|u||Stretching the Language. Electronic shorthand and linguistic creativity.|
|u||Agamemnon T. Collywobbles Says: 1251. Lovable spam.|
|u||The Editor's Art. My understanding of my profession.|
|u||Quotation Mark Abuse. My theory of the origins of an aberrant practice.|
|u||The Problem of Metaphor in Linguistic Theory. Paper written while I was an undergraduate at Boston University in 1971.|
|u||I Can Explain. The logic of grammatical rules.|
|u “Due to”|
|u “Different from” (T.K.)|
|u “One of those that are” (T.K.)|
|u Dangling modifiers (T.K.)|
|u “Which”/“that” (T.K.)|
|u “Based on”/“on the basis of” (T.K.)|
|u Present subjunctive (T.K.)|
|u||Definite and Indefinite Articles. A guide for English learners.|
|u||Notes from Sanskrit class, November 1998|
|u||Proposed research topic #1: programmers’ accents|
|u||Proposed research topic #2: funny words|
|u||Similes with “like” and “as”: not the way you learned it (T.K.)|
|u||Unsolved Mysteries. Grammatical problems I don't know the answer to. (T.K.)|
Top of Page
|Stretching the Language|
|It seems to me that the spammers have been getting more innovative lately, with their ‘v1@gra’ and their ‘d1sc0unt’, their ‘perscriptions’ and their ‘enla gement’. Once you stop spelling keywords correctly in order to dodge the filters, there is a virtual infinitude of possibilities—possibilities that still manage to communicate the intended idea. Clearly spammers are relying on the recipients’ ability to make spontaneous substitutions of correct forms for deliberately corrupted ones, and I find this expectation intriguing.|
The spam-barrier-breaking variations on standard spelling appear to bear a close relation to the popular conventions seen among users of instant messaging and other rapid-fire keystroke-conservative types of electronic communication—similar in some ways to the teletype operators’ shorthand of bygone years. I’m referring to such forms as these:
|not to mention idiosyncratic expressions along these lines:|
|Of course, this is not a new phenomenon; advertising, marketing, and product branding and packaging have been perpetrating such assaults on the language for generations:|
|I wouldn't discount the effects of simple ignorance, either, but that is a bit harder to catalog.|
|Separate but related forms of shorthand are those we refer to as “emoticons” or “smileys,” typographical representations of facial expressions such as :( and 8O that stand in for or serve as qualifiers to written words. Like the stage directions we often see attached to written remarks in electronic messages (<grinning>, <blushing modestly>, <cheering, stamping feet and whistling>, and so on), they both cue the recipient to the tone of the words and convey more personal presence than the remote medium of written language usually does. In passing I note two instances of those forms’ coming back around startlingly into another medium: first, my manager posted a handwritten PTO message on her office door and added a :) smiley—sideways, as if it were typed; and second, I heard my son say aloud to his friend in pleased acknowledgment of a compliment, “Colon capital D.”|
|Professionally, I am interested in these departures from standard written forms in much the same way as Howard Chace was interested in how far one could depart from standard pronunciation of English words and still communicate intelligibly in speech. His “Ladle Rat Rotten Hut” and other “Anguish Languish” stories were written to test his ideas about spoken communication. As an editor and compulsive proofreader, I am committed to upholding the standards and conventions of English spelling and grammar; but I also serve the ideal of effective communication as it evolves under the influences of culture and technology. How far you can deviate from universally understood forms of written language and still convey meaning is an interesting question, one on which several dissertations pertaining to electronic messaging are undoubtedly already in progress.|
|In my inexhaustive analysis, I would say that two factors are key to interpreting these blends of literal and symbolic representation: context and phonetics. Given the expectation that the standard character set is going to be used in nonstandard ways (itself a learned and context-dependent assumption), we read them by allowing ourselves to employ several kinds of right- and left-brain processes at the same time, using conventions we have already mastered as units, the way fluent readers read whole words (such as ‘lol’), with a little free association mixed in—all heavily mediated by the contexts of medium, subject, and situation as well as established common ground with our correspondents. When Dick and I, for instance, write ‘wfd’, it is unmistakably a meal-planning inquiry and not “World Federation of the Deaf”or “World’s Fastest Drummer.”|
|The phonetic aspect intrigues me more than context because it is entirely dependent on a mastery of standard English pronunciation, awareness of homophones (e.g., 2 for “to”), and a strong enough sense of English spelling and syllabication patterns to enable us to switch from one to another smoothly in midword to produce an intelligible whole. The expression “l8r” consists of|
