“The Art of David Lynch”— How Rene Magritte, Edward Hopper & Francis Bacon Influenced David Lynch’s Cinematic Vision

When an artist becomes an adjective—think Orwellian, Kafkaesque, or Joycean—one of two things can hap­pen: their work can be super­fi­cial­ly appro­pri­at­ed, reduced to a col­lec­tion of obvi­ous ges­tures clum­si­ly com­bined in bad pas­tiche. Or their dis­tinc­tive style can inspire artists with more skill and depth to make orig­i­nal cre­ations that may them­selves become touch­stones for the future. What might dis­tin­guish one from the oth­er is the degree to which we under­stand not only the work of Orwell, Kaf­ka, or Joyce, but also the work that influ­enced them.

When it comes to David Lynch, there’s no doubt that the “Lynchi­an” stands as a mod­el for so much con­tem­po­rary film and tele­vi­sion. But while some direc­tors make excel­lent use of Lynch’s influ­ence, oth­ers strive for Lynchi­an atmos­phere only to reach a kind of unin­spired, unin­ten­tion­al par­o­dy. The sub­lime bal­ance of humor and hor­ror Lynch has achieved over the course of his extra­or­di­nary career seems like the kind of thing one shouldn’t attempt with­out seri­ous study and prepa­ra­tion.

With­out Lynch’s sur­re­al­ist vision, odd­ball char­ac­ter­i­za­tion and dia­logue fall flat—as in Twin Peaks’ sec­ond sea­son, which Lynch him­self says “sucked.” So what defines the Lynchi­an? A very dis­tinc­tive use of music, for one thing. And as the video essay above by Men­no Koois­tra demon­strates, the sig­nif­i­cant influ­ence of paint­ing. Lynch him­self began paint­ing and draw­ing at a young age and stud­ied art at the School of the Muse­um of Fine Arts in Boston in the six­ties. While he found his call­ing in film, his art edu­ca­tion pre­pared him to dream up the unfor­get­table com­po­si­tions of the Lynchi­an world.

Rene Magritte, Edward Hop­per, Arnold Böck­lin, and the mas­ter of psy­cho­log­i­cal hor­ror, Fran­cis Bacon—all of these painters have direct­ly informed Lynch’s night­mar­ish mise-en-scène. As you’ll see in Kooistra’s video, in side by side com­par­isons, Lynch adapts the work of his favorite artists for his own pur­pos­es. In an inter­view clip, he says he dis­cov­ered Bacon at a gallery in 1966 and found the expe­ri­ence “thrilling”—later using the painter’s work as inspi­ra­tion for The Ele­phant Man and Twin Peak’s dis­ori­ent­ing Red Room.

We see Lynch’s homage to his favorite painters in Eraser­head and Blue Vel­vet, as well as the cur­rent, third sea­son of Twin Peaks, over which he has (as he well should) com­plete cre­ative con­trol. You may not find Fran­cis Bacon’s dis­turb­ing por­traits quite as thrilling as Lynch does, or draw on Edward Hop­per for a warped ver­sion of 1950’s Amer­i­cana. These are Lynch’s ref­er­ences; they res­onate on his par­tic­u­lar fre­quen­cy, and hence pro­vide him with visu­al frames for his own per­son­al dream log­ic.

But what we might take away from “The Art of David Lynch” is that the Lynchi­an is nec­es­sar­i­ly tied to a painter­ly sen­si­bil­i­ty, and that with­out the influ­ence of fine art on com­po­si­tion, col­or, and fram­ing, a Lynchi­an pro­duc­tion may be in dan­ger of looking—as he says of that dis­ap­point­ing Twin Peaks’ sec­ond season—“stupid and goofy.”

via IndieWire

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Sur­re­al Film­mak­ing of David Lynch Explained in 9 Video Essays

Ange­lo Badala­men­ti Reveals How He and David Lynch Com­posed the Twin Peaks‘ “Love Theme”

Hear the Music of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks Played by the Dan­ish Nation­al Sym­pho­ny Orches­tra

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

Bob Dylan Hates Me: An Animation

Film­mak­er Caveh Zahe­di met his idol twice. And lived to ani­mate the sto­ry. Enjoy.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Bob Dylan Clas­sic, “For­ev­er Young,” Ani­mat­ed for Chil­dren

