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Posts Tagged ‘language

“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world”*…

 

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)

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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).

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Written by LW

February 1, 2017 at 1:01 am

“‘Heresy,’ by the way, simply means ‘choice.’ It came to mean ‘thoughtcrime,’ implying it was blasphemy to presume to choose your own belief”*…

 

Frontispiece to Francis van Helmont’s Alphabeti vere Naturalis Hebraici (1667)

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.”

* Robert M. Price

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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.

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Written by LW

June 6, 2016 at 1:01 am

“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, Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls

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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.

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Written by LW

May 15, 2016 at 1:01 am

“If you do not know the words, you can hardly know the thing”*…

 

… one of hundreds of evocative entries in Greg Borenstein‘s wonderful Dictionary of Fantastic Vocabulary.

* Henry Hazlitt

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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.

1922 self-portrait

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Written by LW

April 25, 2016 at 1:01 am

“Your toil will become light and amusing and your progress sure, if you will only read a little Lucian every day”*…

 

Detail from the title page to the 1774 edition of Carr’s Dialogues of Lucian

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)

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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.

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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.

Written by LW

April 14, 2016 at 1:01 am

“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…

More at “Why Do Taxonomists Write the Meanest Obituaries?

* Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything

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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.

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Written by LW

April 13, 2016 at 1:01 am

“But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought”*…

 

A view for the 1950s…

Interviewing Governor Rockefeller recently on Station WMCA, Barry Gray, the discless jockey, felt the need to ask his guest a certain question. He also felt a clear obligation to put the inquiry in radio-televese, the semi-official language of men who promote conversation on the air. Though it is more or less required, this language is a flexible one, leaving a good deal to the user’s imagination. ‘Governor,’ Mr. Gray said, after pausing to review the possibilities of the patois, ‘how do you see your future in a Pennsylvania Avenue sense?’ I thought it was a splendid gambit. Another broadcaster might have said ‘How do you see yourself in the electoral-college picture?’ or ‘How do you project yourself Chief Executive-wise?’ The Gray formula had the special flavor, the colorful two-rings-from-the-bull’s-eye quality, that I have associated with the work of this interviewer ever since I began to follow it, several years ago. For the record, Governor Rockefeller replied, ‘I could be happier where I am.’ He might have meant Albany, he might have meant the WMCA studio. As you see, radio-televese is not only a limber language, it is contagious.

The salient characteristic of remarks made in radio-televese is that they never coincide exactly with primary meanings or accepted forms. For instance, Mr. Gray, a leader in the postwar development of the lingo, has a way of taking a trenchant thought or a strong locution and placing it somewhere to the right or left of where it would seem to belong. ‘Is this your first trip to the mainland? How do you feel about statehood?,’ I have heard him ask a guest from the Philippines on one of his shows (the program runs, at present, from 11:05 P.M. to 1 A.M.). On the topic of Puerto Ricans in New York, he has said, ‘How can we make these peo­ple welcome and not upset the décor of the city?’ …

Artie Shaw, a musician, in describing the art of another per­former to Mr. Gray, said, ‘He has a certain thing known as “presence” — when he’s onstage, you can see him.’ Another guest declared that the success of a mutual friend was ‘owing to a combination of luck and a combination of skill.’ ‘You can say that again,’ Mr. Gray agreed, and I believe that the guest did so, a little later. The same eloquence and the same off-centerism can be found today in the speech of a wide variety of radio and television regulars. ‘Parallels are odious,’ Marty Glickman, a sports announcer, has stated. ‘The matter has reached a semi-head,’ a senator — I couldn’t be sure which one-said at a recent televised Congressional hearing. ‘I hear you were shot down over the Netherlands while flying,’ a video reporter said to Senator Howard Cannon, a war veteran, on a Channel 2 program last winter. …

Perhaps the most startling aspect of radio-televese is its power to move freely in time, space, and syntax, transposing past and future, be­ginnings and endings, subjects and objects. This phase of the language has sometimes been called backward English, and sometimes, with a bow to the game of billiards, reverse English. Dorothy Kilgallen, a tele­vision panelist [above], was wallowing in the freedom of the language on the night she said, ‘It strikes me as funny, don’t you?’ So was Dizzy Dean when he said, ‘Don’t fail to miss tomorrow’s doubleheader.’ Tommy Loughran, a boxing announcer, was exploring the area of the displaced ego when he told his audience, ‘It won’t take him [the referee] long be­fore I think he should stop it.’ …

Ted Husing was on the threshold of outright mysticism when he reported, about a boxer who was cuffing his adversary smartly around, ‘There’s a lot more authority in Joe’s punches than perhaps he would like his opponent to suspect!’ It is in the time dimension, however, that radio-televese scores its most remarkable ef­fects. Dizzy Dean’s ‘The Yankees, as I told you later … ‘ gives the idea. The insecurity of man is demonstrated regularly on the air by phrases like ‘Texas, the former birthplace of President Eisenhower’ and ‘Mickey Mantle, a former native of Spavinaw, Oklahoma.’ I’m indebted to Dan Parker, sportswriter and philologist, for a particularly strong example of time adjustment from the sayings of Vic Marsillo, a boxing manager who occasionally speaks on radio and television: ‘Now, Jack, whaddya say we reminisce a little about tomorrow’s fight?’ These quotations show what can be done in the way of outguessing man’s greatest enemy, but I think that all of them are excelled by a line of Mr. Gray’s, spoken four or five years ago: ‘What will our future forefathers say?’

From John Lardner’s “Thoughts on Radio-Televese” in The 50s: The Story of a Decade, via the always-worthy Delanceyplace.com.

* George Orwell, 1984

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As we cover our ears, we might send transformative birthday greetings to Publius Ovidius Naso; he was born on this date in 43 BCE.  With his older contemporaries Virgil and Horace, Ovid was one of the three canonical poets of the Golden Age of Latin literature.   His poetry was much imitated in late antiquity and in the Middle Ages, and has had a tremendous influence on Western arts and culture; for example, his love elegies (Amores and Ars Amatoria) are the ur-model of love poetry.  But his impact was surely greatest with the Metamorphoses, an  epic poem in 15 books of hexameter that catalogues transformations in Greek and Roman mythology from the emergence of the cosmos to the deification of Julius Caesar; it remains a key source document of classical mythology– and a great read.

The first taste I had for books came to me from my pleasure in the fables of the Metamorphoses of Ovid. For at about seven or eight years of age I would steal away from any other pleasure to read them, inasmuch as this language was my mother tongue, and it was the easiest book I knew and the best suited by its content to my tender age.

– Montaigne

Ettore Ferrari’s 1887 statue commemorating Ovid

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Written by LW

March 20, 2016 at 1:01 am

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