Category Archives: language

Hillary Rodham Clinton: Keep Going

Hillary Rodham Clinton delivered the commencement address to the 2017 graduating class at her alma mater, Wellesley College. I watched a livestream and was inspired and encouraged by many of her statements, and a bit disgruntled when so much of the subsequent news coverage I saw highlighted only the bits that referred to President Trump. hillary wellesley media coverageThe giddy headlines exclaiming “trolled” and “major shade!” and the isolated clips of her references to impeachment or crowd sizes are a gross mischaracterization of the overall message of her speech. These headlines all focus on Trump, but the core of her message was confirming to the young women graduating that they are empowered to shape our country’s future. She gave advice and encouragement that can benefit all Americans.

hillary quote2

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Revisiting Obama’s Selma Speech

Nearly two years ago, President Obama gave a speech on the 50-year anniversary of the march on Selma, Alabama (dramatized in Ava Duvernay’s 2014 Oscar Best Picture-nominated “Selma”).  I remember thinking at the time that it was a fantastic speech, beautiful and inspiring. I even saved a copy of it in my “speeches” playlist; (there’s no way to make that not sound nerdy, but I don’t care. I’m a student of rhetoric and it’s a great speech.)

Over the past two weeks under our new President, as many citizens mobilized to resist the extremism coming from the White House, this line from the Selma speech kept echoing in my head:


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A Thing I Made For My Science Fiction Class

I took a class this semester called “Science, Technology, and Society: Examining the Future through a Science-Fiction Lens.” For our final project we were to answer, in the form of an essay or creative work, the question “How do scientific discoveries, technological advances, and society pressures drive human change?”  I wrote a song about language change on the internet.

It’s not great production value, the video is just an exported PowerPoint, and yes I know that ASL is not the same thing as English so I shouldn’t have included those visuals in the second chorus without making more of a distinction but I was trying to illustrate the “and/or sight” concept and also I was originally just writing about language in general but then switched the subtitle to be English-specific since all my other examples were and now it is too late to change it because I’ve already submitted the link.

Anyway. There are links in the video’s description.

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Glader Slang in “The Maze Runner”

**This post contains spoilers for The Maze Runner**

maze runner cover

The Maze Runner is being adapted to film. It will be interesting to see how the slang is handled on-screen.

When I read James Dashner’s The Maze Runner, there was pretty much only one element that I actually liked; the Glader slang.  (Things I didn’t like included the tediously slow (and ultimately unsatisfactory) reveal of answers, the near-complete lack of character development, the inconsistency of the main character’s attitudes towards other characters (like “go away Chuck you’re so annoying!”-“Chuck you’re my new and only friend!”-“gah Chuck stop talking you’re so annoying!”), the way Thomas pats himself on the back for feeling the most basic empathy for his fellow human beings (“…he realized he was worried about the girl. Concerned for her welfare. As if he knew her.”  Like you couldn’t be “concerned” for somebody who’s been in a coma for days? And then this part: “Thomas, concerned for Alby despite his recent ill-tempered ways…”, oh how big of you to be “concerned” when you find a person lying unconscious with a bloody gash on their head, “despite” the fact they’ve been moody or rude in the last 24 hours), the insistence to tell instead of show, things being brought up only to be dropped completely and forgotten later on (like the flag Thomas sees when he first enters the Glade but can’t make out it’s pattern because there’s no wind, and it’s never mentioned again, or the dog named Bark that follows him around for his tour of Slop duty but then is never mentioned again, not even when they’re holing up to fight against invading Grievers, which, wouldn’t a dog bark it’s head off and/or charge beasts attacking its masters?), the fact that when the situation is explained it still makes little to no sense, and the lack of female characters–especially when it’s revealed that the kids sent to the Glade were chosen because they “have above-average intelligence,” and I’m supposed to be okay with this representation of the smartest kids, humanity’s last hope, being all male?!  What a bunch of klunk!)

But back to the topic at hand–when Thomas arrives in the Glade, his memories freshly wiped, he quickly learns that the residents of his new ‘home’ sprinkle their speech with their own unique slang, which he must learn in order to fit in.  This is, of course one of the purposes of slang or jargon or “shibboleths”; to identify members of a social group, or to confer insider status to those “cool enough” to know the terminology and be able to use it correctly.  If you don’t know the terminology at all, you’re a total outsider.  If you know the terms but stumble finding acceptable contexts to use them in, you’re pretty clearly linguistically marked to those in the know as someone trying to fit in.  Someone new.  Someone who maybe hasn’t really earned their place in the group or carved out an identity yet.  Someone like Thomas.  The linguistic markers of social status might be even more important in a setting like the Glade, where there is very little to go on otherwise.  For survival purposes, everyone is forced to share labor, food, and sleeping areas, nobody has access to ‘cool’ clothes or accessories, nobody can remember if they had famous parents or tournament trophies or straight As or a girlfriend before the Glade.  Everyone has to start over finding a new social footing by navigating the new slang terms.

The real reason for the Glader slang, of course, is so that the characters can curse in a manner that won’t be objectionable for a young audience to read.  So it’s kind of disappointing, because the Glade-specific language conventions could have been more complex and interesting, and designed by the author in a way to give more insight to the community, but we’ll just have to be content with what we’ve got.

