Mockingbirds

Listening to these mockingbirds improv reminds me of a factoid I read today in Daniel Tammet’s Embracing the Wide Sky that in order for male songbirds to sing some of the incredibly complex songs which change constantly, up to one per cent of the neurons in their song center are replaced by new neurons every single day, which adds up pretty quickly. That’s what those mockingbird brains are doing, rebuilding themselves continuously. Not adding brain cells to what is there already, but replacing them. It’s as if in order to speak we had to replace 100% of the neurons in our language center every 100 days. That is, all the grammar we’ve hardwired into our brain is replaced by entirely new brain cells with all new intricately laced connections between them four times a year. It’s not quite that simple (some of the neurons in the mockingbird’s song center will be replaced more often than others and others are more permanent), but still, our grammar and vocabulary would completely and fundamentally change over a period of a hundred days. Not all at once, but a little everyday so that you’d be speaking a completely different language in April from what you were speaking on January 1. I’m writing this in English now and a hundred days from now I’d be writing this in Armenian, and next year in Sioux. Plus I’d wake you up at five in the morning screaming outside your window.

A veritable ocean of inflections

Most verbs in standard English have six possible forms, e.g. take, takes, took, take, taking, taken. But in Archi, a language spoken in a few small villages tucked away in a valley deep in the Caucasus Mountains, a verb can have 1,502,839 possible forms. A grammar nazi would go out of his anal little mind.

Somewhere drunk people are writing memes

Easter was not how you pronounced Ishtar. Ishtar is pronounced–hang on–ish-tar. Dig that crazy voiceless postalveolar fricative. When you shhhhhhh someone you are shaming them with a voiceless postalveolar fricative. Easter is a word that comes from the ancient German, where it was pronounced something like e-oster, and it contains, instead of a voiceless postalveolar fricative a fricative is any sound, a voiceless alveolar sibilant followed immediately by a voiceless retroflex stop. That’s the st sound. Add a voiceless bilabial stop–the p sound–to that  voiceless alveolar sibilant and voiceless retroflex stop and you get psssssst, though not like getting drunk pssssst. That would be pssssht, a voiceless bilabial stop-voiceless postalveolar fricative-voiceless retroflex stop, and some someone would voiceless postalverolar fricative back even louder and everything would be all fricked up. Every time I see that ridiculous Ishtar-Easter meme, I wonder how the hell anyone could think an SH was pronounced like ST, unless they were drunk. Somewhere drunk people are writing memes, and the world is believing every voiceless postalveolar fricative of them. Australian indigenes had neither voiceless alveolar sibilant (or any sibilants at all) and no voiceless postalveolar fricative, and could not have said Ishtar or Easter, let alone psssst or shhhhhh. They would not have been reading those memes. But they could say ingoorrooloorrloorroona noorroo.

(Written maybe ten years ago….)

Plethora

I only use plethora to sound pretentious. Otherwise I’d never touch it. Why I don’t know. It is kind of a strange word. It was Greek and then popped into medical Latin about 500 years ago meaning excess fluid. You sprain your ankle and it swells up like a balloon with plethora, or plethorae or plethoram depending on the case. There are four different endings for the plural in case you manage to sprain both ankles. It must have been a relief that it remained in Latin. Or would have, had not some wag turned it into a English metaphor for excess anythings about three hundred years ago and it has not shifted meaning in all the time since. It has probably always bothered some people because it still sounds more like a medical condition than a group noun. I probably use its antonym dearth more, because apparently I don’t think it’s as pretentious as plethora. They’re not the least bit related. Plethora was plucked by an intellectual from the Latin, while dearth came up the hard way, from the West Germanic, like most of English. Dearth in medieval times–derthe–had connotations of a bare cupboard, of famine. It was a scary, ugly word, and with the vagaries of food supply in that era was probably more commonly used than we could ever comprehend in our own obese times. Go back deep into the Dark Ages, in the Old Saxon from which much of our English sprung, and diurtha meant love, glory, even splendor. It was an exultant word. A thrilling word. But that was many centuries ago. Now it means not enough, and will soon be forgotten altogether, as have nearly all words in all languages, eventually. Linguists educatedly guess that 80% of all languages spoken in history have disappeared, perhaps 31,000 tongues. That’s a lot of words. Some get passed on and transmogrified, like dearth. Some get dug up and repurposed, like plethora. Most disappear forever, or darisam, as a Sumerian would have said.

Invertebratefully

The rush of inventing a word that would make the OED just the once were it somehow noticed before vanishing like one of those synthetic elements invented for the sheer physicist’s fuck of it before vanishing a millisecond later with no impact on the universe whatsoever.

Thus invertebratefully, perfectly logical for one second in one sentence and then poof, gone.

Sometimes I think writing is like a jazz solo in an empty room, perfect for just that moment and then never heard again.

