Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Viking Brand in Iceland

Best use of a letter-form in national branding: Viking sword and two axe-blades form the outline of a stylized Þ ("thorn") at the National Museum of Iceland [its name in Icelandic: Þjóðminjasafn Íslands]. Reykjavík, Iceland, July 2014.

FYI, in Icelandic there are two different letters to indicate what we transcribe as the "th" sound in English. Þ / þ ("thorn") indicates the "th" sound as in "thunder," while Ð / ð ("eth") indicates the "th" as in "weather." Old English (Anglo-Saxon) used to employ these letters too but they have since become obsolete.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Cryptic Sculpture (Hirshhorn)

This mysterious sculpture is entitled "Antipodes" (Sam Sanborn, 1997) and it stands the garden outside the Hirshhorn Museum. This Arts Observer article provides a good description of the piece with nice images of the work.

A detail of part of the sculpture reveals of pattern of letters. Reading across the top row of this photograph you can just make out the word KRYPTOS; this word is repeated in every line in a slightly different position, surrounded by what appears to be the other letters of the Roman alphabet: ABCDEFG ... etc.

I took at look at the other half of the sculpture (left-hand side in this photo), which looks like the letters of some Cyrillic script in reverse. I have no idea what's going on here. But -- as it turns out -- someone else has devoted years studying this artwork and has finally (as of September 2003) cracked parts of the code.

The English part of the sculpture, by the way, apparently repeats the code in another sculpture by Sanborn entitled (appropriately enough) "Kryptos," and this artwork stands on the grounds of CIA Headquarters in Langley, VA.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Say what? Chinese Proverb (Chengyu) on Notecard

I spotted this handwritten notecard in an English/Chinese phrasebook in a used bookstore today. The prior owner (user) of this book has inserted a notecard recording the phrase kǒu chǐ bù qīng (literally translated: "mouth teeth not clear," in Chinese: 口齒不清 or 口齿不清). This expression indeed conveys the sense of someone being unclear or inarticulate. It seems somehow fitting that this notetaker made a false start in writing out this note, and the text remains partially illegible.

By the way, this phrase is one of many chéng yǔ (成語 or 成语), i.e., proverbial expressions or "set phrases" in Chinese. These are most often four words long and since they are highly idiomatic and context-specific, they can prove quite difficult to translate.

One curious convergence of idiomatic expressions across languages is the Chinese expression Hǎo jiǔ bù jiàn! (好久不見 or 好久不见), which translates remarkably literally into English as "long time no see." Some have argued that this expression entered the English vernacular via Chinese Pidgin English -- perhaps by Chinese immigration to North America or contact between the members of the British Navy and traders in China.

For some useful chéng yǔ, see HERE; for more on chéng yǔ as oblique references to Classical Chinese literature, see HERE.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Clockwise Shadows (Smithsonian Castle)

Sundial, Smithsonian Castle Garden, August 5, 2012. 1:15 pm. Latin inscription (left on this photo): Aspice, Respice, Prospice  = "Look Around, Look Back, and Look Forward" (or, more loosely translated, "Observe, Reflect, and Think Ahead").

Some observations: You'll see that "north" (and 12 o'clock) on the middle right in this photo; I oriented the image to better reveal the shadow of the gnomon (rod) that's indicating the time. Over the course of a day, the Sun causes the shadow to around the sundial in a "clockwise" direction. The only reason mechanical clocks go "clockwise" is that they follow the motion established by earlier sundials - if sundials (and clocks) had been invented in the Southern Hemisphere, they'd now be going in the "other" direction.

Numbers on the clock are indicated in Roman numerals. The number "four" is indicated as IIII, after the Roman fashion; the form "IV" was actually a later (medieval) development.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

The Art of Money (Multilingual Quarters)

Commemorative quarters for Hawaii, DC, and other US territories, photo taken mid-2009.

Early in 2009 some media outlets were reporting on the release of new quarters commemorating Puerto Rico; these coins contained the words "Isla del Encanto" (Island of Enchantment) in Spanish on one side. As a follow up to the 50 State Quarters Program, the US Mint launched the DC and US Territories Quarters Program in 2009, with Puerto Rico receiving its own quarter. To see a diagram of the Puero Rico quarter (not in the above photo), see this website.

Many reports were treating the use of Spanish on US coins as novelty, but the presence of non-English inscriptions on US coins isn't a really a "new" thing. First of all, every US quarter bears the unofficial Latin motto E pluribus unum ("out of many, one"). Second, the state of Hawaii had already used Hawaiian in addition to the standard Latin motto on its quarter in 2008 (read more about the Hawaii quarter here). UA MAU KE EA O KA 'AINA I KA PONO = "The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness."

