Giants

Thursday, April 16th, 2015

Legendary foes grow larger with every retelling of the tale of their defeat, but I didn’t realize this was so true of the giants of Greek mythology:

In Greek mythology, the Giants or Gigantes (singular Gigas) were a race of great strength and aggression, though not necessarily of great size, known for the Gigantomachy (Gigantomachia), their battle with the Olympian gods. According to Hesiod, the Giants were the offspring of Gaia (Earth), born from the blood that fell when Uranus (Sky) was castrated by their Titan son Cronus.

Archaic and Classical representations show Gigantes as man-sized hoplites (heavily-armed ancient Greek foot soldiers) fully human in form. Later representations (after c. 380 BC) show Gigantes with snakes for legs. In later traditions, the Giants were often confused with other opponents of the Olympians, particularly the Titans, an earlier generation of large and powerful children of Gaia and Uranus.

The vanquished Giants were said to be buried under volcanos, and to be the cause of volcanic eruptions and earthquakes.

Draft No. 4

Thursday, April 2nd, 2015

John McPhee offers his advice on getting out Draft No. 1, the hardest draft to write:

Block. It puts some writers down for months. It puts some writers down for life. A not always brief or minor form of it mutes all writers from the outset of every day. “Dear Joel… ” This is just a random sample from letters written to former students in response to their howling cries as they suffer the masochistic self-inflicted paralysis of a writer’s normal routine. “Dear Joel… ” This Joel will win huge awards and write countless books and a nationally syndicated column, but at the time of this letter he has just been finding out that to cross the electric fence from the actual world to the writing world requires at least as much invention as the writing itself. “Dear Joel: You are writing, say, about a grizzly bear. No words are forthcoming. For six, seven, ten hours no words have been forthcoming. You are blocked, frustrated, in despair. You are nowhere, and that’s where you’ve been getting. What do you do? You write, ‘Dear Mother.’ And then you tell your mother about the block, the frustration, the ineptitude, the despair. You insist that you are not cut out to do this kind of work. You whine. You whimper. You outline your problem, and you mention that the bear has a fifty-five-inch waist and a neck more than thirty inches around but could run nose-to-nose with Secretariat. You say the bear prefers to lie down and rest. The bear rests fourteen hours a day. And you go on like that as long as you can. And then you go back and delete the ‘Dear Mother’ and all the whimpering and whining, and just keep the bear.”

Draft No. 4 sound much more pleasant:

fter reading the second draft aloud, and going through the piece for the third time (removing the tin horns and radio static that I heard while reading), I enclose things in boxes for Draft No. 4. If I enjoy anything in this process it is Draft No. 4. I go searching for replacements for the words in the boxes. The final adjustments may be small-scale, but they are large to me, and I love addressing them.

[...]

You draw a box not only around any word that does not seem quite right but also around words that fulfill their assignment but seem to present an opportunity. While the word inside the box may be perfectly O.K., there is likely to be an even better word for this situation, a word right smack on the button, and why don’t you try to find such a word? If none occurs, don’t linger; keep reading and drawing boxes, and later revisit them one by one. If there’s a box around “sensitive,” because it seems pretentious in the context, try “susceptible.” Why “susceptible”? Because you looked up “sensitive” in the dictionary and it said “highly susceptible.” With dictionaries, I spend a great deal more time looking up words I know than words I have never heard of—at least ninety-nine to one.

Make sure you’re using the right dictionary though.

You’re probably using the wrong dictionary

Monday, March 30th, 2015

You’re probably using the wrong dictionary, James Somers suggests:

The way I thought you used a dictionary was that you looked up words you’ve never heard of, or whose sense you’re unsure of. You would never look up an ordinary word — like example, or sport, or magic — because all you’ll learn is what it means, and that you already know.

