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Archive for the ‘Language’ Category

Dulce est desipere in loco.

— Horace, Odes Book IV, Poem 12, Line 28

Wolfgang in German: Süß ist es, sich der Torheit zu überlassen (leichtsinnig zu sein, sich kindisch aufzuführen, zu blödeln …) am rechten Ort (also dann, wenn es am Platz ist, wenn es paßt).

Norbert in English: It’s fun to goof off when appropriate.

I might note that, after all, the Latin form is the shortest. Even succinct, colloquial English doesn’t beat it.

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Crescentem sequitur cura pecuniam / maiorumque fames.

— Horace, Odes Book III, poem 16, line 17

Wolfgang in German: Dem anwachsenden Geldschatz folgt die Sorge / und der Hunger nach mehr …

Norbert in English: Growing wealth is followed by worry / and hunger for more …

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The above post is about an organized bike ride in the communities surrounding the little town of then 200 souls deep in Bavaria where I grew up. For those of you that don’t know about the German language and its “sublanguages” there is this: Bavaria has its down derivative language, where some words and expressions are almost unrecognizable for other Germans. It’s a very strong modification of the language, way beyond the scope of English accents. Entire words change. There is no written form of Bavarian, but poets, musicians, comedians and, of course, Facebook posters, occasionally write down phonetic approximations of the spoken Bavarian and achieve hilarious results.

Even as a Bavarian, we can’t really “read” such approximations without sounding them out loud, and then they make sense. The words themselves just don’t look right.

So here is the sentence in question (red arrow above):

Bissl a Gaudi muss a sei

I could have also said:

A bisserl a Gaudi muas a sai

It would have been just as correct. Not a single word of either sentence above can be found in a German dictionary, except for possibly “muss” in the first variation. For instance, the first “a” stands for the German word “eine” which is a form of the German indefinite article “ein” or the English equivalent of “a” or “an.”

The second “a” in the sentence stands for “auch” meaning “also” in English or possibly just an affirmation word to give the statement weight.

There is no written form of Bavarian, no grammar and no spelling rules. Incidentally, the same is true for Swiss German, a flavor of the language that I, a native Bavarian German, cannot understand, save a few words here and there.

But now to the translation (green arrow above):

A little fun is a must

This is the best literal translation that I could possibly come up with for “bissl a Gaudi muss a sei” and I have no idea how the automatic translator could possibly have come up with this. Is there a Bavarian dictionary with spelling variations that it used? How did it even know it was a branch of German from these six words alone?

I am astonished about the fact that an automated translation engine handled this.

If any readers have examples of such feats in German or other languages, I’d be interested in seeing them.

I thought I knew how translation engines worked. Perhaps I did at one time. I obviously no longer do.

I am mystified.

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My Latin friends are starting to feed me with Latin poetry and wisdom, and it is stirring very old childhood memories in me, a Latin reawakening. My friend and German professor, Wolfgang Illauer, sent me a list of famous quotes, translated as literally as possible from Latin to German. In this series, I will introduce them one by one, first in Latin, then in Wolfgang’s German, and then in my English. Let’s hope we are able to preserve the beauty and elegance of the original phrases, all by Horace (23 BC) in his famous work Odes.

Carpe diem quam minime credula postero.

— Horace, Odes Book I, Poem 11, Line 8

In the English speaking world, in educated circles, we have all heard Carpe Diem, and we know it means Seize the Day.

Wolfgang in German: Pflücke (= genieße nach und nach) den (gegenwärtigen) Tag, möglichst gar nicht vertrauend dem kommenden Tag!

Norbert in English, literally: Pluck (= enjoy piece by piece) the (current) day, possibly not trusting in the following day!

Norbert in English, freeform: Seize the day, trusting as little as possible in the future.

And here you have it. Now you know where Carpe Diem comes from!

 

 

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Other Minds – The Octopus, the Sea,

and the Deep Origins of Consciousness

When we think of intelligent animals, we think of whales, specifically dolphins, apes, elephants, dogs, crows and parrots. I have written much about this subject, and you can find the posts by selecting Animal Intelligence from the categories dropdown on the right.

We generally do not think of octopuses as intelligent. However, octopuses, as well at cuttlefish and squid, commonly classified as cephalopods, are highly intelligent animals.

Peter Godfrey-Smith, the author of Other Minds, is a distinguished philosopher of science and a skilled scuba diver, who started studying octopuses in the process of thinking about consciousness in humans and in animals.

