Saturday, January 28, 2017

DC to Host Language Museum

It's been simply ages since I've posted and I generally consider this page defunct since I rarely have time to think about it, but this seemed the best place to post one of my favorite pieces of news of 2017: Washington, D.C. will soon (but not soon enough: 2019) host the nation's only museum dedicated to words and language.

From the founder:
“At Planet Word, come waltz with a verb, sip a bowl of alphabet soup, stroll with Question Mark, hold hands with that inseparable pair Q and U, and pay a visit to Spelling Bea. Identify accents, tell us how you say soda and hoagie, learn tips from professional dialect coaches, and climb a Tower of Babel or tunnel through a prepositional playground. From speaking to listening to reading to writing, fun language experiences will await you around every corner at Planet Word.”

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Today's Cool Etymology

First of all, we've gotten several interesting comments and questions over the past few months, and I wanted to say that I look forward to responding to all of them soon. Thanks to everyone who expressed support of The Bitter Scroll. :-)

Anyway, on to my cool discovery of the day. I was already aware of the collection of words related to measuring, stemming from the Indo-European root *med-. We get words like measure, meter, and metric. The first thing I noticed on wikipedia's list of PIE roots is that this root also yields the Latin meditari and English meditate. But perhaps even cooler is the list of English descendants: there's metan/mete, which makes sense since meting things out implies measuring how much everyone gets; and then there's this item: ǣmtig/empty in Old/Modern English. Seeing the mt root surrounded by the adjective ending -ig and the privative æ- meaning "not," led me to realize that "empty" simply means "unmeasurable, unmeasured."

Incidentally, does anyone know what happened to the online Index of Indo-European Roots on

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

An Unexpected Revival of Elizabethan English

This is a great little story I picked up from Per Omnia Saecula:

This shows in one fell swoop the ingenuity of the human when pressed (even in bad things), and the perpetual adaptability of the tool that is human language.

A Note on Spelling: The word "ye" is not actually the form of "you" seen in phrases like "She canna dew it, Capt'n; she's givin' ye all she's got!" In this usage, it is simply the word "the", pronounced quite normally as "the". The "th" used to have one letter to represent it, which my middle English times looked enough like the letter y that people started just using the letter y to represent the "th" sound in such cases. This usage continued after the original "th" letter ceased being used altogether.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Ends of Man, Society, and Reason: A Beginning

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the purpose of society and government, and therefore of life (yes, I know, it’s 42). So in the context of my current studies in American founding principles and the whole concept of a “western” moral tradition however distinct this tradition may be from overtly religious moral teaching, I want to outline some of where my thoughts have been going.

First, I think that people’s answers to the “big questions” like Why are we here? and What is the meaning of life? and Is there a God or an afterlife? -- well, I think they can’t not be answered in each heart, and that different answers lead to very different value systems (whether acknowledged or not) and therefore, very different choices and lives. I think that they are difficult questions, and that some of the best lives in history have been dedicated answering one or more or even a portion of these questions. Moreover, I think everyone has some form of an answer for them: whether we experience certainty or overwhelming uncertainty, whether we believe they can or even should be asked, whether our answers feel final or are only “working solutions,” even whether we feel satisfaction or resentment toward what we think the answers are – each of these has implications for our worldview and how we choose to act in it.

OK, with that preface, here’s a tentative outline of my thoughts currently. As humans, we seem to be most fulfilled when we are able to live lives that develop our “higher” powers, i.e., our intellect and will, as opposed to habituating our lives to act by greed or passion. Taking cues mostly from Aristotle here, I’ll say that a certain amount of empirical data, teased out with some inductive reasoning (reasoning from specifics to generalities), suggests that our “purpose” in the universe is most likely related to what we are best at and what will bring us the fullest level of happiness.

We use this logic very naturally with manmade objects. An object with no flat surfaces, pieces falling off, maybe spikes protruding randomly, and which doesn’t stay in one place easily, wouldn’t make a good chair, for example, and couldn’t possible have been meant to be one. (Except maybe as a prank, but only because humor derives from the juxtaposition of things that don’t go together.)  So a life that makes us miserable, causes damage to ourselves and others, wastes the abilities that are best in us, is an equally unlikely purpose for being (humans) with such highly developed rational abilities and sensitivity to good and bad, happiness and sorrow, etc.

