Language Feed

Fascinating article on ultraconserved words

A Washington Post article on a fascinating new study about two dozens words that have basically sounded the same for 15,000 years and appear in a wide array of language families, not just Indo-European.  Here is the tantalizing opening of the article:

You, hear me! Give this fire to that old man. Pull the black worm off the bark and give it to the mother. And no spitting in the ashes!

It’s an odd little speech. But if it were spoken clearly to a band of hunter-gatherers in the Caucasus 15,000 years ago, there’s a good chance the listeners would know what you were saying.

That’s because all of the nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs in the four sentences are words that have descended largely unchanged from a language that died out as the glaciers were retreating at the end of the last Ice Age.


Vocabulary

Vocabulary

by Jason Schneiderman

 

I used to love words,

but not looking them up.

Now I love both,
the knowing,

and the looking up,
the absurdity

of discovering that "boreal"
has been meaning

"northern" all this time
or that "estrus"

is a much better word
for the times when

I would most likely
have said, "in heat."

When I was translating,
the dictionary

was my enemy,
the repository of knowledge

that I seemed incapable
of retaining. The foreign word

for "inflatable" simply
would not stay in my head,

though the English word "deictic,"
after just one encounter,

has stuck with me for a year.
I once lost "desiccated"

for a decade, first encountered
in an unkind portrayal

of Ronald Reagan, and then
finally returned to me

in an article about cheese.
I fell in love with my husband,

not when he told me
what the word "apercus" means,

but when I looked it up,
and he was right.

There's even a word
for when you use a word

not to mean its meaning,
but as a word itself,

and I'd tell you what it was
if I could remember it.

My friend reads the dictionary
for its perspective on culture,

laughs when I say that
reference books are not really

books, but proleptic databases.
My third grade teacher

used to joke that if we were bored
we could copy pages out of the dictionary,

but when I did, also as a joke,
she was horrified rather than amused.

Discovery is always tinged
with sorrow, the knowledge

that you have been living
without something,

so we try to make learning
the province of the young,

who have less time to regret
having lived in ignorance.

My students are lost
in dictionaries,

unable to figure out why
"categorize" means

"to put into categories"
or why the fifth definition

of "standard" is the one
that will make the sentence

in question make sense.
I wonder how anyone

can live without knowing
the word "wonder."

A famous author
once said in an interview,

that he ended his novel
with an obscure word

he was sure his reader
would not know

because he liked the idea
of the reader looking it up.

He wanted the reader,
upon closing his book, to open

another, that second book
being a dictionary,

and however much I may have loved
that author, after reading

that story
(and this may surprise you)

I loved him less.

"Worsted in the battles of life"

A retired minister in my congregation loaned me his copy of the 1947 Evangelical and Reformed Book of Worship.  Looking over it today, I enjoyed the language in the "Prayer for Social Righteousness."  The paragraph in particular was interesting.  I didn't like its resignation in the final phrases, but the language, particularly in the opening phrases is evocative:

For those who have been worsted in the battles of life, whether by the inhumanity of their fellows, their own limitations, or the fickleness of fortune, that they may contend against injustice without bitterness, overcome their own weaknesses with diligence and learn how to accept what cannot be altered with patience.

As to that acceptance of what cannot be changed, the similarity to the Serenity Prayer should not go unnoticed as Reinhold Niebuhr, the author of that prayer, was E&R and his brother H. Richard was on the committee that drafted this edition of their book of worship.


Berry on good words

truth, nature, imagination, affection, love, hope, beauty, joy. Those words are hard to keep still within definitions; they make the dictionary hum like a beehive. But in such words, in their resonance within their histories and in their associations with one another, we find our indispensable humanity, without which we are lost and in danger.


Lakoff on the Santorum strategy

George Lakoff, once again, reminds progressives not to cede the public discourse to radical conservatives and to quite strengthening the radical conservatives by using their language.   Rather, develop one's own based on progressive values.  Lakoff made these points after John Kerry's defeat and progressives got better at following his advice, which is one reason I think that they did well in 2006 and 2008.  

Liberals tend to underestimate the importance of public discourse and its effect on the brains of our citizens. All thought is physical. You think with your brain. You have no alternative. Brain circuitry strengthens with repeated activation. And language, far from being neutral, activates complex brain circuitry that is rooted in conservative and liberal moral systems. Conservative language, even when argued against, activates and strengthens conservative brain circuitry. This is extremely important for so-called "independents," who actually have both conservative and liberal moral systems in their brains and can shift back and forth. The more they hear conservative language over the next eight months, the more their conservative brain circuitry will be strengthened.