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Posts Tagged ‘language’

In my recent post about Web 3.0 I used the phrase layered reality to describe the way that information from the virtual world is becoming embedded in our experience of the real world in real-time. Instead of stopping the car, looking at a physical map, memorising the directions, and then starting off again; now you see a virtual map on your sat nav that matches and enhances the physical reality in front of you. It adds another layer. The next step – part of Web 3.0 – is that the technology that delivers the layer is wearable and invisible, so that the layering is seamless. We have had mobile conversations via earpieces for years now.

The best example of this is the Google Glass. Messages and information that up to now would appear on your computer screen or mobile phone now appear on the lens of your glasses as part of your visual panorama. Fighter pilots have had information appearing on their visors for a long time, so that they can read instruments without having to take their eyes off the scene ahead. The Google Glass is just the domestic equivalent of this.

Take a look at this wonderful video demo:

Claire Beale explains more about the implications for mobile technology:

Ever since Tom Cruise showed us in Minority Report a future where reality is a multi-layered experience, gadget geeks have been waiting for technology to deliver on Hollywood’s promise.

Now virtual reality is about to become an actual reality for anyone with the right sort of mobile phone after Telefonica, the parent company of O2, signed a revolutionary deal last week with the tech company Aurasma.

Aurasma has developed a virtual reality platform that recognises images and objects in the real world and responds by layering new information on top. So if Aurasma’s technology is embedded into your mobile phone, when you point your phone at an image it can recognise, it will automatically unlock relevant interactive digital content.

For brands, this type of kit has some pretty significant implications. It means that commercial messages can now live in the ether around us, waiting to be activated by our mobiles. If your phone registers a recognised image such as a building, a poster or a promotional sticker in a store, say, it will play out videos, 3D animations or money-off coupons to entice you to buy.

See this video demo from Layar:

You don’t just see, you see as others see, you understand what others understand, it’s almost like sharing in a universal consciousness. That’s part of the wonder of this new augmented reality, and also the danger; because it all depends on trusting the source, the provider. Who controls the layers?

But the idea of layering reality is not really new, in fact ‘layered reality’ could almost be a definition of human culture. Culture is the fact that we don’t just experience reality neat, we experience it filtered through the accumulated interpretations of previous generations. The primordial example of culture as a layering of reality is language: we speak about what we see, and cover every experience with a layer of language – before, during and after the experience itself.

And writing is literally putting a layer of human interpretation on top of the physical reality before you: carving some cuneiform script into a Sumerian brick; painting a Chinese character onto a piece of parchment; printing the newspaper in the early hours of the morning. Endless layers that stretch back almost to the beginning of human consciousness.

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I can’t believe it – this is my 500th post! (I’m not counting, but by chance I saw the ’499′ pop up on the last one). 500 scintillating insights; 500 pieces of finely wrought prose, where ‘every phrase and every sentence is right’ (almost Eliot); 500 breathtakingly beautiful bridges and unexpectedly daring tangents.

OK, maybe the prose is moving from finely wrought to overwrought; I could also have said: 500 half-formed ideas at the end of the day.

Let’s celebrate with some decent writing, about writing itself - with one of my favourite passages from TS Eliot’s Little Gidding:

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from. And every phrase
And sentence that is right (where every word is at home,
Taking its place to support the others,
The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,
An easy commerce of the old and the new,
The common word exact without vulgarity,
The formal word precise but not pedantic,
The complete consort dancing together)
Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
Every poem an epitaph. And any action
Is a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea’s throat
Or to an illegible stone: and that is where we start…

And how to celebrate and reflect for this 500th post? Well, we certainly need a magnificent bridge. The banner image you have been looking at for the last three years, at the top of each page, is a shot over New York with Hell Gate Bridge in the background. Here it is in a much better shot:

And in order to allow a little bit of self-analysis for this 500-post celebration, here is the ‘tag cloud’ from these 500 posts. Remember, this doesn’t analyse the words I have used in the writing itself, but the number of times I have chosen to tag a particular post with one of these labels. Anything that has come up twelve times makes the cloud, so the tags with the smallest fonts below represent 12 posts each, and the largest numbers of posts (as you can see below) are about: internet (35), love (37), faith (38) and freedom (44). You can send in your psychoanalytical conclusions on a postcard.

