Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Was There an Ancient Language of Universal Symbols?

I stumbled upon this the other day and thought that I would point to it from over here on this blog:

The link is to a blog post about commonalities in petroglyphs found all over the world...(and an archeologist from BYU is mentioned).

Monday, October 29, 2007

Weekly rescrap 10/22/07—10/28/07

A busy Thursday in an overall slow week.

-Torben made us wonder whether Chinese youth really get crazy English tattoos (answer: it's a spoof)

-Torben posted the story of war graves defaced with Nazi symbols
-Torben shared the connection between music and human speech
-Torben pointed the way to Glottopedia, a wiki-based encyclopedia of linguistics
-Torben stumbled across the Endangered Language Fund
-Scott wrote on pledging allegiance to the flag
-Rikker linked to Multibabel, a machine translation game of "telephone"

Thursday, October 25, 2007

High-tech "telephone" game

Carl Tashian's Multibabel is like that game we all used to play in grade school. It takes an English sentence as input, and plugs it into the AltaVista machine translation tool to interpret it into another language, then back into English. It then plugs that result into another language, and translates that back into English. After five cycles of this (or eight, if you click the button to include Chinese, Japanese and Korean), it's pretty amazing what you end up with. I tried:

Languages Scraps is my favorite blog!
After round 1 (Japanese):
The language scrap is blog of my taste!
After round 2 (Chinese):
The language discards is my taste blog!
After round 8 (Spanish):
The strong languages are blog of the mine the pleasure!

Oh, the possibilities! (Or, Good contingency!, if you prefer.)

[Found via Notes from a Linguistic Mystic]

I pledge allegiance to the flag

Last night was "Meet the Candidates Night" for our hometown. Lyn, along with several other candidates, is running for City Council. A representative of the League of Women Voters ran the meeting, reading questions written by members of the large audience. Each candidate had 90 seconds to answer each question. It was a hurried but informative hour and a half. But the really interesting part came at the end when citizens had a chance to ask questions of individual candidates.

Let me get straight to the point, an ex-mayor's wife asked Lyn. There's gossip going around town that you won't salute the flag or say the pledge of allegiance. Is that true?

That's true, Lyn answered, and then explained her reluctance to swear allegiance to any symbol. I try to let my deeds stand for my commitment to this democracy, she said.

The explanation didn't seem to sit well, and certainly the gossip will have heated up by this morning.

I don't say the pledge of allegiance either, and while walking our dog this morning I reviewed my reasons:

1. I have seen Leni Riefenstahl's film "Triumph of the Will."
2. I have an aversion to the coercions of crowds.
3. I believe in the separation of church and state.
4. I don't believe that I or this country are "under God."
5. Loyalty oaths make me break out in hives.
6. I believe that symbols are only what we make of them, and I'd like to make as little of this symbol as possible, given its role in an often sketchy history.
7. I love Jimi Hendrix's version of "The Star Spangled Banner.

In fact, the last pledge of allegiance to the flag I enjoyed went as follows:

30 October 1996, Orem

A Cub Scout “pack” meeting in the church gymnasium. The boys and their Den Mothers are wearing costumes for Halloween. Bishop Gunderson, wearing a trim Scout uniform, asks us to rise for the presenting of the colors. He salutes smartly. The rest of us place our hands over our hearts. The first boy in the color guard wears a blue-and-gold Cub Scout uniform. The third boy is dressed like a bloody but elegant vampire. Marching between the Cub Scout and the vampire, carrying the flag, is my son Samuel. In the dress and wig his brother Benjamin wore last year. There are scattered chuckles as Samuel levers the flag into the heavy brass stand. I pledge allegiance, the vampire begins. Samuel rips the wig from his head and holds it over his heart. To the flag of the United States of America.

Endangered Language Fund

I stumbled across this site today and thought that I would post the link in light of our brief conversation about language preservation a month or so ago.


Is Wikipedia not meeting your linguistic needs? Try Glottopedia, the free encyclopedia of linguistics.

Essential Tones Of Music Rooted In Human Speech

From Therapy Times:

The use of 12 tone intervals in the music of many human cultures is rooted in the physics of how our vocal anatomy produces speech, according to researchers at the Duke University Center for Cognitive Neuroscience.

The particular notes used in music sound right to our ears because of the way our vocal apparatus makes the sounds used in all human languages, says Dale Purves, the George Barth Geller Professor for Research in Neurobiology.

It's not something one can hear directly, but when the sounds of speech are looked at with a spectrum analyzer, the relationships between the various frequencies that a speaker uses to make vowel sounds correspond neatly with the relationships between notes of the 12-tone chromatic scale of music, Purves says.

The work appeared in a recent issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Purves and co-authors Deborah Ross and Jonathan Choi tested their idea by recording native English and Mandarin Chinese speakers uttering vowel sounds in both single words and a series of short monologues. They then compared the vocal frequency ratios to the numerical ratios that define notes in music.

Human vocalization begins with the vocal cords in the larynx (the Adam's apple in the neck), which create a series of resonant power peaks in a stream of air coming up from the lungs. These power peaks are then modified in a spectacular variety of ways by the changing shape of the soft palate, tongue, lips and other parts of the vocal tract. Our vocal anatomy is rather like an organ pipe that can be pinched, stretched and widened on the fly, Purves says. English speakers generate about 50 different speech sounds this way.

Yet despite the wide variation in individual human anatomy, the speech sounds produced by different speakers and languages produce the same variety of vocal tract resonance ratios, Purves says.

