Saturday, May 27, 2006

Do You Sudoku?

We find words that enter common usage with little examination. It's usually a case of very specific meaning and frozen application. take for example sudoku. People hear this word and find out about the puzzle and leave it at that. This is probably a case of altered and focused interest. In this case the puzzle enters our sights and we ignore the reasons and history behind the label.

These are often proper nouns. And just like names of interesting people, we're more interested in getting to know the person and so we ignore the name.

But because it's a recent introduction and it's still the topic of much conversation there are bound to be many discussions alighting on the meaning of this word. We look and we find nothing too interesting. It's a shortened form - 数独 - of the Japanese "numbers for when you're alone" - 数字 独身. It's a brand name that would be loosely translated to "number alone" or "number singly." I'll choose to translate it as number solitaire. Makes sense to me (this is not based on any knowledge I have about Japanese; it's just my reasonable assumption given what information I've found out there).

I won't yet admit that I'm addicted to the game - but once I realized that I didn't have to actually count, and that game could just as easily be played with shapes or colours (though nine colours would be hard to manage visually) my math panic subsided and I tried a few. I was okay trying to complete one puzzle a day - until my sister suggested this site: . Now I'm developing a dependency on racing against the clock - and all other racers.

It's a wonderful site because it times every game and allows you to see how your time compares to the average of all players on the site while also keeping your average. My best time so far is 4:27. (game #5,548,314,839 ) not too bad - it put me in the 80th percentile. But that's on the easy level and I'm sure there are several people who don't take the easy level too seriously. I imagine I'm doing well only when compared to elementary school kids and soap opera fans. My average time over 25 "easy" games is over ten minutes.

The USER average time for a "hard" puzzle: 12 minutes 26 seconds
MY time on a "hard" puzzle: 38 minutes 24 seconds

That puts me in the very select bottom 3rd percentile.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

On Endings: Busses to -buses; Bye to that Silly-bi

--Some of you may have read this piece in another setting. I first shared it as a memo/mission-statement with the English dept. at Andrews University. I later posted it on my web site. I'm trying to streamline that space and it better befits the flaunty function of this forum - please forgive me if you remember it and don't like seeing it again.--

Since almost every class is made up of more than one student it is probable that we who teach have all had the opportunity to talk about both the single syllabus and its plural. Let’s be honest here. How many of us have said something like “Now we’ll take a look at our syllabi” or “I’ve put the syllabi on the desk; make sure you pick one up” as our classes began?

The word syllabus has a special place in academe because of its specific meaning and its resemblance to an original Latin word. And of course lovers of language the department members everywhere are going to do everything possible to hail and welcome the historic echoes of all words. Or at least those of us who try shamelessly to appear sagacious do so. There is a tendency then to take the –us ending and subject it to archaic and non-English grammar. By granting this word its strong Latinization we say “Yes I am aware of what happened before I was born…nay before English was born!”

And we’re mistaken if we do so.

This is neither to argue against strong declensions nor to argue that only recent grammatical rules should apply to our inflections. This is to take specific issue with our plural form of the word syllabus. Sure, some Latin words ending in –us were sometimes pluralized with the –i declension; but there was no form syllabi for us to take as a help meet to syllabus, because syllabus was not originally a Latin word ending in –us. The word as we know it came from the Modern Latin misreading of the Latin sittybas which is itself the accusative plural of sittyba [from the Greek sittuba – label]. This leads my untaught (and therefore wandering) eye to identify it as being already the first feminine declension of the plural.

Since our word syllabus is based on an already pluralized form of another word it makes no sense to reach back into that bag of historical grammar and pull out a rule from then for application to our word today. There is no –us to –i pluralization in English except in an attempt to remain faithful to the direct ancestry of a Latin word.

If we acknowledge the true history of syllabus we will find ourselves saying syllabuses for its plural. Some in their desire to correct us and appear more learned will try to beseech then bully us into accuracy by insisting that we say syllabi. We now know enough to share a little dangerous learning with them.

If all else fails you might assume that they are prescriptivists and so direct them to the Oxford English, Webster’s New World, Funk & Wagnalls, and the American Heritage dictionaries. Take a look at too. They all list -es as the preferred plural ending.