Now another thing we (that is, Aristotle and I, for a start) can’t help noticing is that there is a set of complementary (opposite?) ideas that live in tension together as one fact about humanity: that is, that we are both individual and social. Aristotle says we are social beings (“political” actually, but I don’t think he intended the distinction between society and politics that our vocabulary helps us to assume). Yet we are social beings with individual powers to deliberate and choose. So is the meaning of life to be attained together? Sure, to a large extent. Yet a key issue for me is the relationship between geographic and ideological proximity. There are cognitive and precognitive predilections in human nature that tend to make members of any kind of group think or feel somewhat similarly. Yet this fact is countered by things like pluralism in society, intercultural and interreligious contacts, and the modern world’s massive capacity for the communication of facts.

Insert here thoughts on the nature and purpose of government. For since we are social by nature, there must be some method for administering society. Abstracting from either the form or the method of establishing this governing function of society, it seems to me the most basic fact of this function is that it serves only half of the individual-social spectrum of human nature. But if man’s purpose is also discernible by (or identifiable with) his nature, neither purely individual nor purely social elements should hinder his (or others’) pursuit of that purpose. Hence the commonplace recognition of truths that, on the one hand, one’s personal choices should not endanger society (no flying planes into buildings), and that on the other hand, society has no claim to hinder personal choices that do not danger society (no legislating my favorite flavor of ice cream).

So whatever the purpose of life is, the purpose of government is subordinate to it. This isn’t to say the state has any role in answering the “big questions.”  But society does.  This is key. Remember, whatever your answers to the Questions are, they will determine how you seek to discover and live out your “purpose.” So in order to live together, people in the same community must be able to discuss and come to some common ground on the Big Questions. The more common ground, the less likely that community’s governing function will be to conflict with the Answers, and thus with people’s living out those Answers.

That much should make conservatives and xenophobes happy.  However the other side of this is that uniformity isn’t the ultimate goal of our intellect, truth is. Here is where visionaries often seem anti-social or even counter-cultural: You have to be, in order to advance the understanding of society as a whole on a given topic. This is why pluralism is useful and good – provided we actually benefit from it by discussing the Big Questions. If people in a society commit themselves to journeying the road to truth together, and at the same time being at peace (to a degree) with not being there yet, that seems to be society at its best.  Sometimes "conservatives" feel so happy and confident in the truths they have found, they indulge in an incredible amount of impatience in demanding that others accede to those truths instantly. This is not realistic or human, and ends up turning people away from those truths. (It is also nothing like the gradual method God takes in Scripture, starting where people actually are, and leading them gradually and patiently.) So pluralism is a good, beautiful, and exciting opportunity for personal and societal betterment.

The worst of both worlds, however, would be a society that attains neither the peace that comes from relative unanimity, nor the peace that comes from knowing the truth. This yields a pluralist society with only one trait truly in common: a despair of reaching meaningful truth, stemming from intellectual exhaustion, hypersensitivity to conflict, and simple frustration that it is so hard to reach answers to questions that seem so natural to ask.

This, I believe, is where nature most seems to suggest the possibility of something beyond it (etymologically, the words for this are “super-natural,” from Latin, or “metaphysical,” from Greek).  The nature of humanity, our abilities, our natural inclinations, and our natural limitations, all seem to point to a gap, a blank space that goes back to the idea I mentioned at the top of this post: It doesn’t make sense that either creation or evolution would yield such a strong need for something that doesn’t actually exist. I’m talking about anything you can conceive of as supernatural or metaphysical: humanity’s seemingly infinite capacity to seek truth, beauty, and goodness, alongside our historically very finite capacity to achieve these things.

