09 March 2011

V is for Saturday

The other day Magee and I were talking via text message and he said something along the lines of "but they are closed on V", and I did not understand what he meant. I, personally use the standard university abbreviations for days of the week: MTWRF and I guess I used Sa and Su in my notes for weekend days.

He explained he uses MTWθFVS. θ makes sense for Thursday, S for Sunday.  I had no guesses about the V.  He explained he looked for a syllabary that had a simple solution, and found the Cypriot syllabary, in which a symbol that looks like a V represents the syllable "sa."

Fair enough.

I came across this wonderfully comprehensive wobsite about writing systems, and started reading.  This stuff is endless.*

A syllabary is like an alphabet, except instead of each symbol representing a sound, each symbol represents a syllable.

In terms of syllabaries, Maggs said his decision had come down to using the Cherokee "sa" which is a U with a horizontal line through the middle, or the Cree, which looks like a little chair.  I´m assuming he went with the Cypriot V because of it´s accessibility on a standard keyboard.  I think he made a good choice, considering the alternatives.  (Look here for a compilation of syllabaries.)

They say the Cypriot syllabary descended from Linear A and Linear B and was actually used for the Cypriot dialect of Greek between 800 and 200 BC.  In Linear A, "sa" was Y and in Linear B, "sa" was like Y but with two little tear drops on each side.  I was surprised he hadn´t chosen the Y from Linear A--seeing as how it´s equally easy to use as the Cypriot V, but it seems the origins of Linear A are too ambiguous for his note-taking standards.  Ok.

What he means is that even scholars today are unsure about Linear A and whether its decipherment is correct.  I mean, he´s right.  Linear A was used between 1800 and 1450 BC, and really, all they can do is start with what they know and go backward.  They think Linear B probably evolved from Linear A, but they don´t know how they´re related.  Furthermore, these linguists just assigned the same pronunciation that Linear B uses to characters that look similar in Linear A--but that was just guessing, too.  There´s no real consensus on Linear A.

Phaistos Disc
Speaking of undecipherables, Linear A isn´t alone.  I mean, there are other really old things that are yet undeciphered (like Crete´s Phaistos Disc from 17th century BC seen on the left, and Proto- and Old Elamite used around 3000BC in Persia/modern Iran), but I feel like that makes sense, and is excusable.  They´re really old texts.

What is really weird to me is that there are a handful of relatively modern texts that are also undecipherable, namely:

  • Voynich Manuscript (1404-1438AD, Europe?) - at least carbon dating confirms the dates on this one.  The vague general consensus seems to be that it´s a medical or pharmacopeal document.  Some think the manuscript is gibberish, and was probably a joke played on Rudolph II, probably made by Roger Bacon.  There are lots and lots of theories on this one.***
  • Rohonc Codex (1530?AD, Hungary) - people have tried and tried to decipher this sucker, and have failed.  Most Hungarian scholars seem to have given up, and assume it´s a hoax created by Sámuel Literáti Nemes, who was infamous for his historical forgeries from around that same time period.  Some cryptographers think it´s a religious text.  The writing might be some variant of paleo- or old- Hungarian.
  • Rongo Rongo (until 1860sAD, Easter Island) - the language is Rapa Nui, the Polynesian language spoken on Easter Island.  There´s debate over whether or not this is actual writing, or if it´s just some notes jotted down for the sake of decorating, or maybe remembering things.
Voynich Manuscript***

Rohonc Codex
 Rongo Rongo


It´s funny to me how vocabulary and grammar can change in a language so quickly, relatively speaking, and how it seems writing systems change so much more slowly.  If you think about the Latin alphabet for instance, the letter W was added to accommodate some German sounds in the Middle Ages, but that´s about it.  We don´t really see a lot of changes.  I guess since the printing press, and now keyboards worldwide, it would be much more difficult to create or destroy a letter than it is to create or destroy a word.

But it does happen sometimes!  I remember when I first started learning German, the teacher made some rules very clear about when to use ß and when to use ss.  --although we learned that ß = ss, the rule is:

  • ß is used after diphthongs (beißen [baɪ̯sən] ‘to bite’))
  • ß is used after long vowels (grüßen [ɡʁyːsən] ‘to greet’)
  • ss is used after short vowels (küssen [kʏsən] ‘to kiss’)

Thus it helps to distinguish words like Buße (long vowel) 'penance, fine' and Busse (short vowel) 'buses'.  However, the teacher reluctantly informed us that ß is pretty much going out of style, not because of computer keyboards, but because of text messaging.  While computers made for Germany do have the ß key, cell phones do not, and kids are basically forgetting all about ß.


