All 14 entries tagged Language

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February 14, 2010

Cellar Door

I'm still here!

If you follow this blog and you ever notice a long break in blog posts, do not fret, it's not because I've run out of ideas. Every time I think of something worth writing about I write it down, and right now my list is expanding much faster than my actual "posting speed" on The Missing N. If there is silence from my side it is usually because I have limited free time, not because I have exhausted my inspiration. Far from it.

So I'm back, just in time to celebrate the one year anniversary of this blog that I started on the 13th February 2009. Blog anniversaries are usually measured in number of posts, I know, but that doesn't change the fact that this blog has been running for 366 days and is still alive. Hooray!

Not so long ago, during the free time that I spent engaged in less introverted activities than writing blog posts,  I went to the cinema with some friends to watch 'Donnie Darko'. It's a good movie, with an twisted plot and a grandiose ending that gets you thinking, and blah blah blah. But we're not here to discuss the quality of 'Donnie Darko'. We're here to look at a specific scene. Don't worry if you haven't seen the film: what I'm about to say contains no spoilers and requires no background knowledge of the film whatsoever.

There is a scene towards the middle of the movie in which Donnie Darko is sitting in a classroom, alone with a teacher. The blackboard behind the girl reads 'Cellar Door'.

Cellar Door from Donnie Darko

I smiled to myself when I saw it, because I'm a language freak and I recognized the reference. I was thinking that the director might have left it there as some kind of inside joke, when Donnie Darko suddenly enquires about the significance of these words.

- What's 'cellar door'?
- A famous linguist once said that of all the phrases in the English language, of all the endless combinations of words in all of History, that 'cellar door' is the most beautiful.

They almost had it right. Cellar door is indeed said to be one of the most beautiful words in the English language. This claim is linked to the field of Phono-Aesthetics, the study of beauty within sounds. The idea is that when you remove the meaning of a word, its connotations and the details of its spelling, you're left with a sound that may or may not be pleasant to the human ear. In poetry, rhymes, alliterations and meters are all examples of phonoaesthetics. Edgar Allan Poe purportedly chose the name 'Lenore' more because of its sinister sound than anything else. Thus, although it may not follow as strict a scientific procedure as other areas of linguistics, phonoaesthetics is alive and kicking, and 'Cellar Door' is one of its most classic examples. Say it out loud. Whisper it. Forget the meaning, forget the spelling. Whisper it again. A lot of people will agree that those two words together have a certain ring to them, some kind of magical touch. This is what the teacher is trying to say in 'Donnie Darko'.

But "a famous linguist"? The claim was first put forward by... J. R. R. Tolkien! Now Tolkien was indeed, to a certain extent, a linguist. A philologist to be precise, someone who has studied the historical development of languages. He was familiar with a variety of languages, dead or still spoken, invented artificial languages for his works, and wrote essays on linguistics and phonoaesthetics. Nevertheless, I daresay that Tolkien, author of the world-known saga "Lord of the Rings", was not as well-known for his qualities as a linguist than for his skills as an author and his pioneering of the entire Fantasy genre. Most everyone has heard, if not read, 'The Hobbit', but few are those who know about Tolkien's essay on English and Welsh from 1955. So perhaps the producers/scriptwriters of Donnie Darko should have gone for "famous writer" instead of "famous linguist". It never hurts to do a little research before writing the dialogue to a film.

Then of course there the irony that the dialogue in 'Donnie Darko' takes place exclusively in American, and 'Cellar door' loses a great deal of its phonetic pleasantness when uttered in American, due to the American way of pronouncing the 'r' at the end of each word. The comedy is taken to a further level in the translations of the movie, such as the French one, where the phrase 'Cellar door' has been replaced with "Porte de cellier", effectively missing the whole point of phonoaesthetics.

