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2003-01-24 10:41 (UTC)


I have often heard talk of "diagramming sentences" as a thing Merkin kids do in school. Not knowing any better, I had assumed it amounted to constructing parse trees. Now I know better. I didn't hang around to find out what on Earth they think they're doing, because whenever people start talking about "grammar" they usually mean some kind of Latinate monstrosity that had already been written off as unworkable in the '20's. So: I can't diagram sentences, and I'm proud of it.
[Link via Making Light]

What I can increasingly do is Cardinal Vowels, although I'm following Catford, who is following Henry Sweet, in considering them as defined by articulatory more than acoustic criteria. (Daniel Jones, whose recordings of them are behind the link, insisted on the latter criteria, but he only invented the system, so what did he know?)

I went climbing (at the indoor climbing centre) for the first time in ages on Wednesday, and the full day's lag that it takes for the soreness to peak has elapsed, so my wrists think I should confine myself to pointing out this review by Nicholas Lézard in the Grauniad of André Comte-Sponville's popular philosophy treatise which we would read in French, of course. So I won't mention that he's a mate of Luc Ferry, or that their philosophical emphasis on rehabilitation of the autonomous subject (in defiance of structuralism and its canonical aftermath) has been deployed in the service of a centre-right political agenda emphasising the importance of personal responsibility.


2003-01-23 15:13 (UTC)

Deep waters, still running.

The limits of my lobster mean the limits of my whelk.
[Tractatus Crustaceo-Molluscular]

S: You've got a pet halibut?
C: Yes. I chose him out of thousands. I didn't like the others, they were all too flat.
[Fish License Sketch, Monty Python]

I find myself warming to Jerry Fodor. His favourite thing is to insist that cognitive "scientists" have got it all wrong; this can be more or less entertaining depending on what he happens to be arguing with them about, but in his latest review/essay in the TLS he employs the pet fish argument and I strongly approve of that. Unfortunately, that bit isn't in the online version, but the argument is that a typical pet fish is neither a typical pet nor a typical fish, which (allegedly) makes it difficult for a theory of concepts defined in terms of typical elements to account for the ways in which concepts can be composed.

Later, he goes on to mention penguins, and I approve of that even more strongly, even if he doesn't make extensive philosophical use of them. (Penguins are traditionally popular in these debates as an odd outpost of the concept of "bird"; I just happen to like penguins. They're funny!)


2003-01-23 11:05 (UTC)

Relevance and its discontents

Kysset på kajen signalerer nemlig ansvarlighed

What would it be like if kissing your Best Beloved wasn't simply a matter for the two of you, if it could be held to have occurred in public?

Jag försöker få dem att förstå att jag vill flytta. Men det vill de inte, dessvärre.

What would it be like if your father forbade you to leave home, when you had every reason to think you were a grown woman?

[G]ivetvis ska svenska folket få lägga sig i vem jag ska gifta mig med.

What would it be like if your marriage plans were fated to be, at best, a collaborative effort?

It's about a year since I started reading Swedish newspapers regularly, and I still prefer to read royal gossip than to dwell on burning social issues, but it doesn't always seem to work out that way.


2003-01-23 09:42 (UTC)


This mirror neuron stuff is suggestive:

Recent investigations have shown that the human ability to mirror others actions originates in the brain at a much deeper level than phenomenal awareness. A new class of neurons has been discovered in the premotor area of the monkey brain: mirror neurons. Quite remarkably, they are tuned to fire to the enaction as well as observation of specific classes of behavior: fine manual actions and actions performed by mouth. They become activated independent of the agent, be it the self or a third person whose action is observed. The activation in mirror neurons is automatic and binds the observation and enaction of some behavior by the self or by the observed other.

Fine motor actions in the mouth and a neural substrate for intersubjectivity. If that pans out it'll be some really big news, is it not?

[link via sci.lang]


2003-01-22 13:10 (UTC)


Canards of Oldness

Oh, those stormin' Norman nobles,
they have took away my tongue,
And they don't speak proper English now,
like they did when I was young.
[An Anglo-Saxon Lament, Trad., arr. Guillaume of Formby]

Oh dear:

"You had the same sort of intimate contact between English and French in 11th century England as you do today in Montreal," according to Boberg. "And that was responsible in the 11th century for the conversion of English from a basically pure Germanic language to a kind of a hybrid language."

And this from an actual linguist at that. Nonethelesswisely: the English, she is not a matter of a creole! (And spits by ground.) Vocabulation is not typology, let alone a reorientation of (linguistic) ancestry. (And there are plenty of people who don't know this: see sci.lang.)

Mais combien des mots ont-il pour la neige, M. Boberg ? Oh, never mind; I've found it:

Pour vraiment comprendre l'importance que revêt la neige dans la vie esquimaude, peut-être faudrait-il souligner que la langue Inuit la désigne par plus de douze mots différents, et notre langue, par un seul. Pouvez-vous expliquer ce décalage?

