It’s infected our language too

What to ask instead of ‘How are you ?’ during a pandemic – The Atlantic
How are we? People are sick and dying in alarming numbers all around us. Maybe we’re lucky enough not to be sick or dying, but any of us could be soon. Everyone we know is in danger. Our jobs, and really our entire financial futures, are in jeopardy. Are we really going to paper over these grim truths with the usual, compulsorily breezy “I’m good! You?”

(It feels a little stupid and pointless to be carrying on with this blog, with all this anxiety and stress swirling around us. The future is so uncertain—jobs, schools, buses even—and yet the view out of my window, as I type this, looks perfectly normal (the lack of traffic notwithstanding). Nothing has changed, everything has changed. But I’ve started now, so I may as well continue. I guess it’s just the Monday Blursday blues.)

Other questions might work better as a conversational warm-up or quick check-in. Tannen is partial to “What am I interrupting?” as a conversation starter for phone calls. Meanwhile, Butler recommends “Are you still holding up okay?,” which can work as a succinct check-in before moving the discussion to other matters: It tacitly acknowledges the circumstances but nudges the respondent toward a succinct yes-or-no (or “More or less!”) answer.

It’s not just how we speak to each other that’s changing, but the words themselves.

Coronavirus has led to an explosion of new words and phrases – and that helps us copeThe Conversation
Established terms such as “self-isolating”, “pandemic”, “quarantine”, “lockdown” and “key workers” have increased in use, while coronavirus/COVID-19 neologisms are being coined quicker than ever. These include “covidiot” (someone ignoring public health advice), “covideo party”(online parties via Zoom or Skype), and “covexit” (the strategy for exiting lockdown), while coronavirus has acquired new descriptors – including “the ‘rona” and “Miley Cyrus” (Cockney rhyming slang).

‘Iso’, ‘boomer remover’ and ‘quarantini’: how coronavirus is changing our languageThe Conversation
What is interesting about COVID-lingo is the large number of creations that are blended expressions formed by combining two existing words. The new portmanteau then incorporates meaningful characteristics from both. Newly spawned “coronials” (corona + millennials) has the predicted baby boom in late 2020 already covered.

Perhaps language is a virus after all?

Keeping yourself occupied?

What to do when you’ve got too much time on your hands? Play a video game? This one looks a little laggy.

Super Mario Rubik’s Cube stop motionBigWendy

Some people are just eating their way through this time of uncertainty.

Pass the pepper: Social distancing is nothing to sneeze AtJoseph’s Machines

Don’t overdo it, though, or you’ll be expanding your vocabulary as well as your waistline.

keeping-yourself-occupied

Do you speak corona? A guide to covid-19 slang1843

Coronaspeck

1. Coronavirus fat (noun)

German workers ordered to stay at home to help the government flatten one sort of curve have found themselves battling the emergence of another, just above the belt. Home workouts sound great, but the days are long and dull and your latest bout of Hamsterkäufe (panic-buying; lit. “hamster-purchase”) has left the fridge gloriously well-stocked. There’s always another variety of Ritter Sport to try, oder? Anyway, what’s a few kilos between socially distanced friends?

Coronaspeck is the helpful German word for the fat deposited by weeks of stay-at-home grazing. Shoppers in Germany may know Speck as a bacon-like foodstuff, perhaps found on a crisp Flammkuchen or inside hearty Swabian Maultaschen. But its broader meaning corresponds to something like the English “flab”.

Perhaps you need some exercise, but what if you can’t think of a routine or a soundtrack? No problem. This website will pair up a random move with a random piece of music.

Random workout generator

keeping-yourself-occupied-1

I’ll pass on that, thanks. But speaking of music…

Plink, Plank, Plunk! virtual performanceChicago Sinfonietta

RPO trombones play Elgar’s ‘Nimrod’ over ZoomRoyal Philharmonic Orchestra

Le Boléro de Ravel par l’Orchestre national de France en #confinement #ensembleàlamaisonFrance Musique

That sounds more like it.

The language of Utopia can be yours for just $81,000

I’m not sure if Duolingo will be turning this into a new language course any time soon.

For Sale: Sir Thomas More’s Utopian alphabetAtlas Obscura
The characters in the Utopian language walk the line between Greek and geometric runes. There is no casing, just large circles, squares, triangles and lines, with various accents attached. It would be gobbledygook if not for its accompanying Latin translation, which speaks to the creation of Utopia and its singularity as a philosophical—and aspirational—place.

As I was reading that, I was getting Thomas More mixed up with Thomas Cromwell, something that has happened to the Wolf Hall actors playing those roles, too. But anyway.