For those interested, the first reference the beauty of 'Cellar Door' appears in the essay mentioned above. The context is as follows:

Most English-speaking people...will admit that cellar dooris 'beautiful', especially if dissociated from its sense (and from its spelling). More beautiful than, say, sky, and far more beautiful than beautiful. Well then, in Welsh for me cellar doorsare extraordinarily frequent, and moving to the higher dimension, the words in which there is pleasure in the contemplation of the association of form and sense are abundant.

And for those intrigued by my first YouTube book reviews: the second one, The Martian Chronicles, has been put online.

December 12, 2009

Open letter to the Vlogbrothers

Last time I wrote an open letter, it was addressed to the English people in general, and was meant more as a joke than anything else. This time, however, I have in fact written and sent a letter (that is, a short email) to John and Hank Green, and have decided to post it here as well, for your enjoyment.

A few words about the two: Hank and John Green, also known as the Vlogbrothers, are two American brothers (aged 29 and 32 respectively) who decided in 2007 to spend an entire year communicating to each other only through non-textual means. They called it the 'Brotherhood 2.0' project, and initially gave it two rules: First, any form of text-based communication, like e-mail and SMS, was forbidden. Second, every weekday one of them would post a video blog on YouTube to the other, whereupon the other would respond in a video blog the next day, and so on for an entire year. The Vlogbrothers soon gained an unexpected number of followers who were subsequently dubbed Nerdfighters, as in "someone who fights for Nerds". Although the Brotherhood 2.0 project ended the 31st December 2007, the Vlogbrothers still regularly post videos on YouTube. Recurrent themes in their vlogs include: Promoting the idea of being an intellectual (hence the 'Nerdfighter' label), donating money to charity, and adding "in your pants" to book titles for hilarious effects. The videos are often somewhat interactive, asking the viewers to help the Vlogbrothers with a search or to participate in a good cause -- like, for instance, -- and the acronym 'DFTBA' ('Don't Forget To Be Awesome') is frequently used as a reminder of the resourcefulness and creativity the YouTube followers have displayed. DFTBA has now become a popular abbreviation in the Nerdfighter community.

The email I sent to Hank and John is an example of what is known as 'constrained writing'. Constrained writing, as the name suggests, is a piece of writing like any other, but submitted to certain constraints. A classic example is George Perec's 300-word novel "La Disparition", written without ever using the letter 'E'. I will not reveal what the constraint is in my letter, but hopefully it will be obvious. Here it is:

Dear Fraternity

Title be Alexander, devoted fan. This being, Alexander delightfully followed the brothers' astonishing display 'f textless brotherhood. A double fortnights' time ('bout)  ago, Discovery Fortuitous (through bloke: Alex Day). From then, been active, darting fast through brotherhood animations. Done! From the beginning all down! Finished! Thus, became a dedicated 'Fighter.

Two brothers are -- Darn, for the best adjectives disappear from the brain. Altruistic; deep; funny; those become alluding descriptions for them, but are desperately failing to brotherhood adequately depict. For the bestselling author + ditty fabricating, treehugging brother 'Ank: durable fanfare that beautiful appraisal delivers, forever! This, both assuredly deserve!

Following things be Alexander's destined future: To buy amazing discs! Fie! the books also! Duo Fratres Triumphabunt!


The D's were a pain.

November 02, 2009


Alexander's Alternative Definition

Genius: A person who can watch the film 'Primer' for the first time, and understand what's going on.

Watch it. It's only 1h20, and not a bad film. But you'll see what I mean.

October 27, 2009

Native Counting

I've had the immense pleasure of being contacted by a fellow anosmic who happened to stumble upon my blog post on the inability to smell. She proceeded to read the rest of the blog (which is one of the greatest rewards any reader can give me) and says that she "especially like[s] [my] posts on language". So here's to you, Catriona, a post about counting in a foreign language.