I also recently heard an article on PRI´s The World that Spanish has decided to get rid of two of their official letters.**  WHAT.  To the best of my knowledge, in addition to the 26 letters we see in English, Spanish claims/claimed 3 more: ch, ll, and ñ.  Now I´m hearing that the Royal Spanish Academy is getting rid of ch and ll as single letters, and my name will now be spelled C-H-E-L-A as opposed to the CH-E-L-A that I loved.

This is crazy.  My first initial is no longer Ch and now I must rethink my whole sense of self identity!  No, I´m just kidding, but Venezuela´s Hugo Chavez actually seems pretty upset about it.  I mean, he´s losing the first initial of his last name--I totally get it.  CNN reports:
If the academy no longer considers “ch” a separate letter, Mr. Chávez chortled to his cabinet, then he would henceforth be known simply as “Ávez.”



Now, of course people have suggested and created countless alternate writing systems throughout the years.  For instance, Benjamin Franklin took great interest in the promotion of spelling reform. See here and here. He proposed a more phonetic way of writing English, which actually makes a lot of sense, but no one seemed to listen.  The only person who really cared for this idea was Noah Webster.  Lol.

There are lots of other pretty writing systems, but my two favorites are:

  • Baduk - based on the Korean board game by the same name, which is based on Go--the Japanese name for an ancient Chinese board game.  The alphabet has only 2 characters and one marker to indicate the start of words.  Like in Baduk the game, the meaning of one letter is determined by its relative rather than its absolute position.

  • Colorbet - developed by Vitaly Vetash, a Russian painter and linguist.  Basically, he took the idea that the whole variety of colors is based on fusion of 3 main rays (red, yellow and blue), and translated it into sounds, saying the variety of vowel comes from the combination of the triangle of the main sounds (A, I, U). Colors of vowels are: A is red, I - blue, U - green.  He then expanded this to consonants, too, saying: vowels, being the most resonant between phonemes, represent clear colors, and consonants have more complicated formant structure, representing complex tints of colors.  (This also makes me think of synesthesia?  I didn´t even know what that was until... see here.)

    (For a good list of constructed scripts, see here.)  My cousin actually came up with a writing system, too, years ago.  It´s called something like AlienCode 2 Specific or something like that.  It´s by no means more efficient than the Latin Alphabet, and only a handful of people know about it.  I wonder if thousands of years from now someone will find a sample of it and wonder.  But then again, it´s probably very easy for cryptologists to decipher, seeing as how (with a few exceptions) there is one character per Latin letter.  It was fun when we were kids anyway, and is still convenient to know... hahaha.

    *(Click here to check out the Yi syllabary.  It´s the largest standardized syllabary on record, and geez... things like this give me a lot of hope for humanity, to be honest, and man´s mental capacity.  If common, normal, run of the mill people can grow up using this writing system and mastering it, surely we are capable of great things.)

    **Here´s the article with all the changes announced (but it´s in Spanish): El Pais


    01 March 2011

    English is hard to pronounce.

    You know, English is a pretty hard language to read and pronounce.

    My mom always said you pretty much have to memorize all the words and the sounds that correspond with them, because while there is a pattern for figuring out sounds, there are almost more exceptions than rules.  This has obviously got to be frustrating for a non-native English speaker.  I get it.  She would always then go on to exclaim how great Spanish is in that every single letter makes exactly one sound, and that any word can be sounded out.  Yes, yes, yes.

    In my mind, then, every time she would say that, I would always construct a piano keyboard which played, instead of a note, a sound for each key pressed corresponding to a letter in Spanish.  I thought that if I were ever a Spanish teacher, I would take this keyboard to class and let the students learn how to pronounce correctly using the keyboard.  They could press the keys on the keyboard spelling out a word and listen to the right way to say the word.  They could experiment and even create hypothetical Spanish words and be assured the pronunciation the keyboard was assigning was correct.

    I always wondered why no one had ever done that.

    My mom repeatedly ranting about this triggers a very vivid childhood memory of an I Love Lucy episode I saw in which Ricky is reading a book and explores the many different ways "ough" is pronounced in English.  

    enough. through. cough. bough. though.
    /ənəf. θru. kɑf. baw. ðo./

    I think this is one of my earliest childhood memories of being interested in linguistic curiosities and oddities.*  I was very young when I saw this episode, and the realization that "ough" could be pronounced in so many ways... just... blew my mind.  