The lowest two of these vocal tract resonances, called formants, account for the vowel sounds in speech. "Take away the first two formants and you can't understand what a person is saying," Purves says. The frequency of the first formant is between 200 and 1,000 cycles per second (hertz) and the second formant between 800 and 3,000 hertz.

When the Duke researchers looked at the ratios of the first two formants in speech spectra, they found that the ratios formed musical relationships. For example, the relationship of the first two formants in the English vowel /a/, as in "bod," might correspond with the musical interval between C and A on a piano keyboard.


War graves defaced with Nazi symbols

By Auslan Cramb, Scottish Correspondent

Last Updated: 1:40am BST 25/10/2007

The graves of British soldiers killed in the Great War have been covered with Nazi symbols in an act condemned as "appalling desecration".

Vandals painted swastikas and SS insignias on the headstones of 32 Scottish soldiers who died during the Battle of the Somme.

The attack caused thousands of pounds worth of damage at the Peake Wood Cemetery near Contalmaison, France, just days before Remembrance Sunday.

The cemetery marks the spot from which the final assault was made on Contalmaison on July 1, 1916, the first day of the battle on which nearly 20,000 men lost their lives.

The 16th Royal Scots, known as McCrae's Battalion, lost almost 75 per cent of their troops.

Many of them were laid to rest at the small cemetery, which records 103 fallen Allied soldiers.


Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Chinese Youths Crazy for English Alphabet Tattoos

This is all a joke, but still funny and relevant :)

“The guy at the tattoo shop told me this means brave and proud warrior in English,” said beaming Beijing teenager Hao Tsang as he pointed to the letters GARF freshly inked onto his left bicep. “It’s perfect for me because I am very bold and confident, yet spiritual.”

Tsang’s friend Yuan Chi Hao also went under the needle for some English language characters. “Mine simply says FRUNK. The letters are so beautiful and flow so smoothly into each other. The word actually means old soul with young spirit in English. How cool is that?”

Apparently, very cool.

Throngs of Chinese youths are flocking to tattoo parlors looking to colorfully emboss their bodies with “meaningful” English language words.

“I couldn’t decide between CRYMPH or DLECH,” said Chengdu high school student Mingmei Lee. “I know they both mean beautiful flower dancing in the wind in American, but I can’t decide what looks prettier.”

This strange trend mirrors a popular body art movement in the US where many Americans — especially professional basketball players and young celebrities — get Chinese language characters tattooed on their bodies. Many believe the Chinese characters add an air of spirituality to their beings and help present them as enlightened individuals who respect and admire foreign cultures.


Sunday, October 21, 2007

Weekly rescrap 10/15/07—10/21/07

-Torben rocked our wor(l)ds with Urban Dictionary, fo shizzle
-Torben posted on the campaign against signs with obvious warnings

-Scott pondered another sign of intelligent life in Nevada... with alien jerky!

-Rikker shared the classic tale of Ladle Red Rotten Hut (and other tales in the Anguish Languish)

-Scott linked us to further research on the language gene in Neanderthals

-Grabloid tagged LS with thoughts on graffiti

Saturday, October 20, 2007


I have been meaning to write a post on graffiti for this blog for quite some time now. Graffiti is such an interesting way to communicate and it is such an interesting art form. I can’t even begin to describe the diverse cultures that surround all of the different kinds of graffiti art. For those interested and/or unfamiliar, the following documentaries might prove to be an interesting introduction for you: “Who is Bozo Texino?” (by Bill Daniel) and “Style Wars”. These documentaries will give you a small glimpse into two very diverse graffiti styles and cultures. There are thousands of other great films/documentaries, zines, books, and blogs out there to look at that have amazing images and stories.

What is it about graffiti that I find so interesting?

Many of us are born graffiti artists. I remember the little elementary schoolboy that I used to be who couldn’t resist carving a name or a phrase into the desk or the window nearby.

What does it mean to put your name on something? Are you claiming that thing to be yours? Are you just communicating that you were there (“________ was here”)? Are you desperately attempting to communicate with others in a world that you are largely alienated from? Is it an expression of anger? Passion? Pleasure? Love? Frustration? Disgust?

What is graffiti? Nowadays I’m scared that many people would say that it is another style of highly commercialized art. It has been co-opted by the “mainstream” world and pigeon holed as merely a flamboyant, rambunctious and very colorful style of painting, perhaps associated with some kind modern west coast vs. east coast gangster brawl and bad rap music. This is unfortunate because, while that culture may have roots in a richer culture that was involved in doing graffiti, the commercialized version has completely missed the point. It has sucked the very meaning, purpose, and danger out of it.

What is the goal of the artist? A main goal for artist is to have her art seen/heard/experienced by others. Traditionally, artists do their art in or through their chosen medium at home or at a studio of some sort. When the art is finished or perfected, the artist tries to find people to show it to. This can be done in many ways. Art galleries can buy it, or show it and possibly help you sell it. You can show it or perform it in any chosen venue. The main goal is to get people interested in viewing, hearing, or experiencing it. It is natural for the artist to want to share the work that they have created.

Graffiti takes a different approach. My friend Vegor pointed out that graffiti is the most effective form of art because its medium is ANYWHERE the artist chooses. Where art is done interacts with, compliments, and adds various meanings to the image or message. It (the medium) is just as important as the image, performance, or message itself. The whole world is the graffiti artist’s gallery and venue.

What does it mean for a graffiti artist put a message on a piece of property? Does it call into question the concept and legitimacy of private property and ownership? Is it just an effort to communicate or share ideas and creative expression in a common area? This part of graffiti has been watered down and misunderstood into claiming the property as the artist’s own. This not productive, it merely sparks a battle for power and territory. Why is graffiti against the law? Should it be?

