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Saturday, December 30, 2006 -- 9:34 pm

The aesthetics of grammar is not, of course, a purely high-minded subject; it does have its guilty pleasures. I'll confess to a certain Gothic interest in uncovering a truly bizarre and (to me) counterintuitive grammar, Byzantine, archaic, and occult in its expressions. Georgian is usually described this way, and I've been nibbling at that now and again. Old Irish is another that notoriously drives linguists to despair. Nahuatl is also fairly challenging -- not least because it compounds inflecting prefixes in ways that obscure not only each other but also the underlying root form. Navajo is daunting for all kinds of reasons -- not least that despite assembling a rather sizeable library, I've yet to see a simple and straightforward explanation of the language as is readily available for, say, Farsi. Instead what you typically find are books of "dialogues" with snippets of grammar offered piecemeal, which probably makes the language seem more difficult than it really is. Something like Sumerian is daunting more because we simply have no idea what kind of notion certain grammatical inflections are intended to represent.

But I suppose that a quest for the Most Difficult (Natural) Language is self-defeating, because a pedagogically sound and comprehensible text would remove the air of mystery, and it would become just another language.

All in all, I'd rather lose the mystery. To coin a word here, I'll call 'glottography' the exercise of recording a grammar, phonology, dictionary, and library of texts for a language, usually an undertaking for a trained linguist working in the field, but the term can also sensibly apply to the exercise of writing language textbooks. (The term is modeled somewhat on 'ethnography', another area where I read extensively.) You'd think that glottography would have reached the point where linguists had agreed that there are certain basic concepts and grammatical relationships that are universal in the world's languages, and that, as a matter of common sense, glottographers would make sure that their description of a language would be sure to touch on all of those basic, universal points (what I refer to in my own notes as a 'syntactic template'. For example, every language has some way of saying "I want to ---". Naturally there will be rich and interesting variations, so that Ancient Greek distinguishes between 'I want to' (βουλομαι) and the weaker 'I'm willing to' (εθελω) (and so, obviously, does English, and the French j'ai envie de, as opposed to je veux, always struck me as conveying more the sense of 'I feel like' than 'I want'). So finer semantics might take longer to capture, but the framework for basic communication would appear in any volume you happened upon.

Sadly, however, that does not seem to be the case. When I was preparing for a trip to Peru not long ago, I naturally wanted to brush up on my Quechua. Of my two Quechua grammars (one in English, one in French, and describing, respectively, the Huallaga and Cuzco dialects), neither squarely addressed this basic construction head-on. I ended up concluding that the verb muna was used to express a desire for an action or event, as well as desire for an object, and that the desired verb (counterintuitively) took a substantive-making suffix y followed by a direct object case marker ta, so 'I want to sleep' becomes 'puñuyta munani', rather than using an infinitve form (like the Indo-European world) or happily conjugating everything in one's path (Arabic). To be fair, the authors of at least one of these volumes probably had more pressing concerns than my autodidactic convenience. But for them both to provide their clues for such an important expression under the obscure headings "les nominalisateurs" and "Infinitive Object Complements" suggests their systematizing priorities may be amiss. I can appreciate that the Pimsleur method doesn't suit every purpose, especially more abstract analysis, and can be an expensive and exhausting exercise. But I would hope that these glottographers would realize that as languages die out, their efforts may, in many cases, turn out to be the sole record of how things were said.

Saturday, December 30, 2006 -- 9:04 pm

One of my persimmon trees (potted, indoors for the winter) has decided it's spring. Learning from last year's error, I left them outside until the first week of December so the cooler temperatures would persuade them to defoliate. I'm told they need at least 100 continuous hours with a temperature below 50 F every year, and failing to do that last year nearly killed them. (Luckily we had a cool May.) I wonder what my plants think of the variable-length growing seasons.

Saturday, December 30, 2006 -- 8:44 pm

As I'm still working through several months' worth of back issues of Nature and Science, I notice that in the October 19 issue of Naturethere's a story about Neanderthal remains, in Gibraltar, dated to perhaps 18-24,000 years ago, which is apparently more recent than other finds. One comment, in particular, caught my attention -- the apparent assumption that the tools and bones found in the same spot belonged to the same individuals. So the discussion was whether the Neanderthals had imitated the tool-making of contemporary Homo sapiens, or whether the tools belonged to a different time period altogether. The article doesn't say the tools were buried with the deceased, and I wasn't aware of the Neanderthals having such practices. So the assumption seems to be that the tools happened to be on the deceased's person at the moment of expiration, and no one ever set foot there again until modern times. But is that how people (albeit Neanderthals) are likely to behave? It seems more likely that at cave would be an attractive haunt for just about anyone looking for shelter -- if they found tools there, they might take them for themselves, or they might leave something behind because of forgetfulness or a need for a hasty exit. So although this really isn't my field (is anything, these days), it seems to me that tools would have to be dated independently of any bones that happened to be lying around.

Friday, December 29, 2006 -- 9:26 pm

It always seems to happen this time of year that the various shipping services start to fail. One rare book, probably impossible to replace, has already been lost in the mail. Slightly less infuriating is the practice -- and all the shippers have done this to me at one point or another, so there's no point in singling one out -- of fabricating computer entries of failed delivery attempts. Today I was told that a delivery was attempted at 1:03 pm, but the customer was not at home. Please, it's a commercial office building on regular weekday during business hours. My favorite, in a previous year, was the claim that the package was actually delivered, and signed for by one C. Ustomer. Funny. The package was then actually delivered two days later. I can understand that this is a busy and frustrating time of year, but that's no excuse to falsify business records. Can anyone else think of places notorious for falsifying business records in order to appease the elite?

Thursday, December 28, 2006 -- 10:12 pm

There's another fun article in the same issue of Science about the psychology of money. I haven't absorbed all the details yet, but it appears that even the most superficial mention of money can have profound effects on the goals and behavior of experimental subjects. Evolutionary psychology is always a fun topic, especially when we realize that seemingly complex human behavior is really no different from the politics among, say, elephants or honeybees. But this also reminds of any earlier article from a few months ago (I'll have to find the reference) that students' scholastic achievement improved dramatically, and over the relatively long-term, when they were asked to do little more than write an essay about their goals or values. We've come a long way from the times when people believed that muttering a few choice syllables over a obscure mixture could accomplish miracles, but it's still rather striking that simply saying a few words could have a profound but unconscious effect on people's behavior. It's not just politicans and advertisers who will take notice.

Thursday, December 28, 2006 -- 10:06 pm

There's a fun article in the November 17 issue of Science about robot dreams. It seems that robots were programmed with an algorithm that used down-time (i.e., an analog of dream-time) to refine and test internal models of their own structure, so that they can more efficiently cope with their environment and changes in their ability to interact with their environment. This apparently allows the robots to improve the efficiency of their movements and to adapt, for example, to modified or damaged equipment. As the commentors note, this could shed some insight onto why we dream, and the role of sleep in cognitive functions.

Thursday, December 28, 2006 -- 9:56 pm

I suppose it's fairly consistent with my dislike of most holiday songs that I also don't care much for the condolence card industry. It's true that I've never seen a card that actually conveyed a meaningful sentiment about grief, but I suppose that would be asking too much of the market economy anyway. And I fully appreciate that not everyone prefers to look their emotions in the eye, and that many people would be grateful to have someone else make the appropriate verbal gesture on their behalf so that they don't have to stir up bugaboos they're really not equipped to grapple with. What actually bothers me is the apparent decline of the tasteful, blank card, so those of us who prefer to make our own remarks are allowed to do so, without sharing the page with some anonymous greeting card author.