Archive for the ‘Language/Linguistics’ Category


Friday Blincoln Blog

June 20, 2008

When Lincoln was running for president he was routinely called “the western candidate” or “the candidate from the West” and other variations. In that time the western states truly were backwaters and the people from the area were often demeaned as hayseeds, rubes, and the like. Casting Lincoln in that role was purposeful baiting. Stephen Douglas, during his historic debates with the future Emancipator, referred explicitly and implicitly to Lincoln’s less-than-cosmopolitan upbringing as a way of turning the crowds against him.

Of course such political liabilities have been turned on their heads in recent years. Contemporary presidents have all made every effort to downplay their elite childhoods or Ivy League educations. Bill Clinton, although a Rhodes Scholar, famously ate at McDonalds during his morning jogs and wore boxers. His nickname was “Bubba.”

George Bush and Ronald Reagan were sure to get photographed on their ranches. Et cetera.

Although we now look back on Lincoln’s childhood in rural Kentucky and Indiana as a kind of moral play–an inspiration for poor children across the country–Lincoln was never proud of it. He refused to romanticize the life of subsistence farming as many of his political contemporaries did, and he was ashamed of his lack of formal education.

But Lincoln was a powerful intellect by any measure. Although he lacked the advantage of a schoolroom, he was sure to provide himself the education he needed. As this Lincoln Bicentennial blog reminds us, Lincoln was a book devourer, famously reading borrowed books by candle and fire lights. He taught himself to write by scratching the alphabet onto the dirt on a shovel, and so on and so on.

But my favorite image of Lincoln’s dogged pursuit of self-edification is one remembered by a colleague of Lincoln’s while they were sharing a room while running the court circuit–of having come home from some event or other that Lincoln was curiously absent from. Returning to their room he opened the door to find Lincoln surrounded by crumpled pieces of paper, his fingers stained with ink. After having worked his way through much of Euclid’s geometry on his own, Lincoln had spent the evening trying to square the circle.

It is hard to think of any modern politicians being so distracted.

Photo from flickr user Angie C used under Creative Commons License.


Sameer Mishra wins Scripps National Spelling Bee

June 9, 2008

Congratulations to West Lafayette resident Sameer Mishra, who, with the winning word of guerdon is the 2008 Scripps National Spelling Bee Champion.

A guerdon, for those of you who, like me, have no idea what it means, is a reward or prize, an accolade–which, to me, seems a pretty fitting word to win with.

This here You Tube clip starts with the numnah/numbnut bit that you may have already seen on the news and then highlights various words he spelled on his way to victory. Unfortunately the huge AP logo blocks the correct spelling of each word so let me assure you, he spells them all right.


The Other Cultural View

May 29, 2008

Like a lot of people, I sometimes use Wikipedia to check a quick fact (“Fargo is not the capital of North Dakota?!). I wasn’t quite satisfied, though, with the Wikipedia entry for the word “kata,” an idea that is central to Japanese culture.

Wikipedia tells us that kata are choreographed patterns of movements, primarily in the martial arts. My sense of kata is more general: that there are certain traditional “ways” of doing things, such as the way of Zen, the way of writing, the way of business, and so on.

At first glance, it seems that the cultural message is not to deviate from that which is taught. But I think it becomes something else: to understand thoroughly in order to know what alternatives exist. When you learn what is correct, you are ready to innovate.

Such a concept is not natural to us in the West, in other words, not intuitive in our culture. The great value of Eastern thought, it seems to me, is to show us what we are not and thus what we are.

Still, I can think of two places in American culture where the intense discipline of kata can be found. One is sports — so perhaps the martial arts are in fact the proper venue for kata. The other is computer programming, where knowing what is correct is the entrance to much innovation. Not surprisingly, there is such a thing as Code Kata.

Boye Lafayette De Mente has a good book on Kata: The Key to Understanding and Dealing with the Japanese.

This entry was posted by: Nancy

What Does 2 billion English as a Second Language Mean for the Future of the Language

May 29, 2008

Christian Rolling, Mark Liberman, Henry Hitchings, and John Hayden all share thoughts on how globalization will affect English (or effect ‘glocal’ dialects of English) over at the Freakonomics blog. As Mark Liberman of Language Log (and the University of Pennsylvania) notes:

The obvious things to say about this are, well, obvious. But not everything that’s obvious is entirely true, and there are some surprises behind the “duh”s.

A point that makes all the commentary and some of the comments worth checking out.

This entry was posted by: Jim