Merriam Webster lists –i first. I’ve never liked Merriam Webster.

p.s. Octopus comes from Greek so the plural would be either octopuses or octopodes. Octopi has wriggled its way into common usage and its tentacles are holding firm. I guess we have to choose our battles.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Rain in Espain Estays Mainly in the Plain

To answer my own question - my niece (not the youngest, Olivia; the second youngest, Calen) used to say tutumber instead of cucumber. and instead of saying Buffy she says Bussy. In fact I've noticed that she always switches the /f/ to /s/.

This switch from /k/ to /t/ and /f/ to /s/ seems almost random. but let's note the obvious methodology first. All these sounds are voiceless. The voiceless /k/ remains voiceless (the voiced /k/ would be /g/ the voiced /t/ would be /d/). The f remains likewise (voiced it would be /v/ and the /s/ would be /z/). The stop /k/ remains a stop. The fricative /f/ remains a fricative.

Here's the interesting similarity. /t/ and /s/ belong to a very powerful class of sounds: coronals. A coronal is articulated using the tip of the tongue. in our english language the coronals are /t/ /d/ /s/ /z/ /sh/ /zh/ /ch/ /j/ /n/ (and depending on your analysis /l/ /r/). These are powerful sounds because of the rules they seem to ignore. Basically coronals often occur where other sounds just like them - with the excepetion of coronality - would not. Such as before another consonant at the beginning of a word.

E.g. - in English we never begin a word /fk/. fkit is difficult to say and many would argue it's impossible to say it (it's not of course - it's just outside the bounds of English phonological grammar). But skit is perfectly acceptable. What is the difference between /f/ and /s/? All we need in order to explain this pattern the coronal distinction. /s/ is coronal and /f/ is labial.

Further evidence of the same characteristics: flip the letters around at the end of a word. Kicks is easy to say - kickf is not so natural (though not so difficult as fkit is it? - more on that in another post). Mixing the data around - rats: easy. ratf: not so easy. And let's look beyond /s/ and /f/.

act - pact/packed - stacked - tact/tacked: all these allow the /kt/ ending. Can anyone think of a word that ends /kp/? how about /kf/? I can't.

Simply put: in most languages coronals show up in a greater variety of places than other classes. Note: they don't have a complete pass. For instance Spanish does not allow the sp- st- sk- onsets like English does. That's why an accented speaker will often throw an e- before that cluster. So stop becomes estop.

But compare languages that have more flexibility than does English - German allows sht- very easily at the beginning of a word while there are only a few words in English that use the cluster - all recently borrowed; Russian allows fs- at the beginning of words - English does not. And the fascinating Imdlawn Tashlhiyt dialect of Berber (ITB) allows such odd words as txznt tmsxt and tftkt. All 2 syllable words. Why are examples like this so rare?

There is plenty of evidence that this has to do with a naturally articulate tongue tip in all humans. So while mama is a very common first word - dada is also common. And all this probably led to these neonatal phonetic hobbyhorses becoming our words for mothers and fathers - or grandmothers and grandfathers. These words - or very similar ones - are universally associated with these same concepts. And although the /m/ and /p/ sounds are so common in early speech they are not found as ubiquitously as these peregrine coronals.

Why? Probably because ease of articulation does not translate directly to flexibility of articulation. Babies can say mama and papa easily enough - but the lips don't move far. It's hard to imagine the lips moving up or down or forwards or backwards to fit easily alongside other sounds. But the tip of the tongue is as agile and nimble as a fingertip. People can curl their tongue - they can twist it - they can make a cloverleaf (my latest trick) - they can touch the front of their incisors and the back of their wisdom teeth.

I like to brag that i can even touch my uvula. I've been able to ever since I was in junior high.

Now try doing all that with the side or the back of your tongue. With your lips.

Try saying pkat.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Tower of Babe-l

Not a great pun. Not much of a pun at all. But you'll forgive me I hope - as the recent birth of my niece has me thinking about baby-talk. and a recent correspondence with my good friend Daniel had me thinking about language development. In that exchange Daniel suggested that "the confounding of language at the Tower of Babel wasn't thorough enough" (I think he might have been referring to my tiresome and confusing answer to a very interesting question). But even just the name of the tower has caused plenty of confusion.