In another post, I’ll think more about what this means for the natural limitations of government (as in, not just shouldn’t, but can’t).  As well as how something personal like the natural impulse toward religion (or at least any outward-focused sort of reverence or humility stemming from acknowledgement of our own natural limitations as humans), can possibly have a happy interaction with the public/social side of human nature.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Bitter Scroll Now Hungrier, Bitterer Than Ever

Well, I’m finally giving up on the whole idea of limiting my blog to certain subject matters. My problem is that I have very many interests, and they seem to come in waves. As far as I can discern, the three general passions that I always come back to are linguistics, theology, and political science, and within each, I have progressed through focused interest in various subfields. So rather than limit my blog to one field (of the three) or subfield (say, comparative Germanic linguistics), I finally officially declare this to be a truly personal blog: a web log of my thoughts on what interests me. I still resist the idea of putting up random awkward posts about emotions or deeply personal issues; but all academic or interesting topics that I find myself into at a given time are hereby fair game. This will make it easier to use the blog for my own personal benefit: forcing myself into the process of writing more often, and using that process to clarify my thought processes on topics of relevance to school or elsewhere.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The Truth of Irony

There's a great description of the nature of irony in this article by Anthony Esolen, entitled "Emptying Ourselves of What We Think We Know." The whole article is interesting, but click on page three just for the treatment of irony.

Esolen gives several divergent examples of irony, and manages to boil down the essence as something beautifully oriented to truth and reality, rather than the common conception of irony as simply "saying one thing but meaning another."

Irony arises, rather, from the ignorance of unseen or unexpected order (or, as it may happen, disorder), from the failure to note subtleties, or from seeing subtleties that are not there, especially when the ignorance and the failure are highlighted before observers in a better position to see the truth.

I really learned a lot from the five examples he gives on page 4, along with the subsequent elucidations for each one.  Esolen very brilliantly and clearly manages to show irony's versatility: one example uses irony to teach theological subtlety while another points to the laughability of blind pride; one highlights a common sense of justice, while the last efficiently portrays a complex of relationships, intentions, and levels of ignorance that are dizzying when he explains it all out.

Irony provides humans with a way to communicate certain realities in a way that really does them justice: sometimes that feeling of unexpectedness shows just how amazing a truth really is, sometimes communication needs to play on the audience's sense of morality or poetry to drive home a point's real significance. Plus, when we have had to think a bit to figure something out, it stays longer in the brain than. So irony is a higher level of communication than just-another-declarative-sentence, and as Esolen point out, one that applies to communication with and without words (verbal and dramatic).

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Language of Machiavelli

I have recently been reading a great translation of Machiavelli's The Prince done by Angelo Codevilla, a professor of international relations at Boston University. Codevilla’s translation presents to the English-speaking reader much of Machiavelli’s brilliance in using language for his own ends. Codevilla gives a very good editor's introduction, clearly showing the role and impact of The Prince in intellectual history--noting some important patterns of thought that we take for granted today, whose predominance is attributable to Machiavelli. Even more interesting, though, is the subsequent essay on "Words and Power." In this, Codevilla demonstrates some of the devices not of argumentation but of linguistic manipulation that Machiavelli employed to get his readers to adopt his own new (and quite revolutionary) moral standards.

Moral standards are not something that people give up freely, being ingrained in our values and prejudices, and at a level deeper than many people can reason to. What are the two topics supposedly banned from polite conversation? Religion and politics. Why? Because they are the two areas in which, for decades now, politeness gives way to defense mechanisms meant to mask the insecurities we feel when trying to explain (and thus, justify) the beliefs we hold so deeply. (Or maybe why those beliefs have a hold on us).

There are so many human reasons why we believe things--because our parents believed them, because our parents believed the opposite, because there is so much suffering in the world (or our own lives), because we're convinced we're supposed to believe them, because we're afraid of changing our actions or our lives, because we need the stability of being told what to believe, because we're afraid to reason for ourselves, because of the sins of those who believe otherwise, etc.

I bring this up because it was on this level that Machiavelli seems to have meant primarily to engage his readers. He knew he couldn’t get his readers to adopt his new standard of good and evil by reasoning them to it. So he chose to use language on the level of those deeper-than-reason human reasons for belief (fear, pride, desire to succeed, etc.).

Codevilla highlights the significance of Machiavelli's way of using language by contrasting it with Dante. This description of the two writers makes Niccolo look almost ... Machiavellian:

In short, Dante crafted his language to follow the dictates of reason, not of men or of chance. Dante thought language was not to be imposed by power or by convention but to be accepted by reason. . . . Machiavelli knew exactly what Dante meant. He disagreed. He believed that language, like every other human tool, serves the interest of some to the detriment of others. But Machiavelli did not argue against Dante. Instead he baldly accused him of speaking the language of a rival city, of being insufficiently committed to Florence. This did not advance the cause of truth, but it did help Machiavelli prevail with his Florentine audience.

