Archive for the Language Category

he glotta hede ouk esti rhadia!

Posted in Language, Speculation on February 10, 2012 by Patrick

Every so often I get the philological bug and start going back and trying my hand at a dead language.  This time, I finally picked up that old monster of Greek, and started having a serious go at it — like, vocabulary notecards in the inside pocket of my sports coat, muttering paradigms in the elevator, spending my nights declining sigma-stem nouns kind of go at it.  I’ve made serious progress in just three weeks, if I do say so myself, and I’m getting obsessed.

It’s just downright infinite.  It’s like Borges’ “Book of Sand.”  I learn a paradigm, turn the page, and there’s another one, all seemingly different (I just wrote “seem” and my brain coughed up “dokei.”).  At the same time, though, you can see patterns underneath the paradigms: order arising out of the chaos of inflections and declensions.  Then, once you grasp a pattern, you pull back and there’s a larger weirdness that seems irregular, and then eventually you stare at that long enough and there’s another pattern.  It’s no wonder some of the greatest minds the west ever produced grew up on this language: just conjugating a verb required a mind that could grasp fractal levels of complexity.

Tonight I hit the wall, which happens in learning anything this complex.  I ran into a sentence so filled with things I only vaguely grasp — imperfect verbs with their foggy secondary verbal endings, sigma- and liquid-stem nouns, and the incredibly slippery prepositions . . . It was like walking into a crowded room and hearing people screaming words at you in disjointed cacophony.  I get frustrated.  I wanted to punch the book, I was so annoyed.  So you look at it, and look at it, and think about it, and look up a few words, and work backwards (let’s see — Oou must be the second person middle voice singular ending -so, undergoing sigma-deletion and contraction with the theme vowel -e- to produce eo which becomes ou, which means there must be augmentation of the first vowel, so it can’t be omega-iota-subscript but omicron followed by iota which makes the root . . . oiomai — Aha!  “you believed!”)  Doing this is not knowing a language; it’s decoding it.  But it’s the first step.

Meaning swims out of noise.  What appears at first to be alien symbols quickly becomes an alphabet.  Then the alphabet becomes words.  The endings, rules of conjunction, and all of that eventually becomes habit and instinct.  And then they stop being words and become meaning.

It baffles me: our brains do that.  What Vonnegut calls a “dog’s supper” of fat and nerve tissue can reconcile the rules of Greek grammar and turn gibberish into meaning.

How, ma Dia, can anyone who admits that someone can learn ancient Greek simultaneously deny that magic is real?


Ngrams are Addictive

Posted in Language, Speculation on August 14, 2011 by Patrick

Google has a new Ngram tool, which searches Google Books as a corpus of English.  An Ngram, if you don’t know, is a graphic plot of the frequency of tokens in a corpus.  From it, one can draw — oh, all kinds of conclusions, some valid, some ridiculous.  But you can point out interesting correlations.  For example, take a look at this one:

Magic Energy

Notice that “magic” stays mostly steady at the bottom, and “energy” rises dramatically in the middle of the twentieth century?  What does that tell you?

Or how about this one:


Now, of course, if you read this closely, you’ll see those numbers on the left-hand side are small, so don’t make much of this statistically, but it’s an interesting toy.


See that little tophat right there in the line, around 1900?  Who do you think is responsible for that?

ETA:  As a commentator points out, this is a little early for Crowley’s publications.  Yet there is a bit of a spike.  You can search for specific years, and in doing so, I found that they were mostly citations of some of the older stuff.  I wonder — could a young Crowley (about 25 at the time) have run into such citations and been inspired by them?  Meh, it’s all speculation, but it’s kind of neat anyway.


Posted in Language, Speculation, Weird on December 31, 2010 by Patrick

I just ran across the sentence “Unicorns don’t have wings.” It strikes me as a good example of the sticky problem of truth-conditions. We say that a statement is well-formed iff it describes a possible world. It is true iff it describes an actual situation in that possible world. You can say “Harry Potter has a scar” and this is true because in the possible world of Harry Potter (yes, we have a loose definition of “possible” here) he does have a scar. You can say “Harry Potter is married to Hermione,” and although well-formed, this statement is false. The statement to be true need not describe this world, merely one that is “possible.” In a possible world with unicorns, the statement “Unicorns don’t have wings” is true.

Similarly, we can say “There is no such things as unicorns” and this statement is true.

But what if you say *”Unicorns don’t have wings, and there is no such thing as unicorns.” That doesn’t even seem well-formed; it’s neither true nor false, but meaningless. And if you reverse it, it’s even more clearly ill-formed: *”There is no such thing as unicorns, and unicorns don’t have wings.”

I think the problem is that the two statements are not consistently describing the *same* possible world. To say “unicorns” is to presuppose the existence of unicorns, and to immediately shift to a possible world different from this one.

But wait. Let’s say “The King of France drives a sports car.” Fine, there might indeed be a possible world where the King of France drives a sports car, but in our world there is no King of France. My instinct is that this sentence doesn’t invoke a possible world the same way that the mention of the unicorn does. Is it because we could plausibly assume that someone in our world might not realize that France does not have a king? If I say this sentence someone would be justified saying “Wait, there is no such thing as a King of France.” If I say “Unicorns don’t have wings,” I’d find it at best oddly marked for someone to gravely inform me that there is no such thing as a unicorn.

What if I say “The king of France rides a unicorn.” Huh, my instinct, purely my instinct alone, is that this is not as ill-formed as “The king of France drives a sports car.”

