👓 The The Atlas of Endangered Alphabets | Jason Kottke

Read The The Atlas of Endangered Alphabets by Jason Kottke (kottke.org)

The Atlas of Endangered Alphabets is a collection of “indigenous and minority writing systems”, gathered together in the hopes of collecting information about reviving interest in these alphabets. From the about page:

In 2009, when I started work on the first series of carvings that became the Endangered Alphabets Project, times were dark for indigenous and minority cultures. The lightning spread of television and the Internet were driving a kind of cultural imperialism into every corner of the world. Everyone had a screen or wanted a screen, and the English language and the Latin alphabet (or one of the half-dozen other major writing systems) were on every screen and every keyboard. Every other culture was left with a bleak choice: learn the mainstream script or type a series of meaningless tofu squares.

Yet 2019 is a remarkable time in the history of writing systems. In spite of creeping globalization, political oppression, and economic inequalities, minority cultures are starting to revive interest in their traditional scripts. Across the world, calligraphy is turning writing into art; letters are turning up as earrings, words as pendants, proverbs as clothing designs. Individuals, groups, organizations and even governments are showing interest in preserving and protecting traditional writing systems or even creating new ones as way to take back their cultural identity.

👓 What the earliest fragments of English reveal | BBC

Read What the earliest fragments of English reveal by Cameron Laux (bbc.com)
The earliest fragments of English reveal how interconnected Europe has been for centuries, finds Cameron Laux. He traces a history of the language through 10 objects and manuscripts.

👓 SNAFFLE definition in the Cambridge English Dictionary

Read SNAFFLE (Cambridge English Dictionary)
snaffle meaning: 1. to take something quickly for yourself, in a way that prevents someone else from having or using it: 2. a type of bit (= a metal bar held in a horse's mouth to control it) usually with a joint in the middle. Learn more.

One of my favorite things about reading The Economist is finding edge case Britishisms that aren’t used in American English.

👓 Scots Word of the Season: ‘Leerie’ | The Bottle Imp

Read Scots Word of the Season: ‘Leerie’ (The Bottle Imp)
Leerie n. a lamplighter, who lit gas lamps in towns and cities (before electric light)
The word leerie is perhaps best known nowadays from the nostalgic poem ‘The Lamplighter’ by Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894). The character, ‘Leerie’, is depicted as a romantic wanderer who charms th...

I have to wonder if traffic on the site has picked up for this word based on the recent opening of the film Mary Poppins Returns?

It seems that leeries are just as pictuesque and poetic in other incarnations as they are depicted in Mary Poppins Returns. Why the romanticism for such a menial and dirty seeming profession?

👓 The Racist Politics of the English Language | Boston Review

Read The Racist Politics of the English Language (Boston Review)
How we went from “racist” to “racially tinged.”

Yes, we need to be more careful with our words and move back to more specific language.

👓 How the media should respond to Trump’s lies | Vox

Read How the media should respond to Trump’s lies by Sean Illing (Vox)
A linguist explains how Trump uses lies to divert attention from the "big truths."

I like that he delves into the idea of enlightment reasoning here and why it doesn’t work. This section of this article is what makes it a bit different from some of the interviews and articles that Lakoff has been appearing in lately.

Highlights, Quotes, Annotations, & Marginalia

I take your point, but I wonder if Trump is just kryptonite for a liberal democratic system built on a free press.  

The key words being “free press” with free meaning that we’re free to exert intelligent editorial control.

Editors in the early 1900’s used this sort of editorial control not to give fuel to racists and Nazis and reduce their influence.Cross reference: Face the Racist Nation from On the Media.

Apparently we need to exert the same editorial control with respect to Trump, who not incidentally is giving significant fuel to the racist fire as well.
November 20, 2018 at 10:11AM

A lot of Democrats believe in what is called Enlightenment reasoning, and that if you just tell people the facts, they’ll reach the right conclusion. That just isn’t true.  

