Inane Whittering #9/Musings #6

First, apologies for having gone silent. I have been dealing with exams, birthdayness and now I’m preparing for my adventures in the Bavarian Beer-Monster, Munich. I got a Kindle for my birthday, with the hope that it would save space in my luggage.

Being a part-time book-worm, this has been absolutely fatal. The ability to simply click a button from the kindle whilst you’re sitting in bed at 3am having finished the first gripping tale in a trilogy appeals to the worst side of human nature – that impulsive, I-want-it-now side of our personalities.

There’s also the whole “oh, it’s only £3/4.99” aspect, which after several books, can add up to quite a bit. However, it has meant that I have read several books that I wouldn’t normally have read. This was because I spent hours trawling through the free “classics” section, which resulted in me “buying” Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” in English and in French, “Crime and Punishment”, “The Divine Comedy” and a whole hoard of Mark Twain’s work.

It also resulted in me buying “Sweating the Metal” by Alex Duncan, a Chinook pilot who’s served in Afghanistan at least 3 times and was awarded the DFC – the highest medal for bravery within the RAF – earlier this year. Think the Afghan version of Chickenhawk. I couldn’t put it down and had to be reminded to interact with other people/eat/drink.

Regardless of your point of view on the war in the Middle East, this is certainly worth the read – I can’t remember the last time I read such a humble and down-to-earth account where all the acts of bravery are recounted as if it was a standard part of the job.

In other words, I simply cannot reccommend it enough to you.

My current read (although not on the Kindle this time) is a book called “The Unfolding of Language” by Guy Deutscher. This guy is stupidly smart. I mean, he’s Israeli (so speaks Hebrew), but speaks English perfectly, has taught in German universities (so speaks German too) and studied Maths at Cambridge before doing a PhD in Linguistics there. As you do.

Anyway, back to the book and enough of being intimidated by the guy with the brain the size of a planet. Think of it as linguistics for beginners – it does stretch your brain a bit if you’ve never studied linguistics before, but it’s laid out in a fairly accessible way.

Which is quite surprising, really. Most of the literature in this field is written in such a complicated way that just looking at the covers makes my brain melt. Anyway, there are lots of example sentences involving seals picking fights with walruses and the like and the most amusing little ditty the author himself wrote about the frustrating nature of the English verb system:

“The teacher claimed it was so plain,
I only had to use my brain.
She said the past of throw was threw,
The past of grow -of course- was grew,
So flew must be the past of fly,
And now, my boy, your turn to try.
But when I trew,
I had no clue,
If mow was mew,
Like know and knew
(Or is it knowed
Like snow and snowed?)

The teacher frowned at me and said
The past of feed was -plainly- fed.
Fed up, I knew the what I ned:
I took a break and out I snoke,
She shook and quook (or quaked? or quoke?)
With raging anger out she broke:
Your ignorance you want to hide?
Tell me the past form of collide!
But how on earth should I decide
If it’s collid
(Like hide and hid)
Or else – from all that I surmose,
The past of rise was simply rose,
And that of ride was surely rose,
So of collide must be collode?

Oh damn these English verbs I thought,
The whole thing absolutely stought!
Of English I have had enough,
These verbs of yours are far too tough.
Bolt upright in my chair I sat,
And said to her “that’s that” – I quat.”

He then goes on -as you would expect- to mention Mark Twain’s essay “The Awful German Language” from his book, “A Tramp Abroad” – also worth a read, if you haven’t already. (See this post for the link.)

Perhaps one of the most interesting things mentioned in the introduction is the debate on language acquisition and the argument of “innateness”, or for the unacquainted: the discussion on whether language is “hard-coded” into the brain at birth. The author mentions this purely to say that whilst it’s fascinating and rather impossible to solve, he won’t be addressing this issue much, if at all.

He does, however, outline the basic arguments, which can more or less be simplified down to the whole “nature vs. nurture” argument. I blame the best part of this somewhat circular disagreement on a certain Noam Chomsky. I used to be of the opinion that it was a mix, but to be honest, language is as much a skill as it is a tool, both of which are refined as we age.

However my opinion changed when I recently read an interesting article in the Scientific American where it was trying to work out whether it’s possible that humans could evolve. The short answer: no. Why? Because some organs, such as our eyes and brains are at the peak of evolution. They simply cannot be refined any further. The brain, for example, can be bigger – take elephants, for example – but because the structure is so huge, it’s highly inefficient and therefore slow (a bit like trying to control Tsarist Russia, I suppose).

On the other hand, if you were to take the human brain and cram as many, much smaller neurons in as possible, they begin to fire so many synapses that all you get is “noise” and then they fire randomly, thus creating a rather chaotic situation where the brain is no longer capable of controlling the signals sent.

In other words, our current brain model is pretty damn optimal. Eyes too, which is really quite reassuring, when you think about it. It has also taken millennia for us to reach this impressive stage and so I find it quite hard to believe that changes (in language) so fluid, and which occur in an evolutionary blink can be “hard-wired” into something so carefully sculpted over aeons.

“Ah,” I hear you say, “but what if only the basics are hard-coded and the rest learnt?” Up until fairly recently, I would have agreed, that, yes, the universals – as they’re known as in linguistic circles – do have a lot going for them. That was until I read this article which casts doubt on the entire thing and has meant for some linguists that the whole world in now rather upside-down.