I Met the Wal­rus: An Ani­mat­ed Film Revis­it­ing a Teenager’s 1969 Inter­view with John Lennon

Watch Kids’ Price­less Reac­tions to Hear­ing the Time­less Music of The Bea­t­les

Hear Bob Dylan’s New­ly-Released Nobel Lec­ture: A Med­i­ta­tion on Music, Lit­er­a­ture & Lyrics

 

 

Dictionary of the Oldest Written Language–It Took 90 Years to Complete, and It’s Now Free Online

It took 90 years to com­plete. But, in 2011, schol­ars at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go final­ly pub­lished a 21-vol­ume dic­tio­nary of Akka­di­an, the lan­guage used in ancient Mesopotamia. Unspo­ken for 2,000 years, Akka­di­an was pre­served on clay tablets and in stone inscrip­tions until schol­ars deci­phered it dur­ing the last two cen­turies.

In the past, we’ve pub­lished audio that lets you hear the recon­struct­ed sounds of Akka­di­an (Hear The Epic of Gil­gamesh Read in the Orig­i­nal Akka­di­an and Enjoy the Sounds of Mesopotamia). Now, should you wish, you can down­load down­load PDFs of U. Chicago’s Akka­di­an dic­tio­nary for free. All 21 vol­umes would cost well over $1,000 if pur­chased in hard copy. But the PDFs, they won’t run you a dime.

If you would like to sign up for Open Culture’s free email newslet­ter, please find it here. Or fol­low our posts on Threads, Face­book, BlueSky or Mastodon.

If you would like to sup­port the mis­sion of Open Cul­ture, con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your con­tri­bu­tions will help us con­tin­ue pro­vid­ing the best free cul­tur­al and edu­ca­tion­al mate­ri­als to learn­ers every­where. You can con­tribute through Pay­Pal, Patre­on, and Ven­mo (@openculture). Thanks!

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Largest His­tor­i­cal Dic­tio­nary of Eng­lish Slang Now Free Online: Cov­ers 500 Years of the “Vul­gar Tongue”

The The­ater Dic­tio­nary: A Free Video Guide to The­atre Lin­go

Hear The Epic of Gil­gamesh Read in the Orig­i­nal Akka­di­an and Enjoy the Sounds of Mesopotamia

The Dune Coloring & Activity Books: When David Lynch’s 1984 Film Created Countless Hours of Peculiar Fun for Kids

David Lynch’s Dune, the $40 mil­lion cin­e­mat­ic spec­ta­cle based on Frank Her­bert’s sci­ence-fic­tion epic, faced more than its fair share of chal­lenges: Lynch’s lack of artis­tic con­trol, elab­o­rate but not quite suc­cess­ful spe­cial effects, source mate­r­i­al so unsuit­ed to fea­ture-film adap­ta­tion that audi­ences had to read glos­saries before the first screen­ings. In an attempt to get ahead of bad buzz, the mas­sive adver­tis­ing and mer­chan­dis­ing blitz had begun well before the movie’s Christ­mas 1984 release, but none of its flaks seemed to under­stand the enter­prise of Dune any bet­ter than most of those view­ers did.

Case in point: the Dune col­or­ing and activ­i­ty books, evi­dence that, as Comics Alliance’s Jason Miche­litch writes, “what Uni­ver­sal Pic­tures want­ed was a Star Wars of their very own — a whiz-bang space adven­ture for eight-year-olds that they could mer­chan­dise the heck out of to the wide-eyed kids that just a year pre­vi­ous had whee­dled their par­ents into buy­ing plush ewok dolls and toy lightsabers. Instead, Lynch and pro­duc­er Dino De Lau­ren­tis pro­vid­ed them with a dark epic actu­al­ly fit for con­sump­tion by think­ing adults. Imag­ine their cha­grin.”

Mered­ith Yanos at Coil­house offers a more detailed write­up of the hours of fun on offer in these tonal­ly bizarre books: “First, there’s the Dune Col­or­ing Book, 44 pages of lurid scenes fea­tur­ing con­spir­a­to­r­i­al char­ac­ters from the film. Then there’s the Dune Activ­i­ty Book. 60 pages of puz­zles and games, mazes and more pic­tures for col­or­ing,” includ­ing a recipe for “No-Bake Spice Cook­ies” that sub­sti­tutes com­mon cin­na­mon for Dune’s Spice, a  “wacky aware­ness spec­trum nar­cot­ic that con­trols the uni­verse.” Oth­er vol­umes con­tain Dune-themed paper dolls, Dune-themed word puz­zles, and even Dune-themed math prob­lems.

