Prentiss Riddle: Language

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Language: a dialect with an army

Aestheticians and infrastructuralists

I'm enjoying the Kerr/Vielmetti cabal's Weird Professional Identity Descriptions.

I've added a couple from my own experience. Can you tell which ones?

And shouldn't "last mile mechanic" be one entry?

Also enjoying the infra-wiki where they've hosted it,

language 2007.05.24 / link / 2 comments

Grokking grok

Here's a shock: young people don't grok grok.

One young science fiction geek used it in a presentation in class last night and it turn out that the only other person in the room who had ever heard the word was yours truly. Yeah, I first heard it in my SF years, too, but I thought it had been sufficiently popularized by hippies and hackers to be in the general lexicon.

Stranger in a Strange Land cover art

Especially in Austin, where BookPeople began its life as the tiny Grok Books over on 17th Street. But now I'm really dating myself.

language 2007.03.30 / link / 8 comments

Austin shibboleths

My current obsession with all things Mueller raises the question of local pronunciations.

Mueller t-shirt

I was born and have spent most of my adult life in Austin but didn't grow up here, so the good-old-boy substrata of the local culture are not second nature to me. At some point I was taught the "authentic" pronunciation of several local geographic features. These are the ones I've confirmed by hearing them in use. A couple have some intriguing transpositions of consonants.

PedernalesPurd 'n Alice
New BraunfelsNew Brawnsfell
ManchacaMan chack

And my favorite:
BurnettIt's "burn it", durn it

Now the thing about pronouncing the name of Austin's old Mueller Airport and new Mueller neighborhood as "Miller" instead of "Myoo-ler". The politicos and developers religiously say "Miller" but I don't hear anybody else do that. Is it a born-before-1950 thing? An aviation thing? A neighborhood thing not shared with other parts of town? Dunno.

The other local sociolinguistic question somebody should study is the pronunciation of Guadalupe (AKA the Drag, or the street that fronts UT): some people pronounce the final E as in the Spanish Virgen de Guadalupe, while others say "Gwad-a-loop". Can that be correlated with politics? Will the Minutemen someday round up all of us commie pinko hispanophiles and deport us because of a stray syllable? I suppose there's a biblical precedent.

language 2007.03.09 / link / 12 comments

Seeking a good web glossary in Spanish

A school project of mine is coming along well enough to consider deploying it for actual users, part of which will involve localizing an English prototype in Spanish. (And partly in Kuna, but that's another story.)

As I try to hack my way through a translation on the cheap, I'm surprised that I haven't immediately found a comprehensive glossary of web terminology in English and Spanish. It's bound to exist somewhere. The closest I've come up with is the Proyecto NAVE glossary, based on the Mozilla i18n glossary (here's the whole set), which covers most but not all browser interactions. Surely there's something more comprehensive?

I'm looking for a glossary that covers browser features, web technologies and standards (HTML, HTTP, CSS, etc.), and web-based genres and activities (blog is bitácora, chat may or may not be chatear).

I suppose the ideal reference would strike a balance between descriptivism and prescriptivism: Mozilla says a plug-in is a conector, but do people mostly say plug-in anyway? And is chatear an unbearable barbarismo? At that point I guess I can't call what I want a glossary anymore and should call it a dictionary.

I'll even pay for a paper edition if it's any good. Suggestions?

P.S. Along the way I've run into some mind-bending examples of why it's a bad idea to design in English and then translate, as I am unfortunately doing. For instance, the shortest reliable way to say "right click" in Spanish is hacer clic con el botón derecho del ratón. Yes, you can say clic derecho but it makes some users' blood boil; one observer counted 694,000 instances of botón derecho del ratón to 212,000 instances of clic derecho. One suspects that the latter may get used mostly when the English-speaking designers assumed that any language could express the needed term in 12 characters or less. Spanish accomplishes this at the stylistic cost of using a noun phrase where the original English is usually interpreted as a verb phrase; or do users understand clic as a paradigm-busting imperative verb? Ew.

language 2006.11.22 / link / 8 comments

Putz vs. putz

I know roughly what a "putz" is in English but I had to look it up to find out that its origin is virtually identical to the better-known "schmuck", i.e., Yiddish for something pretty > the male anatomical ornament > an epithet. Here's the Online Etymology Dictionary:

Putz: "obnoxious man, fool," 1964, from Yiddish, from Ger. putz, lit. "finery, adornment," obviously used here in an ironic sense. Earlier in slang sense of "penis" (1934, in "Tropic of Cancer"); a non-ironic sense is in putz "Nativity display around a Christmas tree" (1902), from Pennsylvania Dutch.

Or rather it's close to what I thought was the origin of "schmuck". The same source says that the family-jewels connection is a folk etymology!

