The Lumber Room

"Consign them to dust and damp by way of preserving them"

Posts Tagged ‘language

Timespeak: Backward ran sentences until reeled the mind

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TIME magazine used to have a famously distinct style, a precursor of some of today’s awkward journalese (which Dan Brown foisted upon the world at large). Dubbed “Timespeak”, it consisted of some favourite adjectives, a disdain for articles, coined nouns of a type of which “Timespeak” is itself an example, and a sentence order famously parodied by Wolcott Gibbs as “Backward ran sentences until reeled the mind”.
(Those days are finally over: in 2007, the New York Times had an article titled With Redesign of Time, Sentences Run Forward.)

I just found the complete text of Wolcott Gibbs’s article, which is an unflattering, biting, full-length profile of Henry Luce, Time’s co-founder, written entirely in “Timese” and published in The New Yorker, 1936. The section where he describes the language:

Puny in spite of these preparations, prosy in spite of the contributions of Yale poets Archibald McLeish & John Farrar, was the first issue of Time on March 3, 1923. Magazine went to 9,000 subscribers; readers learned that Uncle Joe Cannon had retired at 86, that there was famine in Russia, that Thornton Wilder friend Gene Tunney had defeated Greb.

Yet to suggest itself as a rational method of communication, of infuriating readers into buying the magazine, was strange inverted Timestyle. It was months before Hadden’s impish contempt for his readers, his impatience with the English language, crystallized into gibberish. By the end of the first year, however, Timeditors were calling people able, potent, nimble;  “Tycoon”, most successful Timepithet, had been coined by Editor Laird Shields Goldsborough; so fascinated Hadden with “beady-eyed” that for months nobody was anything else. Timeworthy were deemed such designations as “Tom-tom” Heflin, “Body-lover” Macfadden.

“Great word! Great word!” would crow Hadden, coming upon “snaggle-toothed,” “pig-faced.” Appearing already were such maddening coagulations as “cinemaddict,” “radiorator.” Appearing also were first gratuitous invasions of privacy. Always mentioned as William Randolph Hearst’s “great & good friend” was Cinemactress Marion Davies, stressed was the bastardy of Ramsay MacDonald, the “cozy hospitality” of Mae West. Backward ran sentences until reeled the mind.

It ends with a flourish:

Certainly to be taken with seriousness is Luce at thirty-eight, his fellowman already informed up to his ears, the shadow of his enterprises long across the land, his future plans impossible to imagine, staggering to contemplate. Where it all will end, knows God!

Preparation is all this for this post on the A Roguish Chrestomathy blog (On the lucidity of Yoda), where followed up are various prior analyses of Yoda’s syntax, including relations to Irish and whether use the past tense Yoda does.

Written by S

Mon, 2010-05-24 at 21:50:42 +05:30

Posted in language

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Reading aloud

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There’s this poem, which you can read comfortably but trying to read which aloud is torture:

I take it you already know,
Of tough and bough and cough and dough.
Others may stumble, but not you,
On hiccough, thorough, laugh and through.
Well done! And now you wish, perhaps,
To learn of less familiar traps.

Beware of heard, a dreadful word,
That looks like beard and sounds like bird.
And dead: it’s said like bed, not bead —
For goodness’ sake, don’t call it ‘deed’!
Watch out for meat and great and threat,
(They rhyme with suite and straight and debt).

A moth is not a moth in mother,
Nor both in bother, broth in brother.
And here is not a match for there,
Nor dear and fear for bear and pear.
And then there’s dose and rose and lose –
Just look them up – and goose and choose.
And cork and work and card and ward,
And font and front and word and sword.

And do and go and thwart and cart –
Come, come, I’ve hardly made a start!

A dreadful language? Why man alive!
I’d mastered it when I was five.

Alternative last verse:

A dreadful language? Why, man alive!
I’d learned to talk it when I was five.
And yet to write it, the more I tried,
I hadn’t learned it at fifty-five.

So this poem is about spelling not corresponding to pronunciation and vice-versa. Wikipedia cites it as “From a letter published in the London Sunday Times in 1965 [...] The author was only listed by T.S.W.”, but it’s at least as old as 1961, possibly much older.

The other poem is called The Chaos, and it’s by the Dutch teacher Gerard Nolst Trenité, illustrating how impossible it is to deduce pronunciation from spelling. It makes you doubt the pronunciation of many words you think you know. :-) He first published it in 1920, with 164 lines, and revised it many times until his death in 1946 (274 lines). It’s quite painful to read, so skim when it gets unbearable and save the rest for another sitting. Prof. David Madore has a version here, with the first few verses in IPA for AmE and BrE. What follows is a random excerpt only!

Dearest creature in creation
Studying English pronunciation,
I will teach you in my verse
Sounds like corpse, corps, horse and worse.

I will keep you, Susy, busy,
Make your head with heat grow dizzy;
Tear in eye, your dress you’ll tear;
Queer, fair seer, hear my prayer.
Sword and sward, retain and Britain
(Mind the latter how it’s written).
Made has not the sound of bade,
Say—said, pay—paid, laid but plaid.