If this sounds too commonplace to be worth pointing out, just remember to keep two things in mind. First, while people did this before Machiavelli, they knew they were doing something "wrong." Machiavelli legitimized this is a method that was "good" by literally redefining the words good and evil (more below). Second, Niccolo wasn't just lying (that's an ancient practice to be sure!), he was crafting a strategy using words deliberately as weapons. Thus Codevilla asserts that for Machiavelli, "Language, therefore, is a most powerful weapon in the struggle for primacy, and one peculiarly suited to the unarmed."

Codevilla didn’t stumble upon the fact that this was Machiavelli’s preferred way of using language by just reading The Prince extra carefully; he found that Machiavelli laid this method out explicitly in other writings: specifically his Florentine Histories and Discourses upon Our Language. Codevilla used to work on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, so unlike most Americans he probably doesn’t have a problem seeing the deeper, sometimes subversive, layers under the surface of much oral and written communication.

Let's look at some details, then. "The most important questions regarding The Prince," says Codevilla, "hinge on Machiavelli's use of words.

Does he in fact confuse the adverbe bene (well) with the noun bene (good) so as to collapse the distinction between doing well and doing good? How does Machiavelli change his readers' notion of virtue and goodness? As we shall see, he regards the meaning of such words as wholly plastic. Therefore, he gradually alters their meaning by changing their context.

He does this by forcing his readers to think of the words in the midst of an onslaught of situations and images that are unpleasant to deal with -- so many that in the end, the tired reader is weakened into granting, perhaps semi-wittingly, that what good is what eliminates such situations:

[Machiavelli's] work, especially The Prince, is filled with tales of gore and treachery. To what end? Everyone knew such things happened. Why did Machiavelli insist on mentioning them so frequently and in such detail? . . . The answer becomes clear when we remember that Machiavelli did not mean to argue as much as he meant to act. The vivid portrayal of political defeat is a fearsome thing. Machiavelli never argues explicitly that earthly suffering and death are the worst fates; he just omits any discussion of the possibility that they are not.

Thus Codevilla shows Machiavelli to be exploring and playing with the aspects of human nature upon which modern advertising would be based -- more than 400 years before Edward Bernays, the man called the father of modern advertising and nephew of Sigmund Freud, encapsulated the psychology of crowds and of the subconscious in his interesting little, rather Machiavellian book, Propaganda.

Marx and later the Soviets would perfect what Bernays had learned from Gustave LeBon's study of crowds into the very simple strategy of making people believe lies (one reliant upon total control of the media): constant, relentless repetition of your message, and mercilessly stamping out any dissent. People start to believe not because they have been convinced, but because they have no mental energy left to resist.

When Foreign Laws Silence Americans' Speech

I’m glad to see a couple of important Senators drawing attention to this subject (and I'm proud of my native state of New York for taking the initiative on it). Sens. Specter and Lieberman co-authored an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal pointing to how easy Americans can be sued in foreign courts (like the UK) under libel laws that are heavily weighted against publishers. Note the scenario they use as example:

In 2003, U.S. scholar Rachel Ehrenfeld asserted in her book, "Funding Evil: How Terrorism Is Financed and How to Stop It," that Saudi banker Khalid Bin Mahfouz helped fund Osama bin Laden. The book was published in the U.S. by a U.S. company. But 23 copies were bought online by English residents, so English courts permitted the Saudi to file a libel suit there.

As in many areas of modern life, laws are struggling to keep pace. Either they assume outdated business models in the face of creative collaboration and the prospect of name recognition for young artists through file sharing, or the very international nature of communication and information brokering today.

If I make a point to buy a book in German from, I don’t have the expectation that I could sue the author in this country, since there was no intention to have major distribution here, even though it was always possible. Maybe our laws do allow me to sue the author in an American court, but I don’t know if they should. Does the truly tiny distribution of Ehrenfeld’s book in the UK really give British courts the right to allow a Saudi to sue an American?

The ability to speak freely and challenge people to give reasons for public actions is a beauty of the First Amendment. While I don’t think it was meant to protect “art” depicting obscene desecrations of the symbols of my (or anyone else’s) faith, the First Amendment was meant for just the type of thing Ehrenfeld is trying to do. Even if she doesn’t have all of her facts straight, the idea is that getting her assertions out in public is worth encouraging, b/c our Founders thought that the public should be the judge of speech, not the government.

