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Posts Tagged ‘language’

27 SEPTEMBER, 2013

Ironic Serif: A Brief History of Typographic Snark and the Failed Crusade for an Irony Mark


From 17th-century France to digital emoticons, by way of kooky characters and spectacular failures.

In Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks (public library) — a wonderful addition to these stimulating reads about language — language-lover Keith Houston traces the secret history of punctuation, spanning from antiquity to the digital age, from the asterisk to the @-symbol, chronicling the strange and scintillating lives of the characters, glyphs, and marks that populate the nooks and crannies of human communication. Though many of them are familiar staples of everyday life, the most fascinating story is one of punctuational peril — the failed quest for a symbol to denote irony.

Frontispiece illustration by Edward Gorey from Felicia Lamport's 'Scrap Irony,' 1961. Click image for details.

“He was a great friend of mine,” Truman Capote once said of William Faulkner, adding: “Well, as much as you could be a friend of his, unless you were a fourteen-year-old nymphet.” Without our capacity for comprehending irony, Capote’s literary snark would’ve rung hollow and nonsensical. And yet irony — along with its kin, snark and sarcasm — is an art form that thrives on the spoken word, relying on intonation and body language to distinguish it from the literal, so it’s had a particularly rocky run translating into written language. That’s precisely what Houston explores in the chapter on irony and sarcasm, beginning with a historical and linguistic backdrop:

The concept of irony got its name — though not yet an attendant mark of punctuation — in ancient Greece, where playwrights employed a cast of stock characters made recognizable by their physical characteristics, props, and personalities. One such staple of comic plays was the eirôn, a seeming buffoon who would best the alazon, his braggart opponent, by means of self-deprecation and feigned ignorance, and it was the cunning eirôn who gave his name first to the Greek eirôneia and then to the modern term “irony.”

In the ancient world, however, humorists relied on their audience’s intellect to detect the irony and didn’t find it necessary to flag it as such. But by 17th-century England, writers had become increasingly restless about pointing out irony readers might miss, and so the first documented punctuation mark denoting irony was born in 1668, the brainchild of the English vicar and natural philosopher John Wilkins — brother-in-law of the royalists’ bête noire Oliver Cromwell, one-time head of Trinity College (of which pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell wrote in her diaries that “in the opinion of a Cambridge man, to be master of Trinity is to be master of the world”), and eventually appointed as the first secretary of the newly founded Royal Society. Wilkins was a kooky character, who believed the moon was inhabited by aliens, proposed the construction of submarine “Arks,” invented transparent beehives that allowed for the extraction of honey without killing the bees inside, and wrote the very first book on cryptography published in English. But his most memorable accomplishment was the publication of his Essay Towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language, in which he proposed, two centuries before the invention of Esperanto, a new universal language of letters and symbols — a sort of “steroidal, all-encompassing Dewey Decimal System where concepts were organized into a rigid hierarchy.” More than a mere linguistic diversion, however, Houston argues the concept bespoke the era’s growing concern with information overload:

The Renaissance had generated an explosion of information, with knowledge and ideas spreading like wildfire among an increasing literate and scientific populace. Latin, however, once the go-to language for international scholarly discourse, was in decline. More seriously, a new breed of “natural philosophers” understood that the biases and limitations of natural language in general made it an imperfect tool for communicating the new body of scientific knowledge: to Wilkins and his contemporaries, the notion of a purpose-built, universal language with which to analyze and transmit this information held a powerful fascination. Thus it was that the mid-seventeenth century saw the invention of a succession of “philosophical languages” and “real characters,” artificial taxonomies of things and concepts that were, crucially, free from the myriad complexities of linguistic evolution.

So how does the irony mark fit into all this? Houston explains:

In addition to this taxonomy, however, Wilkins strayed into punctuation and writing, and in doing so made a curious innovation: he declared that irony should be punctuated with an inverted exclamation mark (¡).