Now I surely will not plague you
With such words as vague and ague,
But be careful how you speak,
Say: gush, bush, steak, streak, break, bleak,
Say, expecting fraud and trickery:
Daughter, laughter and Terpsichore,
Branch, ranch, measles, topsails, aisles,
Missiles, similes, reviles.
Billet does not end like ballet;
Bouquet, wallet, mallet, chalet.
Blood and flood are not like food,
Nor is mould like should and would.
Liberty, library, heave and heaven,
Rachel, loch, moustache, eleven.
We say hallowed, but allowed,
People, leopard, towed but vowed.
Stranger does not rhyme with anger,
Neither does devour with clangour.
Pilot, pivot, gaunt, but aunt,
Font, front, wont, want, grand and grant.
Say inveigh, neigh, but inveigle,
Make the latter rhyme with eagle.
Mind! Meandering but mean,
Valentine and magazine.
Don’t be down, my own, but rough it,
And distinguish buffet, buffet;
Brood, stood, roof, rook, school, wool, boon,
Worcester, Boleyn, to impugn.
Nor are proper names included,
Though I often heard, as you did,
Funny rhymes to unicorn,
Yes, you know them, Vaughan and Strachan.
Please don’t monkey with the geyser,
Don’t peel ‘taters with my razor,
Rather say in accents pure:
Nature, stature and mature.
Though the difference seems little,
We say actual, but victual,
Seat, sweat, chaste, caste, Leigh, eight, height,
Put, nut, granite, and unite.
Say aver, but ever, fever,
Neither, leisure, skein, receiver.
Never guess—it is not safe,
We say calves, valves, half, but Ralf.

Starry, granary, canary,
Crevice, but device, and eyrie,
Face, but preface, then grimace,
Phlegm, phlegmatic, ass, glass, bass.
Mind the O of off and often
Which may be pronounced as orphan,
With the sound of saw and sauce;
Also soft, lost, cloth and cross.

Pudding, puddle, putting. Putting?
Yes: at golf it rhymes with shutting.
Respite, spite, consent, resent.
Liable, but Parliament.

Seven is right, but so is even,
Hyphen, roughen, nephew, Stephen,
Monkey, donkey, clerk and jerk,
Asp, grasp, wasp, demesne, cork, work.
Pronunciation—think of Psyche!—
Is a paling, stout and spiky.
Won’t it make you lose your wits
Writing groats and saying ‘grits’?

It’s a dark abyss or tunnel
Strewn with stones like rowlock, gunwale,
Islington, and Isle of Wight,
Housewife, verdict and indict.

Don’t you think so, reader, rather,
Saying lather, bather, father?
Finally, which rhymes with enough,
Though, through, bough, cough, hough, sough, tough?

Hiccough has the sound of sup.
My advice is: GIVE IT UP!

There’s another version here. More poems here.

All of which reminds me of the following story about reading aloud. In the 4th century, where apparently it was common practice for everyone to read aloud, St. Augustine encountered a man (Bishop Ambrose) who read silently! He didn’t even move his lips! You couldn’t hear his voice while reading even if you stood very close to him! As Augustine reports (and it’s a matter of debate whether in amazement or in distaste):

When he read, his eyes scanned the page and his heart sought out the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still.

(Might want to take a look at this chapter from Alberto Manguel’s A History of Reading.)
But James Fenton disagrees: see The Guardian, Saturday 29 July 2006:

It is a myth that the ancients only or normally read out loud – a myth we appear to want to believe, since the evidence against it is strong. […]
Manguel shamelessly fudges the argument.

In order to read aloud well, especially when a text is written without breaks between words (as was classical practice), it seems important to possess the gift to read ahead simultaneously. Silent reading is a necessary adjunct to the kind of reading aloud for sound and sense Nietzsche admired. What shocked Augustine was that Ambrose read silently in front of visitors and refused to share his reading matter, and his thoughts, with them. But Augustine was perfectly capable of silent reading, and describes a key moment in his conversion as a moment of silent reading with a friend.

Finally, if I may rant again about spelling pronunciation: the character ~ is written “tilde”, but I wish people would stop calling it “till-day” or “tilled”! It is pronounced “til-duh”, as in the Australian ballad: “Waltzing Ma~, Waltzing Ma~…” or the name of the actress ~ Swinton (literally?)

