Archive for the ‘Language’ Category

Cleansing the “the”

April 20, 2019

The alphabet gives us the possibility to create a limitless number of words.

In any alphabet where the length of a word is not restricted, there are an infinite variety of ways of creating combinations of letters to be words. In practice most languages have working vocabularies of a few hundred thousands and even if all possible variations and forms, past and present, are counted, the vocabulary may be around one million words. The Oxford English Dictionary has around 177,000 words as being in current usage and another 50,000 as obsolete. Similarly German has around 150,000 words as being in current use and Swedish has around 125,000. However current usage is not the whole story. Current usage is only a part of the total number of words available in a language where the total number depends on the age of the language. It is said that Japanese has around 100,000 active words in a total vocabulary of around 500,000. The OED estimates the total number of words in English to be around 750,000. Other estimates put the total English vocabulary at just over one million words.

So there is no need to include the definite article to create a word. The the atre is so unnecessary. Stripping away the initial “the” is required, if nothing else, on the grounds of language parsimony. Words beginning with “therm” are excused as are those where the remnant is an existing word. Excluding derivatives, the list of commonly used words which could happily lose their “the”s is not so long. Pronouncing “ft” might be a challenge.

Removing the indefinite article would not work especially as an initial “a” is so often used to create the opposite of a word or a negation.




Values embedded in language

March 16, 2019

The most fundamental value there is, is the distinction between “good” and “bad”. It is a characteristic of every individual. For humans this value surely originated from long before we were anatomically modern humans. Within the world of living things, and whether the individual living thing is aware of the value or not, all that aids survival is “good” and all that does not is “bad”.

The fundamental value scale of goodness therefore precedes language. Awareness of the value scale may need consciousness, but what is “good” or “bad” applies to every living thing whether it is conscious or not. Language, of course, is a means of “quantifying” thought. It is language which allows the past and the future and the abstract and the unreal to be described.

Language has allowed us to describe many other value scales. Each scale seems to be independent though it is clear that many of the scales are related. (Length can be related to weight and thickness, beauty can be related to cleverness or to complexity, …….). I cannot find any value scale though, which does not always map – even if sometimes indirectly – to the value scale of goodness.

It is as if “good” and “bad” are embedded in the framework of language, such that every other value scale we may describe always leaves a shadow on the scale of “good” and “bad”. It is therefore we tend to associate certain values with others and, I suspect, it is because of their underlying projection onto the good-bad scale. Beauty is good, noise is bad. Sweet is good, bitter is bad. Tall is good, short is bad. Thin is good and fat is bad. Certain combinations of values feel “right” and others feel very “wrong”. “Tall, slim and beautiful” feels right, but “short, fat and beautiful” is discordant in composition.

Logic and – it would seem – fundamental valuations of good and bad are embedded in language. They make up the framework for language and non-compliance with the inbuilt logic or the values creates discomfort and a discordance.



Darker Nhaikus

January 14, 2019

Even “not quite haikus” can get quite dark.


Awake again,

It is the first day of

The rest of my life


26,000 gone,

Less than 7,000 left;

Allotted span


One wedding

And six funerals last year,

Life’s winter


Trees also die

Of storms and fire and murder,

But not old age


Orbits and seasons,

But in a cyclical world

A linear life

Winter sunrise 20190114



Even more “not quite haikus” /3

January 8, 2019

I have caught the bug and seem to be adding 2 or 3 “not quite haikus” every day.

This set is to round off the present infection.

If I ever get to over 100, I will have to make a little book of Nhaikus.


Before the beginning

And after the end of time

Iswas stasis


TV News

Change the channel

Reality shift


Science describes,

Even explains the how

But never the why


Powerful car, but

The end of the journey

Is where the road ends


Born, lived, died

Then relegated to history

Now forgotten


Born, lived, died

Earned a Wikipedia entry



Without any Gods

Invented by others

No atheists


Corks apopping

Another New Year to usher in

Déjà vu


Three score and ten

A never-ending bucket list

Tick tock, tick tock


Beyond infinity

Smaller than the infinitesimal



Not quite Haiku

Some more “not quite Haikus” /2


Some more “not quite Haikus” /2

January 5, 2019

Challenging enough to condense a meaning into 3 phrases in 3 lines and even more so when restricting the syllables and trying to get some measure of juxtaposition.

