New alphabets, new words

I can’t imagine how difficult this must be to organise. Kazakhstan is changing its official alphabet — every written thing across all areas of life, work, education, commerce — from the Russian-based Cyrillic one to the Latin-based one of the West.

The cost of changing an entire country’s alphabet
That the Kazakh language is currently written in Cyrillic – and the persistent use of Russian in elite circles – is a legacy of the Soviet Union’s rule, one that some of its neighbouring countries sought to shed right after the union’s collapse in 1991. Azerbaijan, for example, started introducing textbooks in Latin script the next year, while Turkmenistan followed suit in 1993. Kazakhstan is making the transition almost three decades on, in a different economic environment that makes the costs hard to predict.

[…]

So far, state media has reported that the government’s total budget for the seven-year transition – which has been divided into three stages – will amount to roughly 218 billion tenge ($664m). About 90% of that amount is going to education programmes the publication of textbooks for education programmes in the new Latin script, including for literature classes.

The government aims to complete the move by 2025. I’d love to revisit this story then, to see if they meet their deadline and budget.

I wonder if Kazakhstan’s new alphabet will be put to use with some of the new words this report discusses. A University of Birmingham researcher has analysed 900 million tweets from October 2013 to November 2014 from users in the USA, looking for terms that started off rare but became more popular.

Feeling litt? The five hotspots driving English forward
The result was a list of 54 terms, which covered everything from sex and relationships (such as “baeless” – a synonym for single), people’s appearance (“gainz” to describe the increased muscle mass from bulking up at the gym), and technology (“celfie” – an alternative spelling of selfie). Others reflected the infiltration of Japanese culture (such as “senpai”, which means teacher or master). They also described general feelings, like “litt” (or “litty” – which means impressive or good – or affirmations such as “yaaaas” (as an alternative to yes.) Interestingly, some of these terms such as “candids” (a noun describing photos taken without the other person’s knowledge) have been around for years, but were extremely rare until seeing a sudden rise in popularity.

Because the messages were timestamped and geocoded, he could track five geographic hubs that were driving these changes and additions to the language; West Coast, Deep South, North East, Mid-Atlantic and the Gulf Coast.

Gulf Coast  The third (and final) southern region to feature in Grieve’s analysis, this hub centred around New Orleans, extending across Louisiana and into eastern and coastal Texas and along the Mississippi to Memphis. One of the region’s most noteworthy contributions – idgt (I don’t get tired) – became a catchphrase of the rapper Kevin Gates, who grew up in Baton Rouge, the state capital of Louisiana, and released a single of the same name in 2014.

Notable terms: bruuh (bro’): idgt (I don’t get tired); lordt (Oh Lord!)

Remarkable, beautiful and completely meaningless

Another great find on Brain Pickings.

Reality, representation, and the search for meaning: Argentine artist Mirtha Dermisache’s invented graphic languages
A century after Nietzsche, the Argentine artist Mirtha Dermisache (February 21, 1940–January 5, 2012) set out to probe the limits and possibilities of language by filling countless notebooks, letters, and postcards with text. None of it was legible.

In the 1970s, Dermisache invented an array of graphic languages, each with a distinct syntactic texture and a visual rhythm that inclines toward meaning, or the longing for meaning. The lines she composed in them — so purposeful, so fluid, evocative of a script in a foreign tongue or a cardiograph or birdsong notation — become a Rorschach test, beckoning the mind to wrest from them a message, a meaning, a representation of some private reality of thought and feeling.

And from the Mirtha Dermisache: Selected Writings Amazon page:

Her work, which she created while living under the junta in Argentina, is lasting and subversive even though she barely penned a legible word…In our current environment, it is difficult to look at her work and not think about the impossibility of discourse, the primacy of self-expression, and the fallacy of a shared objective language, not to think of this art as both radically political and necessary today.–Will Fenstermaker “The Paris Review “

remarkable-meaningless-1

Very poetic. A little spooky? Teeline? What would the graphologists make of them, I wonder.

remarkable-meaningless-2

Literary pejoratives

Shakespearean insults for every situation
In addition to appreciating his literary contributions, Shakespeare enthusiasts understand and enjoy the snarky humor that is embedded in his work. His writing shows the power of language for its ability to make a statement and pack a punch. To celebrate the 402nd anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth and death, we’ve compiled the best insults from some of his most famous works into a Shakespearean insult generator.

As well as providing us with an infographic for us to generate our own insults, there’s a comprehensive list of his best put-downs, barbs and slurs, including:

“You have such a February face, so full of frost, of storm and cloudiness.”
Much Ado About Nothing

“Thy tongue outvenoms all the worms of Nile.”
Cymbeline

“I do desire that we may be better strangers.”
As You Like It

(Via At the BookShelf)

Thoughtfully curated words

It’s so satisfying when you come across a piece of writing that expresses so eloquently something that you’ve been struggling to set down in words and rationally consider for a long time. This is just a part of it.