Thomas More is the villain of Wolf Hall. But is he getting a raw deal?The Guardian
The other piece of influential writing that has helped emphasise More’s superior character is his own book, Utopia. A philosophical argument couched in the tale of a traveller who returns from an unknown land, it has furnished English literature with many enduring ideas – not least that of a Utopia itself; a perfect, unattainable society. Published in Latin in 1516, Utopia still intrigues and amuses readers despite having been around for half a millennium. In More’s imagined Utopia, property, goods and food are all shared among the households in each city and there is a heavy emphasis on agriculture, although some weight is given to academic learning as well. When it comes to government: “Anyone who campaigns for public office becomes disqualified for holding any office at all,” he suggests.

That last line reminds me of that Groucho quote about not wanting to belong to a club that would have him as a member.

But perhaps $81,000 is a little steep for just one book. Maybe you’re just after something to fill your shelves.

Books sold by the linear footBoing Boing
So it turns out there’s an entire industry of books hand-picked and organized to look good, sold in bulk according to a variety of visual or conceptual themes. Color gradients is a hot trend in the world of books sold by the linear foot.

Just a few stores I found: Books by the FootZubal BooksThe Book BundlerDecades of Vintage and Booth & Williams all specialize in books sold for their aesthetic appeal rather than their contents.

language-utopia-1

Never mind the quality, feel the width.

The beginnings of linguistic inclusion?

Bong Joon Ho’s latest film Parasite has been doing quite well recently, subtitles notwithstanding.

Trump inexplicably complains about ‘Parasite’ Oscar winsThe Wrap
“By the way, how bad were the Academy Awards? And the winner is a movie from South Korea,” said Trump. “What the hell was that all about? We got enough problems with South Korea with trade. On top of it, they give him the best movie of the year? Was it good? I don’t know. Can we get ‘Gone With the Wind’ back please? ‘Sunset Boulevard.’ So many great movies, the winner is from South Korea. I thought it was best foreign film, right? Best foreign movie. No! Did this ever happen before?”

I loved this take on it from Language Log, a wonderfully anachronistic-looking blog from the University of Pennsylvania.

“Overcoming the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles”: The Oscars and multilingualismLanguage Log
It is well known that multilingualism is the norm rather than the exception around the world … so monolingualism in countries like the USA is at least as unnatural as subtitles on a movie, if not more so.

In his speeches and interviews, director Bong Joon Ho consistently code-switches between English and Korean (e.g. here). This is another novelty. Code-switching is not commonly seen on American TV. I loved his half-apologetic, half-cheeky laugh when he said in perfect English: “I am a foreign language filmmaker so I need a translator here. Please understand.” The interpreter herself has been in the spotlight as well.

Talking rubbish

Whilst I could be described as being a ‘knowledge worker’, I work in a place as far from Silicon Valley as it’s possible to be. There is no table-football or Lego in my office. We don’t have hot desks or use Slack. And there’s no expectation that we swap the 9-to-5 with 996, that is 9am to 9pm, six days a week. Less 24/7, more 7-and-a-half/5. Others aren’t so lucky, however.

Silicon Valley ruined work cultureWired
Lyons believes these new-agey corporate practices, along with perks like free snacks or beer on tap, are simply a misdirection from something rotten at the core. He blames worker unhappiness not just on Silicon Valley’s work culture but also on its business model—one he calls “shareholder capitalism.” The modern tech company is obsessed with growth and profit, at the expense of its employees and to the benefit of its investors. Some lucky employees might have stock options, but most don’t, and even then it’s a small percentage of the money flowing back to investors. The perks, then, function like trick mirrors, “a way to distract employees and keep them from noticing that their pockets are being picked.”

I’m imagining Uncanny Valley, Anna Wiener’s new book on Silicon Valley and start-up culture, to be a Microserfs for millennials. It probably isn’t.

Seduced by Start-up Land: A new memoir about millennial ambition in Silicon Valley – The Cut
Uncanny Valley is a memoir about Wiener’s journey through start-up culture during its most bullish and self-aggrandizing era, and how her idealism gives way to disappointment and horror as society starts to suffer the consequences of tech’s unchecked fetish for growth.

Examining endemic ills of tech bros in ‘Uncanny Valley’The Boston Globe
The most valuable question Wiener asks is why we are allowing that to happen — why we have such blind faith in these “ambitious, aggressive, arrogant young men from America’s soft suburbs,” why we’re so seduced by their confidence that we assume their priorities should be our own, why we defer to them when we ought to be saying no.

As well as via some very suspect management practices, that culture is expressed by the choice of language being used.

