Monthly Archives: June 2013

Phonological analysis of beatbox sounds

My latest article for TheWeek.com is in response to a suggestion made in a comment on my article on noises teenagers make. Someone asked for an analysis of the sounds beatboxers make. That’s a pretty tall order, but there are few little things that stand out, and I cover them:

A phonological description of beatbox noises

Kananaskis

A short distance east of Exshaw on the Highway 1A is a little hamlet called Kananaskis. In my junior high days I came up with a little joke on it: I asked someone, “Hey, that little place just east of here, I forgot its name. What is it?” “Kananaskis,” the person said. “What was that again?” “Kananaskis!” “I don’t know. Kiss my ass and find out!”

Yes, yes, puerile. But if you were in any doubt as to how this name is pronounced, you aren’t now.

If you’re from Calgary or area, you may be thinking, “Little village? It’s a big area south of the Trans-Canada Highway! The alpine events for the 1988 Winter Olympics were held at Nakiska there!” Yes, it’s that too. The village is the first place I knew the name, but I soon enough thereafter learned that it was also the name of a provincial park and of a larger recreational area, Kananaskis Country (or K-Country for short – the park is sometimes called K-Park, not to be confused with kapok). The valley that the park and country are situated in and near is the Kanaskis Valley, and the river that runs through it is the Kananaskis River. Also of the same name are a brace of lakes, a mountain range, and a summit. Oh, wait – the summit was a G20 leaders’ summit held at the resort that’s there. A lovely resort, at the foot of Mount Kidd (which rises a full mile above the valley), with 36 holes of golf.

Oh, by the way, the golf course will be closed for the rest of this year. Those floods that affected Exshaw and Calgary? Yeah, Kananaskis too. But it will recover. Just not this year. The waters met and caused a bit too much damage. But let us be grateful for all that there still is, plus all that has been and will be.

It’s a cute, crisp name, Kananaskis. Four syllables, three a’s, two n’s, two k’s, two s’s, and an i. The k’s give it a nice kick, it has a French pineapple at heart (anana), and it ends on skis, quite fittingly. So what does it mean?

You may guess that it’s a word from a local Indian (aboriginal, First Nations) language, and you would be sort of right. The First Nation that lives right around there is the Stoneys – in their own language, the Nakoda. But Kananaskis isn’t a Nakoda word. The Nakoda name for the place is ozada imne, ‘meeting of the waters’. No, Kananaskis is the name of a Cree fellow. The explorer John Palliser named the river after him – he assumed no one who might already live around there had already given it a name.

I learned, at one point, that Kananaskis meant ‘man with axe in head’. This turns out to be no more true than that Kennedy means ‘man with bullet in head’. The Cree fellow received an axe blow to the head, yes, apparently in an argument over a woman. And he recovered from it. But that’s not what his name meant. Actually, that’s not even what his name was, not quite: it was Kineahkis. Which meant (still means) ‘one who is grateful’. What was he grateful for? Being alive. Specifically, surviving the axe blow to his head – he changed his name to that after that event, I have read.

There’s another place name that merits mention: Nakiska. This is the name that was given to the ski area on Mount Allan where the 1988 downhill events were held. (This ski area is still there, and it’s a nice ski area, but it’s sad that it really ate the lunch of Fortress Mountain, the ski area I learned to ski at – a ski area without a huge vertical but with some lovely terrain, a lot of open bowl skiing, but much farther down the valley.) Nakiska means ‘meeting place’. In Nakoda? Ah, no. In Cree again. There aren’t any Cree living around Kananaskis, but I guess the marketing department thought the name sounded really good. I seem to recall that the Nakoda reaction to it at the time was more along the line of Kismyass, but…

Exshaw

I was born in Calgary but spent some of my youngest and most impressionable years in Exshaw, and went to school there until high school (excepting grades 5 and 6).

I wonder whether it had any appreciable effect on me that the first place I was aware of living in has an x in its name. And not just an x but an x followed by an s. That rather seems like a bit of excess, doesn’t it?

