The Malay language transformed into Bahasa Indonesia

Wednesday, June 12th, 2019

Linguistically, Indonesia is one of the world’s most diverse countries, Jared Diamond explains (in Upheaval), with more than 700 different languages:

An important contribution to eventual Indonesian unity was the evolution and transformation of the Malay language, a trade language with a long history, into Bahasa Indonesia, the shared national language of all Indonesians today.

[...]

Even the largest of Indonesia’s hundreds of local languages, the Javanese language of Central Java, is the native language of less than one-third of Indonesia’s population.

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If that largest local language had become the national language, it would have symbolized Java’s domination of Indonesia and thereby exacerbated a problem that has persisted in modern Indonesia, namely, fear of Javanese domination on the part of Indonesians of other islands.

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The Javanese language has the additional disadvantage of being hierarchy-conscious, with different words used in speaking to people of higher or lower status.

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Today, I share with Indonesians their appreciation for the advantages of the wonderful Bahasa Indonesia as their national language. It’s easy to learn. Only 18 years after Indonesia took over Dutch New Guinea and introduced Bahasa there, I found it being spoken even by uneducated New Guineans in remote villages.

[...]

Bahasa’s grammar is simple but supple at adding prefixes and suffixes to many word roots, in order to create new words with immediately predictable meanings. For example, the adjective meaning “clean” is “bersih,” the verb “to clean” is “membersihkan,” the noun “cleanliness” is “kebersihan,” and the noun “cleaning up” is “pembersihan.”

The Finnish language is distinctive, beautiful, and spoken by no one other than Finns

Monday, June 3rd, 2019

One of Finland’s strengths, Jared Diamond notes in Upheaval, is that it has a strong sense of unity:

Finland identifies with Scandinavia and is considered part of Scandinavia. Many Finns are blue-eyed blonds, like Swedes and Norwegians. Genetically, Finns are in effect 75% Scandinavian like Swedes and Norwegians, and only 25% invaders from the east. But geography, language, and culture make Finns different from other Scandinavians, and they are proud of those differences.

[...]

Out of the nearly 100 native languages of Europe, all are related members of the Indo-European language family except for the isolated Basque language and four others. Those four are Finnish, the closely related Estonian language, and the distantly related Hungarian and Lapp (Saami) languages, all of which belong to the Finno-Ugric language family.

[...]

Finland’s national epic poem, the Kalevala, holds an even bigger place in Finland’s national consciousness than do the plays of Shakespeare for English-speakers.

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The letter k is very common in Finnish: of the 200 pages of my Finnish-to-English dictionary, 31 pages are for words beginning with k.

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I have nothing against k’s—but, alas, Finnish, unlike English, has double consonants (like kk) pronounced differently from single consonants (like k). That was the feature of Finnish pronunciation that made it hardest for my tolerant Finnish hosts to understand me on the few occasions when I gave short speeches in Finnish. The consequences of failing to pronounce single and double consonants distinctly can be serious. For instance, the Finnish verb meaning “to meet” is “tapaa” with a single p, while the verb “to kill” is “tappaa” with a double p. Hence if you ask a Finn to meet you but you mistakenly double the p, you may end up dead.

[...]

Finnish also has what are called short vowels and long vowels.

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If you find yourself confused by the four cases of the German language or the six cases of the Latin language, you’ll be horrified to know that the Finnish language has 15 cases, many of which replace prepositions in English.

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But in Finnish, whenever you use a direct object, you have to decide whether your verb is doing something to the whole object (requiring the accusative case) or to only a part of the object (requiring the partitive case).

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One of my Finnish hosts in 1959 was a Swedish Finn whose home language was Swedish but who was fluent in Finnish. Nevertheless, he couldn’t get a job from any government agency in Finland, because all Finnish government jobs require passing exams in both the Finnish and the Swedish languages. My friend told me that if, in the 1950’s, you made only a single mistake in choosing between the accusative case and the partitive case, you flunked the exam and couldn’t get a government job.

[...]

All of those features contribute to making the Finnish language distinctive, beautiful, a source of national pride, and spoken by almost no one other than Finns themselves.

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Other central pieces of Finland’s national identity are its music composers, its architects and designers, and its long-distance runners.

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The Finnish musician Jean Sibelius is considered one of the greatest composers of the 20th century.

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Finnish architects and interior designers are renowned worldwide. (American readers will think of the St. Louis Arch, Dulles Airport outside Washington, and the TWA terminal at New York’s Kennedy Airport, all of them designed by the Finnish-born architect Eero Saarinen.)

