Sang Will Scarlet.
Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood film is going to star Russell Crow and Cate Blanchett. I’m already hearing dialogue such as
“You scoundrel, Robin Hood!” exclaimed the Sheriff of Nottingham in outrage. “Those are my cans of Castlemaine XXXX.”
“Throw another kangaroo on the barbie, Friar Tuck,” said Robin.
“It could be worse. Nicole Kidman might be playing Maid Marion.”
or there’s a running gag so that every time the Sheriff or Prince John throw a boomerang, it hits the Sheriff in the face.
An exciting new find from the world of evolutionary biology.
‘Oldest English Words’ identified, trumpets the BBC. Let’s pretend that when Hengest and Horsa stepped off the boat at Ebbsfleet in 449, they and their business associates instantly started speaking English. That means the oldest words in English (which is all the native vocabulary which has survived since then) are 1,560 years old. But this is to be rather generous about what constitutes the English language.
The article begins
Some of the oldest words in English have been identified, scientists say.
Reading University researchers claim “I”, “we”, “two” and “three” are among the most ancient, dating back tens of thousands of years.
But English isn’t tens of thousands of years old, which means that this is nonsense by implication. Instead, the study, which has been conducted by Mark Pagel, an evolutionary biologist, appears to demonstrate the comparative durability of core vocabulary.
The researchers used the university’s IBM supercomputer to track the known relations between words, in order to develop estimates of how long ago a given ancestral word diverged in two different languages.
I’m sure that the process is a little more complicated than this and a little more scientific, although glottochronology, a dubious idea at the best of times, bobs around in the back of my mind. Yet the more I read in the article, the more I wonder how plausible such research is. There seems to be too much use of words such as “estimate”, and I cannot reconcile
That is, the model provides a list of words that are unlikely to have changed from their common ancestral root by the time of William the Conqueror.
However, the model cannot offer a guess as to what the ancestral words were.
and the sentence which follows it:
It can only estimate the likelihood that the sound from a modern English word might make some sense if called out during the Battle of Hastings.
There’s a big difference between a sound and a word, and even sounds from the two periods of the language, though they might be represented by the same letter in Old and Modern English, are not necessarily phonetically identical.
What the researchers found was that the frequency with which a word is used relates to how slowly it changes through time, so that the most common words tend to be the oldest ones.
Yeah, this is that core vocabulary thing again. This isn’t exactly news.
For example, “dirty” is a rapidly changing word; currently there are 46 different ways of saying it in the Indo-European languages, all words that are unrelated to each other. As a result, it is likely to die out soon in English, along with “stick” and “guts”.
Perhaps there is a correlation between the range of words used for a thing in the Indo-European languages and the likelihood that it’s going to fall out of use in any of those languages to be replaced by something else. But I also wonder about the semantics. “Dirt”, which comes from Old Norse drit, meant “excrement”, and while it’s still used in that sense as a euphemistic term for “dog excrement”, the general sense has moved away from it. In other words, does the study take semantic shifts into account?
Also, how soon is soon? In the next 50 years? Next hundred? Next two hundred or more?
I’ll finish with these two paragraphs in which “sound” is thrown about with gay abandon.
“We think some of these words are as ancient as 40,000 years old. The sound used to make those words would have been used by all speakers of the Indo-European languages throughout history,” Professor Pagel said.
“Here’s a sound that has been connected to a meaning – and it’s a mostly arbitrary connection – yet that sound has persisted for those tens of thousands of years.”
As before, I don’t know exactly what “sound” is meant to mean here unless it’s the whole pronunciation of a word and not a specific phoneme. The problem is that the word is being used in a singular sense which, to me, means an individual phoneme not a whole word.
Even if the BBC story has rather simplified the research for the uninitiated, I can’t help but feel that the research suffers from too many inherent uncertainties that may not survive close scrutiny. I’m also uncertain about the real value for linguistics. There is this penultimate paragraph:
The work casts an interesting light on the connection between concepts and language in the human brain, and provides an insight into the evolution of a dynamic set of words.
but it’s ever so vague. However, that’s the BBC hack at work picking out a suitable statement while avoiding being too specific.
- I think I’ve possibly mentioned before that I think English wasn’t really a distinct language until nearer the end of the Old English period at the earliest. In similar vein, I think Wulfilas’ Gothic is merely a dialect of East Germanic and not, in truth, some distinct language.
- This may be a little euphemistic, although I’m not sure. ON drit and the verb dríta may have had the same colloquial sense as “shit”. The dictionary may be glossing the word euphemistically.