I suppose  that Grievers, Creators, Greenie, Sloppers, Runners, Keepers, Builders, Bricknicks, Baggers, Track-hoes, Slicers, and  Med-jacks all count as Glader slang, but they’re pretty self-explanatory (if largely unnecessary), so I’m just going to focus on defining by examples “shank”, “klunk”, “shuck”, and “good that.”  Thomas hesitantly uses the latter phrase during an exchange with his assigned buddy, where he also explicitly references the fact that he’s unfamiliar with the terminology.  (I’m labeling this excerpt and all others to be included in this post,as well as including page numbers which are from the version with ISBN 978-0-375-89377-3).

(1) “You’ll learn a lot in the next couple of days, start getting used to things. Good that?”

“Um, yeah, good that, I guess.  Where’d all these weird words and phrases come from, anyway?” It seemed like they’d taken some other language and melded it with his own.

Chuck flopped back down with a heavy flump.  “I don’t know–I’ve only been here a month, remember?” -p. 34

Thomas’ observation isn’t very linguistically astute–come on, dude, it’s a handful of terms, not a melding of two phonetic, syntactic, morphological etc. systems, or “languages”.  Acquiring Glader slang is a simple matter of observing the examples provided throughout the book.


This term appears to be just a general term for “person”.  It’s derogatory, (the neutral term for “person” is Glader and just refers to the fact that’s where they all live), but can be endearing, such as in (3).  Perhaps most interestingly, Newt uses it in (9) to refer to the Creators, so it can apparently be used to refer to entities outside the Maze as well. (Go ahead and call each other shanks, Maze Runner fans!)  Also interesting to note is the exchange in (7), which highlights the fact that Thomas is still acquiring Glade-speak, both in his pause before and over-emphasis of the term “shank” and in Newt’s response of laughing and referring to him as a “Greenie”.  There’s also an example of “shank” in (15), under the section for “shuck”.

(2) “It’s a long story, shank,” -p. 8


(3) “Chuck’ll be a good fit for ya,” Newt said. “Wee little fat shank, but nice sap when all’s said and done. Stay here, I’ll be back.”

-p. 11


(4) “Beetle blade,” the boy said, pointing to the top of the tree. “Won’t hurt ya unless you’re stupid enough to touch one of them.”  He paused. “Shank.”  He didn’t sound comfortable saying the last word, as if he hadn’t quite grasped the slang of the Glade. -p. 13


(5) “This shank probably klunked his pants when he heard old Benny baby scream like a girl.  Need a new diaper, shuck-face?” -p. 17


(6) Thomas shook his head.  “Don’t be sorry.  The…shank deserved it, and I don’t even know what a shank is.  That was awesome.” He felt much better. -p. 33


(7) “Well, it’s kind of stupid to send me to a place where nothing makes sense and not answer my questions.” Thomas paused, surprised at himself. “Shank,” he added, throwing all the sarcasm he could into the syllable.

Newt broke out into a laugh, but quickly cut it off. “I like you, Greenie.  Now shut it and let me show ya something.” -p. 37


(8) Thomas looked at Newt sharply, hurt by the rebuke. “You think I do things to impress you shanks?  Please.  All I care about is getting out of here.” -p. 260


(9) Newt shook his head back and forth, staring at the ground.  Then he looked up, took in the other Keepers.  “The Creators–those shanks did this to us, not Tommy and Teresa.  The Creators.  And they’ll be sorry.” -p.309


Chuck provides a clear definition and an etymology for this term in (12).  The usage in (10) is weird, (he’s a poo? Not “piece of klunk/poo”? Maybe klunk is a count noun, even though poo is a mass noun?), and I think the construction is kind of forced because the author wanted to overwhelm Thomas (and readers) with as much slang as possible when the Box door opens.  Also, note in (13) another explicit reference to Thomas’ acquisition of Glader slang.

(10) “I told ya, shuck-face,” a shrill voice responded. “He’s a klunk, so he’ll be a Slopper–no doubt about it.”  The kid giggled like he’d just said the funniest thing in history. -p. 6


(11) “Whacker, if we told you everything, you’d die on the spot, right after you klunked your pants.  Baggers’d drag you off, and you ain’t no good to us then, are ya?” -p. 10


(12) “We live here, this is it. Better than living in a pile of klunk.”  He squinted, maybe anticipating Thomas’s question. “Klunk‘s another word for poo.  Poo makes a klunk sound when it falls in our pee pots.” -p. 15


(13) The second hour was spent actually working with the farm animals–feeding, cleaning, fixing a fence, scraping up klunk.  Klunk.  Thomas found himself using the Glader terms more and more. -p.78


I think this was the most inconsistent of the Glader slang terms introduced in the book; it most often appears as the insult “shuck-face” (in examples (5) and (10) above as well as several below,) or the expletive “shuck it,” but in examples (23) and (24) it used as an adverb and verb participle, respectively.  It seems obvious what real-world English expletive it’s substituting for, which is why it’s so weird that on page 334 Minho uses “freaking”, another PG derivative of the same real-world expletive, where presumably “shucking” would have been acceptable, especially judging by the example in (23).  Minho’s utterance that Alby “freaking sacrificed himself for us–” is the only instance of “freaking” in the entire book, and seems out of place.

