Category Archives: Language


2017-10-03

What’s the Matter with Biblical Scholarship? Part 1

by Tim Widowfield

The king is a what?

We had finally made an end-to-end connection from an automated teller machine (ATM), through our alarm-correlation engine, and into our trouble-ticketing system. Actually, we probably simulated something like a paper jam, but the free text description that went along with that alarm type contained this message: The King Is a Fink!”

Why? We were following an old tradition. At NCR, it signified a successful test. Over at HP, I’m told, they would transmit the sentence, “My hovercraft is full of eels!” So I suppose their chief engineer liked to watch Monty Python, while NCR’s enjoyed the comic strip, The Wizard of Id.

It was the late 1990s, and I was a contractor visiting the development team in Copenhagen, Denmark. They had other traditions there, too. Later that afternoon, we celebrated our success in the break room, where they offered me truly awful champagne (deliberately so) and some bright pink marshmallow peeps. I declined the peeps, having become a vegetarian ten years earlier.

At some point during the celebration, somebody asked to nobody in particular, “What is a fink?” I paused to think about that one. How would you define that word in terms a Dane or, for that matter, any non-English speaker would understand? My mind wandered to “Rat Pfink a Boo Boo” — and how would you ever explain that?

Before I could answer, a Danish woman who had spent her teens in the U.S. said, “It’s a bird. It’s supposed to be a ‘finch.’ The king is a finch.” Some nodded. Others were still perplexed. After all, why would you compare a monarch to a bird? read more »


2017-08-21

So Language Did Not Originate for Communication?

by Neil Godfrey

This video clip of part of a Chomsky talk on language and its origins has to be one of the most fascinating discussions that I have heard. Warning: one must be alert to keep up with the argument; it’s not for drowsy late-time listening.

He is saying that latest research indicates language did not originate as a tool for communication but communication was a by-product of a problem-solving ability. That makes me feel a bit better when I find myself unable to articulate something I think I understand; but then I’m reminded that Chomsky once said (relying upon my faulty memory here) we don’t know what we are really thinking until we express it.

Does anyone know when and where the talk was originally given? The upload date is August 17 but I doubt that’s the date of the talk itself. I was alerted to it because it supposedly had something shocking to say about blacks, but found out there was much, much more to the half-hour segment.

You’ll need to rewind the video back to start….


2016-09-11

September 11 and the Surveillance State

by Tim Widowfield

There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. but at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You have to live – did live, from habit that became instinct – in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized. (George Orwell, 1984, Chapter 1)

Our world, sixteen years after 11 September 2001, has changed dramatically in both subtle and obvious ways. We scarcely notice one of the most all-encompassing changes, namely the loss of privacy in almost every facet of our lives. Cameras track us everywhere we go. Our credit card payments betray our every purchase. Our cell phones share our GPS locations. We voluntarily tell people where we are, where we’re going, what we’re eating, and what we’re thinking on social media platforms.

Mostly, we relinquished our illusion of privacy without a peep. Our language shows the voluntary nature of our loss: We share with people, and simultaneously, we share with our governments. Once upon a time in the West, we trusted our governments to spy only on suspects. If they gathered enough evidence, they might arrest those suspects. But now our governments “surveil” those whom it deems “persons of interest.” If those persons act “suspiciously,” they may be “detained.”

Presumably, we allowed these changes to occur because of 9/11, specifically, because our intelligence agencies had failed. Surely, if a small band of terrorists could bring down skyscrapers in Manhattan and strike the Pentagon, someone must have failed somewhere. We can’t deny that. But exactly where did that failure occur? read more »


2016-09-05

“Welcome on Board!”

by Tim Widowfield

I’ve been flying more than usual lately, and I can’t help but notice this new way of welcoming people aboard aircraft. Though not yet universal, at least half the time (presumably when following the company script) flight attendants smile and say, “Welcome on board.” The use of the locative instead of the accusative case sounds odd to my ears. It’s as strange as saying . . .

"Welcome in Sherwood!"

“Welcome in Sherwood!”

I have to remind myself, of course, that the phenomenon of case collapse has been slowly marching forward for decades, if not centuries. We still have, for example, the accusative forms “whither” and “thither,” but they sound so hopelessly old-fashioned that we rarely use them.  read more »


2015-09-28

Nazzeyes, Clavdivs, and the Pentatoik

by Tim Widowfield

I grew up in a small city in eastern Ohio, right on the border with Pennsylvania, a tiny place called East Palestine. The story goes that back in the 19th century to escape higher taxes in their home states, a number of industrialists set up shop in the first town on the Ohio and Pennsylvania Railroad (later called the Pittsburgh, Fort Wayne and Chicago Railway). That’s how my little town became a base for the pottery industry from 1880 on into the 1960s. Border towns like Steubenville and East Liverpool also attracted the pottery manufacturers. Those cities used the Ohio River to move goods, while our little town relied on the Pennsylvania Railroad to take our wares to Chicago or Pittsburgh (and beyond).

A view to a kiln

A bottle kiln in Gladstone Pottery Museum, England

A bottle kiln in Gladstone Pottery Museum, England (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My mother worked in one of those potteries. Many women did. As I recall, my dad’s mother and at least one of his sisters worked there too. On that side of the family, they still called it the pott’ry, following their English forebears. My mother didn’t. She grew up on a farm, and all her folk called it the pottery.

Once when I was very young, I visited my mom at work, and watched her as she affixed handles to cups. They were still soft and pale gray. She would quickly wipe them down with a damp sponge to remove any excess clay and to smooth out the surface.

“I’m getting them ready for the kiln,” she said. She pronounced it KILL, and so I was taken aback. They were going to be killed? She noticed my confusion and explained that it was a huge oven that baked the clay. And even though we spell it “k-i-l-n,” everyone there pronounced it kill.

Not only did everyone in the pottery call it the kill, but they used it as a marker. Only an outsider would get it wrong. Everyone on the inside knew the “right” way to pronounce it.

I worked in The Building

Many years later, I had a similar experience while working in the intelligence field. In those days, we were reluctant even to utter the words “National Security Agency” or even the letters “NSA.” We’d sometimes refer to it in public as “No Such Agency.” When my wife and I lived on Ft. Meade, we’d often use the euphemism The Building, as in the sentence: “I’m headed over to The Building.” read more »