What prompted Wilkins to propose this punctuational improvement remains unknown, but we do know that he was neither the only nor the first thinker who pondered the problem. Some sixty years earlier, the revered Dutch Renaissance humanist and social critic Desiderius Erasmus, after whom Rotterdam’s prestigious Erasmus University is named, lamented the lack of punctuation for irony, observing that “irony has no place, only different pronunciation.” Whether or not Wilkins was aware of Erasmus’s musings is subject to speculation, but Houston commends the Englishman’s effort:

Regardless of his inspiration … Wilkins’s choice of the ¡ seems most appropriate. The presence of an exclamation mark already modifies the tone of a statement, and inverting it to yield an i-like character both hints at the implied i-rony and simultaneously suggests the inversion of its meaning.

And yet Wilkins’s was only one of many proposed irony marks — and the first of many famous failures to make one stick:

By the end of the seventeenth century the idea that a messy, chaotic universe could be brought to order with a manmade taxonomy had been proven quixotic, and the dream of a universal language with which to express that taxonomy had largely faded. Wilkins’s Essay, last best hope for the ill-fated universal-language movement, is nowadays regarded as a glorious failure; his little-remarked inverted exclamation point sank along with it, seemingly without trace. A fateful precedent had been set.

Nearly two centuries later, the effort was resurrected across the English Channel, where the surveyor Jean-Baptiste-Ambroise-Marcellin Jobard — an early champion of lithography and another kooky character who studied the propagation of the human voice using hundreds of feet of pipes and designed an elaborate system of gaslights to light his home — proposed a peculiar series of Christmas-tree-like glyphs to denote irony. In an October 1841 article in Le Courrier Belge, the newspaper of record in his adopted home of Brussels, where he had settled in 1819, he exorcised his exasperation over Europe’s chaotic politics:

What to say? What △ (1) when France stamps and prances impatiently to get on the battlefield, when Spain, tired of a truce of some months, again engages in civil war, Belgium remains quietly occupied by industry, trade, railways and colonization! But this is absurd.

Beneath the article, throughout which the glyph appeared several more times, a footnote (1) explained: “This is an irony point.” Houston writes:

Though his new mark went unused after this first outing, Jobard returned to the subject in a book published in 1842. Expanding his palette of nonstandard punctuation marks, he suggested that the same arrowlike symbol could be placed at different orientations to indicate “a point of irritation, an indignation point, a point of hesitation,” and mused that other symbols, yet to be invented, might be used to convey sympathy or antipathy, affliction or satisfaction, and loud or quiet exclamations.

And yet Jobard, like his English counterpart two decades earlier, failed to make his invention stick:

A great intellectual of his time, Jobard’s works are only dimly remembered within the Francophone world and have been almost wholly forgotten outside it. Fascinated by spiritualism in the latter part of his life, Jobard wrote a great deal on the subject. This obsession dominated and diminished his legacy to such an extent that it has all but disappeared. Abandoned by its maker after a brief flirtation, his irony mark has suffered a similar fate.

Eleven years later, Jobard’s lament over the lack of written equivalent to the vocal intonations of irony was echoed by none other than education icon Jean-Jacques Rousseau, but Rousseau himself didn’t propose a solution. The next crusader for an irony mark, who actually proposed a practical implementation, was the poet Marcel Bernhardt, who in 1899 devised a new symbol reminiscent of a stylized mirror-image question mark. Houston explains:

Alcanter’s point d’ironie dripped with knowing humor: in a nod to the sentiment often conveyed by verbal irony , he described it as “taking the form of a whip,” and, aware that irony loses its sting when it must be signposted in exactly the manner he was proposing, the French name for his new symbol was a pun with the additional meaning of “no irony.”

Alcanter de Brahm’s ‘whiplike’ point d’ironie, proposed in 1899

But Brahm, too, built upon the work of thinkers who predated him. Three centuries earlier, Henry Denham dreamt up the “percontation point” — a reversed question mark used at the end of rhetorical questions, of which Brahm’s later character was strikingly reminiscent. This tells us little more than that the irony mark was not destined for greatness:

Both Denham’s percontation point and Brahm’s point d’ironie fared better than Wilkins’s inverted exclamation mark and Jobard’s Christmas tree, though neither one quite made the jump to common use. Benefiting, perhaps, from the malleable standards of sixteenth-century punctuation, Denham’s percontation point puttered on for around fifty years, while Brahm’s fin-de-siècle irony mark merited an entry in the Nouveau Larousse Illustré encyclopedia, preserved behind glass, as it were, until 1960. In their respective times, neither amounted to anything more than a grammatical curiosity. The curse of the irony mark remained in force.

