Saturday, June 22, 2019

The Russian spiders get subtler

kw: blogs, blogging, spider scanning

Hmm. I let 12 days pass, and this showed up:

The Google gnomes have updated the look of the Stats pages, but left most of the colors alone. When I notice a big green blob somewhere besides America, I look more deeply. Russia stands out, since it is so huge. The Audience focus shows more:

The usual count for Russia in a week is a dozen or so. The four 20-high spikes in the chart (note that three are double width) total about 140 hits. Pull out the 136 from Russia, and the basic level is about right.

It seems the spider has been tuned to snarf up 19 or 20 hits at a time, with an hour or so between. Although a cluster of smaller spikes would be less obvious in stats for a more popular blog, they are still pretty obvious here. Even when I was blogging daily or oftener, and getting 15-20 hits hourly, these spikes would have been pretty visible.

Весело ли тебе?

The livingest languages

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, language, languages

My youthful conclusion has been confirmed by a linguist and the experts he cites: It is harder to learn German than most other languages. Not nearly has hard as Vietnamese, perhaps, but hard enough. I learned French rather well in three years in high school, and carried on "pen pal" relationships in French for a number of years, with great enjoyment. In my first year of college, I found I needed to learn German if I wished to be a Chemistry major. No substitutions would be allowed. I flunked German 101, twice. After my sophomore year, during which I truly enjoyed the year of Organic Chemistry, I changed majors…I also moved to another state and changed schools, but mainly for other reasons.

Reading Babel: Around the World in Twenty Languages by Gaston Dorren I had the fun of dabbling in his riffs on what he calls the "Babel 20". These are the languages needed to converse with at least half the people on Earth in their mother tongue, and with about 3/4 of all people in a language they know fluently.

I don't recall what I anticipated when I began to read the book. I found that each section, from chapter 20 (the first, on Vietnamese) through 2 (Mandarin), 2b (the Japanese writing system) and 1 (the last, on English) was focused on one thing or a few things that the author found interesting about the language. He speaks six languages and can read nine more, but they are all Euro-based. He spent six months, much of it in Vietnam, trying to learn Vietnamese, and failed. He got so he could sort-of read small portions of the newspaper, in a language that has the most diacritics of any. Even then, there would be at least a couple of words in every sentence he would have to look up.

A word on diacritics. They are accents, dots and other appurtenances added to our "familiar" Roman letters; it is generally considered that they make them into other letters. Written or printed English hardly has any. We have retained a very few, but they are dropping out of use. How many write "resume" when they mean "résumé" (a curriculum vitae, to use the Latin synonym), or "naive" rather than "naïve"? European languages have them, so that "Do you speak French?" becomes "Parlez-vous Français?". Notice the little squiggle below the "c"; it is called a "cedilla", pronounced "se-dee-ye". Both "résumé" and "naïve" are also from French. Scandanavian languages also have letters like "ø". Consulting Google Translate, I find that "Please show me the way to the restroom" becomes "Xin chỉ cho tôi đường đến nhà vệ sinh" in Vietnamese. Both "d" letters have a slash, some of the vowels have two "things" near them, and one "e" has a dot below plus a circumflex above. I don't know what kind of keyboard can be used to write it!

Two things seem to have conspired to make the language impenetrable to Mr. Dorren: firstly, the pronunciation is subtle, such that at the end of his half year of study, he still could not understand a simple spoken Vietnamese sentence; and secondly, the many levels of respect and politeness that affect the terms used, and they way they are written and pronounced. I learned a little of this kind of thing with Japanese (#13 of the Babel 20; my wife is Japanese), which has four levels: abrupt, ordinary (inside the home), polite (common street lingo; what you mostly learn in language classes), and super-polite. There is also a level of Japanese spoken only by the Emperor, and there are male and female ways of speaking. That's complicated enough, but Vietnamese is rather extreme by comparison.

Vietnamese also has six tones. To those who know a little about it, the four tones of Mandarin might be familiar. The way they distinguish the various meanings of words pronounced "ma" (as in "mama" for mother) is a common "fun story". Depending on tone, "ma" can mean "mother", "horse", "ride" as a horse, and it is also the "pronounced question mark". Thus, with appropriate tones, the phrase "Ma ma ma ma" means "Is Mom riding (the) horse?". Knowing that "dui" (pronounced "dway") means "yes", the answer is "Dui, ma ma ma." Tonal languages abound, particularly in Asia and Africa. Cantonese has nine tones. Luckily, you don't have to have perfect pitch to hear the languages. The tones are relative to the general pitch of the sentence and the person's voice, and some tones are moving, such as the way English speakers tend to end sentences with a rising tone or give one-word answers in a falling tone.

As I mentioned above, Japanese is #13. My nemesis, German, is #11, spoken as a first or second language by 200 million. So it isn't actually all that hard to learn. It is just hard for this Francophile English-speaker. But the author does riff for a third of the chapter on how German is indeed harder than average. Each chapter begins with a one-page summary of language characteristics. It includes such things as language family ("German belongs to the Germanic branch of the Indo-European family", while "Arabic is the most widely spoken of the Semitic languages, … of the Afro-Asiatic family"), script (German uses Roman script, but used to be written using Fraktur, which looks a lot like Old English. My grandmother's grandfather was from Germany and he wrote Fraktur), and sounds (including tones and how many vowel and consonant sounds are in common use).

