Tag: The Unfolding of Language

Travellings: Deutschland #5 Catch-up II/Musings #6

Right, it’s now part-way through August, and apart from my tetchy, disgruntled rant about German vending machines, I’ve been neglecting this. Forgive me.

I moved in with D for 2 weeks, and at the beginning of August, moved to Eching. I say Eching, it’s actually Dietersheim, but apparently that counts as Eching? In any case, it’s a half hour walk to work (and therefore the nearest tube station) and I have pretty much everything crammed into one room. The house is owned by a couple who speak proper There’s-only-five-people-in-my-Kaff-Bavarian, which means that complete sentences are a rareity and most of the conversations we have are guesswork because neither party can understand what the other is saying particularly well.

Oh, and I think I’ve lost the French accent. Shame, I was quite enjoying pretending to be French.

So to catch up:

After I moved in with D, I flew home as a surprise for my mother’s birthday. I flew home the night before and my uncle collected me at the airport, so I spent the night with him and my Gran (he lives in France normally, so when he’s back he stays at the family home) and my Dad came and picked me up the next morning. The thing was, he simply told my mother that he was going out to buy the newspaper. I told Mum that I was going out Friday night and so would phone her during the day sometime. So he came over to Gran’s and we then spent 2 hours trying to wrap up a box big enough to fit me in. I should explain that the day before, I’d doctored an Amazon confirmation of order email and sent it to my mother, so that it looked like I’d bought her something called “Surprise Mystery Box” and that it was arriving on the day. Eventually, we got everything sorted, I hopped in the boot of the car and we drove back. Now, when my father usually goes out to the supermarket he takes several hours, so the fact that we’d taken 2 hours to get back wasn’t too unusual, but I could hear them coming back out to the car (I’d stayed in the boot for best impact) and my mother was none too impressed with the amount of time it had taken him to simply buy a newspaper and a “gift that was too heavy to get out of the car” by himself (thanks, Dad).

Then he opened the boot whilst she was mid-sentence and she saw the Surprise Mystery Box with me behind it. It’s not often I see my mother speechless, so to break the ice I came out with “Mama! Fancy seeing you here!”

Result.

Then I had to fly back out the following day because I had to work. /grizzle

The next bit of travelling I did was to take 2 days holiday, and try out the Deutsche Bahn service between Munich and Berlin. My excuse was a house warming party and the fact that I’ve never really properly visited Berlin. This resulted in staying up quite late, having an absolute whale of a time and somehow managing to bring back more luggage that what I started out with.

Then it was back to Munich to work again. (There’s a pattern beginning to emerge here.)

Oh, and in the meantime Ben moved out to Munich, so I now have someone to pester about being bored :D

Except he’s buggered off to Bonn until Monday, so I’m by myself again, but I’ll come to that in a minute.

My next bit of travelling is this coming Wednesday, when I fly home for a week. It’s my Grandmother’s birthday on the Tuesday and I feel bad about not being there. Combined with nobody being in the office, and me wanting to avoid having all phone calls redirected to me, I thought I’d mosey back home.

Oh, and about a week and a half ago, I was sitting at my desk in the office and it was one of those days where I was having to wear my reading glasses. The next thing I know, my bosses show in this random man saying “We don’t have any blonde girls, but we can offer brunettes…”

My first reaction was to think that it sounded like a horribly dodgy deal of some sort. It was in fact, a member of the photography department looking for someone to pose as a Promovierende (kinda like a PhD student) for photos for our new publicity material. Apparently me wearing my glasses was exactly what he was looking for, so I ended up going and taking part in a photo shoot in one of the science labs where we got to play around with petri-dishes full of coloured water and pipettes.

Shame one of my bosses took one look at the finished pictures this week and burst out laughing. Apparently, the colours of the water make the image look like it ought to be part of a Durex promotional campaign. Great.

As a result of all the working, moving and running around, I’ve not had much in the way of time to read – except when I’ve either been on a plane/train for at least an hour or two. I have however, taken a break from reading linguistic material to read trashy vampire novels aimed at teenagers that were on Amazon for under a pound each.

Having said that, I did discover “Don’t Sleep, there are Snakes” – which is a cross between memoirs and linguistic material and presents evidence which yet again bring Chomsky’s theories into question.

I know it must currently look like I have something against Chomsky’s work, but to be honest this is more about me reading theories which go against the mainstream ideas. Think of it as a kind of academic rebellion, if you will. Either that, or just being open-minded.

The book is written by Daniel Everett and offers an account of his work with the Pirahã (pee-da-HAN) tribe in the Amazon rainforest. He originally went as a missionary and to study their language. Whilst there, he made some interesting discoveries, managed to adapt to a completely different lifestyle and culture, began to question his faith and generally makes my current year abroad pale in significance.

The entire account is fascinating, but what interested me most is the linguistic evidence that the Pirahã culture actively influences their language and that each shapes the other. For example, this is a language which has no words for colour – something I think Chomsky said was “innate” (feel free to correct me; it’s been a while since I’ve read this book) – they focus on the present and only tell stories about things which have recently happened. He began to question his faith when he realised that when you tell stories to people from the Pirahã tribe, you have to be able to justify it – not with literature, but with eye witness accounts, or the whole thing gets dismissed.

