Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Today in Language: Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde died on November 30, 1900. Is it a tragedy to miss a new century by a hair, or a blessing to have survived right up to the end of another century?

Wilde wrote one of the most re-readable and anthropologically insightful novels of the English language, probably of world literature: The Picture of Dorian Gray. It is anthropologically insightful because it acknowledges not only the existence of sin and evil but also the horrifying effects of sin and evil: Dorian Gray lives an indefensible lifestyle, which he nonetheless gets away with . . . except when he doesn't, which is when he looks in his magical mirror and sees who he is becoming. Tragically, the effects of sin and evil are often hidden to the foolish or hardened. One chooses not to look in the mirror, or one looks and doesn't care.

Because it is so penetrating, the novel is also re-readable. We all need a reminder of how good we are not, and also a reminder to examine ourselves. The irony is that this reminder comes from a writer who was a socialite and hedonist for much of his life.

Monday, November 28, 2011

New Poll: Etymology of Stress

The rules for this week's poll are the same as for past polls, with a special emphasis on no fact-checking before you vote.

To help you make an educated guess, if you do not know the answer, it is only fair to establish up front that of course the ultimate etymology of stress, like so much English vocabulary, can be traced back to Latin. But the poll question refers to the modern/postmodern usage of the word stress in a psychological sense, a sense that has been attested for much less than a century.

So does it come from the Singaporeans, who we would do well to remember speak English just as "natively" and authentically (and distinctly!) as Americans or Australians? Or the British, who must be credited with much of the rich history and development of the English language? Or the Australians, who stereotypically do not stress about much at all? Or the Americans, who stereotypically are much over-stressed but have one of the world's most envied economies to show for it?

The Problem with Reading

Reading, of course, takes time. That would not be a problem if the ratio of reading material to time were a bit more balanced, but practically, the amount of reading material is endless when compared to the precious little time that the 21st-century reader has.

Lack of time can be seen, for example, in my recent post on reading lists. It was supposed to be longer and actually discuss the usefulness of different methods of listing one's reading material. The amount of reading material can be seen in my recent handspun list of current reading.

Neither lack of time nor the abundance of reading material is the real problem with reading, however. The problem is a type of reading that can be called "compulsive reading." I use reading lists to plot out what I am going to read from one month to the next (very specific down to certain titles or even chapters/essays), from one year to the next (less specific, but still focused on specific authors and maybe a few of their titles), and (is this compulsive listing?) even one decade to the next (much more panoramic, covering whole disciplines or fields of thought). The problem of compulsive reading is that other books, even ones I have relegated to the 2020s or 2030s for my reading, arrest my attention and irresistibly beckon me to their pages. One then has too many "works in progress." More than half of the books on my current reading list, for example, are not works I planned to be reading in the months of November or even December.

Alas, I expect no resolution to the problem of a lack of time or the seeming infinity of books in the world. But if anyone has a resolution to the problem of compulsive reading, do share.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Reading, Lists, and Reading Lists

How do you keep track of your reading? I use a primitive method, manual lists in Microsoft Word.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Currently Reading...

So in relation to my post about e-readers, with an important footnote about the irreplaceability of the printed page, here is my current reading lineup, for whoever may be interested. These works are a mix of research reading (read, mainly, preparation for comprehensive exams) and whimsical reading (read, I bumped into the book and decided to try it out): 

Apollinaire, Guillaume. Alcools : Poèmes 1898-1913.
Baudelaire, Charles. Les fleurs du mal.
Brunner, Emil. Our Faith.
Crystal, David. Txtng: The Gr8 Db8.
Vanhoozer, Kevin J. Is There a Meaning in This Text?
Williamson, Mabel. Have We No Rights?
Print reading
Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction.
Furuya, Yasuyo. A History of Japanese Theology.
Jeremiah (the book in the Bible).
Mahfouz, Naguib. The Cairo Trilogy.
Raymond, Marcel. De Baudelaire au surréalisme.

E-readers and Reading

E-readers are certainly here to stay. I jumped on the bandwagon this past spring and have yet to regret it for a moment.

There are many advantages to using e-readers as a supplement to reading printed books. Allow me to highlight two.

The first for me is personal and practical: within a matter of a few days and weeks, I had hundreds of books (mostly free) on my Nook. That meant far fewer books lying around our house (though there will always be some). That meant a happier wife. She was never pleased by my stacks of books, which I tried to confine to one or two rooms but always in a losing battle. And frankly, I  also feel better about my life and house now. (My wife and I are both mild, reasonable neat freaks, but neat freaks nonetheless.)

A related advantage of the e-reader over the printed book is ease of reading. Not only do e-books not take up extra room regardless of how many one has, but they also are much easier to hold and turn pages in. If I am in bed, I can hold my Nook in one hand and swipe or press the buttons to turn pages. This is a much lighter, less annoying experience than holding a printed book and trying to constantly adjust so that I can turn pages and hold the book open. The same holds true if I am walking and reading, holding my two-month-old and reading, traveling and reading, or driving and reading (just kidding).