Though Dune remains pri­mar­i­ly remem­bered as one of the worst flops in cin­e­ma his­to­ry (and even Lynch him­self usu­al­ly refus­es to dis­cuss it), a few fans have also come to its defense over the past 32 years. Some of them have no doubt want­ed to pass this revi­sion­ist appre­ci­a­tion down to their chil­dren, a task the Dune col­or­ing and activ­i­ty books may (or may not) make eas­i­er. If you buy them on Ama­zon, you’ll have to pay between $45 and $75 each — noth­ing com­pared to the cost of any­thing in the actu­al pro­duc­tion of Dune, of course, but still, you may want to keep an eye on eBay instead.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Glos­sary Uni­ver­sal Stu­dios Gave Out to the First Audi­ences of David Lynch’s Dune (1984)

The 14-Hour Epic Film, Dune, That Ale­jan­dro Jodor­owsky, Pink Floyd, Sal­vador Dalí, Moe­bius, Orson Welles & Mick Jag­ger Nev­er Made

Howard Johnson’s Presents a Children’s Menu Fea­tur­ing Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Free Col­or­ing Books from World-Class Libraries & Muse­ums: The Met, New York Pub­lic Library, Smith­son­ian & More

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

The Powerful Messages That Woody Guthrie & Pete Seeger Inscribed on Their Guitar & Banjo: “This Machine Kills Fascists” and “This Machine Surrounds Hate and Forces it to Surrender”

Pho­to by Al Aumuller, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

Like anoth­er famous Okie from Musko­gee, Woody Guthrie came from a part of Okla­homa that the U.S. gov­ern­ment sold dur­ing the 1889 land rush away from the Qua­paw and Osage nations, as well as the Musco­gee, a peo­ple who had been forcibly relo­cat­ed from the South­east under Andrew Jackson’s Indi­an Removal Act. By the time of Guthrie’s birth in 1912 in Okfus­kee Coun­ty, next to Musko­gee, the region was in the hands of con­ser­v­a­tive Democ­rats like Guthrie’s father Charles, a landown­er and mem­ber of the revived KKK who par­tic­i­pat­ed in a bru­tal lynch­ing the year before Guthrie was born.

Guthrie was named after pres­i­dent Woodrow Wil­son, who was high­ly sym­pa­thet­ic to Jim Crow (but per­haps not, as has been alleged, an admir­er of the Klan). While he inher­it­ed many of his father’s atti­tudes, he recon­sid­ered them to such a degree lat­er in life that he wrote a song denounc­ing the noto­ri­ous­ly racist New York land­lord Fred Trump, father of the cur­rent pres­i­dent. “By the time he moved into his new apart­ment” in Brook­lyn in 1950, writes Will Kauf­man at The Guardian, Guthrie “had trav­eled a long road from the casu­al racism of his Okla­homa youth.”

Guthrie was deeply embed­ded in the for­ma­tive racial pol­i­tics of the coun­try. While some peo­ple may con­vince them­selves that a time in the U.S. past was “great”—unmarred by class con­flict and racist vio­lence and exploita­tion, secure in the hands of a benev­o­lent white major­i­ty, Guthrie’s life tells a much more com­plex sto­ry. Many Indige­nous peo­ple feel with good rea­son that Guthrie’s most famous song, “The Land is Your Land,” has con­tributed to nation­al­ist mythol­o­gy. Oth­ers have viewed the song as a Marx­ist anthem. Like much else about Guthrie, and the coun­try, it’s com­pli­cat­ed.

Con­sid­ered by many, Stephen Petrus writes, “to be the alter­na­tive nation­al anthem,” the song “to many peo­ple… rep­re­sents America’s best pro­gres­sive and demo­c­ra­t­ic tra­di­tions.” Guthrie turned the song into a hymn for the strug­gle against fas­cism and for the nascent Civ­il Rights move­ment. Writ­ten in New York in 1940 and first record­ed for Moe Asch’s Folk­ways Records in 1944, “This Land is Your Land” evolved over time, drop­ping vers­es protest­ing pri­vate prop­er­ty and pover­ty after the war in favor of a far more patri­ot­ic tone. It was a long evo­lu­tion from embit­tered par­o­dy of “God Bless Amer­i­ca” to “This land was made for you and me.”