Where is Exshaw? On the way from Calgary to Banff – if you take the old highway, the 1A. If you take the Highway 1, the Trans-Canada, shortly after you pass the first mountains, you can see across the valley a large cement plant at the foot of a mountain subpeak that has been half blasted away. Exshaw. A dusty, windy, windy, dusty town in the mountains, mainly a working-class town, with that one big industry: cement. And that peak is a lot smaller now than it was when I was a kid. They blast more of it away every so often. You may have walked on that mountain… in some concrete made with a bit of it, perhaps in a sidewalk or a building.

Of course to small children everything seems different. Language has tricks you’re still learning. My brother said he’d give me five bucks if I sat on his back and let him throw me off five times. So I did. Having bucked me off five times, he told me I had just gotten my five bucks. Ha ha. There are train tracks leading to the cement plant, with a siding that – at least in the early 1970s – had a large dandelion plant at their abrupt end. When I asked my mother where trains come from, she said the train plant. I had the idea that that dandelion was the souce of all those freight cars. A cottage community across the valley, I was told, was Lacta’s Ark. I wondered who Lacta was (like Dracula?). Actually it’s Lac des Arcs.

And so we learned the names for places. We learned the names that you will still hear from people there. They are not in every case the official names. We would walk to a swamp east of town we called Dragonfly. I doubt it has a real name. We could go crocus picking on Cougar Mountain (not too far up – wouldn’t want to meet a cougar) – or, as the maps call it, Exshaw Mountain. We would walk up Canyon Creek – or, as maps call it, Exshaw Creek – or on the road next to it, towards a smaller set of houses called Nolerville or, as the maps call it (if they call it anything), Molnarville. We would look across the valley at a mountain that looked just like a nose – we called it Sproule’s Nose, because it looked like the nose of Mr. Sproule, one of our teachers. It’s actually Barrier Mountain, as it sports a notable rock face if you look at it from 15 mintues east. Actually, it was years before I realized they were the same mountain.

And Exshaw is dominated by Heart Mountain, a mountain the top front of which is ringed by a band of cliffs that make a heart shape. But the mountain is across the valley. You can see it, but you can’t just walk to it: you have to go ten minutes east to the Highway 1X, then several minutes south on that to the Trans-Canada, then back on the Trans-Canada to get to it – or to Lac des Arcs, at the foot of Heart Mountain and right across the river from Exshaw… but without a bridge. Just to the west is a big lake: Gap Lake. Or, in French, Lac des Arcs. I don’t recall ever seeing anyone sailing on it, though I could be wrong. It’s a very windy place, so…

The Exshaw of my youngest years is not entirely there any more, however. There was a main street with a curling rink, a grocery store, even a hotel with a bowling alley. In 1974, in order to expand the cement plant, all of that part of town was levelled. I’m still not sure why – the cement plant doesn’t occupy most of the part that was levelled. It’s just all empty ground now. Since then, there has been one store – connected to the gas station on the highway – and the only place to go for food and bev is the Legion or, as I thought of it as a kid, the Leejun: normally open only to adults, and I remember that the few times I could go in there it had a pervasive stale cigarette smoke smell. The town’s water comes down from a reservoir above the town. It’s held back by a dam and there are pipes bringing it down. They at least used to be leaky. In the winter we would hike up to look at the ice castles: remarkable structures of ice caused by the leaks spraying up from the pipe. I think they’ve fixed the pipes long since.

So Exshaw for me is quite a lot of memory. We stopped living there when I was in grade 4, though I continued to go to school there until grade 9 (except for grades 5 and 6). Now I live far, far east of there. And there are gaps and errors in my memory. Of course. But there’s no going back to 1973 to review it all and see it all again. We can drive there now, of course, and see what’s there. There’s still a lot of it there. Even the house my parents had built, and then moved out of a year later. There are new houses, too. People are moving there and enjoying it – it’s in the mountains, after all, and outside of the national park but convenient to it. But this is now and that is then. It’s a gap in time. And memory is a pipe that spings leaks from its gaps, and sometimes those leaks make ice castles.