Garbage language: Why do corporations speak the way they do?Vulture
Wiener writes especially well — with both fluency and astonishment — about the verbal habits of her peers: “People used a sort of nonlanguage, which was neither beautiful nor especially efficient: a mash-up of business-speak with athletic and wartime metaphors, inflated with self-importance. Calls to action; front lines and trenches; blitzscaling. Companies didn’t fail, they died.” She describes a man who wheels around her office on a scooter barking into a wireless headset about growth hacking, proactive technology, parallelization, and the first-mover advantage. “It was garbage language,” Wiener writes, “but customers loved him.” […]

I like Anna Wiener’s term for this kind of talk: garbage language. It’s more descriptive than corporatespeak or buzzwords or jargon. Corporatespeak is dated; buzzword is autological, since it is arguably an example of what it describes; and jargon conflates stupid usages with specialist languages that are actually purposeful, like those of law or science or medicine. Wiener’s garbage language works because garbage is what we produce mindlessly in the course of our days and because it smells horrible and looks ugly and we don’t think about it except when we’re saying that it’s bad, as I am right now.

She’s not the only one to spot this, of course.

Corporate buzzwords are how workers pretend to be adultsThe Atlantic
From a more cynical perspective, buzzwords are useful when office workers need to dress up their otherwise pointless tasks with fancier phrases—you know, for the optics. Coal miners and doctors and tennis instructors have specific jargon they use to get their points across, but “all-purpose business language is the language you use when you aren’t really doing anything.”

Perhaps, instead of using garbage language, we could flick through the pages of Eunoia, a diction of words that don’t translate.

Eunoia: The internet’s dictionary of untranslatable wordsBlog of the Long Now
Eunoia is itself an untranslatable word meaning a “well-mind” or “beautiful thinking.” The user can search Eunoia’s database by “language, tag, or the word itself. There are over 500 words in the database, across 50+ languages and 50+ tags.”

The language with the highest untranslatable words was German; from the well-known Schadenfreude, which means to be happy at someone else’s misfortune, to the complicated Jein, meaning both yes and no.

That last one, jein, reminded me of this new construction that I’m still looking for an excuse to use.

But/andRobin Sloan
I find that in my own writing, my own sequencing of ideas, what I most often want is “and,” except that “and” is so linear: it can’t capture a turn or a twist. The layers of “but/and” do it almost perfectly, and, as a bonus, its clumsiness basically admits, “I am no great rhetorician; this is not a mathematical proof; I’m just trying my best,” which, to me, is a great benefit. […]

“And” is the continuation, fine as far as is goes; “but” is the negation, even if you pretend it’s not; “but/and” is the turn, the twist, the resonance, the perfect fifth.

Happy Robot Day!

They come in all shapes and sizes, but they’re all 99 years old today, kind of.

Today in History 1921: The word ‘Robot’ enters the English languageBoing Boing
On January 25, 1921 the Czech play Rossum’s Universal Robots premiered, entering the word into the Science Fiction vocabulary.

happy-robot-day

The Czech play that gave us the word ‘Robot’The MIT Press Reader
Thus, “R.U.R.,” which gave birth to the robot, was a critique of mechanization and the ways it can dehumanize people. The word itself derives from the Czech word “robota,” or forced labor, as done by serfs. Its Slavic linguistic root, “rab,” means “slave.” The original word for robots more accurately defines androids, then, in that they were neither metallic nor mechanical.

The contrast between robots as mechanical slaves and potentially rebellious destroyers of their human makers echoes Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” and helps set the tone for later Western characterizations of robots as slaves straining against their lot, ready to burst out of control. The duality echoes throughout the twentieth century: Terminator, HAL 9000, Blade Runner’s replicants.

happy-robot-day-2

Machine Morality and Human ResponsibilityThe New Atlantis
This year [2011] marks the ninetieth anniversary of the first performance of the play from which we get the term “robot.” The Czech playwright Karel Čapek’s R.U.R. premiered in Prague on January 25, 1921. Physically, Čapek’s robots were not the kind of things to which we now apply the term: they were biological rather than mechanical, and humanlike in appearance. But their behavior should be familiar from its echoes in later science fiction — for Čapek’s robots ultimately bring about the destruction of the human race.

Before R.U.R., artificially created anthropoids, like Frankenstein’s monster or modern versions of the Jewish legend of the golem, might have acted destructively on a small scale; but Čapek seems to have been the first to see robots as an extension of the Industrial Revolution, and hence to grant them a reach capable of global transformation. Though his robots are closer to what we now might call androids, only a pedant would refuse Čapek honors as the father of the robot apocalypse.

I hope someone’s planning a big celebration next year.

Claiming colour

Whilst colours can be strange sometimes, they all have names, right?  From red, green and blue to maroon, mint and midnight. The designers at the paint shop Farrow & Ball come up with some great names: mouse’s back, skimming stone, elephant’s breath. Now you can get in on the act and name your very own colour.

Kolormark – The world’s leading color naming platform
The Kolormark project aims to name all the colors in the world. There are 16,777,216 colors, but only a handful have a name. We believe that every color has its own unique personality and deserves an original name.

This platform is designed for people and colors. We want to allow people to leave a colorful legacy by taking part in the Kolormark project. Participating in the project means more than naming a color. It’s giving a color a loving home.

