Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Ouroboros[Warning: this post is long and rambling, having largely been written when I was tired, and dehydrated in a building with the heating running at full whack, with a headache induced by bloody people who insist on eating pickled herring for lunch. I'm not in good mood, but my eyes ache too much for efficient ranting].

So I've been doing a wee bit of tweaking. Which of course means I am now more aware of the various parts of this blog which don't work as I might wish. I tried setting up the comments to be Haloscan stylee, but no matter how many times I set the pop-up option to "yes", nothing happened. I could of course defect to Haloscan, but each time I've come close to doing that in the past, Haloscan has one of its periodic wobbles.

Basically, there's a few more things in the sidebar, and I've done a bit of shunting. It also means I realise I forgot to add one of those fad de jour white bands for makepovertyhistory.org, even though they shouldn't really be a fad. It also means I've finally understood why there is a tatty bit of plastic wrapped round the church spire. Which given I thought it was either a spectacularly ineffective piece of jury-rigged patching up, or a banner on which the top support had come undone, is probably a good thing.

So until I get round to template tweaking again (which given connection problems, is sporadic at best), you'll just have to imagine the diagonal slash on the corner of the page.

Moving on, and this week seems to be about learning new words. Karma, whilst teaching us a different word, introduces us to kundalini, which is apparently a coil near the base of the spine in females. Um, I think I need to clarify that a bit; I mean it is an explosive force which can only be released when the body is in an appropriate state. Look, I can't help it: all the explanations talk about arousal and release.

Over on AFOE (which I haven't been to in a long time, and so was slightly surprised to be ambushed by a long post on fermions), when not casually dropping words like "ouroboros" into posts, recently had a post on second languages and words which simply do not translate. Other than the inevitable spelling and grammatical quirks, together with somewhat over-zealous assumptions*, which magically appear in any post on language, it has some interesting points.

It introduces two phrases which apparently do not translate: volere bene and anzi. The former is apparently brotherly or caring love (and in the preceding sentence the author carefully glosses over the lust/love continuum or dichotomy with amare). Given he stated it did not translate, I think he translated it quite well. I imagine it to be camaraderie, devoted friendship or kinship (possibly the last should read kithship, which would be a word, were it not so unpleasant to say). Hang on, wasn't he complaining words did not neatly translate, but then giving a two-word example. Surely having two words makes the concept much more complex? For example, for red hat not only would one have to understand colour and the notion of red, but also know what a hat is and what it does. And Le Chapeau Rouge takes on a whole different meaning in French (as well as the 3 meanings beyond the standard which I think it has in English).

As for anzi for "on the contrary", it's not so much untranslatable, but merely neater than the most obvious synonym. I assume the word is derived from an- as in anoxic, for example, and something like ci for "this/that". Which means it comes out as "not that", or possibly is shorthand for "that is not true". But other words and phrases work just as well. If objection is the point, No would probably work quite well...what other meaning is there to "on the contrary", other than objection or rejection?

As for his third example of magari for "I/you wish" or "If only", I originally assumed that it was used purely in sarcasm, due to the example given. But trying to take it solely at face value, as the author does, I am not sure I can think of a short universal replacement. Maybe it functions as like "Pour que" [I'm not sure on the spelling, or on the context, except Spanish friends used it as both why and why not, as well as in place of most other verbs]. Or maybe it is the Italian for the Hondaism whatif?

Other untranslatables include sapere for beleive; know, based on current information: valorizzare for increasing value by making it so, by making it appear so, or beleiving it to be so: and truth meaning personal truth (and so may vary).

The comments building from that post end up discussing the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (which Language Log have been pummelling for ages), although someone makes the mistake of actually saying what it is, which is [as horrendously paraphrased by me] that culture follows on from language, implying cultural change can only occur when the language is able to convey the change. Because as we all know, the word isotope is found in a book from a 12th century Benedictine chapel, although it remained completely without meaning for several centuries.

Ok, so the S-W Hypothesis is actually more along the lines of:
[Sapir:]"No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality." The theory that people who speak different languages have a different world view is known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.
But is that a result of the language? Language does pretty much what the users want it to. It changes. Ideas exist before there are easy ways to express them. To some extent it influences how they are expressed, but if the influence is too great, it is broken down as new language evolves. We could have cumbersome Germanic words like interconnectedstandardisedprotocolcomputernetwork, but we find ways round them, by adapting, borrowing or neologising (can I do that to neologism? Well, I just did).

Language is a tool: humans are toolmakers.

*- English is French + German. I'm having problems translating the "right" of "Yeah right" into either language.
- English spelling makes no sense. Which is why you just read that sentence, and this one. You say tom-may-ta, I say tom-mar-tow, and I think you're bloody odd. Of course one could point out that "read" would be easier to read as "red" not "reed", and the spellings should separate, but then red and reed already have meanings for those spellings, which are nothing to with reading. Anyway, this is English, it's always been a fickle language, beyond the control of Academies or Instituts: that's part of the essence of it. Like English culture, it nicks liberates the best parts of other languages or external influences. Don't have a word for an open-walled roofed area that skirts a house (largely because our climate gets in the way)? Then gain veranda from someone else. Not sure what to call a casserole of chicken, onions and mushrooms? Then borrow chasseur. Need a verb for a new action? Use the brand name (and hope you don't get sued). Have poem to write but need some better words? Imagination, you slithy man.
- "Steer meat" - I thought a steer was a young male? English has cattle, cows, bulls, bullocks, heifers, steers, oxen, and a few more [and spot who has never been good on where ox ends and oxen begin]. As for what the meat of a steer is called, well it depends what happens to it. If it is slaughtered early on, then it's veal, later beef, and beyond that can't happen due to anti-BSE regulations. But depending how it is cut the name of the meat changes. For example becoming rump-steak, sirloin, shanks or brisket (I think the last is the neck, but don't quote me on that). And that's just the skeletal muscle (tripe anyone?). And why does English more than just cow-meat? Blame the Normans (who were Vikings who invaded part of France, having laid siege to Paris) and their feudal system. If you rear pigs you call them swine, if you eat them you call it pork (and don't ask where pig comes from).
Basically I think the author at AFOE oversimplifies.

Incidentally ouroboros is something which is infinite, circular or never-ending. It comes from the culturally widespread theme of an animal consuming itself, such as a snake eating its own tail. So presumably "It was a dark and stormy night [insert your family's version here]" is ouroborosic.

And I'm buggered if I can pronounce it.

[As my dictionary lists none of the variations in spelling, here is Google's take in kiloghits. Ouroboros: 158, Ouroborus: 7.58, Oroboros: 7.63, Oroborus: 22.2, Auroboros: 0.152, Auroborus: 0.055. No idea of derivation]
I give up.


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