Does uninvited, unstaged, and/or spontaneous performance, installation or poetry qualify as being graffiti?

Graffiti shows an innate need to create and to share. There is a very interesting short documentary film called “The Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal” that is very appropriate to mention at this point. Check it out! (That link leads to a written introduction to the film and has a link to an excerpt of the film.)

My intention was to write a sweeping and far reaching post on the meaning and purpose of graffiti (ha ha ha...). But I now realize that this is completely over ambitious and absolutely impossible. (I’m not writing a volume of books here...) This post, more appropriately, can hopefully spark a discussion about graffiti and its purposes, meanings, successes, mistakes, etc.

So...what do you think?

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Neanderthals May Have Had Gene for Speech

Published: October 18, 2007

Neanderthals, an archaic human species that dominated Europe until the arrival of modern humans some 45,000 years ago, possessed a critical gene known to underlie speech, according to DNA evidence retrieved from two individuals excavated from El Sidron, a cave in northern Spain.

The new evidence stems from analysis of a gene called FOXP2 which is associated with language. The human version of the gene differs at two critical points from the chimpanzee version, suggesting that these two changes have something to do with the fact that people can speak and chimps cannot.

The genes of Neanderthals seemed to have passed into oblivion when they vanished from their last refuges in Spain and Portugal some 30,000 years ago, almost certainly driven to extinction by modern humans. But recent work by Svante Paabo, a biologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, has made it clear that some Neanderthal DNA can be extracted from fossils.

Dr. Paabo, Dr. Johannes Krause and Spanish colleagues who excavated the new bones say they have now extracted the Neanderthal version of the relevant part of the FOXP2 gene. It is the same as the human version, they report in today’s issue of Current Biology. . . .

more at http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/18/science/19speech.html?hp

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Ladle Red Rotten Hut

Can you guess what the title of this post means? Think well-known children's stories...

Enough suspense. It's Little Red Riding Hood, and at Exploratorium you can find an entire version of the story written in common English words that are near-homophones of the normal words. Here is the first paragraph:

Wants pawn term, dare worsted ladle gull hoe lift wetter murder inner ladle cordage, honor itch offer lodge dock florist. Disk ladle gull orphan worry ladle cluck wetter putty ladle rat hut, an fur disk raisin pimple colder Ladle Rat Rotten Hut.
The translation of this would, of course, be "Once upon a time, there was a little girl..." and so forth. It's amazing how difficult it really is to interpret when you think too much about it. Much of this, of course, is because the words they use don't maintain the word boundaries of normal English. You have to sit back and sound the thing out to yourself. Fortunately, the website has a link to listen to the story in (the antiquated) RealPlayer format, too.

Here's a great line: "A nervous sausage bag ice!" (= "I never saw such big eyes!")

According to Exploratorium, this version of Little Red Riding Hood was written in 1940 by one H. L. Chace, a professor of French. He "wanted to show his students that intonation - that is, the melody of a language - is an integral part of its meaning."

So what do you think? Did he succeed?

[Addendum: This type of English has cleverly been termed "Anguish", and you can find more examples of Anguish in Chace's 1956 book "Anguish Languish" (i.e. English Language), the full text of which is here.]

Tuesday, October 16, 2007


Following on the last post about useless signs, there's a potentially useful but confused sign at the east end of Nevada's ET Highway. It busily signifies, but I can't make out what is being signified.

Jerky that's as fresh as aliens?

Fresh jerky from aliens?

Are the olives stuffed with aliens?

Is the honey made of alien fluids?

Are the Area 51 gifts radioactive?

Monday, October 15, 2007

English campaigners against senseless signs

Linked from http://www.funniez.net/funnynews/1-latest-news/76-CampaignAgainstSigns:

On September, 2007. London campaigners who fight for the effective use of English attacked a growing tendency for obvious and senseless public information posters and instructions, such as a police sign: "Don't Commit Crime."
"They assume a lack of intelligence on the part of the reader - says their spokeswoman. 'Do not commit crime. Pay for your fuel' is hardly a deterrent to a criminal who has every intention of driving off without paying."
The Plain English Campaign cited other examples including:
"Warning: Platform ends here" on the end of rail station platforms,
"May cause drowsiness" on sleeping pills,
"Warning: contains nuts" labeled on packets of nuts,
"Caution: water on road during rain"
"May irritate eyes" on a can of self-defense pepper spray,
"Do not open door while airborne except in emergency" on emergency exit doors in planes,
"Removing the wheel can influence the performance of the bicycle" from a Dutch bicycle manual,
"Do not iron clothes on body" from packaging on a steam iron,
Supermarket Tesco - which also warns shoppers that cream contains milk and that salted butter contains milk and salt - defended itself, saying it gave customers "all the possible information they should need."
The Plain English Campaign said politicians were also guilty of the trend.
"Politicians declaring 'We are taking the terrorist threat very seriously', or 'We are committed to improving the health service' is just rhetoric," he said.
He added: "Our advice would be say what you need to plainly and simply then stop. If nothing needs to be said, say nothing."

Check This Out Peeps

Peep out this online slang dictionary, ya dig? Click on da picture above to see whatsup.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Weekly rescrap 10/8/07—10/14/07

-Torben shared a great George Carlin clip
-Torben gave us food for thought about worn out metaphors
-Torben showed why America is #1! wo0O!1!

