Posts Tagged ‘language’

Back in the fifties, when the world and I were young, it was quite common for the BBC to broadcast interesting and informative tv programmes.  I learned much from watching, and listening to, impossibly clever professors of this and doctors of that discussing really important subjects.  Of all the delights that came with these discussions there was one which never failed to keep me rivetted to the screen and hanging on to every word spoken ; and this was when a member of the panel was a foreigner.  In those halcyon days, of course, to be both a  foreigner and a professor meant to be either a German professor or an East European professor.  Nothing less would do.

What struck me most about these foreign professors was that, although they expressed their brilliant ideas in a style of English that was in all technical respects impeccable, they were all handicapped by having almost impenetrable accents.  “How,” I asked, “Is it possible that they have learned the English language so excellently, and yet they cannot pronounce it properly?”  I thought, in my ignorance, that the pronunciation would be the easiest part of using a language.  I was to get clues to their difficulty much later.

Psychologists and neurologists seem to agree that the new-born child is equipped with a full set of cells for its nervous system ; from the brain to the furthest toe, all the nerve cells that will ever be needed are present.  But, although present, comparatively few of them are in full working order ; and this is particularly true of the brain, where our more complex mental functions are performed.  You can get an idea of this when you see how small a baby’s head is.  And you can get an idea of brain-cell immaturity when you see the baby making laughable attempts to control and co-ordinate the movements of its limbs ; for the limbs are directed by particular sets of brain cells.  It takes time and practice for those cells to mature.

And the movements of the muscles needed to produce speech are similarly immature at birth ; they too need time and practice to mature.  And those movements are complex and delicate, which explains, perhaps, why speech is comparatively late in appearing.

Linguists, like all scientists, are forever refining their opinions on the basics of their trade.  But they used to say that there are about forty to fifty distinct sounds that the human voice can make.  No language uses all possible sounds, but most use most of them, with distinct differences between different languages.  Thus English speakers will use (say) about forty distinct sounds, while German speakers will use (say) forty-one.  But several sounds used in English do not appear in German, and vice versa.

But what has this to do with clever professors not being able to speak English clearly?  Well, it boils down to a question of their age when they first learned to speak English.

Brain cells not only mature with practice, but they also have a ‘sensitive period’ in which the maturation can occur.  Attempts to teach a month-old baby to speak are doomed to fail because the cells controlling speech are not ready even to begin to learn ; the sensitive period has yet to start.  When the child does begin to learn it naturally learns to make those sounds that are peculiar to its native language ; it imitates the sounds made by its parents, and it quite quickly becomes fluent.

But it usually does not learn the sounds that are foreign to its parents ; indeed, if makes such a sound, its parents will discourage it.  And those foreign sounds might never be learned by the child ; certainly it will not ordinarily become fluent in them.

So, does all this mean that a German child can never learn good English pronunciation (or vice versa)?  Not at all, for the sensitive period for learning speech lasts until about the eighteenth year.  After that, the learning gets harder until it is all but defunct.  So, schools are quite able to teach a foreign language, provided that sufficient time is allowed for practice.

Well, all this I learned late in life, alas.  But at least it solved a mystery for me.  I now knew why Professor X had perfect English, all bar the pronunciation.  I also learned that there seem to be sensitive periods for other skills, and that they are not the same as for language learning.  So, when I meet someone who is pretty awful at maths for example, despite being very rational, I am slow to judge on his apparent lack of intelligence.  Not everyone who fails to appreciate good music is blameworthy in any way.  And people who lack the dexterity for delicate tasks are not necessarily at personal fault.

Generally, although we are able to understand our own shortcomings a little better with a little more knowledge, we would be wise to avoid the trap of failing to appreciate the knowledge of others ; knowledge of which we have almost no understanding, through no fault of our own.


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Language is fun.  Do our words convey what we are really experiencing?  Are words connected to, or related to, reality?  For example, linguists say that there is probably no word we use now that did not begin its life as a metaphor ; as a colourful figure of speech ; not ‘literal’ or ‘concrete’ at all.

We’re all familiar with the word sunbeam ; also we all know, when we think about it, that a beam is a plank of wood.  But no-one believes that the sun has planks of wood radiating from it.  And then there’s one of my favourites – understand.  Who really believes that, to understand that 1 + 1 = 2, we must either stand it under us or we must stand under it?  It must have been a mind-boggling metaphor when it first appeared from the quill of a scribe.  It was a word that first needed to be explained to us, and then became a word that we had to think about when we used it ourselves.

But that’s the point.  A metaphor may be so arresting, so staggering, and also so unlikely that it becomes popular quite quickly.  Thereafter, its use becomes a habit ; and then we forget that it is a metaphor ; we take it as ‘literal’.  At this stage, the word is something that is no longer thought about consciously.  Meanwhile the original literal word is oft forgotten completely.

We do a lot of thinking automatically, without realising it.  We do a lot of thinking without consciously thinking about anything.

