The linguistics of colour names

May 16, 2017

The news website Vox has produced some good videos on linguistic topics, which can be found amidst their many other clips. Its latest one looks at the vexed question of colour names and categories in different languages, and in 6½ minutes it offers a decent summary:

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Kinship terms around the world

March 31, 2017

It’s often assumed that when babies say mama or papa (or similar) they are addressing or referring to their mother or father explicitly. Not so. In a 2012 post on mama/papa words around the world, I wrote:

Before I knew anything about language acquisition, I assumed that babies making these utterances were referring to their parents. But this interpretation is backwards: mama/papa words just happen to be the easiest word-like sounds for babies to make. The sounds came first – as experiments in vocalization – and parents adopted them as pet names for themselves.

These pet names, or nursery forms, in turn gave rise to our grown-up terms like mother and father – or rather, their ancient predecessors – according to Roman Jakobson’s 1959 paper ‘Why “Mama” and “Papa”?’ (PDF). The striking correspondence of nursery forms cross-lingually can be seen in a table from Larry Trask’s ‘Where do mama/papa words come from?’ (PDF):

The Great Language Muster is a project collecting data from hundreds of languages in an effort to update our knowledge of these and other kinship terms – how we address and refer to parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles. It’s being run by UCL linguistics professor Andrew Nevins, whose research assistant Evan DeFrancesco emailed me about it.

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Siblings with identical names

August 4, 2016

I don’t know a family personally that has siblings with identical names. But I know of some anecdotally, and the phenomenon occasionally appears in the news or discussion forums for one reason or another. George Foreman famously has five sons named George (‘so they would always have something in common’). In my culture it’s unusual, but it happens.

Toni Morrison treats this familial anomaly with comedy and flair, albeit with non-biological siblings, in her acclaimed novel Sula (1973). In Medallion, Ohio, in 1921, when Sula is eleven years old, her grandmother Eva – ‘operating on a private scheme of preference and prejudice’ – takes in three boys and disregards their given names:

They came with woollen caps and names given to them by their mothers, or grandmothers, or somebody’s best friend. Eva snatched the caps off their heads and ignored their names. She looked at the first child closely, his wrists, the shape of his head and the temperament that showed in his eyes and said, ‘Well. Look at Dewey. My my mymymy.’ When later that same year she sent for a child who kept falling down off the porch across the street, she said the same thing. Somebody said, ‘But, Miss Eva, you calls the other one Dewey.’

toni morrison sula book cover triad granada owen wood‘So? This here’s another one.’

When the third one was brought and Eva said ‘Dewey’ again, everybody thought she had simply run out of names or that her faculties had finally softened.

‘How is anybody going to tell them apart?’ Hannah asked her.

‘What you need to tell them apart for? They’s all deweys.’

It’s as if Dewey had gone beyond the conventional function of a name (if it ever really had it, here) and become the word for a certain category of people. The first Dewey is a dewey, the second is ‘another one’, and by the third even Morrison is lowercasing them on Eva’s behalf.

And yet:

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The need to name everything

March 30, 2016

The act of naming was described by Elias Canetti as ‘the great and solemn consolation of mankind’. Replace the anachronistic last noun with humankind or humanity and it fits an entry in Eve Ensler’s book The Vagina Monologues:

I have always been obsessed with naming things. If I could name them, I could know them. If I could name them, I could tame them. They could be my friends.

It’s not clear who the narrator is. Ensler says some of the monologues that constitute her book are ‘close to verbatim interviews’, some are composite, and with some she ‘just began with the seed of an interview and had a good time’.

eve ensler - the vagina monologues book coverThe unnamed naming obsessive mentions a collection of inanimate frogs she had as a child, each of which she named in a ‘splendid naming ceremony’ involving song, dance, frog noises, and excitement – though not before she had spent time with the frog, getting to know its nature. One was called ‘Froggie Doodle Mashie Pie’, so perhaps we should drop the ‘solemn’ part of Canetti’s line.

Soon, the narrator says, she ‘needed to name everything’ – rugs, doors, stairs, furniture, the flashlight (‘Ben’). Then she looked closer to home, so to speak:

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Inheriting grandparents’ names

November 11, 2014

There’s an interesting passage about child-naming customs in Éamon Kelly’s autobiography The Apprentice (Marino Books, 1995). Kelly is recounting his childhood near Killarney in southwest Ireland, and the time he spent in his father’s workshop playing with pieces of wood:

I sat in the shavings and listened to the men who came with jobs for my father. They all spoke to me and those who knew my grandfather were surprised that I wasn’t called after him. The custom then was to call the first son after his father’s father and the second son after his mother’s father. The same rule applied to the first two girls. They were called after their grandmothers. If you walked into a house at that time and there were two boys and two girls in the family and you knew their grandparents, you could name the children. Both my male grandparents, who were inseparable friends, objected to my father’s and mother’s marriage. They claimed there was a blood relationship, though fairly far out, and the slightest trace of consanguinity had to be avoided. My mother was very upset by this attitude and called me after my father to annoy the old man. My father’s Christian name was Edmund, Ned to everybody, and so was I.

