29 April 2005

toponyms and nicknames

A while back I stumbled across an old book called Speaking Canadian English, a semi-descriptive piece written by one Mark M. Orkin, Q.C. (i.e. a lawyer), and published by General Publishing Co. Ltd., Toronto, in 1970. I checked it out just for curiosity.

Some of the material is not terribly insightful; for example, in the chapter on phonology, we read that Canadian English has flat American [a] (presumably, [æ]) rather than broad British [a]. A bit short on detail, there, considering the actual range of variation in the low-vowel continuum.

But there's a really interesting discussion of placename nicknames and perjoratives. I repeat some of it here, while noting that the observations are (mostly) not unique to Canadian English. Overall, there seems to be a phenomenon of cities receiving phrasal nicknames, and of cities receiving truncated nicknames.

Many Canadian cities have achieved, or had thrust upon them, what G.P. Krapp once called "poetic and oratorical second designations." Such appellations are often unflattering, in spite of which they acquire acceptance and may even be worn with civic pride. Thus Toronto has for a long time been widely know by some as Toronto the Good, and by others as Hogtown, the latter name indicating not a meat-packing industry--as Cincinnati was once called Porkopolis--but an alleged greed for influence and material wealth.

I have heard that Toronto the Good is also perjorative, referring to its clean-cut and square image (in contrast with the racier Montreal). Orkin continues:

In the same way, Ottawa is sometimes referred to as Bytown to imply not merely a link with the past, recalling the original name of that city and its founder, Colonel By, but also a small-town, nay, parochial outlook--qualities by no means confined to capital cities.

Some well-known civic nicknames in the U.S. include The Windy City (Chicago), The Big Apple (New York), Beantown (Boston), and the City of Brotherly Love (Philadelphia). Probably there's a great many more (The Old Pueblo for Tucson comes to mind). These phrasal nicknames resemble license-plate monikers - I can imagine if license plates were municipal, they'd carry exactly these slogans. I might be driving around with "Home of Ranch Dressing" involuntarily stamped on my bumper.

If you collect enough of them, you'd probably start to think that such a nickname is something a city is "supposed" to have. Thus Edmonton, in the 1980s, dubbed itself the City of Champions, in pride of the coincident glory days of the Oilers and Eskimos. Orkin includes the self-dubbed category cryptically as the "panegyrical"; many other phrasal names are derived from geographical, cultural, or industrial features of the city's region.

Nestled in Orkin's list, completely out of order, is a list of truncated forms. These are fundamentally different beasts: people actually use them in spoken discourse. As I recall, nobody in Tucson ever uses the phrase "The Old Pueblo" except local news anchors (and painfully at that). But people do say things like "I'm going to Philly next week".

Among American toponyms, a fair number are truncated and diminutized: Minneapolis > Minny, Philadelphia > Philly, Indianapolis > Indy, and California > Cally. In same cases, this structure refers only to the inhabitant, as in Zonie or Okie. In others, the truncatum is to the right: Zona and Bama. I'm aware of at least one non-diminutive, Mass for Massachusetts.

Obviously, then, trucated civic nicknames are not restricted to Canadian toponyms. But there might be one unique feature, which Orkin notes:

When the name consists of two or more words, one word is often used, usually preceded by the definite article. This practice is evident in Ontario where Arnprior is familiarly known as The Prior, North Bay as The Bay, Port Credit as The Port or The Credit, and Sault Ste. Marie as The Soo. Similarly Portage la Prairie is abbreviated to Portage and Medicine Hat to The Hat.

Add to that The Peg for Winnipeg. The use of the article combined with a truncation is what seems to be unique here. And these are constructions that are (or were) used in actual speech. The only person I've known to have noticed this as a pattern is my sister, who gleefully extended it to Halifax (The Fax) and even back to Ottawa (The Twa).

Not every truncation gets an article, though:
Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, however, is known as P.A. When the city name consists of only one word, the first syllable may be chosen for the colloquial desgination; thus Gananoque has become Gan, Kapuskasing is known locally as Kap.

Add to that Sask for Saskatchewan. (Aside, it seems that initials are rare in spoken truncation - LA, DC, BC, PA (evidently), and TO, for Toronto).

Anyway, I'm having trouble thinking of American examples of an article + truncation. Except maybe The Vineyard or The Cape - neither seems much different from "the island" or "the coast". I'm also having trouble think of diminutized Canadian truncations, like *Saskie or *Winnie.

