Language and Culture: a strange exam

Every year, my Language and Culture introductory linguistic anthropology course has a massive take-home final exam consisting of ten questions, of which students choose seven or eight (depending on class size).   The students have a month to do the exam, and are encouraged to share ideas and collaborate as long as they don’t actually copy answers from one another. You’d be surprised just how minimal a problem this is, compared to when I used to do more traditional assignments.  They know I’m looking for outright copying, and anything up to that point I consider to be salutary and valuable for learning.

Because – as you will see below – the questions are somewhat weird, to put it mildly: mostly dependent on blogs, videos, and other online sources as well as the texts and lecture materials, it’s unlike any of the exams most of the class has ever encountered.   I always emphasize that basically none of them are going to become linguistic anthropologists professionally, so their goal should be more broadly humanistic, to be able to think critically about and with the sort of material they’re likely to encounter in their lives.  I had 58 students complete exams this year (x 7 questions x 2 pages = 812 typed pages), and in the wake of my post-grading exhaustion, I thought I’d share this year’s exam questions with you.   Enjoy!

  1. Read the news article ‘How to talk like a stone-age man’ (http://tinyurl.com/nj6oard) and then evaluate its argument using material from the course about proto-languages and language evolution.
  2. The Twitter account @nixicon (https://twitter.com/nixicon) retweets people who claim that some particular word is actually ‘not a word’.   Use at least two examples of tweets retweeted by @nixicon, along with the concept of metalanguage, to analyze the social reasons why people claim that particular words that they encounter aren’t real.
  3. Watch the film ‘Marie’s Dictionary’ (http://vimeo.com/105673207) and then, with reference to chapter 7 of The Power of Babel, discuss the issue of language endangerment with relation to Native American languages. Using evidence from the film, to what degree and for what reasons is the preservation of endangered languages an important and worthwhile goal?
  4. In Portraits of “the Whiteman”, one aspect of Anglo-American speech that the Western Apache mock is the way that the word ‘friend’ and the concept of friendship are used by Anglos.   One can also find discourse about the meaning of ‘friend’ in essays about social media, such as http://tinyurl.com/cqwo97v.   Comparing these two instances of metalanguage about ‘friend’, discuss how words can challenge cultural preconceptions about social relations such as friendship.   What do you think that Western Apache would think about the concept of ‘Facebook friends’?
  5. Read the blog post at http://phoenicia.org/leblanguage.html on the difference between Lebanese Arabic and Standard Arabic. Using material from the post and from The Power of Babel, discuss this post in relation to Max Weinreich’s statement, “A language is a dialect with an army and a navy.”
  6. The blog post at http://www.invisibleoranges.com/2013/11/death-metal-english/ sets out some principles for a new (hopefully facetious) dialect, Death Metal English. Using specific examples from this post, discuss how language can be a tool to index particular social identities? What sorts of values and ideals are being expressed using Death Metal English?
  7. Using data from Google Ngram Viewer, discuss the changes in frequency of the terms suntan lotion, sunscreen, and sunblock.   Find a website that discusses the use of these terms and use it to analyze the significance of the choice among them.
  8. Watch the video ‘Stephen Fry Kinetic Typography – Language’ (http://youtu.be/J7E-aoXLZGY). Discuss the claims made by Fry about why people complain about language use, using the concepts of descriptivism and prescriptivism.
  9. The map at http://popvssoda.com:2998/countystats/total-county.html shows some interesting patterns in the distribution of the terms ‘pop’, ‘soda’ and ‘coke’ as the generic term for soft drinks. Identify two distinctive patterns on that map that you find interesting and speculate as to their potential origins and social significance.
  10. Ask a thoughtful question about the relationship between language and culture to which you do not currently know the answer.   This question might be related to an issue raised in class or in one of the texts. Using the analytical and conceptual tools of this course, discuss (in general) how someone might go about finding a satisfactory answer to the question.

New blog: Strong Language

I’m inordinately pleased to be one of the contributors at Strong Language, ‘a sweary blog about swearing’.  To say the least, it is not recommended for those who don’t want to be exposed to profanity, and is probably not recommended viewing in many workplaces.  It has a star-studded cast of contributors, including many professional linguists, and is off to a really fantastic start.  I just made my first post there yesterday, ‘How many swears can we give?‘  Read at your own risk and leisure.

Review: Wengrow, The origins of monsters

Wengrow, David. 2014. The Origins of Monsters: Image and Cognition in the First Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press. 160 pp.

Reviewed by Molly Hilton (Wayne State University)

It is tantalizing to ponder: does Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein saturate popular imaginings because of some inherent human cognitive bias? What is the appeal of griffins, sphinxes and centaurs? Do these fantastical creatures somehow “stick” in the human imagination? In his recent book The Origins of Monsters, David Wengrow examines the archaeological record for an answer to this serious question regarding modern human cognition. Can an empirical investigation of the visual record for the cultural transmission of fantastical creatures develop a “unified understanding of culture as the product of both history and cognition?”