If you want to actually search for these tagged topics, see the proper and updated tag cloud in the right-hand column.

Thanks for your support over these nearly three years, your loyal and devoted reading (or your random ending up here through an accidental search or a false tap on the iPad), your occasional comments. Thanks to all those whose beautiful images I have borrowed (legally I hope, and with due accreditation, usually via creative commons). Apologies that I haven’t always had the time to enter into dialogue properly with all the comments, as they deserve.

I’ve nearly always enjoyed the thinking and writing (and choosing pictures). I’ve sometimes felt the obligation to keep going for consistency’s sake – but soon I’ve been glad that I have. I’ve always wished I had more time to ponder and shape the ideas, and the words themselves.

It’s a strange thing, ‘airing your thoughts’. Strange for being both personal and public; the inner life and the life outside; the quiet of the computer screen as you compose the blog, and the clatter of each post landing on several hundred other screens and phones around the world.

I won’t say ‘Here’s to the next 500 posts’, because I’d hate to make that kind of commitment. But I’ll keep going for the moment.

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I’ve been thinking about Simone Lia’s graphic novel Please God, Find Me A Husband! And especially about how the comic/cartoon format allows her to express herself, even to bare her soul, in a way that is unusually unguarded. There is a childlike simplicity about what is expressed within each speech bubble, even a naivety.

Somehow it works. It doesn’t feel like an awkward confessional novel; it doesn’t feel inappropriate or embarrassing. It’s as if the inner child that sits within each adult experience is allowed to speak. The simple truth put into simple words, without self-censorship, without filtering it for the hearer. Not everything in adult life, of course, is simple; but lots of it is – and we often make it complicated, for a thousand personal and social reasons.

It reminds me of two personal experiences. One is having to speak in a foreign language when you are no good at it. I went to Rome for my seminary formation, and the time given to learning Italian in those days was woefully inadequate. But it meant I had to form relationships, sometimes quite deep ones, using two tenses and just a few hundred words.

At one level I was constantly not being myself, because I could never say what I really meant; but at another level I was being more simply myself (or being more my simple self) because I had to become less eloquent, less considered, more straightforward, more childlike. If you only know a few words, you have to say what you mean crudely and clumsily, and sometimes this is less truthful, but sometimes it can be more truthful as well.

The other experience is of preaching to children when there are adults present, say at a ‘Family Mass’ on a Sunday morning in a parish when there are more children than adults, or a school Mass with parents and teachers present. You are aiming your sermon, for example, at a five or seven year old; you are simplifying your language, slowing down, trying to choose appropriate images and ideas, cutting out the flannel. You are speaking, almost, in the language of a graphic novel or a strip cartoon. Not being patronising, but trying to talk at the right level in an appropriate ‘voice’.

And the strange effect of this is that often you are more able to communicate Gospel truths to the adults who are present, because you are letting go of all the stuff that gets in the way. You are following the KISS rule, without realising it: ‘Keep It Simple Stupid!’

This is usually an unintended effect – reaching the adults through the children. But sometimes I have quite consciously said something to the children in simple, unadorned, unnuanced language, with the specific intention of speaking a hard truth to the adults, or a truth that would be harder to express in the context of ordinary adult discourse.

Gillian Wearing brought this ‘inner child honesty’ to the fore with her 1992-93 series that was called “Signs that say what you want them to say, and not Signs that say what someone else wants you to say”. You can see a slideshow of her own selection of photos here. And you can see a wonderful selection of ‘sign photos’ here, sent in by Guardian readers and selected by Gillian Wearing herself.

I’m not suggesting the world would be a better place if everyone bared their soul to the first stranger they met each morning, or that some kind of therapeutic nirvana can necessarily be found in heartfelt self-disclosure. I’m just reflecting on how we can often be too complicated, too eloquent; and how a medium like a graphic novel or a children’s sermon can allow us to release a hidden voice that can sometimes touch others and communicate something important.

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Following on from my post about the difference between the English and the French, a friend sent me this image about how the rest of the world understands our strange British phrases:

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My last post was about people doing what they are not meant to do: defying the social conventions that almost define them, the unwritten rules of behaviour that we take for granted without ever reflecting on. The best thing I’ve read about this is undoubtedly Kate Fox’s Watching the English.