|Perfectly plain to a keyboard-savvy electronic messagist, it could conceivably be mystifying to a non-native speaker of English and utterly impenetrable to someone whose knowledge of English relies on a dictionary. In this way the shorthand becomes a kind of shibboleth separating those who know the lingo from those who don't.|
|I am curious about how this phenomenon plays out among speakers of other languages. I asked a German-speaking woman who uses instant messaging with her family and friends back home if German users of AIM did similar things to their language in sending messages, and I have to believe they do, but she seemed to find my question as incomprehensible as did the Russian whom I asked if Russian dictionaries had pronunciation guides at the bottom of the page (“Of course not—we know how to pronounce our language,” he said.).|
|But even more, I am interested in seeing how our own language is affected. Capitalization, for instance, will never be the same once we’ve grown used to seeing our own names all in lowercase. As a professional editor I consider it my business to act as a guardian of the proper standards of the language—but also to be open to manifestations of its organic growth and evolution. I think the two greatest influences on our language at the present time are multiculturalism and high-tech. (A few decades ago I would have said it was advertising, but now I think advertising is following the trends and not setting them.) While a population that eschews many of the complex and subtle forms of the language and its inexhaustible vocabulary in favor of basic functional elements is shrinking the language, inventors not just of new terms for new concepts and devices but of new ways of writing old ones are stretching it. What neither systematic attempts at linguistic reform nor the effects of erosion by unmitigated ignorance have accomplished may be achieved naturally and offhandedly in the long term by youngsters like my son and his friends sitting at keyboards in their respective rooms and typing on their computers to each other:|
[This article was published in the January 2004 issues of Of Mice and Mensa, the newsletter of Monterey County (California) Mensa, edited by Betty Curry, and The 4M, the newsletter of Manasota (Florida) Mensa, edited by Edgar Coudal.]
Top of Page
|Agamemnon T. Collywobbles Says: 1251|
|My personal e-mail inbox is by no means spam-free, but I’ve developed a pretty good set of filters using such subject keywords as ‘prescription,’ ‘cruise,’ ‘inkjet,’ and ‘credit’ (and some deliberate variants, such as ‘v-iagra’ and ‘v1@gra’), as well as a set of “from” names that includes a selection from this very helpful list of Internet country codes:|
|I do have to review my trash folder regularly to make sure that no legitimate correspondence about, say, enlargement or bankruptcy slips by and no messages from my .ca relatives get missed. And that’s how I came to notice the 1251 series.|
|These are spam messages whose subject lines all begin ‘=?windows-1251?B?’. The content of these messages is invariably of the ‘ïîçäðàâëÿåì Âàñ ñ Íîâûì Ãîäîì’ variety, and they seem to originate in Poland, to judge from this line in one of the headers:|
|X-AntiVirus: skaner antywirusowy poczty Wirtualnej Polski S. A.|
|What distinguishes them from other spam messages is the “from” line. The first of those that caught my eye was Brighton I. Jellyfish. After that, I began to watch for them. Here’s the start of my collection:|
|If you can read that list without cracking a smile, try these, all solemnly represented as the senders of important messages to my inbox:|
|Several of those noms-de-spam launched a major laughing trip that left me blinded by tears and hugging my sides with pain. As if those weren’t enough, I howled at these:|
|It isn’t just the unexpected conjunctions of verbiage that makes them so funny, although the mind’s automatic impulse to resolve them into a coherent idea does cause little mental train wrecks that could bring on a case of hysterics in the highly susceptible. It’s the inspired presence of those formal-sounding middle initials, which take them out of the realm of word pairs and mark them clearly as Western-style appellations. Anyone can concoct incongruous combinations of words, but perceiving them as if they were real names, initial caps and all, produces a brain tickle of the first order.|
|Notice that the use of a middle initial is more effective—and infinitely more hilarious—than would be the inclusion of a third word as a middle name.|
|In the midst of my genuine delight in these serendipitous and almost daily gifts to my home e-mail, I became curious about how they were generated. It seems obvious that they must be churned out by some algorithm rather than by someone’s actually leafing through the dictionary and picking out English words. The combinations seem too arbitrary to have been consciously chosen, even by a non-English speaker, and I can’t imagine a spammer’s doing much of anything by hand.|
