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euskara {basque}
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other links : i ii iii

Can you translate the next 300 words into Hindi, or Korean?; if so, please contact me and there will be rejoicing.

2002 Q1 & Q2
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February 28th; Finished another old book I was 3/4 through. Steven Pinker's 'Words and Rules' takes us into the heart of his own specialism, which is grammar, mainly regular and irregular verbs in English and German. This can be a surprise if you've previously read him chattily discussing evolutionary roots of human thought in general, cheerily introducing us to other people's research.
He explains how people with different brain conditions make revealingly different kinds of mistake with "wug tests" [tests to put endings on invented nonsense words], giving us clues about how those languages distinguish regular and irregular [Pinker supports Twain, perhaps German exceptions do outnumber German rules by some counts!], and how our brains do the same. The book gives an excellent feel for the austere precision needed for real science - one question at a time, carefully chosen to give one clear answer either way. By the end, he is claiming Wittgenstein's "family resemblance" argument is a fresh view of the classes of things we pick out in reality from Aristotle's defined types. Though the idea that classes of resembling families have 'prototype' [he means 'archetype', I think] members sounds like a bit of a slip. Bluejays are more essentially 'birdy' [for Euro-American experimental subjects? surprise, surprise...] than cockatoos or penguins. Wouldn't that depend where your particular culture stood along a spectrum of resembling, overlapping categories? Is a Wittgensteinian fuzzy category any more than an Aristotelian category where a couple of other Aristotelian categories pop up unusually close by?
More interesting, he suggests that far from mistakes like 'buyed' and 'thinked' revealing something distinctive about children's brains, these typical children's mistakes shaped the very language - the other way round. They may have helped, he says, decide which verbs kept which endings and which dropped out of the irregular clan, being regularised [and very occasionally going the other way] by each new generation of children's & other new learners' errors over the centuries.
Despite its big ideas about how we categorise the world, the book's thin air of high-altitude cognitive research is a bit overbracing. Nagging doubts lurk. Is it really possible to deduce so much about the evolution of the brain from the difference between German s plurals and German n plurals? Isn't MIT the institution that rode much of its reputation on the detailed do-ability of strong artificial intelligence? If some things are understood according to rules, and some case by case, so what? And shouldn't this kind of linguist learn a few more languages before they start looking for this kind of brain-culture fit?