-Grabloid responded to Torben's metaphor post

-Torben excerpted an article on tracking language evolution
-Don asked, "What the F*** is goin on?"

-Rikker mused on writing without communicating
-Torben linked us to the Online Etymological Dictionary
-Rikker led the way to Name Voyager

-Rikker wondered about criminal nicknames, Confucius, and Adam & Eve

Zodiac, Unabomber, Adam & Eve

Fitting with recent discussion of the rectification of names, I enjoyed this article about why police give nicknames to criminals of unknown identity. The interesting part is that the article claims the act of giving a criminal a name serves to "plant mental images of the suspects in the minds of patrol officers and the public, improving the odds of spotting and catching the crooks."

This is something of a different take on names. Instead of things having one proper name that must be discovered, rather it pits named vs. unnamed things, as if something without a name is somehow less real than something named. This brings to mind a post from last October on my friend Ben's blog, entitled "A name by any other rose." Incidentally, he and I are working on a new project together, and the name was the first thing we came up with after the basic concept.

But perhaps this isn't really so far off from Confucius. In both interpretations of the significance of names, there is a strong connection between name and identity. Confucius says if you know the true name, you can truly understand the thing. And when cops give a name to an unknown criminal, they are giving him an identity, and in a way creating him.

And all of this reminds me of the Judeo-Christian doctrine that as first man on earth, Adam named everything. From KJV Genesis 19-20: And out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof. And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field; but for Adam there was not found an help meet for him. But it also sounds like Adam named Eve. After God takes the rib and creates woman, he brings the woman to Adam (just like it says he did with all the animals). KJV Genesis 3:20 says, And Adam called his wife’s name Eve; because she was the mother of all living. Compare that with Moses 4:26, from the LDS Pearl of Great Price: And Adam called his wife’s name Eve, because she was the mother of allliving; for thus have I, the Lord God, called the first of all women, which are many.

In the PoGP version it sounds like God came up with the name, but even the straight biblical account has some ambiguity--it says he "called" not "named" her Eve. So was Adam told the name, or did he divine the "correct" name through inspiration? And if the latter, did Adam really name anything, or was he revealing the proper names of things?


[Criminal nickname article found via The Lexicographer's Rules]

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Name Voyager

If you're interested in names, you'll enjoy the Name Voyager, I promise. Even if you have no impending need to select a baby name. (Me, I do. Baby girl ETA December 5th.)

Basically, it's a little flash application that graphs the popularity of a given name that you enter, by decade, based on U.S. Social Security data. There are other sites that do this, but the execution of Name Voyager makes it fun to use. It shows you all names which match the pattern you type. So if you type "Joseph" you'll see the stats for both Joseph and Josephine, and you get to watch the graphs rise and fall like so many ill-fated civilizations as you type every letter. It's quite diverting.

A few examples of what I learned from typing random things on Name Voyager:

  • Orange was the 970th most common name in the 1890s, but Apple doesn't show up in the top 1000 in any decade (Gwyneth Paltrow probably checked).
  • Frank seems, frankly, headed for extinction.
  • Names whose heyday came and went in the mid-20th century: Stuart, Barry, Nancy, Janice.
  • A name that didn't survive World War II: Archibald.
  • A name that didn't survive the Spanish-American War: Horatio.
  • Norma and Stephanie have steadily been more popular (although sometimes only slightly so) than their respective counterparts Norman and Stephen.
Names really are a language of their own. Not that it makes it any easier for my wife and I to pick one.

Online Etymology Dictionary

Check it out here.

Writing without communicating

The language of academia can be a daunting thing. Every field has its terminology, its jargon, its buzzwords and catchphrases. These stand like the sentinel at the gate to enter the club of a particular discipline. If you don't know the password, stay out.

I'm sure I'm not the only one who tends to find this frustrating. In this 1999 article from the Wall Street Journal, Dennis Dutton discusses the "language crimes" of academia. Fed up, he helped start the Bad Writing Contest. The task was to pull out a sentence from an actual piece of academic literature and submit it to the judges. I love this excerpt from Dutton's article, which gives the 1998 winner of the contest and his commentary on it:

“The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.”

To ask what this means is to miss the point. This sentence beats readers into submission and instructs them that they are in the presence of a great and deep mind. Actual communication has nothing to do with it.

Amen to Dutton's assessment. Now, I'm sure there are people who genuinely understand that sentence, and even I can sort of make out what it's saying, but egads, does it make you want to keep reading in any way? I'd say writing clear prose on a difficult topic is the more difficult task, and perhaps even a sign of greater intelligence. I saw my share of this stuff in college, and professors whose lectures sound like this snippet don't do much to inspire the enthusiasm of students. Luckily I didn't meet many.

It's not just academia though. I've heard of another bad writing contest, the long-running Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest (also see the official website), named after the man who originally penned that oh-so-classic phrase, "It was a dark and stormy night." The best purple prose wins the prize, but in this case they judge original submissions. That is, entrants try to come up with the worst opening sentence to a novel possible. Here's the 2007 winner:
Gerald began--but was interrupted by a piercing whistle which cost him ten percent of his hearing permanently, as it did everyone else in a ten-mile radius of the eruption, not that it mattered much because for them "permanently" meant the next ten minutes or so until buried by searing lava or suffocated by choking ash--to pee.
Jim Gleeson, Madison, WI
Finally, I must say this all reminds me of a (humorous) book I read in middle school which included convoluted versions of everyday sentences. I still remember one of them clearly: "My gastronomical satiety admonishes me that I have arrived at a state of deglutition consistent with dietetic integrity." (That is, "I'm full.") Touché!