A word about sounds. This is one area in which I was disappointed. Although little variations can cause the number of "distinct" sounds in any language to exceed 100, they cluster around a more limited number. "Standard" English, primarily the language as described in the large dictionaries, has either 43 or 44 sounds or "phonemes". According to my enormous second edition of Websters Unabridged (published in 1979), there are 30 vowel sounds, but to my study, several of them collapse into one another, leaving 23 or 24, depending on whether a following "l" or "r" actually changes the sounds of "a" and "o". There are 20 consonants, but the number of "nonvowel phonemes" is probably 24, which underlies the claim I have seen for 48 sounds in spoken English. Most languages have fewer than this, usually fewer than 40. But Mandarin (I have been told by several Mandarin speakers) has 88 sounds. Most of them are vowels that English speakers who didn't hear Mandarin as a small child (and keep it up) cannot distinguish, and a number of the consonant sounds are also opaque to us. Thus the common question "Are you Chinese?" becomes "Zhōngguó rén ma". That accented "e" in "rén" is a sound I can neither hear accurately nor properly pronounce (my Chinese friends giggle behind a hand). And "zhōngguó" sounds to me like "choo-go", but I am assured that the "ngg" sound is actually nasalized, though to a lesser extent than ñ in Spanish. At the other end of the spectrum, I understand that Hawaiian has 13 sounds, five vowels and eight consonants. Anyway, the sections on "sounds" for each language do not provide a satisfactory guide.

Dropping that quibble, though, the book is a delight to read, and ends on a thoughtful note. English has become the modern lingua franca, the go-to language for diplomacy and international trade (and internet communications), just as French was a few generations ago, when the term lingua franca was coined. Will Mandarin replace it any time soon? The chapter on English, posed as an interview with a native English speaker, reaches the conclusion that the Chinese writing system(s) would prohibit that. Computer-expedited communication works better when an alphabetic script is used. My Chinese friends, when texting in Mandarin, use a phonetic input method, and the software in their phones picks out possible characters for them to choose. A smaller number use software that lets them draw the character with a finger. That method is actually slower! And, as a final conclusion, automated translation software continues to get better, so we may not need a lingua franca in the future. I have no idea if the Vietnamese sentence I used above is an accurate translation. In another 10-20 years, the translations will be of greatly improved accuracy. I already have an app on my phone that lets me say something in English, and it speaks a Chinese, Spanish, Korean, or whatever translation, and it works pretty well. The person's reply is turned into English that might be a little stilted, but is clear.

Too much fun. I understand the author wrote an earlier book about 60 languages. Worth looking into.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Trying out a new creation myth

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, origins

Dr. David Christian is among a handful of people that founded, and promote, the concept of Big History. Of course, the biggest history available is that of the whole Universe, which has been presented at various angles by none other than Prof. Stephen Hawking via the books A Brief History of Time (1988), The Universe in a Nutshell (2001), The Grand Design (2010, with Leonard Mlodinow), and Brief Answers to the Big Questions (2018, Posthumous). A pretty hard act to follow!

In his book Origin Story, a Big History of Everything, Dr. Christian proposes to replace Genesis and other creation stories with a simplified but comprehensive account of scientific knowledge regarding the Universe, the Earth, and us.

I like his approach. He identifies 8 milestones that he calls Thresholds. One could say they represent successive crystallizations of the flow of energy. One author (I no longer recall who) wrote of "hangups" in the otherwise steady flow of energy from the extreme contrast represented by the Big Bang, to the eventual heat death of the Universe as it reaches maximum possible entropy. For example, stars "hang up" energy by forging hydrogen into helium at a measured rate; also, gravity causes galaxies, galaxy clusters, and superclusters to form and retain their integrity for billions of years, rather than everything falling straight back together. The simplest hangup is the minuscule torque found in a hypothetical universe of just two particles, being attracted by gravity. If either particle has even a trace of sideways momentum, not directly on the line between them, they will miss one another at closest approach, and some sort of orbit will be achieved instead. If they bear an electric charge, they will emit photons as they are accelerated, so that over time, the orbit will shrink until they collide. But the process will take eons longer than if they were to fall directly into one another.

A little under half the book is taken up with the story of the Universe from the Big Bang, and the energy threshold of the Big Bang itself, followed by those represented by the formation of stars, galaxies, molecules, and life, leading up to Threshold 6, Humans. Somehow, the capture of electrons by nucleons to form atoms, which I would think of as a significant threshold, and certainly had a great effect on energy flow in the Universe, is glossed over. Naturally, this would come before molecules. In faithfulness, I must note that the writing in this portion is less than compelling. I went to YouTube to watch some of Dr. Christian's lectures and a TED talk. He is an excellent speaker. It just doesn't show in this portion of the book; there is a lack of passion.

He hits his stride once he begins to discuss agrarian civilizations, which we tend to call just Civilization, as if there were no other. The transition from foraging to farming, which took place over several thousand years, erupting in various places, is quite a crystallization of the human species, from a more fluid state to the settledness of farms and cities. The clear passion shown by the author in this and later portions make for much more agreeable reading. The slog through the earlier portions mostly explains why it took me so long to read this book.

I would call Origin Story a useful first step to making Big History accessible to the bulk of us. There is a long way to go.