A word 3½ hours long

February 11, 2014

If you’d asked me as a child how long it would take to speak the longest word in the English language, I’d have guessed a couple of seconds. Antidisestablishmentarianism would have come to mind, as the longest word in my pocket Collins dictionary at the time, or supercalifragilisticexpialidocious if “made-up” words were allowed.

Later I met other odd giants, like pseudopseudohypoparathyroidism and pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis with their unmistakeably medical morphemes. All these words (Mary Poppins aside) are known chiefly for being very long – but with a bit of practice you could voice any of them in a single breath.

They’re mere pipsqueaks compared with some chemical names, which are probably not words in a strict sense but are impressively massive all the same – especially the protein Titin, aka connectin, whose chemical name begins Methionylalanylthreonylseryl… and goes on like that for 189,819 letters. In this remarkable video, Dmitry Golubovskiy reads it in its entirety. It takes him just over 3½ hours:

You can read along here.

I didn’t watch the whole thing. After a couple of minutes I skipped ahead a bit, then watched the finale. His beard visibly darkens over the course of the performance, and he looks decidedly dazed at the end. The flowers wilt suddenly at 2:09:21 in a cut that suggests a bathroom break, or maybe a breather for sanity’s sake.

Hat-tip to @emordino for the video.

Time-travelling verb tenses must will have existed

January 20, 2014

Brian Clegg’s entertaining pop-physics book Build Your Own Time Machine: The Real Science of Time Travel (2011) has a couple of amusing examples of how grammar gets wonky when you’re talking about time travel. The first example comes in a discussion of what’s called the block universe model, which encompasses “all of space and all time that will ever be”:

If the block universe is the correct picture, even if we managed to travel backward in time, we could never do anything that would change the future, at least within a particular quantum version of the universe. Because the future and the past already exist in the block, any action we take must already exist. (We have trouble with tenses emerging from time travel here. It might be more accurate to say that any action must will have existed.)

Later, Clegg talks about “Destination Day” in Perth, when a time and place were announced to welcome possible visitors from the future. (Similar events have taken place in MIT and Baltimore.) Note that the DD website is no longer directly accessible and can be reached only in cached form via tools like the Wayback Machine – the internet equivalent of time travel. Clegg:

I can’t find any official description of what happened that day in Perth, but I suspect there was some form of welcoming committee, eagerly anticipating visitors from the future to pop into existence. Of course now March 31, 2005, is in the past, and we aren’t so much awaiting them as we have been were awaiting them.

Have been were awaiting: lovely. I recently noted that English has no future tense, but whether the grammar of time travel would be easier if it did is a question for another day. As things stand English verb tenses, Clegg concludes, “definitely aren’t designed to cope with time travel”. This is good to already will have known.

Folktale diffusion and ethnolinguistic variation

February 6, 2013

I’ve been stop-starting my way happily through Celtic Fairy Tales and More Celtic Fairy Tales, two late-19thC collections by the great Australian folklorist Joseph Jacobs, combined in a plump Senate paperback and handsomely illustrated by John D. Batten:

Celtic Fairy Tales, ed. by Joseph Jacobs, illustrated by John D Batten

Read the rest of this entry »

Babel – a new language magazine

November 28, 2012

A brief post to direct your attention to Babel – The language magazine, a new popular-linguistics publication from the University of Huddersfield in the UK. There are to be four issues a year. From the introduction by editors Lesley Jeffries and Dan McIntyre:

One of the reasons that language is so fascinating is that it’s something we all share. And just as everyone uses language, so too does everyone have an opinion about it. But if we want real answers to questions about language then we need the insights of linguistics. Babel aims to provide these.

Babel promises to address “issues relating to many different human languages”, and will have regular items such as feature articles of general interest, biographies of influential thinkers, explanations of technical terms, and more.

Issue one, which is available for free download (PDF, 3.11 MB), has features on forensic speech science (a branch of forensic linguistics), the problems and possibilities of intergalactic communication, politeness practices in Chinese, and how the norms of English as a global lingua franca are changing.

There are also book reviews, games, short news items, a biography of H. Paul Grice, and a glossary of linguistics under ‘A’ (including anaphora, happily). I’ve only browsed it so far, but I’ll read it from cover to cover before the weekend.

Via David Crystal, who, in more good news, is the magazine’s linguistic consultant.

Don’t tell Richard Feynman

September 4, 2012

I’ve been reading Don’t You Have Time to Think?, a collection of letters written by (and to) the great physicist Richard Feynman.

As I tweeted earlier today, Feynman comes across as warm, generous, sincere and self-effacing. He was also blessed with wit, patience, and admirable directness.

Here’s a short, amusing exchange he had with Francis Crick in 1978:

Dear Francis,
I regret having to do this, but I’m returning this paper to you unread. My schedule is such lately that I must refuse to get bogged down reading someone else’s theory; it may turn out to be wonderful and there I’d be with something else to think about.
Richard P. Feynman

Crick replied:

Dear Dick,
I would have done the same! The usual expression used in Molecular Biological circles is due to Frank Stahl: “Don’t tell me – I might think about it!”
Yours ever,

Don’t tell me – I might think about it! I may adopt that.

On a linguistic note, the book includes correspondence with A. M. Hughes at the OED, who was seeking further information on the origins of parton, a word coined by Feynman to refer to what we now call quarks and gluons.

The provisional definition of parton to be included in the OED Supplement was: “Each of the hypothetical point-like constituents of the nucleon that were invoked by R. P. Feynman to explain the way the nucleon inelastically scatters electrons of very high energy.” Feynman found the definition “admirable”.

Over on Tumblr, I posted one other letter from the book, wherein Feynman gives his reasons for declining an honorary degree after winning the Nobel Prize in Physics.

