image by sarah mccoy photo

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Niche Thoughts for the Lingo-Hobbyist


You probably remember the seismic event that was my blog post on prepositions. You probably think of your life in terms of Before and After the Preposition Post. But if you missed it, it’s still here on the interweb. And if you don’t care about grammar, this post will bore you, so bail now!

But if not, I’m about to rock your world with Ancillary Thoughts on Language Acquisition.

Definitions first! A language is a distinct way of conceptualizing and expressing relationship. If you’ve never thought of it this way, consider the word “on.”

If I tell you I am “on” a horse, you can probably picture that. I am not under it, or in it, but above it, and not hovering over it, but resting upon it. All those prepositions.  

On? En?عَلَى?

If I tell you I am “on” a mission, though, or “on” methamphetamines (God forbid), it’s actually less obvious what my actual relationship to missions or drugs is. “On” denotes a particular kind of relationship: a physically concrete one when it means “atop.” But it also includes a set of more abstract ones in the latter examples.

As I said in my preposition article, these relationships are not absolute. They don’t usually carry over into other languages as an immutable set (horses+missions+drugs). Particularly when the assignation is pretty arbitrary, there’s a good chance another language conceptualizes the relationship differently. So the full set of meanings will not transfer from the English “on” to its counterparts like “en” or “su” or “上に” or  “عَلَى.”

So you just have to memorize them, and my Preposition Post can help.

But I have another magical idea in store for you! And it works because the English language has so, so, so many words.

New Obscure Tip for Translation: 

When a foreign language expresses an idea differently than we do in English, find a closer English construction and use that every time. This will equalize the way you conceptualize the relationship in the language so that you more quickly assimilate the usage.

Two examples will help.

1.     1. Sometimes words are fungible. English expresses liking or enjoyment with ME at the center of the experience: I like hockey, I enjoy sushi. Many other languages put the likable thing at the center: hockey is liked by me, sushi is enjoyable to me. This means you have to flip your thought to translate it. What has always baffled me is that textbooks translate these constructions to the standard “I like hockey” form even though English offers better options. We have a less common, but understandable construction that perfectly parallels these languages (since it’s derived from them). If you were to translate “Mi piace gelato” or “Me gusta helado” as “Ice cream pleases me” you would never be confused again, at least about where I stand on ice cream. What a simple step that textbook writers never take!

(This post didn't lend itself to pictures. Please enjoy this sushi.)

2.      2. Sometimes which words take prepositions is idiomatic, not intuitive. In English, you may be able to find a better equivalent translation that helps you think more easily in the second language. In English, we usually say “I look at books,” and therefore expect something like “at” to connect you to the books. Or to put it differently, you would expect “books” to be the Object of a Preposition in this sentence, and “look” to be intransitive. But you could also say, “I observe books.” It would mean the same thing, eliminate the preposition, and make “books” a clear direct object. In Japanese, this is how the verb “to look” operates. So translating “look” as “observe” every time means equalizing the relationship so that you can assimilate meaning more naturally. 

      (I would at least do this early on, where general proficiency is probably more important than nuance. In some cases, nuance will eventually matter.)

I don’t know why textbooks don’t offer this kind of odd-but-direct translation, and the instances where they help are hard to anticipate or categorize, which is why this post is a lot more complicated than the trick itself. But the thing to take away is this:

If you are learning a language and the translate doesn’t work word-for-word, or pictures the relationship in a way that feels strange, don’t just trust the textbook translation. Shop around your English thesaurus. You may already have a construction in your vocabulary that makes quick sense of that foreign phrasing!


Friday, August 14, 2020

The Care and Keeping of Words: Part 4 of 5

 Case Study #1: Taking My Marbles

I took a break from my Care of Words series to move houses. But words didn’t take a break while I was unpacking, and as far as I can tell, they haven’t received better care either. So today, I am back and applying the principle of definition to one particular word. This word has two main definitions and it occurred to me while I was reading the other day that the two meanings might hold one key to the toxic polarization of our politics.

That word is Compromise.

Christians and other People of the Book tend to be strict about the evil of compromising. Virtue once lost, and all that. But religions are just one variety of belief system, and orthodoxy of a different color weighs the same. In the modern stew, we can choose our ideology or our strain of relativism, but whichever frame we hang on the world, we probably subscribe to it with surprising staunchness. We elevate our pet values (usually the ones we are scoring well in). And everyone has something they just think is plain wrong.