And there are new gaps, and not just in memory. Exshaw has also suffered from the flooding that has made a mess of much of the rest of southern Alberta this past weekend. Exshaw Creek is a small creek that flows in a wide, rocky bed. Except for when it fills that whole bed. This week it washed away some of the highway, making a gap between the east and west parts of the town. It also flooded some houses and washed away at least one; at least a quarter of the houses are reported to be damaged beyond repair. The town is just now reconnecting with the rest of the world, and with itself, and it will take some time.

Why is it called Exshaw? The town was founded by Sir Sandford Fleming, a railway engineer, surveyor, explorer, et cetera – and the inventor of time zones. Fleming named the town after his son-in-law, William Exshaw, a gold medalist from the 1900 Olympics – in sailing. Fleming and Exshaw helped establish the Western Canada Cement and Coal Company. Exshaw has been a cement plant town from the beginning. (Now the plant is owned by Canada Cement Lafarge, as it has been as long as I’ve known it.)

And what do you call people from Exshaw? One of my parents once commented that it should be Exshavians, on the model that the adjectival form for Shaw is Shavian. But if I had ever used that term, my fellow students might well have held me down and shaved an X into my hair. No, there is a different model, one rather more mineral. Residents of Banff are Banffites; residents of Canmore are Canmorites. And residents of Exshaw are Exshawites. Which is said like Exshaw with ites, no pronunciation of the w. (Oh, yes, for those who don’t know, Canadian English has a low-back vowel merger: caught and cot are said the same, and the latter vowel of Exshaw is the same one as in la. It’s a four-phoneme word: /ɛkʃɑ/.)

Am I an Exshawite? Not now. Not for many years. I am an ex-Exshawite. But it is a mineral vein in my memory, one I will always strike if I mine deeply enough.

Calgary

I’m back where I’m from, for a visit with my family. Where am I from? The Bow Valley, Alberta. I was born in Calgary.

As you may have heard, the Bow River is at a hundred-year flood level, and low-lying parts of Calgary are under water. Fortunately, Calgary is a very not-flat city, and most of it is well above the damp. And Cochrane, where my parents live, has no houses close enough to river level to be flooded – the river runs through it, but down there. But let me tell you, I’ve never seen the river that high and fast.

I think it’s a good time to taste this word, Calgary. It’s a very normal, natural word for me, because I grew up with it, but I’m not oblivious to some of its salient features.

That big C figures a fair bit around town. The LRT system is called the C-Train; the brand for the Calgary Stampede is a C over a lazy S. It’s a hard [k], but it has that classy and almost delicate curve of C rather than the kicking K (imagine Kalgary. Wait, consider this: the city long known as Calcutta is now respelled Kolkata – isn’t that really, really different, in spite of the nearly identical pronunciation?).

I’m sure that as a kid I was somehow partial to Calgon as a name for dish detergent brand because of Calgary – but not so much that we didn’t use Cascade (a name anyone with a Banff connection will feel at home with). I was also reminded of Calvary (the place of the crucifixion – but not really of Golgotha, the Aramaic it translates) and, from that, of cavalry. There are also hints of garrison, ugly, gaol, Caligula, Cargill (an agricultural company), and Dr. Caligari (of the cabinet, in the movie).

One important detail is the pronunciation of this word. I remember, before the 1988 Olympics, reading a magazine’s counsel that the name of the city was pronounced like two guys’ names put together: Cal and Gary. This is so plain wrong I wrote them a letter (and they printed it). Only people not from anywhere near Calgary say it that way. The word Calgary has two and a half syllables, with the accent strongly on the first.

