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Friday, February 28, 2014

Random Half Thoughts on Steven Pinker's, The Language Instinct

Is language more than the sum of its parts?  Words are words, right?  What’s the big deal? Wait ‘til your wife asks you to take out the trash…again!  Wait until your fat prick of a boss mentions: "It’s Thursday.  Report ready?"  Just words, but they blast you like a short fused grenade.

Words ride on an express train of ideas. Some make you want to use a bazooka to carve your name in a tree.  And even the simplest of phrases carry complexities, just as one hair off your head conveys your entire DNS. But let’s not get too complicated.  I may spill my beer.  One small example:  nevertheless.

Sure, it’s a compound word, but what do the words mean separately?  Never. The. Less.  If you know the separate words, but had never put them together, would they naturally fall in place?  We never separate nevertheless and explain to ourselves what it means.  We just know what it means.  Hell yeah!  Problem solved.  Take another swig.  We know the idea and that idea contributes to the totality of what we’re saying or hearing.

Nevertheless, I’m going with Sam’s curvaceous wife to checkout…er, something she wants to show me.”  Nevertheless implies a lot of things.  Jack is a notorious bastard, nevertheless, I’m meeting him for a beer.” No matter what it is, nevertheless ties a neat bow around it.

There’s something else to consider.

We think in pictures. When I mention tits, do you only see the words?  Gentle men and women of the jury, I rest my case.  If I say ‘car’ and a French woman says voiture, and a Japanese man says, kuruma, all three of us are going to picture more or less the same object, although in the case of the French woman you may still be stuck on ‘tits.’ In our own separate ways, we’ve learned a sound that produces an object, or an idea, or a movement, or a mood.  A slight tonal change can make a hell of a difference.  Honey, I swear you said we could meet someday, not Sunday!”

Speaking of mood, we dress up ideas, using facial expressions and body movement.  I can say, “I don’t know,” meekly, embarrassed that I don’t know the answer, or I can say it loudly, with eyes wide and a snarl, meaning I’m going to kick your ass if you ask me again!  Same words.

As any husband knows, if your wife gives instructions and asks you to repeat them, you may come close, but chances are you won’t repeat the words exactly.  Your mind may be elsewhere. French woman.  Tits.  French woman. You got the idea. Whether you’re lucky, or not you have to scratch for an answer.  No way will you capture the exact words.

“Go to the store and pick up some milk and anything else we need to make an omelet.  Now what are you going to get?”

“I don’t know…some milk…maybe some eggs.  I think I’ll get some bread, too.  And do we have any cheese?”

“Yeah, we’ve got cheese.  Just get the milk and eggs…and…what was that other thing?”  It’s not the forgetfulness that makes us change replies, it’s the limitless possibilities.

And so it goes.  Did you know we almost never repeat ourselves exactly?

In The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker points out that given a sentence of twenty words, the number of sentences a person can construct using those same words is ten to the power of twenty (a hundred million trillion).  “At five seconds a sentence, a person would need a childhood of about a hundred trillion years…to memorize them all.” Do you realize how much beer that would take?

So after you talk about your trip to the beach, and someone says, “You’re repeating yourself,” the truth sits squarely in the center between yes and no.  The ideas, maybe.  The exact words?  Not a chance.

Lots of people, many of them sadistic language teachers, think that grammar is the penultimate in language learning.  I once had a language teacher tell me that a person cannot speak a language without knowing grammar. Tell that to an eight year old.  But in a sense, I grudgingly admit she was correct, but not in the way she meant.  Read on.

Underneath formal grammar is a built-in grammar code. Again, from The Language Instinct, comes this tidbit:  We all have a sense of grammar, simply from knowing a language.  Speaking or writing can be grammatically correct, yet still just “not sound right.”  It’s an inherent grammatical code.  Yoda makes complete sense, but when he says “A nitwit you are,” it doesn’t fit our built in code of word order, and in this case it may piss you off.  How about, “Sally poured with water in the glass.”  No split infinitives.  No dangling participles.  Yet…yet…it just don’t sound right, although Sally never was that bright!  And, when I express myself ungrammatically, you still know exactly what I mean.  What a conundrum!

Here are a few more examples of knowing what is meant, without examining what is said:

In the meantime.  “In the meantime, you worthless dog, I want you to mow the lawn.”

As far as it goes.  “I like marriage, as far as it goes.”

Anyway.  “Anyway, let’s not argue about your meddling mother.”

Just in case.  “I bought the 12 pack of condoms, just in case.”

None of your business. The Germans say, “It’s not your beer!”

Keep it to yourself.  “As for you and me, Eileen  (wink, wink), let’s keep it to ourselves.”

We sometimes exclaim:  Never heard of it!  But not, “Never seen of it.”