Anyone who has ever properly attempted to learn a foreign language, will know that the most efficient way to learn, is to spend some time in the country in question. Learning French in a classroom with a teacher and some books is always good -- even necessary -- but the effects of spending a holiday in France are considerable, especially if you are on your own and thus forced to speak French all the time. Eventually, the language will almost "infiltrate" your brain and your sentences will no longer be direct translations of your native language, but instead they will be constructed and structured directly in French in your brain, without going through the intermediate step of English, or Danish, or whatever language you feel the most comfortable in. This may naturally take more than a week, but given enough time such a change is bound to happen. I remember waking up one morning during my first long school trip to France (the whole purpose was to expose us to the French language) and realising that my dream had been in French. It's a peculiar feeling, a mixture between pride that your language skills have allowed you to reach that stage, and shock due to the unfamiliarity of the experience.

I have spent the majority of last year in England, each of the three academic terms being 10 weeks long. 30 weeks of speaking all but English, with the only exception being my Danish conversations with my parents over Skype. All my dreams are in English, I swear in English, my brain constructs my sentences directly in English, and even my internal dialogue is in English. In fact, when talking to my parents or writing them emails, I often find myself searching for a word or a phrase in Danish that I would have no trouble expressing in English. I sometimes use my English-Danish dictionary in cases like these, effectively creating a new, unforeseen application of the book. So it would seem that my brain has somehow adapted to the environment, and is performing all tasks in a foreign language. And yet... Every time I'm playing cards with my friends, and I need to quickly evaluate the number of cards in my hand or in the deck, I find myself doing it in Danish!

I count in Danish. Be it cards, or people, or papers, it is the one function that my mind still does better in my native tongue. I am of course perfectly able to do it in English, but I can do it significantly faster if I allow myself to switch back to Danish. Consequently, I always count in my head, in order not to frighten or confuse people. From what I have heard, it is in fact quite normal. And rightly so; one would expect the brain to perform better in most tasks when using a more familiar language, so the surprise is that I would rather think in English for most other tasks (at least during term-time). The question is, what is so pecial about counting that makes it tedious in a foreign language?

I believe the answer lies in the fact that counting is something you learn at a very young age, and that you learn to do automatically. It is like walking or riding a bicycle: the process have become something so mechanic and automatic that very little brain-power is actually required to perform it. The only difference is that counting is linked to a language. When you count, a sequence of words, or sounds, will be going through your head, but the significance linked to each number will have disappeared. When you reach "twelve" in your head, you don't stop to think that about its quality as a number, its properties, or even the fact that 12+1=13. "Thirteen" is just the sound that follows naturally on from "Twelve". Only when you reach the last card in your deck, do you stop to interpret the sound "Fifty-one". This now becomes a number, with its usual properties and connotations, and you realise that you're one card short.
So the reason I still count in Danish, is because the sequence I have learnt to recite as a kid starts with "Entotrefirefem...", and changing that automatic process would be, if not impossible, then a very difficult and time-consuming task, requiring a lot of practise. All of which would be pointless in the end, since I might as well just stick to counting in Danish.

This, however, raises another question: What other tasks will also automatically be performed in one's mother tongue? The first answer that comes to mind, is reciting the alphabet, since this is essentially the same as counting, except with letters. Indeed, when looking up words in my afore-mentioned dictionary, I will silently be going through the alphabet in Danish. Also, it would seem like a logical step to assume that if counting is performed in one's native language, then so is basic mathematical operations, like addition or multiplication. Here, I will disagree. While it is true that I can only recite my 7-times table in Danish, I don't use any language when adding, subtracting, multiplying or dividing. If I write "6 x 7" on a paper, the symbol "42" will automatically form itself in my mind. I may then add words to it, which could theoretically be in any language. If I'm multiplying them orally, I will still see the mathematical symbols in my mind, and from there "translate" it into whatever language I am speaking. I think the reason this is so different from counting, is because in this case, the numbers are actually perceived as numbers, mathematical objects, rather than a string of letters or sounds.

