I really enjoyed this FT review of a few books on the origin of words and misspellings. Especially interesting was this note on how dictionaries came to represent current language:
Why did the editors of Webster’s Third drop this lexicographic A-bomb (another addition to the dictionary)? Because views on dictionaries, indeed on language itself, had changed. Instead of laying down rules on how people should write and speak, dictionaries became records of how people did write and speak. And that meant all the people, not just those who spoke the educated language of New England. The new trends in lexicography went along with the growth of scientific method and Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution: lexicographers observed what was happening to the language, rather than handing down precepts.
Douglas Rushkoff asks some interesting questions about the lengths we’re going in the patent battle between Apple and the rest of the industry:
But when it comes to gestures, such as the now ubiquitous “pinch and zoom” technology through which users stretch or shrink pictures and text, well, that no longer feels quite the same. They are gestures that may have begun on the device, but which have become internalized, human movements. When my daughter was three I used to watch her attempt to enact those same swipes and stretches on the television screen – a phenomenon so prevalent that many television dealers now keep a supply of Windex handy to clean their giant flat screens of children’s fingerprints on a regular basis.
Paul Krugman wrote an interesting little post on the use of language by liberals and conservatives over the last few years. His basic argument is that while conservatives complained of “political correctness” from liberals, they’ve now taken on the strategy to a frightening degree: “Thus, even talking about ‘the wealthy’ brings angry denunciations; we’re supposed to call them ‘job creators’. Even talking about inequality is ‘class warfare’.”
It’s an interesting way to think about it, but it’s not actually what I wanted to share. He ends the post with this story of how science fiction worked in the Soviet Union:
The author — if anyone remembers where this came from — noted that most science fiction is about one of two thoughts: “if only”, or “if this goes on”. Both were subversive, from the Soviet point of view: the first implied that things could be better, the second that there was something wrong with the way things are. So stories had to be written about “if only this goes on”, extolling the wonders of being wonderful Soviets.
Earlier this year I remember reading this short article from MIT on some research that showed word length had more to do with information being communicated than frequency of occurrence. Ran across it again and thought it was worth sharing:
Why are some words short and others long? For decades, a prominent theory has held that words used frequently are short in order to make language efficient: It would not be economical if “the” were as long as “phenomenology,” in this view. But now a team of MIT cognitive scientists has developed an alternative notion, on the basis of new research: A word’s length reflects the amount of information it contains.
The article goes on to explain, “For English words, 9 percent of the variation in length is due to amount of information, and 1 percent stems from frequency.” Not entirely sure what to do with this yet, but seems worth knowing.
At dinner this evening Leila and I got into a conversation about Italian words losing the last vowel (mozzarell instead of mozzarella). If you’re not from the New York area this will sound crazy, but it’s pretty common here (I remember hearing it growing up in Connecticut as well).
When I got home I tried to track down an article I remember reading years ago about this phenomena and while I can’t remember whether this was it, a New York Times article from 2004 offers up some ideas on how this happened:
In fact, in some parts of Italy, the dropping of final vowels is common. Restaurantgoers and food shoppers in the United States ended up imitating southern and northern dialects, where speakers often do not speak their endings, Professor Albertini said.
Liliana Dussi, a retired New York district director for the Berlitz language schools, said many first- and second-generation Italians whose ancestors immigrated to the United States before World War I were informally taught Italian expressions and the names of food, some of which has ended up part of everyday language in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.
If you want more, this Chowhound thread is pretty excellent.