Some more attempts at “not quite haikus” to follow my earlier attempts.

Surely amateurish but oddly satisfying.



Sitting in the car

Raindrops merging on the windscreen

Wife shopping


Silence all around

Unheard cacophony in the air

Radio waves



A hole in the thick ice

Groaning and creaking all around

Grilled fish for dinner


Visitor at the door

Rolling to expose his belly

Neighbour’s cat


Low winter sun

Hanging in a crystal blue sky

Brilliantly blinding

Not quite Haiku

January 3, 2019

I was reading some Japanese Haiku (in translation) and had to have a go.

Not quite haiku which should be 3 lines with 5, 7, 5 syllables (17 total).


Enveloped by a dark

Where your mind cannot tell

If your eyes are open


Hiss and crackle in the glass

Of whiskey pouring on to icy rocks

Anticipating contentment


A library in my hand

But no rustling of turning pages

Oddly disconcerting


Beyond known and unknown

Lie the when and what and where and why

Of the unknowable


Roaring deafening winds

But in the eye of the storm

The silence is music

Year Zero

October 25, 2018

The ghost year zero.

There is common usage (AD, BC), politically correct usage (BCE, CE) and then there is the astronomical counting of years. In archaeology there is YBP (Years Before Present).

In sixth century Europe, the concept of “zero” was still unknown. Thus, the year 1 BC was followed by the year AD 1. …… The convention is that “BC” is a suffix (used after the year) while “AD” is a prefix (used before the year). …. ….. (This has been replaced by) the use of the religiously neutral abbreviations BCE (for “Before Common Era”) to substitute for “BC,” and “CE” (for “Common Era”) to replace “AD.” These secular terms are both used as suffixes making them better suited to computer generated tables.

The “astronomical” dating system refers to an alternative method of numbering years. It includes the year “0” and eliminates the need for any prefixes or suffixes by attributing the arithmetic sign to the date. Thus, the astronomical date for 2000 CE is simply +2000 or 2000. The astronomical year 0 corresponds to the year 1 BCE, while the astronomical year -1 corresponds to 2 BCE. In general, any given year “x BCE” becomes “-(x-1)” in the astronomical year numbering system. Historians should take care to note the numerical difference of one year between “BCE” dates and astronomical dates. — NASA

Counting the years


Straightness of the curve

October 22, 2018

There are around one million words in English though probably less than 200,000 in active use.

The number of possible words is infinite.

The number of valid word combinations is determined by the meanings of the words and the meaning to be conveyed by the combination.

Just playing ……



With language came lies

October 13, 2018

First came deception, then came language and then came lies.

A minuscule level of cognitive ability is sufficient for animal deception. Some animal mimicry and camouflage is probably at the instinctive level and requires no consciousness.

Some types of deception in animals are completely involuntary (e.g. disruptive coloration), but others are under voluntary control and may involve an element of learning. Most instances of voluntary deception in animals involve a simple behaviour, such as a cat arching its back and raising its hackles, to make itself appear larger than normal when attacked. There are relatively few examples of animal behaviour which might be attributed to the manipulative type of deception which we know occurs in humans, i.e. “tactical deception”. It has been argued that true deception assumes the deceiver knows that (1) other animals have minds, (2) different animals’ minds can believe different things are true (when only one of these is actually true), and (3) it can make another mind believe that something false is actually true. True deception requires the deceiver to have the mental capacity to assess different representations of reality. Animal behaviour scientists are therefore wary of interpreting a single instance of behaviour to true deception, and explain it with simpler mental processes such as learned associations. – Wikipedia

We have been using deception probably starting before we were primitive humans some 10 million years ago. Deceiving those who were hunting us, deceiving prey and even deceiving competitors of our own kind. Deception generally requires another mind to exist to be deceived (and self-deception is fanciful except for a schizophrenic). There is no deception involved in hiding from a tree or in avoiding a landslide or escaping a volcanic eruption. Deception lies in inducing the other mind to believe in something false as being true or in believing something true to be false. Before we had language, deception was confined to using behaviour and actions to induce the false belief. This could have been, for example, hiding from hunters or prey or of appearing taller and stronger than a competitor. Deception was a tool even for groups cooperating among themselves to induce a false belief in a third party. However the cooperative act of deception required communication between the cooperating parties – even if without language. This kind of deception was primarily about inducing a false belief about the present (and about the imminent future), but could not really address the past or the distant future or anything in the present which was not immediately perceivable.