This is actually a necessary thing, because though we don’t always agree on the contours of what’s right and wrong, ethical codes function as a safeguard against degeneracy. Of course, I would argue that the ubiquity of these codes, even in their diversity, point to an external reality. But that’s for another day. For now, what’s important is that integrity means consistency within your stated code.

But there’s a different kind of compromise. It’s the kind that kids have to do when they play together.

When I was little, I had a new Skipper doll. She was Barbie’s prepubescent sister. My bossy neighbor always took my new doll while I played with her old, tangled up Barbies because she “didn’t like the boobs.” I was sad. But usually, we encourage kids to share somewhat more evenly. The idea here is that

everyone’s personal goal (having all the best stuff!) is subordinated to the mutual goal of having playmates. Sharing wouldn’t have said anything about my neighbor’s preferences. If anyone grabs all the marbles, the game will just be over, and everyone will lose.

So what happens when we conflate personal and functional compromise? Within each fold, breaches in orthodoxy lead to shunning. Or, as the kids say, canceling. The functional compromise of playing well with others is smeared as a personal compromise of values. We fail to make the appropriate distinctions, and people get blacklisted.  

  And when that conflation becomes the primary driver of politics? Well, here’s my reductionist timeline of a democratic meltdown:

1.     Parties hold closed primaries, which encourage extremism. Politicians use language that entrenches the Us-vs.-Them mentality of suspicion.

2.     Candidates end up sidling back to the center they just demonized in order to win in general elections, but the damage to the mentality of the electorate is done.

3.     Elected politicians head to the playground, marbles and Barbies in pockets.

4.     Now comes trouble. To keep the game alive, the kids need to share. But now that their constituents have been radicalized, giving an inch means Mommy will call you in early to set the table for dinner. You won’t get to play outside anymore. The parent role has warped; the public has failed to differentiate between personal compromise (what you actually believe, or your personal integrity) and political compromise (trying to get some of what your constituents want while also doing the actual job of legislating).  

5.     So the politicians toe the party lines. Surprise! THIS is where the moral compromise actually takes place, under the guise of orthodoxy. Giving a little at the negotiating table isn’t moral compromise. It’s how our country was meant to work: we don’t all agree, and we don’t ever get everything, but we all get something. And if we really want to sway things, we work on the ground to change the actual culture so that it wants better, higher things. But toeing the party line to keep your seat subordinates the nation’s need of governance to the personal enjoyment of political power. That is a moral compromise. For the record, that’s the bad kind of compromise.

6.     Here’s the step that you won’t see happen. You’ll recall that polarizing rhetoric has made the environment inhospitable to politicians who want to act with integrity and make political compromises to accomplish their goal of legislating. That means that if change were to happen (in a magical, rational fantasy world), you’d need politicians to speak like gentle parents to children who want to eat candy for dinner, or to explain that, sweetie, we aren’t going to be able to get everything you want at the fair. It can be popcorn or it can be a pony ride, but it won’t be both. We never see this step because the day that we did, we’d see all of those noble politicians go down, tarred and feathered by their own, for doing their jobs properly and trying to vivify the mob with wiser words. But maybe one magical day.

Polarization means that the candidates with the least integrity survive, because they are willing to do what it takes to keep power, instead of what it takes to govern (which is far riskier, personally). And all of the rhetorical trickery of divisive language would be less convincing to regular people if we would differentiate the compromise of a good negotiation, which we should expect, from the compromise of personal ethics, which we should never tolerate.

Parts one, two, three here.

Thursday, July 9, 2020

The Care and Keeping of Words: Part 3 of 5

Part III: Answer Me These Questions Three…

By the gods, Meno, be generous, and tell me what you say that virtue is; for I shall be truly delighted to find that I have been mistaken. --Plato

You’ve probably heard many voices, even your own, follow up questions with the tagline, “I’m just asking.” Just as “no offense, but” usually precedes something offensive, “just asking” usually obfuscates a boatload of unquestioned implications. In a charged social and political atmosphere, putting a question out there can feel like an innocent way to spark conversation.

And it often is. But not always.

And if you’re the asker, you actually have more responsibility than you think.

Questions have been the tried and true method of provoking thought since Socrates. His leading questions were calculated to draw reasoning errors into the light so that students would recognize their own ignorance. Notably, recognition of ignorance and fallibility is the only starting point for learning and become wise. The Greeks called this transformative humility (akin to repentance, or turning) metanoia.