Two and a half? If you say it carefully, or if you sing it, it’s three, yes (the unofficial city song when I was growing up was the promo music for CFAC, channels 2 and 7 [you must watch it on YouTube to know the place I grew up]: “Makes no difference where I go, you’re the best hometown I know. Hello Calgary, hello Calgary-y-y… channels two and seven love you”). But really, the second syllable is normally just a long /r/, just a little longer than if you said “calgry.” The “grry” is more than a syllable but not really as much as two normal ones. Oh, and the /l/ is normally said as a velar approximant – not even the “dark l” you hear at the end of “Bill”; the tongue really doesn’t usually touch at all, it just rises up in back. (The IPA for this sound is [ɰ].)

What that means is that you can say this word without lifting the very tip of your tongue at all. The front behind the tip lifts up for the final [i], but the tip stays behind the teeth. It’s nearly all velar action: opening aspirated /k/, low front /æ/, the /l/ reduced to the [ɰ], a /g/ and that long /r:/, and then /i/. The only time the lips move much is that slight rounding they do on the /r/, and maybe opening up a little extra on the /æ/.

So where does Calgary come from? Well, the fort the NWMP (later RCMP) founded here was first named Fort Brisebois, after an officer whose name shows up in a street name now, but an NWMP Colonel, James Macleod (who has a major street named after him, Macleod Trail – the big roads in Calgary are called Trail), named it after a place in Scotland, on the Isle of Mull. (Southern Alberta has a lot of Scottish heritage. I grew up expecting bagpipes at big formal occasions.) When I was a kid, I heard that Calgary actually meant ‘castle by the bay’. This turns out not to be true: there is a castle by the bay at Calgary in Scotland, but the name Calgary comes from Scots Gaelic Calgarraidh, which most likely comes from cala ghearraidh, ‘beach of the meadow’.

Calgary, Alberta, is not much known for meadows and not at all known for beaches, although it has some of each. But right now they’re generally under water. Not of the bay – of the Bow. Also the Elbow, Calgary’s other river. But it will pass.

élan

This word is a lean little thing, but I think it displays some of the quality it names. To an Anglophone’s eyes, the accent on the é certainly adds to that: it looks dashing, ready to sally forth – in that musketeerish way one may think of the French as having. The word often seems to mean ‘flair’ or ‘verve’ or ‘panache’, but dictionaries describe it as ‘vivacity’, ‘impetuousness’, ‘dash’, or ‘ardour’. The smooth and quick liquid sound of the word adds an elegance. One may display élan by rushing forth and clearing enemy lines like an eland bull, but this word is more of an antelope, really.

Élan is seen in élan vital, a concept set forth by Henri Bergson, an idea of a kind of vital force in all things, a life force that wants to burst forth, an impetus against entropy. Bergson presented it as a hypothetical force behind evolution, but one may readily use it in a broader sense as that liveliness that wants to spring forth, to join together, to effloresce, to create – however intrinsic or emergent it may be.

Élan is also a brand name of skis, and of a few other things as well; it also gives me a taste of some other words: island; uileann pipes (a kind of Irish bagpipe); álainn, the Irish word for ‘beautiful’ (pronounced like “alling”); and the names Elaine and Ellen. Both Elaine and Ellen are considered to be versions of Helen, but there is some suggestion that Elaine may also come from a Welsh word for ‘fawn’ – at least the Elaine seen in Arthurian legend, where it is the name of several women, notably Elaine of Corbenic, who has some undeniable élan: she draws Sir Lancelot from Guinivere, bears him Sir Galahad, and shows him the Holy Grail (thereby restoring his sanity). It occurs to me that every Elaine I know has a certain élan… though, of course, that’s not a large or scientific sampling.

And where does élan come from? French, obviously, but specifically the verb élancer ‘rush forth’, which traces back to Latin ex ‘out’ and lanceare ‘throw a lance’ (from lancea ‘lance’). This makes it surprisingly similar to the word sally, another word for venturing boldly forth that has a coincidental overtone (extremely strong in its case) of a female name – and is also two syllables with a [l] in the middle. Bold words, full of ardour, and yet vital with a lithe femininity in form and sound, at least to my ears.

loligo

Visual: This is a nice mix of characters, with two googly eyes o o, a pair of columns l l, a dot on the i, and that wriggly g reaching below. So much fun and variety in a half dozen letters. Four loops, three sticks, a dot.

