The National Recording Registry

Who gets to decide what a classic is?

We don’t often think of librarians as powerful people, but by choosing what to preserve, librarians can stitch history from a grab bag of remnants. Especially if those librarians work at the Library of Congress and they’ve been charged with carrying out the dictates of the National Recording Preservation Act.

Just what is the National Recording Preservation Act? Well, our old friend Alan Kennedy, former music industry insider and musical trivia nonpareil, is here to tell us.

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More Colorful Language

Another quick note on Alan’s colorful writing. He got an article on linguistic color references published in Language magazine.

“Language” has a fancy Flash-powered web-as-magazine interface, complete with flippy paper sounds. I can’t link you deep into it (which I suppose is how they want it), so you’ll just have to open it up and turn to page 30. Take a look here: Alan Kennedy’s “Colorful Language” in Language magazine.

Also, apropos of the orange discussion and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, I heard someone today describe the unrest in Egypt as a “color revolution.” The term was new to me, but not to Wikipedia. According to the article, it describes places where “massive street protests followed disputed elections or request of fair elections and led to the resignation or overthrow of leaders considered by their opponents to be authoritarian.” Just how colorful will this map get before the dust settles?

GIMME SOME CAW-FEE!

Font designer Mark Simonson does an occasional blog piece called Typecasting (or more recently Son of Typecasting) in which he skewers films for the anachronistic foibles in their fonts. Did you know, for instance, that the steam pressure gauge on James Cameron’s Titanic was set in Helvetica? Crikey! That font was sinking 45 years before it was invented!

It’s a professional hazard. Just as Mark Twain could never look at the Mississippi the same way once he became a riverboat captain, Simonson can’t look at the tombstone in a Western without thinking How did Helvetica (1957) and Eurostile (1962) end up on a tombstone in the year 1885?

When it comes to language, regular readers of the Star Chamber will know that frequent contributor Alan Kennedy is the local expert. This week he has a few thoughts to share about actors and accents.

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Can I Borrow a Cup of Déjà Vu?

French and English have been tied together since William the Conqueror made French the language of royalty in England. Traces of that linguistic shotgun marriage persist. For example, when the peasants fetch the beast from the barnyard, it’s pig, cow and sheep, but by the time Monsieur sees it spiced and steaming on the table, it’s pork, beef, and mutton. This low-rent/high-rent juxtoposition can be striking, as with house and mansion, horseplay and chivalry, freedom fries and french fries, and so on.

Now sit back and enjoy as our very own Star Chamber Language Maven (quick: maven… what language is that from?) Alan Kennedy regales you with still more language yarns, this time on borrowed words in English.

 

Can I Borrow a Cup of Déjà Vu?

by Alan Kennedy

Linguists use the term “borrowed” to refer to words that come into one language from a second, and get used frequently enough that they become like a first language word. As an example – we don’t really feel like we are speaking Swahili when we say we went on a safari (even though that is a word borrowed from Swahili; it means “journey”). You can often tell that a word has been borrowed from another language because the spelling seems non-English (e.g. tsunami, gesundheit, déjà vu) – but sometimes the non-English origin is not as evident.

When I first mentioned the linguistic notion of “borrowed words” to my wife Karen, she pointed out that it’s kind of a stupid term, because the language users are not planning to give the word back, nor have the originators been left without the word. [Queen Elizabeth to the President of Tanzania: “thanks awfully for letting us use the word safari. It has been ever so useful, but we’re quite done with it now, you may have it back”.]

Similarly, another term for this phenomenon, “loan words” is inaccurate. [We like saying karaoke, and we refuse to give it back to Japan, goddammit! Take baseball in exchange. You’re welcome.]

Nevertheless, linguists use the term “borrowed word” or “loan word” this way, and it is a useful concept, despite the misnomer.