    I was outraged.  I must have been about 5 years old, because I hadn´t yet come across letter combinations with so many possibilities before.  I specifically remember after the episode was over, I got a notebook and a pen and wrote down the example words Ricky had used.

    I found the clip online just now!  --and was surprised to hear Ricky--after the book reading part--exclaim almost word for word what my mom always said about Spanish.

    (The noteworthy part starts at minute 2:45.)

    Which brings me to this really great thing Nitzkin showed us in class the other day.  It´s this project called Anguish Languish--which retells stories, using real English words--but the wrong words--to convey an accents or dialects.  Try reading some!  It works best if you read it out loud.**  Here´s a snippet:

    Ladle Rat Rotten Hut
    Wants pawn term dare worsted ladle gull hoe lift wetter murder inner ladle cordage honor itch offer lodge, dock, florist. Disk ladle gull orphan worry putty ladle rat cluck wetter ladle rat hut, an fur disk raisin pimple colder Ladle Rat Rotten Hut.
    Wan moaning Ladle Rat Rotten Hut's murder colder inset.
    "Ladle Rat Rotten Hut, heresy ladle basking winsome burden barter an shirker cockles. Tick disk ladle basking tutor cordage offer groin-murder hoe lifts honor udder site offer florist. Shaker lake! Dun stopper laundry wrote! Dun stopper peck floors! Dun daily-doily inner florist, an yonder nor sorghum-stenches, dun stopper torque wet strainers!"

    Funny, something like that could never, ever exist in Spanish.  In Spanish, there is no other way to spell any sound than the correct way, and there is no word that could have two different pronunciations.  One sound per letter, that´s it.  Yes, I know, mama.

    Which brings me to the YouTubes´ sensation Kim Dong Won.  This video here kind of does the reverse of Anguish Languish.  

    So I don´t know if he´s reading these Mariah Carey lyrics, or if he´s just replicating the sounds from memory, but it´s really the subtitles that make this video so funny***.

    Here is a link to another video of him, but without subtitles, and it is much less funny, because the listener´s mind automatically and instantly atunes to the accent and,--especially because the lyrics to this song are already relatively familiar in the background of Americans´ pop culture minds--it is therefore pretty easy to understand what he is saying.  

    What´s difficult about reading Anguish Languish is that we have set meanings in our minds associated with these symbols on the page, which are pretty much unrelated to the sounds we hear.  Just listening to Anguish Languish (if read correctly) is very easy to understand.  But the mind auto-disconnects the sound from the letters on the page when discerning meaning, making reading it silently and understanding practically impossible.

    *I think one of my favorite parts of kindergarden was learning to read, and the rules for when vowels were supposed to be long or short.  We learned the short and long sounds for each vowel, and then wrote some words with a little scoop over the vowel if it was short and a dash over the vowel if it was long.  

    The simple rule was that if a vowel was followed by a consonant, and then another vowel, the first vowel was long and the second, silent.  Conversely, if the vowel was followed by only one consonant, or more than one consecutive consonant, the vowel would be short.

    ie.  "bĭt" and "bīke" or "măp" and "māde".  I loved drawing the dashes and scoops.  I wanted to draw them everywhere.  (I think later that week we learned about different vowel combinations, and the sounds they made, but those were tedious and less fun, with no symbols to draw involved.)

    On this same day, I distinctly remember we also learned when to pronounce /ði/ or /ðə/.  We were walking to recess, and some kid just randomly asked it, and the explanation ensued.

    The rule was that if the next word started with a vowel, say /ði/, if it started with a consonant, say /ðə/.  Hard, fast rule.  I liked this, too.  

    Of course, immediately someone asked about /eɪ/ and /ə/.  The teacher said this was more easily alleviated, not by changing pronunciation, but by changing "a" to "an" if the next word started with a vowel.  This annoyed me, because we already knew that.

    I really liked my kindergarden teacher, Ms. McMyne, but one other thing that really annoyed me**** was the way they taught us how to put verbs in the past tense.  We had already learned how to drop the -e and add -ing for present indicative or whatever the hell tense that is.  So I think they were trying to simplify by teaching us to make past tense by dropping the -e and adding -ed.  

    This DROVE ME NUTS.  Why couldn´t they just say "add -d"?!?!?  I asked.  The teacher placated me, said, "yes, could think of it that way, too", and moved on.  My classmates of course took her side when I tried to bring the point up again at recess.  