|But they don’t seem to be just any words. A purely random pick from a standard dictionary would turn up huge numbers of terms far out of the mainstream of English usage, terms associated with various specialties and professions and disciplines. Of the more than 500,000 words in the Oxford English Dictionary, only about 50,000 or so would be in the vocabulary of the average educated speaker of English, according to various online sources. Most of the rest are technical terms of some kind, unintelligible to most of us. On the other hand, the word lists and vocabulary lists that abound on the Internet do not typically contain proper names like Khabarovsk (a city in eastern Russia) and Brighton (a coastal resort south of London, with namesakes elsewhere). The only lists I could find that included both of those and Arturo were a list of cheap hotels worldwide and a list of English-based terms whose actual purpose I was unable to divine, buried deep in a German site dedicated to open-source software (here it is, in TinyURL form: http://tinyurl.com/33c8m). The latter looked as if it could have been gleaned from English websites all over the world and included, curiously, ‘Asilomar’ and ‘mensa’ along with ‘Agamemnon’ and ‘tergiversator’ and ‘collywobbles’ and a plethora of other expressions that one is hardly likely to find in everyday use. (My research suggests that the list is an adjunct to a search engine of some kind and that it is possible to use such a list for spamming purposes.)|
|What I am wondering about these spam names is what caused them to be grouped together—what kind of premise for a list or what algorithm seeking what kind of characteristics it would have taken to pull them out of the universe of English words and put them in one place. This is a question about words and their traits and commonalities and not a question about spammers: to generate fictitious names of that particular sort, the spam-sending or list-generating tool must have defined rules of some kind that resulted in a source list for those names, or a real person or persons must have gathered them for some purpose other than the one to which the spam sender has put them. What were the rules? What do the words have in common? That is the question that is teasing my mind while I enjoy the possibly unintended results of someone’s misguided attempts to sell me something in Polish. Is anyone among our readers wise to this particular spammy gimmick, and if so, can you explain it? I am thinking that it might reveal something interesting as well as entertaining about our language if we knew how these words were chosen.|
|I suppose it’s possible that they were never chosen at all but were merely some spellchecker’s nearest match for letter groupings that have no meaning whatsoever in English; but that notion steals all the poetry from this amusing conceit, and so I prefer not to consider it while other options remain.|
|Meanwhile, I now look forward to my daily download of spam, hoping that the day’s catch of sender names will include such 1251-series gems as these, all of which outstrip the limits of my imagination:|
|Who’s been writing to you lately?|
[This article was published in the February 2004 issue of Intelligencer, the newsletter of San Francisco Regional Mensa, edited by David Kirby.]
Top of Page
|The Editor's Art|
|Quotation Mark Abuse|
|A fellow editor recently referred me to the gallery
of “misused” quotation marks. No observant user of English can have
failed to notice instances of the kinds of abuses documented at this site. |
As it happens, I have thought about this phenomenon and have a theory of how this oddly persistent punctuational malpractice started and took root in our culture.
I think that it probably follows the addition to the set of common (U.S. culture) gestural language the two-fingered, two-handed quotation-marks-in-the-air, which came on the scene sometime in the seventies, I would say, spread or maybe even invented by some TV personality such as a talk-show host (Johnny Carson?). This gesture was not always there; it wasn't there, and then it was. It could only have come about in a live-action visual medium with widespread impact and generalizable subject matter. Only television fits that criterion. I don't think we saw it before the seventies.
When people use the gesture, which is meaningless unless it is seen to accompany a voiced expression, they typically add an emphasis to the vocal utterance. It is most often a slightly stagey, sometimes ironic emphasis.
I think that to some segment of the population, the same segment to whom educational values might be low to middle and to whom the idea of thinking about the true meaning and appropriateness of marks of punctuation would be as alien as, let’s say, the study of exobotany, the significance of setting off in quotes an expression that is not to be taken quite literally —whether because the term is not a fully legitimate expression, such as a coinage, or the intent is to qualify with the sense of “so-called,”or they are so-called “horror quotes” by which the writer disowns the expression—is entirely lost. Instead, I propose, that gesture and the accompanying emphasis translated into the notion that the quotation marks confer the emphasis. (I think any irony in the emphasis would be imperceptible to someone who perceived no cause for the irony.) So I think that when they write them, those people are using the quotation marks as an auditory cue (because they are of course writing down speech—they are not regarding written composition as a separate art): they are calling upon the reader to hear the vocal stress that would be used while scratching the digital quotation marks in the air. It is a visual enhancement, an effective device that is simpler than changing color, using bold or caps, or employing other graphic devices to draw attention to some part of a message.