“Monsters” are composite figures, while “composites” are an amalgam of physical traits and appendages that form a creature that does not exist organically:

The total bodily form of that species is absent from the resulting depiction, but its presence is signified, nonetheless, by the special disposition of elements around the body that belongs to an animal of a different kind. The outcome is a new kind of figure that is sui generis, imaginary, but nevertheless retains a certain basic coherence on the anatomical plane (p27).

Cognitive psychologists have suggested that the ability to conceive of composite beings “may have evolved in tandem with our capacity for complex social interaction” (p4). Wengrow rightly urges skepticism of these evolutionary claims, pointing out methodological issues, including the fact that infants are often used as the model for prehistoric human cognition. Wengrow prefers a materialist methodology that allows empirical comparison over geography and different time scales.

Drawing on work by Dan Sperber and Pascal Boyer, Wengrow applies an epidemiological approach, which seeks to describe cognitive capacities and constraints through analysis of the cultural transmission of representations. The methodology for this approach calls for the study of the cultural transmission of representations at the level of populations, which may then be accounted for at the individual level. Key to the inquiry at hand is the argument of evolutionary psychologists that humans are hard-wired for classification of living kinds of animals and plants (p5). The result according to this argument is an intuitive, folk-biology. According to Sperber, “supernatural beings ‘blatantly violate the kind of basic expectations that are delivered by domain-specific cognitive mechanisms” (p23). It is the combination of these violations with an otherwise expected form that attracts attention. According to Boyer, the representations of supernatural beings “are more likely…to be easily acquired, memorized, and transmitted” (p23).

Visual representations of composite figures are, Wengrow argues, a productive site for an epidemiological approach because they are: (1) grounded in material culture and not bounded by the domain of language (2) culturally and historically distinctive (3) representations of supernatural beings. First, Wengrow notes that the epidemiological approach often relies on analysis of language-based representations. For composite figures, transmission may occur without language. More importantly, representations of composite figures appear on artifacts whose movement and stylistic influences can be empirically traced. Material culture can demonstrate technological innovations and also “transformations in modes of thought” (p3). This breadth of information allows Wengrow to incorporate the situ of institutions and cultural practices in his analysis.

Wengrow reconsiders the “monumental” works of art historian Mikhail Rostovtzeff, in comparing composites from China to Scandinavia from the early Upper Paleolithic through the Bronze Age and Iron Age. Wengrow finds the popular view that composite figures have been a common creation of anatomically modern humans to be unsubstantiated by the archaeological record. Composite figures “fail spectacularly to catch on across the many millennia of innovation in visual culture that precede the onset of urban life” (p51). In contrast, composite figures regularly appear alongside the development of urban settlements and the growth of a class of social elites. Here, the inclusion of maps and charts would have bolstered the author’s argument. Readers unfamiliar with Bronze Age and Iron Age settlements may find Wengrow’s argument difficult to follow and evaluate.

Composites cross chronological and cultural boundaries, he claims, through three modes of transmission: transformative, integrative and protective. Transformative transmission occurs at a time of rapid structural change in a society and a composite form is adopted from an outside source. The exotic form reinforces rank and status for those able to secure access to prestige goods. Integrative transmission entails the blending of elements from multiple sources such that the results cannot be attributed to any particular source. The goods embody a “desire for mutual recognition and integration across tense cultural boundaries” (p95). There may have been competitive goods exchanges among leaders. Protective transmission would take place when composites were borrowed or imagined for purposes of ritual use as protection against threats to household and person. The standardized production of goods for ritual purposes suggest the existence of the complex cultural framework of an imperial state.

The risk and uncertainty of encounters with the “other,” according to Wengrow, make composite figures more salient for societies with trade routes and urban settlements. Wengrow explains:

Each [mode of transmission] is associated to some degree with environments of heightened risk and uncertainty, where failure to properly negotiate boundaries can lead to catastrophic consequences (p106).

Wengrow finds political economy to be the key influence as to whether a society creates and/or adopts composite figures. Once societies reach a level of complexity that instantiates a new whole-parts modularity, the composite figure encapsulates “the bureaucratic imperative to confront the world … as an imaginary realm made up of divisible subjects, each comprising a multitude of fissionable, commensurable, and combinable parts” (p73). This line of argument could be criticized as functionalist.

