The brains of the trainee interpreters had changed […] but not in the way you might expect

November 26th, 2014

In other words: inside the lives and minds of real-time translators

Looking down over the delegates at the IMO, I was reminded of the view from a captain's bridge, or the gallery of a television studio. I had a feeling of control, a perverse reaction given that control is one thing interpreters lack. The words they utter and the speed at which they talk are determined by others. And even though [on-duty translators] Pinkney and Soliño had copies of some of the speeches that had been prepared for that morning, they had to be alive to humorous asides. Puns, sarcasm, irony and culture-specific jokes are an interpreter's nightmare. As one interpreter has noted in an academic article, "Puns based on a single word with multiple meanings in the source language should generally not be attempted by interpreters, as the result will probably not be funny." Quite.

Go for the amusing anecdotes about mistranslations, stay for a fascinating look at how the hell the human brain copes with listening to one language and speaking another in real time.

[Via MetaFilter]

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Watch the ray cats

May 14th, 2014

This week's 99% Invisible podcast discussed recent efforts to figure out how to warn our great-to-the-Nth grandchildren about the risks of nuclear waste being stored at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, given the distinct possibility that language will have drifted over the course of 10,000 years to the point where a sign saying 'DANGER: Radioactive waste!' may not be understood.

The most hands-down 99pi favorite solution, though, didn't come from the WIPP brainstorm – rather, it came out of the Human Interference Task Force, a similar panel that was pulled together in 1981 for the now-defunct Yucca Mountain project. It was proposed by two philosophers, Françoise Bastide and Paolo Fabbri.

Bastide and Fabbri came to the conclusion that the most durable thing that humanity has ever made is culture: religion, folklore, belief systems. They may morph over time, but an essential message can get pulled through over millennia. They proposed that we genetically engineer a species of cat that changes color in the presence of radiation, which would be released into the wild to serve as living Geiger counters. Then, we would create folklore and write songs and tell stories about these "ray cats," the moral being that when you see these cats change colors, run far, far away.

Makes you wonder if there's some bit of puzzling animal behaviour going on all around us right now about which the folklore has failed to be passed down or got distorted. Instead of pointing and laughing at all those Animals Sucking at Jumping as it becomes clear what terrible, long-forgotten threat they were trying to warn us about?

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The Matchbox

November 5th, 2013

Letters of Note features a letter by novelist Sylvia Townsend Warner, writing probably the best Thank-You letter ever:


Dearest Alyse,

Usually one begins a thank-letter by some graceless comparison, by saying, I have never been given such a very scarlet muffler, or, This is the largest horse I have ever been sent for Christmas. But your matchbox is a nonpareil, for never in my life have I been given a matchbox. Stamps, yes, drawing-pins, yes, balls of string, yes, yes, menacingly too often; but never a matchbox. Now that it has happened I ask myself why it has never happened before. They are such charming things, neat as wrens, and what a deal of ingenuity and human artfulness has gone into their construction; for if they were like the ordinary box with a lid they would not be one half so convenient. This one though is especially neat, charming, and ingenious, and the tray slides in and out as though Chippendale had made it.

But what I like best of all about my matchbox is that it is an empty one. […]

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'If somebody writes in with a new fact, I start off by disbelieving it.'

October 28th, 2013

John Simpson, soon to retire from the post of chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, gave an interview to the Daily Telegraph:

The OED's uniqueness, says Simpson, lies in rediscovering lost information about core words and putting it back in the public eye. He cites the verb "coalise" (to form a coalition), which the first edition traced back to 1794. The richness of today's lexical material has produced a 1697 use of the word, in the letters of an English pharmacist, John Houghton. Such triumphs are a lexicographer's orgasmatron (spanking new entry dating from Woody Allen's 1973 film Sleeper).

[Via Pop Loser]

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I don't believe it!

May 8th, 2013

I'm never going to be able to unhear this:

[From a MetaFilter discussion of the use of different regional accents used by actors in Game of Thrones]

For everyone complaining about Dinklage's accent, and its terribleness/variability, I think it might be worth watching a couple of clips of Scottish actor Richard Wilson in One Foot In The Grave, because Dinklage's accent is – consciously or not – an almost exact replica. It has that clipped, haughty tone; it's different enough from a standard English RP accent to sound odd to someone not used to the accent; when he raises his voice, it takes on a kind of exaggerated, exasperated character that can sound oddly Transatlantic. And it's completely genuine: it's the accent of a working class, west coast Scot who has had the more guttural elements of his voice trained out of him by RADA, but who still retains strong vestiges of his background. And it's been put to use for the past four decades playing upper (or at least soi-disant upper) class Scots. That's the accent I hear when I watch Dinklage in Game Of Thrones. It may be capital A Acting, but it's not, in and of itself, a dodgy accent. […]

posted by Len at 11:37 PM on May 7

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I'll leave a pint for you, for your patience.