How about:  I haven’t made up my mind.  Can you say, I haven’t made up my thought, or haven’t made up my decision? They’re every bit as grammatically correct in the formal sense, but English speakers, even those with no sense of grammar, never say them. Breaks the internal grammatical code.  Also makes your friends think you’ve been tapping the keg before breakfast.

Many times these words and phrases are what you could call social noise.  You could leave them out….but they’re not left out, at least not by those who are thinking in a language.

In the play, The Miracle Worker, about the life of Helen Keller, the teacher is asked by Helen’s mother, what will you teach her?  The answer?  Language. “Language is to the mind more than light is to the eye.”  We can easily tell a drawing from a photo, even though we may not remember everything we see in a photo.  Lack of detail?  Just doesn’t look right?

With speech, you can understand something, but it just doesn’t sound right.

Why can you take four years of Spanish and still not speak it?  Doesn’t make sense.  Yes, it does.  Language is so complex, so individual, that a list of words, or conjugation of verbs, or rules of grammar are to language as a quick pencil sketch is to photography.

Riding a bicycle.  It’s not just sitting up straight and pedaling and steering.  Your brain has to adapt to direct all your body parts for balance. Give your kid all the hints you want.  Won’t make a difference.  Takes time for the brain to curl around the balance thing.

Friends, who are fluent in another language, tell me you must be immersed to truly learn a language. Same thing as learning to ride a bike. It takes time and magic for your brain to twist and turn and develop an internal language code.  Big difference between speaking a few phrases, or passing a written test, and actually thinking in a language.

Had a more honest language teacher once tell me, “Pay attention in class, study hard, and in five years you’ll be fluent.  Or, don’t study so much, don’t take the class so seriously, but stay active in the language and in five years you’ll be fluent.”  Thanks, Bob.  I’ll take door number two.

Anyway, in the meantime, let’s just sip a cool one and think about it.  Nevertheless, it’s none of your business, and I hope you’ll keep it to yourself.


Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Alex, by Pierre Lemaitre

In general, what makes a good book?  Who knows?  Not I.  Varies from reader to reader.  But, if you like books that span the gaps from police procedural to mystery to serial killer to monstrous gore, I’ve finished one that will grip you in its bloodthirsty claws from page one.

Takes place in Paris.  Pierre Lemaitre’s protagonist, Commandant Camille Verhoeven, is the epitome of the anti-hero, and an original from start to finish.  Cantankerous, abrasive, short in stature and temper, the powers that be just flat do not like him.  He’s the detective for whom nothing is solved until he’s turned over every rock and stepped on everything that crawls out.  As a reader, sometimes you find yourself laughing out loud at his sarcasm.  Easy to laugh.  You’re an outsider.  Tougher when you’re in up to your eyebrows, your stupidity is hung out like dirty laundry, and the sarcasm cuts you like a rusty knife. Nobody evades his rapier tongue, or his insubordinate sighs.  Certainly not his superiors and especially not suspects with guilty looks, glibly spewing out half answers.

Camille’s superiors give him the shit cases, then are sorry they did.  Open and shut is never open and shut.  Arrogance and self-evidence never goes unquestioned by this snapping bulldog.

And what of the case itself?  A woman has been kidnapped.  You learn to hate the kidnapper in a page and a half.  But, as one curtain after another gets pulled back?  Let’s say this case and this thriller have more twists and turns than a cornered rattlesnake.  You know.  You’re sure you know.  But, you don’t know shit.  And so it goes to the last page.

I’ve simply never read a book like this.  Densely plotted. Characters drawn so sharply and deeply, you swap back and forth from love to hate to grudging admiration, until you find yourself in a quandary.

I’ve grown so tired of thriller that promise to thrill only to fall back on tired formulas, or unreasonable assumptions.  Fifty pages of splendorous magic, followed by 300 pages of pulp.  Makes you want to throw the author up against the wall for wasting your time.

This author is different.  Pierre Lemaitre has written a mystery-thriller-police procedural that not only entertains, but makes you laugh, makes you shiver, and leaves you breathlessly pondering for days afterwards.  The anti-hero, Commandant Camille Verhoeven is a character for the ages.  You may like him or not, but you’re going to be waiting for the next book to see exactly what the bastard is up to next.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Sugar Cookies Shape Our Tomorrows

We are our parents’ legacies.  They didn’t fill in all the gaps and soften the jagged edges of our future, but they fashioned the way we view the world, directly and indirectly.

Sugar cookies lit up my childhood.  They were one of my mother’s favorites.  I didn’t even have to step through the front door to smell the deliciousness.  If I were outside playing, I stopped what I was doing and came running.

The experts say smell is one of our most indelible memories.  I believe it.  I’d go further and say the smells wafting out of our mother’s or grandmother’s kitchens left an imprint that follows us the rest of our lives, and often shapes our tastes.  Maybe it goes beyond smells.  Bowls, utensils, the sight of a glass-measuring cup filled to the brim with fluffy, white flour.  The concentration on my mother’s face, and the swish of her starched apron.  The delicate scent of vanilla and the sandpaper sound of sugar being mixed with butter.

