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Posts Tagged ‘history of ideas

“H as in How in the World Are We Going to Escape?”*…

A treatise on the the letter “H,” on the occasion of its becoming an arbiter of class in the later 19th century…

In George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion (1913), which inspired the musical My Fair Lady, a fictional linguist describes a phonetic endemic: missed employment opportunities due to the connotations of a person’s accent. Addressing the “many thousands of men and women who have sloughed off their native dialects and acquired a new tongue”, the professor insists that “the thing has to be done scientifically, or the last state of the aspirant may be worse than the first”. Shaw’s wit shows through in the near homonym: aspirations of social mobility, in this period, often included pronunciationary emulation — the breathy aitch sounds of aspirated consonants.

Alfred Leach, who Steven Connor, in Beyond Words, calls one of the “doughiest defenders of the h”, believed that English’s aspirated aitch (or rather, haitch) signaled a direct inheritance from Classical antiquity. In the pronounced h of words like “herb” — notably lacking from American English — he heard the “spiritus asper” of Hellenism. Leach was writing in a period when linguists began reflecting on the shifting history of aspirates and the role they played in indicating status, class, and education. These traits continue into our present day. The historian of language Henry Hitchings, whose own name is uncannily reminiscent of Shaw’s Henry Higgins, argues that the pronunciation of this letter is “still a significant shibboleth”, and quotes Leach’s contemporary, Oxford scholar Henry Sweet, who called it “an almost infallible test of education and refinement”.

Why so much huffing about the letter H? Throughout the nineteenth century, this aspirated sound was on the rise. At the end of the previous century, Received Pronunciation (RP) became known as the accent of aristocracy, leading to aspirational elocution guides like Poor Letter H (1854). While words like “hotel” had once been pronounced in the French style (oh-tell), English speakers had begun to exhale audibly, as if yawning at the continued Norman influence on British tongues. Leach led the charge against “English Grammarians” who “conspired to withhold from us the means of propitiating this demon Aspirate”. In The Letter H, he ridicules those he calls “H-droppers”, speakers whose phonetic errors seem to snowball: “lost H’s have a knack of turning up in wrong places, when they return at all”. Leach is prone to hyperbole — “the early aspirative labours of a converted H-dropper give birth to monstrosities” — and sneers at Cockney speech: “Horkney hoysters, ‘amshire ‘am, and ‘am and heggs”…

More, from Hunter Dukes (@hunterdukes) in @PublicDomainRev: “Aspirated Aspirations: Alfred Leach’s The Letter H (1880)

(image above: source)

* Lemony Snicket (Daniel Handler), The Hostile Hospital

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As we ponder pronunciation, we might recall that it was on this date in 1961 that Coronation Street premiered in ITV in the UK. It holds the Guinness World Record for longest running soap opera.

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“‘It’s magic,’ the chief cook concluded, in awe. ‘No, not magic,’ the ship’s doctor replied. ‘It’s much more. It’s mathematics.’*…

Michael Wendl (and here) dissects some variants of the magic separation, a self-working card trick…

Martin Gardner—one of history’s most prolific maths popularisers [see here]—frequently examined the connection between mathematics and magic, commonly looking at tricks using standard playing cards. He often discussed ‘self-working’ illusions that function in a strictly mechanical way, without any reliance on sleight of hand, card counting, pre-arrangement, marking, or key-carding of the deck. One of the more interesting specimens in this genre is a matching trick called the magic separation.

This trick can be performed with 20 cards. Ten of the cards are turned face-up, with the deck then shuffled thoroughly by both the performer and, importantly, the spectator. The performer then deals 10 cards to the spectator and keeps the remainder for herself. This can be done blindfolded to preclude tracking or counting. Not knowing the distribution of cards, our performer announces she will rearrange her own cards ‘magically’ so that the number of face-ups she holds matches the number of face-ups the spectator has. When cards are displayed, the counts do indeed match. She easily repeats the feat for hecklers who claim luck…

All is revealed: “An odd card trick,” from Chalkdust (@chalkdustmag). 