The irreplaceability of the physical page, of course, must also be emphasized. The e-reader is here to stay, but in my view alongside of rather than instead of the printed page. For the advantages mentioned above bring obvious disadvantages with them as well. And I for one will never tire of the smell of an old page or flipping through books manually and digitally (in a literal sense).

Monday, November 21, 2011

Book Review: La Princesse de Clèves

Malgré ce qu'on peut dire contre La Princesse de Clèves de Madame de La Fayette, j'ai bien aimé ce livre (je viens de le lire pour la première fois). Ce n'est ni la machination de la cour ni le suspense de l'intrigue que j'ai aimé ; tout cela m'a beaucoup gêné en réalité et je suis à peine arrivé aux dernières pages.

Mais c'est là, dans la dernière conversation entre la princesse et M. de Nemours (et leur seule conversation ouverte d'ailleurs), j'ai trouvé une belle exception à l'immoralité de la littérature mondiale. C'est la Princesse de Clèves, malgré sa passion, ses désirs, qui prend la seule décision morale possible en rejettant M. de Nemours. Son raisonnement m'a vraiment transporté, parce que combien de femmes pensent de la façon suivante en ce qui concerne nous les hommes ?
J'avoue, répondit-elle [à M. de Nemours], que les passions peuvent me conduire, mais elles ne sauroient m'aveugler ; rien ne me peut empêcher de connoître que vous êtes né avec toutes les dispositions pour la galanterie et toutes les qualités qui sont propres à y donner des succès heureux ; vous en auriez encore; je ne ferois plus votre bonheur ; je vous verrais pour une autre comme vous auriez été pour moi ; j'en aurais une douleur mortelle, et je ne serois pas même assurée de n'avoir point le malheur de la jalousie.
Si on n'aime pas la moralité de La Princesse de Clèves, cette réaction trahit une moralité très douteuse.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Hermeneutics: Brunner on Systematic Theology and the Bible

In a book that I find interesting for having parts that I either completely disagree with or entirely agree with, Emil Brunner makes the following statement:

We should leave the Scripture as it is, unsystematic, in all its parts; otherwise we pervert its message.
Emil Brunner, "Eternal Election," Our Faith
Brunner says this in the context of arguing against double predestination. He has a good point about Scripture (though, of course, he is systematizing it to a degree in his brief dogmatics). I do not think it fully defends his position against double predestination, however, [ALERT: unproven assertion] for double predestination is not an inevitable biblical conclusion but an inevitable logical conclusion given some of Brunner's theological presuppositions. Theology goes awry when it starts off with the wrong hermeneutics.

Hermeneutics: Vanhoozer on Meaning and the Bible

In a book that I am very excited to be reading and hope to have more to say about, Kevin J. Vanhoozer makes the following statement:

While I agree with many contemporary thinkers that meaning is more than a matter of naming, I continue to share Plato's concern to defend the possibility of speaking truly.
Kevin Vanhoozer, "Philosphy and Literary Theory: From Plato to Postmodernity," Is There a Meaning in This Text?
Vanhoozer insists on the possibility of meaning within the context of a trinitarian theology. He not only addresses all of the pertinent issues of hermeneutics and literary theory, but also of morals and theology. If Wittgenstein is a linguist's philosopher, then Vanhoozer may be a linguist's theologian.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Intellectual Standards

This post collects a series of posts on intellectual standards to which this blog aspires. In addition to this series, other series on various topics are linked to at the bottom of the page.

The intellectual standards I have covered are the following:

Honesty (with sources)

Thursday, November 17, 2011

A Prescriptivist Consideration of the Verb "Yell"

This post considers a usage phenomenon in (only American?) English from the standpoint of basic speech-act theory. What are the locutionary and illocutionary force of the following statements (they should be the same for all of the statements, and I assume you can figure them out without any further context):
  • The teacher yelled at us for talking in class.
  • My dad yelled at me when I got home late.
  • The coach yelled at us for goofing off in the locker room.
These are quite common situations and quite easy to analyze linguistically. The locutionary force of each sentence is the following: some authority (teacher, parent, coach) reprimanded the subject for bad behavior by significantly raising his or her voice.
The illocutionary force of these speech acts is the following: some authority (teacher, parent, coach) over-reacted to what was probably at worst a slightly immature behavior.

I do not consider myself a prescriptivist, generally speaking, but labels are almost always generalizations. In this case, I am going to be a prescriptivist: no one should use the word "yell" to describe someone getting upset if the angry person did not literally yell.