Friday, October 12, 2007

What the F*** is goin on?

Recently someone I love told me that my language is "the most vulgar language you could imagine".

Why did I use asterisks instead of the rest of the obvious word? Why do we swear, what does it mean to swear? How has swearing changed? Is there a reason not to swear, and conversely, reasons to swear?

Goddam if Stephen Pinker hasn't written a fucking good essay on the subject.


Tracking the evolution of language

Researchers discover that irregular verbs change in a predictable manner -- just like genes and living organisms.
By Denise Gellene, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
October 11, 2007

Tracing the evolution of English verbs over 1,200 years -- from the Old English of "Beowulf" to the modern English of "The Princess Diaries" -- researchers have found that the majority of irregular verbs are going the way of Grendel, falling to the linguistic equivalent of natural selection.

The irregular verbs, governed by confusing and antiquated rules, came under evolutionary pressure to obey the modern "-ed" rule of regular verb conjugation, according to a report today in the journal Nature.


Tuesday, October 9, 2007

In Response to Torben’s “Worn Out Metaphors” Post and Scott’s Comment About It

So...I’m hoping if you’re reading this you have already read Torben’s “Worn Out Metaphors” Post and Scott’s Comment on it, because this post is in response to them...or was sparked by them. I would’ve just put this as an additional comment on that same post but it was becoming to long, with too many links, and to complex...so I’m having it as it’s own post.


That is all incredibly interesting! I didn't make this connection (which I'll get into in a minute) until just now...after reading Scott's comment about Torben’s post.

Why in the hell would we want to move away from the body toward abstract images and metaphors anyway? Scott's mother referring to bowel movements as “bee-em’s”, and the George Carlin post, in the context of our discussion on Nietzsche and “worn out metaphors” reminded me of an amazing book that I read a few years ago called "The Denial of Death" by Ernest Becker. The book won a Pulitzer Prize in 1974 (after Becker's death). Becker's main goal was to point to the work of psychoanalyst Otto Rank, who studied closely with Sigmund Freud. After several years of working together, Rank was rejected by Freud over some trivial disagreement. Rank pretty much disappeared after that, but wrote many amazing books that are now being rediscovered. Rank's book "Art and Artist" is pointed to over and over in “The Denial of Death”. Becker also constantly refers to several Kierkegaard books and passages and also Norman O. Brown's book "Life Against Death".

Anyway, how does this tie into Torben’s last post and Scott’s comment on it? Our body is constantly decomposing. It is rotting, aging, decaying and slowly dying. These bodily processes (especially "bee-em's"/shitting), according to many psychoanalysts, subconsciously remind us of our own death...of our mortality. Many psychoanalysts talk about the concept of anality. Becker also talks about anality and makes a very interesting connection that is helpful to us in this discussion. I grabbed this quote quickly, offhand, in an online review of Becker's book... it helps see anality in the way that Becker sees it relating to our behavior: "...anality is viewed as an attempt to deny the possibility of accident or death, to insist on our separation from nature..." (from the California Literary Review). Trivializing and moving away from the reality our natural bodily processes helps distance ourselves from the sometimes depressing fact that our bodies are slowly dying.

So shitting reminds us of our temporary nature and how we are like all other organisms on the earth...we will eventually decay and die and return to our simpler parts that make up what we are through natural processes. But us humans have this weird thing that other organisms don’t have...a sense of irony (telling jokes), a deep cognition, an articulate language that allows us to conceptualize infinity, to think into the future, reflect on the past and relate it all to the present. As Becker points out, this makes us both god-like and worm-like..."this is the human condition", he says.

Again, why in the hell would we want to move away from the body in the way that Plato is encouraging us to and in the way that Nietzsche is telling us to avoid falling into? Moving away from the thing/the body helps us cope with our grim human condition, a way of dealing with our existence, a way of being in the world. The psychoanalysts that I mentioned would obviously say that we want to move from the thing/the body because it is our body that is the reminder of our demise...and we don't want to think about that shit! (ha...where's Alex to out-pun me?) They also point out that, as humans, we are obsessed with our youth (look at any advertisement), obsessed with defying death and the aging process, etc. We build pyramids to preserve and ensure our eternal life. Becker equates all of our creations/buildings/artwork with the building of pyramids...the thirst to be important, to be seen, thought of, to be eternally remembered...including his desire "to write the great book". We create symbols that are supposed to communicate who we are and what our existence means, we create ideologies and religions and we are willing to defend them and fight wars over them, we want to dominate, we want to outlast the other, we want to leave our mark, we want to be remembered. As we have seen in the class, the symbols and the language always (necessarily) fail to do exactly what we want it to do.

My good friend Greg Bennick co-produced a highly praised documentary with a guy named Patrick Shen called “Flight From Death: The Quest For Immortality” (Greg was here at UVSC screening it about year and a half ago). “Flight From Death” completely focuses on Becker’s book and the current research and application of Becker’s ideas about defying death, symbols, language, identification as individuals/countries, violence in defense those symbols and identification, etc. (Very interesting, highly recommended).

Hopefully you all are following my line of thinking...maybe you’d have to see “Flight From Death”, or read “The Denial of Death” to follow...or maybe I’m not making any sense at all???

