Archive for the 'Language' Category



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.

A Series of Rhetorical Devices: Quick Summary of Analogy, Metaphor, and Allegory

There has been some really great work done on metaphor and similar figures in cognitive theory and related fields recently. I don’t have enough knowledge of this stuff to critique it, but it seems like lots of it is directed at trying to figure out the way brains manipulate concepts, or elements similar to postulated conceptual units, and that neglects a whole bunch of philosophical questions many people are still struggling with. I do not know about brains, nor do I know what concepts qua brain excretions would be like unless they are simply electrical bursts connected by and shot through synaptic nerves, but even if it is the case that the patterns created by the dance of electricity and neurotransmitters direct our nerves and correspond to the use of language — a simplistic idea, surely — the brain is so flexible an organ that it would be a great surprise if we would ever be able to map out consciousness against language using this paradigm. Then again, what do I know. It might be the case that it is merely our philosophical notions that need adjusting.

I’m not really that interested in all that stuff. Or rather, I’m more interested in what we actually do with languages, because that is the way we communicate and make our common world. Sure, there are other things as well, but what else comes even close to their broadness and precision as forms of expression? Interpretive dance? Mathematics? Both interpretive dance and mathematics are great (especially mathematics like the one that makes it possible for me to be writing this right now), but they come in second to Latin, Mandarin, Spanish, Hindi, Arabic, German, English, French, and the like. Furthermore, you can train your thinking through your knowledge of languages, so knowledge of the use of these languages and others like them is not simply a case of translating innate ideas into the media of language. That’s where analytical treatment of languages, grammar, becomes important. And not only the sort of grammar we all know from school (parts of speech, conjugations, declinations, etc.), but the manipulation of larger entities like analogies, metaphors, and even allegories. These things make you understood in ways which are somewhat similar to our usual notion of grammatical manipulations, but there does not appear to be much grammar written about them anymore.

There is of course some, but it’s too late in the evening to start indicating sources. Besides, I had a couple of glasses of wine at dinner and thus I’m not all that sharp right now. What could be useful is a brief index of the stuff I wrote the last couple of days. Like so:

(1) Analogy
(2) Metaphor
(3) Allegory
(4) Rudimentary Diagramming
(5) Metaphorical Morals
(6) Is the Three-Term Analogy an Analogy?
(7) Why Study Literature?

All these are based on analogy. That is, the unified scheme of these tropes and figures is based on the simple view that we can elaborate on an analogical way of thinking through resemblances, the way one thing is like another, when talking about their use. It’s not necessarily the case that this sort of thing always happens in practice, but it’s a good place to begin the task of schematization and analysis.

A Series of Rhetorical Devices: Why Study Literature?

I’ve been pretty busy for the last few days and haven’t had the opportunity to figure out things for the blog, but now, after a strenuous workout, when I’ve found that the blundering builders who are doing work on our building have cut off our water supply, I can use this time, which would otherwise be spent having a refreshing shower, to ponder on something that often troubles those of us who study literature.

There are of course many reasons to study literature and I can offer but one more here. The typical attitude of many who are in the business of attending to the more serious things in life is reflected in an utterance reported to me by a friend of mine. Someone asked him something like this: “Isn’t literature merely emoting? Why waste your time on it?” This business with emoting is supposed to make it of secondary importance. Apparently collecting yet more corpora or thinking of new ways to sell mobile phones is a more worthy enterprise. At least it’s easier to write apologies for those things.

Let’s try out an apology for literature that relies on the models of analogy, metaphor, and allegory we’ve outlined below. If we think of analogy as a basis for systematic thought, we can say that we make sense of new things by relating them to the things we already know. This is either vague or banal without any elaboration, so let’s elaborate. We come into contact with metaphor every day and most of the time we more or less grasp what metaphoric tropes wish to convey, that is unless we are autistic or dealing with a language that is still strange to us. These metaphors are rarely if ever spelled out as analogies and show their superior terms only, their tenor and vehicle. Or it might be the case that only the vehicle is shown, but you should be able to adduce some tenor level of meaning.The ambiguity of metaphor can be said to stem from the unaddressed terms (B and D) which, you guessed it, you have to address somehow in order to resolve the meaning of the metaphor in some way. As you read a metaphor, a whole wave of analogies come to mind, different possibilities make themselves known and you have to figure out which ones are relevant. You must also decide what information is relevant for choosing the best explanation to make sense of the situation.

