Posts Tagged ‘language’
In 1872 a British general named Alexander Cunningham, excavating an area in what was then British-controlled northern India, came across something peculiar. Buried in some ruins, he uncovered a small, one inch by one inch square piece of what he described as smooth, black, unpolished stone engraved with strange symbols — lines, interlocking ovals, something resembling a fish — and what looked like a bull etched underneath. The general, not recognizing the symbols and finding the bull to be unlike other Indian animals, assumed the artifact wasn’t Indian at all but some misplaced foreign token. The stone, along with similar ones found over the next few years, ended up in the British Museum. In the 1920s many more of these artifacts, by then known as seals, were found and identified as evidence of a 4,000-year-old culture now known as the Indus Valley Civilization, the oldest known Indian civilization to date.
Since then, thousands more of these tiny seals have been uncovered. Most of them feature one line of symbols at the top with a picture, usually of an animal, carved below. The animals pictured include bulls, rhinoceros, elephants, and puzzlingly, unicorns. They’ve been found in a swath of territory that covers present-day India and Pakistan and along trade routes, with seals being found as far as present-day Iraq. And the symbols, which range from geometric designs to representations of fish or jars, have also been found on signs, tablets, copper plates, tools, and pottery.
Though we now have thousands of examples of these symbols, we have very little idea what they mean. Over a century after Cunningham’s discovery, the seals remain undeciphered, their messages lost to us. Are they the letters of an ancient language? Or are they just religious, familial, or political symbols? Those hotly contested questions have sparked infighting among scholars and exacerbated cultural rivalries over who can claim the script as their heritage. But new work from researchers using sophisticated algorithms, machine learning, and even cognitive science are finally helping push us to the edge of cracking the Indus script…
A tale of antiquities, A.I., and academic rivalry: “Cypher Wars.”
* Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (5.6)
As we dig in, we might send carefully-excavated birthday greetings to Gertrude Caton Thompson; she was born on this date in 1888. An influential English archaeologist at a time when it was unusual for women to be allowed to lead in the field (pun intended), she distinguished two prehistoric cultures in the Al-Fayyum depression of Upper Egypt (the older dating to about 5000 BC and the younger to about 4500 BC.), and she demonstrated that the ruins in southeastern Zimbabwe near Lake Mutirikwe known since the 16th century as Great Zimbabwe were the product of a “native civilization” (not outsiders, as some others had asserted).
“‘Heresy,’ by the way, simply means ‘choice.’ It came to mean ‘thoughtcrime,’ implying it was blasphemy to presume to choose your own belief”*…
Largely forgotten today, the 17th-century Flemish alchemist Francis van Helmont influenced and was friends with the likes of Locke, Boyle, and Leibniz. While imprisoned by the Inquisition, in between torture sessions, he wrote his Alphabet of Nature on the idea of a universal “natural” language.
The full– and fascinating– story at “Francis van Helmont and the Alphabet of Nature.”
As we fumble for fundamentals, we might send apostate birthday greetings to Govaert Wendelen (Latinized Godefridus Wendelinus, or sometimes Vendelinus); he was born on this date in 1580. A clergyman and astronomer, he was– in conflict with the Church’s teachings at the time– a vigorous proponent of the Copernican theory that the planets orbit around the sun. Wendelen is regarded as first to formulate a law for the variation of the obliquity of the ecliptic (for which Newton cited him in his Principia). The crater Vendelinus on the Moon is named for him.
“In Japanese and Italian, the response to [‘How are you?’] is ‘I’m fine, and you?’ In German it’s answered with a sigh and a slight pause, followed by ‘Not so good’.”*…
If you own a smartphone and are trying to learn a language, you probably have Duolingo. At this very moment the app—which tries to turn language learning into a rewarding game—may be not-so-subtly suggesting that you are overdue for some Spanish vocabulary practice.How many other people are learning Spanish, and where do they live?
Duolingo recently answered such questions by running the numbers on their 120 million users, spanning every country on the planet. The company identified the most popular language for each country, among the 19 it offers…
More at “The languages the world is trying to learn, according to Duolingo.” [Note the absence of Mandarin, Japanese, Arabic and other Asian and Middle Eastern languages– surely a reflection, at least in large part, of the offers available on Duolingo, which teaches in more languages than it teaches…]
* David Sedaris,
As we prepare to conjugate, we might send elegantly phrased and eclectic birthday greetings to Persian polymath Omar Khayyam; the philosopher, mathematician, astronomer, epigrammatist, and poet was born on this date in 1048. 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 treatises 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.