Coming back to our discussion...now I’m thinking about Alex in class saying how he was, and will forever be, ‘a recovering Platonist’ and that ‘I (he) always need a good dose of Nietzsche to bring me back home (back to the body)’. Observe Torben’s diagram below. (I’m assuming that they are the same notes taken from what Scott was writing on the board in class on Monday.) Plato is pushing us away from the body, into thinking in images and metaphors and using them as tools...something we all do to cope with our human condition (the human condition as described by Ernest Becker). Nietzsche and Aristotle...and might I add the stuff that Alex read from William Blake’s “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”...are all pushing us back toward the body. (Blake: ...the body is not separae from the soul, the body is connected to energy, energy is eternal delight...etc.) This is an absolutely crucial reminder that we are temporary creatures, that we don’t dominate over the physical world. The physical world allows us to exist and we are only a part of it, it can easily annihilate us and we will, without doubt, return to it in death. Who knows if our thoughts, concepts, metaphors, symbols are at all important or if they live on into another form?

As Scott mentioned in class, both of these systems of thought are important for us worm-like/god-like humans. But a balance is necessary! Don’t become Goethe’s character Werther...trying to get so close to the thing/the body he blew his brains out because he couldn’t relate to anyone else, couldn’t not express the ‘thing in itself’, couldn’t use ‘the lie to tell the truth’. At the same time don’t get caught up in dead metaphors...they are only tools to help us think through and compare things, don’t believe the lies you use to tell the truth. I’m trying to think about what would happen to a person on the other extreme from Werther’s suicide...some sort of insanity or complete disconnection from the body (schizophrenia)...??? (If that is true, then it is ironic that Nietzsche went insane instead of killing himself!)

I see this balance as being extremely crucial to our personal mental health/well being as well as a world-wide health/societal well being. I think that this is pretty close what Ernest Becker concludes in “The Denial of Death”...I wonder if he read any Nietzsche or Plato.

What do you think?

P.S. - (I highly recommend "The Denial of Death". Also check out The Ernest Becker Foundation if you are interested.)

Monday, October 8, 2007

Worn Out Metaphors

What practical application can we derive from Nietzsche's essay On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense? How do we move back to the body and away from removed abstractions? Karl Marx, echoes a similar sentiment when speaking to the young Hegelians. He mocked them, saying:

“The premises from which we begin are not arbitrary ones, not dogmas, but real premises from which abstraction can only be made in the imagination. They are the real individuals, their activity and the material conditions under which they live, both those which they find already existing and those produced by their activity. These premises can thus be verified in a purely empirical way” (Marx).

Marx's materialism similarly attempts to move away from the abstractions and towards empirical evidence of what people "actually do"---their actual material product. Of course, this is not a perfectly parallel example, but I bring it up simply to illustrate the implicit battle that has been waged, and continues to be waged, between abstractions and a more earthy, tangible reality, localized in the body.

Nietzsche illustrates the process, in which, we inevitably move away from the body. Scott illustrated this beautifully in class today, and he would also do more justice to Nietzsche essay (and maybe he can in the comments), but nonetheless, I thought I would take a stab at it, mostly to spark up a conversation to explore ways that we can apply his ideas. Nietzsche states:

"What, then, is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms---in short, a sum of human relations, which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people: truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are; metaphors which are worn out and without sensuous power; coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins" (Nietzsche 46-47).

The above quote could be summarized by a diagram, presented in class today:

Language pushes us further and further away from the body, and the reality of the object. A few additional quotes, from Nietzsche, may help accentuate this point:

"The awakened say: Body I am entirely[...]"

"There is more reason in your body than in your best wisdom"

"I love only what a man has written with his blood [...]"

"I would believe only in a God who can dance"

This may also help us understand, as Travis pointed out to me earlier today, why Alex labels himself a "recovering Platonist," and why Nietzsche is the antidote for attempted recovery :) Where as Plato works from forms and down to particulars, Nietzsche sides with Aristotle and works from particulars to universals. In this sense, the particulars are deeply entwined into the body, the universals considered evidence of the disconnect caused by metaphors and symbols. But once again, how do we get back to the body? Can we ever escape abstractions and a society that rests largely on a foundation of metaphors and symbolic speech?

Honestly, I don't have any clear answers. That is, in part, why I wrote this little piece. However, here are a couple practical methods that I can foresee combating the removed shift away from the body:

1. Process, Process, Process. The more we get involved in the physical process of creating, the more language and creativity become localized to the body.

2. Try to escape the use of purposeless metaphors and move closer to the actual thing. Remember, for Nietzsche, the only truth in language is a tautology. For example, "the cow is a cow." The closer we can get to the "real state of things" (I know this phrase is problematic, please permit it for this little pseudo-essay) and further away from abstractions, the more we approach the body.

I'd love to get some comments on this post. Tell me what you think!

George Carlin - Soft Language

George Carlin - Soft Language

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Sunday, October 7, 2007

Weekly rescrap 10/1/07—10/7/07

-Grabloid pondered Universality: Irrationality, Absurdity, Perception

-Scott commented on Jacques Dupin's three essays on Giacometti
-Torben sparked some discussion on Confucius and the rectification of names

-Rikker discussed the Italian maxim "translator, traitor"

-Scott excerpted a review of a new translation of the psalms

-Torben posted Metacafe's Best Video of the Year!
-Torben put up a clip about language from Richard Linklater's film Waking Life

Remember, take the time to comment on posts. Keep Language Scraps vital!

Waking Life --- Language

The follow is a clip from Waking Life, a very enjoyable film by Richard Linklater. This specific clip is about language. Check it out.


Best Video Of The Year - Watch more amazing videos here

Friday, October 5, 2007

Translating the Psalms

Desert Storm

Understanding the capricious God of the Psalms.

by James Wood October 1, 2007

Alter’s translation yields an ancient text stripped of Christian ideas.

