Wednesday, October 26
I am aware, that many object to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity? I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I do not wish to think, or speak, or write, with moderation. No! no! Tell a man whose house is on fire, to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hand of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen; — but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest — I will not equivocate — I will not excuse — I will not retreat a single inch — AND I WILL BE HEARD. The apathy of the people is enough to make every statue leap from its pedestal, and to hasten the resurrection of the dead.
Sunday, September 18
Unmolested is a great football word. We walk around in our daily life never thinking it remarkable that people can do what they need to do—go to the bank, fix their kitchen sink, buy coffee at Starbucks—without molestation. But in football, on those rare occasions when a player gets into the end zone unmolested, announcers make sure to point it out.
Friday, May 27
Such things happen in Tokelau. Sometimes boats are blown off course; there’s even a Tokelauan word for this: lelea. It’s theorized that the very existence of people on the island—it has been inhabited for a thousand years—is because a Polynesian canoe drifted off course. But there is also another, more complicated Tokelauan word: tagavaka. This applies to boats that have purposely sailed away—for love, adventure, or suicide. These days, Tokelauans commit suicide by driving into the open ocean until the gas runs out.
Sunday, April 10

RSA Animate - Language as a Window into Human Nature (by theRSAorg)

This is wonderfully done — the animation vividly reinforces Pinker’s point about speech acts as encoding multiple levels of information by “exploding” out from the simplest, most direct meaning.

I liked the small The Graduate reference, which in retrospect seems all about Ben’s coming to terms with an adult world made up of indirect speech acts.

Friday, March 18

@

Wikipedia:

In Armenian, it is “shnik” (շնիկ) which means puppy. In Belarusian, it’s called “сьлімак” (“helix”, “snail”) In Dutch, it is called apenstaartje (“monkey-tail”). In Hungarian, it is called kukac (“worm, maggot”). In Kazakh, it is officially called айқұлақ (“moon’s ear”), sometimes unofficial as ит басы (“dog’s head”). In Swedish, it is called snabel-a (“(elephant’s) trunk-a”), kanelbulle (Cinnamon roll) or simply “at” like in the English language. In Turkish, it is et (using the English pronunciation). Also called as güzel a (beautiful a), özel a (special a), salyangoz (snail), koç (ram), kuyruklu a (a with a tail), çengelli a (a with hook) and kulak (ear).

I definitely see the monkey.

Tuesday, January 25
Scientific philologists will often argue that phonetic decay is a natural process, which has always been at work, and has actually produced the very forms of speech that we value most highly; and that it is therefore a squeamish pedantry to quarrel with it at any particular stage, or to wish to interfere with it, or even to speak of decay or corruption of language, for that these very terms beg the question, and are only the particular prejudice of particular persons at a particular time. But this scientific reasoning is aesthetic nonsense. It is absurd to pretend that no results of natural laws should be disapproved of because it is possible to show that they obey the same laws as the processes of which we approve. The filthiest things in nature are as natural as the loveliest: and in art also the worst is as natural as the best: while the good needs not only effort but sympathetic intelligence to attain and preserve it. It is an aesthetic and not a scientific question.
Robert Bridges
Thursday, April 1
What I find endearing and adorable with “Auso” is that it’s secretly the real goodbye. Goodbye, the word, might have been spoken 5-10 minutes before someone physically walks away, at which point they might make a “tsk” noise or exhale just a little more noticeably and then let out the “Auso…………” My suspicion is that not only is the Auso…. a cultural quirk, but a way for Swiss people to not actually ever leave one another. Although once the Auso is spoken people might leave straightaway, it’s always said in a drawn-out way and seems to linger in the air afterwards, substituting for the bodies and minds that once inhabited that space. Another reason why I like the Auso…. is because it’s a sort of display of culture-specific manners, and yet is a pleasantry that is executed to come out awkwardly, or rather, to express awkward feelings. “I’m gonna go… I don’t have much more to say…” or “I don’t really want to leave but I have to go…” or “Maybe you’d be cool with me staying longer but… I’m gonna go…” It’s a kind of honesty spoken through openly being maladroit.