So basically, it’s all as clear as mud. Where do we go from here?
This is yet another one of those unanswerable questions like “which came first, the apple, or the potato?” (If that doesn’t make much sense, go read WATB: Potatoes)

I’m still working on that part. I’ll let you when I’ve come up with something.


This post is powered by Bombay Sapphire and Schweppes Tonic Water.

4 thoughts on “Inane Whittering #9/Musings #6

  1. Hi!

    First of all, I really must wish you a very happy, if very belated, birthday! Many happy returns!!

    You may persuade me that Kindles are good. I’ve recently been thinking how nice it is to see my books – those I’ve read and those I haven’t – on shelves at home. And how this would be lacking with a Kindle, which would be merely a very slim electronic gadget in place of all those shelves of books – even though it might contain more e-books than a small library!

    Sometimes, when I look at the spines of books on my bookshelves, I think, “I must read that book!” Or, “That’s a great book! Maybe I’ll read it again sometime.” Or, “I wonder what this book’s about?” And I’ll open it up for a quick peruse, rather like being in a bookshop, in a way. I wonder whether this would be possible with a Kindle? I think I’m being rather sceptical in my outlook here, but it was a thought that occurred.

    As you’ve probably guessed, I don’t have currently possess a Kindle. But I’m convinced they’re very handy. I’ve seen people on trains reading books on Kindles and iPads – yes! I’ve discovered how to spell it since seeing Mr Rabbit with one the other day (see: They look very convenient and nifty, I must admit. And, as you’ve pointed out, one can carry (literally or virtually?) hundreds of books about one’s person – something that is clearly very tricky with the paper and ink variety. I hope you enjoy your new Kindle, and I’m looking forward to your reports on its pros and cons!

    I love the ditty about the mind-boggling absurdities of English verb forms. I’m familiar with similar rhyming verses about the irregularities of English pronunciation. E.g.:
    “When the English tongue we speak,
    Why does break not rhyme with weak?”
    etc. etc.

    So it’s great to see this one about verb forms. They’re so illogical, aren’t they? How on earth is the learner of English to work them out? How do we master them? Do we ever fully master them? put put put – so simple and so regular. Why aren’t all the verbs just like that?

    Well, must dash! Thanks for the stimulating post, keep up the wonderful blogging and have a fabulous time in Munich!!

    1. Afternoon Martin! Thank you :) I hope Mr. Rabbit didn’t overheat yesterday in the blistering heat!

      I did think long and hard about the Kindle and the issue of physical books vs electronic. Not all books are available on it, so I still buy physical copies – there are even some books which I’ve enjoyed so much that I’ve ended up buying it so I can have it on my bookshelf (although that’s effectively buying it twice and will only happen when I’m completely bowled over).

      I’ve found some reliable freeware that’s quite good for e-books: Calibre. It allows you to convert between formats, back up your books, add new ones from other sellers and read on your laptop. The thing that struck me about the Kindle was that you can use the Kindle app on your phone/computer to read stuff you’ve already bought without having the e-reader on you. The app then syncs with your Kindle to take you to the furthest page.

      I’ll do another post about the pro’s and con’s in the next day or two :) It’s also darn nifty on the tube (during exams I commuted in to London from my parent’s and often had to get the tube from Epping) and it fits nicely in your bag – not too heavy.

      It’s really funny you should mention the sound of words – I’ve just come to the section in the book on how the sound of words change and there’s another amusing poem – it says to try reading it out loud as quickly as you can:

      “I take it you already know
      Of tough and bough and cough and dough?
      Others may stumble, but not you,
      On hiccough, thorough, lough and through?
      Well done! And now you wish perhaps,
      To learn of less familiar traps?
      Beware of heard, a dreadful word
      That looks like beard and sounds like bird.
      And dead – it’s said like bed, not bead –
      For goodness sake, don’t call it ‘deed’.
      Watch out for meat and great and threat
      (They rhyme with suite and straight and debt):
      A moth is not a moth in mother,
      Nor both in bother, broth in brother.
      And here is not a match for there
      Nor dear and fear for bear and pear.
      And then there’s dose and rose and lose –
      Just look them up – and goose and choose,
      And cork and work and card and ward,
      And font and front, and word and sword,
      And do and go, and thwart and cart –
      Come! Come! I’ve hardly made a start!”

      It’s certainly an interesting question as to how we manage to pick these things up – I guess this is where the nature vs nurture argument comes in. I’m still working on that one…

      Right, Bedsnatcher’s reminded me to go and eat, so I’m going to scamper off to munch and then I’ll get cracking on the next post!


  2. Hello Roo,

    I hope life is treating you well in sunny Deutschland! I just wanted to add to our discussion about the pros and cons of e-books and associated devices.

    Last weekend I saw an article by Bryan Appleyard about a multimedia app for T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’, released by Faber and Faber in association with a programming company. The app provides lots of additional content to support the text of the poem – including audio and video extracts of readings, the original manuscript, notes on the text etc. The article is available to read here:

    It struck me that this provides an excellent example of how digital technology really can enhance the good old book. Is this the future of reading? It’s interesting to consider the impact digital technology has on our reading habits and thought processes.

    I like the pronunciation poem!!

    Have fun in Deutschland and keep up the great blogging!!

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