Indeed, if you look up those particular words in the dictionary that comes with your computer — on my Mac, it’s the New Oxford American Dictionary, 3rd Edition — you’ll be rewarded with… well, there won’t be any reward. The entries are pedestrian:

example /ig?zamp?l/, n. a thing characteristic of its kind or illustrating a general rule.

sport /spôrt/, n. an activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment.

magic /?majik/, n. the power of apparently influencing the course of events by using mysterious or supernatural forces.

Here, words are boiled to their essence. But that essence is dry, functional, almost bureaucratically sapped of color or pop, like high modernist architecture. Which trains you to think of the dictionary as a utility, not a quarry of good things, not a place you’d go to explore and savor.

Worse, the words themselves take on the character of their definitions: they are likewise reduced. A delightful word like “fustian” — delightful because of what it means, because of the way it looks and sounds, because it is unusual in regular speech but not so effete as to be unusable, is described, efficiently, as “pompous or pretentious speech or writing.” Not only is this definition (as we’ll see in a minute) simplistic and basically wrong, it’s just not in the same class, English-wise, as “fustian.” The language is tin-eared and uninspired. It’s criminal: This is the place where all the words live and the writing’s no good.

The New Oxford American dictionary, by the way, is not like singularly bad. Google’s dictionary, the modern Merriam-Webster, the dictionary at dictionary.com: they’re all like this. They’re all a chore to read. There’s no play, no delight in the language. The definitions are these desiccated little husks of technocratic meaningese, as if a word were no more than its coordinates in semantic space.

John McPhee — one the great American writers of nonfiction, almost peerless as a prose stylist — once wrote an essay for the New Yorker about his process called “Draft #4.” He explains that for him, draft #4 is the draft after the painstaking labor of creation is done, when all that’s left is to punch up the language, to replace shopworn words and phrases with stuff that sings.

The way you do it, he says, is “you draw a box not only around any word that does not seem quite right but also around words that fulfill their assignment but seem to present an opportunity.” You go looking for le mot juste.

But where?

“Your destination is the dictionary,” he writes.

The dictionary McPhee went to was Webster’s — just not the modern one:

You can see why it became cliché to start a speech with “Webster’s defines X as…”: with his dictionary the definition that followed was actually likely to lend gravitas to your remarks, to sound so good, in fact, that it’d beat anything you could come up with on your own.

Take a simple word, like “flash.” In all the dictionaries I’ve ever known, I would have never looked up that word. I’d’ve had no reason to — I already knew what it meant. But go look up “flash” in Webster’s (the edition I’m using is the 1913). The first thing you’ll notice is that the example sentences don’t sound like they came out of a DMV training manual (“the lights started flashing”) — they come from Milton and Shakespeare and Tennyson (“A thought flashed through me, which I clothed in act”).

You’ll find a sense of the word that is somehow more evocative than any you’ve seen. “2. To convey as by a flash… as, to flash a message along the wires; to flash conviction on the mind.” In the juxtaposition of those two examples — a message transmitted by wires; a feeling that comes suddenly to mind — is a beautiful analogy, worth dwelling on, and savoring. Listen to that phrase: “to flash conviction on the mind.” This is in a dictionary, for God’s sake.

And, toward the bottom of the entry, as McPhee promised, is a usage note, explaining the fine differences in meaning between words in the penumbra of “flash”:

… Flashing differs from exploding or disploding in not being accompanied with a loud report. To glisten, or glister, is to shine with a soft and fitful luster, as eyes suffused with tears, or flowers wet with dew.

Did you see that last clause? “To shine with a soft and fitful luster, as eyes suffused with tears, or flowers wet with dew.” I’m not sure why you won’t find writing like that in dictionaries these days, but you won’t. Here is the modern equivalent of that sentence in the latest edition of the Merriam-Webster: “glisten applies to the soft sparkle from a wet or oily surface .”

Somers points us in the right direction:

The closest thing you can get to a plain-text, easily hackable, free, out-of-copyright version of the dictionary McPhee probably used is Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913 + 1828).