Schwiizerdütsch, the language that plays « Thinking coral

Old link, can’t remember where it comes to me from. I love this idea. There are countless times I find myself making an extremely awkward attempt at parting. Much of this awkwardness seems to come from language, or rather my poor handle on it.

Using language to express awkwardness, rather than awkwardly expressing oneself, is a subtle but fascinating distinction.

Friday, October 30

Thus the oft-heard claim that the death of a language means the death of a culture puts the cart before the horse. When the culture dies, naturally the language dies along with it. The reverse, however, is not necessarily true. Groups do not find themselves in the bizarre circumstance of having all of their traditional cultural accoutrements in hand only to find themselves incapable of indigenous expression because they no longer speak the corresponding language. Native American groups would bristle at the idea that they are no longer meaningfully “Indian” simply because they no longer speak their ancestral tongue. Note also the obvious and vibrant black American culture in the United States, among people who speak not Yoruba but English.

The main loss when a language dies is not cultural but aesthetic. The click sounds in certain African languages are magnificent to hear. In many Amazonian languages, when you say something you have to specify, with a suffix, where you got the information. The Ket language of Siberia is so awesomely irregular as to seem a work of art.

John McWhorter in World Affairs

I’m currently working with an — unorthodox — linguist, Richard, who is also a back-to-the-land hippy slash photographer; his project of the last few decades is to help preserve the language of the Penobscot Indian tribe in Maine. The last fluent native speaker (according to some) Madeline died a decade ago. Richard was able to record Madeline’s voice and put together a slideshow presentation, pairing his photos of Indian life with Madeline’s response to them in Penobscot. It’s an interesting project, by no means academically rigorous, but meaningful and beautiful in its own way.

It’s interesting how a dying language is treated. Outsiders race to preserve it and those of the culture that “dies” are often offended — from what I’ve heard many native American tribes are understandably suspicious of the “White Man’s” involvement. The language and its preservation become politicized. The Penobscots are currently battling the academic opinion that their language is “extinct” and, accordingly, any efforts to “preserve” it.

Gosh, I know almost nothing about Madeline, or the Penobscot tribe, or, really, linguistics. But I find it hard to believe that, when she died, only an ‘aesthetic’ was lost. Madeline was, first of all, a superb basket maker. I can’t find any photos online now of her work, but there are some of an apprentice’s. (When the work I’m doing comes online, there will be many available.)

She was also humorous, smart, insightful. One of my favorite quotes in the project is her response to a photo of one of her baskets:

That’s mine. I made that one. That’s like a wedding basket, and I gave that to my girlfriend, and she guessed, she said is that a wedding basket? I said, No, it isn’t, I didn’t want to say yes and get her hopes up too high. [Speaks penobscot…] “I gave her a basket so she can get married” … she’ll kill me if she ever hears that.

Here’s another nice quote, from an online article Last of the Penobscots:

“When I showed Madeline a picture of the outfall from the Lincoln Pulp and Paper Mill—and make no mistake, this is an insult to the Penobscot people, the crap that it pukes into the river,” [Richard] Garrett remembers. “I figured, Oh well. She’s not going to know what this is. But that wasn’t the case at all.”

Here, Garrett quotes [Madeline] Tomer in Penobscot, words that translate to “That’s the white man’s bad medicine.”

I suppose if you can neatly separate language and those who use it, it’s natural to call it an aesthetic. It’s true that Madeline did, after all, speak English, and that’s certainly the only way I (for one) understand her. But to say objectively that what a language means ultimately reduces to the difference between pronouncing “dizz-gusting” and “dis-gusting” (McWhorter’s example) amplified over centuries and millennia of random evolution, seems at best disrespectful to those who live in a language. What it means to them is likely much more. I know that, for myself, many English words have incredibly rich emotional associations, in certain contexts, spoken by certain people. But I do agree with McWhorter’s sentiment that one cannot say, for instance, a Native American culture is “dead” because no one speaks the language.