But whether social­ist or pop­ulist in nature, Guthrie’s patri­o­tism was always sub­ver­sive. “By 1940,” writes John Pietaro, he had “joined forces with Pete Seeger in the Almanac Singers,” who “as a group, joined the Com­mu­nist Par­ty. Woody’s gui­tar had, by then, been adorned with the hand-paint­ed epi­taph, THIS MACHINE KILLS FASCISTS.” (Guthrie had at least two gui­tars with the slo­gan scrawled on them, one on a stick­er and one with ragged hand-let­ter­ing.) The phrase, claims music crit­ic Jon­ny White­side, was orig­i­nal­ly “a morale-boost­ing WWII gov­ern­ment slo­gan print­ed on stick­ers that were hand­ed out to defense plant work­ers.” Guthrie reclaimed the pro­pa­gan­da for folk music’s role in the cul­ture. As Pietaro tells it:

In this time he also found­ed an inter-racial quar­tet with Lead­bel­ly, Son­ny Ter­ry and Cis­co Hous­ton, a ver­i­ta­ble super-group he named the Head­line Singers. This group, sad­ly, nev­er record­ed. The mate­r­i­al must have stood as the height of protest song—he’d named it in oppo­si­tion to a pro­duc­er who advised Woody to “stop try­ing to sing the head­lines.” Woody told us that all you can write is what you see.

You can hear The Head­line Singers above, minus Lead Bel­ly and fea­tur­ing Pete Seeger, in the ear­ly 1940’s radio broad­cast of “All You Fas­cists Bound to Lose.” “I’m gonna tell you fas­cists,” sings Woody, “you may be sur­prised, peo­ple in this world are get­ting orga­nized.” Upon join­ing the Mer­chant Marines, Guthrie fought against seg­re­ga­tion in the mil­i­tary. After the war, he “stood shoul­der to shoul­der with Paul Robe­son, Howard Fast, and Pete Seeger” against vio­lent racist mobs in Peek­skill, New York. Both of Guthrie’s anti-fas­cist gui­tars have seem­ing­ly dis­ap­peared. As Robert San­tel­li writes, “Guthrie didn’t care for his instru­ments with much love.” But dur­ing the decade of the 1940’s he was nev­er seen with­out the slo­gan on his pri­ma­ry instru­ment.

“This Machine Kills Fas­cists” has since, writes Moth­er­board, become Guthrie’s “trade­mark slo­gan… still ref­er­enced in pop cul­ture and beyond” and pro­vid­ing an impor­tant point of ref­er­ence for the anti-fas­cist punk move­ment. You can see anoth­er of Guthrie’s anti-fas­cist slo­gans above, which he scrawled on a col­lec­tion of his sheet music: “Fas­cism fought indoors and out, good & bad weath­er.” Guthrie’s long-lived broth­er-in-arms Pete Seeger, car­ried on in the tra­di­tion of anti-fas­cism and anti-racism after Woody suc­cumbed in the last two decades of his life to Huntington’s dis­ease. Like Guthrie, Seeger paint­ed a slo­gan around the rim of his instru­ment of choice, the ban­jo, a mes­sage both play­ful and mil­i­tant: “This machine sur­rounds hate and forces it to sur­ren­der.”

Pho­to by “Jim, the Pho­tog­ra­ph­er

Seeger car­ried the mes­sage from his days play­ing and singing with Guthrie, to his Civ­il Rights and anti-war orga­niz­ing and protest in the 50s and 60s, and all the way into the 21st cen­tu­ry at Occu­py Wall Street in Man­hat­tan in 2011. At the 2009 inau­gu­ra­tion of Barack Oba­ma, Seeger sang “This Land is Your Land” onstage with Bruce Spring­steen and his son, Tao-Rodriquez Singer. In rehearsals, he insist­ed on singing the two vers­es Guthrie had omit­ted from the song after the war. “So it was,” writes John Nichols at The Nation, “that the new­ly elect­ed pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed States began his inau­gur­al cel­e­bra­tion by singing and clap­ping along with an old lefty who remem­bered the Depres­sion-era ref­er­ences of a song that took a class-con­scious swipe at those whose ‘Pri­vate Prop­er­ty’ signs turned away union orga­niz­ers, hobos and ban­jo pick­ers.”