Sounds a little scammy, though I’m sure it’s legit. It reminds me a little of that million dollar homepage selling off its pixels. Or naming and claiming your very own star. There isn’t a real, physical product for sale, and you don’t really get anything concrete or tangible for your money.

So of course I had to buy one.

claiming-colour

If you’re struggling for inspiration, they have an AI colour matchmaker (because of course they do), “powered by a proprietary set of algorithms fine-tuned to match you with that perfect hue.”

Red and black have already been taken, unfortunately.

Why red means red in almost every languageNautilus
The results revealed two remarkable patterns, which Kay and Berlin laid out in their 1969 monograph, Basic Color Terms. First, almost all of the languages they examined appeared to have color words that drew from the same 11 basic categories: white, black, red, green, yellow, blue, brown, purple, pink, orange, and gray. Second, cultures seemed to build up their color vocabularies in a predictable way. Languages with only two color categories chunked the spectrum into blacks and whites. Languages with three categories also had a word for red. Green or yellow came next. Then blue. Then brown. And so on.

BMW unveils “blackest black” car sprayed with VantablackDezeen
“Internally, we often refer to the BMW X6 as ‘The Beast’,” said Hussein Al Attar, designer of the BMW X6. “The Vantablack VBx2 finish emphasises this aspect and makes it look particularly menacing. We often prefer to talk about silhouettes and proportions rather than surfaces and lines,” he added. “The Vantablack VBx2 coating foregrounds these fundamental aspects of automotive design, without any distraction from light and reflections.”

Here we are, then

General Election 2019: Longest voting queues ever at polling stationsMetro News
It’s been dubbed the most important election in a generation, and if the queues at polling stations this morning are anything to go by, that message has sunk in.

Let’s see what the night has in store, when the polls stop and the counting starts. But whilst we wait, here are a few reminders of this crazy campaign.

Thursday briefing: Now for the only poll that countsThe Guardian
Well, the campaign is finally over. It’s been a whirlwind six weeks in which the leaders have travelled across the country, stolen phones, hidden in fridges, refused to apologise for their party’s handling of antisemitism when repeatedly asked by Andrew Neil, refused to be interviewed by Andrew Neil at all, posed in boxing rings, posed bulldozing a menacing tower of styrofoam blocks, watched as their confident promise of becoming prime minister quickly became a vanishingly small prospect, or as their pledge to help the Tories by pulling out of seats backfired.

Campaigns are always a little scrappy and gaffe-prone. Here’s a quick look at how the parties are trying to spin the issues behind the photo ops.

The British election explained in five key phrasesThe Conversation
Tensions have been high as the country attempts to resolve the identity crisis first sparked by the Brexit vote in 2016. It’s a complicated moment for the nation and, at times like these, it can help to observe the big issues through the lens of language. The slogans and terms that get thrown around again and again during a campaign can often tell us a lot about the bigger picture.

That ‘get Brexit done’ line is so insincere. If anything, it should be ‘get Brexit started’.

Boris Johnson’s Brexit policy explainedThe Conversation
The UK and the EU have between the withdrawal date and December 31 2020 (the end of the transition period) to negotiate and ratify the full agreement on their future relationship, which should govern relations in a vast range of areas such as trade, migration, security foreign policy and data.

It has taken three and a half years to negotiate the withdrawal agreement, which covers a much smaller set of issues and has not yet been ratified. It will be highly challenging to resolve the future relationship in such a short timeframe, not least because the future relationship agreement may need to be ratified by each EU member state’s parliament, as well as several regional parliaments, which is not the case for the withdrawal agreement.

I loved the caption they used to go with this photo of Johnson and other EU leaders.

here-we-are-then

Getting the deal through the UK parliament is only the first stage. Then comes the boss level.

What I have found worrying though (apart from the prospect of this deluded act of national self-harm actually taking place), was the level of vitriol the BBC has had to sustain, from both sides of the divide.

BBC caught in the crossfire: why the UK’s public broadcaster is becoming a big election storyThe Conversation
Traditionally, the BBC is regarded as left wing by the right and right wing by the left and has perhaps taken comfort that this indicates balanced news coverage. But the Conservative Party has a traditionally feisty relationship with the BBC dating back, famously, to Margaret Thatcher’s fury over its coverage of the Falklands conflict. More recently, David Cameron threatened to “close down” the corporation during the 2015 election campaign.

But – more recently and less obviously outside the mainstream – relentless social media activity from a range of increasingly popular alt-left media websites has kept the BBC in the crosshairs throughout the campaign and might have provided the Conservatives with some cover. Given that the most recent Ofcom report notes that ITV and SKY News are perceived as marginally more trustworthy than BBC, then alt-left criticism might simply be fanning the flames of anti-BBC sentiment already emanating from the opposite side of the political divide.