The construction in (14) is another unusual example like the one in (10), and it also appears in the same scene of Thomas’ entry to the Glade.  I don’t know why it doesn’t just say “shucking neck” instead of bare “shuck”, but there aren’t any examples (that I noticed) of “shucking” as an adverb.

(14) “Look at the Greenbean,” a scratchy voice said; Thomas couldn’t see who it came from. “Gonna break his shuck neck checkin’ out the new digs.” -p. 5


(15) “Shuck it,” Alby said, rubbing his eyes. “Ain’t no way to start these conversations, you get me?  We don’t kill shanks like you here, I promise.  Just try and avoid being killed, survive, whatever.” -p. 9


(16) “Pipe it, shuck-face,” Alby grunted, pulling Newt down to sit next to him. -p. 9


(17) “Shuck it,” he said. “Can’t the bloody Med-jacks handle that boy for ten minutes without needin’ my help?” -p. 12


(18) “The Changing!” Gally shouted from below. “Look forward to it, shuck-face!” -p. 19


(19) “I’m gonna kill you, shuck-face!” Gally yelled, but Chuck was already off the box and running toward the open Glade. -p. 31


(20) Newt let out a long sigh. “Shuck it. But that’s not really what has me buggin’.” p. 107


(21) “You don’t understand, shuck-face!  You don’t know anything, and you’re just making it worse by trying to have hope!  We’re dead, you hear me? Dead!” -p.117


(22) Thomas rolled his eyes.  “She’s not my girlfriend, shuck-face.”

“Wow,” Chuck said. “You’re already using Alby’s dirty words.” -p.281


(23) “She’s right, Chuck–you saved us, man! I told you we needed you!” Thomas scrambled to his feet and joined the other two in a group hug, almost delirious.  “Chuck’s a shucking hero!” -p. 347


(24) The sense of normalcy was almost overwhelming.  Too good to be true.  Minho said it best on entering their new world: “I’ve been shucked and gone to heaven.” -p. 368

Good that

See also example (1) from above.  This was my favorite, because it’s clearly a new construction whose correct use is crucial in ingratiating oneself with the Glade hierarchy, but it’s not actually new words.  It signals agreement or consent.  I never saw it used as a blanket positive, like somebody eating one of Frypan’s meals and declaring it “good that!”, which would have been fun, but then we’re not really given much non-plot-centric dialogue.

(25) Thomas fumed, wanted to punch somebody.  But he simply said, “Yeah.”

“Good that,” Alby said. -p. 10


(26) “If I can convince those shanks–and that’s a big if–the best time to go would be at night.  We can hope that a lot of the Grievers might be out and about in the Maze–not in that Hole of theirs.”

“Good that.”  Thomas agreed with him–he just hoped Newt could convince the Keepers. -p.317


I wasn’t paying much attention to instances of “slinthead” while I read, so I don’t know if I am missing some, but it appears to be an insult.  As for “slim”, I don’t remember seeing it anywhere except as an order to Thomas from Alby when he first arrives in the Glade (27).

(27) “Just slim yourself nice and calm.” -p. 6


(28) “And stay away from me, you little slinthead.” -p. 19


(29) “Ain’t you got a job, slinthead?” Alby asked. “Lots of sloppin’ to do?” -p.41

I am curious to know whether the slang persists in the sequel, The Kill Order, since by the end of The Maze Runner the main characters have escaped the maze and are in a different setting surrounded by strangers.  It would be my guess that Glader slang would become even more important in this situation, as a way for the boys to self-identify as a cohesive group when their circumstances no longer reflect it so obviously.  On the other hand, some of the boys might drop the slang or pick up/invent new slang as a way to reject having the identity of test-subject Glader forced upon them, or as a way to try to gain access to a new social group, if they decide they identify with their “rescuers”, or with WICKED.  Either way, though, I don’t think I’m actually curious enough to read the second book.

*update* For those interested, Grammar Girl has posted an interview with author James Dashner on the subject of Maze Runner slang.


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British Slang in The Casual Vacancy

This post is dedicated to  cataloging the British slang in J. K. Rowling’s new book, The Casual Vacancy, and translating it for an American audience.  If there’s something in the book I didn’t include, just let me know in the comments and I’ll update the post; I’m sure I won’t be able to note every instance on the first try.  You can also try typing the word or phrase in question into this website.   For some of these that I couldn’t find written definitions for, I consulted with MD, the same native British dialect speaker source that I used for this post.

I’m purposefully leaving out the words that are distinctly British abbreviations, yet obviously intelligible to American English speakers, like prozzie (prostitute), lezzer (lesbian), and choccies (chocolates).  The words I did include are pretty much presented in the order in which they appear in the story.

to “get off with“=to make out with

A few weeks previously, Andrew had got off with Niam Fairbrother, one of Barry’s twin daughters…

to “stick two fingers up at“=to flip off.  Colin, complaining to Tess about their son Fats’ insolent behavior:

“He’s just sticking two fingers up at me, as usual.”

You can see this insulting gesture demonstrated in the clip below from the comedy Hot Fuzz.

jumper=long sleeve shirt or sweater, (without a zipper.  A jacket that zips up is called a coat.)  Sukhvinder is described in class as:

She had pulled the left sleeve of her jumper down so that it completely covered her hand, enclosing the cuff to make a wooly fist.

polythene=plastic, short for polyethylene.  Used several times, one example being by Gavin before the funeral:

A black suit was hanging in dry cleaner’s polythene in his bedroom, like an unwelcome guest.

dozy=stupid;  dim =not smart.  Both used by Krystal in the same quotation from the word below.

