Archive for the ‘Words and meanings’ Category

This is pretty cool:

New Zealand researcher Quentin Atkinson has published evidence that all human language may have originated in Africa, following the model of human population spread shown here. According to BusinessWeek, Atkinson’s study in Science

…analyzed the phonemes — distinct units of sound that differentiate words — used in modern speech and found that their pattern mirrors that of human genetic diversity.

As humans migrated out of Africa and began colonizing other regions, genetic diversity decreased. According to the study, phoneme diversity tended to decrease, too.

In other words, the farther languages developed from Africa, the fewer phonemes they possess. Think of the clicks and pops of the languages of southern Africa today versus the pretty much vowels-only speech of native Hawaiians.

We’ve known for well over a century about the origin and distribution of the Indo-European family of languages shown here, including English, a member of the Germanic branch. We know that Sanskrit pitar, Latin pater and English father all come from the same original. But efforts to connect other groups together by sound or word correspondences have been tenuous at best.

Atkinson’s research takes a completely different approach and so far many linguists — a pretty skeptical bunch on the whole — have praised the results as a breakthrough.

Images from Wikimedia Commons.

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Web City, MO from Wikimedia Commons

Rep. Michelle Bachmann and John Kline of the Congressional Prayer Caucus recently criticized President Obama for not portraying America as a more Christian-like nation to the rest of the world.

The group said not mentioning God could have consequences for freedom.

The best part was this:

“By making these kinds of statements to the rest of the world, you are removing on the the cornerstones of our secure freedom,” the caucus wrote. “If we pull the thread of religious conviction out of the marketplace of ideas, we unravel the tapestry of freedom that birthed America.”

Fair warning: if you mess with the cornerstone in the marketplace, it will unravel and not be able to give birth.

Got it.

Thanks J-Walk.

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This Wikimedia Commons button is moving forward

I dislike it when self-proclaimed guardians of language become curmudgeonly and start going on about how people today should stop talking the way they do. I especially dislike it when the curmudgeon is me. Here I go.

I think people should stop pronounced ‘or’ as if it’s a long ‘o’. I can tell you when I first noticed this. It’s in a Toyota commercial now on TV. Remember, Toyota’s slogan is “Moving Forward” (Jon Stewart pointed out the irony of this slogan for cars accused of sudden acceleration). But the guy on TV says something much more like “Moving Foe-ward.”

Having become attuned to this, of course I hear it everywhere. My least favorite baseball announcer, who is paired with my most favorite baseball announcer most days, will say something like “fast ball on the outside coe-ner.” It’s part of his whole Mississippi good ol’ boy persona, and even he doesn’t do it all the time.

Please stop, everyone. Thank you.

This has been a curmudgeonly rant. We now resume our regular programming.

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Our English words for common terms often set us apart from speakers of  European languages, especially the Romance languages of Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, French and others descending from Latin. In English only one name for a day of the week (Saturday) comes to us from Latin. The others are from the ordinary English words sun and moon, or from figures in pagan Germanic mythology such as Tiw, Woden, Thor, and Freya/Frigga (spellings vary).

Most Greek and Latin church traditions name Easter from the Hebrew Pesach (Passover). But once again, English turns to pagan roots and uses the name Eostre. This is possibly a female fertility figure associated with spring rebirth, but there’s not a lot of hard evidence left to be able to draw definitive conclusions.

That doesn’t stop the neo-pagans and New Agers from coming up with all sorts of speculation, of course. They share with some extreme fundamentalists the notion that this makes the English term Easter somehow “really” pagan.

Nonsense. The early (7th century) missionaries from Rome who came to Britain to convert the heathen Angles and Saxons simply made over existing traditions to Christian concepts — baptizing the names, as it were, or causing them to be born again. An English speaker using the word Easter is not any more or less pagan than a French speaker using the term Pacques. Pagan is as pagan does.

The illustration (from Wikimedia Commons) is by Johannes Gehrts and reflects a late 19th-century German Romantic view of Eostre. With a few Italianate putti flitting around and a tidy-looking purple martin house.

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Maimonides teaching

Don’t you just love that? As Dave Barry would say, Rambam would be an excellent name for a rock band, and I think Guide for the Perplexed would be a great album title, too. But they’re neither.

Rambam comes from the initial Hebrew letters of ‘Rabbi Moses ben Maimon.’ Moses Maimonides (1138-1204), as he is better known, was one of the leading Jewish scholars of the Middle Ages. His 1168 commentary on the Mishnah, the Siraj (‘Luminary’) was “a notable contribution to exegesis and scholarship,” says the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church.

His Guide for the Perplexed (‘Dux Neutrorum sive Dubiorum’) appeared in 1190. It deals with the existence of God, the creation of the world, the problem of evil and more. It exercised a profound influence on later Jewish and Christian thinkers (St. Thomas Aquinas, for one).

But not, so far as I can tell, on rock bands.

Note: This post is #151 since I started blogging in 2009. I wasn’t sure I’d get that far. I’ve been experimenting with a new blog, wordsmatter (aka clevecallison.com), and put a short post on this topic there. I’m planning to have that blog be more  devoted to questions of writing and language usage, and keep the personal-interest posts (such as this one) here.

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pictured, left to right: Messor barbarus; physicist Murray Gell-Mann

This post’s title comes from one of the great imaginative romances of the 20th century – and from quantum mechanics. As you might suspect, there’s a connection.

T.H. White’s The Once and Future King is a brilliant re-creation of King Arthur (with the Round Table, Lancelot, Guinevere and all the rest). It’s the direct basis of at least two other works: the musical Camelot and Walt Disney’s The Sword in the Stone. Re-reading it this month I was also struck by how much the relationship between Merlyn the magician and the boy Arthur (aka the Wart) resembles that between Dumbledore and Harry Potter. I later learned that J.K. Rowling has described the Wart as “Harry’s spiritual ancestor.”