Friday, July 31

Thoughts on Programming

(Take the following with a large dose of sea-salt. I am not actually a programmer (yet), which should become obvious.)

The little project I was working on earlier this summer is finally up on the App store [iTunes link]. (If you’d like a promo code just ask.)

It’s a very simple app, but developing it was rather involved, at least for a beginner such as myself. Not only are there big piles of APIs to learn and become familiar with, there’s a certain way of thinking you have to get comfortable with as a developer — not just to develop apps with, but to really understand and learn from what you’re doing.

Programming is more of a discipline than “memorizing a programming language” or such. It’s the way of approaching a problem that’s important. You think through every action that you want your app to execute programmatically, which means breaking up even what appear to be the simplest things into even simpler things, and so on, until you are actually representing doing something in the most logical and straightforward terms, namely numbers. (OK maybe not that simple with higher-level languages, but same idea.) This might seem obvious, but trust me, if you’ve never written code or taken a course in logic, it’s very unfamiliar and just plain non-intuitive at first. Our brains use so many shortcuts and heuristics to understand the world that we forget how complicated they are or how many assumptions they’re built upon.

The concept of a pointer is a case in point. In the code you deal with variables:

x = 12
y = 2

x and y are variables that refer to that number. Thus you can say

a = x + y

and a will equal 14. But let’s say I want to deal with something more involved than a number… perhaps a string of letters that reads "Hello!". You can’t really represent "Hello!" as a thing because "Hello!" is a collection of things, namely letters, so you instead have to point to this collection of things. (This is exactly that “breaking things up into their simplest parts” I referred to earlier.) Thus you need a pointer to "Hello!", called p. But p is not equal to "Hello!" in this sense, p merely contains information about where this collection "Hello!" can be found. p is really equal to an address in memory, which is just a number. If you don’t explicitly use p as a pointer, and say something like print p, you might be surprised by the number that pops out when you were expecting a string.

[N.B.: Pointers are notoriously hard to explain to the uninitiated, so if I failed miserably in making any sense, don’t be alarmed or write off programming as utterly silly and confusing. In fact some higher-level programming languages try to do away with pointers, but only in the sense that the language is using shorthand, just as our brains do, so the same problems come up and eventually even if you aren’t “required” to know about pointers you probably should. In any event, if you’re interested, buy a real programming book to learn about them.]

But pointers aren’t just some programming nonsense. We use pointers all the time in language, we just don’t realize it. Every name points to a thing. If I write, “heuristic” is an interesting word, I’m referring to the word “heuristic” (as indicated by quotes). It becomes especially important in politics, because when a word or phrase — say “health care” — becomes politicized, we very often confuse the pointer with the thing being pointed at. Often when one refers to “health care” it is less of a real thing that can be studied and understood and more a phrase that evokes all sorts of emotions and identities and political affiliations and whatnot.

I guess my point (sorry, using that particular sequence of letters a lot here) ultimately is that the logical underpinnings of programming are really interesting and definitely apply to “real life” stuff. The language and APIs or frameworks you are developing in are arbitrary and idiosyncratic, but again it’s because any programming language beyond assembly code is an abstraction of the fundamental logic — a shorthand for doing repetitive and oft-used tasks. So programming isn’t just “learning the language” but really learning a way of thinking which of course also applies to learning English or Spanish or French or Chinese because they all have different kinds of shorthand. If you’ve ever experienced how a native speaker of a different language than your own communicates, how differently they construct sentences and ideas to convey meaning, you’ll understand what I mean.

([Addendum] Of course, you then start to realize how your own language and though-processes might by arbitrary and idiosyncratic, something that you’ve learned and constructed unconsciously over time and which are probably biased towards your cultural/social/individual perception of the world, and you start to wonder how you could ever possibly know anything with such a language and way of thinking, and you get a little depressed. But then you realize you can still use this perfectly uncertain and ambiguous language to order a coffee at Starbucks, and the world is right again.)

Tuesday, April 14