As we contemplate coinage, we might spare a thought for George Joseph Herriman; he died on this date in 1944. A cartoonist best remembered for Krazy Kat, which ran from 1913 until his death, he was never a commercial success; his strip survived via the admiration (and support) of his publisher, William Randolph Hearst. But Herriman was enormously influential, a primary influence on cartoonists like Will Eisner, Charles M. Schulz, Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Bill Watterson, and Chris Ware… and no mean wrangler of language himself.
“Your toil will become light and amusing and your progress sure, if you will only read a little Lucian every day”*…
Lucian of Samosata, who lived from ca. 125AD to ca. 200AD, was an Assyrian writer and satirist who today is perhaps best remembered for his Vera Historia, or A True Story — a fantastical tale which not only has the distinction of being one of the first science-fiction stories ever written, but is also a contender for one of the first novels.
A True Story is a stylish and brilliantly conceived work of the imagination, and readers may still delight in its descriptions of lunar life forms and interplanetary warfare, its islands of cheese and rivers of wine, and its modernistic use of celebrity cameos. But by the time of its writing Lucian was already several years into a period of literary adventurism that had brought him considerable fame — and infamy — as one of the sharpest, funniest, and most original comic writers of the age. With the quartet of works consisting of Dialogues of the Courtesans, Dialogues of the Dead, Dialogues of the Gods, and Dialogues of the Sea-Gods, Lucian would not only scandalise some of the most influential and celebrated figures of the empire, but in what is perhaps the best-known of these, Dialogues of the Gods, he would also furnish the permanent decline of belief in the gods themselves…
Nicholas Jeeves tells the story behind the twenty-six short comic dialogues that made up Dialogues of the Gods– in which Lucian took the popular images of the Greek gods and re-drew them as greedy, sex-obsessed, power-mad despots– and their reception in the English speaking world: “Divine Comedy: Lucian Versus The Gods.” (Check out Jeeves’ new edition of the Dialogues here.)
* Thomas Linacre, Humanist scholar and teacher of Thomas More and Erasmus (who shared their mentor’s advice by leading the resurgence of interest in Lucian in the 16th century)
As we titter, we might recall that it was on this date in 1828 that Noah Webster copyrighted the first edition of his American Dictionary of the English Language. Published in two quarto volumes, it contained 70,000 entries, as against the high of 58,000 of any previous dictionary. Webster, who was 70 at the time, had published his first dictionary, A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, in 1806, and had begun then the campaign of language reform (motivated by both nationalistic and philological concerns) that initiated the formal shift of American English spelling (center rather than centre, honor rather than honour, program rather than programme, etc.). His 1828 dictionary cemented those changes, and continued his efforts to include technical and scientific (not just literary) terms.
With apologies, your correspondent will again be away for a few days, this time, to a connectivity- free precinct. (Who knew such a thing survives?) With luck, regular service should resume in about a week.
“Taxonomy is described sometimes as a science and sometimes as an art, but really it’s a battleground”*…
Taxonomy, the art and science of classifying life, really should be a civilized pursuit. It encourages solitude, concentration, care. It rewards a meticulous attention to detail. And while it might occasionally receive some good-natured ribbing from the popular culture—think of all those butterfly collectors stumbling around in Far Side cartoons—it continues to play a vital role at the foundations of modern biology.
It can come as a bit of a surprise, then, when that veneer of civilization cracks, and the field reveals itself to be one of the more contentious arenas in science, a place where arguments over names and classifications rage through the literature for decades. This is both a strength, as challenges to current classification keep the field dynamic and relevant, and an expression of its hardwired vulnerabilities…
* Bill Bryson,
As we contemplate classification, we might send carefully-spelled birthday greetings to Alfred Mosher Butts; he was born on this date in 1899. An architect, artist, photographer, and inventor, Butts found himself at loose ends in the early 1930s, and set out to design a board game, settling on one that utilized both chance and skill by combining elements of anagrams and crossword puzzles. He carefully analyzed how often each letter is used (thus determining how many of each letter to include and how many points each one would earn), then drew a board and glued letters on some balsa tiles. He first called his creation “Lexiko”, but later changed the name to “Criss Cross Words.” In 1948, he sold his game to James Brunot, who made a few minor adjustments to the design and renamed the game “Scrabble.” Today it is sold in 121 countries and is available in 29 languages; approximately 150 million sets have been sold worldwide. Roughly one-third of American and half of British homes have a Scrabble set, and there are over 4,000 Scrabble clubs worldwide.