Hervé Bazin’s menagerie of proposed punctuation marks, including the psi-like 'point d’ironie'

In the 1960s, however, one of France’s most prominent authors, Hervé Bazin, took it upon himself to break the curse. In his 1966 tome Plumons l’oiseau, a playful push for spelling and grammar reform, he dedicated several pages to what he termed Les points d’intonation, or “intonation points” — a solution to the same lack of nuance in written language that Rousseau had bemoaned more than a century earlier. Bazin created an entire system of symbols, including the “love point,” “conviction point,” “authority point,” “acclamation point,” “doubt point,” and his newly proposed point d’ironie, which Bazin explained thusly:

This is an arrangement of the Greek letter Ψ. This letter (psi) is an arrow in the bow, corresponding to ps: that is to say the sound of that same arrow in the air. What could be better to denote irony?

Alas, Bazin’s arrow missed the target and suffered the same fate as its predecessors, perishing in obscurity. Nearly half a century later, in 2007, the quest was resumed during the annual Dutch book festival, themed “In Praise of Folly — Jest, Irony and Satire” that year. Pan-European type foundry Underware was commissioned to create a special punctuation mark for the occasion and thus the ironieteken was born — a zigzaggy exclamation point denoting irony. But despite significant buzz across Dutch literary circles — including some criticism that, when placed in a row of several, it bore an unfortunate resemblance to the Nazi swastika — the mark quickly fizzled.

Left to right: Underware’s ironieteken as rendered in 72pt Dolly, Century Catalogue, Share, and Cardo typefaces

This raises the necessary question of what it is, exactly, that makes representing irony typographically so catastrophic. As someone who finds even the use of italics for emphasis, with very limited exceptions, a mark of weakness of style — if a writer can’t wield language in a way that produces organic emotional crescendos, how pitiful to try forcing those typographically — I see the answer as obvious: Irony thrives on an implicit juxtaposition of contextual intention and literal meaning, so as soon as we make it explicit, it stops being ironic.

Perhaps ironically, a separate crusade for a textual signifier of irony comes precisely in the form of a script — a reverse-italics typeface called Ironics, attributed to the iconoclastic journalist H. L. Mencken, who believed Americans were unable to recognize irony and thus needed a special typeface to indicate that the writer was being facetious. But Houston is careful to point out that attribution is murky and Mencken is credited with the invention of ironics more by virtue of popular myth than of historical record. In fact, Houston cites a 1982 article which identifies British journalist and politician Tom Driberg (1905-1976) as the likely originator of ironics:

Long ago the late Tom Driberg proposed that typographers should design a new face, which would slope the opposite way from italics, and would be called “ironics”. In this type-face jokes would be set, and no-one would have any excuse for failing to see them. Until this happy development takes place, I am left with the only really useful thing journalism has taught me: that there is no joke so obvious that some bloody fool won’t miss the point.

Driberg was arguably the strangest character of all irony-crusaders. Houston describes him:

Tom Driberg’s life was a mess of ironies: he was a married, gay churchman who lunched with occultists; a left-wing politician who reveled in frivolous society gossip; a patriot who spied both for his country and the dreaded KGB. It seems entirely apt for him to have proposed the creation of a typeface to invest text with a double meaning, which would be slanted the opposite way from italics, and that would be called “ironics.”

But Driberg’s public image was dragged down after his death — curiously, his Times obituary made him the very first homosexual person outed in the paper’s history — and along with it sank the dream of ironics.

Then came the internet, which changed the whole game:

The subtle shadings of verbal irony were bleached flat in the blinding glare of the new medium: what the Internet really wanted to communicate was not irony, but its laser-guided offspring, sarcasm.