In the mouth: It may look like it should be said like “lol ego,” but officially (due to what Brits did to the long i’s in Latin) it’s like “low lie go” or “LOL I go.” So the tongue taps softly twice, makes a wave (concave to convex) in the diphthong, and then bounces off the back while the lips round. Rhythmically it’s an amphibrach.

Echoes: I’m sure you, like me, immediately thought of oligosaccharides. No? How about lollypop or impetigo, or maybe religion or ligament or log or goil? Or oil or googly or gigolo – or, of course, low, lie, LOL, I, and go.

Etymology: This is a Latin word, presented unaltered in the spelling but Anglicized in the pronunciation. The original Latin would be like “lo lee go” – which may well be the way it looks to you like it should be said. But when English shifted its vowels, it shifted how it rendered Latin vowels too.

Overtones: This seems a rather elegant word, doesn’t it? In a better league of words? Unless it’s a name for something unpleasant, like a skin condition – no, that’s impetigo. Actually it’s a name for a kind of thing many people (including me) like to eat. It’s a much more pleasant-sounding word than squid, although it may lose out to calamari.

Semantics: Taxonomically it’s a cephalopod. Yes, a loligo is a kind of squid (or actually a family of squids), one much fished for commercial purposes. It’s a flattened cylindrical squid, with a head that looks a bit like a supersonic fighter jet and two long side tentacles to go with its half-dozen shorter ones. It grows up to 3 feet long.

Where to find it: You won’t see this word on a restaurant menu; they’ll just call it squid or calamari. This is a word for the biologists. Pity, because it’s a nice word.

How to use it: You can keep it technical, or go for LOLs: “I’ve had a fascinating date. You are a gentleman and a loligo.”

persnickety

Not all the greenery in word country is equally easy to tend. One of the fussiest is the persnickety bush. It demands proper water, light, and tending, and must not be overused. It has a delightful flavour, almost lemony, with clear hints of persimmons and snickerdoodles, but if it is overpicked or used too persistently it will surely make you purse your lips.

This bush is a variant plant, a version of pernickety – that quaint and curious word that seems to have sprung from a Scottish source – grown in a tight little alley (a snicket). It is rather prickly, and you would do well to avoid a thicket of it, lest you nick yourself.

Different gardeners do different things with persnickety. Some let it grow as is, though you should be careful not to let anything grow too persnickety. Others prefer to prune, to snip with shears or snap off with snee. Some like to get to what they see as the very heart of it, though it loses some of its more involved flavour. You can see the results in this bush here: the gardener has clipped away some letters – they’re on the ground; are they tenser or resent? Both are part of the character of persnickety. And what is left once those are removed? Just p ick y – ah, picky. A synonym, largely. But no, no, nowhere near the flavour. Bad gardener. One really must do these things just so, you know.

Baby, the way you talk

My latest article for TheWeek.com is on baby babbling: the different kinds, and whether – or to what extent – it’s really language:

What language is your baby speaking?

Your linguistic guide to baby babbling

guan

This is a very resonant word. I don’t mean that it sounds like a gong being struck, though it sort of does. I mean that it sounds like a number of other words:

Guam, a Pacific Island territory of the United States

guano, a word for accumulated bird poop, which came to English from Quechua via Spanish

gwan or gwaan, Jamaican patois for ‘go on’ meaning either ‘happen’ or ‘go away’; a popular phrase using it is dem fi gwan, ‘They should go away’, which you can hear in (among other things) Ruff Scott’s fun song “Tell Dem Fi Gwaan

gun, though more by appearance than by sound

gown, which is what you get if you reverse the diphthong in guan

Guantánamo, which I do not need to explain, and Guantánamera, the name of a well-known Cuban song about a woman from Guantánamo

Juan, especially if you’re really harsh with the j

guan, which is more than one word in Mandarin; it is two different surnames (depending on the tone), sometimes transliterated Kwan or Quon, it is a word for ‘shut’ and ‘barrier’ and a different word for ‘pipe’ – from the latter it names a double-reed woodwind, a sort of Chinese oboe (not that it sounds all that much like an oboe)

It also has that fish-like oral gesture that sucks air into the mouth, as you may see in quantity or French quoi.

