free speech and America-centrism

Chris Bertram over at has a post on speech regulation with which I’m not sure I agree, but I do wholeheartedly agree with this sentiment:

The Americans have a long tradition of trying to discuss these things using the language of an 18th-century document. Given the difficulties of shoehorning a lot of real-world problems into that frame, that gives them a long history of acrobatic hermeneutics somewhere in the vague area of free speech. Some of it is even relevant. The trouble is that many Americans (at least the ones who comment on blogs!) can’t tell the difference between discussing the free speech and discussing the application of their constitution.

Not only true on blogs, but in person as well.

writing in the language of the dominant

I went to the keynote for the Global Conversations conference, sponsored by the UC Irvine International Center for Writing and Translation, this morning. It was given by Ngugi wa Thiong’o, whose books I have always meant to read but never have. The theme of the conference is how to address marginalized languages, and his keynote made a number of points that I thought were interesting.

Firstly, he had to address the issue of the rich body of literature, especially postcolonial literature, that is written in the langugage of the colonizers. It’s not just a colonial issue, so the appropriate binary here is dominant/marginalized. The overarching point was that writing in the language of the dominant impoverishes the local — it enables the access to the world stage but disables the home culture by taking away new cultural products. “Visibility in the dominant becomes invisibility in the marginalized,” he said. What then, is the place of conversation between different marginalized communities? While not outright calling for an activism or solidarity movement, he posed a goal of the conference as to kickstart the interactions that might initiate.

A second smaller point had to do with paralleling the language of technology transfer from industrialized to developing nations to more general knowledge and cultural production. While it’s true that strategies for preservation and revitalization can be transferred, the “working together” is what’s really interesting. Can different marginalized linguistic communities work together without losing something?

you say routing, I say routing…

Let’s call the whole thing off. One might say the enemy army was “routed,” but do we ever use the word “routing” in that sense? It sounds wrong to me — does it only appear as a participle?

In the networking context though, people say “routing” either to rhyme with “pouting” or with “tooting.” I’d use the latter for “route 66” but I usually use the former for networking.

In case these linguistic musings bore people, fear not — I will write about other things soon.

sequences and series

I think that learning math has colored my ideas about the connotations of words. In particular, the words “sequence” and “series” have the meanings “a set of related things that follow each other in a particular order” and “a number of things of a similar nature coming one after the other.” They appear to be mostly interchangeable. But consider the phrase “in a sequence/series of of papers, Csiszár and Narayan proved…” Is there a difference in meaning?

To me, “series” connotes a cumulative effect — the set of papers build upon each other, as in the summation of a series encountered in calculus. The word “sequence” is milder — these are set of related papers that follow chronologically, but may look at different angles of the same problem rather than building on each other. Clearly this difference is leaking in from the technical definitions into my writing. Does this happen to anyone else?

The Phrontistery

Via the NPL mailing list, I learned of The Phrontistery, a collection of “lost words” which are non-spelling-variant, non-regional Modern English words with entries in the OED that do not (obviously) appear elsewhere on the web. There are some great words in there — I highly recommend them the next time you need to fulfill your hemerine serving of traboccant verbiage.

(I hope blogging with these words doesn’t remove them from the list!)

Update: Missing E (for Erin) added in title.

those crazy Brits

So I was reading the science news over at the BBC when I came across this article:

Although there are still those who argue over the US and “former UK” definitions of figures such as a billion and trillion, according to Michael there is now basic agreement that a trillion is a thousand billion and a billion is a thousand million.

Maybe it’s my American-centric upbringing, but was there really a debate about this? I went and consulted a few dictionaries. Merriam-Webster says:

1 — see NUMBER table
2 : an indeterminately large number

The “number table” gives the following (American, British, integer) triples: (billion, milliard, 109), (trillion, billion, 1012), and (quintillion, trillion, 1018). Apparently 10n where n = 3 (mod 6) and n > 14 don’t warrant their own name — they can be a “thousand 10n – 3.”

The regional bias is clearer in the American Heritage versus OED. The American Heritage Dictionary puts 1012 first:

1. The cardinal number equal to 1012.
2. Chiefly British The cardinal number equal to 1018.

The OED has its own bias:

The third power of a million; a million billions, i.e. millions of millions. Also, orig. in France and local U.S., a thousand ‘billions’, or 1012 (i.e. the traditional English billion: see BILLION): this sense is now standard in the U.S. and is increasingly common in British usage.