As UNICODE — the definitive character library defining more than 109,000 symbols from multiple ancient and modern scripts, including Latin, Greek, Arabic, Cyrillic, Chinese, cuneiform, and more — emerged as the linguistic overlord of web characters, the quest for an irony symbol now had to abide by its rules. And so in 1999, a group of Ethiopian language geeks lobbied for the inclusion of an Ethiopian colloquialism denoting irony into the UNICODE set, writing:

Graphically indistinguishable from [the inverted exclamation point] (¡) Temherte Slaq differs in semantic use in Ethiopia. Temherte Slaq will come at the end of a sentence (vs at the beginning in Spanish use) and is used to indicate an unreal phrase, often sarcastical in editorial cartoons. Temherte Slaq is also important in children’s literature and in poetic use.

Ironically, everything came full circle as the digital irony mark returned to Wilkins’s original analog concept. Like its analog brethren, however, the proposed UNICODE character didn’t catch on. Instead, the internet embraced emoticons, which use standard UNICODE punctuation, as the textual signifier of emotional intonation. Curiously, emoticons weren’t an invention of the digital age — they originated in 1881 … but that’s another story.

The very first use of emoticons, Puck Magazine, 1881. Click image for details.

Shady Characters goes on to examine the origins, evolution, and anthropology of such typographic darlings as the hashtag, the ampersand, and the colophon. More than a mere catalog of curious trivia, it’s an absolutely fascinating blend of history, design, sociology, and cultural poetics — highly recommended.

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27 SEPTEMBER, 2013

What Elvish, Klingon, and Dothraki Reveal about Real Language & the Essence of Human Communication


Why a good language, like a good life, requires both rules and messiness.

Language, Darwin believed, was not a conscious invention but a phenomenon “slowly and unconsciously developed by many steps.” But what makes a language a language? In this short animation from TED Ed, linguist John McWhorter, author of the indispensable The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language (public library), explores the fascinating world of fantasy constructed languages — known as conlangs — from Game of Thrones’ Dothraki to Avatar’s Na’vi to Star Trek’s Klingon to Lord of the Rings’ Elvish. Though fictional, these conlangs reveal a great deal about the fundamentals of real human communication and help us understand the essential components of a successful language — extensive vocabulary, consistent grammar rules but peppered with exceptions, and just the right amount of room for messiness and evolution.

We can see the difference between vocabulary alone and what makes a real language from a look at how Tolkien put together grand old Elvish, a conlang with several thousand words. After all, you can memorize 5,000 words of Russian and still be barely able to construct a sentence — a 4-year-old would talk rings around you. That’s because you have to know how to put the words together — that is, a real language has grammar; Elvish does. … Real languages also change over time — there’s no such thing as a language that’s the same today as it was 1,000 years ago: As people speak, they drift into new habits, shed old ones, make mistakes, and get creative. … Real languages are messy — that’s because they change, and change has a way of working against order. … Real languages are never perfectly logical — that’s why Tolkien made sure Elvish had plenty of exceptions.

Complement with this illustrated vintage guide to the science of language and the fascinating story of how Darwin shaped our understanding of why language exists.

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28 AUGUST, 2013

The Shape of Spectacular Speech: An Infographic Analysis of What Made MLK’s “I Have a Dream” Great


The poetics of presenting, or why beautiful metaphors are better than beautiful slides.

On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. rose to the top of the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and delivered his legendary “I Have a Dream” speech before 250,000 civil rights supporters. It would go on to reverberate through the nation, reaching millions more, and through history, inspiring generations and forever changing the course of culture. But how can sixteen minutes of human speech have the power to move millions and steer history?

That’s exactly what presentation design guru Nancy Duarte, author of Resonate: Present Visual Stories that Transform Audiences (public library), probes as she analyzes the shape of Dr. King’s speech and what made it so monumentally impactful — a modern-day, infographic-powered version of Kurt Vonnegut’s iconic lecture on the shapes of stories exploring oration rather than narrative.

Duarte notes the Dr. King spoke in short bursts more reminiscent of poetry than of long-winded lecture-speak and highlights his most powerful rhetorical devices — repetition, metaphors, visual words, references to political documents, citations from sacred texts and spiritual songs — in a fascinating visualization of the speech, demonstrating how it embodies the core principles of her book.