What actually does guan signify? It’s the name of a South American bird roughly the size and appearance of a turkey – or perhaps a bit like a chicken with longer neck and tail and different colouring (typically black). Although the name could be a sound a bird would make, it’s not the sound the guan makes. English got the name from Spanish, which probably got it from a South American indigenous language (though it’s not certain which one).

There are actually several kinds of guan, some with brighter feathers, some with a big crest on the head. Here’s a video of a guan: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wt18fK44myA

You may wonder whether it deserves such a resonant name. But for all we know, it thinks the same about you. Anyway, something has to have the name. Might as well be this bird.

oculolinctus

This is a word that involves multiple liquid, licking, and crackling motions of the tongue. Back-front-front-back-front-front; hard, soft, soft, soft-to hard, hard, loose. Look at the shape of the word, oculolinctus: it almost looks like something round rolling while something long and straight comes in to interrupt or touch it. Round o opens and rolls c u, stops again o caught between l and l and then, after that loosens to i, rolls back n c, intercepted at t but rolls a quarter turn further u before finally becoming s – is that stopped, deflated, or spinning?

This is a delectable word to be sure, five syllables, obviously Latin, giving the tongue a workout. But what is it? A jungle cat, a dinosaur, a gastrointestinal disorder, an optical device?

How about something popular among Japanese tweens?

Imagine. How would a Japanese tween say this? It hardly fits with Japanese phonotactics. “Okurorinkutusu”? Hmm. Or maybe a different word altogether.

But how would they say whatever they say when they’re, say, licking another Japanese tween’s eyeball?

Umm-hmmm. Yup. That is what oculolinctus names. The practice of licking the eyeball. From oculo, combining form of the root for ‘eye’, and and linctus, noun, ‘licking’, from lingere, verb, ‘lick’. Why not lingus? Strictly speaking, lingus means ‘licker’; an oculolingus would in the original sense be an eye-licker. (And an oculolinguist? Here’s words in your eye.)

This has just lately shown up in the usual “news of weird things people are doing these days” sites, including the Huffington Post. It seems that the practice is a sort of step beyond simple kissing. According to this story by Ashik Siddique, it has been seen in Japanese manga comics occasionally for a few years (the story has a couple of links if you really want to see), but a video of the song “Spiral Lie” by the Japanese group Born is being named as the prime vector for its current popularity. (If you want to see the oculolinctal act but you don’t like the music, fast-forward to 3:30 in the video.)

Why would anyone stick their tongue in someone else’s eye? I remember a play I read some years ago in which a person does that to remove a speck from another person’s eye. That’s not why in this case. No, it’s erotic, and it’s because the eyeball has lots of nerve endings and thus is very sensitive.

It has lots of nerve endings, of course, to help you keep things out of your eye. Because things that get in your eye can damage it. A tongue is soft, but there may be particles. There may also be viruses and bacteria that can cause conjunctivitis, which is unpleasant, and doesn’t make for good oculolinctus.

Thus, the only tongue I recommend getting in your eye is the Engish tongue, i.e., the language you are reading, or any other tongue in the sense of ‘language’, and getting it in your eye by reading it. If you would to test your lingual dexterity for erotic purposes, may I suggest learning to use words well and seductively, savouring the taste of them, whispering them in the ear… (Imagine the person who thrills you most simply murmuring “oculolinctus” slowly and closely… so much better than doing what it names, no?)

Infecting someone’s ears and mind with desire is much better than infecting their eyes with bacteria.