Jun 27, 2011

SCOTUS Rejects Ban on Violent Video Games for Children

I think that seems right. I don’t think it can ever be good when the government censors a material able to express ideas (ie. be construed as having a largely artistic or communicative basis). Leave that up the parents.

Jun 25, 2011
There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious—makes you so sick at heart—that you can’t take part. You can’t even passively take part. And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all. - Mario Savio, Sproul Hall Steps, December 2, 1964
My favorite speech was produced for a fitting cause: as one of the leaders of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, Mario Savio helped organize a series of demonstrations against the administration rules against political speech and constraining the academic freedom of faculty. While the Marxist tones of the speech usually put-off about half of the political spectrum, I believe in these times most can agree that there are some causes which require one to hold one’s ground, even if that simply means using your words to protest the restrictions against using them.
Jun 13, 2011


gdcm (Paidika) writes about the greek word phthengomai,

I find this word at once ugly and fascinating. Phthengomai: it’s hardly a comely sound. And yet from what I can gather it’s nearly unique among Greek verbs of vocalization—and there are a number; the Greeks were chatty—for terms that can apply both to animal and to human sound. LSJ records that in context of a horse, it means to whinny; of an eagle, scream; of a raven, croak; of a fawn, cry. But it can also mean to speak clearly, as in Homer above. The suggestion, I’d like to think, is to connote sound before it becomes speech—compareφημί/phemi, “I say,” “I declare”; its frequentative form φάσκω/phasko, “I assert”; λέγω “say, speak, mean”; ἀγορεύω “I address, speak publicly.”  φθέγγομαι is pure sound, an animal howl.

The aphorism, the apothegm, in which I am the first among the Germans to be a master, are the forms of “eternity”; it is my ambition to say in ten sentences what everyone else says in a book—what everyone else does not say in a book.” - Nietzsche

The etymologyically restored spelling, favored in the UK, apparently is “apophthegm” according to OED.

As Sassure writes in Cours de Linguistique Generale, “Signs function, then, not through their intrinsic value but through their relative position [to each other].” He was invoking the phemi:ephen=present:imperfect relationship, and I find in his quote a vivid application to what you write:"φθέγγομαι is pure sound, an animal howl," which you paint through comparisons to words (signs) that bear, in Sassure’s words, an associative relationship to it. One might question: without these other words standing in contrast, would we hear that howl?

Jun 1, 2011

"The", the definite article

The word “the” is a part of speech called a “determiner”, specifically an article. This class in english includes: “a(n)”, “the”, “no”, “some”. These words combine with a noun to create a noun phrase: “the man”, “a man”, “some men”, “no man” is an island.

Originally, in Old English (O.E.) the definite article, se (which in Modern English is the), agreed with the noun’s plurality and grammatical gender. What this means is the word changed depending on what word it was stuck with, like how Spanish has the male and female forms la and el. However, like many languages including Latin, Old English also possesed a “case” system. This means that concepts like “subject” and “direct object” were marked on words with sounds. In Modern English, this system still exists for pronouns: “I” is nominative (must be a subject). Thus one cannot say: “He saw I” but must use the accusative case of I, which is me: “He saw me”

After the breakdown of the Old English gender system (note how Modern English nouns don’t have grammatical gender), all of the case’s starting letter, th, infiltrated the “default” nominative form se, producing the. All the other forms died out with the death of the case system in English.

The Old English se comes from the proto-Indo-European (PIE) form *so which meant “this, that”. The definite article in modern romance languages are like so:

  • French: le, la 
  • Spanish, Catalan: el, la
  • Italian: il, la
  • Romanian: -l(a), -a [at the end of words]

These come from the demonstrative determiner, ille "that". You can see how this became the modern romance forms, by the loss of the beginning/end sounds of the latin word ille. Note, as well, the feminine form of ille was illa which explains the feminine forms in the same manner.

Now to tie it all together. Have you noticed the curious fact? The, from O.E. se, from PIE *so “that”…and le, la from Latin ille “that”. The definite article in Romance languages AND English both come from stem words meaning “that”. In language change theory, in Latin this is explained by the loss of force behind ille…instead of meaning “THAT thing over there”, it just started meaning “any old thing”. This is attested in the historical record by alternative forms being employed in legal documents to replace ille, which demonstrates that ille itself was losing its force of meaning. Apparently, something similar happened in PIE->O.E.->Modern English.


  • Romanian is particularly interesting in how closely it follows the original latin, see: wikipedia


  • Lass, Roger, Old English, A Historical Linguistic Companion, Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Apr 12, 2011

Every Unicode character: one per frame. (via kottke)

Feb 27, 2011

"No hanging prepositions!": how descriptive is English instruction?

Basically the question came up with some friends of mine as to what degree people actually write “correctly” in Standard English. Do people use hanging prepositions in American writing? Specifically, we know from a descriptive standpoint that all Standard American English (SAE) speakers use hanging prepositions—it is simply a fact about the way people speak, it has nothing to do with how they “should" speak.

So, off to the corpus data. Specifically, I ran some initial queries through the The Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) on the preposition “with”.

So, this is really precursory, for a few reasons:

  1. "With" may exhibit an aberrant pattern compared to the general population of prepositions
  2. Many different contextual sources for “written material” was included.
  3. The query syntax lacks a certain finness…it is rather likely that some “correctly” formed constructions are false positives of instances in which it is impossible to place the preposition at the end of a sentence/phrase in English (and vice versa, “Do you want to come with?” has no real correct alternative). Also, the query for correctly formed types was a bit of a hack, with every form I could think of simply being listed.
  4. Most importantly, I interpreted the definition of hanging prepositions as at the end of a full phrase, not a sentence (thus the “with ,”, etc., queries). I think this is grammatically justified, but who knows?
  5. Finally, I would like a list of collacates to go with the trends to see if there are  contextual reasons people form the construction as hanging or correctly

Here is the list of queries, and results:

         Written   Spoken
        --------   ------
"with ."     8747     5057
"with ?"     1037     1027
"with ,"     8009     4478
"with :"     791      50
"with ;"     197      38
sum 18781 10650
correct- forms 19681 5174 {"with which|whom|who|what"} ratio 0.95 2.06 of incorrect to correct

So we see that in spoken SAE we find that hanging prepositions occur 2.06 times as often as correctly formed ones. In writing however, they are equally (~0.95) as likely to occur. Therefore,

  1. Yes, people use hanging prepositions in in spoken language more than correctly formed prepositional constructions, at least for “with”—about twice as much for “with”.
  2. Written language is either 1) influenced by prescriptive rules, and people use the “correct form” more or 2) people use the “correct form” more for other intralingual reasons.

Definitive, no. But it definitely has reshaped the way I think about how influential prescriptive rules may be in SAE.


"Everyone, left to his own devices, forms an idea about what goes on in language which is very far from the truth...without language, thought is a vague, uncharted nebula" - Ferdinand de Sassure.

Exploring the nebula and some more concrete things, these are thoughts from Zach.

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