The cabbie had never heard it in the pluperfect subjunctive.

Actually languages aren’t made from random mouth sounds, only a small portion of the wide range of possible sounds is used for language. The International Phonetic Alphabet can notate all the phonemes (individual sounds) of all human languages and does so with only I think 107 letters and around 50 diacritics (and a handful of other marks). English uses around 44 phonemes (a phoneme being an individual sound). There’s a language in the Pacific somewhere that uses only 11 phonemes. How I do not know. And there’s a click language in southern Africa that has I think 112. You could do amazing things with 112 phonemes.

There was a language in Turkey that had only two vowels and eighty some consonants. It is extinct now, killed off in the greatest consonant clusterfuck of all time. That’s a linguistics joke.

I know a funnier one about a lady in Boston who asked a cabbie if he knew a place where a woman could could get scrod.

Phonology

Turns out that the word helicopter is made from the the classic Greek stems helico, meaning spiral, and pter, meaning winged, as in pterodactyl or pterosaur or pterpaulanmerisaur. Which means that helicopter should be pronounced helicoter, long o, silent p, which will make you even more irritating to your friends. Try it next time one is noisily circling the neighborhood while you are all trying to watch your favorite show. Fucking helicopters they shout. That’s pronounced heliCOter you shout back. They stare at you. The P is silent, you shout. Or scream, really, so they can understand the important phonological distinction in all that noise. But no one has ever screamed that a P is silent before, not ever. It’s not something one would ordinarily scream, not like screaming fire or watch out or Stella. So now everyone is staring at you, the helicopter is gone, and you wished you’d never read this post.

Maybe someday we will speak as well as we can see

Yesterday I made the mistake of listening to the TED radio hour, and learned that because the Vietnamese language has no subjunctive, Vietnamese people can’t speculate about choices they didn’t make or the possible outcomes of decisions. The credulous host and the hooting audience offered no hint of having considered the idiotic implications of this claim.

In things like color, if you are from a culture that does not have, say, pink, you can stare at pink all day and not see it as pink but as just a shade of red. We just have blue, the Russians have three blues. Not shades of blue but different colors, just as we have a purple, a blue and a red. There are all sorts of things that you we will not be aware of even if looking right at them because the concept does not exist in our brain. This even extends to numbers. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has been revived somewhat, backed up by neurology, just not the absurd claims about it that were made before. But it is true that there are things we do not see because we do not know they are there. Making sweeping TED Talk pronouncements about the subjective are absurd, of course, but if you’ve ever seen the endless list of tenses, aspects, moods (and evidentiality and mirativity) found in human languages it begins to dawn on you that depending on which language you are raised in, you are going to experience things in slightly different ways, or at least describe them in different ways, so that when someone else is hearing your experience you will describe it in a way that fits into the grammar of the language you speak. That is where reality is changed by language, in the retelling and second hand experience of it. People around the world will see pretty much the same thing, but when they go to describe it to those who did not experience it first hand, it gets squeezed into the very limited capabilities of an individual language to describe it, and that is where you will not see a ship even though you are not looking at it, not first hand but second hand. That is not by direct observation but by indirect observation. Reality winds up being shaped by the language it is being described in, if there are literally hundreds of tenses, aspects and moods to express reality, each of us is only allowed a few each, because no language can contain all of them. So we wind to trying to describe something we saw in impossibly limited terms. Language can only adequately describe an infinitesimal amount of what our brain’s occipital lobe is capable of seeing (and even less able to describe the other senses), which means that inevitably we can describe something in a way that leaves out almost everything we saw (heard, smelled, felt), and depending on what that language is capable of conveying, that is what we will hear or read second hand. So even if a polyglot bunch all saw the same thing at the same time, we would be unable to convey equally what we had seen in our respective language, but only what our lexicon and grammar enable us to say. A second hand account in one language would differ slightly or more than slightly from one in another language. An account written in English would differ dramatically from one recited in Tok Pidgin. And yet it is those second hand accounts that become reality in a culture, whether in history or in tales told round the fire. Language doesn’t have much impact on direct experience (as little of what we experience goes anywhere near the language parts of our brain anyway), but it has a vast impact on the retelling of that experience. When a guy says that the Viet Namese people, with no subjunctive, can’t speculate about choices they didn’t make it seems ridiculous. But not having a subjunctive will affect how a story gets told in Viet Namese, because the facts will have to be written or told in such a way to make up for the fact that they have no subjunctive. It can be a subtle difference, though sometimes it can be a huge difference. Every language is affected this way. Language is this vast, extraordinary thing that, alas, each of us is allowed to use only a tiny bit of. Such a shame. Perhaps as we evolve as a species we’ll be able to use more and more of the wealth of languages, and instead of the handful of tenses and moods and aspects each grammar has, we’ll be able to use all of them, interchangeably, and be understood. Maybe someday we will speak as well as we can see.