Why? First, it is dishonest. If one accepts the locutionary and illocutionary acts as described above, then obviously the statement is made for the purpose not of objectively describing the situation but exaggerating it to malign the authority (who, it should be remembered, did not create the problem situation with bad behavior).

Second, as a result of being dishonest, it is also unkind. Those being spoken about are having their reputations tarnished and may very well not understand why certain people behave skittishly around them (due to a bad reputation from misinformation).

So stop saying people yelled at you, unless they really did. If you did something stupid, and they corrected you, then grow up and stop doing stupid stuff.

Thus ends my prescriptivist yelling.

Don't Translate Brand Names Literally

Ah, the joys and sorrows of translating. At least the profession of translation is one that frequently supplies humor.

Friday, November 11, 2011


Is it significant that at this precise moment it is 11:11 p.m. on 11 November, 2011?

This question raises interesting linguistic questions.*

First, and most practically, does 11/11 mean 11 November or November 11? Which is more logical? This is entirely dependent on where one lives in the world and with whom one interacts. Grammar and syntax are extremely, even uncomfortably, relative due to dependence on usage.

Second, is the way we record and count time anything but a social construct? A highly useful, nearly indispensable one, but a social construct nonetheless. Its nature as a social construct, then, means moments such as this one (which has assuredly already passed anyway by the time you finish reading this parenthetical, or before you even started it, for that matter) have no special significance whatsoever. They do, however, give us special human feelings, just like other entirely insignificant events can do (e.g., a favorite sports team winning a game).

If you have definitive answers to these questions, that is interesting. If you do not, no worries. Happy Bodacious Bonza Bottler Day anyway.

*This post operates on the enormous underlying but unproven assumption that numbers, including time and dates, are language.

Today in Language: Carlos Fuentes

Nacido el 11 de noviembre, 1928, Carlos Fuentes escribió El Espejo Enterrado. Ese título usa un metáforo bien acertado. El libro trata de la historia mexicana y entonces también de la historia pre-mexicana. El espejo del título representa esta historia, porque la historia de cualquier pueblo o nación le dice mucho a tal pueblo o nación. Pero muchas veces es una historia escondida, no compartida. El espejo entonces está enterrado. Olvidado. Pero no roto. Así Fuentes explora preguntas fundamentales de todo el tiempo: ¿Quienes somos? ¿Realmente conocemos nuestra historia?

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

A New Nook!

A few posts about the Nook Simple Touch (mine, specifically) are long overdue. But of course pregnancy complications and a newborn child in addition to a toddler in the house have delayed them. Do allow me, however, to call your attention to the fact that Barnes & Noble now has a new Nook, the Nook Tablet.

In addition, the Nook Simple Touch and the Nook Color, as well as the Tablet have reduced prices--and even more reduced if you are a new B&N member. That last phrase is very important if you are interested in buying a Nook. The main Nook page on the B&N website doesn't list the further reduced prices for new B&N members but they are!

You can read my recommendation of the Nook Simple Touch and the B&N digital bookstore. I have been reading more books than I have time to talk about on my Nook these last 2-3 months, and most of them free. More to come about what books and the advantages of the Nook Simple Touch.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Preguntas linguísticas

Ahora a trabajar. Vea el video abajo e identifique lo que crea el humor. ¿De qué confusiones linguísticas proviene el humor?

Básicamente es cuestión de entender la gramática. A pesar de lo que diga uno de la gramática artificial (porque toda gramática que se enseña en la escuela es artificial, una estructura inventada para explicar la lengua humana), nos ayuda mucho. Las categorías gramaticales nos sirven para no confundirnos al aprender otro idioma. Es la raíz del humor del video. Las categorías, tanto como el sustantivo y el verbo, sirven para distinguir las partes de la oración, tanto como el sujeto y (otra vez) el verbo. En el video, el maestro Gomaespuma elide la palabra "libras" de la categoría del sustantivo a la de un verbo, provocando mucha risa si es que uno entiende los dos idiomas.

Ojalá que fuera tan sencillo...

En realidad, enseñar un segundo idioma es difícil. Es sudar y sufrir al intentar de imaginarse nuevos métodos para interesar y alcanzar a los estudiantes. Si usted es maestro de idiomas, enseñe este video clásico a sus alumnos por un poco de descanso del trabajo de adaptar el cerebro a otro idioma. Mega chistoso.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Today in Language: 手塚治虫


Wednesday, November 2, 2011

A Book About Japan?

This is a request for a bit of help. If you have done any reading on Japan, is there an introductory, non-academic book that you would recommend? I am looking for something that would cover a bit of the culture, etiquette, history, and perhaps even language. This is for a group of students I am preparing for a trip to Japan.

Because I grew up in Japan, I have never read a book just about Japan. I have read history books. I have read books written by Japanese people. I have read books in Japanese. And now I do have a short list of books I am planning to read to see how I like them, but if you have any to add to that list I am open to suggestions.