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2003-01-31 18:46

The rules of snökaos.

The first rule of snökaos is: you blog a great deal about snökaos.

So are the second, third and fifth rules; I'll spare you.

The fourth rule of snökaos is that it's funny.

There is no rule six.

The seventh rule of snökaos is that it happens to other people.

Sigh. I was headed up to London tonight to treat my long-suffering mother's house as a hotel, but the tube isn't going out that far (it's overground at that point) and there's a whole heap of nothing happening going on over there. Cars can't get up the hill; schools are shut; the infrastructure is well and truly struct.

Den här helgen ska jag inte åka till London, tyvärr.


Bonus Randomness

Randomness translational arbitrage: a introductory book on the linguistics of French, 6 EUR in French, or a mere $30 in English. (Amazon.uk doesn't have it, but the university bookshop is asking 20 UKP for the British edition.) And if there was ever a book that university students of French ought to be reading in French, then this one is surely a solid candidate.

Random booksellage 1: a Norwegian bookshop that will sell overseas. [via Anna K.] So that'll be Norway 1, Denmark 1, and Sweden 0 points (la suède, null points). Grrrr.

Random booksellage 2: the Oxfam bookshop which doesn't count for Big Bookfreeze purposes had a Henning "Hilarity" Mankell title entitled Steget efter which they had tried to hide in the German section. Ha! 500+ pages of jolly Swedish hijinx, oh what fun, hurrah.

Random minority languageage parts 1&2: some stuff on the Lonely Planet Australian Phrasebook, which apparently dedicates 100 pages to aboriginal languages, hurrah! Overcome with gratitude, I have sworn a solemn vow to refrain from spitting on the next five (5) boring eco-hippy idiots who want to tell me about how they, like, saw the real $RANDOM_COUNTRY, man.
[via Languagehat]

Meanwhile, seeking stuff on the indigenous language in that corner of the Kingdom of Denmark which men call "Greenland" goes a whole lot better if (a) you can read Danish and (b) you remember that sprog is Danish for språk.

This looks like it might be an authoritative guide to the Great Snow Word Thing, but there's still an outside chance it's a collection of tasty moose recipes, yum yum - My Danish reading comprehension is a still a bit under construction.

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2003-01-31 11:04 (UTC)

Où sont les snökaos d'antan?

Instant nostalgia!

Oh, and a happy slightly belated bloggiversary to the bladet. In some ways I think I liked it better back when there were Canonically Salonical blogs to host my more baffling outbursts, but all you can do, as the poet reminds us, is do what you must, and they don't come mustier than Desbladet.

Onward!

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2003-01-31 12:19

Coefficient of pretentiosity high, rising.

The presentation went OK, you will be relieved to hear. The only sensible way of doing it would have been to script the whole thing in detail, but unfortunately the code of the von Bladets doesn't permit such a thing. (Best joke: Norden består av Finland, Island, Danmark, Norge, osv. No, no one else laughed either.)

Anna K is joining in the Wordsworth debate by couter-rubbishing language poetry (sorry, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E P=O=E=T=R=Y) instead. I was genuinely surprised to find out how much I care about the stuff - for now I'll just say that I read it as a kind of critical investigation of language akin to William S Burroughs' cut up and fold-in stuff. (And for me, Burroughs is more important than Derrida and Foucault put together.)

I just don't read it as at all connected with the fetishization of irrelevance that the American "left" has pursued in its academic exile, which never amounts to more than a parody of political engagement. Nowhere is the sound of not-being-listened to more deafening than in the fatuous shrillness of those who have done to (especially) Foucault what the Scholastic Philosophers did to Aristotle.

I don't know what's going on now, but the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets weren't in the academy so far as I remember, and I never thought they were writing from its perspective or for its consumption. (There's no critical literature to speak of on Burroughs, either, and quite right, too.)

Iain Sinclair's mad, doomed (observe the inherent romanticism of outsider nihilism, oops) collection of avant-skronk poetry Conductors of Chaos probably overstates the "exclusion" of its poets, but even so if they're in any danger of being institutionalised, it isn't within academia. I'm in it for the psychedelia, personally, so I'll leave it to others to make a case for the implicit politics of negation.

In any case, what kind of poetry could have a significant effect on the belligerent and barely-hinged theocracy we're currently being invited to mistake for the good guys?

In other news, it has been suggested that I did Bruce "Brooce! Brooce! Sweat for us!" Springsteen an injustice. Nebraska it is, then.

