most English-speakers today, when in Normal mode, steer clear of whom. We leave out the relative pronoun (That’s the friend I’m inviting to dinner) or just use who. Children are rarely exposed to Formal, and have little concept of register. Whom is just weird for them. A search of the Spoken category of the Corpus of Contemporary American English finds that is about eight times more common than me—but who is 57 times more common than whom. It appears just 53 times out of every million words.  That number would be even lower in the language used around a four-year-old. No wonder she might process it as a mere glitch in Mommy’s English.

My friend asked “language change in action?” Yes, probably, but his daughter is reflecting, not driving the change here. (Kids do drive all kinds of other changes, especially when they become teenagers and play with language self-consciously.) Here, she’s just seeing that hardly anyone uses whom. Our societies increasingly prize spontaneity, authenticity and “just talking” over polish and elaborate formality. In other words, Normal.

Since whom is becoming less common, many people can’t use it properly even when they are aiming for Formal. (A common mistake is using it in a subject role, for example: That’s the candidate whom I hope will win the election. Here, the mistake is in thinking that I hope turns who into an object. But the clause is really who will win the election, with I hope just an interpolation.) The unease over whom just makes people avoid it more.

I think whom has a long life left in it, though, for non-grammatical reasons. Educated people prize language, and the mastery of Formal. Their status at the top of the social heap is an incentive to treat the proper use of whom as a sign of intelligence, not just the Formal register. They do most of the edited and published writing we consume. And so whom will live in print for a good long time, even as many of those same people ignore it when they’re chatting at the proverbial water cooler.

Kids will go on reaching secondary school being taught, for the first time, how to use who‘s strange cousin. They will also be learning a meta-linguistic lesson: sometimes you don’t use the language that comes most naturally to you. And finally, when they have kids, they’ll start explaining the whole strange story to them in turn.