There is nothing very boyish about a war soldier

Tuesday, May 28th, 2019

Dunlap didn’t like most of the civilians’ names for soldiers:

I do not like the use of that word “boy” in all places, either, for there is nothing very boyish about a war soldier regardless of his age. It used to gripe us to read blurbs about “our boys.” A soldier can call other soldiers boys, the same way a man refers to his lodge poker gang that way, even though there is not a lad under 60 in the bunch, but it irritated us to be called that in print and by civilians, the way it irritated us to be called “Joe” or “Buddy” by outsiders. I always wanted to hit civilians who called me that. No real soldier ever called another “Buddy” anyway. Besides, in the Pacific, only the Filipinos used “Joe” as a name. Privates were sometimes referred to objectively and collectively as “joes” but only replacements thought it a name. Soldiers called other strange ones “Mac” (or in our outfit, “Mate” was popular — the guys had been on ships so often they used sailor lingo). “Doughfoot” and “Doughboy” are more civilian terms. In the army if a soldier belonged to the cavalry he was a trooper, and if to the infantry, an infantryman. He was called foot soldier, or line man, if belonging to a combat unit.

Everything which is incomprehensible to the Indians, they call big medicine

Monday, May 27th, 2019

According to Lewis and Clark: Linguistic Pioneers, a 1940 study by Elijah Criswell, more than one thousand words appeared in print for the first time in Lewis and Clark’s journals:

Alan H. Hartley, author of the 2004 book Lewis and Clark Lexicon of Discovery, notes that without word creation skills, “it would have been difficult for them to discuss their discoveries amongst themselves, and even more difficult to convey and explain the discoveries to their sponsors — who had, in many cases, not been far inland from the eastern seaboard.” Carefully worded descriptions were essential.

One of Lewis and Clark’s primary methods for creating new terms was naming animals or plants according to some salient feature, whether physical, behavioral, or otherwise. The explorers noticed “a curious kind of deer,” in Clark’s words, “its ears large and long,” that was obviously different from eastern deer. Lewis explains in his journal how they chose a name for it: “The ear and tail of this animal … so well comported with those of the mule … that we have … adapted the appellation of the mule deer.” Lewis called a small swan that he spotted along the Pacific coast the whistling swan because it made “a kind of whistling sound.” A mountain ram with unusually large, twisted horns was named bighorn. Other animals they noticed include tumble-bug (dung beetle), tiger cat (lynx), and leather-wing bat. Plants that received similar treatment include the red elm and the snowberry (“a globular berry … as white as wax”).

Occasionally, Lewis and Clark picked up a name from the French trappers who crisscrossed the region. Few of the terms stuck, but one that did is Yellowstone. Although they started by using the French, they eventually switched to an English translation. Clark uses both the French and the English versions in this line from his journal: “Capt. Lewis concluded to go by land as far as the Rochejhone [roche jaune, ‘yellow rock’] or yellow stone river.”

Lewis and Clark based some terms on where they found a plant or an animal—sand-hill crane, Osage apple, and various denizens of the prairie, such as prairie lark, prairie hen, prairie wolf (coyote), and prairie dog. They also noted when items were found in buffalo territory. Since the 18th century, Americans had been calling bison buffalo (a word that originally referred to oxen), and Lewis and Clark used that term for the bison they saw on the plains. They created or recorded several words connected with that animal—for example, buffalo grass (where buffalo graze), buffalo berry (found on the upper Missouri in buffalo territory), and buffalo robe (made from buffalo skins).

The explorers often went to great lengths to study a creature closely before deciding what to name it. “Though not self-proclaimed naturalists,” says Hartley, “they were keen observers and de facto naturalists.” They also knew that Jefferson wanted meticulous details. For instance, while the Corps overwintered in Oregon from 1805 to 1806, Lewis spotted what he suspected was a different kind of deer from the mule deer found on the plains, although it looked similar. He writes, “The Black-tailed fallow deer are peculiar to this coast.” The ears, he notes, are “rather larger… than the common deer,” and the horns resemble those of the mule deer. The tail is white, but the hair of the sides and top is “quite black.” Concluding that these deer were a distinct type, he labeled them black-tailed deer. Lewis’s instincts were right. Zoologists later classified the Columbian black-tailed deer (Odocoileus hemionus columbianus) as a subspecies of the mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus).