Enlightened Hard-Boiled-Ness

Wednesday, December 31st, 2014

Marine Major Sherwood F. Moran found himself facing a fanatical and implacable enemy in a brutal war in which the old rules no longer seemed to apply, and he was under intense pressure to achieve quick results as an interrogator. He went on to write an influential document on the complexities and difficulties of dealing with an enemy from such a hostile and alien culture and how to extract useful information from prisoners:

The successful interrogators all had one thing in common in the way they approached their subjects. They were nice to them.

Moran was writing in 1943, and he was describing his own, already legendary methods of interrogating Japanese prisoners of war.

[...]

Part of why Sherwood Moran became such a legendary figure among military interrogators was his cool disregard for what he termed the standard “hard-boiled” military attitude. The brutality of the fighting in the Pacific and the suicidal fanaticism of the Japanese had created a general assumption that only the sternest measures would get Japanese prisoners to divulge anything. Moran countered that in his and others’ experience, strong-arm tactics simply did not work. Stripping a prisoner of his dignity, treating him as a still-dangerous threat, forcing him to stand at attention and flanking him with guards throughout his interrogation — in other words, emphasizing that “we are his to-be-respected and august enemies and conquerors” — invariably backfired. It made the prisoner “so conscious of his present position and that he was a captured soldier vs. enemy intelligence” that it “played right into [the] hands” of those who were determined not to give away anything of military importance.

In his report (written in the form of a letter of advice to interpreters newly assigned to interrogation duty) Moran stressed that he would usually begin an interrogation by taking almost the opposite tack.

I often tell a prisoner right at the start what my attitude is! I consider a prisoner (i.e. a man who has been captured and disarmed and in a perfectly safe place) as out of the war, out of the picture, and thus, in a way, not an enemy … Notice that … I used the word “safe.” That is the point: get the prisoner to a safe place, where even he knows … that it is all over. Then forget, as it were, the “enemy” stuff, and the “prisoner” stuff. I tell them to forget it, telling them I am talking as a human being to a human being.

Every soldier, Moran observed, has a “story” he desperately wants to tell. The interrogator’s job is to provide the atmosphere that allows the prisoner to tell it.

Begin by asking him things about himself. Make him and his troubles the center of the stage, not you and your questions of war problems. If he is not wounded or tired out, you can ask him if he has been getting enough to eat; if he likes Western-style food … You can ask if he has had cigarettes, if he is being treated all right, etc. If he is wounded you have a rare chance. Begin to talk about his wounds. Ask if the doctor or corpsman has attended to him. Have him show you his wounds or burns. (They will like to do this!)

[...]

On [one] occasion a soldier was brought in. A considerable chunk of his shinbone had been shot away. In such bad shape was he that we broke off in the middle of the interview to have his leg redressed. We were all interested in the redressing, in his leg, it was almost a social affair! And the point to note is that we really were interested, and not pretending to be interested in order to get information out of him. This was the prisoner who called out to me when I was leaving after that first interview, “Won’t you please come and talk to me every day.” (And yet people are continually asking us, “Are the Japanese prisoners really willing to talk?”)

Moran spoke fluent Japanese, but more important, he was thoroughly familiar with Japanese culture, having spent forty years in Japan as a missionary. He used this knowledge for one of his standard gambits: making a prisoner homesick. “This line has infinite possibilities,” he explained. “If you know anything about Japanese history, art, politics, athletics, famous places, department stores, eating places, etc. etc. a conversation may be relatively interminable.” Moran emphasized that a detailed knowledge of technical military terms and the like was less important than a command of idiomatic phrases and cultural references that allow the interviewer to achieve “the first and most important victory” — getting “into the mind and into the heart” of the prisoner and achieving an “intellectual and spiritual” rapport with him.