Paki=offensive term for people of Indian or Pakistani descent.  According to MD it is not quite as strong as the n-word, but others might disagree; the sense of how offensive it is depends on context and individual perspective.  It’s obviously hurtful to Sukhvinder when directed at her, and completely unacceptable to Barry Fairbrother who chastises Krystal for using it:

And then Krystal, bringing up the rear of the group with Sukhvinder, had called her a silly Paki bitch.

It had come out of nowhere.  They had all been messing around with Mr. Fairbrother.  Krystal thought she was being funny.   She used “fucking” interchangeably with “very,” and seemed to see no difference between them.  Now she said “Paki” as she would have said “dozy” or “dim.”

torch=flashlight.  Sukhvinder uses one when she surreptitiously self-harms in her room at night.

She got off the bed and groped for the torch on her shelf, and a handful of tissues, then moved into the furthest part of her room, into the little round turret in the corner.  Here, she knew, the torch’s light would be confined, and would not show around the edges of the door.

roaches= marijuana cigarette butts.  MD said it could also be makeshift joints (marijuana or tobacco) rolled out of any old paper, not necessarily rolling paper made for that purpose.  They are found in Andrew and Fats’ cave hide-out:

The floor was covered in their cigarette butts and cardboard roaches.

innit=tag that can mean isn’t it, isn’t he, aren’t we, aren’t I, aren’t they, etc. depending on context.  (I talked about this in my previous post on the slang in Attack the Block.)  In this book, it appears in a conversation between Fats and Andrew on the meaning of life:

“Yeah,” said Fats.  “Fucking and dying.  That’s it, innit?  Fucking and dying.  That’s life.”

wog=non-white person, (highly offensive).   Nana Cath casually drops the slur while telling Krystal about her cousins:

“Tha’s my Michael’s little girl, Rhiannon, when she were five.  Beau’iful, weren’t she?  Bu’ she wen’ an’ married some wog,” said Nana Cath.

lush =hot or sexy, (short for “lucious”).  Sam’s daughter uses it to describe one of the boy-band members:

“Mikey’s so lush,” she said, with a carnal groan that took Samantha aback; but the muscular boy was called Jake.  Samantha was glad they did not like the same one.

outsize =plus size.  Sam’s business, Over the Shoulder Boulder Holders, specializes in plus size underwear.

“She sells outsize bras,” said Miles.

cacking it=shitting oneself.  Fats uses this phrase to describe his father’s mental state during his election campaign.

“Cubby’s cacking it already, and he’s only making his pamphlet.”

spliffs=joints.  When Fats and Krystal rendezvous in the cemetery:

After another few minutes, Fats asked, “D’you smoke?”

“Wha’, like spliffs?  Yeah, I dunnit with Dane.”

glassed a bloke” =hit with a glass bottle.  MD insisted this meant to hit, not cut.  Krystal used the phrase to explain, to a curious Fats, why Pikey Pritchard is on probation:

“He glassed a bloke down the Cross Keys.”

surgery =doctor’s office.  Parminder is basically a general practice doctor, but her office is referred to as a “surgery.”  Elsewhere in the book it’s referred to as “the local surgery.”

She turned and walked back to her surgery, Howard following her.

sod= screw it/leave it (sod off=piss off, stop being a sod=stop being a baby).  Gavin, visiting Mary:

“You need a drink,” he told her, in that unfamiliarly strong and commanding voice.  “Sod coffee.  Where’s the proper stuff?”

grasses=snitches.  Simon wants to find out who told about the stolen computer, after he reads the letter from the Ghost of Barry Fairbrother about himself:

When he had finished, he remained quite still, passing for review, in his mind, all the likely grasses.

pudding=dessert.  Even if the dish being served isn’t literally “pudding,” like at the dinner Parminder and Vikram host for Tessa and Colin:

Parminder was shoving bowls of cut fruit across the table for pudding.

trackie =top part of a tracksuit, like a jacket.  Casual clothing that students might wear when out of school uniform, and that Krystal is dressed in ready to go to Nana Cath’s funeral.

With her fists deep in her trackie pockets, shoulders squared, Krystal tried to decide what to do.  She wanted to cry at the thought of not going to the funeral, but her distress was edged with relief that she would not have to face the battery of hostile eyes she had sometimes met at Nana Cath’s.

Rizlas=brand of rolling paper for cigarettes.  Colin is outraged to find them, among other things, in Fats’ room:

Colin noticed a large matchbox on Fats’ desk.  He slid it open, and saw a mass of twisted cardboard stubs.  A packet of Rizlas lay brazenly on the desk beside the computer.

blue murder =bloody murder.  Colin, ranting to Tessa about their son Fats:

“Doesn’t it ever occur to you that it’s your constant excuses for him that make him think he can get away with blue murder?”

yob=hooligan, juvenile delinquent (a young troublemaker)

“Trouble is, for every Barry,” said another woman, “you get a load of yobs.”

pissed=drunk.  At Howard’s birthday party, when his three employees have been drinking heavily:

“You all right?” Andrew asked.  If Fats had not been there, he would have sat down too.  “Pissed,” she muttered.

theater=  In this context, (at the hospital after Howard’s heart attack) it’s short for “operating theater”, or what Americans would refer to as the O.R. (operating room):

Miles and Samantha were sitting on either side of Shirley, waiting for news from theater.