Before deciding what to call the grizzly bear, Lewis and Clark studied several pelts and consulted with indigenous people. The men first mention grizzlies in their journals while in present-day Montana. Lewis initially calls them brown or yellow bears, saying their color is “yellowish brown.” Others in the party describe the bear as “whiteish,” and Clark sometimes refers to the creatures as “white bears.” After the men had shot several and taken a close-up look, they realized that the fur was variegated, often featuring silvery tips. Clark started calling the bear grizzly, a word for gray, and Lewis eventually followed suit. Lewis recounts a discussion with a band of Nez Perce in Idaho, who studied “several skins of the bear which we had killed” and concurred that they were members of the species the explorers named grizzly. Lewis concludes in his notes that the bears they had been calling brown or yellow, whiteish, and grizzly are all “the same species or family of bears, which assumes all those colors at different ages and seasons of the year.”

[...]

Lewis and Clark also gave English names to several Native American cultural items. They called a tribe’s meeting house a council house, and the place for taking steam baths a sweat lodge or sweat house. “I saw near an old Indian encampment a sweat house covered with earth,” writes Clark in his journal. They also adopted a specific meaning for medicine—something with magical powers—which was probably a translation of the Ojibwe word mashkiki. Lewis writes, “Everything which is incomprehensible to the Indians, they call big medicine.” The word appears in the journals in several combinations, including medicine man, medicine bag, medicine dance, and war medicine. Clark records that some of the party went to see a ceremonial “war medicine” dance while the Corps was camped among the Mandan tribe.

My favorite bit of “big medicine” is Lewis and Clark’s air rifle.

How English beat German as the language of science

Friday, May 24th, 2019

Reading Blitzed reminded me of a throwaway comment that my high school chemistry teacher made, about how a chemistry degree used to require German-language proficiency. So, how did English beat German as the language of science?

“If you look around the world in 1900, and someone told you, ‘Guess what the universal language of science will be in the year 2000′, you would first of all laugh at them. It was obvious that no one language would be the language of science, but a mixture of French, German and English would be the right answer,” says Princeton University’s Rosengarten professor of modern and contemporary history Michael Gordin.

Gordin’s upcoming book, Scientific Babel, explores the history of language and science. He says that English was far from the dominant scientific language in 1900. The dominant language was German.

“So the story of the 20th Century is not so much the rise of English as the serial collapse of German as the up-and-coming language of scientific communication,” Gordin says.

You may think of Latin as the dominant language of science. And for many, many years it was the universal means of communication in Western Europe — from the late medieval period to the mid-17th Century. Then it began to fracture. Latin became one of many languages in which science was done.

The first person to publish extensively in his native language, according to Gordin, was Galileo. Galileo wrote in Italian and was then translated to Latin so that more scientists might read his work.

Fast forward to the 20th Century. How did English come to dominate German in the realm of science?

“The first major shock to the system of basically having a third of science published in English, a third in French and a third in German – although it fluctuated based on field, and Latin still held out in some places – was World War One, which had two major impacts,” Gordin says.

After World War One, Belgian, French and British scientists organised a boycott of scientists from Germany and Austria. They were blocked from conferences and weren’t able to publish in Western European journals.

“Increasingly, you have two scientific communities, one German, which functions in the defeated [Central Powers] of Germany and Austria, and another that functions in Western Europe, which is mostly English and French,” Gordin explains.

It’s that moment in history, he adds, when international organisations to govern science, such as the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, were established. And those newly established organisations begin to function in English and French. German, which was the dominant language of chemistry, was written out.

The second effect of World War One took place in the US. Starting in 1917 when the US entered the war, there was a wave of anti-German hysteria that swept the country.

“At this moment something that’s often hard to keep in mind is that large portions of the US still speak German,” Gordin says.

In Ohio, Wisconsin and Minnesota there were many, many German speakers. World War One changed all that.

“German is criminalised in 23 states. You’re not allowed to speak it in public, you’re not allowed to use it in the radio, you’re not allowed to teach it to a child under the age of 10,” Gordin explains.

The Supreme Court overturned those anti-German laws in 1923, but for years they were the law of the land. What that effectively did, according to Gordin, was decimate foreign language learning in the US.

“In 1915 Americans were teaching foreign languages and learning foreign languages about the same level as Europeans were,” Gordin says. “After these laws go into effect, foreign language education drops massively. Isolationism kicks in in the 1920s, even after the laws are overturned, and that means people don’t think they need to pay attention to what happens in French or in German.”

[...]

“And you have a set of people who don’t speak foreign languages,” said Gordin, “They’re comfortable in English, they read English, they can get by in English because the most exciting stuff in their mind is happening in English. So you end up with a very American-centric, and therefore very English-centric, community of science after World War Two.”

