Thursday, November 30, 2006

Forbidden Words: An In-Depth Look at How We Censor Our Language
I was waiting to post about the Allan & Burridge book Forbidden Words: Taboo and the Censoring of Language until it came out in the more affordable paperback form, which it did a week and half ago, but I was distracted by actually reading the book, so now I'm slightly late. But now I have more to say!

The interesting thing about the book is that it isn't exactly what I expected. It deals less with the strictly linguistic, or perhaps sociolinguistic, side of taboo language than I was expecting. What it does go into is a huge amount of fascinating detail about the origins of the underlying taboos themselves, followed up by examples of how the taboos worked themselves into the everyday language, and how some of those taboos and their linguistic remnants have held over into the modern day even though most people like to think of themselves as too smart to believe in any of that stuff anymore.

It also gives some interesting insight into the use of euphemism vs. "politically correct" speech. In general, the chapter on political correctness was informative, because it went into the origins of the idea of "policital correctness," as well as tracing the way the use of the idea and the terms associated with it has changed greatly over the years and depending on who's using it. I haven't read the Lakoff book on reframing the political debate, but it might be especially good to now, to compare it with this chapter.

In addition, I really enjoyed the beginning chapter on the history of taboo and censorship, and the chapter on language "purity." The idea that people decided to declare what was and was not correct usage of English based on Latin rules, when English didn't really descend from Latin, never ceases to amuse me. Of course, as an ESL teacher who would like to teach students how to use English like a real speaker, as opposed to an out-of-date, prescriptivist textbook, it's less amusing and more frustrating, but the writers at Language Log touch on that issue a lot more eruditely than I do, so I'll just say that the chapter on this was another good argument against stupid, arbitrary rules.

A strange side-effect of reading this book for me has been my desire to share all the weird little facts the authors bring up, and then running into the problem of those topics being, well, taboo. Because I had been immersed in the book's discussion, it didn't seem all that shocking to talk about such things, but once I tried to bring them up in a conversation with someone else who didn't have the same context, well... An amusing proof of how powerful taboos are over what we're willing to talk about.

Some weird and random facts I picked up from this book:
- A woman exposing her vagina used to be thought a powerful weapon to repel the devil, and for that reason, many churches in Europe can be found with carved depictions of women exposing themselves over doorways. (Now I want to go to Europe, just to see.)

- Masturbation used to be the standard prescribed treatment for female hysteria, from Hippocrates to the 1920s. It was not prescribed for men.

- Truffles (the mushrooms, not the chocolates) secrete the same hormone as men do through their armpits, making them the only aphrodisiac food with scientific backing.

- Typhoid fever makes people smell like fresh bread, and tuberculosis like stale beer.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Learning to Breathe Again
No, this is not a post about an emotional breakthrough or learning to relax, it is about breathing. Literally. My acupuncturist has been trying to convert me to joys of abdominal breathing. This is, essentially, allowing your stomach to expand when you inhale and thinking about letting your lungs fill up from the bottom up instead of the top down. He tells me this is the more natural way for people to breathe and it's how we breathe as children. Also, it can cure getting a tight upper back and shoulders, because our lungs are attached up there, too, so when we breathe only into the upper part of our chests, we put extra strain on our back and shoulder muscles.

I'm willing to be convinced. I know that it feels like I'm breathing more deeply when I do this. But have you ever tried to retrain yourself in how to breathe? It is so strange to suddenly have to be thinking about my breathing consciously. Standing in line at the post office is a good place to practice, I've discovered, as is walking home. But how in the world did he ever get to the point where it became automatic? He claims it cut down his mile running time from 8 minutes to 5.5 or so, simply because he never seemed to run out of air, but I can't even begin to imagine doing that.

On the other hand, I think part of the reason I wasn't very affected by the altitude back when I was in Chile and Peru, at one point being up at 4500m, was because I've lived all my life as an asthmatic who didn't get enough oxygen anyway. If I train myself to breathe better, will I lose my super powers?

Not that I've been making much use of my super powers. Clearly I should move to some high altitude place and solve crimes by being able to move faster than everyone else. What else could a thin-air breather do to use her powers for good?

Friday, November 17, 2006

Another Take on the News: Al Jazeera Goes English
On Wednesday, Al Jazeera launched their new English language news channel. I happened to be near a TV that night and caught CNN's little blurb of coverage about it. Unsurprisingly, aside from giving the basics about the new channel, with visuals of their multiethnic anchors and lovely studios, the rest of the story from CNN's point of view was about how many people think this is just a horrible development, because Al Jazeera is clearly just an outlet for terrorists. Please.

My own opinion is, of course, that it is a good thing. I honestly find CNN exceedingly annoying, what with their propensity for talking to absolute death every bit of news they consider interesting to the American public, and yet somehow never actually saying anything new the whole time. NPR is better, certainly for American news. For world news I usually turn to the BBC online, but they are also, albeit understandably, a bit Eurocentric. I expect the Al Jazeera English take on the news will be very interesting. How can people not want to hear the perspective of the people from that whole area of the world over there that we seem so involved in right now? Anyone who still thinks the US holds the admiration of the rest of the world has a very active fantasy life, and I suspect they won't be tuning in anyway. For those of us more interested in actually understanding the world around us as it is, perhaps so we might try to work with it instead of just pissing it off all the time, this offers a great deal.

Besides, I always thought one of the most interesting things about living in another country was getting to watch and read that country's news, just to see how different (or similar) it is to the news I'm more familiar with. This will be sort of like getting to visit another region of the world!

Monday, November 13, 2006

I just got back from spending the holiday weekend in Michigan, and I have discovered another not-right sounding word for people from that state.

Previous terms I had heard were: But when we drove past the UMich student publications building, I discovered that their yearbook is "The Michiganenian." The what now? Too many syllables. I have no idea if it is just attending their august institution that confers these extra syllables, or if it meant for all the denizens of the state, but I still don't think they have a winner yet.

I am glad I am from a state that has a simpler name to adjectivize. North Carolina -> North Carolinian. Easy. Yay!

Now we just have to come up with an adjectival form of our country name that doesn't insult all the other countries also located on the American continents, and I'll be golden.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Another Mixed World English
Now joining the ranks of Spanglish, Engrish, Chinglish, and Konglish, among others, the BBC presents Hinglish. The article is no real revelation for anyone who has, say, seen "Bend it Like Beckham," or perhaps even talked to a real live Indian-British-type person. But it offers some amusement nonetheless, such as:
The exporting of words into English has also caught the attention of the south Asian media, with the Times of India reporting: "Brand India has shaken, stirred and otherwise Bangalored the world's consciousness." Yes, "to Bangalore" is another Hinglishism, meaning to send overseas, as in call centres.
And they interviewed the author of the Hinglish dictionary just recently published, who made a point of bringing up the idea that language change and mixing is not a thing to be feared, (an important point here in the US, where at least one politician in my area tried to run on an English-only, anti-immigrant platform.)
"There might be puritans in any culture who say you can only be the master of one language, and that you shouldn't try to cross two languages. But do we only have one fixed identity? I don't think so, I think we can step in and out of different identities - and we can do the same with languages."
For those interested in the book, it is The Queen's Hinglish: How to Speak Pukka.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Milton on Books
I'm currently reading a book (which I'll talk more about later, I'm sure) that quotes extensively from John Milton's Areopagitica in the section about censorship. Two of the fantastic and erudite (it is Milton, after all) passages that caught my eye:
For books are not absolutely dead things, but doe contain a potencie of life in them to be as active as that soule was whose progeny they are; nay they do preserve as in a violl the purest efficacie and extraction of that living intellect that bred them. I know they are lively, and as vigorously productive, as those fabulous Dragons teeth; and being sown up and down, may chance to spring up armed men.

...unlesse warinesse be us'd, as good almost kill a Man as kill a good Book; who kills a man kill a reasonable creature, Gods Image; but he who destroyes a good Booke, kills reason itself, kills the Image of God, as it were in the eye. Many a man lives a burden to the Earth; but a good Booke is the pretious life-blood of a master spirit, imbalm'd and treasur'd up on purpose to a life beyond life.

(Milton 1644: 4)
Yay, books! Lovely, lovely books. Do not scoff at their powers.

And one that seems politically relevant for people in the US pondering election season:
Yet if all cannot be one mind, ... this doubtless is more wholsome, more prudent, and more Christian that many be tolerated, rather than all compell'd.

(Milton 1644: 37)
The authors of the book I'm reading do note that Milton was, of course, thinking only of wealthy white male Protestants at the time, since only they had any say about anything, but some sentiments hold true, even when the contexts change.

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