Other Minds tells the story of how animal life first started on earth, and how the invertebrates started splitting off from the vertebrates some 500 to 600 million years ago. As it turns out, cephalopods are invertebrates, and all other intelligent animals are vertebrates, including humans. The common ancestor of both humans and octopuses are small flat wormlike creatures that lived over 500 million years ago. As a result, an octopus is about as different from a human as you can get, and still have two eyes – and a mind.

Godfrey-Smith illustrates many astonishing examples of octopus intelligence and it becomes quite clear that, yes, they are really bright, and yes, they are very alien, very different from us. He says that the closest we are likely ever to come to meeting an alien intelligent being is going to the aquarium and watching an octopus.

I searched and found a few astonishing videos. The first one is of an octopus escaping from a ship’s deck. Since an octopus has no hard parts, no bones, no shells, he can squeeze himself through a hole as small as his eyeball, his hardest part. The video below demonstrates that.

Octopuses can also learn to use tools and solve complex problems. Here is an example of an octopus opening a jar into which it has been placed.

There are other examples that show how an octopus can open a jar from the outside to get to the prey locked inside.

I am highly interested in animal intelligence and alien intelligence, so this book turned out to be a treasure trove of information and great anecdotes and stories. I learned much about the evolution of life on earth, and the development of intelligence and consciousness. If you have similar interests, this is a book you must read.

The author is trying to be factual, and the book is therefore more of a text book than an entertainment book, which makes it somewhat challenging to read.

But I enjoyed it thoroughly, and I am sure I’ll refer to it in the future.

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In my childhood I studied Latin for six years. Toward the end, I was able to read and enjoy Latin poetry. I was particularly entranced by its rhythm and beat. That skill has faded. I know some words, but I could no longer translate a single sentence.

To this day, however, I have friends how are deeply involved with Latin. One of my best friends (PG) is a professor of Latin and French in Germany. When we get together, we don’t spend time with Latin or French, but we do compare our paintings.

I have recently picked up a stimulating correspondence with my first Latin professor in school, who taught me the first few years of fundamentals (WI). Today we communicate about literature. This is a man who recently worked through reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace – in Russian! That’s what happens when you dedicate your life to language, linguistics and literature.

And finally, there is a friend of an entirely different background (JCV), who was, 40 years ago in college, for a semester, my professor of Introduction to Philosophy, who now, apparently, translates Latin poetry to English to pass the time. Here is a poem he send me this morning.

To the few readers of mine that like the classics – and the study of Latin – enjoy!

 

Exegi monumentum aere perennius
regalique situ pyramidum altius,
quod non imber edax, non aquilo impotens
possit diruere, aut innumerabilis
annorum series et fuga temporum.
non omnis moriar, multaque pars mei
vitabit Libitinam, usque ego postera
crescam laude recens, dum Capitolium
scandet cum tacita virgine pontifex.
dicar, qua violens obstrepit Aufidus
et qua pauper aquae Daunus agrestium
regnavit populorum, ex humili potens,
princeps Aeolium carmen ad Italos
deduxisse modos. sume superbiam
quaesitam meritis et mihi Delphica
lauro cinge volens, Melpomene, comam.

Horace: Odes, Book III, XXX (c. 23 BC)

*****

I have erected a monument more lasting than bronze,
loftier than the royal landmark of the pyramids,
which neither ravenous Rain, nor wild Wind can destroy;
nor the endless passage of years, nor the flight of time.
I shall not perish entirely: a large part of me will evade Death,
as long as I thrive refreshed from ensuing praise,
while the High Priest climbs the Capitoline with a silent vestal.
It will be said of me that where the raging Aufidus roars,
where Daunus ruled over his rustic people in an arid land,
I, from humble roots empowered,
first committed Aeolian song to Italian verse.
Accept the proud achievement of those who merit praise,
Melpomene, and with the Delphic laurel freely grace my hair.

Translation by Jean-Claude Volgo

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There are only thirteen letters in the Hawaiian alphabet, five vowels, and eight consonants, one of which is the okina, symbolized by ‘, which actually is a pause in speech, a “no sound” which causes a halt in the language and gives it the characteristic Hawaiian sound.

The letters are:

a, e, i, o, u, h, k, l, m, n, p, w and the okina.

It’s a beautiful language, so simple, and so melodic. It seems like it’s made for songs.

Here is one of my favorite Hawaiian songs: E ku’u morning dew – by Israel Kamakawiwo’ole:

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Much deserved by my favorite poet.

bob-dylan-1

See CNN article here.

