Archive for the ‘Language’ Category

Freud is known for the following statement:

“America is a mistake, a gigantic mistake it is true, but none the less a mistake.”

— Sigmund Freud

In his youth, we was reportedly enamored with all things America. He had the Declaration of Independence hung on a wall in his room. He had memorized Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and often recited it. But all that changed when he came to America one time. He never returned after his first visit.

He regarded Americans as poorly educated, uncultured, and backward, and he resented the fact that he had to take on more and more of them as patients in Vienna. He disliked the American system of consumption, and he didn’t respect American wealth and rich people.

He also had trouble with the egalitarianism we practice at America. People of all walks of life called him Sigmund, rather than Herr Dr. Freud or Dr. Freud. Most German speakers have a difficult time in America at first with the apparent familiarity and egalitarian social structure. They like their ranks and class distance as it is built into the language. They have trouble, at first, calling everyone “you” in the familiar form. In the English language, we address each other with you, no matter what the relationship is. We talk the same way to our doctors, our supervisors at work, the president of the country, teachers, relatives, parents, students, playmates, buddies and our dogs. Not so in German, French, Spanish, or Japanese, to name just a few major languages which differentiate the common address based on relationship and status.

Dr. Freud didn’t like the American way.

Is what we commonly call here “the greatest country in the world” really a mistake?

Let’s not ask Freud.

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Reviewing and compiling a list of books I have read, I got to thinking about the first books read in each language. I have read books in four different languages. And here they are:

My first German book was Die Smaragdenstadt, a story about a group of children traveling to an Emerald City. It was the first “chapter book” I read when I was probably six years old. I remember how proud I was when I had finished it. Of course, I remember nothing about the substance, but I suspect it was the story of The Wizard of Oz translated to German. In my childhood, The Wizard of Oz didn’t mean anything, but I remember I loved the book.

My first French book was Le Petit Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. This, of course, was a classic in many languages, and we read it as an assignment in my German high school in French class when I was about fifteen or sixteen years old.

My first English book was Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi. I was eighteen, a foreign exchange student in an American high school, and I don’t know why I picked that book of all books to be my first. It was about Charles Manson’s life of crimes. It kept me reading, I kept turning the pages, and I looked up words incessantly in my German-English dictionary. As I looked up the words, I wrote them down and reviewed them nightly, committing them to memory and building my fledgling English vocabulary.

My first Spanish book was Once Minutos by Paulo Coelho. It’s a paperback of 242 pages. I bought it in the beginning of December 2009 on a trip to Oakland, and it took me a number of weeks, much longer than I thought it would. I didn’t like it much, rated it with only one star.

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Beginner’s Hawaiian, by Zelie Duvauchelle Sherwood, is prominently displayed on the bookshelf behind my desk. It is there not for frequent studying of the language, but to provide me with constant and daily reminders of my love of the Hawaiian language, its sound and its music. Right behind is War and Peace, next to Savage Harvest. If you are interested, click on the links for my respective reviews. My copy of Savage Harvest is originally dedicated and signed by the author, but I digress.

Thumbing through Beginner’s Hawaiian reminded me of my post about the Hawaiian Language and E ku’u Morning Dew, which contains one of my favorite Hawaiian songs. Enjoy.

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New Words – Take Two

Some time ago I listed a number of new words brought into the common vocabulary directly or indirectly by our highly educated and articulate president. Now I am pleased to add a new one:

Dotard – a person in a state or period of senile decay marked by decline of mental poise and alertness

This was the word the Korean dictator used to describe the U.S. president in a recent exchange of barbs. I always considered my own English vocabulary fairly large, but I must admit that I didn’t know the word dotard until a Korean brought it to my attention. I am adding it to my list of new words.

  • Dotard
  • Gaslighting
  • Narcissism
  • Bigly
  • Emoluments
  • Terrific
  • Nepotism
  • Alternative Facts
  • Breitbart
  • Deplorable

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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.


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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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


[click to enlarge and photo credit]

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