This is not to say that once you’ve nailed the one pair of inferior terms you will have figured out what the metaphor is actually saying. Far from it. The more options you can think of, the better off you are and the more competence you have in choosing among possible meanings with the help of additional information of the particular situation, your interlocutor, textual conventions, and so on. Precision is not necessarily the key here and hence we don’t become catatonic when we fill our heads with literature — although there are certainly enough stories to warn us about that. Broadness of understanding is the best term I can come up with for now, and that’s what can be gained from literature and fiction.

Of course, if you read rubbish this broadness cannot be reached. Because we are talking about things that happen in our common languages in our common world, there is very little room for the argument that because the pleasures of fiction are subjective we should just read whatever pleases us most. Some stuff makes your understanding grow while other stuff does not. Neither is it the case that now that high and low culture are valued more or less alike, it really should not matter from which source we go a-foraging our daily sustenance. Nor is it the case that all high culture is fantastic and popular culture rubbish. Things are a bit more complicated than that and that is why there are literature departments in universities. I suggest you take advantage of them and their productions while they are still around.

A Series of Rhetorical Devices: Rudimentary Diagramming

Diagramming can be useful, but even when diagrams fail to clarify things it’s at least fun to draw them. Shifting around the elements of analogy seems to lend itself pretty well to diagramming and they can be used to draw some sort of wire frame to illustrate a way metaphor and allegory may be constructed from analogy.

(1) Theme and Phoros

The first picture simply presents the scheme of analogy and identifies the theme and the phoros.

(2) Superior and Inferior Terms

The second image shows the alternative way of grouping the terms of analogy.

(3) Tenor and Vehicle

The third image shows a metaphor with its tenor and vehicle labeled. That’s a pretty boring picture, but it allows us to include the implied analogy that accompanies metaphor. You can also see that the superior terms have an element from both the theme and phoros.

(4) Allegory

The final picture shows allegory as it was defined through analogy and metaphor. It’s just the two main elements of metaphor aligned differently. There’s only two pairs here, but of course there could be many more.

A Series of Rhetorical Devices: Is the Three-Term Analogy an Analogy?

A three-term analogy is an analogy that has three terms instead of the usual A, B, C, and D. That means that we have to cope with A, B, and C and still be able to create something that resembles an analogy. Thus, one of the terms has to be shared somehow. These are not too uncommon and could be made, for instance, to create a stronger link between the two terms that share the third than a normal analogy with four different terms would provide. Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca give us the scheme B is to A as C is to B and this example from Heraclitus: In the sight of the divinity man is as puerile as a child is in the sight of man. Then they say that the common term “man” invites the reader

to locate the theme in an extension of the phoros, and to arrange them hierarchically. Nevertheless, the distinction between spheres, which is essential for the existence of an analogy, is maintained. For, though the common term is formally the same in both theme and phoros, it is dissociated by being differently used, and this makes it ambiguous. (375)

The hierarchy Heraclitus wants us to construct of course goes from divinity to man to child, and this relationship is clear to everyone, but the ambiguity can be worrisome. It’s as if we should somehow make a distinction between two senses of the term “man” in order to see the form more clearly. That is, we have to dissociate two notions of the term.

I’ve actually already done some dissociating of the term “analogy” here by hinting that we might want to have two different notions of analogy if we are to count the three-term analogy as one; bringing two terms that were earlier seen as different back together we would call associating — knowing which terms are associated and which dissociated at the outset naturally requires some knowledge of your audience. You get the idea when you look at Heraclitus’ analogy and put yourself in the shoes of man and, first, look to one side to the abode of the gods and, then, to the other at the baffled child. Your relationships to these creatures will be so different that we might as well split you in two and make you the insecure man blinded by divinity on the one hand and the parent of the weeping child on the other. That is, B : A :: C : B becomes B1 : A :: C : B2 where A = divinity, C = child B = man (associated), B1 = man seeing divinity, and B2 = man seen by child. Of course you don’t need to do this schematizing in order to get Heraclitus’ point, but I think it does show where the ambiguity comes from.