Both Guthrie and Seeger drew direct con­nec­tions between the fas­cism and racism they fought and cap­i­tal­is­m’s out­sized, destruc­tive obses­sion with land and mon­ey. They felt so strong­ly about the bat­tle that they wore their mes­sages fig­u­ra­tive­ly on their sleeves and lit­er­al­ly on their instru­ments. Pete Seeger’s famous ban­jo has out­lived its own­er, and the col­or­ful leg­end around it has been mass-pro­duced by Deer­ing Ban­jos. Where Guthrie’s anti-fas­cist gui­tars went off to is any­one’s guess, but if one of them were ever dis­cov­ered, Robert San­tel­li writes, “it sure­ly would become one of Amer­i­ca’s most val­ued folk instru­ments.” Or one of its most val­ued instru­ments in gen­er­al.

Pho­to by “Jim, the Pho­tog­ra­ph­er

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Woody Guthrie at 100: Cel­e­brate His Amaz­ing Life with a BBC Film

Hear Two Leg­ends, Lead Bel­ly & Woody Guthrie, Per­form­ing on the Same Radio Show (1940)

Pete Seeger Dies at 94: Remem­ber the Amer­i­can Folk Leg­end with a Price­less Film from 1947

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

The Roman Roads of Britain Visualized as a Subway Map

Walk around Lon­don with some­one who knows its deep his­to­ry — not hard to arrange, giv­en the way Lon­don enthu­si­asts treat his­tor­i­cal knowl­edge as a hyper­com­pet­i­tive sport — and you’ll have more than a few paths of “Roman roads” point­ed out to you. Even in the city of Big Ben and Buck­ing­ham Palace, the Shard and the Gherkin, chick­en shops and cur­ry hous­es, there remain frag­ments and traces of the 2,000 miles of roads the Roman Army built between British towns and cities between 43 and 410 AD, Britain’s cen­turies as a province of the Roman Empire.

Though some of Britain’s Roman Roads have become mod­ern motor­ways, most no longer exist in any form but those bits and pieces his­to­ry buffs like to spot. This makes it dif­fi­cult to get a sense of how they all ran and where — or at least it did until Sasha Tru­bet­skoy made a Roman Roads of Britain Net­work Map in the graph­ic-design style of the sub­way maps you’ll find in Lon­don or any oth­er major city today. Tru­bet­skoy, an under­grad­u­ate sta­tis­tics major at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go, first found car­to­graph­i­cal fame a few months ago with his “sub­way map” of roads across the entire Roman Empire cir­ca 125 AD.

“Pop­u­lar request,” he writes, demand­ed a Britain-spe­cif­ic fol­low up, a project he describes as “far more com­pli­cat­ed than I had ini­tial­ly antic­i­pat­ed.” The chal­lenges includ­ed not just the sheer num­ber of Roman Roads in Britain but a lack of clar­i­ty about their exact loca­tion and extents. As in his pre­vi­ous map, Tru­bet­skoy admits, “I had to do some sim­pli­fy­ing and make some tough choic­es on which cities to include.” While this clos­er-up view demand­ed a more geo­graph­i­cal faith­ful­ness, he nev­er­the­less “had to get rather cre­ative with the his­tor­i­cal evi­dence” in places, to the point of using such “not exact­ly Latin-sound­ing” names as “Watling Street” and “Ermin Way.”

Still, bar­ring a rev­o­lu­tion­ary dis­cov­ery in Roman his­to­ry, you’re unlike­ly to find a more rig­or­ous exam­ple of sub­way-mapped Roman Roads in Britain than this one. And for $9 USD you can have it as a “crisp PDF” suit­able for print­ing as a poster and giv­ing to any­one pas­sion­ate about the his­to­ry of Britain — or the his­to­ry of Rome, or graph­ic design, or maps that aren’t what they might seem at first glance.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Ancient Rome’s Sys­tem of Roads Visu­al­ized in the Style of Mod­ern Sub­way Maps

Rome Reborn: Take a Vir­tu­al Tour of Ancient Rome, Cir­ca 320 C.E.