Duarte followed up Resonate with Harvard Business Review’s HBR Guide to Persuasive Presentations, offering more specific strategies for honing the power of presentation, where she places special emphasis on the far-reaching power of metaphor and writes:

Metaphors are a powerful literary device. In Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, about 20% of what he said was metaphorical. For example, he likened his lack of freedom to a bad check that America has given the Negro people … a check that has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.'” King introduced his metaphor three minutes into his 16-minute talk, and it was the first time the audience roared and clapped.

Pair with five things every presenter should know about people and some timeless advice on how to give a great presentation.

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19 AUGUST, 2013

The Magic of Metaphor: What Children’s Minds Reveal about the Evolution of the Imagination


“Metaphorical thinking … is essential to how we communicate, learn, discover, and invent.”

“Children help us to mediate between the ideal and the real,” MoMA’s Juliet Kinchin wrote in her fascinating design history of childhood. Indeed, children have a penchant for disarming clarity and experience reality in ways profoundly different from adults, in the process illuminating the workings of our own minds. But among the most curious of these mediations of reality is children’s understanding of abstraction in language, which is precisely what James Geary explores in a chapter of his altogether enthralling I Is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World (public library).

But first, Geary examines the all-permeating power of metaphor:

Metaphor is most familiar as the literary device through which we describe one thing in terms of another, as when the author of the Old Testament Song of Songs describes a lover’s navel as “a round goblet never lacking mixed wine” or when the medieval Muslim rhetorician Abdalqahir Al-Jurjani pines, “The gazelle has stolen its eyes from my beloved.”

Yet metaphor is much, much more than this. Metaphor is not just confined to art and literature but is at work in all fields of human endeavor, from economics and advertising, to politics and business, to science and psychology. … There is no aspect of our experience not molded in some way by metaphor’s almost imperceptible touch. Once you twig to metaphor’s modus operandi, you’ll find its fingerprints on absolutely everything.

Metaphorical thinking — our instinct not just for describing but for comprehending one thing in terms of another, for equating I with an other — shapes our view of the world, and is essential to how we communicate, learn, discover, and invent.

Metaphor is a way of thought long before it is a way with words.

Children, it turns out, are on the one hand skilled and intuitive weavers of original metaphors and, on the other, utterly (and, often, humorously) stumped by common adult metaphors, revealing that metaphor is both evolutionarily rooted and culturally constructed. Citing a primatologist’s study of a bonobo, humans’ closest living relative, who was able to construct simple metaphors after learning to use symbols and a keyboard, Geary traces the developmental evolution of children’s natural metaphor-making ability:

Children share with bonobos an instinctive metaphor-making ability. … Most early childhood metaphors are simple noun-noun substitutions… These metaphors tend to emerge first during pretend play, when children are between the ages of twelve and twenty-four months. As psychologist Alan Leslie proposed in his theory of mind, children at this age start to create metarepresentations through which they imaginatively manipulate both the objects around them and their ideas about those objects. At this stage, metaphor is, literally, child’s play. During pretend play, children effortlessly describe objects as other objects and then use them as such. A comb becomes a centipede; cornflakes become freckles; a crust of bread becomes a curb.

Children’s natural gift for rich and vivid metaphors, Geary argues, is propelled by the same driving force of our own adult creativity, pattern-recognition. Because kids’ pattern-recognition circuits aren’t yet stifled by narrow conventions of thinking and classification, they are able to produce a cornucopia of metaphorical expressions — but only few of them actually make sense. The reason is that successful metaphors hang on perceptual similarities, and in the best of them these similarities are more abstract than literal, but children are only able to comprehend the more obvious similarities as their developmental psychology evolves toward abstraction. Geary cites an illustrative study:

Children listened to short stories that ended with either a literal or metaphorical sentence. In a story about a little girl on her way home, for example, the literal ending was “Sally was a girl running to her home,” while the metaphoric ending was “Sally was a bird flying to her nest.”

Researchers asked the children to act out the stories using a doll. Five- to six-year-olds tended to move the Sally doll through the air when the last sentence was “Sally was a bird flying to her nest,” taking the phrase literally. Eight- to nine-year-olds, however, tended to move her quickly across the ground, taking the phrase metaphorically.