TODO: Read about “the very notion of silent, individualized reading is scarcely known prior to the advent of the printing press (Goody and Watt: 42)” That’s Goody, Jack, and Watt, Ian, 1968, “The Consequences of Literacy.” In Literacy in Traditional Societies, edited by Jack Goody, pp. 27-68. Cambridge University Press. This is from Thomas Coburn, “Scripture” in India: Towards a Typology of the Word in Hindu Life, p.437. He goes on:

there has never been a happy marriage between the holy words of India, composed and transmitted orally, and the writing process. Particularly in contrast with, say, China, scribes in India have been of low social standing (Lancaster: 224-25), and the very act of writing was held to be ritually polluting: a late “Vedic text, the Aitareya Aranyaka (5.5.3) states that a pupil should not recite the Veda after he has eaten meat, seen blood or a dead body, had intercourse or engaged in writing” (Staal, 1979:122-23). The profoundly spoken character of India’s holy words is a matter on which we will reflect below, but for the moment it will suffice to note that we should not be misled by the fact that most of these words have eventually found their way onto the written or printed page. This is not their primary home, and Staal is not simply being mischievous in discerning a symbolic significance to the fact that Indian books “still tend to fall apart” (1979:123).

Written by S

Fri, 2009-05-29 at 23:14:07 +05:30

Posted in language

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Giving credit

with 7 comments

V. I. Arnold, On teaching mathematics:

What is a group? Algebraists teach that this is supposedly a set with two operations that satisfy a load of easily-forgettable axioms. This definition provokes a natural protest: why would any sensible person need such pairs of operations? [...]

What is a smooth manifold? In a recent American book I read that Poincaré was not acquainted with this (introduced by himself) notion and that the “modern” definition was only given by Veblen in the late 1920s: a manifold is a topological space which satisfies a long series of axioms.

For what sins must students try and find their way through all these twists and turns? Actually, in Poincaré’s Analysis Situs there is an absolutely clear definition of a smooth manifold which is much more useful than the “abstract” one.

(Interesting talk, do read.)


Bill Poser at the Language Log:

Sir William Jones is incorrectly viewed as the discoverer of the Indo-European language family and founder of modern historical linguistics [...]

The second and more important point is that Jones cannot be considered the founder of modern historical linguistics because he did not use the comparative method, the crucial innovation that distinguishes modern historical linguistics from its predecessors.

Sigh. Let’s not forget people who actually caused us to perceive the world differently, and leave it to pedantic types to define who invented what.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by S

Sun, 2009-03-22 at 23:05:50 +05:30

Windows semicolon

with 2 comments

XP came and went (sure nobody likes Vista, but how long do you think anyone will have a choice?), but this doesn’t seem to have received enough attention:

A semicolon in Windows XP’s shutdown screen:
"Do not turn off or unplug your computer; it will turn off automatically."

The last time a semicolon was sighted, the New York Times made a big fuss of it, and included a baffling comment by Noam Chomsky.

Written by S

Mon, 2008-10-06 at 06:32:30 +05:30

Posted in Uncategorized

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Have you been high today?

with 5 comments

If not, you need to see this (besides needing a bun to bite Benny Lava): [Make sure you read the subtitles before, not after the corresponding sounds.]

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Written by S

Sat, 2008-08-09 at 16:29:57 +05:30

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with 7 comments

From time to time, I encounter people on IRC saying “ta” in contexts that suggest they mean “thanks”. I had assumed “TA” was an acronym for “Thanks Again” or some such thing (some acronym site suggests “Thanks Awfully”), but I found out today that this is not the case: “ta” is not an acronym, it is a full word (interjection).

do people actually say “ta”?: It is apparently common in Northern England and parts of London, but it is colloquial, dial. etc. It is pronounced like “spa” or “tar” without the “r”.

Theories of etymology include Scandinavian origin (Viking remnant?) “The online The English-to-American Dictionary also suggests the possibility of Scandinavian origin.” Also, someone on Yahoo Answers (um…) says “The Danish word for “thanks” is “tak”. In Scotland and upper England it was common to drop the “k” at the end because of the way words were pronounced during the time of old English and Middle English.” The same on UrbanDictionary.

[Origin: 1765–75; by infantile shortening and alter.]

Online Etymology Dictionary:

1772, “natural infantile sound of gratitude” [Weekley]


An infantile form of ‘thank-you’, now also commonly in colloq. adult use.

So I guess that settles it, and the Scandinavian story is just a folk etymology.

Lynneguist says “The Urban Dictionary is a hive of folk etymology.” thus ending any credibility UrbanDictionary might have had :)

Written by S

Mon, 2008-04-28 at 20:53:11 +05:30

Posted in language

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with 2 comments

One who continually bemoans the ‘loss’ of the word ‘gay’ to the English language, even though they had never used the word in any context at all until they started complaining that they couldn’t use it any more.

Before encountering computers, I had always seen the word ‘deprecate’ in contexts from which I understood that it was synonymous to disparage, deplore, condemn, belittle, derogate, and so on.

The computing world uses “X is deprecated” to mean that the feature X is discouraged, often because a recommended replacement has been found for it — thus X is obsolescent, and while using it will work currently, it is expected to stop working in the future, so one is recommended to avoid using it.

With the rise of technology and the decline in reading, many people have encountered the word solely in the latter context, and have taken it to mean something that is “old”, and for which a newer replacement exists: Thus I see people announcing, with no sign of self-deprecation, that “This blog is deprecated”.

Written by S

Sat, 2008-04-26 at 18:17:02 +05:30

Posted in language

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