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.



  1. Hi, Elisa.

    My name is Juan Guevara and i'm a philosophy teacher in Bogotá, Colombia. I've find your pieces on language utterly fascinating. I think it was through Philosophy Matters that I arrived at your essay on Guernica Mag and, looking for a way to read more of you other than twitter (nice account, btw) I've found your blog. This led me to the second piece at The Smart Set, which definitely convinced me to write to you and thank you.

    I would love to have your permission to use your essays on my classes. I believe that they are thought pieces that can be both challenging and rewarding, to both my middle and high school students. I've been working with the middle schoolers on issues of language and structural linguistics, and your take on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis for translation and emoji can be something really fun to work with. As for the high schoolers, we've been discussing feminism, and your take on the politics of dictionaries might be just the example I needed to show them structural tensions and dynamics of power through language.

    I would, off course, credit your essays properly and give them the links, so that they can consult the magazines online. I would like to print copies, though, and distribute them in the classes. This is for the students to underline, highlight main ideas and new words, take notes and all that jazz.

    Let me know if you are ok with this. Again, thank you very much for this amazing pieces. I'll be sure to keep up with your work, and if it happens that I find one of your books around here, you can rest assured i'm going to read it :)

    1. What a lovely note to get. Yes, of course you have my permission to use the essays in your classes. I hope your students enjoy them. Thank you!


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