Indeed our Cardiff/Swansea research examining the Facebook activity of alt-left media sites supports the notion that their critiques might be strengthening the prime minister’s resolve. Their collective seething at what they see as right-wing bias might be reinterpreted by the BBC’s critics as the public broadcaster being no longer fit for purpose.

In effect, left-wing media may have legitimised right-wing plans to abolish the licence fee.

I think they do a fine job and will be watching them this evening, as soon as the polls close.

Grammar society admit’s defeat

The Apostrophe Protection Society was started by journalist and sub editor John Richards, in 2001. 18 year’s later, hes calling it a day.

‘Laziness has won’: apostrophe society admits its defeatThe Guardian
Now 96, Richards is calling time on the society, which lists the three simple rules for correct use of the punctuation mark.

Writing on the society’s website, he said: “Fewer organisations and individuals are now caring about the correct use of the apostrophe in the English language.

“We, and our many supporters worldwide, have done our best but the ignorance and laziness present in modern times have won!”

The societys website, however, is keen to point out that its still up and running, with many fine photo’s of apostrophe misuse on it’s ‘Example page’s.

Update – 06/12/2019

Heres an interesting follow-up.

Apostrophes: linguistics expert imagines a happier world without themThe Conversation
Hardcore apostrophites would no longer be able to roll their eyes at people’s inability to work out where the apostrophe goes in examples such as “The Joneses front door”, “Holding each others hand” or “Others opinions”. Neither would they be able to indulge in their habitual mocking of someone who has used the wrong form of “its”.

In fact, by removing apostrophes altogether, the pedantry arsenal is vastly reduced. Without their favourite punctuation mark of judgement, your average pedant will be forced to make do with old favourites such as split infinitives and insisting on the “correct” meaning of “decimate”. …

In reality, the Apostrophe Protection Society did not, of course, hold dominion over apostrophes or any other aspect of English. Nobody does. Linguistic conventions (for this is all they are) come and go, and are often based on idiosyncratic preferences from another era. A good grasp of apostrophe use says more about your ability to remember inconsistent patterns than it does about your intelligence.

It seems to me that apostrophes are used to judge others as much as they are used to clarify writing. Maybe the APS finally saw the light and realised this, and decided it wanted no further part in the snobbish pedantry that surrounds this fetishised punctuation mark.

See also this earlier post about apostrophe use.

Word up, guys

Following on from yesterday’s reconsideration of the treatment of Guy Fawkes, here’s a quirky little piece from The New Yorker.

Guy Fawkes and the new pronoun in town
The new pronoun is “guys” itself, which, according to Allan Metcalf in “The Life of Guy: Guy Fawkes, the Gunpowder Plot, and the Unlikely History of an Indispensable Word,” belongs on a paradigm of English personal pronouns in the twenty-first century: “I, you, he/she/it, we, guys, they.”

It’s used as a non-gender-specific pronoun, and I’ve certainly heard it being used that way at work for a while now. But for some, that’s still a problem.

But, for many, Guy’s etymological offspring, “guys,” when used as a pronoun, remains masculine, and its use is frowned upon as demeaning to women and L.G.B.T.Q. people. What to do about this upstart pronoun that has sneaked in through the back door? “Folks” is a little too folksy, but those same L.G.B.T.Q. people who gave us the singular nonbinary “they,” as well as “Mx.” and “Latinx,” have a solution: “folx.” Which sounds a bit like Fawkes. We can’t get away from this Guy, guys.

A quick word about data compression

Yes, data compression is a very technical subject but, as this Quartz Obsession summary shows, its roots are quite analogue.

Data compression
1867: Chicago Tribune publisher Joseph Medill argues for eliminating excess letters from the English language, like dropping the “e” in “favorite.” […]

1934: Tribune publisher Robert R. McCormick, Medill’s grandson, institutes compressed spelling rules; some stick (“analog,” “canceled”), some don’t (“hocky,” “doctrin”).

The hole truth

I’m sure we all occasionally find ourselves thinking about nothing in particular. But here’s an invitation from Aeon to think specifically about nothing.

Is a hole a real thing, or just a place where something isn’t?
It seems indisputable that there are holes. For example, there are keyholes, black holes and sinkholes; and there are holes in things such as sieves, golf courses and doughnuts. We come into the world through holes, and when we die many of us will be put into specially dug holes. But what are these holes and what are they made of? One of the big philosophical questions about holes is whether they are actually things themselves or, as the German-Jewish writer Kurt Tucholsky suggested in ‘The Social Psychology of Holes’ (1931), whether they are just ‘where something isn’t’.

Any conclusions? I know about the holes in space, and the ones in speakers and even in photographs, but after reading this, there remains a hole in my understanding.

“What happens to the hole when the cheese is gone?”
Bertolt Brecht

Enigmatic Estonia

It might have a picturesque mix of medieval architecture and stomach-churning TV towers, but Estonia isn’t your average ex-Soviet country.