March 17th, 2013

Daniel Menaker on The Talk of the Irish:

Having recently written a book about conversation, and having survived, at least for the time being, a serious illness that involved a huge number of grave discussions, discussions largely bereft of ornament and humor, and having lived seventy years' worth of a life of words – surely too many of them, when weighed against actions – I found myself at the end of last summer yearning to go back to Ireland, especially to the West, to hear the Irish talk.

I had been there nearly forty years earlier, and the trip had confirmed the generally held high opinion of Irish verbal agility, wit, and garrulousness. "Are you American, then?" a butcher had asked me when I was buying a steak from him, in Schull, in the spectacular Southwest. "Yes," I said. "Then of course I'll be charging you twice as much," he said. When I confessed to a little girl on a dirt road that the cows she was herding home made me, a city boy, a little nervous, she waited a bit until they were up the road and then pointed behind me and said, "Look out! The cows are comin' for yeh." […]

[Via The Browser]

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Elton John!

August 13th, 2012

How English sounds to non-English speakers:

[Via A Cup of Jo, via swissmiss]

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Inglish iz issenshali a langwidje dhat, wen rittun fonetkli, iz ilejibul tu netiv spikerz.

July 19th, 2012

Essentialist Explanations:

This page comprises a list of 1009 "essentialist explanations" of the form "Language X is essentially language Y under conditions Z". […]

Monolingual people should not be authorized to peruse this list. They would not understand anyway.

–Ivan C. Amaya


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25 Words

May 23rd, 2012

25 Handy Words That Simply Don't Exist In English:

2 Arigata-meiwaku (Japanese): An act someone does for you that you didn't want to have them do and tried to avoid having them do, but they went ahead anyway, determined to do you a favor, and then things went wrong and caused you a lot of trouble, yet in the end social conventions required you to express gratitude


8 Gigil (pronounced Gheegle; Filipino): The urge to pinch or squeeze something that is unbearably cute

[Via LinkMachineGo!]

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I don't mind this winning, just as long as he doesn't

December 13th, 2011

Nancy Friedman's Words of the Year 2011 post introduced me to this doozy:

Nontraditional start. How Mrs. Newt Gingrich's best friend, Karen Olson, diplomatically labeled the adulterous affair that led to GOP presidential candidate Mr. Newt Gingrich's third wedding: "'They're a great couple,' she said, 'that had a nontraditional start.'" The phrase joins "hiking the Appalachian Trail" in the lexicon of creative euphemisms for adultery. My nominee for "Most Euphemistic Word."

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No other language will make you work as hard to avoid speaking formally to pairs of women.

August 21st, 2011

Maciej Cegłowski on learning Arabic for fun, not profit:

[Now] that Arabic is the key language for career advancement in places that have no sign out front and a large eagle emblem in the lobby, the civilian programs have begun started to attract the kinds of calculating douchebags who used to make studying Russian so unpleasant. They are still in the minority, but having even one of these guys (and they're always guys) in your class can lead to needless suffering […]

So I would like to stand up for the language nerds and give some reasons for studying Arabic that have nothing to do with politics. The language of the National Designated Other is bound to switch to Chinese in a couple of years, but until colleges start teaching Martian, Arabic is going to remain the strangest, most interesting language you can study in an undergrad classroom.

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Languages of the World (Wide Web)

July 9th, 2011

Google's Daniel Ford and Josh Batson have been mapping the languages of the World (Wide Web):

Most web pages link to other pages on the same web site, and the few off-site links they have are almost always to other pages in the same language. It's as if each language has its own web which is loosely linked to the webs of other languages. However, there are a small but significant number of off-site links between languages. These give tantalizing hints of the world beyond the virtual. […]

[Via MetaFilter]

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The History of English

July 2nd, 2011

Courtesy of the Open University: The History of English in 10 minutes.

[Via swissmiss]

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Weaponised irony alert

June 28th, 2011

In the age of the Metaphor Program, can we afford to ignore the threat of weaponised irony?

If we don't know how irony works and we don't know how it is used by the enemy, we cannot identify it. As a result, we cannot take appropriate steps to neutralize ironizing threat postures. This fundamental problem is compounded by the enormous diversity of ironic modes in different world cultures and languages. Without the ability to detect and localize irony consistently, intelligence agents and agencies are likely to lose valuable time and resources pursuing chimerical leads and to overlook actionable instances of insolence.