The term borrowing is not usually applied to words with roots from other languages (like Latin and Greek). It refers more to words that not only didn’t come from Old English (a Germanic family language) but which have been taken, whole hog, from some other language and eventually find their way into English dictionaries. Sometimes the words are borrowed just as they are, and sometimes they are modified in spelling or pronunciation to make them more “English-like”. Let’s take cocktails as an example. Vodka comes to us directly from Russian, водка, pronounced quite similarly in that language, and letter-for-letter transliterated into English letters. Whisky, on the other hand, comes from the Gaelic word uisge which means “water” and is pronounced “oosh-kyuh”. (I will make no jokes here about how Scots drink/consider/treat whisky like water, in deference to my hard-working immigrant ancestors).

The language from which English has borrowed the most, by far, is French. A quick glance at a selection of fairly common words which we all know, and which are in the dictionary, makes the case:

adjectives nouns expressions
petite rendezvous debris bon voyage c’est la vie
blasé ballet entrepreneur bon appetite double entendre
gourmet debut mirage déjà vu en masse
beige cliché memoir en route ménage à trois
macabre entourage coup faux pas tour de force
unique genre entrée avant-garde film noir
chic ensemble buffet au contraire carte blanche
risqué> encore protégé cul-de-sac à la carte
sautéed niche boutique encore! nouveau riche
brusque chauffer mystique maître d’ savoir faire

… and this is just a partial list. Note that in almost every case, we English speakers are not pronouncing these words using usual English pronunciation rules. No one rhymes “buffet” or “chalet” with “get” by mistake (or “Chevrolet” for that matter); no one rhymes “corsage” or “sabotage” with “luggage”. We know these French rules so well, that they have become almost like alternative English pronunciation rules. Why do we English speakers borrow so much from French? Well, the Norman Conquest of England has a lot to do with it. And besides that, look at a map – France is England’s close neighbor. In that situation, linguistic borrowing frequently results.

Like all languages, English has borrowed many food words. The reason is perhaps self-evident. Which is easier to say: “I like sliced raw fish placed atop portions of sticky vinegared rice” or “I like sushi”? If people in some foreign locale have created an awesome dish with many ingredients or a specific recipe, it’s convenient to just take their word. Like any other words, some food words are borrowed fully (spaghetti, croissant, baklava) and some are modified a bit as they come into English (pretzel comes from the German bretzl; saffron from the Arabic زعفرانza’faran“). Because food words are so culturally rooted, English speakers have a sense that that they are using borrowed words when they say things like shish kebab (Turkish), smorgasbord (Swedish) or dim sum (Cantonese).

For non-food words, English speakers (according to my informal poll) tend to be less clear about where a loan word has come from. I’m not talking about obvious ones like karaoke or boomerang or aloha. I’m thinking more about words like cobra (Portuguese), robot (Czech), and boondocks (Tagalog). Even if you know a word is a loan word, you may not be able to guess which language. Can you guess where we get the words maven, chimpanzee, or yacht? Give yourself a minute.

O.K., the answers are Yiddish, Bantu (Southern Africa), and Dutch. Don’t feel bad if you didn’t know. This stuff is really not considered common knowledge.

Native American Indian languages have contributed many words – not just in place names, but in words that seeped into American English and then became part of English at large. Aside from the culturally rooted terms like moccasin, teepee and tomahawk that we all tend to know, there are many words for animals (e.g. chipmunk, moose, coyote, possum, raccoon, jaguar, cougar) and foods (e.g. pecan, squash, persimmon, avocado) that English speakers did not likely know about until they came to the Americas. Well-known concept words from native American languages include totem (Ojibwa), kayak (Inuit) and pow-wow (Narragansett).

Here’s a little story using borrowed words. Take minute to read it and, if you want, underline words that you think probably came into English directly from another language.

I’m going on vacation next month, and this time I’m really gung-ho to head northward to satisfy my wanderlust. I have visions of cruises in and out of icy fjords, maybe stopping to sled across the tundra. I’m staying in an ice hotel – which even has an indoor health center; I can’t imagine a sauna in an igloo! The last trip I took was a fiasco, really a catastrophe. We went to Bali, thinking it would be a relaxing, angst-free time. The brochure for our resort showed guests in turquoise silk pajamas, eating caviar, shopping in colorful outdoor bazaars and feeding orangutans and giraffes. The reality was a run-down place which bordered a kind of jungle canyon. We had a feeling there was something less than kosher about the place as soon as we drove up. For one thing, it was covered with graffiti. The little kiosk which sold shampoo and things was always closed. Our bungalow was tiny; the bed was more like a futon with a saggy mattress. The room was stuffy but we couldn’t go out onto our patio to get a breeze because the weather seemed to veer between monsoon, typhoon and tornado the entire time.

