Archive for the 'language' Category

Word association

June 13, 2015

I wrote a comment Friday night in which I used the word “amanuensis.”  I even replied to a reply about my word choice Saturday morning.  And, as I said there, the word was something that “burbled up” from within me, and when I thought about it after it did, I liked it enough to use it.  It was in reference to Gov. Scott Walker, in a comment on a Joe Nocera column.

It occurred to me later that there was probably an element of word association going on.  Earlier on Friday evening on I had watched Washington Week on PBS, and one of the participants was Manu Raju, senior congressional reporter at POLITICO.  I see his first name on my television screen and I immediately think of the Latin word manus, particularly in the ablative case, manu.  And I wondered if there was any connection between the two words, what with all the branches and roots on the Indo-European language tree.

Manus in Latin means “hand.”  I am particularly attuned to noticing the word because of its usage in naming a particular type of Roman marriage, marriage with manus, since I spent some number of years worrying about Roman marriages and inheritance practices and such.  Whether or not the marriage was with manus was significant for determining whether the woman would inherit from her father or from her husband.

So I think one of the ingredients in the stew that produced “amanuensis” in my comment was my earlier mulling over the name of POLITICO’s reporter.  I don’t whether to apologize or to say thank you, I mean no offense and I am grateful for the word choice coming to me.  I think my larger reaction is to be interested in how things seem to ebb and flow (or maybe go up and down, surfacing and descending, like bubbles in boiling water) and mix within the mind.

My mother and English Language Learners

April 18, 2015

I found myself going on at a length beyond what I think is appropriate in some news comments I was making, so I decided I’d better bring my discussion over here.

The topic was teaching English as a Second Language and my mother.

My mother taught ESL as a volunteer through a local public library when she was older.  She enjoyed it.

It occurred to me when I was writing about my mother and ESL that my father was an English Language Learner.  He came to this country when he was fourteen.  My parents knew each other in high school (Erasmus Hall High School).  My mother was a little over a year younger than my father.

When my parents were visiting for my younger son’s high school graduation, I asked my dad about my parents’ courtship — I had heard my mother’s angle many times, but I hadn’t heard my dad’s and I was curious.  One thing he mentioned that was apparently a highlight for him was being invited to and attending my mother’s Sweet Sixteen birthday party;  I’m not sure I had been aware before this that she had had one.  It was apparently a big deal for my father.

I think my father had been in this country approximately three years when my mother had her Sweet Sixteen.  My father claimed to have learned English with The New York Times and a dictionary.  He said that spelling was the most difficult part and had no patience with my spelling mistakes:  “If I could master English spelling, you can, too,” was the substance of his reaction to seeing my repeated misspelling of “burry” for “bury” in a third grade report on animal hibernation.  I don’t know what state my father’s English was in when he met my mother.  I think they met through after-school school clubs and societies.  My mother told me that despite their losing touch with each other for nine years after high school, she knew she would either marry Kurt Moses or not marry at all.

So I want to say that my mother fell in love with an English Language Learner and I want to put that together with my mother’s teaching of ESL much later in her life.  I think for my mother, that later experience — her formal teaching of English as a Second Language — was also was wrapped up in a positive feeling for English Language Learners.

Harmony and distinction

July 27, 2014

In law school students are trained “to think like a lawyer.”  It involves the ability to make distinctions and it also involves a skill in finding a way to “harmonize” prior precedents seemingly at odds with each other.

It’s, to my way of thinking, a language.  And its relationship to spiritual insight is that it gives a person a way of putting into rational linear thought an insight perceived as a concept without words.  It is not itself, I don’t think, a path to non-dual thinking, but nor does it inhibit non-dual thinking — I think it supports it.  And it doesn’t just deal with splitting things from each other, it provides patterns for seeing compatibility among things that might superficially seem not to fit together.

