Archive for February, 2012

Slang connotations too unfortunate to explain

February 29, 2012

I Fagiolini is a British vocal ensemble specializing in Renaissance and contemporary music. Here’s its director, Robert Hollingworth, on the name:

I Fagiolini’s name has become a modern myth, with bizarre explanations for it offered worldwide wherever I Fagiolini has performed or its recordings been reviewed. [The ellipsis here is out of reach for me.] Here is the unexpurgated truth.

By the time I Fagiolini gave its first concert in 1986, the revival in interest and period playing styles of early music was well under way. At New College, Oxford (the group’s home), early music was known as ‘beany’ music because most of the musicians that seemed to be interested in it (both amateur and professional) seemed to have an alternative lifestyle of knitted yoghurt and wholefood pullovers, living on a diet of nothing but pulses and beans. [The group has a definitely antic side.] Stuck for a name at short notice, countertenor Richard Wyn Roberts proposed ‘the beans’; Robert Hollingworth suggested translating this into Italian as the first concert involved Monteverdi [eventually the group supplied the music for John La Bouchardière’s production and film The Full Monteverdi — yes, a play on The Full Monty] and it sounded nicer like that. This worked well until I Fagiolini first went to Italy and discovered the various slang connotations it has there. We don’t go to Italy much.

Different dictionaries tell you that fagiolini are ‘string beans’, ‘French beans’ or ‘little beans’. The last was the one intended.

This is amazingly unhelpful. Other sources refer to the “salacious slang connotations” and the “unfortunate slang connotations (both digestive and anatomical)” of the name, and elsewhere Hollingworth coyly referred to its slang connotations in Italian as “best not propagated here”.



February 28, 2012

In today’s print NYT Science Times, a piece by Douglas Quenqua entitled “They’re, Like, Way Ahead of the Linguistic Currrrve”, about young women as trendsetters in linguistic change. Featuring a sizable cast of experts, starting with Stanford’s Penny Eckert.

The two main points:

Girls and women in their teens and 20s deserve credit for pioneering vocal trends and popular slang, [linguists] say, adding that young women use these embellishments in much more sophisticated ways than people tend to realize.

And, at the end, two points. One, that a bit of linguistic stuff — vocal fry, uptalk, and the discourse particle like are the three examples the article focuses on — is just a resource, which can be used in many different ways by different groups of speakers (that is, there’s no intrinsic meaning to a resource — as I’ve taken to saying, it’s “just stuff” — but only meanings as expressed by particular groups of speakers and meanings as interpreted by others). And two, that the meanings for speakers and hearers can be seriously at variance:

“language changes very fast,” said Dr. Eckert of Stanford, and most people — particularly adults — who try to divine the meaning of new forms used by young women are “almost sure to get it wrong.”

“What may sound excessively ‘girly’ to me may sound smart, authoritative and strong to my students,” she said.


Language instruction fun

February 28, 2012

In my “Language shards” posting, I looked at some entertaining examples from language teaching materials — entertaining because of the absurdity (“Just you dare, zebra!”) or poetry (“The wind has come, bearing with it the scent of amber”) in them. This is a rich vein of material.


Language shards

February 27, 2012

In an earlier posting on Ann Daingerfield (Zwicky), I wrote:

After working in the language lab at Princeton, she had accumulated a stock of examples in other languages, beautifully pronounced: “The wind has come, bearing with it the scent of amber” in Persian (the poetic), “Bring me one beer” in Arabic (the practical), and the like. And phonetically challenging phrases in French, like Ose, zèbre! ‘Just you dare, zebra!’ (the absurd).

Her friend Bonnie Campbell has now clarified and expanded on this note:

I was the one who taught Ann “Ose, zèbre!” as well as “La girafe est dans la carafe” and “Le sage voyage sans bagage” — all culled from my classes with the (eventually ) renowned Pierre Léon at the Institut de Phonétique [in Paris].

From the same source, another example Ann liked a lot:

“Ce vieux quincailler infirme avait la fringale d’un goinfre.” Long-abandoned slang terms — “This feeble old hardware vendor had a glutton’s insatiable appetite.”

And among the non-French language shards: “All the royal elephants are at your disposal” in classical Persian (how’s that for practical bits of language?). Probably from a college classmate of Bonnie’s whose boyfriend was studying Persian.

As for the elephant and its trunk (mentioned in my earlier posting), the example was

Zoo wa hana ga nagai ‘As for elephants [zoo, marked by topic particle wa], (their) noses [hana, marked by subject particle ga] are long [nonpast verb nagai]’, or better, ‘As for (the) elephant, (its) nose is long’.


In Tours

February 27, 2012

(Not about language, except incidentally. Otherwise, this is a first report from Benita Bendon (Campbell) about Ann Daingerfield (Zwicky). This one comes from 1957; photo here.)