The Origins of Monsters raises a strong critique of Sperber’s 1996 article “Why are perfect animals, hybrids, and monsters food for symbolic thought?” If supernatural beings are “sticky” as Boyer and Sperber argue, why did they not take hold in the archaeological record earlier? I find the argument persuasive that social complexity co-locates with the adoption of composite figures. I don’t see the evidence presented as causal, but Wengrow makes a strong case for the applicability of comparative, historical data to cognitive studies.

Sperber, Dan. 1996. Why are perfect animals, hybrids, and monsters food for symbolic thought? Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 8:143-169.

A study in (tickled) pink

While I don’t normally take requests, an apparent exception to that rule is that when my mom asks me about the origins of a phrase, I must comply.  At least if I know what’s good for me.    Last week, my dear mother asked me for more information on the origins of the phrase tickled pink ‘immensely pleased’.   On that basis, I’m tickled pink to do so.  I assumed there would be an obvious answer online within about 30 seconds.  Not so much.

The good news is that the sense is well-agreed-upon: when you tickle someone intensely, their skin pinks up as you torture them horribly, and thus to be tickled pink is to be tickled until you’re pink.  I haven’t found any source that disagrees with that etymology, at least, and it makes a lot of sense (unlike the earlier, more hyperbolic, and more gruesome tickled to death). The date and place of origin are where it gets tricky.

My go-to person for idioms is Michael Quinion, whose World Wide Words has covered just about everything.  But the only mention there was a casual allusion in the entry for blue murder. So no help there.

The OED mentions tickled pink in its entry under tickle. But that only takes it back to 1922 and doesn’t really provide much more context.

The Online Etymology Dictionary dates it from 1909 but provides no additional information.

The Ngram for ‘tickled pink’ is interesting – it confirms the 1909-ish date (we can see the actual result here, from a play called ‘Hicks at College’.  It shows big spikes starting in 1917 and 1939 – so perhaps connections to the world wars, in terms of increasing its popularity – then a sharp drop-off after WWII and a new increase starting in the late 70s.

But I know that if it’s showing up in a play in 1909, with no sign of being marked and with no explanation, that it must be earlier.  So a-hunting I will go.

Google Books doesn’t have anything other than an erroneous 1867 hit (a misdating of a conference proceedings).   Most of the other standard databases came up empty.  But then I found this article from 1900 in the New York Sun of July 15, 1900, using the Library of Congress Chronicling America project:

'Tickled Pink', The sun (New York, New York), July 15, 1900, p. 25

‘Tickled Pink’, The Sun (New York, NY), July 15, 1900, p. 25

So now we’re back to the turn of the century in New York City, but we still have a mystery in that the phrase doesn’t attract any attention and is just passed over without remark.   I went off to some more specialized subscription and local newspaper archives and did a bit more searching, but I came up empty there.

There’s always more work to do, but for now all we can say is that it probably dates to the last decade of the 19th century (if it were much earlier, you’d think it would have come up somewhere in the masses of printed text from that period) and that its sense really hasn’t changed much in the past century.  So I’m tickled pink to have taken it back this far, but rubbed the wrong way now that I’m stuck.

Linguistics at Futility Closet

Whether you are as odd as I am – a select number, to be sure – or only wish you were – you should be delighted to hear that the wonderful Futility Closet website has just released its second book-length compilation of curiosities and oddities, Futility Closet 2: A Second Trove of Intriguing Tidbits.    Greg Ross has consistently, for nearly a decade, offered up a panoply of weird facts, puzzles, historical tidbits, trivia, and other strangenesses, virtually every day, at the website.  The book, which follows in the wake of Futility Closet: An Idler’s Miscellany of Compendious Amusements, is on my short list of ‘things to buy many copies of for my clever and interesting friends’.    I should add that Greg and his wife Sharon Ross also run a weekly podcast of the same name, which is just as wonderful as the site and the books.

Language is a recurring theme at Futility Closet, and so, given the readership over here, I thought I’d share with you some of my favourite language and linguistics- related posts from the past several years:

– You could check out the phylogenetic identification of the world’s hardest language by means of the idiomatic expressions used by speakers of other languages of the form, “It’s all Greek to me“.

– Of course, no one thinks that Esperanto is the world’s hardest language – but did you know that there was once, very briefly after World War I, a micro-state whose  official language was Esperanto?

– But even if you don’t have access to such a universal lingua franca, no worries – in some the Romance languages, you can write a poem that can be read in multiple languages!

– In contrast, the poor parrot of Atures could not be understood by anyone – it mimicked an Amazonian language whose human speakers had all passed away!

– This brave interpreter’s act of political rebellion told the truth to a select few.

– Check out Solresol, a language whose phonemes were the seven ordinary notes of the scale, combined in thousands of variations to create words.

– Or if you’re in a less musical mood, try out this well-known offensive quasi-verb.

– Tackle the lexical taxonomy of Borges, which is hardly more strange than any number of real languages.