Simple Twist of Fate – by Bob Dylan

They sat together in the park
As the evening sky grew dark
She looked at him and he felt a spark
Tingle to his bones
‘Twas then he felt alone
And wished that he’d gone straight
And watched out for a simple twist of fate

They walked along by the old canal
A little confused, I remember well
And stopped into a strange hotel
With a neon burnin’ bright
He felt the heat of the night
Hit him like a freight train
Moving with a simple twist of fate

A saxophone someplace far off played
As she was walkin’ by the arcade
As the light bust through a beat-up shade
Where he was wakin’ up
She dropped a coin into the cup
Of a blind man at the gate
And forgot about a simple twist of fate

He woke up, the room was bare
He didn’t see her anywhere
He told himself he didn’t care
Pushed the window open wide
Felt an emptiness inside
To which he just could not relate
Brought on by a simple twist of fate

He woke up, the room was bare
He didn’t see her anywhere
He told himself he didn’t care
Pushed the window open wide
Felt an emptiness inside
To which he just could not relate
Brought on by a simple twist of fate

He hears the ticking of the clocks
And walks along with a parrot that talks
Hunts her down by the waterfront docks
Where the sailers all come in
Maybe she’ll pick him out again
How long must he wait?
One more time for a simple twist of fate

People tell me it’s a sin
To know and feel too much within
I still believe she was my twin
But I lost the ring
She was born in spring
But I was born too late
Blame it on a simple twist of fate

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To a Russian soldier the Austrians, as well as all non-Russian speakers, were all “Germans.” The word German (Немецкий – pron. nimietzki) in Russian means a “dumb man” — one who cannot speak so that we can understand him.

— translation note by Aylmer Maude in Tolstoy’s War and Peace

War and Peace takes place in Europe in 1805 through 1810. Much has changed in the years since then in Europe. But it makes me think of what so many Americans, xenophobic as we often are, think of foreigners that don’t speak “our language.” The bigotry of people who view those who speak other languages as “dumb” and inferior goes back through the centuries, the times when imperial Russia was a superpower during the Napoleonic wars, and of course far back into the distant reaches of history to the ancient Egyptians.

It reminds me of the quote often attributed to Miriam Ferguson, the first governor of Texas:

“If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it ought to be good enough for the children of Texas.”

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Skeuomorph

A derivative object that retains ornamental design cues to a structure that was necessary in the original, even when not functionally necessary.

Many common skeuomorphs were introduced by Apple due to a propensity by Steve Jobs for those mechanisms. For instance, the shutter-click sound emitted by many camera phones when taking a picture is an auditory skeuomorph. There really isn’t anything clicking, it’s just a sound it makes to make you feel like there is.

Another example in our house are the plastic Adirondack chairs in the back yard. The chairs imitate the design of the wooden Adirondack construction, but for no reason other than look like those.

The last coffee machine we bought employs a skeuomorph for the timer, but is has a number of annoying features of what I would call Crappy Design.

Coffee Machine

For instance, the knob labeled “Warmer Temp.” Why does it say Temp. only? Could they have not written Temperature? Then there is the knob itself. It’s a bidirectional knob. You can’t tell where the indicator is, and to make it worse, it turns round and round. There is no stop. So how exactly do you make it warmer or cooler?

Then on the left side there is the icon for a Sound, I guess. Where everything else is labeled with words, apparently here they could not write Beep or Sound, they had to apply this icon. Above it is a switch to turn the sound off, which does not work. The thing beeps no matter which side this switch is on, and it has done so out of the box.

Finally there is the skeuomorph – the clock. It’s a bright digital screen that shines a beacon through the kitchen in the dark, brighter than a nightlight. There is no way to turn it off. It shows a clock, with all three clock hands moving like an analog clock would. But the display is small enough that I really can’t see the time very well. We already have a clock in the kitchen, so I don’t really need another one provided by my coffee machine.

Then, to set the timer, you have to use the Min., Hr. and Set Delay buttons on the left. These are so unintuitive, I can never figure out how to use them, and so I don’t. When you hit the Min. (why not call it Minute?) button, the minute hand on the clock jumps a minute. When you hit the Hr. (why not call it Hour?) button, the hour hand jumps an hour. They obviously want to be cute with the clock, but skeuomorphism is supposed to make things intuitive. But what analog clock does this when you hit forward buttons? Those buttons were introduced when digital alarm clocks first came into being, to forward the displays.

Just like a writer should not mix metaphors, a designer should not mix skeuomorphs.

So there you have it. I introduced the word skeuomorph (didn’t you need to know that?), and I gave you an example of truly Crappy Design by Mr. Coffee.

