Sign-language literature book / DVD

The University of California Press has come out with a book (and accompanying DVD) that analyzes ASL storytelling, poetry, and drama: Signing the Body Poetic: Essays on American Sign Language Literature).

paperback (978-0-520-22976-1): 29.95, £18.95

hardcover (978-0-520-22975-4): $65.00, £41.95

E-book without DVD (1601295251): $15.95 with the table of contents, index, and first six pages of the introduction

ASL storytelling is fun to watch, probably even if you don’t know the language. The signs can get exaggerated, and there’s a lot of non-sign gesturing/mime thrown in.

ASL poetry can be quite beautiful. Sometimes the poems “rhyme” by using signs with the same handshape or signs with the same movement. Also, a lot of signs are normally made with only one hand (right for right-handers), but poets might alternate series of signs between the left and right hands to create a visual balance and flow.

ASL drama is like spoken-language drama except that the signing is bigger not louder (and only the vocal interpreters need microphones) and the stage “blocking” of actors’ movements always involves the audience being able to see their signing. The actors can’t utter lines of dialog with their backs to the audience unless they move their arms unnaturally far out to the sides.

Here’s something that may blow your mind:

With sign languages, the medium is the message, sort of (to hedge on a line from Marshall McLuhan). Actually, the articulation is the signal.

With spoken languages, you decode the message from the signal—sounds produced by air moving past or blocked during speakers’ articulation of their mostly hidden speech organs (tongue, vocal folds, etc.). With signing, you also decode the message from the signal, but the signal IS the signers’ articulation of hands and face that you are seeing. It’s as if a speaker used no air and you just watched the tongue move around to receive a message (not recommended, especially with strangers).

That’s also why Deaf babies of Deaf parents sign earlier than Hearing babies of Hearing parents speak, and why Hearing babies of Deaf parents sign earlier than they speak. Their hands are visible to them and easier to coordinate than the hidden, intricate speech organs. However, signing isn’t so easy when you learn it later. Just as with spoken languages, your signing can have an accent if you learn it later in life. It’s hard to get the smooth movements of native signers. Plus, the grammar can be very different from English, such as verbs like GIVE that move from abstract third-person subject to abstract third-person object.

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New sci-fi language in Cameron’s ‘Avatar’

Director James Cameron is working on a 3-D science fiction film called Avatar (2009, IMDb entry) set on a distant planet with aliens. They, naturally, have their own alien language.

Here’s the language part of the interview with Cameron:

There’s a guy named Paul Froemer [sic] who I was lucky enough to encounter a year ago. He’s the head [sic] of the linguistics department at USC. I talked with a number of linguistics experts, but he was the one who kind of got the challenge. He said, “We’re going to beat Klingon! We’re going to out-Klingon Klingon! We’re going to have a more detailed and well thought out language than Klingon!” He’s been working on this for a year. It began by riffing off things in the treatment, but from there, it went to how sentences would be constructed, and what the sound system would be. It would have to be something that was pronounceable by the actors but sounded exotic and not specific to human languages. So he’s mixing bits of Polynesian and some African languages, and all this together. It sounds great.

There’s no Froemer listed in the University of Southern California linguistics department or any other department there. Wherever he is today, it sounds like he’s enjoying his work. Regardless of the movie’s other qualities, I want to hear this carefully constructed language.

UPDATE (February 6, 2007): Thanks to a link from Language Geek, I found out it is “Paul Frommer” and “linguist” but not “department head,” according to linguist Benjamin Zimmer on Language Log.

Bit of trivia: Zoe Saldana, who plays an alien in Avatar, played a Star Trek fan in the movie The Terminal, even making the Vulcan salute (borrowed by Leonard “Mr. Spock” Nimoy from his earthly Jewish culture).

See also my post:

Movie ‘Earthlings’ studies those who study Klingon

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Humor might save your life

Humor can help us deal with difficult situations; laughter can make us feel better. But can they help with disease, as American Norman Cousins (more) believed about his own heart disease? A modest study in Trondheim, Norway, shows there may be something to this idea.

Sven Svebak, Ph.D. (Faculty of Medicine, Norwegian University of Science and Technology) and others at St. Olav University Hospital studied forty-one patients with chronic kidney failure and discovered a lower mortality rate after two years among patients with a sense of humor.