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2003-01-30 14:03 (UTC)

Lyrical Ballads

The SICP discussion of Huffman encoding works up to an encoding of the following message:

Get a job
Sha na na na na na na na na
Get a job
Sha na na na na na na na na
Wah yip yip yip yip yip yip yip yip yip
Sha boom

using an encoding "designed to efficiently encode the lyrics of 1950s rock songs."

It comes out as (0 0 0 1 1 0 0 0 1 0 0 0 0 0 1 0 0 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 0 0 0 1 1 0 0 0 1 0 0 0 0 0 1 0 0 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 0 1 0 1 0 1 0 1 0 1 0 1 0 1 0 1 0 0 1 0 0 0 0 0 1), according to my code.

Now, that's poetry!

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2003-01-30 13:04

Why I hate Wordsworth - a preliminary sketch.

[Somewhat at the behest of Anna K.]

I hate Romanticism in general, actually, but Wordsworth most of all. I read the Romantic construction of the Unspoilt Wilderness Sublime as an explicit rejection of the (Enlightenment) values of progress in general and the Industrial Revolution in particular - there's a revealing poem where Wordsworth freaks out about a train. I take this sort of thing very badly - I am a techno-utopian futurist at heart.

Wordsworth is so monumentally self-important, so ready to reduce the universe to a monument to his own self-importance, so ready to reduce the picturesque poverty of peasants to a symbolic "authenticity" (thereby inaugurating a whole tradition of things I virulently detest - don't get me started on Bruce Springsteen, whatever you do), and so flat-out drab and banal, that I am completely blind to any merits he may be said to have.

Wordsworth is basically a repudiation of everything that has ever mattered to me, and I take his poetry as a deep, personal insult.

Recommended background reading: Bertrand Russel's assault of Rousseau (in his "History of Western Philosophy") covers similar ground, only better.

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2003-01-30 12:07

S=P=R=Å=K=D=I=K=T=E=R

Just this once I'll forgive DN for being DN, on account of they're doing "language poetry":

Jag kommer med ord och inte språk. Språket har aldrig varit mitt. Det är de andras. De som pratar med de lärde på latin och med bönder på bönders vis. Det blir alltid tvärtom för mig.

Language poetry matters to me in a way that Wordsworth (say) simply doesn't. It calls into question the process of language itself, and scrutinises the making of shapes out of it. This is, of course, an infuriating, pretentious and preposterous sort of poetry which undertakes primarily to put poetry itself in question.

But this of question of interrogating language and the ways it is used to impose meaning on a world, of which poetry is a paradigm, is also my question as an heir to the the project of the Enlightenment (Upplysningstiden).

So, in so far as my Universe can have poetry in it at all, there's a case for insisting that it would have to be this kind. Still, it could be worse: at least it's not Wordsworth.

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2003-01-29 15:45

Kvinnoprästmotståndarna

I have no time for the concept, of course, but it's a marvellous word.

And, non-sequiturially, a bunch of royalty attending a party. It's from VG, and I'm too tired to be reading Norwegish today, but I don't think there's any content.

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2003-01-29 09:57 (UTC)

Prejudice is also a compression algorithm

Or, where phonology went wrong.

The pronunciation of the word <cat> (angle brackets indicate orthographic forms) is can be written in phonetic transcription as [k^hæt] i.e., where [k^h] is an aspirated k. This is the Zeroth Mystery of Phonology: segments can be inferred from an acoustic flux. Phonology books are so busy arguing about the ontological status of phonemes that they forget to do this for segments, although there's usually a not-completely-satisfactory discussion of the means by which the <j> ([dZ]) in <jam> ([dZæm]), say, is classified as one phonological segment.

Phonology proper began (or, can be begun) from the observation that writing out all the observable phonetic detail is redundant; a more streamlined notation is possible. Phonology then becomes a question of a reduced (and perhaps minimal) set of signs with which to write sounds. Which is to say, phonology is a compression algorithm.

However, speech acts occur in an environment (un milieu) which may be noisy (y compris, as we like to say round here, de bruit) and we would want them to be robust in the face of such adversity. This is why the redundancy was there in the first place, obviously.

The fundamental mistake of classical phonology is to attempt to extract one feature to use as the sign of the sign. The phonetic redundancy (in terms of feature vectors, say) of segments means that different analyses are possible.

An example: initial /d/ in Danish (say) once opposed initial /t/ in the oppositions voiced/unvoiced, tense/lax and unaspirated/unaspirated, but the Drift of History caused the latter two oppositions to take precedence over the former so that both are now unvoiced. (English is moving the same way, perhaps.)

