adj. of a university town
adj. of a university town
Linguist Ken Hale had a preternatural ability to learn new languages. “It was as if the linguistic faculty which normally shuts off in human beings at the age of 12 just never shut off in him,” said his MIT colleague Samuel Jay Keyser.
“It’s more like a musical talent than anything else,” Hale told The New York Times in 1997. “When I found out I could speak Navajo at the age of 12, I used to go out every day and sit on a rock and talk Navajo to myself.” Acquiring new languages became a lifelong obsession:
In Spain he learnt Basque; in Ireland he spoke Gaelic so convincingly that an immigration officer asked if he knew English. He apologised to the Dutch for taking a whole week to master their somewhat complex language. He picked up the rudiments of Japanese after watching a Japanese film with subtitles.
He estimated that he could learn the essentials of a new language in 10 or 15 minutes, well enough to make himself understood, if he could talk to a native speaker (he said he could never learn a language in a classroom). He would start with parts of the body, he said, then animals and common objects. Once he’d learned the nouns he could start to make sentences and master sounds, writing everything down.
He devoted much of his time to studying vanishing languages around the world. He labored to revitalize the language of the Wampanoag in New England and visited Nicaragua to train linguists in four indigenous languages. In 2001 his son Ezra delivered his eulogy in Warlpiri, an Australian aboriginal language that his father had raised his sons to speak. “The problem,” Ken once told Philip Khoury, “is that many of the languages I’ve learned are extinct, or close to extinction, and I have no one to speak them with.”
“Ken viewed languages as if they were works of art,” recalled another MIT colleague, Samuel Jay Keyser. “Every person who spoke a language was a curator of a masterpiece.”
In 1989, a real estate developer applied to build 300 homes in Bolton, England, over the objections of the residents. The application was rejected twice, but then a government minister overturned the decision and told the firm to go ahead.
The borough council’s deputy leader, Guy Harkin, told the Bolton News, “We were scratching around to prevent a big national company dumping an estate on Bolton which the people didn’t want. After the government minister gave it the go-ahead, the only thing we had control over were the names of the streets.”
“I thought if we could come up with the most nauseous names, it might prevent Barratts from building the estate,” Harkin said. “We wanted to do anything to prevent it being built, rather than force people to live on streets with horrible names.”
“Unfortunately the lawyers said although we were legally able to do it, we would have lost it on appeal. So it was never put forward as policy. The estate was built with normal street names.”
When J.R.R. Tolkien wrote his first story, at age 7, “my mother … pointed out that one could not say ‘a green great dragon,’ but had to say ‘a great green dragon.’ I wondered why, and still do.” It turns out that there’s an unwritten rule in English that governs the order in which we string our adjectives together:
In The Elements of Eloquence, Mark Forsyth writes, “So you can have a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife. But if you mess with that word order in the slightest you’ll sound like a maniac. It’s an odd thing that every English speaker uses that list, but almost none of us could write it out.”
Another unwritten rule concerns ablaut reduplication: In terms such as chit-chat or dilly-dally, in which a word is repeated with an altered vowel, the vowels will follow the pattern I-A-O if there are three words and I-A or I-O if there are two. So:
And so on. Interestingly, these rules about precedence seem to follow a precedence rule of their own: The “royal order of adjectives” would require Red Riding Hood to meet the “Bad Big Wolf” (opinion before size). But the rule of ablaut reduplication apparently trumps this, making him the Big Bad Wolf.
“Why this should be is a subject of endless debate among linguists,” Forsyth writes. “It might be to do with the movement of your tongue or an ancient language of the Caucasus. It doesn’t matter. It’s the law, and, as with the adjectives, you knew it even if you didn’t know you knew it. And the law is so important that you just can’t have a Bad Big Wolf.”
I don’t know how this applies to dragons.
(Thanks, Nick and Armin.)
n. the action or practice of drinking alcohol
n. the clearing up of anything which is obscure or not easily understood; an explanation
n. full persuasion or confidence; perfect conviction or certitude
In a 1952 speech before the Mississippi house of representatives, lawmaker Noah S. Sweat addressed the question whether the state should continue to prohibit alcoholic beverages:
My friends, I had not intended to discuss this controversial subject at this particular time. However, I want you to know that I do not shun controversy. On the contrary, I will take a stand on any issue at any time, regardless of how fraught with controversy it might be. You have asked me how I feel about whiskey. All right, here is how I feel about whiskey:
If when you say whiskey you mean the devil’s brew, the poison scourge, the bloody monster, that defiles innocence, dethrones reason, destroys the home, creates misery and poverty, yea, literally takes the bread from the mouths of little children; if you mean the evil drink that topples the Christian man and woman from the pinnacle of righteous, gracious living into the bottomless pit of degradation, and despair, and shame and helplessness, and hopelessness, then certainly I am against it.
