April 2008 Archives

Macrolanguage vs. Dialect


The SIL group is using a new term I think should become more common - the macrolanguage A macrolanguage is basically a set of related languages that share a common "identity" even though speakers can't normally understand each other.

The most famous macrolanguage is probably Chinese. It is fairly well-known that a speaker from Beijing speaking Mandarin Chinese will often have difficulty understanding a Cantonese Chinese speaker from Hong Kong...unless someone has taken a formal class in the other form. Normally, these are called Chinese dialects but the differences are so great that linguists do classify them as separate languages. Interestingly, each of these languages can also have regional variations (many regional variations of Mandarin Chinese are found in Northern China).

Chinese is not alone by the way. Other macrolanguages include Arabic, Cree, Hmong, Quechua (as spoken in the Incan Empire), and Norweigian. I suspect that you could thrown in some other candidates like German and Italian.

As you can imagine, I definitely prefer the term macrolanguage over dialect for Chinese because it removes the confusion of regional dialects where everyone can understand each other (e.g. most English dialects) and those which are really separate languages (e.g. Chinese "dialects"). The term macrolanguage also acknowledges the strong cultural link between the speakers of the related languages.

I really hope this term takes hold...because I really think it will simplify other discussions about language (like language code). After all, it was just this year that a language technology guru claimed that English had no "true dialects." I think he meant to say that English hasn't reached macrolanguage status yet.

Why is that so "old mutual"?


Recently, the insurance company Old Mutual has been running a "clever" ad campaign in which they use "old mutual" as a new slang term to mean something else (see video from Youtube). The ads end with the tag line "It may sound strange now...but it won't for long."

But see how I put "clever" in "square quotes"? Something is amiss. I get that the marketers are trying to put a hip spin on insurance, and the original idea IS clever. But something went awry in the execution because they ended up giving the new hip phrase "old mutual" too many meanings.

Believe it or not, my mother and I have both sat there and tried to figure out what the slang term "old mutual" would mean in the real world. But it can't be done. If you watch the various vignettes in just this ad, you will see that "old mutual" has the following meanings.

  • Fashionable/Chic/Hot
  • Important (especially to teenage girls)
  • Nostalgic?? ("we should let it go and just be old mutual")
  • Get Through Traffic
  • Cool
  • The Boss/Company VP

Sorry you can't easily connect the dots between a cabbie trying to bust through traffic and two middle managers commenting that the VP may not understand chai latte. Instead of thinking the marketers as being cutting edge, I'm thinking they're just a bunch of young innocents who really should have squeezed in a Steven Pinker book before trying this stunt. Or maybe it's really common sense, and the writers need to review the importance of precise word choice in their writing. D'uh!

FYI - my recommendation would have been to select just ONE meaning (e.g. "cool") and run with it. I'm pretty sure you would have been able to get the requisite number of vignettes.

Ebola Postscript

There is one skit that got it right. Back in the initial Ebola scare of the mid 90s, Mad TV did a hilarious sketch in which the secret street slang council met and decided to introduce "Ebola" as a new slang term into the population. Sample use - "Girl, those stiletto pumps are ebola!" or "so cool it's lethal." This sentence actually makes sense.

The skit ends with the group discussing an implementation plan to introduce the new street term "ebola" in the following week. "Cool" says member A. "No .... Ebola" corrects member B.

How Bootylicious Got into the Oxford English Dictionary


A question the linguistic community is asked is who "decides" on new words. For instance, the recently coined bootylicious has actually made it into the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) with the meaning "sexually attractive, sexy; shapley".

How exactly did this happen you might ask? Here's a short account


Clearly this is a compound of the slang booty (slang orig. and chiefly among African-Americans meaning sexual intercourse and/or buttocks) and combining form -licious (yummo!) which is also found in words like babelicious and glammalicious. Being a compound was advantageous because it meant that people hearing the word for the first time can quickly figure out the meaning, but being a compound is not essential.

The word wiki (also in the OED) has no obvious English connection to any Web publishing device, but it's still entering the English language pretty quickly at this stage. For the record, wiki is adopted from Hawaiian wikiwiki "very quickly")

Mass Distribution

One might think bootylicious was invented for the 2001 Destiny's Child song "Bootylicious" (as in "my body is too bootylicious for you...baby"), but one would be wrong. The OED helpfully provides some quotes which predate 2001. The song was merely exploiting a trend.