November 20, 2018 at 10:12AM

🔖 ❤️ GeorgeLakoff tweet on neutral language in journalism

Liked a tweet by George Lakoff   on TwitterGeorge Lakoff on Twitter (Twitter)

👓 Why keeping The Economist’s style guide up to date is a battle | The Economist

Read Why keeping The Economist’s style guide up to date is a battle by Ann Wroe (The Economist)
The editor of our style guide on new rules, older folk and the plurality of data

👓 I Wonder Who Wrote That Melania Trump Tweet | Huffington Post

Read I Wonder Who Wrote That Melania Trump Tweet (HuffPost)
Definitely not Donald Trump in a wig, that's for sure.

Certainly crazy, and I don’t even think they mentioned anything about her actual style or the fact that English may be a second language for her? I can’t wait to read conspiracy theories surrounding this. Is he keeping her imprisoned? Poisoning her while he keeps her “alive” on Twitter?

🔖 [1803.09745] English verb regularization in books and tweets | arXiv

Bookmarked [1803.09745] English verb regularization in books and tweets by Tyler J. Gray, Andrew J. Reagan, Peter Sheridan Dodds, Christopher M. Danforth (arxiv.org)
The English language has evolved dramatically throughout its lifespan, to the extent that a modern speaker of Old English would be incomprehensible without translation. One concrete indicator of this process is the movement from irregular to regular (-ed) forms for the past tense of verbs. In this study we quantify the extent of verb regularization using two vastly disparate datasets: (1) Six years of published books scanned by Google (2003--2008), and (2) A decade of social media messages posted to Twitter (2008--2017). We find that the extent of verb regularization is greater on Twitter, taken as a whole, than in English Fiction books. Regularization is also greater for tweets geotagged in the United States relative to American English books, but the opposite is true for tweets geotagged in the United Kingdom relative to British English books. We also find interesting regional variations in regularization across counties in the United States. However, once differences in population are accounted for, we do not identify strong correlations with socio-demographic variables such as education or income. [.pdf]

🎧 Maggie Haberman | The Atlantic Interview

Listened to Maggie Haberman by Jeffrey Goldberg from The Atlantic Interview
To make sense of President Donald Trump's first year in the White House, many have come to rely on Maggie Haberman. The powerhouse reporter for the New York Times talks with Atlantic editor in chief Jeffrey Goldberg about how her career covering New York City politics for the tabloids has given her a unique view of Trump. To Haberman, Trump's brashness and need for approval are partly products of his distinct experience of New York City.

A fascinating interview to be sure. There’s some subtlety particularly about Donald Trump that is injected here that I wouldn’t have thought about previously. I certainly don’t have more hope as a result, but I do have a lot more nuance in how he functions and interacts with others. There is some particularly fascinating discussion on language/linguistics which impinges on some of the discussion in my article Complexity isn’t a Vice: 10 Word Answers and Doubletalk in Election 2016.

👓 Steven Pinker Explains the Neuroscience of Swearing | Open Culture

Read Steven Pinker Explains the Neuroscience of Swearing by Matthias Rascher (Open Culture)
Pinker talking about his then new book, The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature, and doing what he does best: combining psychology and neuroscience with linguistics. The result is as entertaining as it is insightful.

Continue reading “👓 Steven Pinker Explains the Neuroscience of Swearing | Open Culture”

🔖 Want to read: From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds by Daniel C. Dennett

Bookmarked From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds (W. W. Norton & Company; 1 edition, 496 pages (February 7, 2017))
One of America’s foremost philosophers offers a major new account of the origins of the conscious mind.

How did we come to have minds?

For centuries, this question has intrigued psychologists, physicists, poets, and philosophers, who have wondered how the human mind developed its unrivaled ability to create, imagine, and explain. Disciples of Darwin have long aspired to explain how consciousness, language, and culture could have appeared through natural selection, blazing promising trails that tend, however, to end in confusion and controversy. Even though our understanding of the inner workings of proteins, neurons, and DNA is deeper than ever before, the matter of how our minds came to be has largely remained a mystery.