February 27th; Finished my old copy of Jared Diamond's book about "the last 13,000 years" of human history. When, early on in 'Guns, Germs and Steel', Diamond claims that he has many friends from Papua New Guinea who are brighter than he is, we tend to believe him. There is a slightly plodding quality to his prose and thinking, but this may have been vital for him to develop such a broad, well-argued book and carry it through without getting carried away by his own cleverness. After all, Charles Darwin, possibly the greatest thinker ever, modestly but perhaps accurately described himself as slow at working things out. Other kinds of intellect may be quick to seize on certain features and spin too much theory out of too little, instead of letting the evidence mount in all its rich detail, gradually coming into an unhurried focus of its own.
Diamond's argument goes like this: chance factors left Eurasians in the Fertile Crescent [Mesopotamia, Sumeria - between the Tigris and Euphrates] with more plant species and more big animals suitable for domestication, than any other region of the world at that time, 10 to 20 thousand years ago. These plant crops and husbanded animals then did two things. They allowed the people of the Fertile Crescent to evolve organised, city-dwelling, dense populations with the spare manpower to develop full-time armies, toolmakers creating things like wheels and written language, and the need and means to expand and take their skills and devices further afield. But the domestic animals did more - they allowed several unpleasant diseases to cross over and mutuate into epidemics that could infect the humans living so closely with their pigs, buffalo, horses and dogs. This would become important several thousand years later when populations of Western Asia and Europe met other races on other continents such as Australia and the Americas, and the germs they carried [but by then were immune to themselves] killed most of the native Australians and Americans they met. The failure of peoples on other continents to domesticate large numbers of domestic animal species [or when they did, such as woolly llamas in the Andes, to live closely enough with them to catch their diseases and evolve immunity to those diseases] left them with very few deadly diseases to infect invading Europeans with in turn. Diamond suggests convincingly that sheer lack of suitable and easy-to-domesticate large animals on other continents stopped other societies from evolving sufficiently big and rich agricultural economies, and from catching and then becoming immune to, sufficient numbers of virulent crossover epidemics with which to conquer the world.
This is also the weak point in his case, of course. He speculates briefly on a might-have-been Bantu empire that, had it domesticated the rhinoceros in Africa, could have stormed the gates of Rome as Hannibal's elephant divisions failed to. I couldn't help wondering about the drives and needs that led to the idea of domesticating large animals in the first place. Diamond is keen to defend the losers so far in world history from any charge of inadequacy, and so has to read backwards to conclude that there just weren't enough suitable species in most places. If it turns out he and similar researchers are right, this is brilliant genetic archeology. As long as the genetic routes Fertile Crescent sheep, pigs etc took to become domestic turn out to be shorter and simpler than the routes other continents' animals didn't take - otherwise animal domestication in the Near East is an effect being mistaken for a cause.
There is more of course. The shapes of continents helped to diffuse animals, plants and ideas quicker on some than others. [East-west spread, much more possible in Eurasia, allows species to stay in their latitude zone, while north-south spread, as in South-East Asia and the Americas would have needed plants or animals to move through tropical habitats where they could not survive, so is much slower]. Writing helps ideas disseminate and protects them against being forgotten, and the physical isolation of the only New World society to independently develop writing [the Mayans] stopped it from spreading and enabling cross-fertilisation with ideas from the Aztecs and Incas. The Near East lost its own political lead to Europe by creating an ecological dustbowl with overfarming [overfarming took longer to damage high-rainfall Europe once Fertile Crescent ideas had spread north and west]. And the crinkly geography of Europe stopped a single political authority from closing down or reversing progressive ideas the way frequently happened in China [and everywhere]. Diamond contrasts China's steps backwards [like its retreat from what might have become colonies in East Africa before Portugal's Vasco da Gama got there] with the steps backwards of individual European rulers [Columbus got rejected by four other countries before Spain agreed to fund his expedition west.] that could not stop Europe advancing because Europe was fragmented. It's tempting to use ecologists' term 'species pump' for the way a region like Europe can be connected yet diverse enough to maximise innovation. The spread of languages are vital clues to the spread of allied peoples and lifestyles.
The book might have more impact if it was shorter, since fat, spine-splitting paperbacks are hard to forgive, but it's clearly a very serious look at the most important topic in history. A 1960s Reading-University explanation I once came across - a division of the world into tropical slash-and-burn, 'dry-belt' intensive irrigation, and temperate mixed grazing and arable land - still rings a little truer to me, but both are part of the same massive and commendable cross-cultural research. This older version is also a little more convincing in it story of political culture emerging from soil type [dry belt civilisations having cyclical histories, Magna Carta being a document "which could only have emerged from mixed farming country"]. Both approaches seem to overlook a lot of crucial questions though. Why did the relentlessly-catalogued early city states of the Fertile Crescent not notice and correct their own devastation of their soils in their tax records extant over centuries? Why did Chinese traders not establish intermediate bases between China and East Africa [for example on the islands still sparsely populated when Europeans encountered them centuries later] so as to defy the domestic politics restricting them? Why was Islam so intellectually fruitful for its first couple of centuries and then so stagnant? Why did wheels remain toys among the Incas? Why did some people live more closely with their animals than others? Why should zebras be harder to domesticate than brown horses? As the Phd students say, much valuable work remains to be done.
February 26th; Finished my mother's copy of 'Out of it' by Stuart Walton, described on the cover by Julie Burchill as "a brilliant writer". It's a book about drugs which aims to do something different and really be a book about intoxication. Opening fizzily, Walton aims to justify getting intoxicated, smashed, out of it, squiffy etc as fun and worthwhile in its own right. He claims it does not need to be justified as countercultural or inspiring philosophical insight or subversive. Governments should let us do it because it feels good, and children holding their breath and spinning themselves dizzy in playgrounds show us altering our consciousness is a basic human desire.
The first hundred pages are very readable, like listening to someone quite clever, full of black coffee [a drug he discusses with respect] and wittily in full flow, but the book starts to disappoint soon enough. Signs of something disquieting are there early on - showoff vocabulary {'ukase' and 'purblind' on one page do make him sound a bit "redbrick parvenu", as he describes himself at one point}. Likewise the long, tonkety-tonk sentences with more style than substance. Concerns mount when the second hundred pages recite all the same historical dates, names and anecdotes that were in the first hundred, only in a different order. I got that eerie unease you get when you notice an intelligent loved one begin to repeat themselves and think in circles. It comes as no surprise when Stuart proudly refers to teenage years spent speeding on uppers, and by the middle of the book he sounds not just repetitious but bad-tempered too. The overall argument remains vague, though spikily sure of itself from sentence to sentence, and starts to get maudlin, as a sloppy chapter at the end introduces some famous artists who liked to get chemically silly, and perhaps were inspired by chemicals too. Constantly on the guard against exposing himself too much, Walton is careful to be even-handedly snide about everyone - prohibitionists, prudes, junkies, millennial drug nutters like Terence McKenna and Timothy Leary. But despite this cynical objectivity shuffle, blurted declamations like "Janice Joplin's death left a gaping hole in rock culture" give him away rather, and leave the overall book not so much out of it as all over the place. Janice Joplin, Billie Holiday, Coleridge and De Quincy apparently belong together because in a book about getting high you've got to have a bit about artist types, haven't you? By the time you reach this sentence on page 262, you're relieved to be getting near the end:
"Taking a step back, we might see this projective relationship with the profligacy of the celebrities come to resemble, through the curvature of historical relativity, that other such relationship between the great and obscure in classical times."
We might indeed, Stuart. But if you laid off the uppers a little, your book about drugs being fun might have been more fun for readers too. A pub bore by any other name is still a pub bore.