I am unaware of other tasks that would be unnatural to perform in a foreign language, but I'm sure there must be others. And I dare anyone to show me how you ride a bicycle in English.

September 28, 2009

The Photoelectric Effect

Alexander's Alternative Definition

The Photo-Electric Effect

For those who like Physics. The reason this post is so ultra-short is because I don't have Internet in my new house yet so I have taken my laptop to the library but there is no power socket so I'm running on battery and I'm running low but I'll be back with more around the 2nd October okay thanks bye.

September 16, 2009

Minor Frustrations #1

I have started making a list (I love lists) of all the little things people do, that I personally find irritating. I'm not talking about the big issues that some people dedicate their lives to changing, I just want to address some the minor frustrations that don't really cause me any serious problems, but which would nevertheless be cool to get rid of. I guess the most exact description I'm looking for is: things that make me frown at people. Not visibly, but just silently in my head.

So here goes the first one. If you have read the blog so far, you may have an idea of what is coming.

I mentally frown at people who... consistently use bad grammar, spelling or pronunciation when writing or speaking. Non-native speakers are excused, and the occasional mistake by native speakers is also easily overlooked, but chronically ignoring the inner workings of a language, is in my opinion not OK.

I'll point out some of the baddies:

- "Definately". The word is actuallt spelt "definitely", but it seems that only a minority knows this. Maybe people confuse it with the spelling of "fortunately", however the two words have completely different roots: "Fortune" -> "Fortunate" -> "Fortunately"; "Finite" -> "Definite" -> "Definitely". Writing "defiantly" is even more wrong, especially since this means something else. Please have a look at this awesome site.

- "Must of". It may sound right, but the proper expression is "must have". "He must of gone" is nonsensical.

- "Aks". Some people pronounce "ask" this way. I know it's a dialect thing, but to me it is still a blatant disregard for the actual spelling of the word. If the word is "A-S-K", you pronounce the "S" before the "K". No?

- "I didn't used to". The expression "I used to" is so automatic that people forget how the past tense works. It should be "didn't use to", without the "d", just like you say "I didn't like it" rather than "I didn't liked it". A few days ago, I winced when I saw for the first time the alternative "I usen't to". Also, I'm reminded of Ali G, who says in one of his clips (as a joke of course): "[This officer] is here to show us that drugs isn't something you should do, but something you should don't!"

Pronunciation of "ask"

And don't even get me started about "Your" and "You're"...

If you happen to agree with what I've said so far, you should have a look at this page, a collection of common mistakes in English. I use it myself as a reference sometimes, when in doubt.

Disclaimer: As a consequence of Muphry's Law, I am bound to make some typos and some grammatical mistakes in this post. I apologise in advance for those.

August 04, 2009


Alexander's Alternative Definition

Paedophile: Someone who, when it gets down to it, doesn't love children.

July 10, 2009


Alexander's Alternative Definition

Home: Where your laptop is.

May 15, 2009

Open Letter To The English People


Dear English People,

Forgive me for saying this, but I believe your entire language could need to be revised, so as to eliminate all the illogical idioms, expressions and pronunciations that have appeared over the years.

Don't misunderstand me, English is not the only language to which this applies. In fact most languages I know could do with a quick fix in order to get rid of irregular verbs and confusing terms. I do not mean to criticise anyone. If I may sound harsh at times, keep in mind that I don't mean any of this seriously, that these are merely examples of things that may seem bizarre to a beginner learning English, and that by symmetry it reflects the frustrations that English people may encounter when learning a foreign language. Every language has a few quirks and oddities. Even Danish.

A difference between Danish & English

But we might as well start somewhere. In the same way that a militant atheist may start by picking apart the Bible before scrutinising other Holy Scriptures, I shall have a look at the absurdities of the English language before anything else.