That is now changing, says Daniel C. Dennett. In From Bacteria to Bach and Back, his most comprehensive exploration of evolutionary thinking yet, he builds on ideas from computer science and biology to show how a comprehending mind could in fact have arisen from a mindless process of natural selection. Part philosophical whodunit, part bold scientific conjecture, this landmark work enlarges themes that have sustained Dennett’s legendary career at the forefront of philosophical thought.

In his inimitable style―laced with wit and arresting thought experiments―Dennett explains that a crucial shift occurred when humans developed the ability to share memes, or ways of doing things not based in genetic instinct. Language, itself composed of memes, turbocharged this interplay. Competition among memes―a form of natural selection―produced thinking tools so well-designed that they gave us the power to design our own memes. The result, a mind that not only perceives and controls but can create and comprehend, was thus largely shaped by the process of cultural evolution.

An agenda-setting book for a new generation of philosophers, scientists, and thinkers, From Bacteria to Bach and Back will delight and entertain anyone eager to make sense of how the mind works and how it came about.

4 color, 18 black-and-white illustrations

🔖 Want to read: From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds by Daniel C. Dennett

 

Why Do Canadians Say ‘Eh’? | Atlas Obscura

Read Why Do Canadians Say 'Eh'? (Atlas Obscura)
The story behind Canada’s most distinctive verbal tic.

Continue reading “Why Do Canadians Say ‘Eh’? | Atlas Obscura”

Complexity isn’t a Vice: 10 Word Answers and Doubletalk in Election 2016

How Donald Trump is leveraging an old Vaudeville trick to heavily contest the presidential election

A Problem with Transcripts

In the past few weeks, I’ve seen dozens of news outlets publish multi-paragraph excerpts of speeches from Donald Trump and have been appalled that I was unable to read them in any coherent way. I could not honestly follow or discern any coherent thought or argument in the majority of them. I was a bit shocked because in listening to him, he often sounds like he has some kind of point, though he seems to be spouting variations on one of ten one-liners he’s been using for over a year now. There’s apparently a flaw in our primal reptilian brains that seems to be tricking us into thinking that there’s some sort of substance in his speech when there honestly is none. I’m going to have to spend some time reading more on linguistics and cognitive neuroscience. Maybe Stephen Pinker knows of an answer?

The situation got worse this week as I turned to news sources for fact-checking of the recent presidential debate. While it’s nice to have web-based annotation tools like Genius[1] and Hypothes.is[2] to mark up these debates, it becomes another thing altogether to understand the meaning of what’s being said in order to actually attempt to annotate it. I’ve included some links so that readers can attempt the exercise for themselves.

Recent transcripts (some with highlights/annotations):

Doubletalk and Doublespeech

It’s been a while since Americans were broadly exposed to actual doubletalk. For the most part our national experience with it has been a passing curiosity highlighted by comedians.

dou·ble-talk
ˈdəblˌtôk/
n. (NORTH AMERICAN)
a deliberately unintelligible form of speech in which inappropriate, invented or nonsense syllables are combined with actual words. This type of speech is commonly used to give the appearance of knowledge and thereby confuse, amuse, or entertain the speaker’s audience.
another term for doublespeak
see also n. doubletalk [3]

Since the days of vaudeville (and likely before), comedians have used doubletalk to great effect on stage, in film, and on television. Some comedians who have historically used the technique as part of their acts include Al Kelly, Cliff Nazarro, Danny Kaye, Gary Owens, Irwin Corey, Jackie Gleason, Sid Caesar, Stanley Unwin, and Reggie Watts. I’m including some short video clips below as examples.

A well-known, but foreshortened, form of it was used by Dana Carvey in his Saturday Night Live performances caricaturizing George H.W. Bush by using a few standard catch phrases with pablum in between: “Not gonna do it…”, “Wouldn’t be prudent at this juncture”, and “Thousand Points of Light…”. These snippets in combination with some creative hand gestures (pointing, lacing fingers together), along with a voice melding of Mr. Rogers and John Wayne were the simple constructs that largely transformed a diminutive comedian convincingly into a president.