Moran’s whole approach — and Hans Joachim Scharff’s, too — was built on the assumption that few if any prisoners are likely to possess decisive information about imminent plans. (And as one former Marine interrogator says, even if a prisoner does have information of the “ticking bomb” variety — where the nuke is going to go off an hour from now, in the classic if overworked example — under duress or torture he is most likely to try to run out the clock by making something up rather than reveal the truth.) Rather, it is the small and seemingly inconsequential bits of evidence that prisoners may give away once they start talking — about training, weapons, commanders, tactics — that, when assembled into a larger mosaic, build up the most complete and valuable picture of the enemy’s organization, intentions, and methods.

Moran’s report had an immediate impact. The Navy and the Marines recruited second-generation Japanese-Americans to teach an intensive one-year language course for interrogators that included a strong emphasis on Japanese culture. James Corum notes that the graduates of this course were among the most effective interrogators in the Pacific Island campaigns of 1944 and 1945: Marine interrogators deployed to the Marianas in June of 1944 were able to supply their commanders with the complete Japanese order of battle within forty-eight hours of landing on Saipan and Tinian.

In contrast, in late 2002 the military’s Southern Command had so few interrogators and interpreters that it was forced to employ inexperienced and untrained civilian contractors to perform these jobs at Guantánamo./blockquote>

Late Vulgar Adûni

Sunday, December 14th, 2014

As the appendices explain, The Lord of the Rings is simply Tolkien’s translation of the Red Book of Westmarch, an ancient manuscript written in Late Vulgar Adûni — which Austin Gilkeson decided to translate for himself:

Tolkien’s original translation is justly famous and beloved. He treeherds an unwieldy ancient text into lyrical modern English and captures the vast scope and romance of the epic.

It is also deeply flawed.

Tolkien refers to Quendi people as “elves,” a common term in his time, but considered highly offensive today. And while Tolkien was a great scholar of the Quenya and Sindarin languages, his command of Late Vulgar Adûni was rudimentary at best, and his translation of the Red Book suffers for it.

In the most infamous instance, Tolkien botched The Hobbit’s “Riddles in the Dark” chapter in the first edition. He was so confused by the text’s use of pronomial prefixes in the subjunctive that he has Gollum leading Bilbo to safety in the goblin caves, rather than pursuing him with murderous malice. Tolkien corrected this blunder in later editions, but the damage was done. Similarly, he describes there being nine Nazgûl, when in fact there were only three.

New Tool for Children With Speech Errors

Tuesday, November 4th, 2014

The letter r can be hard to pronounce, and some children never quite learn how, but a new tool could help:

Conventional speech therapy is often effective at helping to resolve speech errors from sounds that are made with the lips, such as “p,” “b,” “m” and “v.” Children can look in a mirror and imitate a therapist’s lips. But more complex sounds like “s,” “l” and “ch” are harder to fix because they involve movements of the tongue hidden inside the mouth.

Experts say “r” has a particularly complex tongue shape. Using ultrasound biofeedback allows children to see and visualize the tongue as it moves, something not possible in traditional speech therapy. Also, unlike other speech sounds, “r” isn’t always produced the same way; there are many different tongue variations that produce the same sound.

For some children, part of the problem may be an auditory-perceptual problem that makes it difficult for them to hear the difference between correct and incorrect “r” sounds, Dr. Byun said. Ultrasound images “replace the auditory channel with the visual channel,” she said.

To use the technology, an ultrasound probe is dabbed with gel and placed under a child’s chin. Sound waves capture real-time images of the tongue, which help patients and therapists see the outline of the tongue’s shape and position.

[...]

Among the most common tongue shapes for producing the correct “r” sound is the bunched “r,” where the tip of the tongue is pointed down or forward and the bulk of the tongue is raised up near the hard palate. Another is the retroflex “r,” where the tongue tip is curled up and slightly back.

In both these cases, parts of the tongue are doing different things at the same time. Generally the tongues of people who don’t pronounce the “r” sound correctly are making simpler or undifferentiated shapes.