As you can see above (click to enlarge), DC and the US Virgin Islands have mottos in English (DC = "Justice for All" and Virgin Islands = "United in Pride and Hope"). The Northern Mariana Islands have no additional motto aside from the standard Latin. American Samoa has a motto in Samoan: SAMOA MUAMUA LE ATUA ("Samoa, God is First"). Guam has a motto in Chamorro: "Guahan I Tanó ManChamorro" ("Guam: Land of the Chamorro").

(For the US quarter that includes a Braille inscription, see the previous posting.)

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Art of Money (Braille on Quarter)

The US Mint began its State Quarters Program in 1999, issuing commemorative coins in the order in which each state entered the Union. The state quarter of Alabama (released March 2003) depicts Helen Keller, and above her name is the equivalent "translation" in Braille dots. I wonder if a blind person is able to read this inscription at this size?

I think it's interesting that Helen Keller is depicted in the act of reading itself. She runs fingers over a book in her lap, presumably one with Braille dots or raised letters.

By the way, this quarter -- like all quarters -- contains some Latin: the unofficial motto of the United States, E pluribus unum ("out of many, one.")

(For more on the use of the motto E pluribus unum, see here and here. For more on Helen Keller, see my earlier posting about her statue in the Capitol Visitor Center; see also here and here.)

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Helen Keller (Capitol Visitor Center)

I've already posted about the National Statuary Hall Collection, but I thought I should follow up with one more statue. Helen Keller, whose statue is now in the Capitol Visitor Center, is one of two statues representing Alabama. Keller was deaf and blind at an early age, and this statue depicts a linguistic epiphany at a water spout: "Her expression of astonishment shows the moment when she and [her childhood teacher and lifelong companion] Annie Sullivan first communicated, by touch, the word 'water.'" (This episode has been made famous by the play The Miracle Worker.)

The base contains a relief sculpture of Keller's Alabama home with English and Braille inscriptions - and an inspiring quotation from Helen Keller herself: "The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched, they must be felt with the heart."

For more on Helen Keller, see this plaque (here) and the tomb of Keller and Sullivan (here).

Monday, August 1, 2011

Capitalization is WUNDERBAR

Georgetown, July 2011 [click image to enlarge].

These cheerful green buses can be found all around DC as part of Germany's "do Deutsch" campaign: it seeks to promote the joys of learning the German language and pique interest in German culture more broadly.The website promoted on the bus (www.Germany.info) has some interesting links, include a German "word of the week" blog.

The bus itself strewn with various German nouns that have entered everyday English speech. In German, all nouns should be capitalized - but things are pretty erratic here (some words are in all caps, some in lowercase). "Wunderbar" [wonderful] is an adjective, not a noun, but - strangely enough - it's capitalized. Oh those wacky Germans, being so playful with their capital letters!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Chinese Silkweaving, Multiple Scripts

During a visit to the Freer Gallery of Art last year, I came across this 13th-century scroll painting that depicts the art of Chinese silkweaving. The scroll links together 24 sheets of paper unfurling from left to right, and its visual content is fascinating (the scenes represent all the stages of silk production). Its verbal content is interesting as well. Each scene is accompanied by a poem that is written out in a formal style of calligraphy called "seal script." Next to each character of text in the poem there's a tiny gloss "translating" the character into standard script. There are also various inscriptions in "running script" throughout the scroll, in addition to the seals of multiple owners that have accrued over time.

To see more images of the scroll and download detailed documentation about its contents, see this website.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

DC's Letter-Named Streets (I and Absent J)

DC's system for naming its streets is distinctive. Streets running east-west take letter names (A, B, C, etc.) and streets running north-south are numbered (1st, 2nd, 3rd, and so on). In addition, diagonal avenues are named after US states (for a guide to navigating DC streets, see here). Above, two ways of rendering I (Eye) Street in Foggy Bottom. I've seen many people write addresses referring to "Eye Street" rather than "I Street" - I suppose order to avoid any confusion with the numeral 1 (one).

Why is there no "J Street" in DC, you ask? I've heard people say it's because the I/J distinction was difficult to discern (or non-existent) in 18th-century typography. Others claim that DC lacks a "J Street" because Pierre L'Enfant (the Frenchman who planned the city) disliked Chief Justice John Jay - but this is apparently an urban legend.