Concerned about Brexit? Why not become an e-resident of Estonia
And that’s the opportunity, because Estonia is working on linking its tax office with its counterparts in other regions of the world. The Estonians want to offer the option for, say, UK citizens to run their UK companies through the Estonian system, which would in turn, in the background, with no extra work for the user, make sure that the UK tax office receives all the money it is legally due. A UK-based entrepreneur, they hope, will decide to open her business in Estonia, use an Estonian bank and pay for some Estonian services, even if the company was only going to be trading in the UK, because she would find Estonia’s national infrastructure far easier to deal with than the UK’s. In other words, a nation is now competing with its neighbours on the basis of the quality of its user interface. Just as you might switch your bank to one with a better mobile app, the Estonians hope you’ll switch your business to a country with an infrastructure that is easier to use.

enigmatic-estonia-1

Innovative in other areas, too.

Estonia to become the world’s first free public transport nation
Who is profiting the most from free buses, trams and trains in Tallinn?
“A good thing is, of course, that it mostly appeals to people with lower to medium incomes. But free public transport also stimulates the mobility of higher-income groups. They are simply going out more often for entertainment, to restaurants, bars and cinemas. Therefore they consume local goods and services and are likely to spend more money, more often. In the end this makes local businesses thrive. It breathes new life into the city.”

enigmatic-estonia

It had its own tiny, imaginary kingdom for a while, due to an unseen clerical error.

Kingdom of Torgu, Laadla, Estonia
500-odd people who lived in the area were surprised by this negligence, but soon decided to take advantage of the mistake. They came up with the idea of starting their own country, and calling it a kingdom. The throne was offered to a journalist and political activist named Kirill Teiter, who accepted it and became the first (and only) monarch to reign over the newly formed Kingdom of Torgu. The kingdom has its own flag, a coat of arms with a “snail-dragon” as the emblematic animal, and its own currency in coins, the “kirill,” with the worth of 1 kirill fixed to the price of a half-liter of local vodka.

enigmatic-estonia-2

But what really caught my eye was this article on its language (the summary is from The Browser).

“Did you eat the whole cake?” On learning Estonian
Estonian is popularly known as a difficult language to learn. Much of its vocabulary is unfamiliar, as the only other national languages it’s related to are Finnish and, more distantly, Hungarian. It’s even been described as the most difficult Latin-alphabet language for a native English speaker, and some of its features have assumed an almost mythical status.

enigmatic-estonia-3

I loved the exasperation in The Browser‘s summary of that last article.

How to learn Estonian. You have to grow up in Estonia, pretty much. The complexities of the language have an “almost mythical status” among scholars. Estonian nouns decline through fourteen or more cases, each with a singular and a plural. The essential cases — nominative, genitive, partitive — are also the most irregular, often involving changes in the stem of the noun. Verbs come in 149 varieties, each with five moods. But there are only two basic tenses, past and present. The future has rules of its own.

Goodness me. And I thought learning French at school was hard.

Do you speak EUnglish?

Learning another language is not easy, but is it harder if you already speak English? It might not just be down to a lack of motivation, knowing that seemingly everyone else in the world speaks English.

Five reasons English speakers struggle to learn foreign languages
4. Keeping track of case
Where German has der/die/des/dem/den/das, English has only the – and this poses considerable challenges for English speakers learning German. So why does German have all these different ways of saying the? This is the German case system which spells out the article the differently depending not only on whether it is singular or plural (see above), but on its function in a sentence (subject, direct object, indirect object, possessor).

But perhaps it’s more important than ever to try, in these uncertain times.

The English language is evolving – here’s how it will change after Brexit
As part of my ongoing PhD research on the translation profession, I interviewed some British translators working at the European Commission. From their perspective, English will remain the principal working language following Brexit, as switching to only French and German, or adding another language would be unrealistic and require a huge investment in training by the EU. Instead, they report that English will continue to be used, and will simply evolve and change in these settings.

So-called “EU speak” is an example of this.

Linguistic diversity driven, not by invaders this time, but bureaucrats?

11 examples of the odd dialect called ‘EU English’
10. COMITOLOGY

The Commission must draft new rules setting out the powers and workings of the bodies replacing the Committees in the framework of the now-abolished comitology procedure, to ensure that the new system operates properly.

The report states that there are 1253 instances of this word in an EU document database but “not only does the word not exist outside the EU institutions … it is formed from a misspelt stem (committee has two m’s and two t’s) and a suffix that means something quite different (-ology/-logy means ‘the science of’ or ‘the study of’). It is therefore highly unlikely that an outsider would be able to deduce its meaning, even in context.” It means something like “having to do with committees.”

Is this indigenous to just Brussels, I wonder. Does it count as endangered?