Another linguistic element in The Casual Vacancy that was distinctly British, besides words and phrases, was the importance of dialects and the diversity in speaking styles between groups, even within close geographical proximity.  Of course there is great variety among dialects of American English as well, but it is not such a hugely important factor in identifying or labeling people’s social class, and regional dialects do not divide so sharply and in such small areas as they do in Great Britain.  Wikipedia’s article on regional accents of English states, “for example, towns located less than 10 miles (16 km) from the city of Manchester such as Bolton, Oldham and Salford, each have distinct accents, all of which form the Lancashire accent, yet in extreme cases are different enough to be noticed even by a non-local listener.”

Several quotes from the book reference dialect variation, and an understanding of their significance can enhance an American reader’s appreciation for the story.

Parminder’s Birmingham accent was still strong after sixteen years in Pagford.

Parminder might never have been able to successfully shift dialects completely as an adult, but the fact that her accent is still “strong” after so much time in the small community could indicate both that she isn’t viewed as an insider and that she doesn’t herself identify primarily as a Pagford resident.  This theory is supported further by Parminder’s rumination later that:

…now that Barry was gone, Tessa was Parminder’s only real friend in Pagford.  (She always said “in Pagford” to herself, pretending that somewhere beyond the little town she had a hundred loyal friends…)

There a few references to the speech patterns of Yarvil residents being distinct from those of Pagford, but remember these towns are so close some of the land between them is in dispute, (the Fields), and Samantha’s commute to work is said to be only about 10 minutes.

No part of Pagford’s unwanted burden caused more fury of bitterness than the fact that Fields children now fell inside the catchment area of St. Thomas’s Church of England Primary School.  Young Fielders had the right to don the coveted blue and white uniform, to play in the yard beside the foundation stone laid by Lady Charlotte Sweetlove and to deafen the tiny classrooms with their strident Yarvil accents.

Besides marking geographic location, a dialect can indicate social class, especially in England where the poshest of the posh are supposed to speak Received Pronunciation.   In the quote below, it sounds like Samantha sometimes tries to present herself as slightly more socially elevated than she is when she’s speaking with her richest and most influential neighbors:

Samantha might jeer at his parents’ thralldom to the Fawleys, but Miles noticed that on those rare occasions when Samantha came face-to-face with either Aubry or Julia, her accent changed subtly and her demeanor became markedly more demure.

Later, Andrew notices that Sam’s daughter Lexie is reflecting the switch to private boarding school in her speech:

Her accent had changed since she had been at St. Anne’s.

I would be interested to hear from anyone with more insight to add to either the slang words or the phenomenon of so many diverse dialects clustered together in England; or, if you’re an American reader and you still have a question about the meaning of a word I didn’t include, just leave me a comment!


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What I Like But Don’t “Like” About My Facebook Friends

I try to keep my identity vague  in most of my online accounts.  Most profiles that I have open to public viewing uses a pseudonym and only generic details:  Twenty-something.  Female.  Educated.  Employed.  It’s simply a matter of protecting my privacy and safety, and it allows me to feel comfortable interacting with people I don’t know and might have nothing in common with other than the same film and book obsessions.

But on Facebook, it’s the opposite.  I am only Facebook-friends with people that I have met and know in real life.  I love seeing pictures of my family and friends’ babies, I like being able to see what people that I haven’t talked to lately are up to, I enjoy “liking” the big announcements like engagements, weddings, graduations, new jobs,  or even new hairstyles.  But aside from being able to share pictures and news with family, I think the biggest benefit I draw from my Facebook feed is a continually-updated understanding of people and issues.

You often hear about the polarizing nature of the American public today.  Politics divide sharply down partisan lines, religion is treated as something that must either be fervently and legalistically clung to, or entirely rejected.  There is no room for a middle ground.  We like to talk about ourselves as an ever-progressive and tolerant society, but we venomously despise  the views that oppose our own.  We belittle those that we do not agree with and label them as everything “wrong with this country”, blaming the other side for “holding us back” or “calling judgment upon this nation.”  Above all, we use labels.  Those who don’t agree with us are not people, they’re not respectable fellow humans with convictions; they’re Homophobes, Liberals, Fundamentalists, Feminists, etc.

That’s where I think Facebook comes in handy.  I see posts on multiple sides of almost every issue or current news story in my feed.  I know some people block or un-friend people who post stances they don’t agree with or that annoy them, creating smaller and smaller circles of increasingly exclusive and homogeneous acquaintances.  Everyone is certainly free to control access to their own Facebook account as they see fit, but it’s often these Facebook friends who are the most extreme and outspoken that I value the most.  When I see a potentially polarizing post, I also have a context to put it in; I’ve seen the same person post about her bad day at work, or the movie he’s recently enjoyed.  I’ve seen the pictures of a family visit, and I know something about their education and career.  It forces me to see the poster as a complex individual, not a faceless label. 

pic depicting "liberal media" protecting obama

I was in a lot of classes and activities with the person who posted this, in high school.