I first met Ann at the dining table on the Mauretania where she terrified me — but everything and everyone terrified me in those days. When we were studying in Tours for six weeks (where the Purest French is spoken), preparing us for the transition to Paris, we became friends while putting on a play. I don’t remember the play very clearly — it may have been La Farce du Maître Patelin. I had been billeted in a Balzacian heap of a glacially cold and crumbling mansion, owned by Madame Cozette. She was the mother of a prosperous City Father highly influential in the Sweet Briar organization. To please Monsieur Cozette, Sweet Briar annually sacrificed a couple of girls on the altar of Madame’s unspeakably dreadful boarding house. No running water beyond a sporadic trickle from one robinet (I was given money for three baths a week at the bains publiques) — and a starvation diet. Ann, on the other hand, lived chez les Bourin — a comfortable and warm-hearted family — dans de bonnes conditions. Madame Bourin was the daughter of a vintner — (“only three thousand or so bottles left in the cave” said Monsieur – in melancholy tones) — and had run a restaurant in previous years. A superb cook who loved to surround herself with as many hungry young folks as possible, she asked Ann if she had any friends to invite to dinner. “Oh, yes please, madame,” said Ann. “J’ai une grande amie qui crève de faim.” “Ah, la pauvre petite,” said Madame Bourin. “Elle doit être logée chez Madame Cozette.” All the host families, it seemed, knew of Madame Cozette’s miserable boarders. And so I was invited to two or three dinners chez Bourin — those three meals sustained me for six weeks.

Madame Bourin was an ailurophile who had at least five cats in residence. I remember a pretty gray one called Grisbi, an affectionate purrer called Musique, and a one-eyed bully named Bébé Chou. So one day after class, I set off into the winding streets of la vieille ville, looking for catnip to take as a gift on my next visit. After many false starts, I did find a wonderful medieval herboristorie run by a stout Dickensian chap in a frock coat who pulled out dozens of jars and boxes until we found “valérienne” — catnip, indeed. When I presented the paper cornet to Madame B. she was mystified but gratified – we trotted out into the back courtyard and sprinkled the herbs on the ground where the cats ignored it. Just ignored it. Hunh. But at a moment somewhat later in the afternoon as we sat in sated, vinified stupor around the groaning board, we heard a symphony of caterwauling from the back yard, where the cats had finally succumbed to the catnip in loud choruses of happiness. Back at William and Mary the following year, Ann wrote a short story about that occasion.

[More to come.]


Ben Cohen

February 27, 2012

(Only a little bit of linguistics in this one.)

It’s been a few weeks since my last underwear posting (featuring footballer David Beckham), and now it’s time for rugby player Ben Cohen, who’s retired from the game to focus on his StandUp Foundation, which he supports by selling tighty-whities, among other things.


motion, movement, move

February 27, 2012

Today’s Bizarro:

Consider for a moment how the nouns motion, movement, and move are used, and your head will soon hurt; look at the entries and cites in the OED, and things will get even worse. Each of the nouns has its own mini-syntax, occurring in specific idioms and collocations, many of them restricted to specific contexts: make a motion (in court), make a motion (towards doing something), make a movement/move on (someone), a legal motion, a dance movement, a bowel movement, a chess move, etc.

Two photographers

February 26, 2012

(Not about language.)

Two exhibitions currently under way: Walker Evans at Stanford’s Cantor Center, and Cindy Sherman at MoMA in New York. Different styles, but both deeply into social criticism via photography.


On the garmmra watch

February 26, 2012

From several sources recently, a January 31st LitReactor column by Jon Gingerich on “20 Common Grammar Mistakes”. Of course, it’s about garmmra, not actually about grammar — as Stan Carey asked rhetorico-challengingly on his blog, “Where’s the grammar in these “common grammar mistakes”? — but, for a change, it’s not a mish-mash of (putative) mis-steps in language, but a focused list: it’s all about word choice. Not about spelling, punctuation, linguistic politeness, and so on, but also not about such perennial syntactic peeve-faves as ending a sentence with a preposition, beginning a sentence with a coordinating conjunction, or splitting infinitives. Instead: it’s all

Don’t use word X; to convey this meaning, use Y instead.

(and at least two commenters noted this).


Vic Yngve

February 25, 2012

From LACUS (the Linguistic Association of Canada and the United States) on February 18th, a brief announcement of the death of Vic Yngve at the age of 91:

Victor Huse Yngve: July 5, 1920 to January 15, 2012

I was a student in one of Vic’s natural language processing courses (whatever it was called) when I was a grad student at MIT, eons ago, and we became what you might call “good academic acquaintances” not long after.