Imagine I hear a section of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata that just happens to be playing on the radio.  As soon as I become aware of the sound, I say, “Oh, yes, that’s the Moonlight.”  Almost instantly, I have formed in my mind a figuration of the sound.  And I do not stop to think what a curious thing this figuration is.

For what is really happening is something like this.  First the radio emits some vibrations in the air ; then the vibrations fall into my ears.  What I hear in my consciousness ought to be just a noise.  But it isn’t just a noise ; I recognise it as noise I have heard before, so it is has meaning ; it is really a sound.  And, not only that, but I recognise the sound as a particular piece of music – the Moonlight.  All this happens in an instant.

But, in order to recognise the noise, I must have referred it to my memory.  And when my memory has located it, it informs me what the sound means – or do I infer the meaning?  Whatever, there is a lot of thinking going on here.  We can guess how much thinking by imagining hearing a little-known sound ; we have to comb our memory to try to recognise it ; and sometimes it eludes us.  But, in the case of a familiar sound, our complex thinking has become automatic through practice.

So, merely to be able to use a word like sunbeam, we have to think about it ; and merely to recognise a piece of music, we have to think about it.  But that thinking is so sublime that we do not even know that we are doing it.

It can be interesting to reflect just once in a while, as we gaze upon a familiar object such as a teacup, that we have done a lot of thinking simply in order to see it – to make a picture of it in our minds.

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It is, of course, well-known in the science of psychology that the world that we say we know is in fact composed of cognitive models of that other world – the world around us.  Experimental psychologists tend strongly to the view that our knowledge consists of memories ; and those memories are comprised of particular configurations of chemicals within the system of neurons that the nervous system is made of.

There appears to be no simple geometrical relation between those neuronal configurations and the outside world. Thus there must be some mechanism that ensures that the cognitive models do in fact relate accurately and consistently to the world around us. If this were not so, then each of us would perceive the material world in a quite different way to our neighbour.

So much for the material world and our modelling of it. But there is yet another world.

This is the world of what we might (to avoid getting too technical) call ideas or opinions. This world is also composed of memories ; but memories that are understood in terms of language – of words. This world seems to be almost infinitely plastic – we are free to use words fairly indiscriminately. This world of opinions or notions is important to us, because we use it to communicate with each other.

If all communications between people were of a friendly nature, then any errors of perception, or misunderstandings, could easily be resolved by discussion. But there are some who seem drawn, or maybe impelled, to be uncompromisingly aggressive towards others ; they use harsh words that seem to be intended to cause offence and even pain ; these offensive ones make scurrilous references to the characters and life-styles of others.   But it is important to remember that, since the offenders have no means of knowing the truth of the accusations they make, their word-pictures exist only within their own minds.  Such offenders have created an inner world for themselves which bears little or no relation to the world outside them. I think there is a word for this.

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Part of the greatness of Robert Burns was that his poetry reads as if it came straight from his heart, which indeed it did, I think.  His poems show no sign of having been laboured, no sign of intellectual cleverness, no contrivance.  He simply wrote whatever was in his head at the time.

Perhaps this spontaneity is well illustrated by one of his adventures with would-be smugglers. Burns, his Excise boss, and a small group of men had been despatched to a remote spot on the Ayr coast to investigate a ship that was suspiciously anchored just off-shore.  Was it a smuggler’s ship?  From a distance they quickly established that the ship’s crew were armed and clearly up to no good ; they were also outnumbered by the crew and had no chance of arresting the ship.  So, Burns was left in charge of the men while his superior went off for reinforcements.

This was an uncomfortable position for Burns and his men to be left in because, if the ship’s crew had spotted them, they might well have been slaughtered.  But, whatever he might have been thinking, Burns gave every impression of being imperturbable and for the amusement of his men he sat down and scribbled a fitting poetical composition – his wild little song, ‘The Deil’s awa’ wi’ the Exciseman’.

Poems came easily to Burns, but not so prose.  One has only to read through some of his letters to see just how he seemed to labour at this kind of writing.  Indeed, he has been described as pretentious, as if he was trying to create a false impression of learnedness.  You can get a tiny taste of his difficulty with prose by contrasting the ripping pace of his Epistle to John Lapraik (a fellow poet) with its somewhat turgid introduction.  A better flavour can be got from his commentaries and letters.

But perhaps this criticism is unfair.  Perhaps he was really a natural poet, actually thinking in those famous ‘Burns stanzas’ that make his mark on our literature.  Perhaps his other writing came as a real difficulty to him as he struggled to be merely conventional.

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I remember being indoctrinated at school.  “There’s knowledge in books,” they said.  “Lies,” I thought, “There’s only paper and ink.”  And all that paper and ink in the book is meaningless ; knowledge exists only in minds.