It’s hysterical, and full of profound insights into the strange reality of being English, or British (she can’t quite decide). If you can’t afford psychoanalysis, read this book, and it will bring to light all sorts of habits and behaviours in your own life that you’ve never really thought about. I kept thinking, ‘How does this woman know me so well?’ If you have any drop of Englishness in you at all, you will learn things about yourself that you never knew before.

Why do we English people talk about the weather so much? Why do we say sorry (and actually feel sorry) when we have no reason to be sorry? Why do we queue so often? Why do we get so angry when other people jump our queue? Why are we so unable to express our anger? Why are we afraid of complaining about bad service? Why are we so awkward in social situations? Why do we consistently fumble for the right word or the appropriate gesture when we meet someone, or leave someone, or thank someone, or correct someone, or offer them our sympathy in the face of difficulty, disease or death? Why is this social ‘dis-ease’ almost a part of our genetic make-up?

Fox is one of these social anthropologists who takes part in her own experiments. So she set about systematically upsetting the social cart and seeing how people reacted. A whole morning aggressively bumping into people to see if they did indeed say sorry for her own rudeness. An afternoon pushing into carefully formed queues to see how many people would dare to challenge her, and how they would deal with this unwelcome need to enter into confrontation (loud coughs, long stares, the odd ‘Excuse me?!’).

Here is the Blackwell’s blurb:

In WATCHING THE ENGLISH anthropologist Kate Fox takes a revealing look at the quirks, habits and foibles of the English people. She puts the English national character under her anthropological microscope, and finds a strange and fascinating culture, governed by complex sets of unspoken rules and byzantine codes of behaviour. Her minute observation of the way we talk, dress, eat, drink, work, play, shop, drive, flirt, fight, queue – and moan about it all – exposes the hidden rules that we all unconsciously obey. The rules of weather-speak. The Importance of Not Being Earnest rule. The ironic-gnome rule. The reflex apology rule. The paranoid-pantomime rule. Class indicators and class anxiety tests. The money-talk taboo. Humour rules. Pub etiquette. Table manners. The rules of bogside reading. The dangers of excessive moderation. The eccentric-sheep rule. The English ‘social dis-ease’. Through a mixture of anthropological analysis and her own unorthodox experiments (using herself as a reluctant guinea-pig), Kate Fox discovers what these unwritten behaviour codes tell us about Englishness.
It’s a very funny and very revealing book.

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Many Catholics are already getting used to the new English translation of the Mass; and the beautifully produced altar missals have been around for a few weeks now. The official launch is the beginning of Advent.

We are in a strange transitional period where most parishes are using the new translation, but some are not. This caused liturgical chaos a few weeks ago when I went to a funeral in a parish that is still using the old translation, with visiting mourners (including a number of priests) from parishes all over the country who had already switched, and didn’t know whether to revert back or acclaim even more loudly ‘And with your spirit’ and ‘It is right and just’.

The transitional missal texts on top of the old missal

I gave a talk on the new translation this week, which gave me an incentive to look into some of the online resources available for catechesis and general understanding of the process and the end results. One of the best sites is the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops website, which has an extremely helpful section dedicated to the translation called Welcoming the Roman Missal: Third Edition.

There are articles, FAQs, sample texts, and a host of multi-media resources and downloads. Definitely worth a look.

One of the most helpful sections simply puts the old translation and the new one side by side, and highlights the changes so you can compare them easily. Here are the People’s Parts and the Priest’s parts, with commentary boxes.

When you see it like this, it becomes very clear, very quickly, how many words and phrases of the Mass were not just interpreted or re-phrased or even paraphrased, but simply cut out for the old translation. Some of this, I’m sure, was motivated by a desire for a noble simplicity; some of it was an attempt to find English phrases that could carry the meaning of the Latin without needing to map each word literally (this theory of interpretation was called ‘dynamic equivalence’). But some of it, unfortunately, perhaps stemmed from an unhappiness on the translators’ part with some of the sentiments and theology of the prayers themselves. Whatever the reasons, there is no doubt that we have a richer translation that brings us closer to the heart and mind of the Church’s liturgical prayer.