“It’s a complicated sound to make. It requires some difficult and coordinated movements with the tongue,” said Jonathan Preston, an assistant professor in the department of communication sciences and disorders at Syracuse University. “Ultrasound makes it more obvious since people can visually adjust and they can learn to adjust in real time,” he said.

Transom

Sunday, October 26th, 2014

A transom is a horizontal beam separating a door from a window above it.

The phrase “over the transom” refers to works submitted without being solicited. Imagine a writer tossing a manuscript through the open window over the door of the publisher’s office.

Is Learning a Foreign Language Really Worth It?

Monday, March 24th, 2014

Is learning a foreign language really worth it?

Dubner: Saiz is from Barcelona — Barthelona — and he’s an economist at MIT, where he teaches urban planning. On today’s show we’re asking about the return on investment of learning a foreign language and, wouldn’t you know it, Saiz has calculated exactly that. He tracked about 9,000 college graduates to see how a foreign language affected their wages.He was surprised by what he found.

Saiz: Yeah, unfortunately, and I have to say, of course, because I try to speak three, I was pretty disappointed, and actually we found a very, very small return. What we did find is that after controlling for a host of characteristics, and using, a lot of experimental research designs that are basically trying to compare people who are identical for everything except for the second language, we did tend to find a premium in the labor market of about 2 percent of wages. In other words, if you speak a second language, you can expect to earn, on average, and that’s across many, many different people, on average you can be expected to earn about 2 percent higher wages. To contextualize this, think about your income or your wage being about $30,000, then you would expect to earn about $600 more per year.

Dubner: Now that’s not nothing. There are a lot of things you can do that won’t increase your earnings by even 2 percent. But still, that’s not a huge premium. And, I hate to tell this to our young Spanish speakers back at the Little Red School House in New York, but there is a rank order in terms of how different foreign languages translate into higher earnings.

Saiz: We know that the lowest return is Spanish, where you get about 1.5 percent, and then French 2.7 percent, and then German 4 percent. So you know learning a second language is something that’s worth to do by itself, but as a financial decision, probably, if you’re focusing on financial returns, they’re relatively low, and you should focus on languages that are rarely spoken in the United States.

[...]

Dubner: So as Bryan Caplan sees it, learning a foreign language, especially in school, just may not be worth it. Unless — that foreign language is English. Remember what Albert Saiz told us? His study of college graduates found only a 2 percent wage premium for learning a foreign language. But those were American college graduates:

Saiz: I can tell you that there’s research in other countries. Actually the findings in the United States do contrast with what other people following the same methodology found in Turkey, in Russia and in Israel. In these three countries, actually speaking English, which would be the second language, was associated with a substantial return of around 10 to 20 percent. So it’s really I think English speaking countries where that effect is relatively low. And again I think the explanation is very clear. English is the lingua franca.

The Mammoth Cometh

Thursday, February 27th, 2014

The New York Times Magazine piece is titled The Mammoth Cometh, but it’s more about the potential de-extinction of the passenger pigeon.

One mistake caught my eye:

The biologists would next introduce these living cells into a band-tailed-pigeon embryo. No hocus-pocus is involved here: You chop off the top of a pigeon egg, inject the passenger-pigeon cells inside and cover the hole with a material that looks like Saran wrap. The genetically engineered germ cells integrate into the embryo; into its gonads, to be specific. When the chick hatches, it should look and act like a band-tailed pigeon. But it will have a secret. If it is a male, it carries passenger-pigeon sperm; if it is a female, its eggs are passenger-pigeon eggs. These creatures — band-tailed pigeons on the outside and passenger pigeons on the inside — are called “chimeras” (from the Middle English for “wild fantasy”). Chimeras would be bred with one another in an effort to produce passenger pigeons. Novak hopes to observe the birth of his first passenger-pigeon chick by 2020, though he suspects 2025 is more likely.

Chimera is the name of an ancient Greek mythological beast — part lion, part goat, part serpent. (And all fire-breather.)