But, if when you say whiskey you mean the oil of conversation, the philosophic wine, the ale that is consumed when good fellows get together, that puts a song in their hearts and laughter on their lips, and the warm glow of contentment in their eyes; if you mean Christmas cheer; if you mean the stimulating drink that puts the spring in the old gentleman’s step on a frosty, crispy morning; if you mean the drink which enables a man to magnify his joy, and his happiness, and to forget, if only for a little while, life’s great tragedies, and heartaches, and sorrows; if you mean that drink, the sale of which pours into our treasuries untold millions of dollars, which are used to provide tender care for our little crippled children, our blind, our deaf, our dumb, our pitiful aged and infirm; to build highways and hospitals and schools, then certainly I am for it.
“This is my stand,” he said. “I will not retreat from it. I will not compromise.”
In The Limits of Language, Swedish linguist Mikael Parkvall awards this his recognition for “best apologetic endnote”:
“This paper was undertaken in an attempt to shed light on some very mysterious problems. I fear I have done little more than show which lamps have cords too short to reach the outlets.”
(From Georgia Green, “Some Observations on the Syntax and Semantics of Instrumental Verbs,” Papers from the 8th Regional Meeting of the Chicago Linguistic Society 8 , 83-97.)
adj. over-refined, excessively subtle in thought or expression
n. conciseness of speech; a condensed expression
n. a subtle or scornful jibe; a piece of sarcasm or irony; subtle mocking
In 1886 Grover Cleveland suspended certain officials during a recess of the Senate and refused to give his reasons. When the Senate objected, he sent them a letter that contained a fateful phrase: “And so it happens that after an existence of nearly twenty years of an almost innocuous desuetude these laws are brought forth.”
Everyone pounced on it. Tennessee representative William Robert Moore wrote:
The big Free trade disciple
Who lives on Buzzard’s Bay,
Cannot again be President,
The tariff boys all say;
And they mean “biz” you better bet,
They’re in the proper mood
To send him up Salt River
To “innocuous desuetude” —
To innocuous desuetude,
To innocuous desuetude,
To send him up Salt River
To innocuous desuetude.
The phrase was still echoing in 1920, when former Speaker of the House Champ Clark wrote, “His most exquisite phrase and entirely original, so far as I know, was ‘innocuous desuetude,’ still frequently quoted and perhaps to be quoted as long as our vernacular is spoken by the children of men.”
n. the amount a container lacks of being full
Given a 5-gallon jug, a 3-gallon jug, and a limitless supply of water, how can you measure out exactly 4 gallons?
In 1987, Portuguese poet Alberto Pimenta took the sonnet Transforma-se o amador na cousa amada (The lover becomes the thing he loves), by the 16th-century poet Luís de Camões, and rearranged the letters of each line to produce a new sonnet, Ousa a forma cantor! Mas se da namorada (Dare the form, songster! But if the girlfriend).
Here’s Camões’ (curiously apposite) original poem, translated by Richard Zenith:
The lover becomes the thing he loves
by virtue of much imagining;
since what I long for is already in me,
the act of longing should be enough.
If my soul becomes the beloved,
what more can my body long for?
Only in itself will it find peace,
since my body and soul are linked.
But this pure, fair demigoddess,
who with my soul is in accord
like an accident with its subject,
exists in my mind as a mere idea;
the pure and living love I’m made of
seeks, like simple matter, form.
Carlota Simões and Nuno Coelho of the University of Coimbra calculated that the letters in Camões’ sonnet can be rearranged within their lines in 5.3 × 10312 possible ways.
Interestingly, after Pimenta’s anagramming there were two letters left over, L and C, which are the initials of the original poet, Luís de Camões. “It seems that, in some mysterious and magical way, Luís de Camões came to reclaim the authorship of the second poem as well.”
In 2014, when designer Nuno Coelho challenged his multimedia students to render the transformation, Joana Rodrigues offered this:
(Carlota Simões and Nuno Coelho, “Camões, Pimenta and the Improbable Sonnet,” Recreational Mathematics Magazine 1:2 [September 2014], 11-19.)