So the redundancy introduced to avoid noise also introduces ambiguity and thus makes variation possible across dialects and time. Both of these are traditionally supressed by phonology, because the compression in which it is engaged makes it brittle - brittleness is precisely the symptom of success in phonology, which is a clear a symptom of its problems as you could hope for. That the diachronic dynamics of Danish present a problem for phonology is exactly as it should be, in other words.

Questions of redundancy, compression and coded communication in a noisy channel are, of course, central to information theory. Linguists have held that information theory was not useful in phonology (or elsewhere) for the last forty years based on a straw (bogey) man version of it that they thought was trying to replace the speaking subject with a Markov process. (Actually, Bloomfield and some others probably did want to do just that, but that really isn't much of an excuse.)

The debates about the ontological status of the phoneme, vicious and futile though they were, have long since given way to a debate about the ontological status of Chomsky and Halle's underlying forms, which replaced phonemes in generative phonology. So far as anyone can tell, CandH take these to be psychologically real phenomena when no one's looking, and whenever anyone points out that they're obviously not they resort to the distinction between performance and competence to prove that it doesn't matter and they never said they were, actually, so there!

As Jakobson pointed out, it is clear that sub-phonemic distinctions have psychological reality - I use a more open vowel in <men> and <let> than in <bet> and <set>, even in the silent privacy of my own head (take that, Bloomfieldians, I introspected!) and he recommended leaving ontological debates to philosophers - in particular, to phenomenologists in the Husserlian tradition.

This was supposed to be the short version, so I'll spare you the stuff about how I still consider phonology a model of the interesting parts of cognition. Just reread any random excerpt of the Jakobson/Lévi-Strauss love-fest, stir in a dose of Merleau-Ponty (who was working closely with L-S when he died) and rewrite it as cyberpunk (the cybernetic turn in structuralism seems to have been written out of the story as an embarrassment, but that's Just Plain Wrong - computers are our friends!) and voilà!

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2003-01-28 16:32 (UTC)

Dear future self,

This article by John Goldsmith on the relevance of information theory to phonology is a Good Thing, and even points out that the concept of the segment is problematic in its own right, even if the arguments were always about what could be meant by phoneme. (Every flavour of phonology I've seen ignores time, except perhaps for articulatory factors in allophones, in favour of phones anesthetised on the page. This is plainly silly, and didn't ought to be allowed.) But just when he's cleared the decks and brushed off some cobwebs he suddenly stops, and he doesn't seem to have done much in phonology since. Bonus points for gratuitously quoting Jakobson in French, too.

Danish phonology is weird. Danish linguist Nina Grønnum says so:

Recent changes in the pronunciation of standard Danish vowels have produced surface contrasts between 14 different vowel qualities. A classical structuralist phonological account of the vowel inventory is no longer descriptively adequate. It definitely glosses over a lot of what is otherwise phonologically very regular and productive processes. It also creates an unreasonably large gulf between the phonological systems of the younger and the older generations, and I believe it violates speakers' own intuition about their language.

Dig around in the publications section for more, such as Hvorfor er dansk så svært at udtale og at forstå? (because they speak funny, that's why!) and Danish Vowels: The psychological reality of a morphophonemic representation, from which the above quote is taken.

Danish phonology seems to be where the action is, frankly, Future Self, so have at it!

While we're at it, here's an overview of the literature on Danish phonology, from the Linguist List archives, and a relinking of Elizabeth's Danish phonetics site.

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2003-01-28 11:09 (UTC)

Comparative Scandewegiology

De tre skandinaviske språk: svensk, dansk og norsk, er temmelig like. Ja, det er så liten forkjell på dem at en kan nesten kalle dem dialekter.

I quote, of course, from the older Teach Yourself Norwegian: A book of Self-instruction in the Norwegian Riksmål by Alf Sommerfelt (1943) and revised by Ingvald Marm (1967). (Incidentally, Sommerfelt co-wrote a paper with Jakobson on word pitch in Norwegian verse, which makes him a serious linguist.)

A hypothetical Norwegian is duly despatched to Stockholm to engage in some hot, hot mutual intelleging with those crazy Swedes. Then Shoppingharbour, the acid test:

Orden og uttrykkene er nok stort sett de samme, men danskene uttaler ofte vokaler og konsonanter på en ganske anne måte.

You'll be relieved to hear, however, that after a period of acclimatisation a workable usedness-to-it is duly got.