The reason why three-term analogies seem unlike analogies is that they seem to draw a parallel that is in some sense very unanalogous. Then again, when it becomes clear that the shared term has, strictly speaking, two different meanings and can therefore be seen as two separate terms, the analogousness becomes obvious. But in that case it’s not really a three-term analogy and we should not call it that. I don’t know why this is, but I’m not going to lose any sleep over it.

One final thing that should be mentioned is that three-term analogies can be used very effectively in negating things. If the form itself is already suspect, it makes sense to use the form in saying B is not to A as C is to B. If there’s anyone whose conscience says that this is manipulative and mean-spirited I can only say that it is what you make of it. One nice example from today’s HS (in Finnish) comes courtesy of the Finnish Union of University Professors (FUUP) and concerns a new Finnish university project called the Innovation University. It’s supposed to be the greatest thing since sliced bread with combined business schools and technology and design faculties, but the wonderfully named FUUP has found a slight snag in the plans. The project might be against the Finnish constitution. If I understand this correctly, the constitution can’t cope with the fact that the people running the university will be suits from outside the institution. That is, they want this thing to run on the basis that outside suits are to the governing of the university as democratically elected people from within the university community are to the university. The constitution, on the other hand, says that outside suits are not equivalent to democratically elected university people when it comes to governing the institution. I’m convinced by the latter view which was designed to guarantee the autonomy of universities, and I think it might have something to do with the form of the argument.

A Series of Rhetorical Devices: Metaphorical Morals

Studying rhetoric can be fun because of its moral ambiguity. It feels as if you are given tools with which you can do something because they can do some actual damage if necessary. You have to be responsible enough to check your own moral character and try to figure out how to do the right thing with what you’ve been given. Kids might even like this sort of thing because the mastery of these tools endow them with power. The second great thing about studying rhetoric is that it feels sort of sciency with its approach to words as tools. Furthermore, the leading people who write about argumentation and rhetoric are, unsurprisingly, very good at what they teach and thus rarely screw up their own stuff. That is, it is very hard to disagree with them on any major points because it is their job to study the kinds of things that lead to agreement and disagreement.

I’ve quoted Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca a few times already and I’ll probably do so many times more. Their New Rhetoric is a masterpiece despite its somewhat chaotic ordering of topics and I’d like to quote a longer passage from it in order to say something about metaphor and also to try to show what it is that rhetoric, as these two saw it, actually studies.

Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca hold on to their notion of metaphor derived from analogy, but they recognize that metaphors which are presented at the outset as metaphors by coupling the superior terms and leaving the inferior terms unexpressed usually fare much better than those that are spelled out. The two inferior terms, they say, cannot really be considered implied — the fusion of the superior terms creates an expression complete in itself. Rather, the metaphor hints at a whole range of possible terms which can be combined in all sorts of ways.

Thus, the metaphor “an ocean of false learning” suggests different viewpoints and attitudes according as terms B and D are considered to be represented by “a swimmer” and “a scientist” or as “a stream” and “the truth” or as “terra firma” and “the truth.” All these analogies, simultaneously present to the mind, influence and enrich one another and suggest a number of different developments between which only the context allows one to choose. And even then the choice is rarely unambiguous and definite. Metaphor can also take the form of a bringing together of terms B and C of a three-term analogy, as in the expression, “life is a dream.” In this case, it is term A of the theme (“eternal life,” for example) which will be inferred thanks to the metaphor, “life” being the term common to the two spheres. (401)

All this is pretty clear (if it isn’t and you’re still reading, you might want to do some backreading). The objective in analyzing a metaphor into its constituents is not to come to one single analogy that will explain everything in a neat little diagram. If you thought this would be like high school math where you are given a formula and assured that applying it to the numbers presented in the problem will make the problem magically disappear, tough titties! The actual work is messy and requires reasoning from case to case, each case riddled with contingencies. Much of it might even be called guesswork. The audience must always be taken into consideration as well. If they are dunces, you’ll have to adjust your metaphors to “dunce,” if well-read you can do much more. But the fact that you now have names and labels for these things, these rhetorical devices or whatever we call them, means that you can plan your strategy much better. You can read better and write better, with greater care and thought, because information about your tools has been chunked in a way that creates clarity in writing and clarity in thinking. You can also decide to break all the rules and yield to all sorts of rhetorical temptations if you so wish, but in order to break the rules you have to first know the rules.