Now, as for getting to the point of seeing things non-linearly, I am not sure intellectual training is relevant (except insofar, as I said, for providing a language for communicating to others about it), any kind of intellectual training — philosophical, theological, mathematical, etc.  Training in any of them may well provide a fluidity of thought that helps in translating, but how to break out of Kansas and into the Land of Oz, well, that, I think, takes something else and involves a different part of our mental processes.

More on mosaics

July 23, 2014

When I was watching the co-owner of the mosaic studio begin to cut the broken cup pieces in preparation for reconfiguring them (see previous post), one of the things she showed me was how by cutting a curved piece, she could in effect flatten it.  (I think it was that by cutting the curved piece along one plane and making it smaller, the contrast producing the curve became reduced in each of the smaller pieces, and so they were flatter.)

Now that suggests to me a spiritual parallel, because I think we human beings are faced with trying to perceive more dimensions of the universe than our everyday world deals with.  So when we perceive something from another realm, maybe we hear it as music, maybe we channel it into poetry or a visual art;  but some of us plug into a small fragment of the much larger thing with many dimensions and try to translate it into linear rational thought and language.  When we try to do that, I think it’s only by limiting the attempt to bringing only a small piece of it into this world that we are able to bring it into this world at all.  It can feel as if we are flattening the idea in breaking it into smaller pieces while we are still remaining consistent with the curves of the original idea as a whole.

The blind men feeling the elephant in the traditional telling of the tale generalize from their personal understanding, and my usual understanding of the tale is that we all need to communicate and share our understandings in order to get at a more profound understanding and peaceful relations with each other.  But today I got to thinking more along the lines of the difficulty of bringing the whole (understanding) into the world at all, no matter the method employed.  With the arts, something of the multidimensional experience I think is being reproduced, but it doesn’t usually become understood in rational thought and integrated into our mundane activities.  So it seems to me there is a trade-off even there, and that it is difficult if not impossible to bring the curved surface completely intact into a realm of flatness:  the universe is curved but our material world is in a sense flat.  When we as inhabitants of this material world poke our perception into, or permit our perception to take in, other realms, we perceive the curves of things.  Bringing them back into this world to share with others here is a whole other project.

The definite article

December 23, 2013

I really do mean the word “the” in English.

I used it in a comment about the deficiencies, in my experience, of a secular approach to life and its issues.  This was in response to the Ross Douthat column “Ideas From a Manger” in Sunday’s Times.

I referred to “the horizontal relationships” because I was distinguishing them from “the vertical ones.”  But by using the definite article and not just referring to “horizontal relationships,” I may have made possible the interpretation that I was referring to my own relationships happening to be inadequate to the task of helping me deal with a situation adequately, not to the more general phenomenon of human relations being inapt for some issues, period.  (I wrote, in part, “In my experience, the secular approach has nothing to offer when the horizontal relationships are inadequate. And there really are some situations in which the horizontal relationships are inadequate to the task — again, in my experience.”)

Sometimes a little misprision can have a big impact, for better or for worse.  In my context, it probably doesn’t much matter, given how limited the reach of my comment, but I was interested in it as a opportunity to understand how misunderstandings can get started, including in religious texts.  Just a little change in emphasis in translating from the concept into language at all, or the translation of the idea and words from one human language to another, can get it started.  Some languages have demonstrative adjectives but no definite articles.  That’ll make a difference in emphasis and thinking.  And to give another example of how emphasis can get transformed, as I recall it, Latin does something very different from what English does when it expresses the report of something negative — the negative goes with the reporting verb, not the thing reported.  It looks like “I deny that X happened,” where in English we would say that “I say that X didn’t happen.”  That can make a difference in emphasis, too.

The content of the interpretation I did not intend in my Douthat comment is also not wrong in itself, I think, anyway — vertical relationships are available to people whose human ones happen to be inadequate, even if others have human (horizontal) relationships that would be adequate to the situation, I think.  But that wasn’t really what I intended to say, in part because secularists tend to take that to mean we should all only focus on our human relationships and improving them.  Telling that to child born into a family of narcissists is like telling the child to get water from a stone, although many children will eventually, when they can choose their own relationships, find substitute ones that will fill in for deficits in family relationships, at least to some extent.