    They were really extremely fond of dropping that -e before adding any ending at all, apparently gahdammit, and I just thought it was terribly inefficient to drop an -e and then re-add THAT SAME GAHDAMM -e along with the new -d.  
    Oh well.  

    **Here is an excellent video clip of Anguish Languish being spoken aloud.

    ***among many other factors, of course.

    ****Kind of like that time in third or fourth grade when we were learning our multiplication tables (maybe this doesn´t belong in a language blog?) and we were reviewing before a test or something, and the teacher asked if we wanted to share any helpful hints with the class.  

    I guess she was hoping someone would point out the gahdamm obvious like "add a 0 behind the number you´re multiplying by 10, like 5 x 10 = 50" but instead I tried to explain my trick for multiplying by 5s: 

    When multiplying by 5s, you could take half of the number you were multiplying, and just add a 0 behind it if the number was even (like half of 6 is 3, therefore 5 x 6 must= 30), or if the number was odd, use the next even number up, apply the rule I just said, and subtract 5 from the answer (like 7 is odd so half of 8 is 4 so instead of the answer being 40 it must be 40-5.  5 x 7 must= 35).  

    I tried to explain it was like half of multiplying the number by 10.  The teacher was furious.  She wasn´t having it.

    This was a super FAST and EASY way to multiply, but the teacher looked horrified when I explained it, and tried to get everyone to forget I even spoke so as to avoid confusion and questions about my method.  I briefly hated her.  Then I felt superior because I had this trick up my sleeve and no one else did because the teacher was too lazy or too stupid to explain my method to the class.

    Oh well.  I guess this all stems from me not being very good at memorizing.  If you know me at all, you know my memory is terrible.  I´d much rather calculate quickly than memorize... WHICH IS WHY I LIKE LANGUAGES SO MUCH, I think.  They´re just like math, really.  Formulaic, generally neat, and calculate-able.  Figure-out-able.  I guess there were signs of my forthcoming love of linguistics all along.

    Dwarves and Elves and Angels

    Ok, when I was growing up, I learned that in Spanish
    duende = dwarf and enano* = elf = midget.

    I guess I never wondered why Santa's elves and Snow White's dwarves were both enanos*.
    Just the other day I happened across this article claiming DUENDE is the single most difficult word to translate from Spanish to EnglishRead here.

    It says,

    In 1933 Spanish poet and theater director Federico Garcia Lorca gave a lecture in Buenos Aires titled “Play and Theory of the Duende” in which he addressed the fiery spirit behind what makes great performance stir the emotions:
     “The duende, then, is a power, not a work. It is a struggle, not a thought. I have heard an old maestro of the guitar say, ”The duende is not in the throat; the duende climbs up inside you, from the soles of the feet.’ Meaning this: it is not a question of ability, but of true, living style, of blood, of the most ancient culture, of spontaneous creation … everything that has black sounds in it, has duende.” 

    Of course a lot of people who commented on the article said the same as me, that they understood duende to be a dwarf or elf, etc. but there were a few interesting responses as well:

    César on February 22, 2011 at 6:13 am
    In fact, this use of the word “duende” is more typical of the region of Andalusia, mostly used for “flamenco” dance and music, and is not very extended to other parts of Spain. From what I gather, it means something similar to being posessed by the spirit of the artwork, so that the artist expresses its fiery feelings, like a flame revealing the hotness and lawlessness of the fire.
    Mikhail on February 22, 2011 at 5:05 am
    In Trinidad and Tobago. A douen (which I presume comes from the same word duende due to our past Spanish Influence) is actually a small childlike creature that wears straw hats and runs around in the bushes on back-to-front feet. They were thought to be the souls of unbaptized children.
    Blueberry on February 22, 2011 at 2:49 pm
    In Buenos Aires generally people say that someone has “angel”, not duende, when talking about talent.

    Which brings me to this phrase I´ve been wanting to mention, just because I like it a lot.  In Mexico, tener angel means to be really charismatic.  Someone who has a lot of angel is someone who is really likeable.  Now I always attributed this phrase to Mexico being super-Catholic, but maybe it´s related to this dwarf-elf spirit.

    This is another example someone gave on wordreference.com:
    In Andalucia you say someone "tiene AGE" that really refers to "tiene ANGEL" when someone is very artistic.  For example when a dancer dances very well you say "tiene age (angel)."  Hope this helps.
    which sounds like what the aforementioned article said about DUENDE.  Maybe angels and dwarves are all descended from the same creature, which just evolved into having various names, depending on what part of the Spanish speaking world they finds themselves in.

    *Or in this case, enanitos, the diminuitive form.