Curate
Sprinkle the fairy dust of high-sounding words over the ungainly contours of something quite ordinary, and you may be able to transform it into something special, in the way that a gentle snowfall can turn an ugly tool shed into a dreamy cottage, inhabited by elves. Even if you are running a thrift shop—and yes, it is not hard to find proprietors of thrift shops who identify themselves as “curators” of their establishments—you too can boast that your shop’s contents are “thoughtfully curated.” That sounds a whole lot better than saying “We don’t take used underwear or stuff that has holes in it.” But there is a lot to be said for respecting and loving ordinary things on their own terms, seeing that they are beautiful even without makeup, rather than always trying to tart them up into something grand and gilded.

But to be fair, there is another element folded into the meaning of “curate,” one running deep but not readily visible, that may also explain some of its appeal. The word derives from the Latin curare, to take care, and has in its historical ancestry the notion of a “curate” as one who is charged with the care of souls. This more spiritual meaning survives here and there, as for example in the “curate” of an Anglican parish church; and the faint aura of it surely still remains a part of the word we use to describe the museum professional. The religion of art persists, after all, as witness the flocks of culture-vultures that stream into our galleries on Sundays, standing in long lines to perform their spiritual duties. Perhaps in some instances, such as that of the independent bookstore, it can even be said that the “thoughtful curation” of the inventory reflects an attentiveness to the needs of the soul. One earnestly wants it to be so.

That last point chimes with one of Alain de Botton’s chapters in his handbook on how a future society that has fully dropped a belief in the supernatural might still care for itself. It’s worth looking up.

Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists
Religion for Atheists suggests that rather than mocking religions, agnostics and atheists should instead steal from them – because they’re packed with good ideas on how we might live and arrange our societies.

The challenges and rewards of an inner city school

Even though I’ve worked in a school for a couple of years, I still consider myself new to the sector, after working in universities and colleges for almost 20 years. They’re quite different now, from how I remember mine.

A news team visited an inner city school in Leeds, to share the types of difficulties and opportunities some schools face these days.

The school with 72 languages
Every week we hear about the huge challenges for schools up and down the country – from funding cuts, to talk of a recruitment crisis. Calendar was invited into one particular school – where students speak 72 different languages. It provides many challenges for the Co-operative Academy – in Burmantofts – one of the most deprived areas of Leeds. Not least how to teach children – many of whom do not speak any English – the curriculum.

The dedicated teachers at the Co-operative Academy
The Co-operative Academy in Leeds is in one of the poorest and most diverse areas in the city. Here 75% of students don’t speak English as their first language. And more than 60% are eligible for pupil premium funding – for those with low incomes. That’s more than twice the national average. It means teachers here have a very difficult – and sometimes upsetting – job on their hands. Here’s the second of Helen Steel’s special reports.

Raising aspirations in inner-city school
In the final of a three-part series by Calendar reporter Helen Steel, we see how staff at the Co-operative Academy of Leeds – in one of the most deprived inner-city areas of the UK – are determined to raise aspirations.

Left on the shelf

I’m not alone in having unread books on my bookshelf. (Sometimes they don’t even get that far.)

“Tsundoku,” the Japanese word for the new books that pile up on our shelves, should enter the English language
There are some words out there that are brilliantly evocative and at the same time impossible to fully translate. Yiddish has the word shlimazl, which basically means a perpetually unlucky person. German has the word Backpfeifengesicht, which roughly means a face that is badly in need of a fist. And then there’s the Japanese word tsundoku, which perfectly describes the state of my apartment. It means buying books and letting them pile up unread.

We readers all have books we can’t seem to finish, but the same seems to be true of authors.

In praise of unfinished novels
…A more accurate term, I think, is “agony.” Although the word now denotes intense mental suffering, the Greek word agonia originally meant a “struggle for victory,” and the combatant who did the struggling was called an agonist. The agony of authors like Ellison, Twain, and Wallace, along with others like Truman Capote, combined these senses. In their unfinished novels, we bear witness to a contest between an author and their work beneath which flows a current of psychological anguish. This palpable sense of friction is one of the chief beauties of unfinished novels.

[…]

In my ambles through the history of literary failure, I discovered that not every unfinishable novel is as tortured as Ellison’s was. Indeed, many embrace unfinishability as an aesthetic virtue. This is certainly true of postmodern novels like Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, which revel in their potential endlessness, but earlier centuries had their partisans of the unfinished, too. Herman Melville concludes a chapter of Moby-Dick, for instance, with the declaration, “God keep me from ever completing anything. This whole book is but a draught—nay, but the draught of a draught.”