Sense of humor, based on a self-report survey, seemed more important for survival than age/gender/education or duration of disease/number of dialyses per week/co-morbidity [additional health problems].

According to the article abstract in The International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine (Volume 36, Number 3 / 2006):

A highly significant increase in survival was due to the psychological variables of block three [quality of life and sense of humor] (p < .001) essentially accounted for by sense of humor (p < .005). Those who scored above the median in sense of humor increased their odds for survival by on average 31%. Conclusions: Sense of humor appeared to mediate better coping and, therefore, protected against detrimental effects of disease-related stressors upon survival.

This finding, with a somewhat small sample size of forty-one probably ethnically homogeneous patients, is in line with the notions that stress weakens the immune system and that humor can reduce stress.

Another angle that researchers are taking is the idea that stress reduces blood flow and laughter increases blood flow. A preliminary study by Michael Miller, M.D., and others (all from the University of Maryland School of Medicine, Baltimore) used violent and comedic movie scenes with twenty patients.

In 2005 Miller reported that “‘average blood flow increased 22 percent during laughter, and decreased 35 percent during mental stress.’” Miller said we still need to exercise regularly, but “’15 minutes of laughter on a daily basis is probably good for the vascular system.’”

For most people, laughter can’t hurt and may improve health. You might try some Laughter Yoga, especially for World Laughter Day on May 6, 2007 (first Sunday in May).

See also:

Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor (including Dr. Patch Adams, as portrayed by Robin Williams)

Humor Matters

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American Dialect Society Word of 2006

As I mentioned last month (Webster’s (and Webster’s) 2006 Word of the Year), the American Dialect Society members vote on a word of the year.

For 2006, they’ve just chosen the word plutoed (demoted or devalued, as the now dwarf planet was in August).

Plutoed seems too much like vogue slang (in and out of fashion quickly) to be a word of the year. Perhaps last year’s winner, truthiness, seemed so as well, but it has a television show (The Colbert Report) using it regularly.

Posted in LANGUAGE, Words / Dictionaries | 2 Comments

OED’s historical word-hunt

The second series of Balderdash & Piffle, from the Oxford English Dictionary and BBC Two television network, will be on in the UK this spring. Now they’re soliciting help for origins or earlier uses of 40, mostly British, terms (BBC word list with explanations; OED word list with links to dictionary entries).

The show is especially useful to the OED lexicographers in the realm of slang—the kind of words they don’t always find during their constant reading of periodicals. John Simpson, chief editor of the OED, said about the first series last year: “[Wordhunters] found evidence tucked away in football [soccer] fanzines, LPs, school newspapers: just the sort of sources we can’t easily get our hands on.”

Happy hunting. Perhaps you can be like the woman from the first series who had an earlier use of Phwoar! (“Wow!”) in her diary, which is now an OED citation.

See also my post:

Oxford English Dictionary, Icon of England

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Appalachian vocabulary

I posted a few months ago (Standard Appalachian English) about the English dialect of the Appalachian Mountains of the Eastern United States. A new article ( [EDIT (5/30/10): dead link] has the same themes of linguistic prejudice and preservation but also contains some Southern Appalachian vocabulary.


“Dropped consonants: Going becomes goin’ or a’goin’.”

There’s no dropped consonant here (except in writing). The sound that is a back-of-the-mouth (soft palate/velum) nasal is instead a front-of-the-mouth (gum ridge/alveolar ridge) nasal. Nothing is missing with the pronunciation -in’ any more than anything is missing with the standard pronunciation of “phone book” as “phome book.” We just don’t have a letter for ng because it started out as merely the pronunciation of n before g (finger).

“Holped: Helped.”

Help is a regular verb in Modern English (help-helped-helped), but it used to be irregular (help-holp-holpen), as it still is in Modern German (helfen-half-geholfen). They’ve just regularized it with the -ed.

“Afeared: Afraid.”

Afeared was used in Shakespeare. As with holped, a form that has dropped out of the emerging standard has been retained by another variety of the language.