The war on terror has (or at least needs to have) a major public diplomacy component. IMHO, the West should be challenging the radical segments of the Muslim world to justify themselves intellectually before the court of public opinion, insisting that you can’t riot or kill people when you don’t get what you want like someone who hasn’t grown psychologically past early childhood. If you are right, you have a legitimate chance to convince everyone. It is this very open and terrifyingly just invitation to justify themselves in public that prompts the terrorist propagandists (and don’t think there aren’t any) to use tactics like suing in British court. It is a type of procedural warfare that allows them to silence unpleasant voices without having to argue reasonably. Hence this interesting facet of the proposed law: “If a jury finds that the foreign suit is part of a scheme to suppress free speech rights, it may award treble damages.” I don’t know how easy or impossible this would be to prove in court, but it’s good that they recognize it as a strategy.

It would be nice if the US and the UK could come up with some joint advisory committee to look at protecting our citizens from their laws when neither plaintiff nor defendant have ever set foot in Britain. In the meantime, if the UK doesn’t do anything, we definitely should. It’s too bad the UK doesn’t see the public diplomacy value to itself in moderating speech laws that are begging to be abused.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

You'll Think What I Want You to Think

I made a discovery on Netflix recently. The British show Yes, Prime Minister from the early 80s is simply brilliant in its portrayal of the real workings of government and society in all their ridiculousness.

The three main characters are the Prime Minister Jim Hacker, Sir Humphrey, and Bernard Wooley. Sir Humphrey is the cynical Cabinet Secretary, with an admirable loyalty to the civil service (and only the civil service), and Bernard is the naive and pedantic personal secretary to the Prime Minister. Humphrey is always trying to teach Bernard more cynical ways, such as in the following:
We run a civilized, aristocratic government machine, tempered by occasional general elections. Since 1832, we have been gradually excluding the voter from government. Now we've got them to a point where they just vote once every five years for which bunch of buffoons will try to interfere with our policies ...
But that's not even what I wanted to blog about. In the Episode titled "The Ministerial Broadcast," Sir Humphrey and Bernard are discussing the Prime Minister's radical plan to bring back the draft ("National Service"), and Humphrey gives what has to be the best demonstration of how easily polls can be manipulated to suggest exactly the answer the pollster wants. Enjoy:
Humphrey: A nice young lady comes up to you, obviously you want to create a good impression--you don't want to look a fool, do you?

Bernard: No.

H: No. So she starts asking you some questions: Mr. Wooley, are you worried about the number of young people without jobs?

B: Yes.

H: Are you worried about the rise in crime among teenagers?

B: Yes.

H: Do you think there's a lack of discipline in our comprehensive schools?

B: Yes.

H: Do you think young people welcome some authority and leadership in their lives?

B: Yes.

H: Do you think the respond to a challenge?

B: Yes.

H: Would you be in favor of reintroducing national service?

B: Oh, well I suppose I might.

H: Yes or no?

B: {sigh.} Yes.

H: Of course you would, Bernard, after all you've told you can't say no to that. So they don't mention the first five questions and they publish the last one.

Alternatively the young lady can get the opposite result: . . .
Mr. Wooley, are you worried about the danger of war?

B: Yes.

H: Are you worried about the growth of armaments?

B: Yes.

H: Do you think there's a danger in giving young people guns and teaching them how to kill?

B: Yes!

H: Do you think it's wrong to force people to take up arms against their will?

B: Yes!

H: Would you oppose the reintroduction of National Service?

B: Yes! . . . Oh.

Monday, April 28, 2008

False Friend # 1

False friend is the linguistic term for a word in another language that looks just like a word in your own, and so you assume it means the same thing. Be careful! It's wonderful to make friends of new words, but make sure you really know them, or they'll only hurt you.

English has very many words that were borrowed from French, or that English and French both took from Latin, which have kept the same meaning: préparation, longue, noble, thème, champion, etc.

For future reference, if you're ever in southern France and you need new batteries for your camera, it is better not to go into a store asking for "Les batteries." The better word here is piles.

Une batterie is a drumset.