I know this poster from taking a few semesters of a college language class together, and we’ve hung out outside of class as well.

this poster helped me move.

posted by several of my Facebook friends, including my cousin.

Forcing myself to see the person posting as complex and not a label is actually the very opposite of what many of those memes aim to do.  They often include partial facts or deliberately re-frame arguments to make them sound more compelling.  And the juxtaposition of ideas and perspectives propels me to continually try to see things from someone else’s point of view.  It’s what keeps me a moderate.  (It helps that at different points in my life I have lived in very conservative and very liberal communities; I’ve accumulated Facebook friends with a wide range of backgrounds, lifestyles, and opinions.)

contrasting pics prolife prochoice

These images both appeared in my feed in the same week.

It’s not the same thing as interacting with a diverse mix of people in real life, since people may be more conscious of the persona they cultivate online, and it may not reflect everything about the real person.  I have to confess that I am a bit stealthy myself on Facebook, rarely posting the types of political or religious commentaries that I scrutinize so carefully on others’ walls.  Perhaps I am too much of a silent coward, perhaps I should speak up more.

And I’m not saying that every post is ultimately valid–sometimes people’s views really are just spewing unfiltered hatred, ignorance, or misinformation, but if I conclude that about a post on Facebook, at least I can hope that my rejection of the post isn’t a knee-jerk reaction in my own disagreement to the stated opinion.  There are only a few people that I’ve observed display a consistent pattern of cold-heartedness; most people, on every side of every issue, are compassionate and concerned for people who are hurting, or at risk, or disadvantaged, unlike they are often portrayed by their opposition.  They just have different convictions on what the solution should be.

Constantly trying to contextualize Facebook posts is more than just putting a face on a particular position, it’s dismantling the idea that you could ever even have one person that represents an entire segment of society.  I wish more people could learn to take the time to discern the realities behind the rhetoric, to realize that saying you understand someone’s position doesn’t have to mean that you agree with it, to adopt a way of declaring their convictions without denigrating everyone else’s.  Think about it–the path to a more compassionate and civil society could lie through a cultivating a diverse Facebook feed.


Filed under language, philosophy

The Bat Chant

There has been a lot of speculation about the meaning of the thrilling, heart beat-increasing “bat chant”, featured in all of the trailers for The Dark Knight Rises.  I’ll update after I see the movie (in just a few days!), but I don’t believe that the chant involves existing words in any human language.  (Here’s another fan analysis that comes to the same conclusion).  I think it was just created for the film.  Bane is from a fictional country anyway, so it’s not a stretch to create a fictional “language” or chant to go alone with him.  According to one trailer, the chant means “rise” or “he rises,” but trailers don’t always give the full film context so I’m going to wait to see if the full movie gives any more hints to the actual meaning.

Whether the chant is randomly combined phonemes or not, it’s existence and use in the film score is still meaningful because of the way in which it was recorded.  Composer Hans Zimmer solicited thousands of volunteers online to record themselves repeating the chant, and mixed them all together.   According to, the site that was used to submit the recordings, people from 107 different countries participated.   I mean, how cool is that, for all those people to be able to go to the movie on opening night and turn to their friend and say “that’s my voice, I’m part of that chant!”  I’m very sad that I can’t brag about the same thing, because I didn’t find out about the submission request until a few days after it closed.

This quote from Hans Zimmer, (in an article on, gives an idea of the scale of global enthusiasm for this franchise, and emphasizes just how very cool the chant project was:

The chant became a very complicated thing because I wanted hundreds of thousands of voices, and it’s not so easy to get hundreds of thousands of voices. So, we Twittered and we posted on the internet, for people who wanted to be part of it. It seemed like an interesting thing. We’ve created this world, over these last two movies, and somehow I think the audience and the fans have been part of this world. We do keep them in mind. And I thought it would be something nice, if our audiences could actually be part of the making of the movie and be participants in this. So, we’ve got this website up,, where you can go on and be part of it. It was fantastic. The first Tweet that went out just melted our server because we had tens of thousands of people a second, trying to get onto the site.

You always want to create a sound that nobody has ever heard, but I think, this time, we might be doing that. As a musician, I think about what environment things are recorded in. Now, you have hundreds of thousands of voices, all recorded in their own individual environment. Up until now, that’s been impossible to do. There’s a lot of people doing a lot of editing, as well.

The chant, despite being labeled elsewhere on the internet as “Bane Bane Matalo Matalo,” “This is Arkham, Arkham,” “This is Our Gotham,” and even “Fishy Fishy Pasta Pasta”, is actually:

Deh-Shay Deh-Shay Bah-Sah-Rah, Bah-Sah-Rah!

And you can listen to the bare chant here:

I can’t wait to see how the chant fits into the story in the film itself!



*Update* and **SPOILER ALERT**

Well, it turns out the movie doesn’t reveal anything more about the meaning of the chant than the trailer did.  Story-wise, it comes from the prisoners in the Pit, who chant it whenever someone tries to make the climb out.  The third time that Bruce Wayne attempts the climb, (“as the child did, without a rope,”) he asks the fellow prisoner who has been assisting him, “What does that mean?” and is told, “Rise.”