I’m reminded of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s point that the most intolerant wins.

Oxygen has an interesting history:

The term was born in the 1770s, as French chemists are developing a new theory of burning. In their scientific experiments, they needed a new term for a new notion of an element they were constructing.

“They pick the term ‘oxygen’ from Greek for ‘acid’ and ‘maker’ because they have a theory that oxygen is the substance that makes up acids. They’re wrong about that, but the word acid-maker is what they create, and they create it from Greek. That tells you that French scientists and European scientists of that period would have a good classical education,” Gordin says.

The English adopted the word “oxygen” wholesale from the French. But the Germans didn’t. Instead they made up their own version of the word by translating each part of the word into “Sauerstoff”, or acid substance.

“So you can see how at a certain moments, certain words get formed, and the tendency was for Germans, in particular, to take French and English terms and translate them. Now that’s not true. Now terms like online, transistor, microchip, that stuff is just brought over in English as a whole. So you see different fashions about how people feel about the productive capacity of their own language versus borrowing a term wholesale from another,” Gordin says.

And that reminds me of uncleftish beholding.

Mysterious Proto-Romance

Wednesday, May 15th, 2019

The mysterious Voynich manuscript, named after the Polish book dealer who bought it in 1912, has gone uncracked despite the best efforts of experts like Alan Turing and his colleagues at Bletchley Park and the FBI during the Cold War, but now a linguist from Bristol University has decoded the document, which was written in a language we now call Proto-Romance:

It was written in accordance with the Catholic and Roman pagan religious beliefs of the time and has been carbon-dated to around the mid-15th century.

Dr Cheshire discovered that it was compiled by Dominican nuns as a source of reference for Maria of Castile, Queen of Aragon, who is the great aunt to Catherine of Aragon.

There are also images of Queen Maria (1401–58) and her court conducting trade negotiations whilst bathing as well as many other images of naked women bathing.

It demonstrates that the spa lifestyle was highly regarded as a form of physical cleansing and spiritual communion, as well as a general means of relaxation and leisure.

Also within the manuscript is a foldout illustrative map that helped Dr Cheshire to date and locate the origin of the manuscript.

The map tells the story of a rescue mission, led by the Queen of Aragon, to save the victims of a volcanic eruption in the Tyrrhenian Sea in 1444 off the western coast of Italy.

Voynich Folio 19 Borago officinalis

Proto-Romance is ancestral to today’s ‘Romance’ languages including Portuguese, Spanish, French, Italian, Romanian, Catalan and Galician.

Some of the symbols were unfamiliar to scholars studying the text because they have different geographical origins or because they have different variants which indicate particular phonetic accents.

The language was ubiquitous in the Mediterranean during the Medieval period, but it was seldom written in official or important documents because Latin was the language of royalty, church and government.

Simply encourage stupidity in the name of moral superiority and let basic human laziness do the rest

Thursday, February 21st, 2019

The most important aspect of the Grievance Studies hoax, Steve Sailer suggests, is the triumph of the very term “Grievance Studies”:

Google searches show that the term “grievance studies” appeared only 85 times in the history of the internet before they announced their hoax last October, but 89,700 times since then.

Ironically, the various institutions out to punish the trio of hoaxers for their impudence are just making the term Grievance Studies even more memorable in the highbrow public’s mind.

The importance of names is underrated. When something doesn’t have a name, humans have a hard time noticing a pattern. It’s hardly impossible — otherwise we’d never develop names in the first place — but names exist to make thinking easier.

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The usefulness of having a term for a thing is usually subsumed into the never-ending debate over “linguistic relativity” that has enveloped such famous thinkers as Franz Boas, Edward Sapir, Benjamin Whorf, Alfred Korzybski, Noam Chomsky, and Steven Pinker.

Indeed, we could probably use a separate word for the modest assertion that having a name for something makes it easier to notice that would distinguish it from the more ambitious theories about how the structure of different languages supposedly influences or even determines how their speakers experience reality.

In 1911, Boas, the great cultural anthropologist, reported that on Baffin Island the Eskimos have more words for “snow” than do English-speakers. Whether or not that is true has been debated ever since: In reality, English, a world language with a vast vocabulary, includes a huge number of technical terms, many devised by skiers or alpinists, for talking more productively about different types of snow. Ski resorts, for example, use terms such as “base snow,” “frozen granular,” and “packed powder” to communicate conditions to customers.

But comparing a small Eskimo language to mighty English could be misleading. In contrast, it seems highly plausible that Eskimo dogsledders could well use more terms that distinguish between different kinds of snow than, say, the Maasai of Kenya, who could likely get by with just one word for that white stuff visible on top of Mount Kilimanjaro.