Alter’s translation yields an ancient text stripped of Christian ideas.

What is God like? Is he merciful, just, loving, vengeful, jealous? Is he a bodiless force, a cool watchmaker, or a hot interventionist, a doer with big opinions, a busy chap up in Heaven? Does he, for instance, approve of charity and disapprove of adultery? Or are these attributes instead like glass baubles that we throw against the statue of his invisibility, inevitably shattering into mere words? The medieval Jewish thinker Maimonides thought that it was futile to belittle God by giving him human attributes; to do so was to commit what later philosophers would call a category mistake. We cannot describe his essence; better to worship in reverent silence. “Silence is praise to thee,” Maimonides wrote, quoting from the second verse of Psalm 65.

Whatever one thinks of Maimonides’ chilly rigor, it is cannily paradoxical that even as he advises silence he quotes from the noisiest book in the Hebrew Bible. And, not only that, but from the very book that dramatizes, again and again, the gap between our language and the indescribable God, between our certainty that God is with us and our anxiety that he has abandoned us, between his cosmic proportions and our comic littleness.

The Book of Psalms is the great oasis in which a desert people gathers to pour out its complaints, fears, hopes; the Psalms are prayers, songs, incantations, and perhaps even soliloquies. In them, the supplicants invoke God as their light, their water, their warrior, their scourge, their buckler, their rod, and their staff. But these images, these human metaphors, also expose the frailty of such supplication, since just as God is conjured into words he seems to disappear: many of the Psalms are like flares sent out into the night sky of appeal. Jesus cried out at his abandonment on the Cross by quoting the opening verse of Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” The verses continue:

Far from my rescue are the words that I roar.
My God, I call out by day and You do not answer,
by night—no stillness for me.

The famous beginning of Psalm 19 announces that the heavens declare the glory of God and the sky declares his handiwork. Eighteenth-century deists were fond of these verses, because they seem to argue that we can infer God’s existence from the glorious evidence of his creation. But the psalm uncomfortably changes course a moment later:

Day to day breathes utterance and night to night pronounces knowledge.
There is no utterance and there are no words,
their voice is never heard.

Now the psalmist seems to say that, if the heavens speak anything, it is not language but possibly only a highly visual silence. Almost three thousand years before such modern doubt, we are briefly in the world of Melville, who complained of “that profound Silence, that only Voice of our God,” asking “how can a man get a Voice out of Silence?” This struggle between faith and doubt, hope and despair, is undoubtedly one of the features that have made the Psalms such a help to so many readers and writers, both believers and nonbelievers—and especially to Christians, who have appropriated this book like no other in the Hebrew Bible. The seventeenth-century poet George Herbert perfectly captures this dappled texture in his psalmlike poem “Bitter-Sweet”:

Ah my dear angry Lord,
Since thou dost love, yet strike;
Cast down, yet help afford;
Sure I will do the like.

I will complain, yet praise;
I will bewail, approve:
And all my sour-sweet days
I will lament, and love.

Robert Alter’s new translation, “The Book of Psalms” (Norton; $35), is radical, at least to a reader brought up on the early-seventeenth-century King James Version.

see more at http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/books/2007/10/01/071001crbo_books_wood

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Translator, traitor

I'm an amateur translator. Mostly Thai to English, though I've dabbled with English to Thai. Much more difficult. There are some short examples of my work (in English) on my personal blog here here and here. They're excerpts from books I've read, and there's another post about translating titles here.

How do you convey something in another language? There's an Italian saying, "traduttore, traditore." That is, "translator, traitor." I first heard this phrase in an essay by Umberto Eco, which decries, in part, the sentiment behind it, by encouraging the original author to be involved in the translation of his work. I particularly like this statement of Eco's:

The job of translation is a trial and error process, very similar to what happens in an Oriental bazaar when you are buying a carpet. The merchant asks 100, you offer 10 and after an hour of bargaining you agree on 50.
I think this is a great insight into the nature of translation. There is no Perfect Language, so there is no Perfect Translation. Eco's explanation of source-oriented vs. target-oriented translation was quite helpful for me.

This essay on the problem of translating puns gives the following dilemma, thought up by French philosopher Jacques Derrida. Translate the following phrase into English:
"Oui, oui, vous m'entendez bien, ce sont des mots français."
You might translate it as, "Yes, yes, you are receiving me well, these are French words." But wait, they're not anymore. In that case, is "Yes, yes, you are receiving me well, these are not French words" a better translation? What about "English words"? You will probably offend some portion of readers with any of these solutions. Eco mentions a similar problem in translating the French dialogue portions of War and Peace into French--there was a specific reason Tolstoy chose to include French dialogue, or why Eco chose to include Latin text in The Name of the Rose, and why the Latin was left untranslated in the English version of that novel.

Eco ends the essay with a lighthearted reference to the Italian maxim by calling translation "admirable treason." I just hope my efforts, leave much to be desired though they may, can too be called admirable. Or am I weaving the noose for my own traitorous neck?

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Excerpt From Lu Chi's Wen Fu

"Prior to the composition of the Wen Fu, the first great work to discuss the use of language is the Ta Hsueh (or Great Learning) of K'ung-fu Tzu (Confucius). Master K'ung believed all wisdom lies in learning to call things by the right name, and that only through a "rectification of names" might one proceed toward enlightened living. This insight is doubly remarkable when we remember that K'ung Tzu lived in a nation that was far more sophisticated than any other on earth at that time, its language rich in emblematic phrases, euphemisms, double entendres, and layered ambiguities loaded with plurisignation" (Hamill xv-xvi).