But Beyoncé did play a very important role in terms of distribution. In terms of a major "official" dictionary, the word probably won't be included in a future volume UNLESS usage hits a critical level. There are several ways to hit critical mass. The key is often celebrity endorsement (as in bootylicious or Rachael Ray's EEVO for "extra virgin olive oil).

Even jargon terms have to be coined and used by important authorities in your discipline. For instance, when identifying new diseases like Ebola and SARS, we rely on early reports of a newly encountered disease for which a new term is needed (interestingly diseases are often identified first as "syndromes" because the agent virus or bacteria is usually not known yet).

The other factor though is how a word is used beyond the original context. For instance, the image of Ebola as the ultimate plague spread like wildfire into not just popular science but into fiction and eventually parody (see Beach Blanket Ebola). If you lived in the U.S. through the 1990s, it's a pretty good bet you know what Ebola means.

You Use, You Decide

So there you have it - words only become candidates for a dictionary only after it enters into communal usage. The media may make a few decisions for you, but YOU may have more influence than you realize. For instance, the term soccer Mom really sparked the public imagination, but the later counterpart NASCAR Dad wasn't nearly so popular - even though both refer to key U.S. political demographics.

Social Network Diagram....Straight from Facebook


I found a new tool in Facebook - the Friends Wheel and I was fascinated, not just because of the pretty colors, but because it replicates a sociological concept I was teaching about in a linguistics class.

The one time I did a language and society class the concept of "social networks" came up and we distinguished "superdense" from other networks. In superdense network, not only do all members know each other, but each person interacts independently with all members of the group. I compare it to the Friends TV show where Ross and Monica are friends, but Monica is married to Ross's old college roommate and Ross dates Monica's roommate.

But that's nothing in comparison with my very own Facebook friends wheel with Penn State staff. It's so dense it's string art.

friendwheeledited.gif - each person in circle has a line going to each other person forming a star
Click Image to see larger version

This is a little artificial because I really only joined Facebook because other Penn Staters were in there. On the other hand, it is a good reflection of how Penn State operates - we all have to build mini-relations with each member in the group.

Superdense networks can also be closed if people don't talk to outsiders. Fortunately, I still have a non-Facebook life that's a little more open....I think.

Presidential Comic TIming and Voting for Head of State


It's high Presidental primary season here in Pennsylvania, 2008 and I can't leave this momentous era without SOME kind of observation on the process. I've been watching a lot of primary night analysis, and one thing that few people touch on is the "Head of State" factor.

That is, one of the major duties of the president is to serve as Head of State. Normally this is seen as a "trivial" duty since I think most people associate it with opening the Olympics, attending important funerals or supervising the Easter Egg roll. And yet, I think it's an important sub-conscious factor in our decision making process.

After all the Head of State also has to comfort us in times on national tragedy and also be able to relate to the average citizens he (or she) has to meet and greet. How do we know if a presidential candidate can relate to average citizen? One way is to challenge them to a fish toss in Seattle. Another is to see if they have a sense of humor about themselves - self-deprecating if possible. Abraham Lincoln is maybe the best -known master of the art.

And if you think about our recent successful two-term presidents, you will see that almost of them had a sense of timing regardless of party boundary. On the Democratic side we have Bill Clinton, and the late John Kennedy (his press conferences still make modern audiences laugh). On the Republican side there has been Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush (really).

Chances are that the list I just named has at least one president you absolutely can't stand - but if you watch their quips or speeches for the National Correspondents Dinner, I bet you will see they had a great sense of comic timing. Some of our recent one-term presidents (Carter and Bush I) had more problems with this of self-deprecating comedy, and, sure enough, they were beaten by candidates with better comedic timing. Oddly enough, Nixon is our only recent anomaly - he was never known for great timing yet won two terms. But look at what happened to him!

And for 2008 - does it still matter? We don't know yet, but I submit that at least one candidate is having problems partly because that person has not completely mastered the art of delivering a good quip (a few have backfired very, very badly). It sounds shallow, but I also sense that it can be a sign of deeper issues with the candidate. When all you really know about a candidate is what you see on TV, it's interesting what cues you may have to use.