So trashy vampire novels aside, that was quite interesting and rewarding to read at the same time.
My current read (physical copy, not Kindle format) is “Through the Language Glass” by Guy Deutscher, who, if you’ve read my other posts, you should already be acquainted with. If you don’t know who he is, then shame on you and go read the post where I first mentioned him.

This book deals with the question that he briefly mentioned in “The Unfolding of Language” to only say that it was fascinating but there simply wasn’t the space in the book. Here, he looks at the influence of language and culture on each other and in the second part, how language shapes cognitive skills and our perception of the world.

Having started it this morning, I’m only part way through the first chapter, which has so far consisted of an analysis of the use of colour in Homer’s Odyssey and the Iliad, which probably sounds boring, but actually is quite interesting. If anything, blame a certain Mr. Gladstone (yes, that one).

As previously said, Deutscher’s style is easily accessible and it’s satisfying to read something vaguely academic and be able to understand it without looking up every other word.

I still maintain this guy has the brain the size of a planet, though.

On a related note (how language shapes thought, not brains the size of planets), I found a series of interesting articles in the German language magazine, Gehirn & Geist, which I might try and use for my mammoth task of writing 4,000 words on some Anglo-German cultural relations topic.

It’s not due in for ages, but when I’m given a free-reign to choose what I want to write about, I take forever to come up with something interesting (and good enough). Although what usually happens is that I choose something and then change my mind and write about something completely different the night before the deadline.

Somehow I don’t think I’ll be able to get away with it this time.

Anyway, back to recent events.

This weekend is a long one because tomorrow (Monday) is a Feiertag, or Bank Holiday. I didn’t realise this until Thursday night, otherwise I would have booked earlier flights. So my plan was to go and visit various museums and wander around Munich all weekend. Yesterday I woke up late (result) and ended up missing the bus there and had to walk for half an hour to get to the tube station. I ended up wandering around a bit, did some reading with a cup of tea and came back only to discover that I’d also missed the last bus back. (Cue lots of cursing public transport and living am Arsch Ende der Welt)

I then saw that on Sundays and Feiertags, there’s no bus service. It’s about 30 degrees today, so there’s no way I’m walking to the tube station. Bugger that for a laugh. So whilst I was planning on wandering around art museums and the Jewish Museum here in Munich to look for inspiration for essay topics, I have in fact spent my time cat-napping, reading and generally lounging about; I can’t say it’s a bad thing.

It has meant that I’ve been reading up on Yiddish in Jewish culture, learning some more Russian and of course reading Deutscher’s book. Unfortunately for my bank balance, this has resulted in me buying yet more books. Oops.

The seemingly random interest in Yiddish has reasoning behind it; it’s not quite on a whim. I was informed recently of the death of a relative, which had one of those profound impacts on me – as something so sudden and tragic often does – and it made me realise that 1) life is too short and 2) for some us, time isn’t in great supply; something which saddens me greatly.

It also reinforces/reminds me of something that was said to me last year by someone who I consider a mentor (or Studium-Mutter if you like) – a fiercely intelligent woman – “wir sind alle sterblich”. Sad, but true.

I remember being told that there is Jewish heritage in my family, but until fairly recently, it’s seldom been mentioned. So I’ve started looking into Jewish culture and more specifically, Yiddish. Yiddish is – quite literally – “Jewish”; “Yid” being Yiddish for Jew. Looking into it, it’s has an extremely complex (and therefore fascinating) relationship with Jewish culture – at various stages it has either been rejected or viewed with pride – and considering both the East End of London (where apparently said Jewish part of my family lived) and Munich have got somewhat chequered histories involving Jewish culture, I’ve been wondering whether it’s possible to compare the two and somehow link it to Yiddish and its status within the respective Jewish communities.

I do realise, however, that it’s beginning to increasingly sound like a dissertation topic or PhD thesis material.

On a final and random note: while at home, I often play about with the English language (my father, easily confused by my creations, calls it massacring) and I tend to add syllables to words, for example “lucozade” becomes “lucomazade”, and “interesting” becomes “intermeresting”. You can imagine my surprise and delight (and my father’s despair) when I found this in the local supermarket:

Ovomaltine
Ovaltine. AS A CHOCOLATE SPREAD. Life = complete.

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Travellings: Deutschland #2 Deutsches Museum

I have decided that day 8 (today) is going to be a lazy day – it is a Sunday after all. Yesterday was spent wandering around the Deutsches Museum for the best part of the afternoon. Imagine the Science Museum crossed with the Imperial War Museum and from a German perspective. It’s truly an amazing place (particularly if you’re a history/science person or a petrol-head) and there’s no way you can absorb everything in a day, so I am determined to go back at a later date.

