Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘language’

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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!

Read Full Post »

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »

%d bloggers like this: