Archive for the 'Language' Category

Book Review: Men and Manners: Essays, Advice and Considerations by David Coggins

men and mannersI came across David Coggins when I happened to see his new book called called Men and Style: Essays, Interviews and Considerations. A quick search pointed me to a few of his articles in various journals, magazines and websites. I wanted to take a little break from menswear books, and a book about manners by someone who looked like a traditionalist seemed interesting. The other thing that drew me to the book was Coggins’s prose style. He favours short and straightforward sentences and brief texts that include anecdotes and interviews. In other words, it’s light and pleasant reading. I bought the ebook, which I now regret, because the physical book looks very nice. Perhaps I will get a physical copy of his book on style a bit later.

Men and Manners is divided into eight sections, only one of which concerns dressing up. It has advice on very basic things from how to behave during public occasions to suggestions for more intimate situations. Advice on how to tip, for example, is useful for those of us who live in countries where we don’t really tip. How to attend and leave parties I found useful, because sometimes slightly less formal public occasions can be difficult to negotiate. Reminders to keep plans are welcomed by anyone who finds it annoying when people cancel plans at the last minute. The English teacher in me was glad to see a chapter on punctuation. And it’s always good to hear someone saying that looking at your phone in company is distracting. Coggins’s tone is not too normative on this last point, and he appeals to friendship instead:

When we’re together, let’s make it count. Bring your good material, open that good bottle of wine you’ve been saving, ask questions and, since you’ve gone through all that, for goodness’ sake, man, pay attention!

Despite what I said earlier, the bits about dress were the ones that I was drawn to when I started reading. Coggins has a take on formality that somewhat echoes what Bruce Boyer has said before. It involves the strange idea that dressing in a more casual manner makes you more authentic. Coggins writes:

There’s been a proliferation of the unwelcome view that if you dress in a sloppy way then you are somehow more authentic. This exists the closer you get to Silicon Valley and is meant to convey that you have more important matters to think about than dressing well. All it implies, in fact, is that you are authentically sloppy. Does not having good table manners make you more authentic? Does not bathing make you most authentic of all? Of course not.

This authenticity could be formulated in another way. It’s actually very calculated. People dress down to identify with a certain class of people and to indicate their preferred peer group. Casual clothing is thus a kind of uniform, perhaps even more so than formal dress. People who dress casually like to say that they don’t really think about clothes, but they usually do. Sometimes they think about them more than people who wear suits. Suits are easy and require little thought once you have them and know how to wear them. Finding the right band T-shirt for the right occasion is much harder and overdressing or underdressing becomes quite complicated when the line between the two is blurry.

Because Coggins is a professional writer who wears many hats, he likes to think about dress and manners in terms of editing. By way of an analogy, he maintains that the signs of a well-edited mind show in our outward appearance and actions. Like I said, the book is light reading, but it did teach me a lot about writing. Reading the book, I was horrified by my previous reviews on this blog, and a few other texts as well. Convoluted sentences, like clothing and accessories, can seem garish and peacocky. After reading Men and Manners, I will try harder to edit myself in the hope that in trying harder, my writing on the blog will look more like an effortless exercise in casual (but not too casual) thought.

The 12+12 Books of Christmas #2


There are those who think doing a PhD in the humanities is easy. It rarely is. Latin has not been fashionable language for a couple of centuries now and few people are that good at it. When I began my university studies, we had one or two courses of Latin in total. They were useful and entertaining, but not quite enough to make all of us fluent in the language. The university now has no mandatory Latin courses for students in the language departments, which is a shame. On the plus side, if you can read the classics in their original language, you may possess a very rare and marketable skill.

My chosen topic for a doctoral dissertation was the figure of the author in eighteenth-century English satire. At the early stages of my research I began to see references to Isaac Casaubon’s De Satyrica Graecorum Poesi et Romanorum Satira (1605). In fact, I began to see references to it as the most important work on satire ever. Obviously this was a book I had to read carefully. However, there was one big problem. I could not find an English translation anywhere. There was supposedly a translation into Italian, but my Italian was no better than my Latin. And both were almost nonexistent.

What to do? If I could not read one of the most important works in my field, I would not be taken seriously as a scholar. The only way to solve this problem was to learn Latin. In other words, I had to learn a new language almost from scratch in order to write my dissertation in English literature. Nothing about this was easy. I was in a hurry, but there was no magic bullet fix. Learning Latin required steady and persistent work for months and months. There are linguistic geniuses who can learn languages much faster, but I’m not one of them. I have to use brute force.

After some time, I was able to read the book. Its argument is not that complicated and it has been summarized in English and French works numerous times. There was very little gained purely in terms of argumentation and not that many people are that interested, to be honest. I did dig up one point I hope to make into a paper some day, but it does not have to be repeated here. What should be said is that I did get a feel for Casaubon’s reasoning and language from the experience of learning to read his Latin. This has made me more confident whenever I have to address people as an expert in my field.

Language Learning: It’s Good For You

My German studies have been advancing at a steady pace and recently I’ve noticed improvements in my reading. It’s actually been exhilarating to read stuff and watch films now that the language is starting to make more sense. I had a small revelation when I watched a German documentary I had had on my hard drive for ages, something like what Moses McCormick speaks about in one of his videos. I’m not doing composition yet and other work-related stuff does not really allow that right now, but I’ll begin soon enough.

To distract myself from work even further, I picked up the Innovative Language Learning Japanese set. (This is partly the fault of Mr. McCormick whose “Level Up” videos make Asian languages look like great fun.) In it, the authors list reasons for learning Japanese and the top reason they cite is that learning a second language is good for your brain. This is good news, because I have no serious reason to learn Japanese. In short, they say that it protects you from Alzheimer’s and makes you smarter. The memory gets a workout and your attention span grows. They go on to say that it also aids critical thinking and creativity.

As luck would have it, an article giving these claims scientific backing appeared recently. The BBC picked it up today and I dug up the original as well. It has the fetching title “Subcortical encoding of sound is enhanced in bilinguals and relates to executive function advantages.” It has to do with how the brain deals with complex visual motion and sound. I won’t pretend to be a brain expert, so let me quote the article:

We found that adolescent bilinguals, listening to the speech syllable [da], encoded the stimulus more robustly than age-matched monolinguals. Specifically, bilinguals showed enhanced encoding of the fundamental frequency, a feature known to underlie pitch perception and grouping of auditory objects. This enhancement was associated with executive function advantages. Thus, through experience-related tuning of attention, the bilingual auditory system becomes highly efficient in automatically processing sound. This study provides biological evidence for system-wide neural plasticity in auditory experts that facilitates a tight coupling of sensory and cognitive functions.

The scientists relate this to musicians and note that something similar goes on in their auditory processing. The executive function advantages, to put this into language I can understand, seem to be related to the way in which bilinguals and musicians are able to put some of the processes used to discern relevant information from the bombardment of noise on autopilot, having conditioned themselves to do so, and thus they have a greater facility for focusing their attention on, for want of a better word, thinking. Or perhaps one could say that they have refined their sensory filters — a term I just made up — to the point where they can concentrate on the relevant information more efficiently. In short, they are smarter information processors. I wonder if reversing the process and creating speech synthesizers adapted to language learning would be possible?

This also relates to something I’ve often thought about while studying languages. When one is engaged in study, it often seems like one is not studying in any strict sense of the word, but rather trying to get used to the language. “Conditioning” might be close to the term I’m looking for, but the English word escapes me. The Finnish word that comes to mind is “totuttautua.” There is a slight nuance in the Finnish which tells me that the very process of getting used to something involves not being completely in control of the process or perhaps being in control of the situation only vicariously. In terms of language learning, it might be viewed as a kind of cognitive behavioral therapy, systematic desensitization or graduated exposure therapy. And once we go there and begin to look at what the article calls “sensory enrichment” involving languages or music, we are back in that ancient medical paradigm that saw music and poetry as forms of medical intervention.

As I said, I’m not a brain scientist or qualified to draw conclusions from such speculations. That unfortunate fact aside, it’s nevertheless nice to hear the good news. I’ve put my brain through a lot, but based on these findings I’ve apparently also been taking care of it. This also means that there is now no reason not to study languages and if anyone ever tells you otherwise you can point to this article. It’s science.

Language Learning: More Vocabulary

Since my last post about vocabulary, I’ve been focusing mainly on German and trying to keep up the habit of reading some every day and looking up words in the dictionary. I use two: and Wordreference. It’s incredibly easy compared to messing around with books and printed dictionaries. It’s a mystery how anyone got anything done before the Internet.

I’ve also done some German translations. It’s a nice way of getting one’s hands dirty and to get a feel for the language. Until now, I really haven’t thought of translation as a way of learning the language, but perhaps it’s time to give it a go. In Between the Ancients and the Moderns, historian Joseph Levine describes the methods of seventeenth-century pedagogy as written down by schoolmaster Richard Hoole:

A favorite device, for example, was “double translation,” which Hoole borrowed directly from Ascham and Brinsley. The student was asked to translate some of Cicero’s epistles into English and then back again into Latin, “to render many of them into good English, and after a while to turn the same again into Latine, and to try how near they can come to the Authour in the right choice, and orderly placing of words in every distinct Period.” . . . Evelyn was astonished when he visited Westminster School in 1661 to find the boys there capable of writing themes and verses with such “readinesse and witt” in the two classical languages.

One should also note that in Richard Busby’s Westminster only Latin should be spoken and boys who failed to do so were whipped and even expelled. Whipping aside, it’s an ancient technique for learning a language and it works.

One of the modern proponents of the method is the Italian polyglot Luca and, if I’ve understood him correctly, he does translations in more or less the same way — the proof is in the pudding. His latest post tackles vocabulary and gives great advice on study techniques for vocabulary acquisition. He suggests (in English, French and Italian) that we all put our genius for forgetting to good use, forget actively and revise accordingly.

What I’ve found studying languages is that once you get into it, at some point you will begin to recognize words whose meaning escapes you. Tons of them. This used to be incredibly frustrating — I looked up the word before and thus it feels silly to look it up again for the fifteenth time. Some time has passed and now it just seems like a natural thing to do. Besides, using electronic dictionaries means the whole operation takes literally two seconds. Why not up the volume? The human brain is not a data storage unit that can upload information and retain it immediately and indefinitely. It’s too squishy for that and needs repetition. We might as well deal with it.

Stephen Toulmin’s Rules

Sometimes one comes across a book that seems to reveal rules that previously seemed indiscoverable. Stephen Toulmin’s The Uses of Argument (1958, 2003) was one of those books for me. I had previously read a (sadly) lesser-known Cambridge philosopher called John Wisdom and grown very fond of his Paradox and Discovery (1965) and Proof and Explanation (1991), and upon reading that Toulmin was a former student of his it was clear that his book, a legend in its own right, should be on my reading list. Even before going through it, however, I came across the famous Toulmin-model of argument. The simplicity and flexibility of the model was quite simply astonishing. It really is a thing of beauty, never mind the fact that the book is not strictly about this single model. Here it is:

It looks way too simple to be a powerful tool of analysis, but there is no denying that it goes a long way in any argumentative affair. (D) stands for data or datum; the horizontal line, the inference, leads us to (C), a claim that is put forth by using the argument; (Q) stands for qualifier, it might be a word like “probably” or “presumably”, but it can also be something more elaborate; (R) means rebuttal and it is characterized by the word “unless”, ie. it explains why the contingency expressed in the qualifier might come in handy; the warrant (W) supports the inference and it explains why it is possible, or warranted, to make the inference. Warrants, in turn, can be backed up (B for backing) with further arguments when, for instance, someone challenges the acceptability of a given warrant. That, in turn, can develop into a whole new discussion that needs new arguments. The model can therefore branch out in multiples and be used again to describe what goes on under (B). It’s scalable in this sense.

The model is so simple that one can gain a lot just by learning its vocabulary. These are pretty much everyday words: warrant, claim, data, qualifier, etc. Therefore, there is little need to screw around with fancy terminology on this level. Just picking up stuff in the papers or daily conversations and naming the constituent parts of argument one finds in them can help one to make a habit of picking apart simple, everyday argumentation. Most arguments come to us unlabelled, and thankfully so, and most are not constructed carefully enough to have backings for their warrants or qualifiers or much else, but in order to be argumentative they have to have at least a claim.

One can speak of argumentative rigor only after a claim has been made. After that, one can ask for instance: “What do you have to go on and what warrants your inference?” Assuming you are on friendly terms with your interlocutor and don’t get punched in the face for asking that, this questioning will lead you to think the matter through with more precision and, who knows, even construct a more solid argument to support the claim through constructive criticism. In any case, the model is one of those things that will have a lasting effect on your thinking when you get it.

Language Learning: Vocabulary

The other day I noticed I could more or less understand simple Spanish. This is the result of studying other Romance languages, French and Latin, and just a bit of Spanish itself. These little glimpses of comprehension were enough to prompt further study and acted as motivation to deepen my knowledge of the language. Actually, what got me reading Spanish was a headache which I thought would be ameliorated by the sounds of the language, but that’s another story. There are basically three things I do when studying languages: basic grammar, vocabulary and composition, in that order. I’ve come to think of vocabulary as the crucial step to fluency.

With languages, the learning process is never over and one must spend some time maintaining the languages one knows while updating others and maybe beginning the next one. I’ve known at least one of those annoying people who seem to have acquired eight languages with relative ease and almost pass for a native speaker in each. I’m not one of them and actually have to study. It takes time to learn to read a foreign language, even if it is a familiar European language like French or German that doesn’t have a script that looks like a Keith Haring piece or grammar that makes differential equations look like … another Keith Haring piece. It takes a lot of time and effort, I’m sure, even if you have a mutant brain. And vocabulary acquisition in particular takes a lot of time.

One of my past language purchases, an impulse buy really, was Rush Hour German. It sounds like a fairly standard language course and I’ve been more or less happy with it. The file is five hours long, which is usually a good indicator of quality. But here’s what I came to realize listening to the course: there are not enough words in it to make you able to read a German newspaper. Bild, maybe, but that’s mostly pictures of cars and tits. Rush Hour German says it will teach you 400 essential words and that that should get you going. Maybe it will, but it will not get you very far.

English has the most words of any language and my Wikipedia source tells me 2,000 words is enough for a rudimentary grasp of English — the figure is based on research conducted in the fifties. Probably, but you are going to need quite a few more words to read and write anything resembling decent prose. The number sounds low for some reason and 400 sounds ridiculously low for German as well. Perhaps the hours checking French words from dictionaries are knocking in the back of my head.

To get back to the Wikipedia article, research from the 80s tells us that 2,000 words provides 80% reading comprehension (whatever that means), for 6,000 words that number is 90% and 98% for around ten thousand words more. I suspect something of importance happens on the higher end of that scale — perhaps something like what is argued by the generative linguists. At an average rate of 3,000 words per year the average student will have gathered the 12,000 words possessed by the average high-school graduate in four years. Chomsky told Ali G that a normal mature human being will have tens of thousands of words at his or her disposal. I’m guessing here, but tens of thousands sounds like true fluency. I’m sure I know more than 400 words of German and yet can do very little. Perhaps it’s because I don’t know much of what is being left unsaid when I say something.

The larger figures begin to make sense when you think about how long it actually takes the average student to learn a new language. Four years of active study sounds about right — by active I mean that you are learning about eight new words a day or 3,000 a year. It’s a leisurely pace when you compare it to Mr Mutant Brain and his ilk, but even so it does assume daily contact with the language. It also gives us a hint as to how to accelerate language learning: by learning more vocabulary. If your memory is more or less normal, you might be able to double the amount of vocabulary you learn in a year. Make it not the word of the day or eight words a day, but sixteen. It sounds simple, but demands great discipline. Especially if this has to be done while maintaining other languages. An experiment might be orchestrated quite easily and perhaps I’ll do that in the near future. Then, we could tell the world that the secret to learning a language is looking up words in the dictionary and remembering them when you see them the next time.

The Mona Lisa of the British Museum

Source: Wikipedia

I’ve always wondered how heavy the Rosetta Stone is and now I know: about 760 kilograms or 1,676 lb. I never wondered if one could buy a Rosetta Stone novelty tie, but apparently one can. Anyway, the Stone itself is an example of the Ptolemaic Decrees, the Ptolemaic Dynasty being the one you should look into if you are into things Hellenic and Roman or even Asterix, because the Dynasty begins with a general of Alexander the Great and winds down with Cleopatra. For someone interested in history, that’s pretty cool. But for someone interested in linguistics and writing, this slab of stone is the Holy Grail. It’s like the Mona Lisa in the Louvre in that there’s always a group of people around it, making it almost impossible to see anything but the backs of people’s heads, but while I did not have the patience to wait for my turn to take a closer look at the Mona Lisa, I waited patiently to get to see this piece.

If you don’t know the story of how it ended up in the British Museum after Napoleon’s archaeologists found it in the coastal city of Rosetta, Wikipedia is your friend. There’s also a TV movie about Champollion, the guy who pulled off a small miracle translating the text, but somehow it seems more appropriate to read the story.

Source: Wikipedia

But what does the Stone itself say? There are translations available and as far as these things go it’s pretty exciting stuff. The Linear B tablets, for instance, are famous for being incredibly disappointing content-wise, just a bunch of lists for provisions of grain, wool, and the like. Nevertheless, the content is pretty boring business-stuff for someone more blown away by the fact that the thing was translated in the first place. There’s stuff about money and offerings, not to mention endless statements about how great the king is, but it is, in essence, business.

The lesson of the Greek, demotic, and hieroglyphic writing on the Stone is much deeper than that. Of course it has value as a major historical document, but that’s peanuts compared to the knowledge of the scripts it made possible. The Museum’s blurb says:

Before the Ptolemaic era (that is before about 332 BC), decrees in hieroglyphs such as this were usually set up by the king. It shows how much things had changed from Pharaonic times that the priests, the only people who had kept the knowledge of writing hieroglyphs, were now issuing such decrees.

I didn’t know “Pharaonic” was a word. You learn something new every day and you should, because, as the Rosetta Stone makes quite clear, knowledge is the key to power if not power itself.