First, something that I came across a few days ago when a friend of mine asked me about the difference between the two french words "savoir" and "connaître". The answer is: "Savoir" means "To know", while "Connaître" means "To know". There's no problem with French here, the trouble is that English people use this verb "to know" to mean two different things, without realising. One the one hand, there is "know" as in "I know how this works" or "You know what I mean". This is used when referring to a piece of knowledge, something you have learnt or that you have worked out. On the other hand, there is "know" as in "I know that man" or "This is a well-known feeling". This is used when speaking of something that is familiar to you, that you have seen/heard/felt/experienced/etc before. A lot of other European languages, such as French and Danish, use two distinct words to express these. Why don't you?
(Notice that the first instance of the verb is usually followed by another phrase, while the second instance is followed by a noun)

Next on my list is the subjunctive. If you (the reader) don't know what the subjunctive is, or if you don't know how to use it, good. That proves my point. The subjunctive is an obscure and unnecessary way of conjugating verbs in English. The basic way of recognising it is: Anything out of the ordinary. "If I were you...". "God save the Queen". "The King ordered that she be released". These are all subjunctives. The English subjunctive is a mixture of the what the French call Subjonctif, what they call Conditionnel, plus some more. In short, it's a mess. And unlike in French, the subjunctive is barely used in normal speech. So please, just drop the whole thing. It's just there to confuse everyone, foreigners and Englishmen alike.

We now get to the nouns. In particular, I am thinking of nouns ending in 's'. You say "a crossroad". But "a crossroads" is also acceptable. Why on Earth do you allow that?! "A crossroad, two crossroads", and leave it at that! "A species". Again, no, call it "a specie" and leave "species" for the plural. "A series". Oh COME ON. Granted, for a series, you need more than one episode, but in just about every other European language there is no second 's'! "A serie, two series". What's wrong with that?

You've also spelt quite a few words wrong. You write "parliament". To me, it looks like someone inadvertently added an 'i' in there. If you don't even pronounce it, why do you have it?
You write "address". Please, go to any other European country, and count the 'd''s. What do you notice?

There are words that are quite simply missing from your vocabulary. Ironically, two of these are linked to the idea of cold weather. First, the hat that you put over your head to cover your ears in winter. I've tried asking people what they call this, and the reply is always: "A hat". Mhmm. Second, there is no word for describing people who are naturally sensitive to the cold, even though this is not an uncommon phenomenon. Both words exist in French ("bonnet", "frileux") and Danish ("hue", "kuldskær"), undoubtedly the two most common languages of reference for what is considered 'normal vocabulary'.

Finally, we get to the pronunciation. Leaving aside the fact that every word has at least two different ways of being pronounce (due to the variety of dialects), there are some serious issues here as well. Alright, every language have some funny ways of pronouncing certain words, and some letters that shouldn't be said. But having silent 'w''s and 'l''s, well that's just cruel. Especially when it's only in really exceptional cases, like "sword" or "salmon".

There's more. 'W'. Look at that letter. 'W'. Say it in your head. 'W'. Now, strictly speaking, doesn't this look slightly more like a double V...?

I could go on about how you pronounce Greek words/names/letters (like Penelope or Euclides), but I've already complained about that in this post, so I shan't spend any more time on it.

To conclude, it is for these reasons that I believe the English language could do with a modernising touch. I am aware that contacting the Grand Administrator of the English Language, and getting the General Assembly to accept these radical changes, is a difficult and tiresome task, especially in the strict bureaucracy of our time. As an alternative solution, I propose that everyone start learning Esperanto right now.

Yours faithfully,
Written on behalf of Anyone Not English

March 29, 2009

Pi Day and more

Accoring to Wiktionary, this is the definition of a blog:


blog (plural blogs)

  1. personal or corporate website in the form of an online journal, with new entries appearing in sequence as they are written, especially as dealing with reflections or opinion, and typically incorporating links to other articles.
  2. An entry in a blog.