Schmuck: "contemptible person," 1892, from E.Yiddish shmok, lit. "penis," from Old Pol. smok "grass snake, dragon." Not the same word as Ger. schmuck "jewelry, adornments," which is related to Low Ger. smuck "supple, tidy, trim, elegant," and related to O.N. smjuga "slip, step through" (see smock). In Jewish homes, the word was "regarded as so vulgar as to be taboo" [Leo Rosten, "The Joys of Yiddish," 1968] and Lenny Bruce wrote that saying it on stage got him arrested on the West Coast "by a Yiddish undercover agent who had been placed in the club several nights running to determine if my use of Yiddish terms was a cover for profanity." Euphemized as schmoe, which was the source of Al Capp's cartoon strip creature the schmoo.

putz graffiti

The real mystery, however, is why putz and a variant putz grila are ubiquitous slang in Brazilian Portuguese. They're not in my Larousse but here's one definition:

Putz grila: gíria. Interjeição que exprime espanto, surpresa, impaciéncia, desapontamento, zanga, etc.; puxa vida; poxa(�).

(Putz grila: slang. Interjection which expresses fright, surprise, impatience, dissapointment, anger, etc.; gosh, jeez.)

Is there any connection between the North and South American uses of putz? Could its use in Brazil be of Yiddish origin? I know there's a significant Jewish population in Brazil; did they influence Brazilian (or perhaps Carioca) Portuguese much? Or is putz grila a common term in Portugal as well?

(I suspect there are just two readers of this blog who could hazard a guess; Neuza and Colin, are you there?)

language 2006.07.14 / link / 14 comments

Cuantos anos indeed

I don't know about the floating baby geek, but this cartoon at Bonfire Web Marketing certainly makes its point about the subtleties of localization.

años vs. anos

Reminds me of the time I dropped a diphthong from my peine.

language 2006.02.23 / link / 1 comment

Carnival of Blog Translation, Tuesday, Feb. 28

Liz Henry has a great proposal for all linguabloggers on February 28th: the first annual Carnival of Blog Translation.

On the day of the Carnival, a participant translates one post by another blogger, and posts it on her own blog with a link to the original. She would need to email me, or post in the comments right here, and I'll compile one big post on the day of the Carnival with links to all the participants.

Fun! It's on my calendar.

(This "blog carnival" idea sounds like a more festive name for what the political bloggers call a "blogburst", itself now an overloaded term.)

language 2006.02.15 / link / comment?

Borgesian pronouns in Malay

The other day at the library I browsed a couple of books on the Malay language. Although it's not inflected and doesn't at first glance have any major phonological barriers to entry, it has its own confusing subtleties. Consider, for instance, this table of personal pronouns (from Sir Richard Winstedt's Colloquial Malay, Singapore, 1957):

Malay pronoun table

In case you didn't notice, there are not only separate sets of pronouns for different combinations of social ranks, but a distinct set reserved just for addressing ethnic Chinese. Shades of John Wilkins! No wonder Winstedt goes on to say that "Malays shun the use of personal pronouns" -- although the practice he describes of substituting nouns representing rank, title or metaphorical family relationship seems just as complex.

I'd write this off as a quaint and obsolete colonialism but linguablogger Jordan Macvay reports that the situation today isn't much simpler. In fact he notes with surprise that many Malays have started borrowing the English I and you so as not to have to commit to one of the social relationships encoded in their own pronouns.

language 2005.06.12 / link / 9 comments

My 25-cent Spanish lesson

Now that I'm working downtown for the summer, I often buy a copy of Rumbo for a little news and vocabulary exercise over lunch.


Back when I was researching Mexican bus service I noticed the proliferation of Spanish-language newspapers in Austin, including well-funded ones like the daily Rumbo and the Austin American-Statesman's weekly ¡ahora sí!. I meant to blog about it but the Chronicle scooped me with a well-done article on the Spanish-language newspaper wars. It's interesting that this sector would be booming while so many people predict the imminent death of newspapers in general. Spanish speakers are a growing market sector, of course, but it's not yet clear whether there's going to be sustained growth in the number of people who are literate enough to be interested in reading their news but not so acculturated that they prefer to do so in English.

Rumbo offers serious, professionally written journalism about local, state, and international news, particularly from Mexico and Latin America, of course. Even if it does sometimes sport J Lo on the cover the paper opens with local news and emphasizes city council and legislative activities, not just crime and car wrecks. With the general trend in popular journalism being a race to the bottom, I'm impressed.

And my new vocabulary words this week were consejal (city councilmember) and aburguesamiento (gentrification).

language 2005.05.24 / link / 10 comments

Translation by Flickr

Next best thing to Star Trek-style universal translator: Steeev's Flickr-powered Visual Dictionary.

When you're walking down a street in Outer Foobaristan and you get a sudden urge for some chicken soup but don't speak Foobar, whip out your net-capable phone or wireless PDA and let Flickr do the talking: chicken soup.

Flickr Visual Dictionary: Chicken Soup

It has an option to use Google Images, too, but some of the results might taste funny.

language 2005.05.01 / link / 5 comments

So that's what that means

Jason Archer and Paul Beck's great video for the Molotov song Frijolero prompted me to revisit some of the lyrics in the song I hadn't quite gotten.