The Sword in the Stone is the first of four sections of the novel, and the only one about Arthur as a boy. Merlyn’s tutorship includes changing the Wart into, among other things, a fish in the moat, a falcon in the mews, and an ant in a glass case. White’s ant world is the ultimate totalitarian society (its appearance in 1939 is hardly coincidental). The Messor barbarus ants know only two concepts: Done and Not-Done. They obey all orders sent wirelessly to their antennae. They never ask questions. Everything Not Forbidden is Compulsory is the slogan carved above each tunnel in their nest.

It’s also Gell-Mann’s Totalitarian Principle, coined by physicist Murray Gell-Mann as a basic law of quantum mechanics. Any interaction between sub-atomic particles not expressly prohibited by some natural law must be assumed to be probable (the soft version) or must be inevitable (the hard version). Astronomers now have indirect though pretty good photographic evidence that black holes are real; but long before that, their existence was considered almost certain because (a) the laws of physics said that they could exist, and (b) no known law prevents them from existing.

Gell-Mann had a flair for such things. He also coined the term quark, the never-seen subatomic building block of observable particles, from a passage in James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (‘Three quarks for Muster Mark!’). A physicist after my own heart.

The Once and Future King is one of the great, great books of the 20th century. I’m certain that the Disney cartoon is a two-edged sword (ha!) in that most people wrongly assume the novel is aimed only at children.

They’re wrong. Read it. It will break your heart.

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UCB2BIn June and July I participated in an 80-hour intensive program called Back to Business, presented by the College of Business at the University of Cincinnati. It was aimed at “displaced professionals” such as yours truly and was in many respects like a mini-mini MBA (my term, not theirs).

One of the goals was to prepare us for re-entry into the job market through immersion into website architecture, project and process management, spreadsheet engineering, market research, LEAN manufacturing, etc… Our instructors were faculty members of the College, in several cases full professors. I was tremendously impressed by the caliber of our instructors and by the makeup of the class.

One of the most remarkable things about the whole deal was that it was, essentially, free. We paid $500 registration up front. Those who completed the program — and I think almost everyone did — got the $500 refunded, and the hope that once our personal economy improves, we’ll remember UC and the College with a handsome gift. Judging from the class reaction, I’d say that was a good risk.

Well done, UC.

*kudos is a Greek word meaning praise. And don’t let the -s fool you; it’s singular, not plural.

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AP Photo/Jim Prisching

AP Photo/Jim Prisching

Thursday’s perfect game by White Sox pitcher Mark Buehrle was the 18th in modern baseball history, with an amazing 9th-inning catch by outfielder Dewayne Wise to preserve the historic game. It called to mind a piece I wrote for WMUB’s old “Words and Meanings” series a few years ago. Obviously the first paragraph could use a little updating, but you get the drift..

“Baseball season is in full swing and so far, at least as of the time this is being recorded, we haven’t seen a perfect game. Well, we can always hope, but until we do I’d like to explore that term perfect in today’s Words and Meanings, and ask what it means to you.

My American Heritage dictionary gives perfect as one meaning of flawless; that is, “being entirely without flaw or im-perfection.” Well, OK, a perfect game could easily be described as flawless — no mistakes. However, these two words don’t always carry the same emotional content. Let’s try again, this time by approaching the verb form perfect. Here, American Heritages gives us “to bring to perfection or completion.”

Aha. Now we’re on the trail. Here we have an active verb — to “bring to.” The adjective perfect, you see, is formed from two Latin roots — the verb facio/facere, ‘to make,’ as in manu-facture, originally to “make by hand,” now meaning almost the opposite, combined with the prefix per-, which gave Latin verbs the sense of ‘entirely, thoroughly, completely.’

So, while their dictionary definitions resemble each other, there’s a real difference between flawless and perfect. Flawless implies an ideal original, not marred in any way; but perfect can carry with it the sense of something originally flawed having become purified through conscious action. A jewel, or a beauty, can be flawless — but its perfection has to have been there from the beginning. But most of us have to struggle toward perfection with rather more humble beginnings, and probably won’t ever quite get there. Not many pitchers pitch ever get that perfect game, and the ones that do work mighty hard at it.

So I’m going to draw one moral from this discussion — and then I’m going to turn it on its head. The first moral is easy: don’t assume that one word means the same as another. In fact, they never do. Language is a great natural system and the DNA, if you will, of each word is different. But don’t count on the dictionary or thesaurus always to tell you that. DNA is, after all, rather extraordinarily complex.

If that seems too grim, then take comfort from my second moral, which is almost the reverse of the first. In this little ramble I’ve actually committed before your very ears a horrible linguistic blunder that goes by the name of the etymological fallacy. We can use etymology, or the history of words, to tell us where words come from. Flawless is part of the good old English word hoard, of ancient origin. Perfect is, as we’ve seen, more-or-less a borrowing from Latin in the long run.

But most speakers of those words won’t know that and often use the words interchangeably. Does that matter? Yes, in a profound way, it does, because language is in the final analysis a mutually-agreed-upon set of symbols and significations. If we all agree that they’re the same, then they are. Not only that, you could even make a counter case, which I did not, from theology, which uses “perfect” to describe entities which have not been per-fected, but are perfect from eternity.

Still, those who love language and the play of words like to know where our words come from and what auras they still give off. If you’re like me, flawless will always have an aura of iciness and stillness, and perfect seethes with restlessness, tension and hard work. Just like a perfect game.”

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