The words invented by James Joyce

Friday, 27 March, 2015

Maybe if I had persevered with A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the first novel by Irish writer James Joyce, I might have noticed one, or more, of the seventeen words he is said to have created. As it was, I found “Portrait” ever more forlorn, as I progressed through the story.

A botch-up on my part? Possibly. Because while Joyce didn’t devise the word “botch”, he did introduce us to the term “botch-up”. Other of his neologisms include “Ringroundabout”, “Tattarrattat”, and “Whenceness”.

Then of course there is “Bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunnt-rovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk”. That might be useful to know of if you’re a Scrabble player.

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A story of the origins of the percent sign

Thursday, 26 March, 2015

Ah, the % (percent) sign… why ever don’t we use something more like the ‰ (per mille) sign instead? Here’s an explanation by Keith Houston, together with a history of how the percent sign came to be.

I had assumed that the percent sign was shaped so as to invoke the idea of a vulgar fraction, with a tiny zero aligned on either side of a solidus ( / ), or fraction slash.

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The first rule of proper English? There is no proper English

Wednesday, 25 March, 2015

I am, sometimes, and who knows why, asked to offer my advice (I almost said advise), as to what constitutes correct, or proper, English, in certain circumstances. Not an easy question really to answer, given 1200 million people, all across the globe, speak the language.

The user base is simply too diverse, too spread out, too alive and in the moment, to make the imposing of lasting rules possible. Of course, that’s not to say you shouldn’t learn the rules, or conventions first, before you go – as it were – breaking them.

The grammatical rules invoked by pedants aren’t real rules of grammar at all. They are, at best, just stylistic conventions: An example would be the use of a double negative (I can’t get no satisfaction). It makes complete grammatical sense, as an intensifier. It’s just a convention that we don’t use double negatives of that form in Standard English.

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Graffiti, with punctuation and grammar, only in Quito, Ecuador

Friday, 13 March, 2015

Just as one Wikipedia member is intent on ridding the online encyclopaedia of the grammatically incorrect phrase “comprised of” from articles, counterparts of a sort are on a mission to tidy up errors made by graffiti artists and others, in the Ecuadorian city of Quito:

In the dead of night, two men steal through the streets of Quito armed with spray cans and a zeal for reform. They are not political activists or revolutionaries: they are radical grammar pedants on a mission to correctly punctuate Ecuador’s graffiti. Adding accents, inserting commas and placing question marks at the beginning and end of interrogative sentences scrawled on the city’s walls, the vigilante editors have intervened repeatedly over the past three months to expose the orthographic shortcomings of would-be poets, forlorn lovers and anti-government campaigners.

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On devising sign language for the new words entering the language

Friday, 6 March, 2015

With new words entering our vocabulary almost daily, those charged with devising sign language terms for the deaf community must surely have their work cut out for themselves.

Just look at the Oxford English Dictionary, who added terms like “duck face,” “lolcat,” and “hawt” to their prestigious lexicon this past December. For the English-speaking world, these additions are anywhere from ridiculous to annoying but at the end of the day, the terms are accepted and agreed upon. But how do these new, internet-laden turns of phrase enter the sign language community? Was there a way of expressing “selfie” in ASL, was there a sign for “photobomb?”

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Idioms from languages other than English

Thursday, 26 February, 2015

Idioms. Where would we be without them? We probably use them so frequently that we’re not aware we actually are. “Add insult to injury”, “back to the drawing board”, “costs an arm and a leg”, or “kill two birds with one stone”, to reference but a few, that English language speakers commonly use.

I doubt we could go too wrong by incorporating such phrases from other languages into our vernacular though, even if their meaning may not be entirely clear, at least at first.

For starters, there’s “to buy a cat in a sack”, from German, or “to slide in on a shrimp sandwich” from Swedish, or “to jump from the cock to the donkey”, from French, although there are many more to choose from.

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Google pronounce, helping travellers say place names correctly

Friday, 13 February, 2015

Streatham is a suburb located in South London. Supermodel Naomi Campbell was born there. We used to go and see movies at the Odeon along the high street. Not with Campbell however. But if this is by chance the first time you’ve heard of Streatham, how would you pronounce its name? It’s not quite as straightforward as it looks.

What then of all the other places across the globe that stand to be misspoken? Enter then a Google initiative, that promises to make things a little easier for travellers, by offering them the opportunity to learn the correct pronunciation of a town, or place, name ahead of time:

The patent details how Google could determine the most common pronunciation of a place name from audio clips submitted by locals, then offer that pronunciation when someone searches for the place on Google Maps. This function could be handy, as Google says in the patent, “when traveling in a foreign country.”

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It’s not cherry, it’s not rose… time to look up the colour thesaurus

Tuesday, 21 October, 2014

Just as there are a thousand, or thereabouts, shades of grey, there are many shades of other colours. Variations of the colour red, for example, could be cherry, rose, jam, merlot, crimson, or garnet, to name but a few.

It looks to me like a colour thesaurus is something we should not be without.

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A sign language that defies our understanding of their development

Tuesday, 30 September, 2014

Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language, or ABSL, is a form of sign language that has emerged in recent years among the deaf inhabitants of a village in a region of Israel’s Negev Desert. What is particularly fascinating to linguists here however is the structure of the language, which differs somewhat from many others:

ABSL provides fodder for researchers who reject the idea that there’s a genetic basis for the similarities found across languages. Instead, they argue, languages share certain properties because they all have to solve similar problems of communication under similar pressures, pressures that reflect the limits of human abilities to learn, remember, produce, and perceive information. The challenge, then, is to explain why ABSL is an outlier – if duality of patterning is the optimal solution to the problem of creating a large but manageable collection of words, why hasn’t ABSL made use of it?

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How how our function words say things that we don’t

Tuesday, 9 September, 2014

Our use of so-called function words – such as the, this, though, I, and, there, and that – can say a lot about who we might be romantically compatible with, through to where we see our place in some sort of hierarchy, says James Pennebaker, a University of Texas psychologist:

We use “I” more when we talk to someone with power because we’re more self-conscious. We are focused on ourselves – how we’re coming across – and our language reflects that.

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