Doubletalk also has a more “educated” sibling known as technobabble. Engineers are sure to recall a famous (and still very humorous) example of both doubletalk and technobabble in the famed description of the Turboencabulator.[4] (See also, the short videos below.)

Doubletalk comedy examples

Al Kelly on Ernie Kovaks

Sid Caesar

Technobabble examples

Turboencabulator

Rockwell Turbo Encabulator Version 2

Politicobabble

And of course doubletalk and technobabble have closely related cousins named doublespeak and politicobabble. These are far more dangerous than the others because they move over the line of comedy into seriousness and are used by people who make decisions effecting hundreds of thousands to millions, if not billions, of people on the planet. I’m sure an archeo-linguist might be able to discern where exactly politicobabble emerged and managed to evolve into a non-comedic form of speech which people manage to take far more seriously than its close ancestors. One surely suspects some heavy influence from George Orwell’s corpus of work:

The term “doublespeak” probably has its roots in George Orwell’s book Nineteen Eighty-Four.[5] Although the term is not used in the book, it is a close relative of one of the book’s central concepts, “doublethink”. Another variant, “doubletalk”, also referring to deliberately ambiguous speech, did exist at the time Orwell wrote his book, but the usage of “doublespeak” as well as of “doubletalk” in the sense emphasizing ambiguity clearly postdates the publication of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Parallels have also been drawn between doublespeak and Orwell’s classic essay Politics and the English Language [6] , which discusses the distortion of language for political purposes.

in Wikipedia.com [7]

 

While politicobabble is nothing new, I did find a very elucidating passage from the 1992 U.S. Presidential Election cycle which seems to be a major part of the Trump campaign playbook:

Repetition of a meaningless mantra is supposed to empty the mind, clearing the way for meditation on more profound matters. This campaign has achieved the first part. I’m not sure about the second.

Candidates are now told to pick a theme, and keep repeating it-until polls show it’s not working, at which point the theme vanishes and another takes its place.

The mantra-style repetition of the theme of the week, however, leaves the impression that Teen Talk Barbie has acquired some life-size Campaign Talk Ken dolls. Pull the string and you get: ‘Congress is tough,’ ‘worst economic performance since the Depression,’ or ‘a giant sucking sound south of the border.’

A number of words and phrases, once used to express meaningful concepts, are becoming as useful as ‘ommm’ in the political discourse. Still, these words and phrases have meanings, just not the ones the dictionary originally intended.

Joanne Jacobs
in A Handy Guide To Politico-babble in the Chicago Tribune on

 

In the continuation of the article, Jacobs goes on to give a variety of examples of the term as well as a “translation” guide for some of the common politicobabble words from that particular election. I’ll leave it to the capable hands of others (perhaps in the comments, below?) to come up with the translation guide for our current political climate.

The interesting evolutionary change I’ll note for the current election cycle is that Trump hasn’t delved into any depth on any of his themes to offend anyone significantly enough. This has allowed him to stay with the dozen or so themes he started out using and therefore hasn’t needed to change them as in campaigns of old.

Filling in the Blanks

These forms of pseudo-speech area all meant to fool us into thinking that something of substance is being discussed and that a conversation is happening, when in fact, nothing is really being communicated at all. Most of the intended meaning and reaction to such speech seems to stem from the demeanor of the speaker as well as, in some part, to the reaction of the surrounding interlocutor and audience. In reading Donald Trump transcripts, an entirely different meaning (or lack thereof) is more quickly realized as the surrounding elements which prop up the narrative have been completely stripped away. In a transcript version, gone is the hypnotizing element of the crowd which is vehemently sure that the emperor is truly wearing clothes.

In many of these transcripts, in fact, I find so little is being said that the listener is actually being forced to piece together the larger story in their head. Being forced to fill in the blanks in this way leaves too much of the communication up to the listener who isn’t necessarily engaged at a high level. Without more detail or context to understand what is being communicated, the listener is far more likely to fill in the blanks to fit a story that doesn’t create any cognitive dissonance for themselves — in part because Trump is usually smiling and welcoming towards his adoring audiences.