The rythym of the chant on that final climb was closer to the way Hans Zimmer’s recording solicitation was set up; it would start out slow with the individual repeating the words in a call-back style, (so the computer would play “deh-shay” and then you’d say “deh-shay”, it’d say “basarah” and you’d repeat “basarah”), and then it got faster and you’d say all four words together.   (The stress goes on the first syllable of each word, by the way).

Before seeing the movie I had assumed that the chant would be connected to or representing Bane in some way, and it is mostly heard in the soundtrack while Bane is on-screen, but the only time it’s mentioned by the dialogue is in connection with Batman/Bruce Wayne.  It is, after all, titled The Dark Knight Rises, so it makes sense that this cool chant element would relate to the title character and his title trajectory.  He rises.

I do wonder if the chant will become a popular phrase among Batman fans, pop culture in general, or be forgotten in a few months.  I wish they had referenced it a bit more explicitly in the film itself, because it doesn’t really lend itself to being picked up by the masses this way, but I still think it was a really neat that they included all those fan voices and I definitely perked my ears up every time I heard the chant during the movie.  Here are all the times I noticed it (based on two viewings so far):

  • When Bane starts talking to that agent guy on the plane at the beginning.  It gets louder after the “No, they expect one of us in the wreckage, brother,” “But we started a fire,” “Yes, the fire rises,” exchange.
  • When Gordon goes down the man-hole into the sewers, (which are filled with Bane’s henchmen,) chasing the perpetrators after the firefight at the bar where they find the missing congressman (and Catwoman/Selina Kyle cleverly escapes).
  • When Bane walks onto the roof as a temporarily teamed-up Batman and Catwoman/Selina Kyle fight a group of baddies, (and Catwoman reluctantly goes along with Batman’s “No guns.  No killing.” stance).
  • The three times Bruce/Batman attempts to climb out of the pit, as well as the time he watches another prisoner try it.
  • When the street full of cops moves toward the mob of Bane’s men.  The chant starts out slow here and then picks up speed, similar to the way the individual recordings were made.


Filed under language, movies, music, nerd

What does David say in that mysterious language near the end of “Prometheus”?

A very interesting linguistic discussion on Language Log.

*update* Dr. Anil Biltoo (the Linguistic consultant for Prometheus) has now revealed exactly what the utterance was and a translation in this interview.

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Why John Carter Is Probably Still Stuck on Earth

Ok, so I am still struggling through trying to figure out most of the Barsoomian in the movie John Carter.  And I will be the first to admit that phonetics is not my strong suit.  But I’m absolutely confident about the pronunciation of the teleportation phrase that triggers the Thern device.  It’s repeated several times, and it’s spoken slowly and distinctly both by the dying Thern in the Arizonan cave and by Dejah Thoris teaching John Carter to repeat it phonetically.   John Carter also pronounces the phrase slowly and deliberately when he finds himself back in the cave on earth, desperate to return to Mars, as well as at the very end when he lays his body to rest in his tomb with his newly acquired device.  We’re meant to believe that he is waking up on Mars while we watch the credits roll, but I’m telling you, that poor dude is still in his tomb, probably crying.  Because his pronunciation was wrong.

I mean, we’re not told exactly how  the devices work.  Judging by the way he gets to Mars, when the injured Thern weazes out the phrase, and Carter picks up the device and only repeats the last word, a person has to be holding the device for it to work, but they don’t have to say the entire phrase as long as someone in the vicinity of the device says it.  (So then, I’m not entirely certain why it doesn’t work when Dejah is teaching the phrase to Carter, unless the person holding it has to say the final destination word in order for it to work, and she hands it to him before she says Jasoom?)  It doesn’t seem to care about inflection, since Carter’s “Barsoom?” at the beginning deviates from the morm, and Matai Shang rushes the first two segments together when he spits out the phrase very quickly to send poor Carter back to Jasoom towards the end.  So, whatever, it’s entirely possible the device doesn’t care about vowel distinctions either.

But that’s stupid.  Isn’t this phrase supposed to be a soundwave command?  Why would it not be sensitive to distinct sound deviations?  Plus, the likely explanation for Carter’s distinctive (wrong) pronunciation is lazy and/or inattentive film-making.  Which is so annoying!  You ask me to suspend my disbelief, but then force me to think about the fact that Taylor Kitsch is reading a script.  As I’ve said before, I know it’s not real, but it should still make sense!

So the Thern that Carter shoots very clearly wheezes:

(Here’s a pronunciation guide for unfamiliar or ambiguous symbols, in case you’re not familiar with IPA):

Dejah Thoris pronounces the phrase in exactly the same way as the Thern, except that she substitutes Jasoom for Barsoom as the destination:

Carter mimicks Dejah properly in the scene where she is teaching him what to say.  But when he finds himself suddenly back in the cave on Earth, the first thing he does is try to return to Mars/Barsoom by repeating the phrase even though he doesn’t have a device, and he says:

He totally changes the first vowel from a low back unrounded “ah” to a mid back rounded “oh”.  And he says it that way again at the end!  Very deliberately!  But the problem is that we’ve already herd a Thern and Dejah pronounce the first vowel as “ah,” equally deliberately, and I’m inclined to think they know what they’re talking about over Carter.