Exhibit A
(My seven-year-old was born supremely confident in her own judgment. While this trait may serve her once it’s tempered by wisdom, right now, it actively slows the pace of learning for her. She has not reached metanoia. See exhibit A.)

Questions can also expand the possibilities for solutions. Einstein’s brainstorming process using thought experiments “built on his intuitive understanding of physics, which in turn was built on his experience with working through theories and problems. Their strength, however, was to draw attention to contradictions or confusions that may have been missed by a less intuitive physicist.” 
Linear thinking is the sinking vessel built by progressive education and its isolated subjects, so YES, by all means, let’s think outside that box and ask ourselves questions. Every scientific experiment starts with a question.
But we can still qualify the question.
If the question is meant to find an answer, we must agree that there is a way to know things. How much weight does a magic 8 ball or your grandma’s gut carry? By what measure will we evaluate or compare ideas? What do those with relevant expertise say about findings or methods? Is truth even knowable? If not, is there even a point to inquiry, or are all opinions equally valid?
Wide open questions are only starting points. In peripatetic teaching, questions become quite specific as they zero in on error. Socrates, in order to answer a broad question, say, about virtue (is it taught or acquired?) must explore very annoying minutia (mostly refining one definition after another), asking questions like, “do those who, as you say, desire evils, and think that evils are hurtful to the possessor of them, know that they will be hurt by them?”
Often his students just throw up their hands and walk away. Being responsible with words is a lot of work.
In science, likewise, a question like “what affects mold growth?” must become specific (“does temperature affect mold growth?) before it can become an even more narrow, testable hypothesis.
Some questions lead us towards knowledge by increasing the precision of our thinking. These questions reveal. But questions can do the opposite. They can, intentionally or no, muddy our thinking. When the snake asked Eve, “Did God really say…,” it’s clear that the question is meant to sow doubt by twisting or obscuring meaning.
When a trainer and blogger called Tom Nikkola asked, “What if there are motivations behind [messaging] that aren’t pure? The only way to find out is to ask questions,” he’s suggesting that encouragement to wear masks is a priming plot to program our instincts. I only care about his use of questions here, which, along with misleadingly framed statistics, aim to plant cynicism without any of the responsibility that such a charge requires. He says he’s “only asking… ‘what if’?”
But that’s simply not true, even if we assume that he honestly thinks it is.
Imagine that someone cloaked defamatory suggestions about you in a whispered question. Would the mere form save your reputation, or expunge the seed of suspicion? A common rejoinder of conspiracy theorists when asked to provide evidence for their narratives is, “You can’t prove it ISN’T true!” But this is nonsense, of course. The person making accusations or claims, even in the guise of innocent musings, must substantiate with evidence if he be a person of character.
Put differently, evidence makes the legal difference between actionable libel and plain old muckraking, but while free speech must be legal, we should still demand moral integrity from those who just ask.
Here are a few quick thoughts:
Useful questions are specific enough to be checkable. Our goofball blogger above keeps the identity of the evil “they” vague, so he’s on safe legal ground. But if you deal in vagaries, you are probably less interested in truth than in throwing up flares as a dangerous and effective distraction from the pursuit of real knowledge. In the words of Nobel Prize winning physicist Wolfgang Pauli, sometimes a question “is not only not right; it is not even wrong.”    
Useful questions seek information rather than planting it. Back when we had daily White  House briefings, correspondent Chanel Rion provided a regular and egregious example of tacking question marks onto broad rhetorical statements, thus implying that those statements are valid without having to actually defend them. This is another example of irresponsible asking, whether you agree with her statements or not. It’s a matter of form, and the forms keep us accurate and accountable. A statement wearing a question’s skin shuts down inquiry rather than initiating it.
Useful questions can make us uncomfortable, and that’s good. If a fair question makes me feel defensive, I have a choice. I can deflect, deny, and deride, all of which effectively protect ignorance. Or I can lean into the discomfort because I want to grow and improve more than I want to rest easy. That’s metanoia.
Don’t stop asking questions. Journalists, those much-maligned and courageous upholders of freedom, ask questions. And as a fan of Socrates and of Einstein and of lateral thinking, I don’t want fewer questions. Just responsible ones. They keep the conversation honest and fair. Einstein’s thought experiments helped reveal his own errors and holding ourselves to high standards does the same for us, strengthening what we do ask. Because, unquestionably, there’s still so much to learn.

(Parts one and two are here.)