Boas’ anecdote about words for snow was seized upon by Benjamin Whorf, a fire safety inspector and amateur linguist.

During Whorf’s career in the fire insurance business, his industry had helped promote a wise safety reform: The English word “inflammable” for “easily set on fire” was notorious for confusing people because the “in” prefix can also mean “not.” So “inflammable” began to be replaced on warning labels by “flammable.”

Whorf was not content with such simple applications of the obvious notion that having the right words can be helpful, but pressed on into extraordinarily abstruse questions such as whether the structure of the Hopi Indian language affects the Hopi’s concept of time (or vice versa). These higher-end issues have tended to monopolize academic debate ever since, obscuring the simpler applications of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

At the same time, the Polish polymath Count Alfred Korzybski was putting forward a roughly comparable analysis, such as his dictum “The map is not the territory.” Korzybski’s ideas, often conveyed by popularizers such as future GOP U.S. Senator S.I. Hayakawa and Stuart Chase, about how language reform would allow us to get in better touch with reality tended to appeal less to academics than Whorf’s theory but more to science-fiction authors, such as Robert Heinlein, George Orwell, and L. Ron Hubbard.

Orwell’s famous 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language” offered the most commonsensical advice ever derived from these two parallel intellectual traditions:

If you simplify your English…when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself.

Orwell then appended to his 1984 a dystopian rendering of his advice on the virtues of simplification, “The Principles of Newspeak,” which explains how the Party has perversely simplified English so brutally that Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence can only be expressed in a single word: “crimethink.”

It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought — that is, a thought diverging from the principles of Ingsoc — should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words…. This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words…. Newspeak was designed not to extend but to diminish the range of thought, and this purpose was indirectly assisted by cutting the choice of words down to a minimum.

But the Stalinism that provided the model for 1984 was largely an effort by intellectuals LARPing as proletarians, while contemporary Intersectionality is concocted by not particularly bright people LARPing as intellectuals.

Hence, the equivalents of the Inner Party of 1984 in Grievance Studies departments prefer, rather than the radical simplification of Newspeak, to encourage needlessly multisyllabic jargon such as “problematic” and “microaggression.” Rather than make it impossible to think dissident thoughts by eliminating words, it has proved more effective simply to make clear thinking more inefficient and thus less appealing.

In 1984, radical language reform will bring about a situation in which:

In practice this meant that no book written before approximately 1960 could be translated as a whole.

But it’s been simpler in the real world merely to render the white male authors of pre-1960s texts, such as Jefferson, increasingly hateful. Simply encourage stupidity in the name of moral superiority and let basic human laziness do the rest. This was also anticipated by Orwell:

Crimestop means the faculty of stopping short, as though by instinct, at the threshold of any dangerous thought. It includes the power of not grasping analogies, of failing to perceive logical errors, of misunderstanding the simplest arguments if they are inimical to Ingsoc, and of being bored or repelled by any train of thought which is capable of leading in a heretical direction. Crimestop, in short, means protective stupidity.

How long is a moment?

Saturday, December 22nd, 2018

How long is a moment? This rather philosophical question used to have a literal answer:

For centuries, and as late as the early 19th century, a “moment” was something quite specific — a 40th of an hour, or around 90 seconds. But modern English doesn’t treat the word this way. It can mean the barest speck of time or it can stretch over hours, days, weeks — with so many different meanings that trying to pin it down might seem a fool’s errand. Sometimes, simply changing “a” to “the” truncates moments to instantaneity: “I seized the moment,” “The moment had come,” “That was the moment I knew.”

None of the online dictionaries I checked had that quantitative definition, but Wikipedia came to the rescue:

A moment (momentum) was a medieval unit of time. The movement of a shadow on a sundial covered 40 moments in a solar hour. An hour in this case means one twelfth of the period between sunrise and sunset. The length of a solar hour depended on the length of the day, which in turn varied with the season, so the length of a moment in modern seconds was not fixed, but on average, a moment corresponds to 90 seconds. A day was divided into 24 hours of both equal and unequal lengths, the former being called natural or equinoctial, and the latter artificial. The hour was divided into four puncta (quarter-hours), ten minuta, or 40 momenta.

The unit was used by medieval computists before the introduction of the mechanical clock and the base 60 system in the late 13th century. The unit would not have been used in everyday life. For medieval commoners the main marker of the passage of time was the call to prayer at intervals throughout the day.

