Effles

An effle is a grammatical English sentence that no one would ever say — they tend to turn up in textbooks for students learning English as a foreign language:

The farmer kills the duckling.
This is a pencil. This is a boy. Peter is a boy. Peter is not a pencil.
A hat is not food.
A man has a dog.
Is this my finger or your finger?
A tailor sews with a needle.
He’s not very good so I can’t marry him.
One praises a pupil when he works hard.
You can’t go to a restaurant if you don’t have money.
Shall I leave without paying?
These are the people’s lunches.
Ouch! O, foolish bee!

Struck by these absurdities while trying to learn English from a textbook in 1950, Eugene Ionesco wrote a play, The Bald Prima Donna, with the same inane tone:

MARY: I am the maid. I have just spent a very pleasant afternoon. I went to the pictures with a man and saw a film with some women. When we came out of the cinema we went and drank some brandy and some milk, and afterwards we read the newspaper.

MRS. SMITH: I hope you spent a pleasant afternoon. I hope you went to the pictures with a man and drank some brandy and some milk.

Mr. SMITH: And the newspaper.

MARY: Your guests, Mr. and Mrs. Martin, are waiting at the door. They were waiting for me. They were afraid to come in on their own. They were meant to be dining with you this evening.

In his 1973 book The Language Laboratory and Language Learning, linguist Julian Dakin recalls a school textbook for foreign learners in which two children are continually asking one another their names. In Lesson 6 it turns out they’re brother and sister.

See Can You Do Without Soap?

To Whom It May Concern

https://archive.org/details/timecapsulecups00westrich

When Westinghouse buried a time capsule at the 1939 World’s Fair, the planners hoped that it wouldn’t be opened until 6939. That created a problem: How could they leave writings for a future civilization when language itself was sure to change immeasurably in the ensuing 5,000 years?

Westinghouse tried to solve the problem by enlisting Smithsonian ethnologist John P. Harrington, who wrote a “mouth map” (“Mauth Maep”) showing the pronunciation of “33 sounds of 1938 English” and a list of “the thousand words most essential to our daily speech and thought.” He also presented Aesop’s fable “The North Wind and the Sun” in “neo-phonetic spelling” and in 1938 English:

Dhj Northwind aend dhj Sjn wjr dispyucting whitsh woz dhj stronggjr, hwen j traevjljr kecm jlong raepd in j worm klock. Dhec jgricd dhaet dhj wjn huc fjrst mecd dhj traevjljr teck of hiz klock shud bic konsidjrd stronggjr dhaen dhj jdhjr. Dhen dhj Northwind bluc widh aol hiz mait, bjt dhj mocr hie bluc, dhj mocr klocsli did dhj traevjljr focld hiz klock jraund him, aend aet laest dhj Northwind gecv jp dhj jtempt. Dhen dhj Sjn shocn aut wormli, aend imicdijtli dhj traevjljr tuk of hiz klock; aend soc dhj Northwind woz jblaidzhd tj konfes dhaet dhj Sjn woz dhj stronggjr jv dhj tuc.

The Northwind and the Sun were disputing which was the stronger, when a traveler came along wrapped in a warm cloak. They agreed that the one who first made the traveler take off his cloak should be considered stronger than the other. Then the North wind blew with all his might, but the more he blew, the more closely did the traveler fold his cloak around him; and at last the Northwind gave up the attempt. Then the Sun shone out warmly, and immediately the traveler took off his cloak; and so the Northwind was obliged to confess that the Sun was the stronger of the two.

But even if the book manages to convey 20th-century vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation to future scholars, will the world that these describe be too remote for them to imagine? The Westinghouse authors begged intermediate librarians to retranslate the book continually to keep alive its meaning. Will that be enough? I guess they’ll find out.

In a Word

colluctation
n. strife, conflict, contention

perstreperous
adj. noisy

superbiate
v. to make proud, arrogant, or haughty

supplosion
n. a stamping of the feet

New Zealand’s national rugby union team, the All Blacks, performs a haka, a traditional ancestral Māori war cry, before each international match:

Leader: Ears open! Get ready! Line up! Stand fast!
Team: Yeah!
Leader: Slap the hands against the thighs! Stomp the feet as hard as you can!
Team: As hard as we can!
Leader: You die! You die!
Team: We live! We live!
Leader: You die! You die!
Team: We live! We live!
All: Here stands the Hairy Man who can bring back the Sun so it will shine on us again! Rise now! Rise now! Take the first step! Let the sunshine in! Rise!

At the 2003 World Cup in Australia, Tonga met the haka with their own sipi tau, a traditional challenge dance:

It didn’t help, though — the All Blacks went on to win the game 91-7.

