Category Archives: language

NYC Streets in Chinese AND English

Yesterday I heard an intriguing and amusing story on This American Life about the multiple names and nick-names used by native Chinese speakers for NYC streets, all informed by cultural and linguistic know-how. My favorite bit was how Thaddeus Kosciusko Bridge is known by the dispatchers and customers to be “the Japanese Guy Bridge”  – because its numerous vowels and consonants are suggestive to them of a Japanese name.

The dispatchers – and their clients – are taking ownership of the geography in order to make it work for them.  I crack up trying to imagine how I would relish this same help when I’m spending time in places where I’m completely lost in the language. In Vietnam, Jordan, and China, I did my best to memorize the letters and shapes of words to help me find the (correct) bathroom.  These ad hoc strategies and solutions that people create on a larger scale are fascinating.

The story is only 6 minutes. Listen for yourself and enjoy.

Most popular stories are MAPS!

It turns out that what readers of the (online) New York Times looked at more than anything else in 2013 was actually a series of maps.  An interactive webpage that generated maps when people responded to a series of dialect prompts.  Why so popular? People like to answer simple, online, multiple-choice questions, especially about themselves. People like to reminisce about their childhood places, where their pronunciations of words were first fixed.  People needed a distraction from the end-of-the-year activities in chaotic December.  People had more unstructured and free time to hang out online over the holidays.

It doesn’t really matter why. I just like the way the application’s developers describe the statistical patterns, and the way that geography and language are naturally linked. And I love every chance available for people to become aware of geographic patterns.


Geographical Distributions of Language Usage

Another clever use of geocoded Tweets, to see where profanity emerges. Patterns of profanity. Profane patterns.

Reminds me of this version too, at the State level. Search for words, watch trends as word usage waxes and wanes.

the language of space

There’s a fascinating article in today’s New York Times Magazine on connections between language and space, geographic and otherwise. If you like these ideas, also check out the works of Stephen Pinker. I’ve been reading his The Stuff of Thought this summer and makes references to these ideas throughout.

Reading this reminds me of how much I enjoy cognitive studies, from an armchair perspective. Understanding how we think and learn is fascinating stuff.

>those silly French words

>11-year-old Eric: Uh, Mom, what’s the name of this thing here in the bathroom that you use to wash your butt? A beignet*?

Mom: Uh, no, Eric. That’s a bidet. And stop spraying the water everywhere!

* The only reason my son knows the word beignet is that I brought him and his sisters a box of the mix for these French doughnuts after I visited New Orleans last year.

>Argentina 2, Day 6

>When we were walking around earlier this week I saw a sign in a window that said “Busco Ovejero Alemán.” I stumbled over ovejero. From ovo (egg)? “Looking for German Eggmaker”? “Looking for German Stud”? Nah, too many World War II connotations. Ah, from ovejo. Sheep. “Looking for German Sheeper.” Or, perhaps German Shepherd makes more sense. This is the land of dogs. Got house? Got dog. Or two, or three. Even more so since the economic collapse 5 1/2 years ago, and people are feeling less secure than ever so everyone has a dog. Not the tiny yappy ones popular around Southern California, but large barky ones who excel at intimidating. A siren last night tipped off a chorus of guard dogs from all directions. Made me miss my two quiet cats, who would be lousy guards.