One will surely recall that Trump even wanted Secretary Clinton to be happy during the debate when he said, “Now, in all fairness to Secretary Clinton — yes, is that OK? Good. I want you to be very happy. It’s very important to me.” (This question also doubles as an example of a standard psychological sales tactic of attempting to get the purchaser to start by saying ‘yes’ as a means to keep them saying yes while moving them towards making a purchase.)

His method of communicating by leaving large holes in his meaning reminds me of the way our brain smooths out information as indicated in this old internet meme [9]:

I cdn’uolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg: the phaonmneel pweor of the hmuan mnid. Aoccdrnig to a rseearch taem at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Scuh a cdonition is arpppoiatrely cllaed typoglycemia.

 

I’m also reminded of the biases and heuristics research carried out in part (and the remainder cited) by Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow [10] in which he discusses the mechanics of how system 1 and system 2 work in our brains. Is Trump taking advantage of the deficits of language processing in our brains in something akin to system 1 biases to win large blocks of votes? Is he creating a virtual real-time Choose-Your-Own-Adventure to subvert the laziness of the electorate? Kahneman would suggest the the combination of what Trump does say and what he doesn’t leaves it up to every individual listener to create their own story. Their system 1 is going to default to the easiest and most palatable one available to them: a happy story that fits their own worldview and is likely to encourage them to support Trump.

Ten Word Answers

As an information theorist, I know all too well that there must be a ‘linguistic Shannon limit’ to the amount of semantic meaning one can compress into a single word. [11] One is ultimately forced to attempt to form sentences to convey more meaning. But usually the less politicians say, the less trouble they can get into — a lesson hard won through generations of political fighting.

I’m reminded of a scene from The West Wing television series. In season 4, episode 6 which aired on October 30, 2002 on NBC, Game On had a poignant moment (video clip below) which is germane to our subject: [12]

Moderator: Governor Ritchie, many economists have stated that the tax cut, which is the centrepiece of your economic agenda, could actually harm the economy. Is now really the time to cut taxes?
Governor Ritchie, R-FL: You bet it is. We need to cut taxes for one reason – the American people know how to spend their money better than the federal government does.
Moderator: Mr. President, your rebuttal.
President Bartlet: There it is…
That’s the 10 word answer my staff’s been looking for for 2 weeks. There it is.
10 word answers can kill you in political campaigns — they’re the tip of the sword.
Here’s my question: What are the next 10 words of your answer?
“Your taxes are too high?” So are mine…
Give me the next 10 words: How are we going to do it?
Give me 10 after that — I’ll drop out of the race right now.
Every once in a while — every once in a while, there’s a day with an absolute right and an absolute wrong, but those days almost always include body counts. Other than that there aren’t very many un-nuanced moments in leading a country that’s way too big for 10 words.
I’m the President of the United States, not the president of the people who agree with me. And by the way, if the left has a problem with that, they should vote for somebody else.

As someone who studies information theory and complexity theory and even delves into sub-topics like complexity and economics, I can agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment. Though again, here I can also see the massive gaps between system 1 and 2 that force us to want to simplify things down to such a base level that we don’t have to do the work to puzzle them out.

(And yes, that is Jennifer Anniston’s father playing the moderator.)

One can’t but wonder why Mr. Trump doesn’t seem to have ever gone past the first ten words? Is it because he isn’t capable? interested? Or does he instinctively know better? It would seem that he’s been doing business by using the uncertainty inherent in his speech for decades, but always operating by using what he meant (or thought he wanted to mean) than what the other party heard and thought they understood. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Idiocracy or Something Worse?

In our increasingly specialized world, people eventually have to give in and quit doing some tasks that everyone used to do for themselves. Yesterday I saw a lifeworn woman in her 70s pushing a wheeled wire basket with a 5 gallon container of water from the store to her home. As she shuffled along, I contemplated Thracian people from fourth century BCE doing the same thing except they likely carried amphorae possibly with a yoke and without the benefit of the $10 manufactured custom shopping cart. 20,000 years before that people were still carrying their own water, but possibly without even the benefit of earthenware containers. Things in human history have changed very slowly for the most part, but as we continually sub-specialize further and further, we need to remember that we can’t give up one of the primary functions that makes us human: the ability to think deeply and analytically for ourselves.

