June 7, 2016 by libroshombre
The words from TheAtlantic.com fell on my ears like manna in the desert: “How y’all doing? A greeting as Southern as a bowl of grits, it rolls off the tongue in a single open-mouth utterance. Sweeter than honey, and often saturated with hidden meaning, it can open up a dialogue with a roomful of strangers with ease. Part of that ease hinges on the incredible versatility of the phrase’s most important words. ‘Y’all,’ that strange regional and ethnic conjunction, offers a simplicity to speech that can’t be found elsewhere. It is a magnificently elegant linguistic creation.”
“American Needs Y’all,” written by Vann Newkirk II, goes on to note there’s “no distinct second-person plural pronouns in modern standard English.” In King James’ day “ye” filled the bill but has long since become obsolete. Other languages have ways of referring to multiple other people, Newkirk said, such as “vosotros” in Spanish and “nyinyi” in Swahili, but “modern English requires that ‘you’ be jury-rigged in order to fulfill its true plural purpose.” Consequently, the Brits use “you lot,” while Americans employ “youse,” “you-uns,” and “yinz.”
The popularity of “you guys” is plummeting in this “era of increased scrutiny and consideration over the gender of pronouns … Plus, it’s just a damn clunky way to speak.” Speaking of which old memories were revived by reading “At the World Bank, a Shortage of Concrete Language,” a NYTimes.com article by Patricia Cohen. She describedhow the Stanford University Literary Lab analyzed 65 years of the World Bank’s publications and “found a sharp decline in factual precision, replaced by what the researchers called management discourse, a bureaucratic gobbledygook whose meaning is hard to decipher … The result is titled ‘Bankspeak,’ a play on doublespeak, referring to language that is intentionally ambiguous, meant to obscure or confuse.”
This pattern of obscurity increased sharply 20 years ago. Verbs were increasingly used as nouns, “the use of adverbs that refer to a particular time frame (such as ‘now,’ ‘recently,’ ‘or ‘later’) declined by more than 50%. Past tense verbs grew rarer, while jargon and acronyms proliferated.”
I saw early vestiges of Bankspeak’s development during a stint at the U.S. State Department 40 years ago that included free use of the World Bank library, as well as CIA, Treasury, Census Bureau, and even the Library of Congress. It was at the World Bank Library that I first encountered articles that questioned the way information was being communicated in ever-finer definitions and ever-vaguer terminology.
The Romans had a word for this: “obnubilate,” or “make less visible or clear.” WorldWideWords.org guru Anu Yarg described “obnubilate … as high-flown a Latinate words as the clouds it figuratively evokes – it comes from ‘nubes,’ a cloud.” The folks at the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae would confirm that, but they skipped the “N” volume of their ultimate Latin dictionary “because it has so many long words,” according to an online article by Byrd Pinkerton. Work is proceeding on the “N” and “R” volumes simultaneously, which ought to take them the rest of the decade. Not bad, considering they’ve been at it since 1894.
Another sort of dictionary has been created by the makers of the “Infant Cries Translator” app. Over the past two years researchers at the National Taiwan University Hospital Yunlin “have compiled 200,000 different sounds from 100 newborns and uploaded them to create a massive online database. The Infant Cries Translator can differentiate four different statuses of sounds of baby crying, including hunger, the diaper getting wet, sleepy, and pain,” and has a 92% accuracy rate for babies under two weeks old, 85% at two months, and 77% after four months.
I read about this new app in “News of the Weird,” a feature in Funny Times Magazine, which I can read and borrow from the public library. It’s one of some 550 print magazine subscriptions at our library, along with 80 more digital magazines available through the library’s free online Zinio service. And some formerly print magazines, like PCMag and MacWorld, are now only available in digital form.
“Birding,” “Cabin Life,” and “The Atlantic,” are available through Zinio, but to get “Southern Living” you’ll need to visit the library, where I hope to see all y’all.