Thaana, from the Atlas of Endangered Alphabets
Thaana, which seems to have been invented in the eighteenth century, is unique in other respects, too. For one thing, its letters are based on numbers — but numbers from two different number systems. The first nine letters (h–v) are derived from the Arabic numerals, whereas the next nine (m–d) were the local Indic numerals. The remaining letters for loanwords (z–ch) and Arabic transliteration are adapted from native consonants, with the exception of y, which is of unknown origin.

And another thing #2

How often have you thought about your Shift + 7 key?

Ampersands: A beloved character
It began life as a shortcut for scribes and proved just as useful for early typesetters, eventually working its way into the English alphabet as the 27th letter. We collectively dropped it from the ABCs, and the decline of handwriting and manual typesetting made it less useful. But its flexibility and grace have kept it on our business cards and movie posters.

These Quartz Obsession emails are typically full of wonderful rabbit holes, and this one’s no exception. Let’s start with a quick introduction.

Where did the ampersand originate?
Developed from the Latin et (“and”), the ampersand, formerly the twenty-seventh letter of the alphabet, is a character with a cult following among students of typography.

And not just students of typography — the lowly ampersand can count lawyers, entrepreneurs, movie producers and restaurant owners as fans, if these links are anything to go by.

For law firms, the ampersand is a character worth saving
Paul Hastings, Norton Rose Fulbright, Hogan Lovells, Proskauer Rose, Baker Botts: the list of new BigLaw titles built on the corpses of ampersands is almost endless. All these firms discarded their ampersands as if they were ashamed of them.

There are practical reasons so many hipster businesses follow the exact same naming structure
There’s also a nostalgic feel to this construction. “At some point in its early history, I’d guess the germ of that trend was an allusion to the common practice in 17th/18th/19th centuries of naming your company after its principals (e.g. Gieves & Hawkes, Dege & Skinner, Marks & Spencer, etc.),” says Simon. “Could be some of your fashion brands want to allude to handcraft, to pre-industrial or non-industrial processes.”

Stereotypography
So far, critical appraisal of the ampersand in Pride & Prejudice has been mixed. On Slate, David Edelstein calls the ampersand one of the “ominous first impressions” that he had to get over in order to like the movie. The Toronto Globe and Mail (or is it “Globe & Mail”?) says the ampersand signals a “contracted, contemporary approach” to the novel. The San Francisco Chronicle finds the typographical choice to be indicative of the movie’s “jaunty approach.” And the Detroit Free Press says “the only thing really new” in the film is “the hip ampersand of the title.”

Contemporary! Jaunty! Hip! That’s a lot of stereotypical baggage to put on a modest piece of punctuation that has been kicking around in one form or another for about two thousand years.

Petition · Restore the ampersand as the 27th letter of the alphabet
This isn’t just for us. Think of all the uses of the ampersand out there, and all the people and organizations that could benefit from allowing the ampersand back into our alphabet.

We’re not asking for much. And to be completely honest, we’re not exactly sure who calls the shots on these sorts of things, but having Merriam-Webster on our side seems like a good start.

Bring back the Ampersand

It’s fair to say that graphic designers and typesetters are this character’s biggest admirers, though.

Font Aid IV: Coming Together
The Society of Typographic Aficionados is proud to announce the release of “Coming Together”, a font created exclusively for Font Aid IV to benefit the victims of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. The font consists entirely of ampersands, to represent the idea of people coming together to help one another. Type designers, graphic designers, and other artists from around the world contributed artwork to the font.

and-another-thing-3

Design by: Herb Lubalin
Herb Lubalin is best known for his logotypes, or as he called them ‘expressive typography’. One of his most famous works is the Mother & Child masthead he designed for a Curtis magazine, where the ‘O’ in the word mother is a womb for the word child. The use of the ampersand in this design is pure genius.

and-another-thing-2

Attitudes toward hyphenation and rag settings
In fact, Gill was even more willing to challenge convention than Dowding. Not only did he liberally use ampersands for “and” but he also used contractions (e.g., “tho’”), and superscript letters (e.g., “production”) to achieve even spacing. But most importantly, he advocated that text be set flush left, rag right (though he did not use that phrase) as not only more natural than justified setting, but as the best way to guarantee consistent word spacing. He considered the insistence on justified text to be nothing more than a superstition, remarking that “even spacing is more important typographically than equal length.” In his view justified text existed to satisfy man’s desire for neatness.

and-another-thing-1

That last link is my favourite, I think. I could read about typography and book design all day. There’s something very calming and comforting in a well set page of text like the one above. Those margins!

So it was a wonderful coincidence to see that today’s Aeon newsletter contained this link about book printing.

What’s as satisfying as a good book? Seeing one made the old-fashioned way, by hand
The director Glen Milner charts each step in the process as bookbinders piece together a new hardbound edition of the memoir Mango and Mimosa (1974) by the British writer and painter Suzanne St Albans. From folding pages to sewing and gluing paper to the leather spine, skilful human hands are front and centre throughout. Milner documents this melding of mechanics and craft with an almost musical rhythm, conveying skills and methods born of centuries of refinements.