Elevation

In the early 20th century, inspired by the scientific hope that the mind could evolve to ever-higher levels of consciousness, Russian poets tried to paint this higher reality with paradoxical statements that defied common sense. This movement reached its apotheosis in 1913 when Aleksei Kruchenykh wrote “Dyr bul shchyl,” an untranslatable arrangement of letters on a page. Kruchenykh added the legend “3 poems written in my own language different from others: its words do not have a definite meaning.” Kruchenykh named this new language zaum, Russian for transrational, because it transcends common sense and logic.

“For whom was Kruchenykh writing these poems?” asks Lynn Gamwell in Mathematics + Art. “He wrote for other avant-garde poets — he was a poet’s poet — and, according to his late-nineteenth-century biological worldview, the poets in his audience possessed expanded (more highly evolved) minds. Kruchenykh did not communicate in the ordinary sense — he deliberately chose obfuscation, made-up words. He composed his poems to reach a small, elite art audience whose brains, to his way of thinking, had evolved enough to perceive an actual infinity — the Absolute. In other words, the subject matter of his verse was neither nonsense nor an occult realm but rather an alleged higher ‘transrational’ level of reasoning.”

Breathless

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Arturo_Ricci_Nachmittagstee.jpg

This looks exhausting — flirting signals, from Daniel R. Shafer’s Secrets of Life Unveiled, 1877:

“Handkerchief flirtations”:

Drawing it across the lips: Desiring an acquaintance
Drawing it across the cheek: I love you
Drawing it across the forehead: Look, we are watched
Drawing it through the hands: I hate you
Dropping it: We will be friends
Folding it: I wish to speak with you
Letting it rest on the right cheek: Yes
Letting it rest on the left cheek: No
Letting it remain on the eyes: You are so cruel
Opposite corners in both hands: Do wait for me
Over the shoulder: Follow me
Placing it over the right ear: How you have changed
Putting it in the pocket: No more love at present
Taking it by the centre: You are most too willing
Twisting it in the left hand: I wish to be rid of you
Twisting it in the right hand: I love another
Winding it around the forefinger: I am engaged
Winding it around the third finger: I am married

“Glove flirtations”:

Biting the tips: I wish to be rid of you very soon
Clenching them, rolled up in right hand: No
Drawing half way on left hand: Indifference
Dropping both of them: I love you
Dropping one of them: Yes
Folding up carefully: Get rid of your company
Holding the tips downward: I wish to be acquainted
Holding them loose in the right hand: Be contented
Holding them loose in the left hand: I am satisfied
Left hand with the naked thumb exposed: Do you love me?
Putting them away: I am vexed
Right hand with the naked thumb exposed: Kiss me
Smoothing them out gently: I am displeased
Striking them over the shoulder: Follow me
Tapping the chin: I love another
Tossing them up gently: I am engaged
Turning them inside out: I hate you
Twisting them around the fingers: Be careful, we are watched
Using them as a fan: Introduce me to your company

“Fan flirtations”:

Carrying in right hand: You are too willing
Carrying in right hand in front of face: Follow me
Carrying in left hand: Desirous of an acquaintance
Closing it: I wish to speak with you
Drawing across the forehead: We are watched
Drawing across the cheek: I love you
Drawing across the eyes: I am sorry
Drawing through the hand: I hate you
Dropping: We will be friends
Fanning fast: I am engaged
Fanning slow: I am married
Letting it rest on right cheek: Yes
Letting it rest on left cheek: No
Open and shut: You are cruel
Open wide: Wait for me
Shut: I have changed
Placing it on the right ear: You have changed
Twirling in left hand: I love another
With handle to lips: Kiss me

“Parasol flirtations”:

Carrying it elevated in left hand: Desiring acquaintance
Carrying it elevated in right hand: You are too willing
Carrying it closed in left hand: Meet on the first crossing
Carrying it closed in right hand by the side: Follow me
Carrying it over the right shoulder: You can speak to me
Carrying it over the left shoulder: You are too cruel
Closing up: I wish to speak to you
Dropping it: I love you
End of tips to lips: Do you love me?
Folding it up: Get rid of your company
Letting it rest on the right cheek: Yes
Letting it rest on the left cheek: No
Striking it on the hand: I am very displeased
Swinging it to and fro by the handle on left side: I am engaged
Swinging it to and fro by the handle on the right side: I am married
Tapping the chin gently: I am in love with another
Twirling it around: Be careful; we are watched
Using it as a fan: Introduce me to your company
With handle to lips: Kiss me

(From Elizabeth Aldrich, From the Ballroom to Hell: Grace and Folly in Nineteenth-Century Dance, 1991.)

A Gift for Words

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Kenneth_Locke_Hale_(1934%E2%80%932001).jpg

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.”

Alternate Route

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.”

So they named them Hitler Avenue, Belsen Crescent, and Goering Drive.

“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.”

(Thanks, Raphy.)

Fire and Fog

http://www.flickr.com/photos/wili/2628869994/
Image: Flickr

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:

opinion
size
age
shape
color
origin
material
type
purpose

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:

tip-top
clip-clop
King Kong
flip-flop
sing-song
shilly-shally

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.)