People like to credit 'babel' with the origins of the word babble. At first it sounds good - supportable by orthography, phonology, semantics (including connotation and denotation) mythology . . . and let's pause on that. The connection is likely a myth. The name can be traced so easily to the Akkadian bab (gate) + ilu (god) that we pretty easily have to abandon the echoic origin of the place name - which leaves us with the question of the origin of babble.

Is it still possible that babble came from Babel? well of course it is. But if we look carefully we find other more likely sources. Babel's synonymy with cacophony dates to the mid 1500s while babble's synonymy with blather goes back to the early 1400s - and other very similar forms can be attested as far back as the thirteenth century - and in several languages.

It's no secret to students who paid attention in school that barbarian comes from similar origins. Meaning strange or foreign and probably imitating language sounds. The alternation of /r/ and /l/ makes perfect sense as they're both coronal liquids. And the low back vowel /a/ as in father is an easy lax sound. Can we predict another word used to mimic "meaningless" or indiscriminate language? How about blab? blablablah? The already mentioned blather - blare (using both /l/ and /r/) - blatant (from spencer's faerie queen - the blatant beast had a thousand tongues and used them all carelessly - probably symbolic of the ignorant masses) - these are all tellingly similar.

So is a baby likely to make these types of sounds? Well let's look backwards at this question. Are we likely to hear these sounds in a baby's babble? Let's not forget the origins of baby - probably echoic of what we hear as baby talk - and what sound do we ourselves make when imitating a baby's burp or belch? Or better yet what sound do we make when reacting to the mess a baby leaves on our shoulder? There might be no official spelling for it but we've probably seen it in several cartoons or other written dialogues - bleah.

So here's a question i'd love for you the dear reader to answer: What words can remember pronouncing incorrectly when you were a child? Or a word that a younger sibling cousin niece or nephew mispronounced?

Instead of patient i said pedatient until I was about 4 years old.

Instead of until my sister (who just had the baby of her own) said ultin.

Your feedback will fascinate me.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Ingwords: definition - annoying words.

I hate the word blog. It's in the same category as borg. It has nothing to do with hating 'b's and 'o's and 'g's. There are actually a few reasons I hate it.

1) Any shortening of a word spleets my ears. This is true of all types of words including - or especially - proper nouns that become nicknames. These all give off an odour of 'I don't have the time to say the full word.' This combines with some weird sort of 'woohoo...look at me...I use this word enough to know its nickname...I know what the locals call it!' Here's the irony - locals often hate the most popular nicknames. Ever heard a native San Franciscan who says "Frisco"? Well even if they do I still hate it. I don't like jargon when it is embraced so easily and with the obvious desire to create delineate or espouse a new and fashionable community.

2) The word has become over productive. not only does it refer to a log on the web it refers to the act of writing a log on the web. And you can be a blogger. and we now have a blogosphere (we didn't crawl back like crabs and create the ethereal 'blogweb' - at least we avoided that). And I've even seen 'bloggly' used. now come on…

3) Most annoying about it is how it came about. A shortening of "web log", it took the coda of web, /b/, and put it onto log. I can almost stomach a form that simply truncates a last syllable. But to drop only the first part of a word and leave the last part to stick onto the onset of the second . . . ugh. I don't know why this bugs me. I'm not sure if it's as bad as borg - which takes cybernetic organism and shortens it to cyb-org then shortens it again to -b-org. So from first form to last we see that a /b/was pulled from the middle of a word and put at the start of another.

But now I have to retract all this and say that phonologically these are very predictable processes and they make perfect sense. I wonder if knowledge really is the key to tolerance.

Speaking of tolerance . . . can anyone guess why using -holic as a suffix bothers me? as in workaholic and chocoholic . . .

But I do love some words.
subtle - especially with the American English intervocalic flapping instead of a voiceless /t/
mellifluous - (Funny how that word changes so drastically by changing the /m/to /f/)
brat - It sounds so appropriate to what it means. Like subtle it's almost onomatopoetic.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

At the head of things...

I'll not win your interest yet. The problem with this forum is the standard I'm sure I'm supposed to meet.

Supposed? By whom?

I've not yet heard anyone describe the weblog as the benchmark of good writing. Perhaps I imagine that other contributors who in their own spaces impress themselves so deeply will look at my offerings, weigh them against their own, and find mine wanting.

Whether these glyphs measure up to their sacred ideas or they don't - this is my wall; I'm writing on it.