One nice factoid I discovered in my research (not on the USCCB website – I can’t remember where). In the debate about the dialogue ‘The Lord be with you… And also with you / And with your spirit’, it’s commonly pointed out that this is not a symmetrical dialogue, as if the prayers are interchangeable. The priest or bishop (and sometimes the deacon) is praying as an ordained minister for the people: ‘May the Lord be with you’. And in response, the people pray for their minister: ‘And with your spirit’. It’s only ever addressed to the minister, because it’s a specific prayer that the spirit given to him at his ordination may be strengthened and renewed, so that he may serve his people more faithfully and worthily, especially in this liturgical celebration.

The factoid was this, that Ronald Knox translated the response as: ‘And with you, his minister’, so that the theological meaning of the prayer would be built into the translation. I wouldn’t use this myself, but I like what it’s trying to do.

[But see Jack Mahoney's article here, about the non-significance of 'thy spirit' and the significance of 'with' instead! Thanks Tony and Katherine]

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I’m dying to see James Marsh’s new film Project Nim, not only because he directed one of my favourite documentaries of recent years (Man on Wire), but because it’s about the question of whether or not human beings have a unique ability to communicate with language.

Marsh documents the attempt by Herb Terrance, a psychology professor at Columbia University in New York, to discover whether chimpanzees can learn a human language.

Mick Brown explains:

Terrace’s idea was to give rise to one of the most idiosyncratic scientific experiments of the era, to take a newborn chimpanzee and raise it as if it were a human being, while teaching it to communicate using American Sign Language (ASL). For a period in the 1970s Terrace’s chimpanzee, named Nim, became a celebrity, featuring in newspapers and magazines and appearing on television chat shows – the tribune, as a New York magazine cover story had it, of a ‘scientific revolution with religious consequences that occurs once every few hundred years’.

Herb Terrace was not the first person to hit on the idea of communicating with an ape through sign language. In 1661 Samuel Pepys described in his diaries encountering ‘a great baboon’ brought from ‘Guiny’ that was ‘so much like a man in most things… I do believe that it already understands much English, and I am of the mind it might be taught to speak or make signs.’ In the 1960s a husband and wife team, Allen and Beatrix Gardner, had raised a chimp named Washoe, claiming to have taught it more than 300 signs.

Terrace’s own experiment was forged in a spirit of heated debate about language and behaviour that was raging through academia in the 1960s and 70s. A disciple of the behaviourist BF Skinner, Terrace wanted to disprove the theory of Skinner’s great rival, the linguist Noam Chomsky, that humans are uniquely ‘hard-wired’ to develop language. Even the choice of his chimp’s name, Nim Chimpsky, was designed to cock a snook at Chomsky.

In search of a surrogate mother for his chimp, Terrace turned to one of his former graduate psychology students – and a former lover – Stephanie LaFarge. ‘Herb wanted to do something equivalent to Galileo and Freud in creating a paradigm shift for human beings,’ LaFarge says. ‘That’s who he is: very arrogant and very ambitious.’

Things didn’t work out as planned – you can read the article or see the film to find out why. But here are the conclusions that Terrace came to about the possibility of chimpanzee-human language:

Terrace remains unrepentant about the experiment and its findings. He is presently working on a new book, with the provisional title of Why a Chimp Can’t Learn Language. Chimps, he believes, as Nim demonstrated, are highly intelligent but they do not have what is called ‘a theory of mind’.

‘No chimpanzee – no animal – has ever engaged in conversation. It’s always been “gimme, gimme, gimme”. They’re very astute readers of body language, as Nim showed. But a chimp does not have any reason to think of its own mind, or that somebody else has a mind.’

Not only would a chimpanzee not be able to construct a meaningful sentence of ‘man bites dog’, Terrace says, but ‘he would have no interest in communicating that. A chimp is never going to say, “This is a beautiful sunset”, or “That’s a lovely suit you’re wearing.”’ In short, they will forever remain a closed book.

Terrace ends up agreeing with Chomsky and concludes that there is something unique about the mental and linguistic abilities of human beings.

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I’m sure you have all seen this sign by the escalators on the London Underground (or something similar elsewhere): Dogs must be carried on the escalator.

I remember one of my teachers analysing this in a class years ago – maybe it was English A-level, when we were looking at how the meaning of words is always dependent on the broader context. But here, even when you know the context, the meaning is still beautifully ambiguous.

Take a look at this hysterical video in which a heroic group of law-abiding citizens confronts the scandal of millions of travellers not carrying dogs on the escalators, and tries to enforce the London Transport bye-laws.