The Best of All Translations

Monday, January 27th, 2014

The title of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World refers to Miranda’s speech in Shakespeare’s The Tempest:

O wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in’t.
— William Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act V, Scene I

It’s ironic:

Miranda was raised for most of her life on an isolated island, and the only people she ever knew were her father and his servants, an enslaved savage, and spirits, notably Ariel. When she sees other people for the first time, she is understandably overcome with excitement, and utters, among other praise, the famous line above.

However, what she is actually observing is not men acting in a refined or civilised manner, but rather drunken sailors staggering off the wreckage of their ship. Huxley employs the same irony when the “savage” John refers to what he sees as a “brave new world”.

So, how do you translate the title?

Translations of the title often allude to similar expressions used in domestic works of literature in an attempt to capture the same irony: the French edition of the work is entitled Le Meilleur des mondes (“The Best of All Worlds”), an allusion to an expression used by the philosopher Gottfried Leibniz[6] and satirised in Candide, Ou l’Optimisme by Voltaire (1759).

A Strange and Romantic Continent

Tuesday, December 31st, 2013

A cartographer with an interest in etymology “started to exchange real names for rue names and the world became a strange romantic continent“:

The New Navel of the Moon. It’s so poetic, isn’t it? (And sure, maybe a bit anatomically confusing.) That’s the real meaning behind the state name New Mexico, and it’s one of many etymological gems uncovered by cartographers Stephan Hormes and Silke Peust while they were creating this U.S. map depicting the original, literal meanings behind the states and cities we know today.

United States of the Home Ruler

Of course, most state names aren’t nearly as gorgeous as New Mexico’s moon navel. For every Idaho “Light on the Mountains,” there is a Missouri “Land of the People with Dugout Canoes.” Many states, of course, simply describe geography, which works out well for Mississippi “Land of the Great River” but a bit less elegantly for Washington “Marsh Farm Land.”

Can We Disrupt Poverty by Changing How Poor Parents Talk to Their Kids?

Friday, December 27th, 2013

Can we disrupt poverty by changing how poor parents talk to their kids?

By the time poor children are 3, researchers believe they have heard on average about 30 million fewer words than children the same age from better-off families, setting back their vocabulary, cognitive development, and future reading skills before the first day of school. This disadvantage is “already almost irreversible,” says Kenneth Wong, a professor of education policy at Brown University.

I love the way correlation is treated as causation. How many different English words do affluent children with a nanny hear, by the way?

The Providence Talks project is spending its $5 million grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies on a pedometer for words:

The device, a 2-ounce specialized recorder about the size of a deck of cards, maps the intensity of communication between parents and children. The infants and toddlers in Providence Talks will wear it twice a month, tucked into a custom-made vest, for 12 to 16 hours at a time. The recorder then plugs into a computer, where software automatically converts the audio files into charts that can be used by Meeting Street to coach the parents on how and when they might speak to their children more often.

As always, these things devolve into self-parody:

For years, we didn’t notice this inequality of vocabulary — or the extent of it — because it was a painstaking thing to measure before the advent of smarter recorders and software. A seminal study, published in 1995 by two child psychologists at the University of Kansas, Betty Hart and Todd Risley, manually identified the effect.

They spent two-and-a-half years studying 42 Kansas City families of varying incomes with children who were, at the start of the study, 7 to 9 months old. For an hour each month, Hart and Risley recorded and observed everything that took place in a home around a child. They ultimately spent four years transcribing and analyzing 1,300 hours of observation. Their results showed that children in families on welfare heard half as many words per hour as children of working-class parents, and a third as many as children of professional parents.

Over time, the children also came to mirror their parents in vocabulary and interactions. “When we listened to the children,” Hart and Risley wrote, “we seemed to hear their parents speaking.”

Really? No one noticed the difference in speech patterns between poor children and rich? And only now do we realize that children sound like their parents?