I tested my hypothesis by consulting a book written in Greek ; it conveyed nothing intelligible to me at all.  I then consulted a book written in English ; it conveyed a wonderful story to me.  Is it something about Greek ink that causes this strange difference?  or Greek paper?  At any rate, I concluded that the experiment supported my hypothesis : there is no knowledge in books.

But was I right in my thinking?  Wouldn’t it be truer to say that there is knowledge in books for those with eyes to see and a mind to understand?  If this is so, then there has to be more to a book than mere paper and ink.  What is that ‘something more’?  And where does it come from?  It cannot be a material thing, for nothing material is added to  the paper and ink.

Dare one say that, if knowledge (or wisdom) is not a material thing, then it must be spiritual.  Knowledge is not a quantity but a quality.  And if it comes from somewhere, then surely it has to come from either the writer or from the reader ; or from both.  Or does it come from language itself?  Does the writer merely re-arrange the knowledge inherent in the words? So the words are the material symbols which represent (and are connected to) the spiritual knowledge.  And is the reader’s mind stimulated by the sight of the material symbols, so as to awaken his own spiritual knowledge to the new arrangement of words?

I have no doubt that some of the very finest of minds have unravelled this mystery.  I shall be content to wonder at the hidden power of words.

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I suppose we each have a favourite poem, and maybe several.   We all have our reasons for appointing certain poems as our favourites.  One of my favourites is this, by Robert Browning.

Summum  Bonum by Robert Browning.

All the breath and the bloom of the year in the bag of one bee :
All the wonder and wealth of the mine in the heart of one gem :
In the core of one pearl all the shade and the shine of the sea :
Breath and bloom, shade and shine, – wonder, wealth, and –     how far above them –
Truth that’s brighter than gem,
Trust that’s purer than pearl, –

Brightest truth, purest trust in the universe – all were for me
In the kiss of one girl.


Aren’t those lines wonderful?  The writing is very modern, but the thinking behind them is very mediaeval ; older than that, even ; so it is both ancient and modern.  Perhaps there are modes of thinking, of  perceiving the world which are timeless.  Languages and usages may come and go, but the impulses behind them never change, for they are a part of our very nature.


It can help our understanding of a poem to see it differently ; for example, we can re-write it as prose. How to re-write Browning’s poem as prose?  There must be any number of ways of going about that and I’m sure there is no one best way.  Here’s a re-write I did of the above poem.

The prose :

It’s so odd when you think about it.  I mean, really think about it.  It’s odd how one thing is simply an analogy of another ; how all the world is connected by invisible threads of similarity.  I know it is true that, wherever in nature I look, there are microcosms wrapped up in macrocosms ; the big picture always wraps up a hundred little pictures.  I feel something of the eternal and the infinite, even in the immediacy of experience ; even in the most intimate experience.  How one deep breath may contain a thousand sighs, and one sunny hour all the warmth of the summer long.  Did Clarinda feel the same?

I have included a link here to the Daily Telegraph, which is the place where I first published. Here you will find a dedicated group of amateur writers who enjoy setting themselves puzzles, diversions and even friendly competitions of a literary kind.  If you go there and click on the tag for Creative Writing, you’ll see what I mean.  There is another tag for Poetry.  The main site link is here:-


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Some people appear to make no distinction between to like and to love, and they are much the poorer for it.  As children, and in a world where education was taken fairly seriously, we would receive a (sometimes metaphorical) rap on the knuckles for being so crass as to say, “I love apples,” or “I love swimming.”  But, despite the niceties instilled by generations of teachers, it is and always has been most natural to speak of loving when we really mean something a lot less enduring.  But, love it or like it, we do value our pleasures.

I’ve been refreshing my memory on the questions of liking, loving and pleasure.  In his excellent short book, The Four Loves, CS Lewis reminds us of two forms of pleasure : the need-pleasures and the pleasures of appreciation.  An example of need-pleasure might be the enjoyment of food when one is hungry or of water when thirsty ; once the food or drink is taken, the need disappears and the thought of the food and the drink might then become unpleasant rather than pleasant.  On the other hand, a pleasure of appreciation might be had quite unexpectedly – the aroma of a fresh-cut meadow or the sight of a fox emerging from a wood – pleasures that have not been sought and are not considered necessary.

The point he makes about need-pleasure is that, once it has been enjoyed, the need disappears, at least for the time being, while the pleasures of appreciation do not.  It’s also interesting how the two kinds of pleasure are often distinguished linguistically.  We tend to refer to need-pleasures in the past tense ; after having slaked our thirst, we say, “I needed that.”  But pleasures of appreciation more often take the present tense ; after having tasted a fine wine, we say, “I really like this.”

Of course, the distinction between the two kinds of pleasure are not always clear-cut.  In particular, an appreciation pleasure can pall after a while, and some can turn into a need-pleasure or even an addiction.  Nevertheless, the principle of the two kinds of pleasure is still true.

Perhaps there is a requirement to distinguish between liking and loving, after all.

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