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An article about bioethics in the Times gives a frightening example of the way language can be distorted to misrepresent the truth and skew an ethical argument (last Friday, 11 March, page 3). It makes you wonder whether it’s just lazy journalism, or whether the Times has some particular interest in slanting the ethical debate in these areas.

 

Painting by David S. Goodsell - mitochondria at top right

The article is about a new ‘therapy’ designed to cure mitochondrial failure, which can cause fatal conditions that affect about 100 children in Britain each year. These are the facts, reported in a ‘How it works’ box at the side, and sifted from the body of the article: two embryos are created, both from the father’s sperm, but one from the mother’s egg, and one from a donor’s egg. Two pronuclei are taken from the ‘mother/father’ embryo, which is then discarded. These are then placed in the ‘donor/father’ embryo (from which the pronuclei have been removed), which has healthy mitochondria. This newly ‘created’ embryo is implanted in the mother’s womb and allowed to gestate.

So let’s be clear: an embryo is harvested (I can’t find a better work) of its pronuclei, then discarded, and another embryo is given new pronuclei and allowed to grow. It’s embryos we are talking about. Leave aside for the moment what you think about the personhood of embryos, or their dignity or worth, or whether they have a soul, etc. The scientific point that no biologist would deny is that an embryo is a human life in its very earliest states; a new creature, at the beginning of its life, biologically/genetically distinct from the life of its parents.

Mark Henderson, Science Editor in the Times, does explain all this. But he peppers the article with ambiguous phrases about what is actually happening. First, in the main article, he writes that ‘the treatment involves merging DNA from two fertilised eggs, one from the mother, the other from a donor’ [my italics here and below]. This is strictly true, but it’s a strange way of referring to embryos. It would be much more natural to talk about two embryos rather than two fertilised eggs, and the suspicion is that this is a way of drawing attention away from the reality that embryos are being harvested and discarded.

Second, in a Commentary box also written by Henderson, he writes, ‘The notion of creating a baby with a small genetic contribution from a third parent is bound to strike some people as controversial’. This is a misleading. The mitochondrial DNA in the new embryo will have been indirectly inherited from the donor – in this limited sense the donor makes a ‘contribution’; but it is actually taken from the embryo that has been created from the donor’s egg and father’s sperm. The ‘small genetic contribution’ is not taken from a third parent (which sounds like a benign piece of information), it is taken from a newly created human embryo.

Notice how Henderson is comfortable calling the finally created healthy embryo a ‘baby’, but never refers to the discarded embryo that has had its two nuclei removed as a baby.

Henderson goes on to say in his Commentary that the new procedure adds a fresh dimension to issues of surrogacy and egg donation ‘because a third person will also contribute a small amount of DNA to the baby’. I presume he is trying to say that the third person contributing the DNA is the donor. Once again, it’s true that the mitochondrial DNA is indirectly inherited from the donor, but the ‘contribution’ is made directly by the embryo not the donor.

Then, in the caption underneath the photograph of a baby’s foot held in an adult’s hand, we read that ‘The technique replaces faulty mitochondria from the mother with a healthy form from a second egg‘. This is completely untrue. The healthy mitochondria do not come from an egg, they come from a newly created embryo, which has its pronuclei replaced with the pronuclei from another embryo.

The ‘How it works’ box is both honest and dishonest at the same time: the text says ‘These [pronuclei] are injected into a healthy embryo‘; yet the caption right beside it, under the illustration, says ‘Egg with healthy mitochondria‘. Perhaps Henderson was not responsible for these captions and boxes.

You may think I’m being obsessive about language. It just frightens me how language can be manipulated in a reputable newspaper to distort the truth and mask both the scientific and ethical reality of one of the most serious issues facing our culture. It makes you wonder whether the Times is seeking to promote a controversial scientific procedure rather than just report it and let the facts speak for themselves.

Here is the full Commentary [subscription required]:

The notion of creating a baby with a small genetic contribution from a third parent is bound to strike some people as controversial.

Yet Professor Turnbull’s team, which has developed the new IVF technique, is driven by the noblest of ethical motives: the desire to help families affected by a devastating burden of disease.

If the procedure is approved by Andrew Lansley, it stands to help women like Sharon Bernardi, from Sunderland, who has seen six children die in infancy because they inherited mitochondrial disorder.