So I actually think there are two dynamics:  one in which one finds oneself in a situation in which one’s needs exceed what other human beings can help with, and the other in which one happens to find oneself short of what one needs, like being short of change when buying a pack of gum, because of weaknesses in one’s own human relationships (for whatever reason or reasons).  In both cases there is, I believe, help available through vertical relationships.  I don’t think God or the universe invokes the lawyer’s concept of needing to exhaust administrative remedies before filing a lawsuit, I think grace is available on a much more generous basis.  I don’t think God is like a clever lawyer any more than I think God is like a cranky parent (and I don’t think God is like a cranky parent).


December 10, 2013

I was happy and relieved to read a highlighted comment to Stanley Fish’s recent post about Noam Chomsky lectures at Columbia.  The comment made the point about concepts beyond what we translate easily into verbal language.  For the commenter, the concepts were in physics, and he made the point that even the language of math does not always provide a complete mode of communicating them.  He gave his name as hammond, from San Francisco.

Hooray for people who perceive that what we can articulate through the intellect is not the sum total of what exists, and that what part of that we can understand is not the same as the part we can communicate through language (mathematical, verbal, etc.) to others.

Not words

March 15, 2013

This is in response to a response I had to my previous post:  how can I say guidance comes to me not in words?  What is my basis for that claim?

When I receive guidance I often have the experience of trying to figure out how to put it into words — for instance, of trying to figure out the English vocabulary available to express the idea:  “How do you say that in English?”  I’m often wondering (and that’s not because I’m bilingual or that English is not my first language or that I happen to be thinking in a language I learned in school).

The ideas come as ideas, not thoughts in words.


January 7, 2013

I think I’m one of those.  Actually, I think we all are, whether we’re effective at being one or not.  I think we are conduits for forces we are only dimly aware of.  Sometimes the forces mix with us and what comes out is, for example, art, sometimes it is addictive behavior or even psychosis, sometimes theoretical physics, sometimes a combination of things, including a combination of useful and destructive things.

What I have thought vaguely for a while is that I can hear some interesting things that I could never have thought of, and that I can translate them into words and try to communicate them to other people.  I want to let those interesting things come through into the world — they are more helpful than what I could come up with through my intellect.

What I think I’ve spent years doing is cleaning out my apparatus, the conduit apparatus within me.  I think someone had used it for relationships and acquiring stuff and influencing people according to what that someone wanted.  I think it had been developed well enough to do that, and that it was kind of like this person finding someone else’s fully loaded laptop and using it to pick up girls and pay off lobbyists.  It got kind of corroded and bent by being used for personal gain and attachments.  So it took awhile to get the junk and dirt out of it, retrieve some missing pieces, and get the thing up and running as it is intended to be used.

It takes a fair amount of effort for me to hear what I hear, and it often comes best as a reaction to reading or hearing what somebody else is saying.  I focus on the hearing part, including maintaining a good connection, and I tend to give shorter shrift to the translation and presentation part.  If I lose the connection, then the whole point is lost, so that’s why I put my energy there.

I have wished for a collaborator who would focus on the writing and translation part, but Gita has steered me away from that configuration — she thinks I should be doing the whole undertaking.  I struggle with the writing.  I think in parentheses and footnotes and gerunds — how to get those curlicued and nested thoughts into linear form, into short, declarative sentences, and into something that others can follow is a challenge for me.  And taking the time and having the patience to explain it all and not leave too much to be gleaned from between the lines — that’s a challenge for me, too.  Willy used to talk about how programmers get bored after figuring out the gist of a programming problem, and often are impatient with subsequent steps, including the debugging stage.  I’m probably like that.  Once I feel satisfied myself, I have to discipline myself to go further with the project after that — I either don’t hear a call to communicate it well or I override that call with some nonsense of my own (including residue from having a number of people tell me I don’t write well).