More to come later, as I make my way through this text.

Giacometti: Three Essays by Jacques Dupin

We've been thinking about methodologies and anti-methodologies for getting at how words and things relate with one another. Interdisciplinary work, negative capability, multiple teachers, students with various backgrounds, diverse texts, and even the workings of this blog all play a hand in this.

This morning I was reading a translation of Jacques Dupin's three essays on the sculptor Giacometti, two of them translated by a friend of mine, Brian Evenson (whose work we'll discuss near the end of the class), and found these thoughts about how to approach the sculptures with words:

And in fact the written word, condemned to deviousness, tries desperately to find the sudden approach again and is tormented by nostalgia for it. It tries to recreate the strangely active space of that work by attacking it from several sides, as one reconstitutes illusively the unity of a sculpture by multiplying one's vantage points. In its fragmentary pursuit it takes the same path a dozen times, while certain areas remain inexplicably barred to it. Too close to its object, it petrifies and consumes it; too far away, it loses its way and disintegrates in a maze of expectancy that has no beginning. Entangled in lacunae and contradictions, it leaves behind nothing but the muddled traces of an approach, scattered fragments, the least significant debris, spared by the flames, of an imaginary edifice which had to be abandoned.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Universality: Irrationality, Absurdity, Perception, MagicK, Negative Capability, Awareness, etc.

Torben and I had an interesting discussion after class today. Remember in class (sorry for those of you who aren't in the class...hopefully you can catch on...or someone can fill you in) when Alex was talking about when he investigated things in depth (Sicilian folklore in his case) and how he found that so much was completely universal. You would think that the more 'specific' you get the more you would be able to contrast things from each other. Maybe we think that way because that is how academia and the working world are set up...the idea that you become incredibly specialized in a different field than everything/everyone else...that your field is your specialty and you don't deal with anything else. Integrated studies' ability to be universal suits us well here.

I have also found as I study things closely (humanities, music, philosophy, art, ecology and other sciences, etc.) I find similar characteristics that cross all fields and boundaries. This is becoming especially apparent to me in this language class. Especially today’s discussion and how I feel like it (along with many things we’ve discussed in class) is complimented by John Keats’ “Negative Capability”, which I will talk about in a minute.

Our discussion today that was sparked by the Julian quote, the Merleau-Ponty quote, and the Greek Magic(k)al Papyri about Magickal/absurd (?)/irrational processes as a way to expand your mind and perception into being vulnerable to things that are unpredictable and uncontrollable so that we can experience things the we don't already know happened to really interest me! (How is that for a run on sentence?) I can't help (with Torben's help) to draw the obvious connection to Keats' thoughts about Negative Capability (which we also discussed in class before...).

Let's indulge!

John Keats on 'Negative Capability':
"I had not a dispute but a disquisition, with Dilke on various subjects; several things dove-tailed in my mind, and at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously - I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason-Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge. This pursued through volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration."

Julian (quote from class handout):
"Shall we write about the things not to be spoken of? Shall we divulge the thing not to be divulged? Shall we pronounce the things not to be pronounced?"

Yes, we should!

Merleau-Ponty (quote from class handout):
"But the system of experience is not arrayed before me as if I were God, it is lived by me from a certain point of view; I am not the spectator, I am involved, and it is my involvement in a point of view which makes possible both the finiteness of my perception and its opening out upon the complete world as a horizon of every perception."

In an earlier class in the semester we talked about Negative Capability and how it is about being comfortable with the unfamiliar, the unknown, intense experiences, the absurd, the irrational (without, of course, letting it totally demolish you) and walking away CHANGED BY IT.

The Merleau-Ponty quote, the Julian quote, the Keats' quote and the discussion we had about Negative Capability are similar in the way that it is about a person spectating, being involved in and experiencing things (many times 'irrational' or 'absurd' or 'unknown' things) and gaining insight and expanding perception as a result of that. Entering the experience without the lust for a particular result (from our discussion on Crowley)...so that, again, we may experience something unexpected, something that we aren't familiar with or don't already know.

Yeah, it's also in Aleister Crowley's "Magick in Theory and Practice" (Book Four, Part Three, Page 188) that we also read for class (I’m beginning to think that Scott and Alex chose all of these readings for a REASON!...ha.):
"It is therefore not quite certain in what the efficacy of conjurations really lies. The peculiar mental excitement required may even be aroused by the perception of the absurdity of the process, and the persistence in it...”

Well, this is fascinating (to me at least)...both the universality and the persistence in absurd processes in order to gain a greater awareness. These ideas are universal, the more we get in to it the more we see that several people are talking about the same things! And somehow these ideas are tied into language.

As Alex said at some point in class today: “Language is all giving, all allowing and all permitting! We are bound to our own limited perception and also open to the horizon of perception! There is more of a need to lose yourself in the irrational so that you can feel again! The irrational as a liberator...a language of empowerment” I just happened to be writing what he was saying at the time. Seriously.

I’m reminded of something that has been going on throughout the whole class...how enabling and disabling language is.

I remember Alex pointing out that a guy named Jaynes laid a lot of these ideas about universality in his book “The Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind”. I looked up that book. The full title is “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind” by Julian Jaynes. It looks very interesting! It's on Amazon here and this website seems to be full of information about it and insight into the ideas presented in it. I will have to get a copy of it.

You can read stuff on Keats' ideas about "Negative Capability" here, here and here.

Sorry the post was so long...I couldn't stop.