When Professor Turnbull published promising results a year ago, she posed for photographs with her son Edward, then 20, who had a mitochondrial condition called Leigh’s disease.

Mr Bernardi died last week. As scientists began to consider whether the therapy should be used on patients, his death serves to illustrate the terrible impact these disorders can have — and the need for prevention.

When weighing the advice they will give to Mr Lansley, the expert panel he has convened will consider the safety and effectiveness of Professor Turnbull’s procedure.

They will want to see evidence that human embryos created this way appear to be normal, as well as the results of animal studies.

The medical benefits will need to outweigh the risks that are always involved when techniques like this move from laboratory and animal experiments into human reproduction. There are also ethical issues to be considered.

The principle that more than two parents can contribute biologically to the birth of a child is already recognised in Britain, as egg donation and surrogacy are legal. The new procedure adds a fresh dimension, however, because a third person will also contribute a small amount of DNA to the baby.

Embryo-rights groups will oppose the technique, because it involves merging two embryos, one of which is destroyed. It will also concern some people who object to manipulating DNA in irreversible ways, even if there is a medical benefit, or who feel it is wrong to subject a potential child to a procedure to which it cannot consent.

Mr Lansley could approve the work himself, but given its controversial nature he is more likely to give MPs a free vote. This would provide the first test of this Parliament’s attitude towards bio-ethics. David Cameron, whose disabled son Ivan died in 2009, is understood to be privately supportive.

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I was staying at my parents’ home last week and didn’t have a bible, so I went searching through the bookshelves to see what I could find. I came across a dusty copy of the King James Bible, which was the one given to me at my baptism by my Great Uncle Ernest and Great Aunt Sybil – the dedication was there on the inside front cover.

First edition of the King James Bible

It’s a pocket edition with about 20 full-page colour illustrations. Looking at the images of Noah and King David and Jesus took me right back to my childhood. I don’t remember reading it very often, but it was there! And I certainly looked at the pictures.

I was looking for the readings from the Mass for the day, which happened to be the story of Noah in Genesis Chapter 8. I don’t think these are particularly well-known passages, in terms of the language, but it is just one random example of the beauty of the translation.

[6] And it came to pass at the end of forty days, that Noah opened the window of the ark which he had made:
[7] And he sent forth a raven, which went forth to and fro, until the waters were dried up from off the earth.
[8] Also he sent forth a dove from him, to see if the waters were abated from off the face of the ground;
[9] But the dove found no rest for the sole of her foot, and she returned unto him into the ark, for the waters were on the face of the whole earth: then he put forth his hand, and took her, and pulled her in unto him into the ark.
[10] And he stayed yet other seven days; and again he sent forth the dove out of the ark;
[11] And the dove came in to him in the evening; and, lo, in her mouth was an olive leaf pluckt off: so Noah knew that the waters were abated from off the earth.
[12] And he stayed yet other seven days; and sent forth the dove; which returned not again unto him any more.
[13] And it came to pass in the six hundredth and first year, in the first month, the first day of the month, the waters were dried up from off the earth: and Noah removed the covering of the ark, and looked, and, behold, the face of the ground was dry.

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If you are looking for something intelligent and thought-provoking to read on the net, and haven’t yet discovered it, then visit Arts & Letters Daily - an ‘aggregator’ that collects the best articles in the fields of:

Philosophy, aesthetics, literature, language, ideas, criticism, culture, history, music, art, trends, breakthroughs, disputes, gossip.

Dennis Dutton, it’s founder, died a few weeks ago. This is from an obituary by Margarit Fox.

Professor Dutton was perhaps best known to the public for Arts & Letters Daily, which he founded in 1998. The site is a Web aggregator, linking to a spate of online articles about literature, art, science, politics and much else, for which he wrote engaging teasers. (“Can dogs talk? Kind of, says the latest scientific research. But they tend to have very poor pronunciation,” read his lead-in to a 2009 Scientific American article.)

Long before aggregators were commonplace, Arts & Letters Daily had developed an ardent following. A vast, labyrinthine funnel, the site revels in profusion, diversion, digression and, ultimately, the interconnectedness of human endeavor of nearly every sort, a “Tristram Shandy” for the digital age.

As one of the first people to recognize the power of the Web to facilitate intellectual discourse, Professor Dutton was hailed as being among “the most influential media personalities in the world,” as Time magazine described him in 2005.