If you’re interested in buying Don’t You Have Time to Think?, you can do so at Penguin Books so long as typos don’t bother you inordinately: the edition I have, pictured above, contains several. Steven Poole has a short, accurate review in the Guardian that might sway you.

Most animals bark a little

May 7, 2012

In The Hidden Life of Dogs, anthropologist Elizabeth Marshall Thomas reports what she has learned about dog behaviour and psychology from watching different breeds in diverse environments and social situations. I like the observations she makes about the communicative aspects of barking and sniffing:

[O]nly the pugs took much interest in the human life around them, so only the pugs barked. Of course, most animals bark a little – which is to say that if surprised and puzzled simultaneously, most animals, including human beings, make a short, sharp call; the call is “Huh?” in our species. Highly domesticated dogs make an art of their puzzlement and bark insistently, alerting others to unexplained events. But not the huskies, who didn’t bark at human-generated sounds or happenings any more than they barked at birds in the sky, and surely for the same reason: the doings of the birds and the people lacked significance for them.

Is it true that most animals make such a sound? It depends on what’s meant by animals, I suppose: mammals or non-aquatic vertebrates may be closer to what was meant, but I still don’t know how true it is.

In any case, by the author’s reckoning I myself have, on occasion, barked in puzzled surprise, and maybe you have too. I don’t know if there’s another verb for when people make this sound. Huh is a good phonic approximation but it doesn’t lend itself naturally to inflection. Yelping is usually high-pitched and is associated more with pain. I’m open to suggestions of existing words or invented ones.

Marshall Thomas continues:

In contrast, the dogs took an unlimited interest in each other. When a dog returned after a brief absence, the others would quietly surround him and investigate him for scent – the scents of his own body, which would show his state of mind and probably a great deal more as well, and the scents of the place he had been, which he carried on his fur. They’d smell his lips and his mantle, his penis, his legs and his feet. Seldom, if ever, would they investigate his anus or anal glands, evidently because the information therefrom has to do with a dog’s persona but not with his travels. The dogs would investigate me too, particularly if I had been away a long time. They paid special attention to my legs from the knees down, as if I had been wading through odors.

“Wading through odours” is a lovely, memorable description, evoking the dog’s sensorial surroundings with appropriate emphasis on smell. What a rush of stimuli it must be for a dog to go exploring outside, where – save a minuscule stationary layer above the ground – the air is more subject to turbulence and so constitutes a fluctuating “garden of exotic flora and fauna”, to use a phrase from Lyall Watson’s book Jacobson’s Organ.

Humans’ sense of smell is puny by comparison, and our visual sense may have crowded the field in recent history, but our noses are still capable of delivering intense and subtle effect, sometimes transporting us instantly to another time and place. Most of us need hardly a moment’s thought to list many smells that give us particular pleasure; other smells might even make us bark.


Related items: I’ve written before about word recognition in dogs and the claims made for their command of human language. On Tumblr I posted another passage from Marshall Thomas’s very enjoyable book, which includes the marvellous phrase cynomorphic substitute; you can read chapter one of Watson’s book on smell and pheromones online; and finally, here’s a fun drawing by Lili Chin of a Boston terrier’s body language.

The normality of conversation on Twitter

February 27, 2012

Biz Stone, co-founder of Twitter, recently said that it may be unhealthy to spend too much time using the service. He has a point, albeit a trivial one: it may also be unhealthy to spend too much time in the bath or up a tree. Too much is too much, and by and large we can judge this for ourselves.

But his comments were ammunition for Professor Susan Greenfield, who believes Facebook and video games, among other things, are damaging our brains. So she appeared on Channel 4 News to offer condescending assumptions about people’s use of Twitter. Fortunately, her arguments were well challenged by science journalist Mark Henderson.

Many scientists and viewers responding to the interview seemed exasperated (or grimly amused) by Prof. Greenfield’s habit of using commercial news media to sound societal alarm bells instead of publishing peer-reviewed studies to support her sweeping claims. It has become a running argument.

I’d like to draw your attention to one response in particular, from someone I follow on Twitter. Professor Sophie Scott, a neuroscientist at the UCL Speech Communication Laboratory, was unsurprised to find that Greenfield is missing some essential facts about human communication. Her riposte, “A little more conversation”, is a sane and solid defence of how normal it is to spend time on Twitter:

much of what goes on, on Twitter, is people using a slightly different medium to do what they’ll do any way they can, which is to converse, to talk to others. For humans, conversation is an end in itself.

Conversation, she writes, is “like a dance, only instead of dancing in synchrony, we take turns.” By outlining and illustrating some of the principles of conversation, Prof. Scott also makes helpful reference to the similarities and differences between electronic and face-to-face forms of it:

if you free people from the demands of having to organize all the stuff in face-to-face conversations that is concerned with the turn-taking negotiations, then conversations can really flourish. People can leap from one conversation to the next, and back and forth, when the time line is fast and busy, as it is for many people on Twitter (or chat rooms etc.).

You can read the rest here; it’s well worth two minutes of your time.

Another reason we can hold several simultaneous chats online is that although they happen in real time, if slightly delayed, they remain available to us as tweets, comments, etc. This is significant because our parallel processing power is limited, speech is ephemeral, and we quickly forget exactly what someone has said in spoken exchanges.

I love chatting on Twitter for more reasons than I could say. Most have to do with the people I chat with, who are a constant source of insight, fun, help, and goodness. Some have become friends or acquaintances offline. I need hardly mention Twitter’s other uses, for example as an aid to journalism, education, and activism.

Of course it can be addicting, but so can many everyday activities; what matters is the degree to which they’re healthy or unhealthy, and this depends more on how they’re used than on the activities themselves.

What do you think?

[image source]


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