February 25th; I take mother's computer to Halifax to ask why it feels poorly.
February 24th; I revisit the Internet cafe inside Halifax food market.

February 23rd; Quiet day reading & chatting.
February 22nd; Quiet day chatting & reading.

February 21st; Locate Internet cafe in Hebden Bridge, a village rich in hippie health-food shops selling dense brown buns, yet with none selling proper creamcakes.
February 20th; Arrive in The Village after a drive through afternoon sunlit mist with Ed, and meet mother, who has her central heating turned up to East-European levels of hotness. I try to identify a cactus vigorously enjoying her oven-like bathroom while all other plants in there wilt & die, but cannot find it in her plant-spotting books. Sleep.

February 19th; Robin's and Kate's friend John gives me a lift to Victoria station, and I am too tired to ask which African language was spoken on my right during the coach trip to Yorkshire. National Express drivers still sneer at customers - he greets me by angrily snapping that there are "no vacant seats", so I must apologetically reassure him I already have a ticket. Of course it later becomes clear that there were over 10 vacant seats for the whole trip. Once in Bradford I meet Ed and catch up on his poetry books, as he plies me with food.
February 18th; I meet Jules. After walking two delightfully fluffy dogs he knows from a nearby block of council flats, Jules sweetly lets me use the Internet from his office/home where I meet Kay. Then Kate returns and takes me to her club for a beer in her open-top car Ziggy [which has just passed its MOT], tells me about public relations and how her immediate future looks. Later she cooks chicken for Robin, myself and Constantine. Constantine seems mellow and thoughtful.

February 17th; After our brief meeting on the ferry with the stimulating young Mr Maddo selling newspapers and paperback novels [and his large, alert waiter colleague scrutinising all tables at once, crumb by crumb], Robin and I drive fast through Kent by night. We listen to Robin's old tape of a Joy Division concert through the countryside, and a club-music radio station ["You are listening to The Good Stuff Now, yeh"] once we get into the streets of South London. Kindly Kate awaits us in Battersea with pasta and tea, and we gaze into her giant wall-sized sitting-room mirror. I tell her this is not good Feng Shui. We sleep.
After we get up, I have an odd experience while shopping with Kate in a branch of a supermarket chain. All the labels are in English, and I find this strangely worrying. In the evening we watch television. Restoring a 1950s Blackpool tram and then an episode of 'The Commander'.
February 16th; Breakfast with the family, including Johannes's daughter Florina and her sister, who greet us from an upper window decked in reflective accessories. Fabrizio from Milan throws snowballs. Then a midday walk in the snowy hills with Andreas and Fabrizio. After a late start across Luxembourg & Belgium we make it to Dunkirk for the 11.30pm lorry-drivers' ferry service.

February 15th; Puedi sees us off with lots of help, and after a long day driving, Robin & I make it by midnight to the schloss near Luxembourg where Johannes and Andreas live with their parents. Andreas hospitably plies us with plum schnapps as we watch a German-dubbed Bond movie into the small hours.
February 14th; At a birthday party for her daughter, Fuffi introduces us to Axel, Loretta, Antonia, Patrick, Linus and Yo, many of whom attend a Rudolf Steiner school.