The first hall I walked into was dedicated to various types of craft – it starts off with boats and rafts from the earliest designs and then walks you through various historical stages and improvements with a mixture of miniature and life-size models – some of which you can go inside and take a look around. Then there’s a fascinating section on engines and the individual components until you reach the aircraft section. Out of all the sections, I spent the best part of my time walking around the aerospace and “astronautics” – their wording, not mine – sections. I have to admit I have a thing about flying things (I blame the cat’s influence, personally.) There were helicopters, gliders, jets, propeller craft, rockets; the lot. The bit that really pleased me was when I managed to recognise a Messerschmitt (see, Matt? Proper spelling just for you :p) without having to read the placard – silly, I know. And in another hall, there were life-size replicas of the very first flying machines – Bleriot’s craft in which he made his successful crossing of the Channel included – as well as replicas of the first hot-air balloons and wing-like contraptions that were used to glide. The interesting thing here is that one side of the hall is dedicated to flying creatures, the physics behind their capability to fly and how they inspired the creators of our modern-day flying machines.

Replica of Bleriot's aircraft which crossed the Channel
Replica of Bleriot's aircraft which crossed the Channel

Then there was the more science-y bit and less of the Imperial War Museum side of things. There were entire rooms dedicated to various means of providing energy: how we mine for oil and gas, hydro-electricity and of course nuclear power, amongst other things. Then there was the really interesting section on lasers and their role in modern industry, the process of casting and smelting and a load of other machinery bits that I couldn’t understand because it was all in complicated German and by this point my brain had given up and turned to a pile of mush. I did understand the section in the optics room on holograms – those were pretty cool.

I didn’t spend nearly enough time in this section, but by this point it was mid-afternoon and I was hungry. There is also a section on musical instruments and astrophysics – there is, I think, some form of an observatory there, neither of which I saw. Oh well, looks like I’ll just have to go back another time. What a shame. I also made a new friend in the form of a grumpy-looking chef in the café-type place on the ground floor of the main building – shame he only spoke Bavarian to me, so communication between us was fairly limited – I think I guessed what he was saying correctly; he only looked confused once – but out of all the customers that left, I was the one who got a wave: best friend #6.

And yesterday evening I managed to film some of the amazing lightning strikes we seem to be getting most evenings. At the moment it’s averaging 26/27 degrees today, although the past few days have been 28-30 degrees with very little cloud. For the past few nights, however, the weather breaks and there are the most amazing thunder storms with lightning – they last for at least an hour, if not several. By the next day, however, it’s all cleared up and there’s no sign of the stormy tantrum from the night before.

lightning snapshot
lightning snapshot - the most impressive was a strike the spanned the entire horizon

This morning was spent outside around the back of the hotel in the sun reading. I decided to turn into a bit of a sun-lizard (lizard because I’m rather cold-blooded in that I need my surroundings to be warm to feel the warmth myself.) Except I’ve had to come inside now because I have a tendency to go from alabaster to a lovely shade of lobster very quickly. Anyway, I’ve just finished reading (finally) Guy Deutscher’s book “The Unfolding of Language”, which I mentioned in a previous post. Okay, I didn’t mention it, I waxed lyrical about it, but that’s only because I wish I’d read it earlier and the points he makes in the book make so much sense I couldn’t believe that they hadn’t occurred to be until I sat down and read about them.

Personally, I think this would have helped explain any tricky aspects of one of the modules I took this year on the development of the German language because there’s an entire chapter on the types of language change and he doesn’t just reference German (which is both helpful and not at the same time.) The only drawback is that although the material is explained in such an accessible way, (and is not only gratifying to read, but you also feel like you’ve learned something whilst actually enjoying it) the actual linguistic terms are not always introduced to the reader. So if you wanted to research it further, you’d either have to already be familiar with the topic, or be about to study it, in which case you’d understand the processes, and would just need to learn the correct vocab. Then again, maybe I’ve found it easy/enjoyable to read because I’ve already studied the topic and found it gratifying that I knew what he was talking about in some chapters and could smugly scan the pages – it’s not often that you feel you’re on the same wave-length as someone with the brain the size of a planet.

Marvin the paranoid android from the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
"Here I am, brain the size of a planet, and they ask me to take you down to the bridge. Call that job satisfaction? 'Cos I don't."

In any case, there are chapters which I know I will want to go back to and read a second time – although I understand things on a basic level, there’s still a lot to absorb and internalise. In the meantime, I shall let its contents take a while to sink in and read another book also by Deutscher called “Through the Language Glass”, which takes you through the differing perspectives and I suppose cognitive abilities that different languages give you. Prepare for me to rave about that one too in the near future – bear in mind that I don’t start work for roughly another week and there’s only so much of wandering around museums I can do before I get bored.

Having said that, I do plan on visiting the Alte and Moderne Pinakotek in Munich – from what I’ve heard/read, they’re essentially massive art galleries – the “Alte” for classical and “old” works, and the “Moderne”, well… for more modern artists, surprisingly.

Oh, and in the past two days, I’ve only been into a McDonald’s once – see? I’m improving all the time.

Ciao :)

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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