Nonetheless, the weirdness of Danish pronunciation is much remarked upon by speakers of other flavours of Scandewegian, and it was starting to bother me that I didn't know what it sounded like, so I borrowed an unamazonable Hugo tape/phrasebook thing from the local library in order to find out. It is weird, but in a good way. The "fricatives" are mislabelled - barely approximants, they are the air kisses of the snog-space of fricativity, and the unvoicing of all plosives is an interesting touch - voicing is arguably a secondary characteristic in other Scandiwegian tongues (and English); it's interesting to hear the logical conclusion of this line of development. And the glottal craziness! Man! I grew up in London so, while there's no hint of Cockney in my own speech, I certainly know how these things are done, and I use coarticulated glottal stops in a variety of word-final contexts, but this Danishness still sneaks right under my radar. Further research is called for.

I'm sticking with Swedish for practical speaking purposes, of course, but I was never planning to resist the lure of comparativology, and Danish phonology is not only famously idiosyncratic, it's also alleged to be rapidly evolving. Plus it would annoy my Swedish teacher if I end up visiting Shoppingharbour before getting to Sweden and everyone says it's very pretty there.

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2003-01-28 09:03 (UTC)

Husker Du

Il nous faut donc reconstruire le cerveau epicé comme objet gastro-philosophique.
Cahiers Posthume, Z. Ricoeur (no relation)

Brains! Spicy brains! Get 'em while they're hot, they're lovely!

Or was that chestnuts; I forget.

In any case, it has been demonstrated that (some forms of) memory can be improved by using neurofeedback, [NB: Norwegian article] which sounds like some kind of dopey Californian therapy-scam but actually involves proper persons in white coats and everything.

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2003-01-27 13:56 (UTC)

For a René day

A René Descartes, that is. Sorry.

This luxuriant LRB review of a biography of Descartes expands on the all-important Scandiwegian royalty connection:

When Queen Christina called in 1649, Descartes was flattered enough, or broke enough, to answer, even though he feared - quite rightly - that the Swedish winter (and 5am royal philosophy lessons) would be the death of him. The idea of teaching his philosophy to a queen, especially to a queen who was intellectually inclined, and who would be played on film by Greta Garbo, was irresistible.

But beyond that the essay, which itself isn't anything to write home about, makes a convincing case that the biography is worse.

Meanwhile, provoked by a breakfast-documenting geophysicist, I have been reading the Discourse itself. I'll review it when I have finished it, but I do like the Livre du Poche edition (amazon.fr doesn't have it, bizarrely). There's a good 60-page introduction, and an abundance of glossically inclined footnotage, although 17th century French is a whole lot more accessible than Shakespearian English if you ask me. (Thousands haven't.)

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2003-01-27 09:39 (UTC)

[Book Review] Harry Potter &c.

Well, I've already reviewed the production values, and I've discussed the translations, and I dare say you already know as much as you want to about the plot of Harry Potter II, so I'll just observe that I've now read a whole book in Swedish that wasn't intended for foreigners and I am indecently pleased with myself, la la la. So I'd better do Teach Yourself Norwegian by Margaretha Danbolt Simons as well, I suppose.

I first got this book (and accompanying cassettes) before going to Norway, but things went as things go and by the time I got there I had polished the phrase "Jeg snækker ikke norsk" to self-defeating perfection, but nothing else. Two-and-a-bit-years of Swedish later, I fancied a bit of comparative Scandewegiology, but I also wanted to know what happened in the story. You see, the book is largely structured around the relationship between Bente (who is Norwegish) and John (who isn't). You can think of it as a Norwegian course which exploits a narrative structure for motivation, or, as I have come to do, a love story that happens to make increasingly sophisticated use of the Norwegian language as it progresses. (It's a terrific idea, that - I bet the late Georges Perec is kicking himself.)

The good news is that I was able to read it comfortably and I now know what happens at the end, hurrah! I could follow the tapes OK, also, although Norwegians do speak a bit funny. The conversations are recorded at a very gentle pace initially, and even at the end they're not up to what I would think of as conversational speed in Swedish.

I've no idea, really, how good the book is for learning the language - although the description of the phonetics is appallingly slight - but it's a pretty compelling warts-and-all account of John and Bente's relationship. So much so, that when I switched over to Routledge's Colloquial Swedish, with its tame accounts of plasticmughandlesalesman Bill Morris and the totally Svensson Forsberg family, I was crushed. "Where's the drama?" I wondered, "Where's the romance?"

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