Saturday, 26 October 2013


Finn and Jake from Adventure Time say, "Algebraic", when they're impressed with someone or something - sort of like "cool" only mathematical (ie, righteously-so).

I think Inuit (or an uncanny number of us) are algebraic in our thinking processes. Much of the Inuit inventions have an undeniable geometric quality about them but the quality is informed (intuited) by the physical laws that our ancestors have had to contend with and/or exploit in order to survive. The harpoon head, the igloo, the qajaq, etc. in their basic forms are difficult to improve upon. Algebraic.

In his book, The Music of the Primes, Marcus du Sautoy (2003) describes "Gauss's austere personality in his later years" (p.75) that resonates to some degree with older Inuit I knew in my youth. But this "austere personality" has nothing to do with being "severe" nor anything negative and rather more to do with venerable-old-monk quality...I don't know quite how to describe it; it just is. People who've lived lives as a calling, I think, tend to attain old-age like this.

There is something that Lao Tsu said, "To attain knowledge, add things everyday. To attain wisdom, remove things every day” that I think applies to what Inuit of old tried to attain in old age that gives this "austere" quality that Finn and Jake would call "Algebraic": Gathering knowledge is youth (adding things) while contemplating meaning (and ridding oneself of superfluous things) is old age (ie, cultivating maturity).

Going by my experience, I'd say that maturity is not something that comes on its own as one ages. Becoming algebraic - in the deeper sense, removing the unnecessary things - is a deliberate choice that one fails in time and again but do not give up trying. When we catch glimpses of it, it is truly "algebraic".


Saturday, 19 October 2013

PARDES: an interpreter's toolkit

Of the many impressions I leave people whom I've met, the one impression I'd hope stick is that I'm a reader, a connoisseur of ideas. Clearly (if one would indulge me), I'm not a casual reader: as a lover of books I think the notion of a library is a self-defeating concept because the very idea of "returning" a book I've read and enjoyed is morally reprehensible to me...

Nothing is ever simple, but to a person of letters a book is (ideally) a record, a testament of humanity's glimpse into the divine so rarely manifest in our everyday experience. The oldest "books" aren't merely for entertainment purposes but contrary-wise intended to edify us (the readers, the audience) morally, philosophically, and scientifically (ie, to impart technical knowledge and/or insights). In fact, it is only when printing became economical that books for entertainment became possible.

There is, in the Jewish tradition, a formalized method of interpretation called, PARDES - an acronym for a four-fold system of interpreting the Holy scriptures and its commentaries:

(after making a basic distinction between "open-ended" and "closed" interpretation) Traditional Jewish generally relies on closed questions to focus on the literal reading of the text and open-ended questions to explore various types of implications derived from the text. Thus the plain, historical meaning (called the p'sat) is used as a baseline for other ways of interpretation, which traditionally include the alluded meaning (ie, remez), the moral or homiletical meaning (ie, d'rash), and the esoteric (ie, sod). This four-fold system is sometimes called "Pardes" a general principle, the extended meaning of the text will never contradict the plain meaning. (

As an interpreter/translator of text, there is an additional concept that I think is worth mentioning and illustrating here: namely, whether a "positive" or "negative" construction is more effective in conveying an idea.

CS Lewis, one of the Christian writers I have admire a long time, puts the practical issue thus:

I would prefer to combat the ‘I’m special’ feeling not by the thought ‘I’m no more special than anyone else’ but by the feeling ‘Everyone is as special as me.’ In one way there is no difference, I grant, for both remove the speciality. But there is a difference in another way. The first might lead you to think, ‘I’m only one of the crowd like anyone else’. But the second leads to the truth that there isn’t any crowd. No one is like anyone else. (The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume III)

Of course, this is not intended to be some sort of prescribed way of reading or translating a given text. As John J. Parsons makes the distinction immediately in the article first quoted here: "An effective teacher [or reader] understands when to ask 'closed questions' and when to ask 'open-ended questions" a proficient reader (or learning how to be a proficient reader) has this background understanding that reading is not just a mechanical process but an engagement in comprehension, a process of meditation.

This way of doing things is not limited to reading and writing but touches upon everything that has to do with "problem-solving", being able to play around with ideas and principles to obtain original insights. It is the difference between accepting what is told and attaining an "aha!" moment.

I think I've mentioned this before: my best friend once remarked how loopy quantum physics really is in that it "allows" stuff to be both particle-like and wave-like at the same time. And my response was: without this fact, we'd live in a world without colour because the stuff around us is made of particulate stuff and we can perceive colour (wave lengths) at the same time.

Psalm 19 contains one of my favourite passages in the Bible because it speaks most succinctly of the participatory nature of Creation and the infinite wisdom (and righteous coolness) of G*d:

The heavens declare the glory of God;
    the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
    night after night they reveal knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words;
    no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
    their words to the ends of the world.

I know I repeat many things here...


Monday, 14 October 2013

Semiotics of "Post-Modern" Angst

In my last posting I mentioned something about the "aesthetics" of maturely-developed orthographies (such as English - though my readings of Umberto Eco would suggest to me that there is an angst pervading the whole of the "Western" culture). I suggested that the orthography of English is a historical documentation of the evolution of the language.

Now, it has just occurred to me (and I haven't really thought this out) that perhaps, in some small but significant way, part of the "post-modern" angst and the reaction of intolerance to intellectualism and the resultant hyper-partisan (however artificial) distinctions may be a subconscious repulsion to how "scientific/philosophical" ideas are couched in "foreign" -sounding and -looking words.