February 13th; Coffee with Robin's Greek artist friend Thrafia. After we meet friendly art-history enthusiasts at a restaurant with rather strict waiters, Puedi introduces us later to Googoo, Clemy and another Florian. Googoo and Robin both know Rula Lenska quite well, it emerges.
February 12th; We leave Vienna and arrive in Munich. After a couple of hours driving in circles round her suburb, we meet the delightful Puedi. Florian joins us for a Bavarian dinner.

February 11th; Robin appears. I pack, we have a late breakfast and leave town. Vilma's mother and Oliver welcome us to Vienna for the night.
February 10th; Suddenly my frustration boils over again. Quite a while since that last happened, thank goodness. David alerts me to the remarkable languageremoval site. Hands up anyone who understands this one.

February 9th; Went to the domino-carpeted Art'Otel with Paul and David for a European-Union-themed get-together with salty snacks. The guest speaker correctly guesses most people in the audience are Hungarian, and encouragingly tells them the EU is the stabilising cause of the last fifty years of peace and prosperity {rather than being one fragile and unfortunate result of it}.
February 8th; Out very late with Gordon. We meet perky Judy and Karen in a cinnamon-scented bar {themed around white rabbits wearing dark glasses}, staffed by Kati, a cheerful party lass. I leave my folder in the Sark bar, our 2nd stopoff, but kindly Istvan guards it until I returned there all distraught {after two hours in stopoff 3, the hideous Sixtus}. Gordon makes pasta at four in the morning and he and I talk about Britain introducing free national-health-service-style access to lawyers and accountants -- say 12 hours a year per voter.

February 7th; Was Friday worthwhile? I mark an essay with lots of colour-coded pencil corrections and my student gets even more depressed.
February 6th; The vivacious Esther skips by for a coffee. Obviously you all knew that 'terror' is the 4000th commonest word in English, but this Hong Kong page has some odder standings. Preparing work for The Student, I learned that 'Skyros' {4519th commonest word in English} and 'Deegan' {4521st commonest}, with 22 mentions each in a database of just over a million words, are commoner than 'dishes' {4613th}, 'urgent' {4623rd}, 'ugly' {4628th}, 'enjoyment' {4638th}, 'theirs' {4639th}, each with 21 mentions. And it goes on. Slightly flawed database? Look yourself if you don't believe me. Since you asked, this list closes with 'ham' {4998th}, 'label' {4999th}, 'ladder' {5000th}, and 'dreamed' {5001st} with 19 mentions each.

February 5th; I teach the bubbly Nastasia and the patient, wise Kristina [who is currently keenly devouring 'Northern Lights' by Philip Pullman, despite the Spectator's grave misgivings about the book].
February 4th; Some hours enjoyably suspended disbelief, hanging around in cinema cafes and Arab restaurants, being slowly mesmerised by the doe-eyed Zsuzsa.

February 3rd; A mellow chat with Tim and Gordon about world affairs over beer & pasta.
February 2nd; On account of having painted my key again, I lock myself out, so have to go and spend the night on hospitable Rob's floor. A bit embarrassing, citizens.

February 1st; Ryan leaves detailed phone message on 'nekezni'. He reckons it should have no definite conjugation [the conjugation locals misname 'targyas' {'taking an object'}, though Magyar verbs in the indefinite {alanyi} can take objects too], and that should make the 3rd singular 'nekezik'.
January 31st; Mother's birthday today. I should be there.
With Ryan went to a new cafe for a cherry milkshake. Perhaps the biggest collection of ugly art I've seen in Budapest for a while, which is really saying something. Ryan mentioned his Hungarian teacher jokingly calling Magyar's lack of a verb for "to have" a handicap. A little giggly from being in one room with so much hideous junk, I made a verb for them. Since they use the "nekem van / there is for me ; neked van / there is for you..." form, I hit on "nekezni". We came up with 2 conjugations. The stony- faced Hungarian waiter-owner managed of course to leave large glass-sharp splinters of broken cherry stone in my milkshake. Since I know about local catering by now, I deftly detected & removed the shards without swallowing any. In a typical Hungarian effort at a pun, the cafe has the proud name of "Bog' art Cafe". Yes, the art is Bog.

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Mark Griffith, site administrator / contact@otherlanguages.org

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