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Webster’s (and Webster’s) 2006 Word of the Year

As I mentioned in my post Vote for 2006 Word of the Year at Webster’s, you could vote for a word at the Merriam-Webster Dictionary site.

The winner is truthiness, as used by American Steven Colbert on Comedy Central’s Colbert Report to mean preferring things that feel true to known facts. It beat out the verb google.

Previous years’ winners (chosen by frequency of online search, not vote): integrity, blog, democracy.

Truthiness was also voted 2005 Word of the Year by the members of the American Dialect Society last January.

Previous years’ winners: red state, blue state, purple state (American Republican, Democrat, and mixed regions); metrosexual (heterosexual man who cares about fashion and skin/hair care); weapons of mass destruction (which beat blog and the verb google)

Last month over at the unrelated Webster’s New World Dictionary, the staff chose the word Crackberry, the addiction to Blackberry and other handheld data devices, as the 2006 Word of the Year (article).

Previous year’s winners (according to the linked article above): senior moment (temporary forgetfulness by the elderly), job spill (work you have to do on your commute or at home)

It seems to be almost all about politics and technology. Of course, if you took all the blogs about politics and technology off the Web, the only topic blogs (as opposed to personal blogs) left would be about celebrities and animals (and a few on language and humor).

Posted in LANGUAGE, Words / Dictionaries | 3 Comments

Vote for 2006 Word of the Year at Webster’s

Merriam-Webster, the American dictionary publisher, is soliciting votes for 2006 Word of the Year, “the one single word that sums up 2006.”

Vote here through Monday, December 4, 2006 (American time).

2005 and previous Words of the Year were decided by looking at online-dictionary search data; the most popular searches were the winners. Thus, it was a contest, of sorts, for words that people didn’t know but were reading or hearing enough to look up. 2006′s words may be very different.

Posted in LANGUAGE, Words / Dictionaries | 1 Comment

MS Office embraces Australianisms

If you’re Australian and using MS Word or other MS Office products, you’ll soon get fewer words marked as spelling errors. After a recent online word-survey with over 24,000 voters, Microsoft Office 2007 will include more Australianisms like sickie and trackies (“sick day” and “track suit”).

It’s nice to see Microsoft trying to make its products less America-centric. It’s silly to have an “English (Australian)” version that doesn’t recognize (or recognise) common words for that language variety.

The Australian expression chuck a sickie is certainly shorter than “play hooky from work by calling in sick” or “take a sick day when you’re not sick.” Does it have a shorter form in Australia because it’s a much more common practice there? (I kid.)

I remember watching a TV show in Japan and hearing the word 仮病 kebyou. My Japanese-English dictionary said “sham illness.” I thought, it’s so common that you have a word for this? I don’t think “sham illness” gets tossed around too much by us English speakers. We’d more likely say “he’s pretending to be sick” or “she’s feigning illness.”

See also: Australian Slang Dictionary

Posted in Dialects, Foreign Languages, LANGUAGE, Language Technology, Language-Sites, Words / Dictionaries | 1 Comment

Modern celebs in Cockney rhyming slang (book)

If you saw the 1992 movie Chaplin, you heard Charlie Chaplin (played by Robert Downey, Jr.) refer to his suit as a “whistle” and explain that whistle and flute rhymes with suit. That’s (old-time) Cockney rhyming slang, a slang style originally limited to the Cockney English dialect of working-class people in London’s East End. (The character Eliza Doolittle of My Fair Lady was a Cockney speaker, but I don’t know if she used rhyming slang.)

Celebrities are also used in rhyming slang and the new book Shame about the Boat Race: Guide to Rhyming Slang from Collins (ISBN 0007241135) gives examples of modern celebrities finding their way into the lingo. The title refers to “Nice legs shame about the face” ( [EDIT (5/30/10): dead link] turned into rhyming slang.

Assuming the expressions are common enough to be shortened, some people might drink too many Britneys (Britney Spears rhymes with beer) and then Wallace (Wallace and Gromit rhymes with vomit).

We’ll have to see if any of these become ordinary words like giving someone a “raspberry” (making a derisive breaking-wind noise with your mouth on your hand, also called a Bronx cheer). Raspberry tart rhymes with fart.

See also: Web’s Greatest Dick’n’arry of Cockney Rhyming Slang

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