The name Éamon came later, when Kelly was a carpenter’s apprentice (hence the book title) working with his father. Since both were called Edmund/Ned, confusion arose when either was hailed, so someone took to calling the son Éamon. He remained Ned to his family and neighbours, but Éamon was the name by which I first knew of him.

I’ve written before about Éamon Kelly in his seanchaí (storyteller) guise, after coming across a couple of clips of him on YouTube. That post has additional resources on Kelly’s life, for anyone interested.

The custom he describes lives on but seems much less prevalent than it was a century ago – though my sister was named after our maternal grandfather, in a nice inversion of the tradition. I was named after my uncle, who was (I think) named after my granduncle. I’d be interested to hear who you were named after, if anyone, or what other naming traditions are in your family or area.


Word magic from Shalom Auslander

October 21, 2014

Browsing books at random in Galway, I picked up Shalom Auslander’s novel Hope: A Tragedy because the title caught my eye, and I bought it based on a cursory scan of its contents and reviews. The author’s name was also interesting to me, and the book turned out to be the most entertaining thing I had read in months.

More recently I read Auslander’s Foreskin’s Lament: A Memoir, which was the funniest thing I’d read since his novel. Not that it’s all jokes – the books are very well written, and work on many levels – but if you like dark and irreverent humour suffused with theological anxiety, there’s a good chance you’ll like his work.

Here’s an excerpt from Foreskin’s Lament on the religious implications of his name. I’ve selected it not for its humour (though it has some of that), but because of its linguistic content. I think word magic is subtler and more pervasive than we often suppose, though what follows is an extreme and obvious case of it:

In the third grade, Rabbi Kahn told me my name was one of God’s seventy-two names, and he forbade me from ever writing it in full. We wrote primarily in Hebrew and Yiddish, so anything on which I wrote my name — God’s name — became instantly holy: tests, book reports, Highlights for Kids — consequently, they could never be mistreated. It was forbidden to let them touch the floor, it was forbidden to throw them away, it was forbidden to place other papers on top of them.

—Name of the Creator! Rabbi Kahn would shout in horror, pointing at the McGraw-Hill American History lying anti-Semitically on top of my Talmud test. —Name of the Creator!

Then I would have to leave the classroom, go upstairs, and walk all the way to the bais midrash (study hall), where they kept a brown cardboard box reserved for holy pages without a home: torn prayer books, old Haggadahs, crumbling Talmuds, and the suddenly holy “What I Did This Summer” by God Auslander.

“Words are holy,” as the narrator subsequently notes. Another passage revisits the complications of being called Shalom, through an awkward conversation with his mother, but I’ll leave that for anyone interested in reading the book. For some background see Auslander’s interview at Bookslut, or visit his website for essays and more.


The curses and adjectives of Luis Buñuel

June 24, 2014

This week I read My Last Breath, the autobiography of one of my favourite filmmakers, Luis Buñuel. Mischievous, opinionated, and full of eye-opening anecdotes from his long and frankly surreal life, it also has a couple of passages on matters linguistic that may be of general interest.

First, on the importance of choosing a good name, in this case for artistic works:

In my search for titles, I’ve always tried to follow the old surrealist trick of finding a totally unexpected word or group of words which opens up a new perspective on a painting or book. This strategy is obvious in titles like Un Chien andalou, L’Age d’or, and even The Exterminating Angel. While we were working on this screenplay [The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie], however, we never once thought about the word “bourgeoisie.” On the last day at the Parador in Toledo, the day de Gaulle died, we were desperate; I came up with A bas Lénin, ou la Vierge à l’écurie (Down with Lenin, or The Virgin in the Manger). Finally, someone suggested Le Charme de la bourgeoisie; but Carrière [Jean-Claude, screenwriter] pointed out that we needed an adjective, so after sifting through what seemed like thousands of them, we finally stumbled upon “discreet.” Suddenly the film took on a different shape altogether, even a different point of view. It was truly a marvelous discovery.

The next passage concerns an incident during the Spanish Civil War. Buñuel has left Madrid for Geneva on the instruction of the Republican minister for foreign affairs, but he is warned en route that his identification papers will not get him past the border. Sure enough, a panel of “three somber-faced anarchists” halt his passage: You can’t cross here, they tell him. Buñuel has other ideas:

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