Arts & Letters Daily, which was acquired by The Chronicle of Higher Education in 2002, currently receives about three million page views a month. The site is expected to continue publishing, Phil Semas, The Chronicle’s president and editor in chief, said in a statement on Tuesday.

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I’ve just discovered a new word: “Globish”. This is the simplified form of English used today as a means of global communication, often learnt as a third or fourth language.

Does the rise and rise of Globish mean that English will continue to be the lingua franca of the technological age?  

Perhaps it’s not true to say that English is dying out, but it may have a much shorter shelf life than many expect. This is what Nicolas Ostler argues in an interview with Robert McCrum, talking about his latest book The Last Lingua Franca: English Until the Return of Babel.

English is on an up at the moment, an up that is probably unprecedented in world history. But world history is full of languages that have dominated for a time, yet there aren’t too many of them around now. So the essential idea is to see what happened to them and see if this could possibly be relevant to the situation of English, which is the world’s lingua franca today.

The main point is simply that linguistic empires rise and fall. But two other arguments are made. The first is about technology:

It’s been the received wisdom in language technology that machine translation isn’t good enough. But all that’s preventing it from being good enough is just a problem of scale. The way that machine translation is now being pushed forward simply involves being able to process more and more data in order to find the significant patterns. The power and cheapness of computers is increasing all the time. There’s no way that the little problem of incompatibility between languages is going to stand in the way of it for long.

And because it’s being done in a data-based way, the techniques which will solve the problem will solve it for all languages, not just the big important ones. So even remote Aboriginal groups will benefit – maybe a generation later, maybe sooner. And when that happens, people will be able to fulfil themselves through their own language, which is what they always wanted to do anyway.

The second argument is that however widely spoken English may be as a lingua franca today, for many people it doesn’t go very deep as a living language:

I want to draw a distinction between a language which is spread through nurture, a mother tongue, and a language that is spread through recruitment, which is a lingua franca. A lingua franca is a language that you consciously learn because you need to, because you want to. A mother tongue is a language that you learn because you can’t help it. The reason English is spreading around the world at the moment is because of its utility as a lingua franca. Globish – a simplified version of English that’s used around the world – will be there as long as it is needed, but since it’s not being picked up as a mother tongue, it’s not typically being spoken by people to their children. It is not getting effectively to first base, the most crucial first base for long-term survival of a language.

Ostler is the chairman of the Foundation for Endangered Languages. You can see the website here.

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It’s obvious that the language we use affects the force of our arguments. And there are many examples of how an uncomfortable truth can be disguised by changing the language used to describe it.

There is a beautiful and unsettling example of this in one of the Times leaders this morning. The topic is the decision to award the Nobel Prize for Medicine to Professor Robert Edwards for his pioneering work in IVF. (The photo is of Alfred Nobel not Edwards!)

Professor Edwards’s work has its critics. The Roman Catholic Church opposes some IVF, on the ground that it can involve the destruction of embryos. And it is beyond argument that this is what happens: fertility clinics generally fertilise many eggs, and often implant two, to maximise the chance that one will survive. The remaining tiny embryos are then frozen or discarded.

But there is nothing anti-life in IVF: the embryos are created to produce babies and allow the chance of parenthood to couples who want a child of their own. Nature itself creates and fertilises many more eggs than become babies.

The embryonic cell can also be taken apart, at an early stage, to yield stem cells. Research using stem cells offers the promise of finding a cure for debilitating conditions such as Parkinson’s disease.

Do you notice how the language of ‘embryo’ in the first and second paragraphs is changed, without any fuss, to ‘embryonic cell’ in the third paragraph? As if the leader writers are happy to talk about embryos being ‘frozen and discarded’, but uncomfortable with the idea that ‘the embryo can also be taken apart, at an early stage, to yield stem cells’. So the sentence that would have seemed most natural is changed to ‘the embryonic cell can be taken apart…’

I don’t know if this is the art of persuasion, or a subconscious unease with the moral position being taken and the starkness of the language required to describe it (‘taking apart embryos’). Either way, it shows how important it is to monitor the language being used to make ethical arguments, and to question why someone chooses to adapt their language in unexpected ways.

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A lovely follow-up to yesterday’s post about anger and Wayne Rooney’s language.

Brazilian match officials who will be in charge of England’s World Cup opener on Saturday have taken a crash course in English so they can know when players are verbally abusing them.