For those of you who didn't catch it when the song came out, Molotov is a leading group in Mexican rock and rap. Their drummer is a norteamericano who grew up in Mexico, permitting them to turn Frijolero into a gem of bilingual maledicta. The premise is that a racist American and an equally blunt Mexican exchange views (ahem) on border policy in various flavors of English and Spanish, with no holds barred in the choice terminology. That's led to lots of amusing instances of different parts of the song being censored on different sides of the border.

Thanks to the detailed explanation and translation of the song by Alan Wall -- whose politics I disagree with but I have to say he's very fair in presenting Molotov's -- I now know what all those words mean! Well, almost. (Does pinche have the literal translation he gives it?)

Molotov: Frijolero video

Even if the song never caught your ear, the video is a must. The appearance of Mexican general Santa Anna in the back of an INS van is particularly inspired. Archer and Beck's other videos are also worth exploring.

P.S. This mysterious mouse appears in the video, too. At least I don't think they have koalas in Mexico.

language 2005.04.27 / link / 8 comments

What type of American English do you speak?

At last one of those blog quizzes which actually seems to mean something (maybe): What Kind of American English Do You Speak?

Some of the questions reflect regional differences that I've read about elsewhere, so it looks legit to me. I scored 65% General American English, 30% Dixie and 5% Yankee, which sounds about right.

(Via Elenamary.)

language 2005.04.24 / link / 11 comments

Omniphagous English and language blowout

Badger reports on an interaction she had with some classmates on the relative vocabularies of various languages. My reply, not necessarily reality-based:

(1) I've heard the same thing you have, that English is a happy borrower, nay ransacker, of vocabulary and by being a language of world conquest for a few hundred years has sucked up a lot of words.

(2) One should nevertheless not assume that just because the Academie de la Snootologie for a particular language hasn't sanctioned words, they aren't part of the real language anyway. Spanish in particular, between the Moors on the one hand and even more contact than English with indigenous American languages on the other, could possibly give English a run for its money whatever the Academía Española says.

(3) This all depends on how you define the boundaries of a "language". Do local dialects count? Even geographically dispersed or mutually incomprehensible ones?

(4) Finally, any competent debunker of the "Eskimo Words for Snow" myth would point out that lots of languages don't even have distinct "words" as we use the term, so counting the words in those languages is like counting the toes on a fish.

Clearing out a few other language links I've been hoarding:

(Patrick Hall's Linguablogs list is down this morning. Anybody else had problems with it? Has he been updating it? I haven't checked lately.)

language 2005.04.14 / link / 6 comments

Blogging while bilingual

This year's Blogging While Black session at SxSW got me thinking: how about a panel next year on the subject of blogging while bilingual?

I'd like to hear from people who blog in more than one language, whether as an expression of their own cultural identity, in order to reach a polyglot audience or out of the pleasure of exploring a language and culture.

A balanced panel would include at least one Spanish-language Texas blogger and at least one international blogger using English part of the time to reach a global audience. I'd hope that the panel would include someone blogging in a threatened language or one that is rare online due to digital divide issues.

If I understand the South by Southwest programming process it's open to outside panel proposals. Anybody think this would be worth working on? Do you know of specific people you'd like to hear?

language 2005.03.14 / link / 13 comments

Taxonomic imperialism

I'm in the last evening of my quick conference trip to Montreal, and have been enjoying this gentlest possible exposure to French. I had intended to use this trip as an opportunity for linguistic tourism, with no illusions that I'd be speaking any French but that perhaps an afternoon's study beforehand would help me make sense of a bit of it. Alas, I never got around to preparing; I even left my Essential French Grammar at home and so couldn't cram on the plane. I do have the feeling that at this point I could start to triangulate on French from the languages I already know; Portuguese in an odd way seems to have helped a lot with making things like verbs start to seem familiar in a way that Spanish alone did not. The crucial element that I don't have a foothold on, though, is a mapping between spelling and phonology. Without it I can't connect what I see (in signage, etc.) with what I hear. Maybe on another trip.

But even the limited experience of French I've been getting has some sociolinguistic surprises. Something led me to believe that most service jobs would be occupied by francophones, but the staff at the coffee shops all seem to speak English among themselves even though they say "bon jour" to me. (Maybe that's just because I'm staying so close to McGill.) And the bus driver on the way in from the airport made a point of correcting his American passengers' pronunciation of the hotel to "Queen ElizaBET". Funny that he didn't mind leaving the word "queen" untranslated but insisted that the proper name of the English queen conform to the French pronunciation.

I received conflicting advice on the proper etiquette for non-French-speaking visitors to Montreal. One source suggested learning to say bon jour, merci and a couple of other minimal phrases and using them with French speakers as a friendly gesture. The other source said no, don't even try or they'll hate you for botching the language. The first seems like common courtesy, but the jury is still out on which one is right.

Watch my other blog for info on the confereence, the Information Architecture Summit. The pertinent bit for this blog is that there were a number of sessions on internationalization and localization, but (damn it!) I didn't get to go to any of them. Instead I'll pass on this quote blogged by another attendee:

If you realize that categorization is essentially a framing activity, a la lakoff, then taxonomy translation (as opposed to localization) is an imperialist activity.

-- Christina Wodtke

language 2005.03.07 / link / 1 comment
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