* David Brin, Glory Season

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As we conjure, we might spare a thought for Persian polymath Omar Khayyam; the mathematician, philosopher, astronomer, epigrammatist, and poet died on this date in 1131.  While he’s probably best known to English-speakers as a poet, via Edward FitzGerald’s famous translation of the quatrains that comprise the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, Omar was one of the major mathematicians and astronomers of the medieval period.  He is the author of one of the most important works on algebra written before modern times, the Treatise on Demonstration of Problems of Algebra (which includes a geometric method for solving cubic equations by intersecting a hyperbola with a circle).  His astronomical observations contributed to the reform of the Persian calendar.  And he made important contributions to mechanics, geography, mineralogy, music, climatology, and Islamic theology.

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“A man will turn over half a library to make one book.”*…

Source: Takram

Continuing yesterday’s focus on books…

Marioka Shoten is a bookstore that sells only one book at a time (but sells multiple copies of it) for a week. The bookseller Yoshiyuki Morioka carefully selects a title from novels, manga, biographies and graphic novels for showcasing every week. With the extreme approach to curation, the bookstore is a blend of a shop, a gallery and a meeting place with an essence of minimalism…

From Rishikesh Sreehari (@rishikeshshari), “Single Room with a Single Book,” in his fascinating newsletter 10 + 1 Things.

See also, “Japanese bookshop stocks only one book at a time,” in @guardian.

* Samuel Johnson

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As we contemplate curation, we might send rational birthday greetings to Francois-Marie Arouet, better known as Voltaire; he was born on this date in 1694.  The Father of the Age of Reason, he produced works in almost every literary form: plays, poems, novels, essays, and historical and scientific works– more than 2,000 books and pamphlets (and more than 20,000 letters).  He popularized Isaac Newton’s work in France by arranging a translation of Principia Mathematica to which he added his own commentary.

A social reformer, Voltaire used satire to criticize the intolerance, religious dogma, and oligopolistic privilege of his day, perhaps nowhere more sardonically than in Candide.

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“Fortune sides with him who dares”*…

View of Genoa by Christoforo de Grassi (after a drawing of 1481)

Understanding the origin of the modern concept of risk…

Lately, we have all become risk assessment and risk management experts, thinking, talking and Tweeting about the chances we take when we engage in once-mundane activities. It’s hard to imagine doing without risk: the analytical instrument we use to calculate the advisability of undertakings that can result in gain or loss. Yet when the word risk entered the languages of western Europe during the 12th century (at roughly the same time as other words used to jigger the scales of Fortune: hazard and chance), it took some time to catch on. Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527) and Francesco Guicciardini (1483-1540) – the two great writers of the Italian 15th and 16th centuries who wrote about contingency and power while everything was collapsing around them – did not use the Italian rischio in the works for which they are best remembered, even though the Italians were early adopters of the word and the speculative behaviours it names.

The first known usage of the Latin word resicum – cognate and distant ancestor of the English risk – occurs in a notary contract recorded in Genoa on 26 April 1156. The captain of a ship contracts with an investor to travel to Valencia with the sum invested. The contract allocates the ‘resicum’ to the investor. In a typical arrangement, the captain received 25 per cent of the profit at the end of the journey. The investor or investors pocketed the resicum payout: the remaining 75 per cent. This contract also reminds us that the medieval Italian ship’s crew was an egalitarian society. It specifies that the voyage would be extended from Valencia to trade at Alexandria before returning to Genoa, but only if a majority of the men on board agreed.

Resicum worked a kind of practical magic in these early contracts. Canon law forbade the payment of interest on loans in medieval Europe (as Islamic law did in the eastern and southern Mediterranean). By inventing a bonus paid to the investor in the event of the successful completion of a journey, the resicum provided a workaround for venture capitalists and for the captain seeking capital. It also gave those who could not journey an opportunity to earn investment income. A small but significant proportion of the investors in these maritime contracts were retired seamen or women. Finally, it parcelled out the risk assumed by those who undertook the trans-Mediterranean journey…

The fascinating story in full: “How 12th-century Genoese merchants invented the idea of risk,” from Karla Mallette (@karlamallette) in @aeonmag.

See also: “Genoa: The Cog in the New Medieval Economy” source of the image above.

* Virgil (reminding us that a sense of contingent peril and prospect predated the Middle Ages)

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As we roll the dice, we might recall that risk came in a variety of forms in Medieval times: it was on this date in 1307 that Wilhelm Tell (or we tend to know him, William Tell) shot an apple off his son’s head.