Maybe that first word is spelled ok or och or something.  And that could be confusing, because the letter “o” in standard orthography can sometimes stand for an “oh” sound, (like in open, no, and rope), but it can also represent an “ah” sound, (like in octopus, ox, odd, and dog).

I have no idea how the phrase is spelled in this script, (it doesn’t appear in the book,) but John Carter shouldn’t know how it’s spelled either!  He learned this phrase phonetically from the princess.  He can’t read the writing she deciphered.  Every single time he heard the phrase pronounced by others, it was with an “ah” for the first syllable.  There is no reasonable explanation for why he should have changed it to an “oh” unless it is that the actor Taylor Kitsch read the lines that were perhaps spelled with an o in the script, and perhaps did not go to Thark camp like everybody else, and perhaps filmed those scenes before he filmed the ones with the princess where she explicitly taught him to repeat it as “ah,” or else filmed them so far apart that he forgot, and nobody on set corrected him, and nobody in the editing and screening processes noticed or decided it was worth it to do a simple voice-over rerecording to fix it?

I seriously don’t understand how that happens.  And I will maintain that either Carter is stuck on Jasoom at the conclusion of the movie, or else the phrase is basically meaningless gibberish and the device just feeds off the will of your heart or something.  I mean it can’t just be a magical phrase, right?  Because Harry Potter taught us that pronunciation does matter: (“It’s leviOsa, not levioSA!”)  Cater’s butchering of the teleportation phrase is not the worst line of dialogue, (not by a long shot), but when a film sets up an element as being important and then can’t even stay consistent with said element, it’s very disappointing for viewers like me.  What about you?


Filed under language, movies, nerd

Barsoomian Language in “John Carter”

I saw the new Disney live-action film “John Carter” this weekend.  I liked it, I mean it’s not without some pretty obvious story and character flaws, but the mythology and world building was so much fun that I was willing to overlook the fact that the main character’s motivation is never truly defined.  and I am 100% planning to see it again, mainly to transcribe more of the Barsoomian dialogue.

Tars Tarkas meets John Carter on Barsoom

Never having read any of the Barsoom novels (by Edgar Rice Burroughs), I didn’t know before seeing the movie that the inhabitants of Mars (Barsoom) would be speaking some lines in a novel language.  Of course those scenes instantly became my favorite, because I am a language nerd.  Preliminary googling on Barsoom turns up this general info  and word list page, as well as this article about expanding Burroughs’ linguistic creation for the movie.  The linguist hired to work on developing the limited inclusions in Burroughs’ novels into a fully-functioning spoken language for the movie was Paul Frommer, who is also responsible for creating the Na’vi language spoken in Avatar.  I’m extremely jealous of Frommer, but I’m also grateful for his work to make these fiction-based languages “real” and rule-based the way languages actually are, because it makes it so much more fun to analyze and try to learn them.  (As opposed to the alien languages in Star Wars, which are basically jibberish and not even consistent with themselves.)  In researching Barsoom I also discovered that Frommer has a blog in which he discusses grammatical aspects of Na’vi, and I can’t wait to find time to start pouring over that information!  (You can get a head start on me by reading his blog here.)

Anyway, here’s as much as I was able to transcribe during my first viewing.  (So glad I had my notebook with me!)  I’ll update this post when I’m able to watch the movie again, because there are some lines I didn’t catch and it’s also possible that I didn’t hear everything clearly.  (I’m pretty sure I confused some k’s and t’s.)  And of course I’m totally guessing at word boundaries.

I’m using IPA.  It seems like voiceless stops are mostly aspirated word-finally, but then some of them sounded unreleased.  (Of course maybe the unreleased ones are not word-final and my word-boundary guesses are wrong…)

[mi dutʃe] “…hell are you?”  (spoken by Tars Tarkas upon seeing Carter, following Carter’s own “What the…” utterance.)

[sɑ tʃɑ tʃik] “don’t shoot him” (-Tars Tarkas)

[ʤɑteth] “don’t run” (-Tars Tarkas)

[tsɑtɑ] “it’s okɑy” (-Tars Tarkas)

[sɑkh | səlɛt˺ sɑk vəˈʤɑkh]  “Jump!  Jump like you did before.” (-Tars Tarkas)

[sɑkh] “jump”

[doθekh ɑdɑs] “step ɑwɑy” (-??? Probably Tars Tarkas. It’s hard to get everything written down!)

[doltɑɹ ˈsoʤath] “my right hand,” the Thark name given to John Carter by Tars Tarkas.  (Sometimes sounded like it might actually be [doltɑɹ ˈsoʤæth]?)

[ɑkh ɑhɪm ɑkte wiz bɑɹsu:m] -the phrase the Princess teaches Carter to say that will teleport him between planets.  (Barsoom is replaced with Jasoom when she originally teaches it to him, becauses they’re on Mars and he wants to return to Earth.  But this is the phrase as he says it at the end of the movie.)


Blerg, I’ve seen the relevant scenes a couple more times and feel more lost than ever.  I’m just not very good at phonetics, (don’t tell my students!)  Also this would be a lot easier if I could hit pause and rewind.  Anyway here’s a pdf of what I have at this point:

pagelady barsoomian transcriptions


***update*** i missed my chance to see it again and it’s no longer showing at my theater, so i’ll have to wait for the dvd.  it’ll be easier to capture with a pause button anyway.


Filed under language, movies, nerd