I suspect that far too many people are too wrapped up in their own lives and problems to listen to more than the ten word answers our politicians are advertising to us. We need to remember to ask for the next ten words and the ten after that.

Otherwise there are two extreme possible outcomes:

We’re either at the beginning of what Mike Judge would term Idiocracy[13]

Or we’re headed to what Michiko Kakutani is “subtweeting” about in her recent review In ‘Hitler’ an Ascent from ‘Dunderhead’ to Demagogue [14] of Volker Ulrich’s new book Hitler: Ascent 1889-1939[15] 

Here, one is tempted to quote George Santayana’s famous line (from The Life of Reason, 1905), “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” However, I far prefer the following as more apropos to our present national situation:

Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill (), a British statesman, historian, writer and artist,
in House of Commons, 2 May 1935, after the Stresa Conference, in which Britain, France and Italy agreed—futilely—to maintain the independence of Austria.

 

tl;dr

If Cliff Navarro comes back to run for president, I hope no one falls for his joke just because he wasn’t laughing as he acted it out. If his instructions for fixing the wagon (America) are any indication, the voters who are listening and making the repairs will be in severe pain.

Cliff Navarro

Footnotes

[1]
“Genius | Song Lyrics & Knowledge,” Genius, 2016. [Online]. Available: http://genius.com. [Accessed: 29-Sep-2016]
[2]
“Hypothesis | The Internet, peer reviewed. | Hypothesis,” hypothes.is, 2016. [Online]. Available: https://hypothes.is/. [Accessed: 29-Sep-2016]
[3]
“Double-talk – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia,” en.wikipedia.org, 2016. [Online]. Available: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Double-talk. [Accessed: 29-Sep-2016]
[4]
“Turboencabulator – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia,” en.wikipedia.org, 2016. [Online]. Available: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turboencabulator. [Accessed: 29-Sep-2016]
[5]
G. Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-four, 1st ed. London: Harvill Secker & Warburg, 1949.
[6]
G. Orwell, “Politics and the English Language,” Horizon, vol. 13, no. 76, pp. 252–265, Apr. 1946 [Online]. Available: http://www.orwell.ru/library/essays/politics/english/e_polit/
[7]
“Doublespeak – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia,” en.wikipedia.org, 29-Sep-2016. [Online]. Available: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doublespeak. [Accessed: 29-Sep-2016]
[8]
J. Jacobs, “A Handy Guide To Politico-babble,” Chicago Tribune, 31-Oct-1992. [Online]. Available: http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1992-10-31/news/9204080638_1_family-values-trickle-bill-clinton. [Accessed: 29-Sep-2016]
[9]
M. Davis, “cmabridge | Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit,” mrc-cbu.cam.ac.uk, 2012. [Online]. Available: https://www.mrc-cbu.cam.ac.uk/people/matt.davis/cmabridge/. [Accessed: 29-Sep-2016]
[10]
D. Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow. Macmillan, 2011.
[11]
C. Shanon E., “A Mathematical Theory of Communication,” Bell System Technical Journal, vol. 27, no. 3, pp. 379–423, Jul. 1948. [Source]
[12]
A. Sorkin, J. Wells, and T. Schlamme , “Game On,” The West Wing, NBC, 30-Oct-2002.
[13]
M. Judge, Idiocracy. Twentieth Century Fox, 2006.
[14]
M. Katutani, “In ‘Hitler’ an Ascent from ‘Dunderhead’ to Demagogue,” New York Times, p. 1, 27-Sep-2016 [Online]. Available: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/28/books/hitler-ascent-volker-ullrich.html?_r=0. [Accessed: 28-Sep-2016] [Source]
[15]
V. Ullrich, Adolf Hitler: Ascent 1889-1939, 1st ed. Knopf Publishing Group, 2016.