Not so much left on the shelf as never made it to the shelf in the first place.

Speaking of not reading books though, here’s a great passage from Umberto Eco’s review of Pierre Bayard’s book, How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read.

On unread books
But the most interesting thing is that Bayard has failed to notice that, in admitting his three intentional errors, he implicitly assumes that one way of reading is more correct than others, so that he carries out a meticulous study of the books he quotes in order to support his theory about not reading them. The contradiction is so apparent that it makes one wonder whether Bayard has actually read the book he’s written.

For want of a comma, $5 million was lost

See? I told you these kinds of things were important.

Oxford comma dispute is settled as Maine drivers get $5 million
Ending a case that electrified punctuation pedants, grammar goons and comma connoisseurs, Oakhurst Dairy settled an overtime dispute with its drivers that hinged entirely on the lack of an Oxford comma in state law.

The dairy company in Portland, Me., agreed to pay $5 million to the drivers, according to court documents filed on Thursday.

The relatively small-scale dispute gained international notoriety last year when the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit ruled that the missing comma created enough uncertainty to side with the drivers, granting those who love the Oxford comma a chance to run a victory lap across the internet.

And now read this poem on the importance of the Oxford comma, from Brian Bilston.

George Orwell’s Whitehouse fans

Sales of George Orwell’s 1984 surge after Kellyanne Conway’s ‘alternative facts’
Comparisons were made with the term “newspeak” used in the 1949 novel, which was used to signal a fictional language that aims at eliminating personal thought and also “doublethink”. In the book Orwell writes that it “means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them”.

Reading without words

​A novel, visual way of reading books.

Punctuation in novels
Here is a comparison of some other books — notice how large a break A Farewell To Arms was from the past. There almost no commas, just sentences, dialogue. How refreshing and wild that must have been! Look at how spartan Blood Meridian is compared to everything. Pay attention to the semicolons which seem to have disappeared from writing.​

Weightlifting for the brain

Something for 21 February, International Mother Language Day.

Being bilingual changes the architecture of your brain
Plus, making a decision with every word you say may actually be like weightlifting for the brain. Every time I choose “washing machine” over “lavadora,” or vice versa, my brain gets a little stronger. Kroll thinks this constant cognitive challenge that bilinguals face may be responsible for an observed improvement in what’s called executive function, or the ability to filter out unnecessary information and make decisions.​

Start making sense

Beware techies talking gobbledegook
But while those dramatic stories grab public attention because they cost millions (if not billions) of pounds and dollars and cause political embarrassment, computing failures in our offices, homes or on our tablets and phones are also pervasive – and pernicious. We rely on computers more than ever, which makes us increasingly vulnerable when they let us down.

Alone together

Saving the lost art of conversation
Her methods are contagious; once you start noticing what Turkle notices, you can’t stop. It’s a beautiful day, and we walk past boutiques, restaurants, and packed sidewalk cafés. The data are everywhere: The pair of high-school-age girls walking down Boylston Street, silent, typing. The table of brunchers ignoring their mimosas (and one another) in favor of their screens. The kid in the stroller playing with an iPad. The sea of humans who are, on this sparkling Saturday, living up to Turkle’s lament—they seem to be, indeed, alone together.

To quote, or not to quote (Please retweet!)

“Apollodorus says, ‘If any one were to take away from the books of Chrysippus all the passages which he quotes from other authors, his paper would be left empty.'”
Robert Brook

Sorry, couldn’t resist this, but that was me quoting Robert Brook, quoting Wikipedia, quoting Diogenes Laërtius, quoting Apollodorus on Chrysippus’ quoting too much!

Being shaped by our tools?

An article from the Observer ponders the impact of Microsoft Word on the way we write.

Has Microsoft Word affected the way we work?
But we were – and remain – remarkably incurious about how our beloved new tool would shape the way we write. Consider first the name that the computer industry assigned to it: word processor. The obvious analogy is with the food processor, a motorised culinary device that reduces everything to undifferentiated mush. That may indeed have been the impact of Word et al on business communications, which have increasingly become assemblies of boilerplate cliches. But that’s not been the main impact of word processing on creative writing, which seems to me to be just as vibrant as it was in the age of the typewriter or the fountain pen.

Writing as sculpture? Why not…

My hunch is that using a word processor makes writing more like sculpting in clay. Because it’s so easy to revise, one begins by hacking out a rough draft which is then iteratively reshaped – cutting bits out here, adding bits there, gradually licking the thing into some kind of shape.