 

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Languages of the World

Languages

[click to enlarge and photo credit]

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I just finished reading a few books (example and example) that were full of trite expressions and poor grammar. The writing was so bad, it distracted me from the story. As writers, we should not use trite expressions. There are some words in the list below, that almost always elicit a paired word. For instance, if you read the word avid, the next word that comes to mind is reader.

Let’s test this theory here. Below is a list of 10 pairs or expressions where I just list the first word. See if you come up with the second by yourself:

  1. Avid
  2. Dire
  3. Heated
  4. Reinvent
  5. Pregnant
  6. Stark
  7. Humble
  8. Trials
  9. Bated
  10. Moot

— Scroll down for the answers —

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here are the answers, and behind each expression I have listed the number of results a Google search returned when I searched for the respective pair in double quotes:

  1. Avid reader – 3,490,00
  2. Dire consequences – 723,000
  3. Heated debate – 2,060,000
  4. Reinvent the wheel – 674,00
  5. Pregnant pause – 396,000
  6. Stark contrast – 5,700,000
  7. Humble abode – 540,000
  8. Trials and tribulations – 5,730,000
  9. Bated breath – 644,000
  10. Moot point – 749,000

The simple answer is: As writers we should not use such two-word expressions. As speakers, we should avoid them “like the plague” <—

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An American Polyglot

Here is an American 16-year-old speaking 20 languages in a 15 minute video. I could follow the French (a bit), the German, some of the Dutch, and I was able to tell when he spoke Italian. That is it. I am humbled.

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Memory Lane

Memory Lane

Everyone has memorable or favorite songs. When we hear them, we are instantly transported back to a time in our lives, sometimes to a specific period in our lives, like the senior year of high school, or even a specific day, like that first night with that special girl by the camp fire.

I noticed that when I hear such a song, I instantly mind-travel back to that period, or season, or day, when I first heard the song, or when it was popular on the radio. Some of the associations are so vivid, I can smell the air, I can see where I drove when I heard the song, sometimes as long as 40 years ago.

So I did something that I could not have done only ten years ago: I made a list of 50 songs that had special meaning to me. Predictably, many of those were songs that were popular in my youth and younger years when I tended to be more into music. To refresh my memory, I sampled collections of hit songs in some of the target years, and favorites jumped out at me that I had forgotten about.

Then I went on iTunes and bought the collection one song at a time (unless I already had it on CD somewhere). There are no artists with two songs on the list. I just picked the top 50. I called the playlist “Nostalgia.” When I play that list, in random order, I can literally mind-travel, jump around over the years and decades, and imagery of long past events flash bright in front of me, feelings and moods come to life, and the people of those days are suddenly around again – copies of their former selves, of course.

My mind always ponders mathematical implications. I realize that my list is unique in the universe. If a million other people all picked their own top 50 favorite songs and called the list “Nostalgia,” every list would be different. I’d venture to say that if I asked any random person about their list, I might not find a single one of my songs on their list. Yet, every one of us would have those unique, personal experiences when mind-traveling down memory lane.

Why can music do this to us? How is the melodic word, propped up by rhyme and rhythm, able to create such powerful associations in our heads to recreate the smells, the feelings, the places we lived when we were first imprinted with these songs?

Modern human evolution covers only a very short time span, perhaps 200,000 years, perhaps much less. Until very recently, like only a few centuries ago, knowledge and experience had to be transmitted from one person to another, from one generation to the next, by spoken and most likely sung words. Music and poetry may well have evolved to be so important in our experience now because it helped package knowledge and experience by creating associations. It’s easier to remember a poem that rhymes and is associated with a melody than it is to remember just spoken words. Those of our ancestors that were able to make those powerful associations and benefited by surviving and passing on those skills were the ones whose tribes survived through the ages. That’s probably also why we have songs that get stuck in our heads. We call them earworms.

Our brains are not good at remembering strings of numbers or words. But they are excellent at recognizing patterns, like seeing faces in tree bark or angels in clouds or animals in the stars of the night sky. When smells, images, feelings about people and places, come together with sounds, rhymes and rhythms – in short music – then magic is created.

That magic can now fuel the trips down our memory lanes unlike any generation before us could – because we have playlists to arrange them, iTunes to buy the songs from, and YouTube to trigger our memories about periods or things we have forgotten. The Nostalgia playlist is like the shoebox of photographs in the attic on steroids.

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(Hai Wakarimashita – Yes, I understand.)

I find it disconcerting that a bird speaks better 日本語 (Nihongo – Japanese) than I do.

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