In his brilliant picture-book 'People,' French illustrator Blexbolex uses visual, perceptual similarities to make clever commentary on conceptual ideas. Click image for details.

Another study, conducted by legendary social psychologist Solomon Asch and his collaborator Harriet Nerlove in the 1960s, demonstrated a different facet of the same phenomenon by testing children’s comprehension of so-called “double function terms,” such as “warm,” “cold,” “bitter,” and “sweet,” which in their literal sense refer to physical sensations, but in the abstract can describe human temperament and personality:

To trace the development of double function terms in children, Asch and Nerlove presented groups of kids with a collection of different objects — ice water, sugar cubes, powder puffs — and asked them to identify the ones that were cold, sweet, or soft. This, of course, they were easily able to do.

Asch and Nerlove then asked the children, Can a person be cold? Can a person be sweet? Can a person be soft? While preschoolers understood the literal physical references, they did not understand the metaphorical psychological references. They described cold people as those not dressed warmly; hard people were those with firm muscles. One preschooler described his mother as “sweet” but only because she cooked sweet things, not because she was nice.

Asch and Nerlove observed that only between the ages of seven and ten did children begin to understand the psychological meanings of these descriptions. Some seven- and eight-year-olds said that hard people are tough, bright people are cheerful, and crooked people do bad things. But only some of the eleven- and twelve-year-olds were able to actually describe the metaphorical link between the physical condition and the psychological state. Some nine- and ten-year-olds, for instance, were able to explain that both the sun and bright people “beamed.” Children’s metaphorical competence, it seems, is limited to basic perceptual metaphors, at least until early adolescence.

Younger children’s inability to understand how a physical state could be mapped onto a psychological one, Geary argues, has to do with kids’ lack of life experience in observing how physical circumstances — like, say, poverty or violence — can impact a person’s character, which, as we know, is constantly evolving and responsive to life:

Children have trouble understanding more sophisticated metaphors because they have not yet had the life experiences needed to acquire the relevant cache of associated commonplaces.

What this tells us is that while the hardware for making metaphors may be in-born, the software is earned and learned through living. This learning, Geary explains by pointing to cognitive scientist Dedre Gentner’s work, takes place in stages marked by a “sliding scale of increasingly complex similes:”

[Gentner] presented three different age groups — five- to six-year-olds, nine- to ten-year-olds, and college students — with three different kinds of similes.

Attributional similes, such as “Pancakes are like nickels,” were based on physical similarities; both are round and flat. Relational similes, such as “A roof is like a hat,” were based on functional similarity; both sit on top of something to protect it. Double similes, such as “Plant stems are like drinking straws,” were based on physical as well as functional similarities; both are long and cylindrical and both bring liquid from below to nourish a living thing.

Gentner found that youngsters in all age groups had no problem comprehending the attributional similes. But only the older kids understood the relational and double similes. In subsequent research, Gentner has found that giving young children additional context enhances their ability to pick up on the kind of relational comparisons characteristic of more complex metaphors.

Some of history's most celebrated children's books, like Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, are woven of metaphors exploring life's complexities. Click for more.

Thus, as children’s cognition develops and their understanding of the world evolves, their metaphorical range becomes more expansive — something equally true of us grown-ups, as Geary reminds us:

Any metaphor is comprehensible only to the extent that the domains from which it is drawn are familiar.

But this is where it gets most interesting: While this familiarity might be the foot in the door of understanding, a great metaphor is also an original one, thus forming new, uncommon associations of common elements rather than relying merely on the familiar ones — a beautiful manifestation of combinatorial creativity at play. And therein lies the magic:

This is one of the marvels of metaphor. Fresh, successful metaphors do not depend on conventional pre-existing associations. Instead, they highlight novel, unexpected similarities not particularly characteristic of either the source or the target — at least until the metaphor itself points them out.

I Is an Other is endlessly illuminating in its entirety, exploring how metaphors influence our experience and understanding of everything from politics to science to money. It follows Geary’s equally fascinating The World in a Phrase: A History of Aphorisms and Geary’s Guide to the World’s Great Aphorists.

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