The interesting paradox there is that it takes some degree of literacy to interpret the two little pairs of marks as a meaningful element of the message, unlike larger type or a change of color, which has an effect without passing through an interpretive process.
The practice did not have to reach a high degree of saturation from that origin. It only had to spread enough so that other people began to infer the intended emphasis from the usage and employ the marks themselves for the same purpose, probably without reference to or indeed any connection to the gesture.
I don’t think this aberration has anything whatsoever to do with misused apostrophes. Misuse of apostrophes, especially for plurals, has been going on longer and follows very different patterns from the misused quotes. However, I do think that the nationwide decline in educational values together with the upsurge in numbers of non-native English users has created, as it were, a fertile medium for the culture of this particular germ.
|I Can Explain
The Logic of Grammatical Rules
|Definite and Indefinite Articles:
Hints and Helps |
by Jean M. Smith
|This guide was developed by my mother, Jean
Mullen Smith, while she was teaching English to ESL students at Northeastern University.
I found point C, about establishing identity, to be a particularly good explanation
of a difficult grammatical concept. |
Noncount vs. Count Nouns
C. Using “the” Means Establishing
Use “the” Also in the Following Situations:
E. Do Not Use “the” Before Abstract
or General Nouns Unless You Are Referring to a Specific Situation.
Since the rules on the use of articles with proper names vary greatly, it is best to consult a textbook or other reference source that explains the general practice and gives examples.
Copyright © 1990 Jean M. Smith.
|Notes from Sanksrit class, 1998|
|Sanskrit Class #1 |
East West Books, 10/7/98
Sarasvati Mohan, Ph.D.
Devanagari: “Every letter has power.” Mystical power of the letters themselves. Sounds of the letters come from Shiva’s drum. Oral tradition since 2000 BC. Therefore correct pronunciation extremely important.
Of all the languages in the world, Skt is the only one that computers can read and understand. Computer people are flocking to study it.
Daivi Vâk “divine speech”—the
Samskrti means, “culture,” “sophistication”
Skt is parent of all north Indian
languages. Southern: Dravidian—already in place. Adopted/integrated
Skt as it came along.
Buddhism could not survive
in India because ahimsa forbids sacrifice.
|Proposed Research Topic #1: |
|On the one hand, we know that programming
languages, from BASIC to Java, are nothing like natural languages. They
are highly formalized and structured systems for encoding data to be acted upon
and operations to be performed by a computer. To call them “languages” at
all is metaphorical. On the other hand, we know that programmers working
in the same coding language and therefore under the same rules, with the same
symbols and tools and functions, nonetheless have individual styles and ways of
using the code, not just at the design and problem-solving level but right down
to variable-naming conventions and ways of executing a single operation. |
Here’s my question: Does the programmer’s native spoken language influence his use of coding language? Does a Japanese programmer in COBOL, say, use COBOL in ways that are predictably different from an American programmer’s COBOL code, and do those ways somehow have a parallel in the structure, form, and logic of their natural languages? Can you detect a German accent, a Chinese accent, a Hindi accent in code written in a high-level language?—and I mean in the code itself, and not in comment lines and fieldnames. How about in assembler?
In answer to the question, my guess is that it does. Assuming that one’s mother tongue influences one’s thought patterns and one’s reasoning methods, I would venture the hypothesis that its characteristics will be reflected somehow in the way one uses an artificial language. One of the things I would investigate, purely out of curiosity, if I had a dozen more lifetimes and careers to play out, would be the question of whether, given the right programming and linguistic knowledge and the right analytical tools, a person could identify the native language of a programmer purely by examining his computer code.
|Proposed Research Topic #2: |
|Some combinations of sounds, and indeed some
combinations of letters, have the power to tickle the funnybone. Both actual
words and nonwords may seem inherently funny. Some may set one person laughing
and leave another flat, and some may seem undistinguished on first hearing but
on repetition devolve into something that sounds utterly ludicrous. |
Does any of these nonsense words strike you funny? They were generated automatically by a program that takes in a collection of words, analyzes it, and generates new strings based on the same patterns. The strings have characteristic patterns, letter frequencies, and combinations derived from the source words, and so their native language can be recognizable even though they are not what we would call “real” words. An infinite number can be created, but this is just a tiny sample for illustrative purposes:
(I wouldn't look for too much similarity to English
words here, though: the input was names of gods and names of car models.
When I did this, I was trying to generate a name for a new product.)
|OSV Order in English Sentences|
|Orthography Is the Word's Memory|
|All Words Are Nouns|
| || |