I feel somewhat better about the process of learning to communicate when I think of it as finding my voice.  That, in turn, leads me to recollecting the intentional misreading (by a friend of a friend) of the Latin phrase “cave canem” (beware of dog) into “cave caneam,” beware lest I sing.  (The friend of the friend is Debbie Roberts, who I think is a professor at Haverford College.)  I like the idea that somewhere inside of me I have a powerful voice, if I can only find it.  Again, to get back to where I started, I think we all do, it’s a matter of realizing our potential.

Teaching Spanish

December 18, 2012

I studied Spanish in school, from seventh grade through twelfth.  It was a pretty good program, I think, and part of that was because the foreign language department hired native speakers.  Some of the native-speaking Spanish teachers for the upper levels of instruction didn’t speak English all that well, but for those levels, it didn’t much matter since within the class, only Spanish was spoken anyway.  (The only problem I remember was when we learned something like the subjunctive and were trying to understand its equivalent in English — we would have to suggest possible equivalents and the teacher would agree or not.)

I was thinking about this in light of the shootings in Newtown, CT and participating in on-line discussions about our reaction to them.  I have come to wonder how my perspective is of immediate help.  I feel a little like someone who doesn’t speak the language in which the discussion is occurring.

On the one hand, I can take the position that others will help guide the discussion and our national reaction, others who speak the language of the discussion and especially others who structurally have positions of influence.  They can reach people.  But when I hear much of what they say, I am concerned.  So much of it sounds short-sighted to me — understandable but short-sighted.  I start thinking that to navigate the world in this language, people cultivate certain ways of seeing, of interacting, of getting along, and that they don’t develop ways of seeing a bigger picture.  I am not sure how to bridge the gap directly, between what they see and what I see.

Maybe it’s not helpful to try.  Maybe just speaking my perspective on the topic, and in general advocating things that foster developing self-awareness and listening, are what’s helpful — in the long run.  Maybe the most I can expect are tiny shifts now and then from small changes at a different level, not sea changes at the surface.  I know I’m only part of a whole, that everybody has a role to play, that all I should be doing is playing my own.


October 3, 2012

I wrote a comment to Maureen Dowd’s column this morning raising the issue of the consequences of responding to the death of an ambassador by turning diplomacy into something else.  (It’s comment #11.)

I have no idea how helpful it is, either as a practical matter for action (I doubt it) or for directing other people’s attention to a bigger picture (perhaps just thinking about another perspective even briefly has some helpful impact).

But it’s what I see.

I think of myself as a member of the proverbial peanut gallery who also has some of the skills and training of the prime performers, which allows me to sort of communicate with them.  I also have developed skills they haven’t developed, and that’s where I see my contribution.  Those skills allow me to see things from a perspective many participants closer to the action don’t.  I don’t think it’s just distance, I think the way I have been living my life has allowed me to perceive things in a way that is not that common (nor is it unique), with a certain depth and independence from unhelpful assumptions that people more caught up in other concerns may have.

I criticized a particular way of practicing punditry yesterday (the kind that wants its ideas and scripts to be closely adopted by political actors, in part for less than selfless reasons).  I don’t claim that what I do comes closer to the ideal of what I think actual pundits should do, but it is an approach or technique that might be helpful for providing leaders and the public with possibilities.

Sometimes I trouble myself about the communication part of what I do, whether it needs amplification or connection to others, some kind of collaboration, or improvement as a free-standing enterprise.  My focus has been on just trying to figure out what I’m seeing and to translate that into language that is understandable to other people.  I have felt called to do something else with it in the past, but that didn’t pan out — others didn’t see it the way I did and the way I thought they were saying they did.

The universe incorporates whatever dance steps we can muster into the larger performance, so I’m not worried.  My own personal reaction to this version of the dance can be worked out on my own time.