The goal is clear:

Suskind is eager to see this strategy, backed by more research, help more than a handful of families. Imagine, for example, if aggregated data from a project like this could help cities make the case for more library funding in neighborhoods where children do not hear as many words.

“We need this to succeed. We want this to succeed,” Suskind says of Providence Talks, whose advisory board she has joined. “If this can be shown to be effective on a larger scale, it would be a great thing.”

Clear Your Mind

Monday, October 21st, 2013

John Derbyshire shares one of his favorite quotes from Dr. Johnson, recorded by Boswell:

Says the sage: “My dear friend, clear your mind of cant. You may talk as other people do: you may say to a man, ‘Sir, I am your most humble servant.’ You are not his most humble servant….You tell a man, ‘I am sorry you had such bad weather the last day of your journey, and were so much wet.’ You don’t care six-pence whether he was wet or dry. You may talk in this manner; it is a mode of talking in society: but don’t think foolishly.”

The italics in that opening commandment are absolutely necessary, as the rest make clear. Johnson did not object to people speaking insincerely for the purpose of lubricating social exchanges. Most of us agree with him on this, and the few who don’t are annoying and unpersuasive.

Well, the other day I Googled “clear your mind of cant,” for some reason I’ve forgotten, and learned that it has been repurposed to a motivational motto. There are instances here, here, and here.

What’s happened there is that Johnson’s word “cant” has been mistakenly read as, or deliberately transformed into “can’t” with an apostrophe, making it motivational: “Clear your mind of CAN’T!”

How hard is English?

Saturday, September 7th, 2013

How hard is it to learn a language? It depends on how close it is to your native tongue. But is it possible to describe a language’s difficulty in the abstract?

English-speakers often point to a language like Latin or Ancient Greek. Next to them, in one important respect, English is easy. The distinction involves a language’s “inflectional morphology”, or the bits and pieces added to a noun or adjective or verb to make it match up with other pieces in a sentence. An English verb has a maximum of five forms (speak, speaks, speaking, spoke, spoken), whereas verbs in Spanish or Latin can take dozens of forms. An English noun usually has only two forms (singular and plural), whereas the Greek or Russian noun takes numerous forms showing grammatical gender, number and case.

This kind of inflection is not a terrible proxy for that slippery idea of “difficulty”. Where are the world’s hardest languages, then? Is English one of them? One study, by Gary Lupyan and Rick Dale in 2010, looked closely at inflection. It found that highly inflected languages tend to be spoken by a small number of speakers, and have few neighbours. But languages with big groups of speakers, or many neighbouring languages, systematically tend to have fewer inflections. Why is that? The hypothesis is that as a language spreads over centuries, it is learned by many non-natives (trading partners, conquered subjects and the like). Adults, learning a foreign language imperfectly, avoid using non-necessary endings. And many endings in any language are non-necessary, if other clues (like word order in a sentence) can be recruited to do the same things that word endings do — say, distinguishing the subject of a sentence from its direct object. As languages spread and grow, they are more likely to rely on clues like word order than on word-endings. So “big” languages are “simple”. Under this schema, English fits both criteria: relatively big and relatively simple.

Of course, what’s hard about English is its irregularity, especially when it comes to spelling and pronunciation.

Pangrams

Tuesday, August 13th, 2013

“The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog,” may be the most famous pangram in English, but there are others:

  • The five boxing wizards jump quickly. (31 letters)
  • Pack my box with five dozen liquor jugs. (32 letters)
  • A quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog. (33 letters)
  • The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog. (35 letters)
  • Pack my red box with five dozen quality jugs. (36 letters)
  • The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dogs. (37 letters)
  • Who packed five dozen old quart jars in my box? (37 letters)
  • My girl wove six dozen plaid jackets before she quit. (43 letters)
  • Few black taxis drive up major roads on quiet hazy nights. (47 letters)
  • A quick movement of the enemy will jeopardize six gunboats. (49 letters)