Saturday, March 12, 2016

Two essays on language

Hi friends! I'm excited to have a feature piece in Guernica's special issue on the future of language. It's about translation across language, culture, and time, and touches on color perception, emoji, fictive details as cultural signifiers and lots of other stuff. You will like it! Here's a taste:
Thought experiment: try to imagine an untranslatable color, a color term from Swedish or Swahili that English has no equivalent concept for. It’s hard because there’s only one spectrum of visible light, and humans all have the same color receptors (red, green, and blue). Once you have a robust color vocabulary it’s easy to describe, or “translate,” any color you can imagine – like X but lighter; like Y but more blue. (Birds’ eyes have a fourth receptor, for ultraviolet; perhaps owls and hawks see untranslatable colors.) 
There is such a thing as an “impossible color,” and ways to trick yourself into “seeing” a shade like “reddish green.” They involve optical illusions, not the kinds of mental gymnastics some people do to visualize multi-dimensional objects like hypercubes. I don’t follow the Twitter account @everycolorbot because—when I see the swatches retweeted into my stream—I often have the jarring, even horrifying impression that the colors are impossible, that my eyes are being forced to process, say, yellow and purple at the same time. I don’t know why this is (subpar screen resolution?), but I wonder if the effect would be lessened if the hues were identified by name versus RGB code, as “celery flake” versus “0xd4d88e.”
You can read the whole thing here. (The rest of the issue is going up this week.)

As a kind of side project to this essay, I wrote a little piece called "Fair Usage" on the politics of dictionaries and the naivete of descriptivism:
However, in the 15 years that have passed since I completed my linguistics degree, I’ve realized that descriptivism can quickly succumb to its own kind of smugness; it forms its own set of shibboleths and rules. There’s often an insider-y smirk lurking behind the declaration that “language changes.” Yes, language changes — everything changes, Q.E.D. But there’s room in the middle for language moderates who can tell the difference between, on the one hand, arbitrary, baseless, unenforceable rules and, on the other, a refusal to correct even obfuscating or harmful errors.