How Did the Romans Make Con­crete That Lasts Longer Than Mod­ern Con­crete? The Mys­tery Final­ly Solved

The Rise & Fall of the Romans: Every Year Shown in a Time­lapse Map Ani­ma­tion (753 BC ‑1479 AD)

A Won­der­ful Archive of His­toric Tran­sit Maps: Expres­sive Art Meets Pre­cise Graph­ic Design

“The Won­der­ground Map of Lon­don Town,” the Icon­ic 1914 Map That Saved the World’s First Sub­way Sys­tem

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

Watch “Adam,” an Award-Winning Short Claymation That Wonderfully Re-Tells the Story of Creation

Above, watch ‘Adam,’ a short clay­ma­tion made by Eve­lyn Jane Ross while attend­ing the Rhode Island School of Design. As she points out in a recent inter­view, ‘Adam’ is “noth­ing like Wal­lace and Gromit; it’s nei­ther a children’s sto­ry nor does it have a dis­tinct char­ac­ter. Instead, it’s a poet­ic nar­ra­tive depict­ing love and emo­tion­al sin­cer­i­ty. It uses the mal­leable nature of clay to empha­size the main idea, cre­ation. ‘Adam’ also defies the per­cep­tion that ani­ma­tion is a children’s medi­um. The film could eas­i­ly be rat­ed “R” for “MATURE” audi­ences only.” She then adds:

I read a quote by Stan­ley Kubrick, ‘A film is — or should be — more like music than like fic­tion. It should be a pro­gres­sion of moods and feel­ings. The theme, what’s behind the emo­tion, the mean­ing, all that comes lat­er’. This quote real­ly guid­ed my pro­gres­sion. It seemed like a won­der­ful way to think of struc­ture and tim­ing. The mean­ing, yes, came lat­er.

Although Ross made the film main­ly to ful­fill some senior year require­ments at RISD, she got some extra mileage out of the clay­ma­tion. Among oth­er awards, it won Best Ani­mat­ed Film at the Yale Stu­dent Film Fes­ti­val, the Berlin Flash Film Fes­ti­val, and San­ta Fe Inde­pen­dent Film Fes­ti­val. And it was a BAFTA Stu­dent Awards Final­ist. Enjoy.

“Adam” will be added to our list, 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, Doc­u­men­taries & More.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

William S. Bur­roughs Nar­rates a Clay­ma­tion of His Grim Hol­i­day Sto­ry “The Junky’s Christ­mas”

Clay­ma­tion Film Recre­ates His­toric Chess Match Immor­tal­ized in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey

Philo­soph­i­cal, Sci-Fi Clay­ma­tion Film Answers the Time­less Ques­tion: Which Came First, the Chick­en or the Egg?

Plato’s Cave Alle­go­ry Brought to Life with Clay­ma­tion

A Colorful Map Visualizes the Lexical Distances Between Europe’s Languages: 54 Languages Spoken by 670 Million People

Stephen F. Stein­bach, a res­i­dent of Vien­na and a “car­tog­ra­phy, lan­guage and trav­el enthu­si­ast, with an engi­neer­ing back­ground,” is not a lin­guist. Stein­bach, who runs the site Alter­na­tive Trans­port, seems much more inter­est­ed in map­ping and trans­porta­tion than mor­phol­o­gy and ety­mol­o­gy. But he has made a con­tri­bu­tion to a lin­guis­tic con­cept called “lex­i­cal dif­fer­ence” with the map you see above, a col­or­ful 2015 visu­al­iza­tion of Euro­pean lan­guages, grouped togeth­er in clus­ters accord­ing to their sub­fam­i­lies (Ital­ic-Romance, Baltic, Slav­ic, Ger­man­ic, etc.—see a much larg­er ver­sion here).

Straight and arc­ing lines span the rel­a­tive dis­tance these lan­guages have pre­sum­ably trav­eled from each oth­er. Sol­id lines between lan­guages rep­re­sent a very close prox­im­i­ty, dashed lines of dif­fer­ent thick­ness­es show more dis­tance, and thin dot­ted lines tra­verse the great­est expans­es.

Hun­gar­i­an and Ukrain­ian, for exam­ple, have a lex­i­cal dis­tance score of 90, where Pol­ish and Ukrain­ian, both Slav­ic lan­guages, are only 30 degrees from each oth­er. “The map shows the lan­guage fam­i­lies that cov­er the con­ti­nent,” writes Big Think, “large, famil­iar ones like Ger­man­ic, Ital­ic-Romance and Slav­ic, small­er ones like Celtic, Baltic and Ural­ic; out­liers like Semit­ic and Tur­kic; and isolates—orphan lan­guages, with­out a fam­i­ly: Alban­ian and Greek.”  (Tech­ni­cal­ly, mod­ern Greek does have a family—Hellenic—though it is the only sur­viv­ing mem­ber.)