The earliest reference we have to the moment is from the 8th century writings of the Venerable Bede, who describes the system as 1 hour = 4 points = 5 lunar points = 10 minutes = 15 parts = 40 moments. Bede was referenced five centuries later by both Bartholomeus Anglicus in his early encyclopedia De Propreitatibus Rerum (On the Properties of Things), as well as Roger Bacon, by which time the moment was further subdivided into 12 ounces of 47 atoms each, although no such divisions could ever have been used in observation with equipment in use at the time.

The origin and meaning of sex

Tuesday, April 3rd, 2018

You might be surprised by the origin and meaning of sex — the etymology of the word, I mean:

sex (n.)

late 14c., “males or females collectively,” from Latin sexus “a sex, state of being either male or female, gender,” of uncertain origin. “Commonly taken with seco as division or ‘half’ of the race” [Tucker], which would connect it to secare “to divide or cut” (see section (n.)). Meaning “quality of being male or female” first recorded 1520s. Meaning “sexual intercourse” first attested 1929 (in writings of D.H. Lawrence).

Hat tip to Nick B. Steves. Incidentally, D.H. Lawrence was apparently on the radical right wing of politics.

A dish of marsh mallow was one of their delicacies

Sunday, April 1st, 2018

The mallow plant, or Althaea officinalis, grows in marshes:

Most of the mallows have been used as food, and are mentioned by early classic writers with this connection. Mallow was an edible vegetable among the Romans; a dish of marsh mallow was one of their delicacies. Prospero Alpini stated in 1592 that a plant of the mallow kind was eaten by the Egyptians. Many of the poorer inhabitants of Syria subsisted for weeks on herbs, of which marsh mallow is one of the most common. When boiled first and fried with onions and butter, the roots are said to form a palatable dish, and in times of scarcity consequent upon the failure of the crops, this plant, which grows there in great abundance, is collected heavily as a foodstuff.

[...]

The root extract (halawa extract) is sometimes used as flavoring in the making of a Middle Eastern snack called halva. The flowers and young leaves can be eaten, and are often added to salads or are boiled and fried. The later French version of the recipe, called pâte de guimauve (or guimauve for short), included an egg white meringue and was often flavored with rose water. Pâte de guimauve more closely resembles contemporary commercially available marshmallows, which no longer contain Althaea officinalis. Horace mentions it in reference to his own diet, which he describes as very simple: Me pascunt olivae, me cichorea levesque malvae (“As for me, olives, endives, and mallows provide sustenance”).

Addressing the assembly

Sunday, January 21st, 2018

The Left and the Right have two, very different concepts of free speech, which, Teresa M. Bejan argues, hark back to the ancient Greeks’ two, very different terms for what we now call “free speech”:

The conflict between what the ancient Greeks called isegoria, on the one hand, and parrhesia, on the other, is as old as democracy itself. Today, both terms are often translated as “freedom of speech,” but their meanings were and are importantly distinct. In ancient Athens, isegoria described the equal right of citizens to participate in public debate in the democratic assembly; parrhesia, the license to say what one pleased, how and when one pleased, and to whom.

[...]

Of the two ancient concepts of free speech, isegoria is the older. The term dates back to the fifth century BCE, although historians disagree as to when the democratic practice of permitting any citizen who wanted to address the assembly actually began. Despite the common translation “freedom of speech,” the Greek literally means something more like “equal speech in public.” The verb agoreuein, from which it derives, shares a root with the word agora or marketplace—that is, a public place where people, including philosophers like Socrates, would gather together and talk.

In the democracy of Athens, this idea of addressing an informal gathering in the agora carried over into the more formal setting of the ekklesia or political assembly. The herald would ask, “Who will address the assemblymen?” and then the volunteer would ascend the bema, or speaker’s platform. In theory, isegoria meant that any Athenian citizen in good standing had the right to participate in debate and try to persuade his fellow citizens. In practice, the number of participants was fairly small, limited to the practiced rhetoricians and elder statesmen seated near the front. (Disqualifying offenses included prostitution and taking bribes.)

Although Athens was not the only democracy in the ancient world, from the beginning the Athenian principle of isegoria was seen as something special. The historian Herodotus even described the form of government at Athens not as demokratia, but as isegoria itself. According to the fourth-century orator and patriot Demosthenes, the Athenian constitution was based on speeches (politeia en logois) and its citizens had chosen isegoria as a way of life. But for its critics, this was a bug, as well as a feature. One critic, the so-called ‘Old Oligarch,’ complained that even slaves and foreigners enjoyed isegoria at Athens, hence one could not beat them as one might elsewhere.