And then came rudimentary language. That was more than 100,000 years ago and maybe even more than 200,000 years ago. But we already had some idea of the concepts of “good” and “bad”. It is not difficult to see that anything which helped survival would have been labelled good and the levels of goodness of any event would have been linked to its relevance for survival. This would have been the beginnings of the development of a value system. Good and bad lie as the foundation of any, and every, value system. There was surely communication before language, but without language there was no possibility of communicating about things past or things future. Life was in the now. What was, was true, and what was not was false. But the concepts of true and false had been established well before language was discovered.

Sometime after the world around us had been divided and classified into good and bad and all the shades in between, came language. First came the discovery that we were capable of language and then that language enabled communication. Then came the invention of various specific languages at different times. (I see language as being discovered and languages as being invented). Some were good and others were not so good. Naturally all those who spoke the same language were on the side of the good. Every language that has ever existed has an in-built logic which mirrors the logic perceived in the surrounding world. To begin with, language was anchored to perceptions of reality. But language opened the doors to the past. History could be communicated. Forecasts of future events could be made. The past could be connected to the now and the now to the future. As people communicated about the now, it would have become apparent that even events in the now were mere perceptions. And then came the dawning of the realisation that language did not have to be anchored in reality at all. Language could describe what was not. The concepts of true and false expanded to include the past and the future and the abstract. History could be guessed or invented. The future could be fantasy. Fake news became possible. Language made lying possible.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

The most widely accepted definition of lying is ……. “A lie is a statement made by one who does not believe it with the intention that someone else shall be led to believe it” (Isenberg 1973, 248) ………there are at least four necessary conditions for lying.

  • First, lying requires that a person make a statement (statement condition).
  • Second, lying requires that the person believe the statement to be false; that is, lying requires that the statement be untruthful (untruthfulness condition).
  • Third, lying requires that the untruthful statement be made to another person (addressee condition).
  • Fourth, lying requires that the person intend that that other person believe the untruthful statement to be true (intention to deceive the addressee condition).

Lying needs the ability to make a statement which is enabled by language (condition 1). More than that, lying is endemic in the use of language. Lying, as a concept, is necessarily imbued with the intent to deceive (condition 4). Inevitably, given that intention, lying carries the (almost) universal value of being “bad”. Exceptions are made only when the intent to deceive is secondary to a more laudable intention.

All social interaction involves some level of lying. I suspect that “benign” lying is necessary for the human use of language. Every statement has a truth value. Any statement of belief (which includes also all “facts” which have not been personally verified to be true) is a lie to some extent. Most human behaviour is based on beliefs that statements, which are not personally verified, are true. We could not speak about the future, or of the past, or about abstract things, if language did not allow the lie. I suspect that modern humans would not have evolved, as we have done, if language was constrained to disallow anything other than true statements.


Going raging into the night

August 23, 2018

My introduction to Dylan Thomas was as a teenager. I heard Richard Burton reading “Do not go gentle into that good night” on radio (though as with all things Burton, “declaiming” would be better than “reading”) in the 1960s. Then I watched Under Milk Wood in the West End and I fell in love with the sound of Dylan Thomas. I read all I could find of his and I read them aloud to myself (irritating my room-mates at my students hostel no end). But it was very much later that I penetrated beyond the mesmerising, chant-like quality of the sound and began to understand the words.

But I observe that my understanding of (or more correctly the meaning I ascribe to) his writings are changing with time. At one time I saw “Do not go gentle ..” as an exhortation and a plea to an old and dying man (his father) to not give up; to keep fighting; to not go quietly. The poetic form used is a villanelle which is a nineteen-line form consisting of five tercets followed by a quatrain. The two repeating refrains are both hypnotic and melodic.

But understandings shift and now, that I have passed 70, I read it much more personally. I take this poem as being addressed to me.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Of course Dylan Thomas has to be read aloud and of course he chooses words for the sound as much as for the meaning. What gives me most satisfaction now is that I am still conscious. It is not a rage against dying but it is a rage against the dying of the light. “Old age should burn and rave at close of day”.

Richard Burton reading Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that good night”


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