Yesterday, I posted twice. In the first post I mentioned the book Alex through the looking glass by Alex Bellos and in the second I mentioned the delight of finding that two words are actually related, or actually not. This morning, something happened to combine both those ideas. To explain what, I have to flash back several decades.
Possibly in my last year of high school, when some of my classmates were studying geology and others were studying geography, I used the little Greek I had picked up to figure out that geo-logy was the study of earth/land and that geo-graphy was ‘drawing’ it. Possibly because geometry was not a final year high school subject in its own right (it was a sub-subject of mathematics), I didn’t think about it as well. Also, modern-day geometry has very little connection with land.
But ancient geometry did. Bellos writes, ‘The historian Herodotus was the first to use the word ‘geometry’, or earth-measure, describing it as a practice devised by Egyptian tax inspectors to calculate areas of land destroyed by the Nile’s annual floods’.
(Compare and contrast astro-nomy, the ‘naming’ of stars, and astro-logy, the ‘study’ of ‘stars’, where the modern disciplines have diverged and refocused.)
Two days ago I bought Alex through the looking glass by Alex Bellos, an exploration of ‘how life reflects numbers and numbers reflect life’. His previous book was Alex’s adventures in Numberland (which the bookshop didn’t have, otherwise I would have bought it as well; I’m going to inquire at bookshops near home or work, and if they don’t have it, order it online [edit: I bought it at a bookshop in the city on Monday]), so he’s obviously got a thing for Lewis Carroll. (Unlike Alice, these books are entirely non-fiction.)
The first chapter is about numbers, and he starts with an account of a retired taxi driver with Asperger’s, whose hobby is to divide every number he sees into prime numbers. (The fundamental theorem of arithmetic states that every positive integer has a unique prime factorisation). The examples the man provides are 2761 = 11 x 251, 2762 = 2 x 1381, 2763 = 3 x 3 x 307 and 2764 = 2 x 2 x 691. (I don’t know how often one of the prime factors is so big; Wikipedia’s example is 1200 = 2 × 2 × 2 × 2 × 3 × 5 × 5. The bigger and the ‘odder’ the original number, the bigger any one factor might be, but the comparatively rarer prime numbers get.)
Twice last year I saw the Korean movie 오빠 생각 (o-ppa saeng-gak, Thoughts of my older brother or Thinking of my older brother, titled in English A melody to remember) once in a cinema in Korea (without English subtitles) and once on the aeroplane returning to Australia (with English subtitles), and blogged about it here and here.
I occasionally browse through a language bookshop in the Sydney CBD. Some months ago, sometime after I returned to Australia I saw a book called something like Korean Songs and Stories. One of the songs is Thinking of Older Brother, which provides the title, but not the story, of the movie. (The song dates from the Japanese occupation; the movie is set during the Korean war.) The background to the song is:
During the Japanese occupation of Korea (1910-1945), eleven-year-old Choi Sun Ae’s brother went to Seoul to buy shoes and never returned, inspiring her to write these lyrics. The cheerful music – written by Park Tae Jun – may seem like a strange contrast to the sad words, but during the occupation the Japanese prohibited songs that were negative or depressing in nature. Having a relatively “happy” melody was a way of masking mournful sentiments.
I didn’t want to buy the book for one song (though I might have been able to make use of the other ones), so I surreptitiously took a photo of this song. Unfortunately I can’t credit the editor and publisher. I am posting this now, some months after finding that book, because I’ve just been sorting through old photos.
So begins Fox in Socks, by Dr Seuss (Theodore Seuss Geisel), a series of increasingly intricate tongue-twisters. Along the way, whether Seuss intended it to or not, it illustrates many points of English pronunciation and spelling.
Each of the words has four phonemes (distinct sounds) in pronunciation, represented by three, four or five letters in spelling, so immediately there is not a direct correspondence between sound and spelling. Each of the words starts with one consonant phoneme /f/, /s/, /b/ and /n/. The first three are represented by one letter, but the last is represented by two letters kn – the k is silent. It used to be pronounced but now it isn’t (long story). (In fact, the k is silent in all English words starting with kn.)
Most English have adjectives have comparative (-er or more/less) and superlative (-est or most/least) forms. The three major irregular adjectives are good-better-best, bad-worse-worst and far-further-furthest. One student wrote farer and farest. I said ‘Those are clear and fit the pattern, but we’ve got these special words further and further’. No-one wrote or said gooder, goodest, badder or baddest. I commented that those are clear and fit the pattern as well, but badder and baddest sound slightly better than gooder and goodest. Jim Croce calls Leroy Brown ‘The baddest man in the whole damned town / Badder than old King Kong’, not ‘The worst man … Worse than King King’. The spell-checker in Pages for Mac accepts badder and baddest, but not gooder and goodest. (It also accepts farer. I assume that’s related to fare (farer – ?a paying customer/traveller) not far. Compare wayfarer. The spell-checker in WordPress accepts badder and baddest, but not gooder, goodest or farer.) (Possibly, the regular adjective forms of far should be farrer and farrest, but it’s not necessary to decide.)
My fear of heights began when I climbed down the sewer of Armageddon during a thunderstorm.
Every language user has the ability to create sentences which have never before been spoken or written in that language, and every other user of that language has the ability to understand them (assuming linguistic competence, performance and cooperation by all).
Yesterday, one of my nieces, who is studying linguistics, wrote the sentence above as part of a Facebook post about the pipe organ she’s practicing on. Yes, she really did visit Israel, yes, she really did visit Tel Megiddo, yes, she really did climb down the former sewer/emergency escape route / current alternative route (with metal steps) for tourists, yes, there really was a thunderstorm at the time.
After I posted the previous post, in which I mentioned the words tasty and smelly, I remember that I own this book, which I bought in Korea on 24 December 2006 (there’s a date stamp on the underneath edge of the pages). Looking through it, and thinking about meanings and usages of words, it is apparent that smell works in different ways than the other senses.