Six videos about language

February 17, 2016

Rather than wait for the next linkfest to share these videos about language – there’s no telling when that would happen – I thought I’d bundle them all together. Most are bite-sized.

First up is Arika Okrent, whose book on conlangs has featured on Sentence first a few times. Her YouTube page has a growing selection of clips on various aspects of language, their charm enhanced by animation from Sean O’Neill. Here’s a recent one on animal sounds in different languages:

At The Ling Space, Moti Lieberman and team are prolific makers of entertaining videos aimed at people learning linguistics or interested in it. The Ling Space Tumblr blog supplements the videos with further discussion. This one is on the anatomy of the human voice:

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Kibitzing chess players and editors

April 18, 2015

After a binge of Ed McBain books a few months ago – they often touch on linguistic topics – this week I picked another of his 87th Precinct series off the unread shelf: Let’s Hear It for the Deaf Man (1973). It uses a form of the Yiddish word kibitz twice in short succession:

In the April sunshine four fat men sit at a chess table in the park across the street from the university. All four of the men are wearing dark cardigan sweaters. Two of the men are playing chess, and two of them are kibitzing, but the game has been going on for so many Sundays now that it seems almost as though they are playing four-handed, the players and the kibitzers indistinguishable one from the other.

Kibitz is a handy word that means to watch someone do something (normally a game, often cards) and offer unwelcome advice. It can also simply mean to chat or joke around. The word entered English almost a century ago via multiple languages, thieves’ cant, and ornithological onomatopoeia. This delightful etymology is summarised at Etymonline:

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Language change and the arbitrariness of the sign

October 28, 2013

Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913) devised a model of linguistic meaning involving what he called the signifier (a symbolic or phonological form) and what it signifies. Their association is a basic unit of communication he referred to as a linguistic sign, and it is fundamentally arbitrary.

For example, rose signifies a flower with a pleasant smell, but by any other name it would, per Romeo, smell as sweet. Generally speaking, the meaning of a word cannot be predicted from its form, nor its form from its meaning.

Ferdinand de SaussureSaussure also drew a useful distinction between two approaches to linguistic study, which he called diachronic and synchronic – essentially historical and ahistorical. How he knitted these concepts together may be seen in this passage by Jonathan Culler in his book Saussure (Fontana Modern Masters, 1976):

What is the connection between the arbitrary nature of the sign and the profoundly historical nature of language? We can put it this way: if there were some essential or natural connection between signifier and signified, then the sign would have an essential core which would be unaffected by time or which at least would resist change. This unchanging essence could be opposed to those ‘accidental’ features which did alter from one period to another. But in fact, as we have seen, there is no aspect of the sign which is a necessary property and which therefore lies outside time. Any aspect of sound or meaning can alter; the history of languages is full of radical evolutionary alterations of both sound and meaning. . . . In short, neither signifier nor signified contains any essential core which time cannot touch. Because it is arbitrary, the sign is totally subject to history, and the combination at a particular moment of a given signifier and signified is a contingent result of the historical process.

The fact that the sign is arbitrary or wholly contingent makes it subject to history but also means that signs require an ahistorical analysis. This is not as paradoxical as it might seem. Since the sign has no necessary core which must persist, it must be defined as a relational entity, in its relations to other signs. And the relevant relations are those which obtain at a particular time.

There are exceptions to the arbitrary nature of the sign, such as onomatopoeia or sound symbolism, but even these may have aspects that are arbitrary or informed by the cultures in which they exist. And they are greatly outnumbered by the arbitrary signs.

John Lyons notes in Language and Linguistics that this arbitrary quality makes languages more difficult to learn, but it also gives them great flexibility and adaptability.

Hunting the origins of “tantivy”

June 18, 2013

Dava Sobel’s book of popular astronomy The Planets reintroduced me to a word I’m fond of but rarely encounter, when she described Mercury’s “tantivy progress through space”.

Tantivy’s origins are uncertain, its functions manifold. As an adjective, it means “rapidly, at top speed, at full gallop”, this last gloss suggesting a possible etymology. It can also serve, or historically has done since around the 17th–18thC, as a noun, verb, adverb, and interjection (as a hunting cry).

The OED says tantivy is “probably imitative of the sound of galloping horses” – one of the more evocative etymologies I’ve read in a while – and that it was “later influenced by tantara” (a blast or fanfare on a trumpet or horn). Michael Quinion believes the hunting horn holds a more likely origin story.

Sequence of a horse galloping by Eadweard Muybridge

When I first saw tantivy in print I assumed the stress fell on the first syllable, maybe because of a similar word I knew from childhood, rumpeta, used in The Elephant and the Bad Baby to suggest the sound of a running elephant (“And they went rumpeta, rumpeta, rumpeta, all down the road”). Tantivy, however, is stressed on the second syllable, according to most authorities: tan-tiv-y.

It is not a common word. There are no examples in COCA or GloWbE, or even in the British National Corpus; only a handful may be found in the Corpus of Historical American English, including:

the tantivy of wild pigeons, flying by two and threes athwart my view, or perching restless on the white pine boughs behind my house, gives a voice to the air (Henry David Thoreau, Walden, 1854)

Jack then placed himself on the opposite side of the pit, farthest from the giant’s lodging, and, just at the break of day, he put the horn to his mouth, and blew, Tantivy, Tantivy. This noise roused the giant… (Joseph Jacobs, English Fairy Tales, 1898)*

He then put his horn to his mouth, and blew such a loud and long tantivy, that the giant awoke and came towards Jack… (Martha Finley, Fairy Tales Every Child Should Know, 1905)

How does it come that a few short hours later we find him galloping tantivy over the dusty hills, no less than two hundred miles, as the birds fly, from the counter railing of welcomings? (Francis Lynde, Empire Builders, 1907)

The middle two are interesting to compare, since they tell the same story but use tantivy in different grammatical ways: as interjection and noun, respectively. It is interesting, too, that tantivy has two competing etymologies, one from hunting, one from horses (probably also hunting), both onomatopoeic. Now I just need an excuse to use it.


[image of horse galloping by Eadweard Muybridge via Wikimedia Commons]

* Joseph Jacobs featured in an earlier post on folktale diffusion and ethnolinguistic variation.

Squishy vs. squidgy

March 23, 2012

I got to wondering recently about the semantic differences between squishy and squidgy.

For me, squishy is soft and yielding, squishable like a sponge; squidgy refers to something a bit firmer and more malleable, like marla.* Their internal consonant clusters, voiceless sh vs. voiced dg, reflect this distinction — as with slush vs. sludge.

Curious about how others contrast them, and why, I asked offhand on Twitter, and was gratified by the range and detail of responses. I hadn’t thought much about the words’ emotional connotations: these and other qualities (e.g., relative wetness) recurred in the replies.

The discussion is now up on Storify for convenient reading and reference: ‘Squishy’ vs. ‘squidgy’.

Additional thoughts here or on Twitter would be welcome.

Edit: A recent tweet from @OxfordWords led me to their definition of squeegee, which says its origin is “from archaic squeege ‘to press’, strengthened form of squeeze.” Which seems relevant.


* /’mɔːrlə/ An Irish word for plasticine or modelling clay.