Critics like the Old Oligarch may have been exaggerating for comic effect, but they also had a point: as its etymology suggests, isegoria was fundamentally about equality, not freedom. As such, it would become the hallmark of Athenian democracy, which distinguished itself from the other Greek city-states not because it excluded slaves and women from citizenship (as did every society in the history of humankind until quite recently), but rather because it included the poor. Athens even took positive steps to render this equality of public speech effective by introducing pay for the poorest citizens to attend the assembly and to serve as jurors in the courts.

As a form of free speech then, isegoria was essentially political. Its competitor, parrhesia, was more expansive. Here again, the common English translation “freedom of speech” can be deceptive. The Greek means something like “all saying” and comes closer to the idea of speaking freely or “frankly.” Parrhesia thus implied openness, honesty, and the courage to tell the truth, even when it meant causing offense. The practitioner of parrhesia (or parrhesiastes) was, quite literally, a “say-it-all.”

Parrhesia could have a political aspect. Demosthenes and other orators stressed the duty of those exercising isegoria in the assembly to speak their minds. But the concept applied more often outside of the ekklesia in more and less informal settings. In the theater, parrhesiastic playwrights like Aristophanes offended all and sundry by skewering their fellow citizens, including Socrates, by name. But the paradigmatic parrhesiastes in the ancient world were the Philosophers, self-styled “lovers of wisdom” like Socrates himself who would confront their fellow citizens in the agora and tell them whatever hard truths they least liked to hear. Among these was Diogenes the Cynic, who famously lived in a barrel, masturbated in public, and told Alexander the Great to get out of his light—all, so he said, to reveal the truth to his fellow Greeks about the arbitrariness of their customs.

Bejan goes on to make a tortured argument for Leftist suppression of free speech as really a form of isegoria, because it’s an attempt to achieve equality of speech, while the Right and the old-fashioned Liberal Left can only see free speech as parrhesia.

Obviously I thought isegoria made a perfect name for a semi-political blog at the dawn of blogging, 15 years ago.

He who does not know foreign languages does not know anything about his own

Sunday, December 31st, 2017

Machines have developed the ability to understand, process, and even translate languages:

In recent years, much of the research in machine learning has focused on the algorithmic concept of deep neural networks, or DNNs, which learn essentially by inferring patterns — often patterns of remarkable complexity — from large amounts of data. For example, a DNN-based machine can be fed many thousands of snippets of recorded English utterances, each one paired with its text transcription, and from this discern the patterns of correlation between the speech recordings and the paired transcriptions. These inferred correlation patterns get precise enough that, eventually, the system can “understand” English speech. In fact, today’s DNNs are so good that, when given enough training examples and a powerful enough computer, they can listen to a person speaking and make fewer transcription errors than would any human.

What may be surprising to some is that computerized learning machines exhibit transfer learning. For example, let’s consider an experiment involving two machine-learning systems, which for the sake of simplicity we’ll refer to as machines A and B. Machine A uses a brand-new DNN, whereas machine B uses a DNN that has been trained previously to understand English. Now, suppose we train both A and B on identical sets of recorded Mandarin utterances, along with their transcriptions. What happens? Remarkably, machine B (the previously English-trained one) ends up with better Mandarin capabilities than machine A. In effect, the system’s prior training on English ends up transferring capabilities to the related task of understanding Mandarin.

But there is an even more astonishing outcome of this experiment. Machine B not only ends up better on Mandarin, but B’s ability to understand English is also improved! It seems that Willans and Goethe were onto something — learning a second language enables deeper learning about both languages, even for a machine.

Coined in 1889 by US newspapers

Sunday, December 24th, 2017

Discussing how a Taser works reminded me of the word electrocution, which was already an old, established term by the time my parents were warning me not to stick things in the electrical socket, but which was a darkly cute portmanteau when it was coined:

Electrocution is death caused by electric shock, electric current passing through the body. The word is derived from “electro” and “execution”, but it is also used for accidental death. The word is also used to describe non-fatal injuries due to electricity. The term “electrocution,” was coined in 1889 by US newspapers just before the first use of the electric chair in 1890, originally referred only to electrical execution (from which it is a portmanteau word), and not to accidental or suicidal electrical deaths. However, since no English word was available for non-judicial deaths due to electric shock, the word “electrocution” eventually took over as a description of all circumstances of electrical death from the new commercial electricity.