Ready? here’s the answer:

Word Language Origin
gung-ho, typhoon, silk Mandarin
wanderlust, angst German
cruise Dutch
fjord Norwegian
tundra Russian
sauna Finnish
igloo Inuit (Eskimo)
fiasco, graffiti Italian
catastrophe Greek
turquoise, caviar, kiosk Turkish
bazaar Farsi
orangutan Malay
giraffe, mattress, monsoon Arabic
pajamas, jungle, shampoo, bungalow Hindi
kosher Hebrew
futon Japanese
patio, breeze, canyon, tornado Spanish

I leave you with this final thought: hakuna matata.

No, that saying was not an invention of the Disney Corporation. It’s real Swahili language.

But you knew what it meant, didn’t you?

Color My World

Which word is more colorful: color or colour?

If you’re American, do you ever color your “colors” with an occasional “U” to lend your prose a sense of savoir faire? At any rate, have you ever wondered where the U went? A lovely blog called COLOURlovers addresses this question with an informative post called Color vs. Colour – The Great Spelling Battle. The short version is that when Noah “Dictionary is My Last Name” Webster saw colour he saw red. If you know what I mean.

By the way, from the COLOURlovers site, I also recommend the Color Legends posts (Part I and Part II).

When it comes to teasing apart the idiomatic weirdness of language, no one is better than Rambles contributor Alan Kennedy. So we are tickled pink this week to have Alan tell us about the strangely liberal and incoherent use of color across cultures. Take it away Alan…

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Aiming on Moving Targets at the Lake Michigan

Today I’m happy to present another contribution from the classroom of Alan Kennedy, our correspondent from the front lines of teaching English as a Second Language. This time he’s talking about the surprisingly complicated dangly bits of English: articles and prepositions. You never notice them until they’re out of place.

One of the odd things about learning a language is that it’s easy when you’re young and hard when you’re old. We feel bad about having to teach our children the strange rules of language, but they aren’t really troubled by it. In a sense, they’re the ones who made the problem in the first place. Kids are the ones who cook simple pidgins into rich creoles. There is a time when our brain can effortlessly spin and juggle complex new grammars. In some cases, it seems to border on the extravagant flourish of a peacock display. The Luganda language of Africa, for example, has at least ten different noun classes (not counting the plural forms), essentially genders like masculine, feminine, neuter, large things, skinny things, wet things, and so on. Each one has a different associated affix to memorize. What on Earth were they thinking? Who made this up? You can bet it wasn’t some Luganda government subcommittee. It had to be the kids. You can’t learn this stuff as an adult. You can’t even make it up as an adult.

It seems baffling that difficult and exceptional constructions aren’t eroded from the language by use, as a tumbling stone is smoothed by a watercourse. But there you have it.

Alan teaches English to adults. That puts him in the hot seat when the language gets weird. Here’s what he has to say.

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Teaching Tricks to Sea Lions

Regular Rambles readers will recall my friend Alan Kennedy‘s last contribution: RIKE ORION. In it, he recounts some of his experiences teaching English as a Second Language in New York City. He’s back this week with some more transcultural observations.

The way names move across language barriers makes for a good spectator sport. I am reminded of what my nephew Ben wrote about the English names his students chose for an English class he taught in China. The difference, for example, between Shelly and Cherry can take a few tries to work out. And I recall a conversation from long ago in which Alan told me about some frustration he had with a Russian class. Russian names require special grammatical handling depending on the context. Ordinarily an imported American name escapes this special treatment, making life for an American student of Russian slightly easier than it might otherwise be. But Alan shares his last name with a former American president, and presidents (particularly Cold War presidents) get the full name treatment. So Alan was stuck managing complicated endings for his own name. Ach du lieber Himmel!

Here’s Alan…

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