Tell, originally from Bürglen, was a resident of the Canton of Uri (in what is now Switzerland), well known as an expert marksman with the crossbow. At the time, the Habsburg emperors of Austria were seeking to dominate Uri.  Hermann Gessler, the newly appointed Austrian Vogt (the Holy Roman Empire’s title for “overlord”) of Altdorf, raised a pole in the village’s central square, hung his hat on top of it, and demanded that all the local townsfolk bow before the hat.  When Tell passed by the hat without bowing, he was arrested; his punishment was being forced to shoot an apple off the head of his son, Walter– or else both would be executed. Tell was promised freedom if he succeeded.

As lore has it, Tell split the fruit with a single bolt from his crossbow.  When Gessler queried him about the purpose of a second bolt in his quiver, Tell answered that if he had killed his son, he would have turned the crossbow on Gessler himself.  Gessler became enraged at that comment, and had Tell bound and brought to his ship to be taken to his castle at Küssnacht.  But when a storm broke on Lake Lucerne, Tell managed to escape.  On land, he went to Küssnacht, and when Gessler arrived, Tell shot him with his crossbow.

Tell’s defiance of Gessler sparked a rebellion, in which Tell himself played a major part, leading to the formation of the Swiss Confederation.

Tell and his son (source)

“The merit of all things lies in their difficulty”*…

Francesco Libetta tackles the toughest…

Critic Harold C. Schonberg called Leopold Godowsky’s Studies on Chopin’s Études “the most impossibly difficult things ever written for the piano”; Godowsky said they were “aimed at the transcendental heights of pianism.” In the “Badinage,” above, the pianist plays Chopin’s “Black Key” étude with the left hand while simultaneously playing the “Butterfly” étude with the right and somehow preserving the melodies of both. One observer calculated that this requires 1,680 independent finger movements in the space of about 80 seconds, an average of 21 notes per second. “The pair go laughing over the keyboard like two friends long ago separated, now happily united,” marveled James Huneker in the New York World. “After them trails a cloud of iridescent glory.”

The studies’ difficulty means that they’re rarely performed even today; Schonberg said they “push piano technique to heights undreamed of even by Liszt.” Only Italian pianist Francesco Libetta, above, has performed the complete set from memory in concert.

Francesco Libetta takes on Godowsky’s Studies on Chopin’s Études: “Extra Credit.”

* Alexandre Dumas, The Three Musketeers

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As we tickle the ivories, we might recall that it was on this date in 1619, after the Vigil of the Feast of St. Martin of Tours, that Rene Descartes had his famous dream (actually a series of three dreams that night)– that ignited his commitment to treat all systems of thought developed to date, especially Scholasticism, as “pre-philosophical,” and– starting from scratch (“Cogito, ergo sum”)– to create anew.

Of these three dreams, it is the third that best expresses the original thought and intention of Rene Descartes’ rationalism. During the dream that William Temple aptly refers to as, “the most disastrous moment in the history of Europe,” Descartes saw before him two books. One was a dictionary, which appeared to him to be of little interest and use. The other was a compendium of poetry entitled Corpus Poetarum in which there appeared to be a union of philosophy with wisdom. Moreover, the way in which Descartes interpreted this dream set the stage for the rest of his life-long philosophical endeavors. For Descartes, the dictionary stood merely for the sciences gathered together in their sterile and dry disconnection; the collection of poems marked more particularly and expressly the union of philosophy with wisdom. He indicates that one should not be astonished that poets abound in utterances more weighty, more full of meaning and better expressed, than those found in the writings of philosophers. In utterances which appear odd when coming from a man who would go down in history as the father of Rationalism, Descartes ascribes the “marvel” of the wisdom of the poets to the divine nature of inspiration and to the might of phantasy, which “strikes out” the seeds of wisdom (existing in the minds of all men like the sparks of fire in flints) far more easily and directly than does reason in the philosophers. The writings of the professional philosophers of his time, struck Descartes as failing to supply that certitude, human urgency, and attractive presentation which we associate with a wise vision capable of organizing our knowledge and influencing our conduct.  (Peter Chojnowski)

And so was born the Modern Age in the West, and the particular form of Rationalism that characterizes it.

Many scholars suggest that Descartes probably “protests too much” when he insists in his autobiographical writings that he had abstained from wine for some time before the night of his oh-so-significant slumber.

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