A picket is just a metaphorical fence

Sunday, October 29th, 2017

I just got the first volume of Shelby Foote’s Civil War, at Audible’s latest 2-for-1 sale, and it reminded me of a word that comes up all the time in Civil War writings — picket. When I first came across the Civil-War use of picket years ago, I was confused. They obviously didn’t mean a white picket fence. Did they mean a metaphorical fence? Or did the men carry stakes, like medieval archers, to build up anti-cavalry defenses?

Reading military history can be frustrating this way, because it’s almost always written for an audience that already knows quite a bit about the subject, rather than for curious boys. Anyway, it turns out a picket is just a metaphorical fence, with no stakes involved. It also turns out that the word was really, really popular during the Civil War, and not before:

Picket Use Over Time

No Caucasian man was properly dressed without his kindjal

Friday, September 22nd, 2017

In writing Dune, Frank Herbert drew inspiration from the nascent environmental movement, European feudalism, Middle Eastern oil politics, Zen Buddhism, and, perhaps less obviously, the mid-19th century Islamic holy war against Russian imperialism in the Caucasus, described in Lesley Blanch’s 1960 novel, The Sabres of Paradise:

Anyone who has obsessed over the mythology of Dune will immediately recognize the language Herbert borrowed from Blanch’s work. Chakobsa, a Caucasian hunting language, becomes the language of a galactic diaspora in Herbert’s universe. Kanly, from a word for blood feud among the Islamic tribes of the Caucasus, signifies a vendetta between Dune’s great spacefaring dynasties. Kindjal, the personal weapon of the region’s Islamic warriors, becomes a knife favored by Herbert’s techno-aristocrats. As Blanch writes, “No Caucasian man was properly dressed without his kindjal.”

Herbert is ecumenical with his borrowing, lifting terminology and rituals from both sides of this obscure Central Asian conflict. When Paul Atreides, Dune’s youthful protagonist, is adopted by a desert tribe whose rituals and feuds bear a marked resemblance to the warrior culture of the Islamic Caucasus, he lives at the exotically named Sietch Tabr. Sietch and tabr are both words for camp borrowed from the Cossacks, the Czarist warrior caste who would become the great Christian antagonists of Shamyl’s Islamic holy warriors.

Herbert also lifted two of Dune’s most memorable lines directly from Blanch. While describing the Caucasians’ fondness for swordplay, Blanch writes, “To kill with the point lacked artistry.” In Dune, this becomes “[k]illing with the tip lacks artistry,” advice given to a young Paul Atreides by a loquacious weapons instructor. A Caucasian proverb recorded by Blanch transforms into a common desert aphorism. “Polish comes from the city, wisdom from the hills,” an apt saying for a mountain people, becomes “Polish comes from the cities, wisdom from the desert” in Dune.

Dune’s narrative, however, owes more to The Sabres of Paradise than just terminology and customs. The story of a fiercely independent, religiously inspired people resisting an outside power is certainly not unique to the Caucasus, but Blanch’s influence can be found here, too. The name of Herbert’s major villain, Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, is redolent of Russian imperialism. Meanwhile, Imam Shamyl, the charismatic leader of Islamic resistance in the Caucasus, describes the Russian Czar as “Padishah” and his provincial governor as “Siridar,” titles that Herbert would later borrow for Dune’s galactic emperor and his military underlings.

There are even some interesting echoes of Blanch’s writing style and tendencies in Herbert’s book. Both authors traffic in evocative descriptions of stark, unforgiving landscapes and equally unforgiving peoples. And their shared tendency to describe their protagonists in raptor-like terms may not be a coincidence. (For Blanch, the Caucasus was a land of “eagle-faced warriors” and Imam Shamyl was possessed of “handsome eagle features.” Naturally, the Atreides are also notable for their “hawk features.”) Even Dune’s colors owe something to Blanch’s history. The banners of House Atreides are green and black. The first is, of course, the color of Islam and the second was adopted by Imam Shamyl’s Murids, holy Islamic warriors pledged to fight Russian imperialism to the death.

One of the biggest differences between the classics of SF&F and modern derivative works is that their authors borrowed from outside the genre:

Science fiction and fantasy have always been syncretic genres. The extravagant world-building that fires the imagination of so many readers would be nearly impossible if authors refused to seek inspiration in our own histories, religious traditions, and myths. Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy was famously inspired by Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. J. R. R. Tolkien’s background in medieval languages helped shape the mythology of Middle Earth. Frank Herbert’s Dune is no different, and rediscovering one of the book’s most significant influences is a rewarding experience. At a time when our most popular science fiction sagas have been reduced to cannibalizing themselves, we would do well to celebrate genre pioneers who were more ambitious in their borrowing.