The Word The Internet Didn’t Know

Not really.

The word parbunkells got a flurry of press coverage starting a few days ago, such as this piece from Popular Mechanics. Artist Julia Weist rented a billboard in Queens to feature the word, claiming that it was a forgotten seventeenth-century word that did not appear on the internet. Gizmodo declared the word to be “dead to the digital world—and to almost every living person.” Weist was trying to make a point about how information is shared over the internet, telling Gizmodo:

The word has also become a shortcut to a portrait of meaning making and content production on the Internet, both human and non-human, in the sense that you can search for it and see spools of information, reaction, conversation, re-context- ualization and response. In that sense it’s all or nothing, and now that word has been used, the more usage the better.

But she chose a bad example to make her point, and the mainstream media covering the story got a lot wrong. 

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Teaching Registers

The Economist’s Prospero blog has a post on the necessity of teaching different registers of speech. It uses Portuguese as an example, which I can’t speak to, not knowing the language, but the fundamental point the article makes is a good one: “Instead of a rigid right-wrong approach, with the written form always being taught as right, it would be better to teach the idea of register: that certain forms are used in casual speech, other forms in formal speech, others still in writing.”

It’s a good point. Students are smart, and they instinctively know how to switch registers—they do it all the time in their own speech. The only thing that needs to be done is make them aware that they do it. It’s not a difficult concept.

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Depicting World Languages

A neat visualization of the twenty-three most popular languages, depicted proportionally by the number of speakers.

The graphic was created by Alberto Lucas Lopéz for the South China Morning Post.

Data like this is always a bit suspect, but this chart is based on the information at, which is generally pretty good. The biggest problem is that it represents only the top twenty-three languages, leaving out the other six thousand or so. It also only captures L1, or first-language users. The total number of English speakers, for example, is much larger. It also fails to capture dialectal differences; for example Chinese is not as unified as the chart makes it out to be. Still, it’s a useful visualization in many ways.

For me, the most surprising thing in the image is the realization that French has relatively few speakers. There are some 87 million additional L2 speakers, but that’s still not a lot compared to the other languages on the chart. I would have guessed that it would have been much higher. Still, in the rankings of all world languages, French is in the top one percent.

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Book Review: The Language Myth

Vyvyan Evans’s The Language Myth is something of a polemic. In the book Evans, a professor of linguistics at Bangor University in the UK, takes on the dominant paradigm of twentieth century linguistics, the universal grammar of Noam Chomsky, especially as popularized by Steven Pinker in books like The Language Instinct. Evans’s book is, to say the least, controversial, and I am not fully qualified to judge its merits. (But this being the internet, I’m going to anyway.)

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A Tawdry Comic

Dinosaur Comics is one of my favorites, often riffing on linguistic issues. Today we get a double bonus: etymology and Anglo-Saxon history.

Here is the Big List entry on tawdry.

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