Benjamin Lee Whorf! Come here right back here this minute, young man - you've got some explaining to do!

[Boberg link via Languagehat]

Swedish frenchists go linguistic

I was Googling for rivals to Oliver Soutet's Linguistique (which has a whole companion volume dedicated to exercises and is therefore going to be tough to beat) when I came across this bibliography (PDF, sorry) from Stockholms Universitetets Fransk lingvistik och andraspråksinlärning course which also recommends a bunch of Swedish books. Linell's Människans språk is glossed as an «Introduction excellente, axée surtout sur la psycholinguistiques».

This is much fun, even if I do still think they should call it språkvetenskap. (Not out of any kind of "purism", of course - it's just more fun to say!)


Mission Creep? Maybe so, but we forget our roots at our peril! All this philosophico-linguistic malarkey was just to fill in time while the Crowned Heads of Europe were finishing off the turkey sandwiches and taking down the decorations, but now they're back, and then some:

Kronsprinsessa Vickan is going to boot camp! Three weeks of standard-issue basic training, it says here.

Meanwhile her sister is starting university. Art history - what else? But her daddy (han är ju kungen!) won't let her move out of the castle into a flat of her own. It isn't easy being a prinsess!

She's trendy! She's bendy! And kids think she's spendy! You probably wouldn't want to foot the bill for Mette-Marit's clothes unless you were an oil-rich state with a substantial budget surplus, is all. (So that's all right, then.)

And while nothing has actually happened with Kronprinsfrede and his Bestly Belovèd Knudella, there are reasons - or grounds - for thinking that we may at least be approaching the vicinity of the adjacency of an occurrence. Would he kiss her in front of the press without his Mummy's (hon är ju drottningen!) permission? I have no idea; but then, I'm not a hof-ekspert. (Although I stand willing to play one on TV. Pretty please?)

(I did mention the proofreading thing, didn't I? There's only so much patriarchally phallogocentric normalisation of punctuation I can take at a sitting, as you can plainly see.)


2003-01-22 09:04 (UTC)

Ain't nothing going on but the rant

Hey, Mr Denunciator, denounce me a Derrida!

Deconstruction is a theoretical approach to texts that gained a brief cachet among leftist intellectuals in France in the late 1960s and soon thereafter, through the writings of Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Paul de Man, and especially Derrida, found a lasting niche in literature and social-science departments on American campuses.

Foucault? That's just crazy-talk! Nonetheless, I am reminded that both the pro- and anti-Derrida camps illustrate, in their different ways, the pointlessness of reading Derrida outside the philosophical tradition with which he is engaged. (Oh, yes he is!)

In any case, one can hardly blame the Englishists for wanting to get a bit of the Other - what's the alternative? Spending a career pretending that reading Wordsworth is a worthwhile undertaking? C'mon!

On the other hand, what raggedly generic hand-me-down accusations their opponents have to offer; you would need to be as ignorant of history as both sides, in fact, appear to be not to have noticed the precedents: Russel vs. Hegel and Bergson, Ayer and Carnap vs. Heidegger, Gilbert Ryle vs. Merleau-Ponty, etc and etc and then some. Accusations of fraud and charlatanism are the stock-in-trade of citizens of Empiricist Anglophonia when confronted with their Continental counterparts.

(Indeed, "Barking" John Searle ("It's worse than his bite!") has taken this to its logical conclusion and accuses anyone who disagrees with his self-evidently (ahem) correct arguments of doing so from willful bad faith. He has disputed in this vein, to no obvious purpose, with Chomsky and Derrida, but he only really annoyed me with his anti-AI "argument" that consciousness is possible in the brain, and not otherwise, because of Magic Pixie Dust unspecified biochemical properties of the former. Rant over, sorry.)

There is an interesting question of whether the industrialisation of academia and the apparent increase in bandwagon-jumping, as evidenced by, say, Chomsky's influence in linguistics, string theory in theoretical physics, or "Derrida" in LitCrit has had a debilitating effect on intellectual life.

There's another question, of course, about another (more interesting) Derrida and the significance of his engagement with philosophy. (Oh, yes he is!) But so what? Derrida-the-philosopher is a long way off my critical path anyway, so I'm quite happy to sit back, reminisce about the old days when people actually pretended to care about this stuff, and watch the show.

More popcorn, Zombie Ricoeur? Mmm, Searle's Spicy Brain Flavour y compris de poussière magique des lutins, yum yum.

[linkage via The Man With No Sword. Did I mention not liking proofreading, by the way?]


2003-01-21 16:17 (UTC)

The outline is as follows.

In this post I first express my displeasure at finding myself once again engaged in the task of proofreading. I begin by noting that I didn't do any of the work described in the paper, although I have sacrificed hours of my life to discussing it. I proceed to observe that I didn't write it up, either, although my native-speaker status in the English language means that I have been heavily involved in the redrafting process.