– Or, also from fiction, the Whorf-inspired Láadan language oriented towards women’s experience.

I can’t recommend it highly enough – go now! I’ll wait for your return!

Lexiculture: 2014 word list

As I mentioned a couple of months ago, I am doing a new iteration of my Lexiculture Project in my undergraduate linguistic anthropology course, which I ran last year to some success (with eight papers published here online).  Over the next month, each of them will research the history, social context, cultural significance, and transformations of one English word, chosen from the list below.  Today I shared the word list with my students, giving them a couple of days to mull over their choices before the signup goes live, and so, in case you’re interested, here it is!

actress
artisanal
avatar
baby bump
barbecue
bruschetta
cafeteria
car phone
challenged
childfree
chipotle
coed
cornrows
cromulent
cyber
digital
discotheque
douche
downsize
dwarf
Einstein
erectile dysfunction
Eskimo
expat
feisty
finalize
forehead
fridge
gaslight
germ
gestalt
gnarly
going steady
gotten
guru
hardwired
hopefully
househusband
indie
Information Superhighway
ixnay
jock
karma
kewl
magick
make out
man cave
Michigander
mulatto
niche
nonzero
nth
octopi
often
organic
porridge
R.I.P.
red Indian
restroom
rock and roll
rouge
rubber
shanghaied
slider
snuck
soccer mom
soul patch
stalemate
stat
suntan lotion
suplex
swiff
tailgate
troll
unfriend
uppity
upsize
winningest
workshop
xerox
ye olde

Aw richts is pitten by

Every year for the past several years, I’ve had my students in my undergraduate linguistic anthropology course do an exercise.  I give them the following text, without any explanation, and ask them to get into small groups and to translate it into English (without searching for it online):

Aw richts is pitten by. Nae pairt o this darg shuid be doobelt, hained in ony kin o seestem, or furthset in ony shape or by ony gate whitsomeiver, ‘ithoot haein leave frae the writer afore-haund. A hae nae pleens whan the abuin is duin for tae fordle the Scots leed in eddication, sae lang’s naebody is makkin siller oot o’t. Ony speirins write us.

The student response usually starts with bafflement, followed by a tentative effort to take on a few obvious words like ‘eddication’, followed by some speculation that it is perhaps Old or Middle English.   I then give them a perplexing hint: ‘This text was written within your lifetimes’, and then give them two more minutes to work on it before we discuss it.

The text above is in Scots, and is taken from the Wir Ain Leed site promoting the Scots language.  As you’ll see (if you haven’t already worked it out), it’s a perfectly ordinary copyright notice.   Once the students realize that this is a genre of text with which they are familiar, there’s a sort of a-ha moment.  Once somebody identifies it as Scots (which really, shouldn’t be so hard since the word ‘Scots’ appears in the text), I read it out loud in its entirety in my not-too-bad but certainly-not-perfect Groundskeeper-Willie-esque Scots.  Once the language and the genre have been established, the rest of the translation, which we do collaboratively as a whole class, moves along well.

The point of the exercise is first of all, to get the students to reflect on what constitutes English (or any language) by prodding at its boundaries.  With Scots, there are still some scholars who would insist that this is ‘Scots English’ – i.e., a dialect of English, albeit a fairly divergent one. Others (I think most, these days) define it as one of two languages descended from Middle English, the other being English, of course, and separate out Scots proper (the language) from various Scottish English registers.

It’s a handy little exercise.   It lets me talk about ‘A language is a dialect with an army and a navy‘, and then to compare and contrast the Scots case with Yiddish. It lets me introduce (and complicate) the question of mutual intelligibility (with reference to cases like Serbian/Croatian); most students are (sensibly) reluctant to define what they just read as English on the grounds that they couldn’t understand it.  It lets me introduce the distinction between ‘a Scottish accent’ and the broader range of features that constitute  dialects or languages, and to link this to our text (McWhorter’s The Power of Babel).

Like I wrote earlier, I do this every year.  Just by chance, ‘Aw richts is pitten by’ was on the schedule for yesterday’s class, just as the Scottish independence referendum looms large in the minds of many.  Even American college students, who are stereotypically characterized as having no awareness of anything else in the world, may have heard John Oliver’s hilarious rant on the subject.  To talk about this issue, just at this decisive political moment, brought an additional level of analysis into play.

I don’t have a horse in this race, which actually surprises me a bit, since I lived for a decade in Quebec as an ethnolinguistic minority amidst an environment of secession fever.  But then, of course, most Scots don’t speak Scots regularly, if at all, and the debate there isn’t about linguistic nationalism to any significant degree.  Regardless of how it all turns out, it cast a poignant light on a favoured classroom moment, at a critical juncture in the history of two nations.