[27.02.09. Language Log has now caught up with the story (Scrabble tips for time travellers?). It seems it’s not just the BBC which has mangled the story. Other papers have also managed to publish preposterous nonsense about it as well. The abstract for the original article in Nature doesn’t suggest that there are any great revelations to be gained from this research, but that’s not the same as poor reporting.]
Tell me a story. All right, sit there looking gormless.
I think I’ve mentioned before that I enjoyed doing creative writing when I was at school. It was fun to do that sort of thing. But these days on the few occasions we do creative writing in class, that vital spark seems sorely absent among my little darlings. As far as I’m aware they never do any creative writing in their Chinese class, which makes me wonder where China’s contemporary writers come from if they’re emerging from a system that doesn’t foster creativity.
“I have to do this maths problem first for the glorious advancement of the Motherland,” said Jia Baoyu. [Long, complicated explanation about how to integrate long, complicated mathematical equation.]
“Homework is so boring,” remarked Xue Baochai languidly.
“But what would we do without it?” said Lin Daiyu. “All that leisure time and not the faintest idea how to occupy it.”– A Dream of Red Mansions (21st century version)
The classes are supposed to be doing Unit 15 from the Workbook which uses pictures of different sorts of watches as the starting point for a story about the person wearing one of them. The first part is easy enough. The kids have to say whether the watch would be worn by a man or a woman; the person’s age; and their personality. As an example, I chose the pocket watch and came up with the following idea:
Sun Wukong is in Tianfu Square waiting for his granddaughter, Xue Baochai, to arrive. Liu Bei has returned from the dead and wants his kingdom back. He comes to the square to resurrect Zhang Fei and Lord Guan using magic. Sun Wukong has to use his magic pocket watch, which was made by the watchmaker in the Jade Emperor’s palace, to stop Liu Bei, but the watch gets broken and has to be returned to the manufacturer. Liu Bei manages to summon his companions from the Peach Garden and they then travel to Xi’an to raise an army of terracotta zombies. (Apply Murphy’s Law.)
But Xue Baochai has a special watch, too – the Watch of Shaolin Power – and she goes Jin Dynasty on Liu Bei and his minions while her grandfather gets his watch repaired and sweeps back to Chengdu in the nick of time.
Well, at least I was doing something in class, which is more than I can say for most of them.
Meanwhile, Glen has been knocked out of action by his asthma which, not surprisingly, has been quite bad. Although we had a couple of nice sunny days, the air quality was fairly bloody awful. I can feel it on the back of my throat. From the phone call I had from Glen before, I’d say he isn’t going to be in any condition to teach tomorrow.
After a bright but overcast start to the day, the cloud has thickened up and the air feels heavy. Rain later? Perhaps. Plants need it to wash all the dust off them.
Hume on religion, part 1: The agnostic philosopher. (I had to throw in a screen grab of the accompanying Google Ads just for their irony value.)
By Jostein Gaarder.
Sophie’s World is a cunningly disguised introduction to philosophy [Er, it does say ‘An adventure in philosophy’ on the cover. –ed.] into which is woven the story of Sophie Amundsen and her philosophy teacher Alberto Knox, and Hilde Møller Knag and her father, Albert Knag, who is a major serving with the UN in Lebanon.
The opening conceit is that Sophie is being sent a history of philosophy before she finally meets Alberto Knox in person. But there are numerous references to the mysterious Hilde until the truth is revealed: Sophie and Alberto are characters in a book being written by Hilde’s father from which Alberto plans to escape with a little help from Hilde herself. (Just to be ironic, Sophie and Alberto speculate that Hilde and her father might also be characters in a book.)
But the content of the book is a historical introduction to Western philosophy through which the novel part is woven. Unlike other periods, 20th century philosophy gets comparatively little treatment perhaps because most of the century suffered from the effects of 19th century philosophy. The reference to eco-philosophy and the pessimistic, Luddite views of someone called Arne Naess seem to be eclectic after which there’s just time to dismiss New Ageism as the porn of the philosophical world.
I’m not sure I liked being told that I’d snuggled deep down into the fur of a rabbit because Gaarder seems to have overlooked that we’re all philosophers in our own way. (Aren’t opinions a form of philosophy?) It’s just that unlike the pros, most people never try to establish their philosophy as a coherent code. Besides, children, having fewer responsibilities and being more ignorant, can afford to wonder about the world. Adults have to get on with their lives and be responsible. In theory.
For anyone who’s interested in learning about philosophy, Sophie’s World seems to be a reasonably good starting point especially if overt textbooks seem less approachable. The ideas in it seem reasonably well explained so that you’re not left trying to unpick the unpicked version of, say, Kant.