Having established this, I turn to querulous whining about how little I like the mannerisms of academic prose, my tempermental indisposition to the chore of proofreading and the lack of training I have in it.

I then conclude that I shall be very glad when I can get back to doing some real work again.


2003-01-21 14:04 (UTC)

The Delights of Dialects.

Aftonbladet, Aftonbladet, Aftonbladet - I do love it so. It has just everything from prinsessa gossip to this plug for a suberb site dedicated to flavours (or "dialects", to use the technical term) of Swedish. This is good stuff in large quantities - samples about a minute long for young/old male/female speakers from each location, and a lot of locations. All with transcriptions (not IPA, but for once never mind) and cleaned-up "translations".

This is completely marvellous - I may be gone some time.


2003-01-21 08:46 (UTC)

Kosmic Kontemplations

Gustav Holmberg recommends some books on memorial practices in the sciences, and provides also a preprint of his own paper on the subject, because he is a serious and reputable scholar and stuff.

It concerns the way the 16th century astronomer Tycho Brahe was mythologised in the late 19th and early 20th century by the Nordic scholars of the time.

After all, could anything more clearly illustrate the break with the superstitious world of the Dark Ages in favour of empiricism which Tycho allegedly helped to bring about than a pilgrimage to a sacred place (the ruins of his observatory) or a verses spoken and sung in praise of said revered Spiritual Ancestor before a feast in his honour?

I think not! (Note that despite a decade of accumulated evidence to the contrary I still consider myself to be a "scientist" in some increasingly ill-defined sense, so I am entirely willing to indulge such behaviour.) In any case, the paper is good stuff and well worth a read if your Swedish is up to it. (Let's gloss over the question of whether mine is, shall we?)

And Gustav has created a whole new vetenskapsstudier blog category for the subject now, hurrah!


2003-01-20 13:41 (UTC)

The trouble with translation - y compris du bruit.

First, via the Enigmatic Mermaid comes this better-than-usual "Computers can't translate because they have no common sense" article. For some reason, such articles are especially popular link-fodder among translators, but this one is unusually coherent and well-written.

Meanwhile, I've been back reading Harry Potter v. 2 in Swedish with French subtitles, and there are some conspicuous differences in the translation. Here's an example, describing the shenanigans in the Gryffindor common room over the Christmas holidays, when Harry and friends have it to themselves:

[De] kunde spela kortspelet explosionsknallen högt utan att störa någon, och öva sig trollskarls dueller i fred.

Exploding card games and duelling practices, hurrah! What's that in French, then?

[Ils] pouvaient fair ce qu'ils voulaient - y compris du bruit - sans déranger personne.


There's a lot of this sort of thing, too; the Swedish is bursting with the details and jokes which do a lot to make Rowling's imagined world vivid and fun, while the French translation just airbrushes them out. This could be because the French translator was bored or lazy or under time pressure, of course, but as a devout Whorfian I would instead insist that the concrete and particular are anathema to the French mind, which is comfortable only with lofty abstractions and vague generalities.


2003-01-20 12:03


I was in two minds about it,
Like a blackbird that had been cut in half.

[Wallace "Chopper" Stevens]

Recently there have been pairs of policepersons armed with sub-machineguns patrolling the main road near my house. The nice man in the fried chicken place says it's down to turf wars between rival Jamaican gangs based in St Pauls (I used to live on the edge of St Pauls) and Easton (I now live in Easton).

There is an extent to which the sustained presence of heavily-armed police officers in my neighbourhood is reassuring, but there is also a rather larger extent to which it isn't. I feel that my career at the cutting edge of gentrification may be drawing to a close, assuming I can still afford to exercise a choice in the matter.


2003-01-20 09:28 (UTC)

Une spécialisation du langage indo européen de type occidental

Over in fr.sci.linguistique (which is both new and in Foreign, so Deja-Google doesn't have it yet but it's Message ID <b01ht7$a3k$> if your swerver carries the froup) someone quoted Whorf saying « ce que nous appelons la "pensée scientifique" n'est qu'une spécialisation du langage indo européen de type occidental... » [Whorf B. L.: Linguistique et anthropologie, 1956 pp. 123 et 184 . Trad. fr. par Cl. Carme. Paris : Denoël, 1969.]

I wish I had seen this before I went to Estonia; with helpful hints I could have hymned them, thus:

Finno-Ugric-speaking persons! Desist from your desultory, doomed attempts to mimic the superficial trappings of European culture! Return, instead, to your caves and play "Pin the Definite Article on the Indo-European Noun Phrase" and other such traditional drinking games. As a sign of goodwill, here are some shiny glass beads which you can trade for "wodka". (It's made from potatoes, you know.)

But nonetheless it is reassuring to know that North Koreans (for example) will never manage to wrap their heads around the conceptual tools needed to build nuclear weapons (for example).

(In Whorf's defence he would, of course, have insisted that his bigoted drivel was only intended to apply to languages and cultures too obscure for it to be trivially falsified.)


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