As we might expect from this sub­set of the durable Indo-Euro­pean schema, the lan­guages with­in each clus­tered group occu­py the short­est dis­tance from each oth­er, with some excep­tions. Roman­ian, for exam­ple, is slight­ly clos­er to Alban­ian than it is to French, its Romance cousin. The Slav­ic lan­guages Russ­ian and Pol­ish seem to have trav­eled a bit fur­ther apart than Pol­ish has from the Baltic lan­guage of Lithuan­ian. What does this mean, exact­ly? Accord­ing to the mea­sure of “lex­i­cal dis­tance” pro­posed by Ukrain­ian lin­guist Kon­stan­tin Tishchenko, it means that clos­er lan­guages might be more mutu­al­ly intel­li­gi­ble, at least from a lex­i­cal stand­point, since they may share more cog­nates (sim­i­lar-sound­ing and mean­ing words) and bor­row­ings.

Gas­ton Ümlaut, the han­dle of a lin­guist on the Stack Exchange Lin­guis­tics beta, cau­tions that the con­cept of “lex­i­cal dis­tance” may be “pret­ty use­less” giv­en that the com­par­isons also include false cognates—words that sound or look sim­i­lar but have no rela­tion­ship to each oth­er. These could account for some seem­ing incon­sis­ten­cies. (Ümlaut admits he has not read the orig­i­nal arti­cle, writ­ten in Russ­ian. If you are able, you can find it online in the book Metathe­o­ry of Lin­guis­tics, here.) Stein­bach has respond­ed in the same thread.

The idea received a much more tren­chant cri­tique more recent­ly. Stein­bach clar­i­fied that the the­o­ry, and the map, only com­pare writ­ten words and not syn­tax or speech. “It has noth­ing to do with gram­mar, syn­tax, rhythm or oth­er impor­tant fea­tures that are impor­tant for intel­li­gi­bil­i­ty,” he writes. “It also com­pares a small list of words and not the entire vocab­u­lary of one lan­guage to anoth­er.” This expla­na­tion does cast doubt on whether “lex­i­cal dis­tance” is a mean­ing­ful con­cept. I’ll leave it to the lin­guists to decide. (Stein­bach reached out to Tis­chchenko but has yet to receive a reply.)

Tischchenko’s orig­i­nal “lex­i­cal dis­tance” map, fur­ther up, drawn in 1997, gets the idea across with min­i­mal fuss, but it leaves much to be desired graph­i­cal­ly. (A large, hand-drawn col­or ver­sion improves upon the print­ed map.) Stein­bach took his ver­sion from a 2008 Eng­lish-lan­guage adap­ta­tion made by Tere­sa Elms in 2008 (above). In his blog post here, he explains all of the changes he made to Elms and Tischchenko’s designs. These include adjust­ing the size of the “bub­bles” to pro­por­tion­al­ly rep­re­sent the num­ber of speak­ers of each lan­guage. Stein­bach also added sev­er­al lan­guages, as well as “grave­stones” for the dead Ana­to­lian and Tochar­i­an branch­es. In all, his map shows “54 lan­guages, rep­re­sent­ing 670 mil­lion peo­ple.” He adds, vague­ly, that “it checks out.”

 

After post­ing his Lex­i­cal Dis­tance Map, Stein­bach pro­posed a “3D” ver­sion, with the added dimen­sion of time. (See his pre­lim­i­nary sketch above.) The maps are intrigu­ing, the the­o­ry of “lex­i­cal dis­tance” an inter­est­ing one, but we should bear in mind, as Stein­bach writes, that he is “no lin­guist,” and that this idea is hard­ly an ortho­dox one with­in the dis­ci­pline.

via Big Think

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Tree of Lan­guages Illus­trat­ed in a Big, Beau­ti­ful Info­graph­ic

How Lan­guages Evolve: Explained in a Win­ning TED-Ed Ani­ma­tion

Speak­ing in Whis­tles: The Whis­tled Lan­guage of Oax­a­ca, Mex­i­co       

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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