Birth of a Book

And would you believe it, that printing and bookbinding company is in Leeds, just 5 miles away from me!

Full stop stop stop

Back in Newport we once tried to set up an art magazine/brand thing called Ellipsis. We had no clue what we were doing, but I always liked the name. I use ellipses frequently — and inconsistently — on this blog, so I really should pay attention to this piece on them from Quartz.

Ellipses
The word ellipsis might be Greek for “to fall short,” but the unassuming symbol has taken on more life than its size implies, a common phenomenon for punctuation marks in lives that are becoming increasingly text-heavy. But as the design and display choices made by tech giants and software designers influence more and more of our behavior, we paused to consider how much weight three little dots can carry. …

A symbol of hesitancy, apprehension, indecision, and more to come sounds tailor-made for the internet. As instant chat became more popular in the ’90s, designers began to use the ellipsis as a “typing awareness indicator.” While intended to reassure the person on the other side that a response was forthcoming…its unintended effect was an intense anxiety when a response was taking too long.

Political storytelling

Politics is all about story-telling, reframing the world around us to encourage us to think a certain way. Verso have released an extract from James Meek’s new book, Dreams of Leaving and Remaining, offering an explanation of why the Brexiteers got the upper hand at the referendum.

James Meek on Brexit and the myth of St. George
Of the two folk myths bound up with Englishness, the myth of St George and the myth of Robin Hood, the myth of St George is the simpler. Robin Hood is a process; St George is an event. Where Robin Hood steals from the rich, which is difficult, to give to the poor, which is trickier still, and has to keep on doing it over and over, St George kills the dragon, and that’s it. Before the dragon is slain, the people are tyrannised. They live in a state of misery, fear and humiliation. When the dragon is slain, society’s problems disappear. The swish of the warrior-saint’s sword slicing through the dragon’s flesh and the great beast’s death cry are, to the oppressed, both a joy in themselves and the herald-notes of a new era of happiness. The slaying of the dragon is quick, easy to remember, and easy to celebrate.

Robin Hood is justice; St George is victory. Slow, complicated, boring Robin Hood–like achievements such as a national health service, progressive taxation and universal education yield in the folk narrative of England to events that can easily be held in consciousness as St George–like releases, so often involving the beating by the English, or the British, of the non-English – the destruction of the Spanish Armada, Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, or Geoff Hurst’s hat-trick against Germany in 1966.

The Guardian continues this look at political language with its new series on the recent shift to a certain kind of anti-elite, right-wing politics.

Revealed: the rise and rise of populist rhetoric
Major study analysing speeches of leaders from 40 countries over two decades shows surge in populism.

political-storytelling-1

It’s interesting, though, what research is suggesting about the poster boy for populist politics — it might not be all down to him.

The Teleprompter Test: why Trump’s populism is not his own
Kirk Hawkins, an associate professor at Brigham Young University, said there was a “dramatic difference” in the language in Trump’s speeches, depending on whether or not they were scripted. “Trump’s speeches with teleprompters all have longer words, longer sentences, and less frequent use of his pet words. And they have much higher levels of populism,” he said. “This is powerful evidence that Trump’s populism is not entirely his own.”

He’s still full of BS, though.

President Trump has made 9,014 false or misleading claims over 773 days
The president averaged nearly 5.9 false or misleading claims a day in his first year in office. He hit nearly 16.5 a day in his second year. So far in 2019, he’s averaging nearly 22 claims a day.

You’d think that would cheer him up a little.

A debate-watching robot learned Trump’s emotional self: sad!
A robot built around Microsoft’s Emotion API may have uncovered something surprising about the dominant emotions of either candidate. Or it may have just spat out a lot of random numbers.

What’s your number?

Another maths curiosity from the Futility Closet:

Fortuitous numbers
In American usage, 84,672 is said EIGHTY FOUR THOUSAND SIX HUNDRED SEVENTY TWO. Count the letters in each of those words, multiply the counts, and you get 6 × 4 × 8 × 3 × 7 × 7 × 3 = 84,672.

Here’s something I’ve (pointlessly) struggled with for a long time, now. Can you complete this sentence?

Written as words, there are _____________ letters in this sentence.

Use Excel’s LEN() function and AutoSum and try it like this, writing it out one word at a time.

number-1

So, forty three letters so far, with those two empty boxes. If you were to write forty three into those boxes, the total would obviously be more than forty three. A little trial-and-error, and we get

number-2

the answer fifty three. Well, that was fairly straightforward. Let’s try a slightly different sentence.

number-3

Maybe this isn’t so difficult, after all. One more?

number-4

That’s not right, there are forty nine letters in that sentence, not forty eight.

number-5

But now there are forty eight. Is it not possible to accurately complete that sentence, then?