Referee Carlos Simon and his two assistants, Altemir Hausmann and Roberto Braatz, have learned 20 swear words ahead of Saturday’s match between the two English-speaking nations at the Royal Bafokeng Stadium in Rustenburg, but Fifa insist it is not something they have had any role to play in.

“We can’t do this in 11 different languages but at least we have to know the swear words in English.”

Braatz revealed English was the only language the referees were studying.

A Fifa spokeswoman said this morning: “No such list has been distributed to the referees.”

Assistant referee Hausmann told Brazilian broadcaster Globo Sport: “We have to learn what kind of words the players say. All players swear and we know we will hear a few.”

I always thought it was a good thing if you were ignorant of the profanities flying around you. It gives you a kind of innocence, an endearing naiveté. The whole ‘point’ of being offended, is that you have not chosen to be offended. What an intriguing idea that the Brazilians are making sure that they are thoroughly prepared to be offended when the time comes!

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You have probably seen plenty of ‘word-clouds’ before. But just in case you haven’t yet discovered the addictive Wordle website, here it is: http://www.wordle.net/  You go to the ‘create’ page, paste some text into the box, and out comes your own cloud. The programme analyses your text, counts the number of times you use any word, takes out the ordinary words that everyone uses (‘the’, ‘and’, ‘but’, etc.), and then makes the size of the word in the cloud dependent on the number of times you have used it relative to the other words. So you can see in a flash what thoughts are coming up again and again, what ideas obsess you, and what verbal ticks you have picked up.

I’ve been blogging for just over two months now, so I copied the text from all my posts into Wordle (15,881 words so far!), and this is what came out. I’m not sure what to make of my own thoughts:

Untitled-1 copy from http://www.wordle.net/

It’s a poor person’s form of psychoanalysis: You just speak, or write, and the computer tells you what is really in your heart – or at least what buzzes around in your head. Or you could just be lying…

You can then spend hours pressing the ‘randomize’ button, which gives you a new cloud with the same words:

Untitled-2

Or you can manually adjust the settings and choose your own font, colours, alignment, etc.:

Untitled-3 copy by http://www.wordle.net/

Try it yourself – with those poems you wrote as a teenager, with that half-finished novel under your bed, or simply with the last few emails you have sent. You can also paste in a web address and have it analyse the text on that webpage.

Hours of fun, and wasted time, together with a tiny gain in self-knowledge.

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Kate Wong brings us up-to-date on the latest research into the Neandertals in this month’s issue of Scientific American.

I’ve always been fascinated by ‘Neandertal Man’ as he/she used to be called. We think about what it would be like to meet aliens. (Well, I think about what it would be like to meet aliens!) Would we be able to communicate? Would we be able to understand each other? Yet here in our own back yard, in Europe and the Near East and much of Asia, modern human beings were living side-by-side with another hominid form, meeting and presumably trying to communicate, only 30,000 years ago. I refrained from saying ‘another human species’ because the great and still unresolved question is whether we belonged to distinct species, and whether or not modern humans and Neandertals could interbreed. And despite the theories about genocide (by humans), climate change, and diet – we still don’t know why they became extinct about 28,000 years ago.

Grottes de Lascaux II by davidmartinpro.It seems that they had jewellery and bone tools and made sophisticated weapons; but modern human beings had the edge – in their social organisation, in the efficiency of their physique, and in their sheer intelligence and creativity. ‘The boundary between Neandertals and moderns has gotten fuzzier’, writes Christopher B. Stringer – but there is still a boundary. There is something radical and new about human intelligence, a leap and not just a lurch, that gives rise to art, creativity, sophisticated language, morality, and some more reflective kind of self-consciousness. And, interestingly, one of the key markers for paleoanthropologists is the emergence for the first time among human beings of symbolic customs surrounding the burial of the dead. Human intelligence seems to go hand in hand with an appreciation of the significance of death.

Neandertals, we presume, in some way asked questions about how to live; human beings, as far as we can tell, are the only creatures to ask questions about the meaning of that living, and the possibility of living beyond death.

Prehistoric Painting by Klearchos Kapoutsis.

[A wonderful book that first got me interested in human uniqueness in relation to Neandertals is Becoming Human by Ian Tattersall, OUP 1998. It's probably a bit old now, but it is still in print]

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