She would carefully explain each step of a recipe, as if she were teaching an adult to cook.  When the cookies went in the oven,  she would let me lick the bowl.  I used a wooden spoon, but the term stuck and I asked my own kids, if they would like to lick the bowl.  A time-honored tradition.  Even though my sons are grown, I still would never think of washing the bowl without asking.

My mother, whom everyone called Peach, or Peachie (NEVER Peaches!), worked from an endless supply of recipes.  Some out of a book, some passed down, some cut out of the morning’s newspaper.  I don't know the derivation of this sugar cookie recipe. I only know my momma used it and it’s the most delicious sugar cookie recipe I know.

Other people agree.  I have to put aside a stash for my family, or risk a riot.  Check this recipe and know that these cookies are not for the faint of heart.  It’s takes fortitude and endurance to stand up to this kind of caloric concentration.  Call it an integral part of the “I’ll Diet Tomorrow Diet.”

Peachie’s Sugar Cookies

I use a food processor for these cookies and just keep adding ingredients from start to finish.

Cream 1 Cup each of butter, sugar, and powdered sugar.  See below for making your own powered sugar. *

Add 2 eggs and beat again.  Now stir in one cup of salad oil, and1 teaspoon of pure vanilla.

Combine 4 ½ cups of flour with 1 teaspoon each of baking soda, cream of tartar, and salt. Add the flour to the egg/butter mixtures to make a dough.

Chill the dough for at least an hour.

*Don’t have powdered sugar?  No prob.  Put one cup of regular granulated sugar in a blender, add a teaspoon of cornstarch and blend until you have a fine powder.  I use my coffee grinder instead of a blender.  Faster.  Finer.

Remove the dough from the refrigerator and form the dough into small balls.  Place the balls on a cookie sheet (you’ll need at least a couple).  Faintly moisten the bottom of a drinking glass, dip it in granulated sugar, and use it to lightly press each dough ball.  You’ll have to keep re-dipping the glass in sugar.  Add a chocolate piece or a nut on top, or (my favorite) just leave the cookies plain.

Cook in a preheated, 350ºF oven for 12-15 minutes.  When the cookies spread and turn golden, they’re done.  Do not wait for them to brown.  You want them to be more or less the color of butter.  They will be soft when you first take them out, but will firm up as they cool.  After about five minutes, use a spatula to remove the cookies from the cookie sheet and put them on a cooling rack or the kitchen counter to fully cool.

Serve hot or room temp, with coffee, tea, or cold milk.

Don’t forget to hide some before your guests arrive.

Friday, February 21, 2014

An Officer and A Spy - Thrilling!

I read.  A lot.  Well, not as much as my wife, who downs romance novels like a starving woman with a bag of potato chips. Weak characters?  Limp plot?  Doesn’t matter.  On she slogs to the final page.

For my taste, a book has to grab me from page one and not let go.  The harder it grabs, the better I like it.  An Officer and A Spy, by Robert Harris is such a book.  Once I started, my life was no longer my own.  Thrown back into the Paris of La Belle Époque and the maelstrom of the Alfred Dreyfus case, I could not escape.  Food went uneaten.  Sleep came when I passed out and the book collapsed on my chest.  I was in Paris, smelling the horse manure in the steamy streets, sitting in the back rooms of the powerful, drinking coffee in the cafes, all the while being pulled along by the uncomfortable feeling that a deeply sinister wrong could never be righted.

You’ve no doubt heard of Robert Harris, the English author of historical novels.  Fatherland ring any bells?

Harris’ latest effort is a novel constructed around a societal monster. It is 1895. The protagonist, Major Georges Picquart stands in the boisterous crowd of onlookers as Captain Dreyfus is publically stripped of rank and honor.  He’s a spy.  He’s a Jew. Suspected.  Convicted of crimes against France.

No one, including Major Picquart, has the least bit of sympathy.  This betrayer of his country is getting what he deserves.  Shame.  Dishonor.  Imprisonment, and not just any prison, Devil’s Island.

You surely know from your high school history the short version of the story.  The beginning, and the end perhaps.  But even with that knowledge, this thriller is no less thrilling.  History, in the form of a novel, lays bare the conspiracies, the obstinacy, the espionage, the treason, and the suffering. Reaching inside the French Army and Government, you’ll find the filthy, tangled details.  The soul of a twisted story.

This tale of fighting the good fight, of revelations that turn enemies to friends, and friends to co-conspirators will hold you spellbound, while it strips the packaging off terms like goodness, justice, duty, and loyalty.

Robert Harris, whether writing of imagined monsters, or monstrous situations is a powerful literary force.  In An Officer and A Spy, his words grab you by your senses and sweep you along in the whirlwind of history.   You’ll swear, you’ll sweat.  Awake or asleep, this tale won’t let you rest.