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.


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Someone new…

So, it being my birthday today, my parents decided to celebrate my becoming 20 and therefore someone to now be taken seriously with the following addition to my weird and wonderful family:

Mr. Stripes
Meet Mr. Stripes

My Grandmother’s reaction: “They’re encouraging you.”