23 April 2005

the bi in bikini

Several months ago a query from Boyan Nikolaev appeared on linguistlist regarding the etymology of the word bikini. The query was cross-posted to the ADS-L mailing list, and is repeated below:

The word BIKINI, I think, was misinterpreted in 1946 as being Latin and consisting of bi- (=two) + something unclear. So, in time it dropped its bi- and became MONOKINI, even TANKKINI.

Could anyone tell me what the real Polynesian (Marshallese) word means and help me explain it not considering the Latin bi-
A gentle correction - Marshallese is Micronesian not Polynesian (which are related Remote Oceanic Austronesian subfamilies).

Anyway, the story for the word in its modern English use is that the two-piece bathing suit was introduced in 1946, and in search of a name for it, the designer chose Bikini, in reference to an (inhabited but evacuated) atoll in the Marshall Islands which had just been used for testing the atomic bomb. (The joke was, this bathing suit is as hot as a recently irradiated tropical island - ha ha ha).

It's observable that "kini" has become a cran-morpheme, appearing in forms like monokini (a one piece, or maybe topless form) and tankini (whose top is like a tank top). The brief ADS discussion suggested the backformation [bi+kini] was purposeful. Regardless, Nikolaev was unable to find help regarding the origin of the place name, as his summary several weeks later indicates:

I thank all who got in touch with me and who shared their know-how on the subject. However, no Marshallese connection was established and I still do not know for certain whether the bi- in bikini, by any off chance, came from the Latin bin, bis. While at this point we do not have the Marshallese etymology of the word bikini, I suggest that we do not close the current discussion.
The original query seemed innocent enough, but the sum kind of lets on speculation that the bi portion of the word bikini was always the latinate bi. (I think. Nobody (hopefully) would suggest the Romans made it that far east, or west, so I assume the null hypothesis is that there is a place called Kini to which a creative designer attached bi-.)

When I first saw the post I meant to write to Nikolaev after simply reaching behind me to crack open Abo, Bender, Capelle, and Debrum's Marshallese English Dictionary. But it was not behind me; instead, it was tucked away in the stacks on the 7th floor of Davidson Library. But the other day I was reminded of the issue when browsing the news and finding this story and photo.

So I went to get the dictionary, which I knew has a helpful section just on Marshallese place names. However, Marshallese orthography is opaque. The letter [b] is used, but stands for a velarized labial stop, which other Micronesian spelling systems express with [pw]. Also, the vowels are unusual: symbols like a, e, i, o, and u are all used, but are distributed over a four-height series in which each vowel has 3 (or so) allophones in the backness dimension.

What this means is that in looking for the Marshallese word bikini, you need to cast a wide net, especially since there is no such representation using that exact string of letters. Instead, it seems that the spelling of bikini is probably an English transliteration of a Japanese or German rendition. So I had to check b-words spelled with any vowel.

I scanned through the b-words in the place-name list and regular Marshallese-English section, with little luck. There were some leads, including bokwan [beqan], a recurring place-name formative, būkien [bikiyen] "its cape", būkōn [biken] "cape", bukun [biqin] "grove", and bok [beq] "sand" -- nothing quite close enough.

Frustrated, I wondered if the transliteration is actually a p-initial word. That is, perhaps the place name actually begins with a non-velarized labial stop, which Marshallese spells [p]. Then I found a place name Pikinni [pikinniy], which evidently is composed of pik "surface" and ni "coconut". It's listed in the place-name section of Abo et al, but it's not clear there whether the word applies specifically to the Bikini atoll.

I found confirmation, though, by looking up some official resources on the Marshall Islands. First I found their US Embassy, which links to a visitor's site, which links to an online library, with this entry on the Bikini atoll. In short, its name in Marshallese really is Pikinni. The probable trajectory is that the real place name was transliterated as Bikini, whose spelling precipitated the backformational removal of bi-.

22 April 2005

reality-based semantics

Reality TV (and its viewers) have been a casual source of language data for me for some time now. I have attributed this to the fact that the participants are not actors and the actual dialogue is (usually) not rehearsed script. (An exception is beginning to recur in the Apprentice, where Donald Trump often has "a meeting" with associates prior to catching up with the candidates in the show). Note that "script" is used here to be distinct from "push-producing", which is a non-linguistic manipulation of the outcomes of a competitive reality series.