In such a text-based society as the western world it would hardly be surprising that the inarticulable sense of dread of losing personal and societal control would solicit such a reaction. The methods and processes of neologisms in scientific discourse coupled with the ever-increasing apparent meaninglessness of sloganeering of the so-called free market economy and hyper-partisan politics...the utter and complete alienation and lashing out/imperative to self-harm is logically inevitable.

This alienation is nothing new to colonialized peoples but to see the giving up and resignation en masse of trying to understand the language when its one's own...scary. Subtlety and the ability to think not only metaphorically but also in abstract terms is lost.

Perhaps in thinking about the typical trend of widening gaps between formal religious/social structures and personal experience prompted the great Anglican mystic Thomas Traherne (1636-1674) to observe:

By this you may see who are the rude and barbarous Indians: For verily there is no savage nation under the cope of Heaven, that is more absurdly barbarous than the Christian World. They that go naked and drink water and live upon roots are like Adam, or Angels in comparison of us. (Traherne, Centuries of Meditations: Third Century, sect. 12)


Saturday, 12 October 2013

Orthography vs Phonology

Ever since the Linguistics bug bit me many years ago the contemplation of the tension between "orthography" and "phonology" has always fascinated me. I think it does for every linguist (great and small). Of the many things I can no longer remember of my time at Memorial U of Newfoundland one thing that I do clearly remember is that this issue was posed by the Phonology prof and I think it was in the context of whether it'd make better sense to change the English spelling system into the International Phonetic Alphabet (what linguists use to document and talk about language).

Though, over time, I've come to appreciate the more subtle aspects of such a question (and have acquired a better grasp of the vocabulary and historical context to present my philosophical positions on the issue) my position has, surprisingly, changed little - well, 'surprising' to me in any case.

Taking cue from the brilliant lectures I enjoyed in the Historical Linguistics course I remember immediately jumping into the group discussion in the Phonology course with the confidence only fools are afforded. The Historical Linguistics course was the closest I ever got to philology and I was fortunate indeed to have such an able student of Old English for a professor who taught me to appreciate the historical significance of written sources as documentations of and witnesses to language change.

My aippakuluk came back from her Toronto trip with an old Penguin Books publication titled, Linguistics, by David Crystal (1971) whose writing on the subject of "orthography" vs "phonology" is typical of how linguists frame the issue: the beginning of the present century [1900s], much of the attention was taken up with the devising of appropriate techniques for the transcription of speech. This emphasis was also to be found, independently motivated, in America, where...the focus of interest was to make sure a detailed description of the dying Amerindian tribes - particularly of their languages...A phonetic transcription is no more than an attempt to make a permanent and unambiguous record of what goes on in our speech. The point which has to be emphasized is that to get such a record, we have to devise a fresh technique: our usual alphabets, which we use for everyday writing, are insufficient to do this task precisely. After all, there are only 26 basic letters in our English alphabet, but there are over forty basic sounds...We all know how English tries to get round this problem: it uses the same letter or letters for different sounds, as in the many ways in which the ough combination can be pronounced; and it gives the same sound all sorts of different spellings - the same /i/ appears in sit, women, village, busy and enough, for example. This method is both uneconomical (two or more letters for one sound), and, more importantly, highly ambiguous: we cannot predict all the time from seeing a group of letters how a word will be pronounced. English is particularly difficult in this respect, as we can see from groups of words like bough, bow (of a ship, or of a head) and bow (the weapon or the knot), where the second sounds like the first, but looks like the third. Many other languages show a much better correspondence between sounds and letters, such as Finnish or Spanish, and some, of course, like Irish Gaelic, have a much worse relationship. (p. 168)

True enough in what he says about the spelling system (orthography) of English being 'uneconomical' and 'ambiguous' (sometimes, and in some contexts), and that different writing systems of different languages have their relative strengths and weaknesses. But this analysis ignores the fact that there is a system, a real convention that works because it has developed over time as a standard of spelling and pronunciation. Whether this be by accident or design is largely immaterial precisely because it is a system of standards or agreed-upon conventional notations that account for not only efficacy, but, more importantly, aesthetics.

Now, that the abstract notion of 'aesthetics' would come into play in a writing system is a subtle thing indeed - here, I'm not talking about the form of the script (ie, syllabics vs Chinese ideographs vs latin script), but the ough combination of letters that are pronounced differently for different words and the bough, bow and bow examples that the good doctor speaks of in the above quote - but this 'supra-segmental' aspect of a given script allows for sight-reading and proficiency in the 'phonemic' systems (such as English and Hebrew for that matter) in direct contrast to the syllabic systems (such as Inuktitut or Japanese) which are truly a bit harder to master than the phonemic systems because the combination of both consonant and vowel values are 'built into' a given symbol in a phonetic system.

Many users of the Inuktitut syllabic system master 'sight-reading' and are able readers but the contrast lies in that there truly is a one-to-one relationship between symbol and sound in a phonetic system whereas in a phonemic system the context and the more abstract notion of aesthetics (and etymological, or word origin) value plays into how the /f/ sound in English is spelt 'f'', 'ph' and 'gh'.

In the Hebrew script this notion of aesthetics is even more dramatic because (outside the nichodot notation) the vowel values are not usually specified and the different ways of indicating the same sound with different symbols is purely aesthetic (for ease of differentiation of meaningful words by contrast in the script) rather than an indication of the word origin as what has motivated the evolution of the English spelling system, say, the way it has.

-Interestingly enough, the Normands that subjugated the anglo-saxons introduced the latin script that is presently used in the English-speaking world, and this historical fact determines the spelling of the gh combinations in present day English.