Lester Young, Sensory Metaphors, and Air Conditioning

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February 9, 2016 by libroshombre


If you haven’t seen the new Star Wars movie, you’re not very cool. If you don’t know Marc Okrand, you’re even warmer. Okrand, as Wikipedia points out, “is an American linguist well-known as the creator of the Klingon language. The Klingons are an alien race from the Star Trek universe, a different entertainment franchise, but both are wildly successful and start with “Star.” Before retiring three years ago, Okrand was a director of the National Captioning Institute, a nonprofit “dedicated to the advancement of media access for the deaf, hard of hearing and blind.” While working on the closed captioning of the 1982 Oscars, Okrand met the producer of “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan,” who hired him to dub over English speaking actors by speaking another Star Trek language, the Vulcan of the inimitable Mr. Spock. Paramount Picture then asked Okrand to create a new language for the warlike Klingon people, and teach it to the actors of Star Trek III.

Invented languages like Klingon are known as “conlangs,” short for “constructed languages.” Conlangs are real languages, and fans love learning them. That’s why the library owns books like Okrand’s “The Klingon Dictionary” and Arika Orent’s “In the Land of Invented Languages.” While Star Trek utilizes conlangs, Star Wars relies on “fake languages.” WSG.com’s word man Ben Zimmer, reported last month that the Star Wars film director, J.J. Abrams, has most of his characters speak English, “but we also hear Chewbacca speak in Wookie growls, and R2-D2 and BB-8 use the bleeps and bloops of droid speak.”

For one Star Wars scene, however,Mr. Abrams relied on an unusual source to generate alien-speak: a young Finnish YouTube star named Sara Maria Forsberg.” The scene features Indonesian stunt men portraying a gang of alien toughs known as “Kanjiklub.” After Forsberg’s YouTube video, “What Languages Sound Like to Foreigners,” went viral, LucasFilms hired her to create a convincing fake Knajikubian language, despite her lack of “any professional background in languages” and never seeing a Star Wars movie before. I’m not very cool, but she sounded convincing to me. Judge for yourself at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ybcvlxivscw.

It’s still cool to say “cool,” according to NYTimes.com’s Jonah Berger’s article “Why Cool Is Still Cool.” It’s no longer cool to call something “spiffy,” “swell,” or “groovy.” The Online Etymology Dictionary notes that “cool” has been “applied since 1728 to large sums of money,” as in “cool million.” In 1825 “cool” meant “calmly audacious,” in 1933 it meant “fashionable,” and since the late 1940’s cool was a “general term of approval,” “probably from bop talk and originally in reference to a style of jazz … popularized in jazz circles by tenor saxophonist Lester Young.

According to Berger’s study, as reported in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology “Cool’s” durability may stem from the fact that “our senses (e.g. sight, smell, and touch) have a big impact on linguistic success.” For example, “sudden increase,” was popular in the mid-1800s, “sharp increase” soon replaced it, and “promising future” was supplanted by “bright future,” which Berger says is used 2.4 times more frequently. “Such sensory metaphors are more successful because they’re more memorable … If you give people a list of sensory metaphors and other phrases that mean the same thing, we found sensory metaphors are 50 percent more likely to be remembered 10 minutes later.”

An “Our Living Language” note in the American Heritage Dictionary entry on “cool” says, “As a slang word expressing generally positive sentiment, it has stayed current (and cool) far longer that most such words. One of the main characteristics of slang is the continual renewal of its vocabulary and storehouse of expressions: in order for slang to stay slangy, it has to have a feeling of novelty.” This adds credence to the “sensory metaphor” theory, and it bodes well for public libraries.

They’re usually air conditioned, but, more importantly, they constantly add to its collections the latest our culture has to offer. Young people know this, for the most consistent users of public libraries are the 18-29 year-old age group.So wise up and stay young at your library, because, as “Calvin & Hobbes” creator Bill Watterson said, “It seems like once people grow up, they have no idea what’s cool.”


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