[Via The Null Device]

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Remember to compliment the director on his choice of a cowboy

February 26th, 2011

Advice for aspiring screenwriters on the language of the film set:

Once you get to the Promised Land of the set, you'll find that you don't exactly speak the language. The natives have a fascinating patois that they use to implement a very particular protocol. In an attempt to save you the confusion I've experienced in the past, here is my handy dandy guide to set lingo.


Abby Singer: The second-to-last shot of the day. Apparently from an A.D. named Abby Singer who routinely announced that a shot was the last of the day, only to learn that there was one more.


Linda Stills: Linda is a person, but her last name isn't Stills. She's the stills photographer. Crews can be large, and when you have three folks named "Linda," it gets annoying to ask for one on the walkie and get the wrong one. Beyond that, no one really cares what your name is. On a set, you are your job. If you're Linda and you're the still photographer, they call you Linda Stills. They'll call you Jim Hair and Ellen Crafty and Craig Writer. Seriously. The name on my trailer door says Craig Writer.


picture's up: There's a lovely kabuki aspect to the beginning of a shot. Once everyone's ready to shoot a take, the first A.D. says "on the bell!" That alerts the crew to prepare for a shot. "Picture's up" is followed by "roll sound" and "roll camera", which tells the sound and camera guys to get the tape and film speed going (given that one day all sound and images will go directly to a drive or chip, these phrases will eventually be as quaint as MOS). The camera operator will say "camera's set" to let you know he's speeding, the sound guy will say "sound speed" to let you know the sound is ready, and then it's time for the director to call "action!"

[Via the inside of my brain]

1 Comment »


December 12th, 2010

20 Awesomely Untranslatable Words from Around the World:

2. Mamihlapinatapei

Yagan (indigenous language of Tierra del Fuego) – "the wordless, yet meaningful look shared by two people who both desire to initiate something but are both reluctant to start"

[Via swissmiss]

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Softer than the pouch of a cloud kangaroo

December 11th, 2010

There's soft as a baby's bottom, and then there's Vagisoft. Yes, the makers of the Vagisoft Blanket are1 serious:

Betabrand Discovers World's Softest Substance

The world of tactile technology was satisfied with "soft as a baby's bottom" as the measure of absolute softness. Anyone who dared name something "softer than" the aforementioned infant's posterior was suggesting a theoretical, quantum world of soft that existed beyond anything man could conceive.

That is, until researchers at the Betabrand Livermore Laboratory invented the Tactile Soft-o-meter, a device that can detect and compare the density of softrons, the subatomic units of softness. And while this has proven a Nobel worthy discovery, our scientists could not simply rest on their laurels.

Using this newfound knowledge, they set out to line the pockets of our world famous reversible smoking jackets. And so comfy was the fabric they developed, so rich and impossibly supple, that test subjects had to have their hands removed from the coat pockets with the Jaws of Life. Success!

But what to name this miracle material? Again and again, the Soft-o-meter produced a result that had our marketing department in a nervous titter. But we're scientists dammit, not salesmen, and if the Soft-meter says this fabric measures "Vagisoft" within a standard deviation of one softron, so it shall be named!

[Via Fritinancy]

  1. Not entirely…

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Words as weapons

October 3rd, 2010

Jonathan Meades on The March of the Acronym:

It is a truism that the development of everything from medicines to meteorology has depended on the prosecution of wars. This version of events flatters our paranoia, our fearful fondness of sombre forces. And the paraphernalia of armed conflict – secrecy, adrenalin, ruthlessness, dirty tricks, machismo, gadgets – can exert an attraction on those who have never known war. Its allure overlooks the actuality of boredom and body bags.

The further we are from military life, the more seductive its supposed traits. A corporation's ends will most probably be different from the armed forces' – less killing, for instance. But the means are there to be aped, the tics to be imitated: the speed, the modernity, the purposefulness, the can-do. Above all, the language.

[Via Arts & Letters Daily]

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Yes, they can.

October 31st, 2009

President Obama has inspired Japanese youth to adopt his name as slang:

[It was found …] as an entry dated 22 September in a collection of slang and modern usage put together by the Japanese Teachers' Network in Kitakyushu. Here's what they write:

obamu: (v.) To ignore inexpedient and inconvenient facts or realities, think "Yes we can, Yes we can," and proceed with optimism using those facts as an inspiration (literally, as fuel). It is used to elicit success in a personal endeavor. One explanation holds that it is the opposite of kobamu. (æ‹’ã‚€, which means to refuse, reject, or oppose).

[Via James Fallows]

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The plural of 'anecdote' [is|is not] 'data'.

July 13th, 2009

Tracking down the origin of the phrase "The plural of 'anecdote' is not 'data.'" turns out to be really tricky.

[Via Dan Sandler]

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