And according to UrbanDictionary:

1. blog 2345 up444 down love ithate it
Short for weblog. 
A meandering, blatantly uninteresting online diary that gives the author the illusion that people are interested in their stupid, pathetic life. Consists of such riveting entries as "homework sucks" and "I slept until noon today." 

Both definition seem to suggest that the entries in a blog should look like journal or diary entries. Hence, I apologise for the lack of details on personal events in my life. To make up for it, I'll write a small blog on what's been going on recently. It's not that I particularly enjoy writing such posts - indeed I'd much rather write something on the book behind Slumdog Millionaire, or an Anosmia FAQ - but I feel that posts like these ought to appear from time to time on a blog. Here goes.

Saturday 14th of March: start of Easter Break. And more importantly, International Pi Day! Given that the 14th of March would be written as 3.14 in American, this day has been chosen as an annual holiday in celebration of the mathematical constant pi. I had a Programming project due the following Monday, but I still managed to find the time to buy ingerdients and bake a pie (as any self-respecting mathematician would on Pi Day). I then proceeded to offer a slice to anyone still lurking around in Knightcote, and was very disappointed by how few people knew about this day. Some even thought it was something I'd made up myself. I must've loo ked like a lunatic. Anyway, here's the pie:

Pi Pie

Other Pi Day activities include learning digits of Pi, and doing the Pi Dance. One year, hopefully, I'll manage to gather enough other mathematician (or pseudo-mathematicians, like physicists, computer scientists or, God forbid, statisticians), so that we may have a true Pi Day Celebration.

Thursday 19th March: Going home. That is, back to Brussels, Belgium (is that still home? I honestly don't know any longer). The inexistant stalker who's been attentively reading every post of this blog, may wonder why my home is not somewhere in Denmark. Well, having Danish parents makes me Danish, but I was born and raised in Brussels. Danish is still my mother tongue. And no, I don't speak "belgianese". I speak French, but not Flemish.
So anyway, going back to Brussels means getting a bus to Coventry (20min), getting a train from Coventry to London (1h30min), walking from Euston to St-Pancras (5-10 min), waiting an hour or more in St Pancras because you're too early, getting your train from London to Brussels (2h30min), and then lose one hour because of time zone differences. But I'm not complaining, I actually quite enjoy riding trains.
This time, though, there was a problem at St-Pancras. I'd taken the wrong tickets with me. Don't ask. I'll spare you the details, but I managed to get a duplicate of my ticket got on the train just in time. Even though I'd walking around idly for more than an hour, doing nothing. Oh yes, I spent some time looking for a god-damned bin, in the entire St-Pancras train station, and concluded that there wasn't one. Minutes later I noticed that people were actually hired to walk around with wheeled bins. For anti-terrorism purposes, I presume.

Thursday 26th March: Finished watching Neon Genesis Evangelion. Fortunately, I was prepared for the rather quizzical and open ending. And you know what? To me, the ending was just as I wanted it! I have my own interpretation of what happened after the attack of Tabris, the meaning and goals of Seele, the goal of Gendo Ikari, and why the Angels attack. What I especially like about the ending is precisely how open it is: it is up to the viewer to come up with a coherent and consistent explanation to various events and statements in the series; while in the same time, hints are scattered through the anime as to what the "true" explanation is. All that being said, I shall probably watch The End of Evangelion one day, and see how that ending fits with my ideas.

29th March: Finished reading The Discomfort Zone by Jonathan Franzen. It's an autobiography, and it's the first biography I've ever read that I actually enjoyed. Alright, I've only read two or three, but that's because biographies usually don't appeal to me, I need some fiction. But this one was a delight to read! Chances are that the reason I liked it is because I can relate to what he says, so I guess reading a biography is a very personal experience. Still, the book in itself is quite nicely written, it's both reflective and funny.

Next book on the list: The Long Walk by Stephen King (under his pen name Richard Bachman). Maybe I should use this blog to write book reviews...

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