Huh. Is there a semantic feature of certain words that invokes a possible world, thus asserting a different set of truth conditions? If so, what? +[mythological], maybe. That would mean that semantics interact with pragmatic schemata. But if that’s the case, it’d seem possible and maybe even reasonable to imagine that other features might trigger other schemata. In fact, it seems — just guessing here, I’d have to figure it all out formally — but maybe semantic features are just schematic triggers or something of that nature.

Normal people lie in bed thinking about their bills. Me, it’s semantics. I have a vague recollection of reading something along these lines in grad school. I should dig through my files and see if I can find it.

Stick Figure Hermeticism

Posted in Language, Magical Systems, Music, Writing on November 21, 2010 by Patrick

Driving around the suburbs, I see more and more cars with little stick figure families. If you don’t know what I mean, these are decals on the back window that depict the dynamic of the family: usually a father, a mother, two kids, a soccer ball, and a dog. Or some combination thereof. If you still don’t know what I’m talking about, here’s a site that sells them. I am not endorsing this site in any way, and I give you fair warning: it’s in comic sans.

I kind of want to make a line of Hermetic stick figure families. I’d have two men, two (three, soon, hopefully) books, two manuscripts, an easel and some paintings . . .

It is right and fitting from a hermetic perspective that people affirm their identity by means of their children. It is even right and fitting that they advertise such things in glyphs on their vehicles. After all, our children make hieroglyphs on our bodies and souls: why not on our cars? But the magician recognizes that there are children and there are children. To create flesh-and-blood children is wonderful, but it’s also wonderful to create other children: a unique arrangement of words, a painting, a language, a new way of cooking fish, a song. We create our soul by the children we have. It doesn’t matter if anyone else likes them (no one is ever going to pay to hear the songs I write, I suspect, and certainly no one is interested in artificial languages). What matters is that before me, there were not these things in the world. After me, there is.

The only real difference between the magician and the artist, I suspect, is that the hermetic magician never puts down his or her brushes and pallet, and regards the whole world as an easel.

Unsolicited Advice

Posted in Language on November 19, 2010 by Patrick

I know I haven’t blogged in a while; please attach the usual apologies and expressions of guilt.

What drove me back to the blog is a need to express some unsolicited advice. I get emails, from time to time, from various occult groups in the area. A particular one (the denomination and name of which I’ll keep to myself) just sent out a mailing asking for sincere seekers. They made it quite clear that they are Serious and Mean Business. They are not a Game and they don’t Want people with Agendas. And so on.

Probably they are serious; they probably even have the lineage they claim. But let me say as a teacher of English and a curmudgeon:

If you are serious and want people to take you seriously (a) do not capitalize according to the conventions of English printing circa 1750 and (b) do not spell words with extra silent e’s that are not necessary. It is not “arte” or “crafte” or “magiciane.” Some of these words have never been spelled that way.

Violating these rules of grammar is not wrong because they are rules of grammar. Language is a tool to play with, and you have every right to play with it.

Instead, you should avoid this practice because it undermines your stated purpose. If all you’re selling is the image of Olde Timey Mysterious Magicke, then you’re selling people a crock. For one thing, this particular tradition of magic dates back to the Ancient and Mysticke days of the 1960s. For another, magic is about more than image. The Wilde and Magickial Adeptes of this Ordere jump in their Hondas when the ceremony is done and go have Moons over My Hammy before going home and watching TV. Why do we have to pretend that we don’t to feel special?

Cave doodles may be earliest protowriting

Posted in Language, Speculation on February 23, 2010 by Patrick

Scientists studying cave doodles — outlines of hands, little patterns of dots, that sort of things — from prehistoric sites have concluded that these signs may have been a kind of protowriting.

“It was a way of communicating information in a concise way,” says Nowell. “For example, the mammoth tusks may have simply represented a mammoth, or a mammoth hunt, or something that has nothing to do with a literal interpretation of mammoths.” Other common forms of synecdoche include two concentric circles or triangles (used as eyes in horse and bison paintings), ibex horns and the hump of a mammoth. The claviform figure – which looks somewhat like a numeral 1 – may even be a stylised form of the female figure, she says.

Obviously, protowriting is one possible meaning.  I’ve often thought that an outline of a hand is an elegant signature.  But not all graphical organizations of information are writing.  Perhaps these signs had magical or spiritual import?  Could sigils predate writing?  Actually, I think they pretty obviously do: but whether these are sigils, protowriting, or — as we used to think — meaningless doodles is still an open question.

Bo Died

Posted in Language on February 4, 2010 by Patrick

Who’s Bo?  A language spoken on a small island off the coast of India, regarded as one of the very oldest languages in the world.  The last native speaker died today (or was it yesterday?)

Boa Sr died at the age of 85, the last native speaker of her language.  We know, now, that this language was doomed the moment the speaking population dipped below a certain critical mass.  In fact, it was doomed when it was no longer the first language taught to children.

Is this sad?  Well, yes and no.  Yes, it’s sad that we have lost the last source we had on this ancient and fascinating language, and what we have recorded now is all we’ll have, and all we’ll ever know.  It’s a bit of the beautiful diversity of language gone forever.

But it’s not sad, in that this process of language death is natural.  It has happened repeatedly throughout history.  The last speaker of whatever language was spoken in Europe before the Indo-European invasion eventually died, and no one spoke that language (or those languages) any more.  Yet Indo-European, which replaced it, split into hundreds of languages: Latin, Greek, the Slavic Languages, the Germanic and Celtic tongues.  Languages die, and languages are born.  As a linguist I know this.

But I’m still just a touch melancholy that part of the world’s diversity just faded away.  And the saddest thing, to me, perhaps, is that I only learned of the existence of Bo today.  On the day of its death.