Last night's Survivor contained an example of the middle ground, in that there was a linguistic quibble that ultimately changed the outcome of the episode. The background is that the (weak) Janu was a drain on the merged tribe, and clearly not winning material, and also clearly was excited at the idea of going home. Meanwhile, the highly competent and fiercely competitive Stephenie was in danger of being voted out - there is a culture of tolerating mediocrity in Survivor, and eliminating strong competitors, to strengthen one's chances down the road. It can make it frustrating to watch, honestly.

So aware of this particular situation (and of the phenomenon in general) was host Jeff Probst that he initiated the topic at tribal council (the voting-out venue). Steph's emotions indicated she knew she was headed out and was angry that her drive was also her demise. Janu, meanwhile, expressed satisfaction and a sense of completeness at having made it this far. By the way, Jeff likes competition. So Jeff says, "Janu, how different is laying down your torch from asking your teammates to vote you out?"

Now, this is basically a semantic question: is the one act equivalent to the other? Jeff managed to convince Janu that it was the same thing. I say they are different - quitting entails removing the tribe's power in deciding who goes. Had Janu asked to be voted out, they may have chosen Stephenie anyway. Instead, Janu leaves with the satisfaction of preventing a tribe (she disliked) from getting its way.

In Survivors past, people have quit and have asked to be voted out, and Jeff has reacted to both situations with disgust. This time, he seemed to be asking for it (Janu had not apparently considered either approach yet). So there you have it: push-producing, with linguistic manipulation.

[The last time I discussed reality TV, I characterized it as un-reshot and unscripted. Some correspondence on this point ensued, in which a reader suggested that some amount of re-shooting and scripting does transpire. Scripting, it could be argued, appears in the form of push-producing, in which the outcome of events is partially and subtly manipulated by the producers.

Push-producing does happen, but I have tried to maintain that it's not the same as scripting. So I updated the post on phonoloblog to clarify the distinction between scriptedness and contrivance. In a scripted show, the actor is given sentences to perform, but in a merely contrived (and unscripted) show, all the actor (or participant) has is a topic. Push-producing doesn't change this.]

[update: this item suggests that "quitting" (on the part of the participant) and "coercion" (on the part of the producers) are both too strong as terms to apply to the exchange.

If memory serves me, of the three previous participants who left voluntarily, two were players who quit the all-star series under stressful circumstances (Jenna M and Sue). The other (Osten) is the only cast member to have left vountarily by giving up. (one other player, Mike from season 2, was injured and evacuated).]

the ideology of whatever

One of the themes I'm trying to incorporate into my current class ("Language in Society") is an attempt to have the students think critically about the portrayal of language, dialect, and accent in popular enterntainment media.

I have ranted about such things in the past, notably about the inability or unwillingness of those in the industry to get it right. After additional reflection, I have identified 4 different ways in which actors and scriptwriters misrepresent speech varieties:

1 - through blatant disregard. In other words, don't even bother trying.
2 - through poor execution. Make an honest attempt at an accent, but fail to get it.
3 - through purposeful stereotypical exaggeration. Highlight linguistic stereotypes for the sake of comedy.
4 - through more subtle manipulation. Use identifiable linguistic traits and associated stereotypes to develop or frame characters.

This might represent the full scope of the ideology behind dialect misrepresentation; I think any portrayal that is not spot-on will fit into one of the above 4 categories.

The subtle-manipulation group is the most interesting to me. It's easy to get sucked into message board threads about movies and accents, and many of them focus on this aspect of it, notably in the Star Wars trilogies and in WWII-era film.

Poor execution is another locus of grievance. The example I used in class was an episode of Alias in which a guest star is supposed to be from Belfast but speaks with a perfect urban Scottish accent. I was really impressed with her portrayal of Scottish English, until I realized she was not meant to be Scottish. I then went to look her up, and the actress is Scottish. (A complication is that the character does have an under-cover Scotland connection). The producers probably cast her as a Northern Irish character because her Scottish accent was close enough.

Anyway, I was glad to see how quickly the class got it - they all detected the character-accent mismatch. For the class, I called this "the ideology of whatever", a phrase they seemed to enjoy. According to the ideology of whatever, in dramatic portrayals of dialect, close enough is good enough. But I expect more.

12 April 2005


This is the first post on biloklok, a site I plan to devote to writings about linguistic quirks, descriptively and occasionally theoretically. I have been a regular contributor to phonoloblog, but occasionally the content of my posts there steps outside of the domain of 'all things phonological'. So, the linguistic-but-not-quite-phonological will go here. Phonological things will continue to go in phonoloblog.

I was curious to see how long it would take to set up - it has now been 5 minutes.