09 June 2012

The Names.... language change in action.

I just read an article on the BBC website about the use of the definite article in the name Ukraine/The Ukraine.

It was quite interesting and raised several interesting points.  (Although it listed a lot of "the" places that have recently lost the article in common speech.)

One thing that did bug me, though, was a little S-shaped oversight, because they completely missed the point that all explicitly plural proper nouns need "the".  "The Netherlands", "The Phillipines", "The Bahamas".

Consider how you would refer to someone by his surname only... for example the western Alias Smith and Jones.  Now if you want to use the family name in the plural, you need the definite article, eg. "keeping up with the Joneses".
The argument in the article about the fact that "the Netherlands" is made up of readily-understandable elements doesn't really hold up; there are many English-language placenames in the UK that are made of generic elements but don't take the article, like the multiple places called "Bridgend", places like "Holyhead".  The archetype, though, has to be "Land's End".   It is the single most meaningful placename in the whole of the archipelago -- it's iconic and valuable because of its meaning is abundantly clear.  Yet we do not use the article.  We used to, certainly (see the Wikipedia entry for Land's End for evidence).  The historical origins are interesting, definitely, and certain classes of placenames do preserve old patterns, but language change is a subtle beast, and sometimes it isn't the form that changes, but the reasons speakers have internally for using that form.

Also, looking at the Bahamas and the Phillipines, it should also be noted that historically we didn't always name island groups in the plural, particularly in Scotland.  Conservative natives of Uist, Orkney and Shetland will still refer to their homes as such, whether outsiders are likely to call them the Uists, the Orkneys and the Shetlands.  (I would personally be very surprised if the English kings bent on conquering Scotland and Ireland said they wanted complete control of "the Britains" rather than simply "Britain", because this looks like a pretty new feature to me, and I suspect that it may be to do with the borrowing of French and Spanish names for new island groups in colonial times.)

The modern speaker of a modern language has no internal knowledge of the language change -- if a language encoded all its history, languages would be so "big" that they would be impossible to learn.  Instead, every generation observes what the generation before says and tries to work out for themselves why they say it.

Now I know someone's going to mention shops and companies as a counter-example, because the supermarket chain is Morrisons, but that's actually a possessive. It's Morrison's supermarket, after all. Heck, when I was a child, I used to append 's to practically every single-word shop name, as did my parents. Tesco's, Bejam's, M&M's, etc. Somehow Comet got an exception, and Fine Fayre was left as-is because it was two words.  Oh, and look at that: a two word generic with no definite article -- another disproof of the BBC's claim.

But you're right that Morrisons has no apostrophe these days, and neither does Greggs.  This is another example of language change, because as more and more shops drop the apostrophe in order to have their brand match their website domain name (Sainsbury's are a rare case of defiance -- how long that'll last now that the Sainsbury family aren't the main shareholders is anyone's guess), and as we get more exposed to Tesco as the official name rather than Tesco's, the next generation will grow up without the cues that it's a possessive name, and even though I will hear "Greggs" as "Gregg's", they won't -- in fact, it's entirely possible that everyone under 16 already doesn't recognise it as a possessive form... and yet we speak the "same" language.

When that generation reaches their thirties and are editing and delivering our daily news, then things might change, because a generation that is entirely comfortable and happy with S at the end of their proper nouns will happily say "Netherlands" instead of "the Netherlands".

07 June 2012

Talent Schmalent

Those of you based in the UK might remember the Channel 4 series Faking It, where a member of the public would be intensively trained over the course of 4 weeks to try to be able to "fake it" as a professional in a sphere they had never been in, but that was loosely related to their day-to-day lives.  A burger-van operator turned cordon bleu chef, a punk singer made into a classical conductor.  OK, so their skills weren't always entirely generalisable -- the conductor would struggle to conduct anything other than the two pieces he'd practiced, for instance -- but it was still an amazing demonstration of what an average member of the public could achieve... albeit with a more expensive regime than an average member of the public could normally afford: 24 hour a day company from people within the field.

Six years after the program stopped filming, the format has been resurrected in a slightly altered form by another studio, as Hidden Talents.  Instead of finding interesting individuals and training them up, this series starts off with the potentially pseudo-scientific notion of taking hundreds of applicants and putting them through a series of exams to discover their "hidden talents" and then pick the best ones to show on the programme.

I came across this as one episode has been mentioned on a couple of language websites, what with it being based on a "hidden talent" for languages.  Now I'm not convinced that they stuck to the exam results, because the guy they finally chose had a particularly tellie-friendly back story -- he left high school without doing any A-levels and was living in a homeless shelter.  Now of course I'm not saying that he wasn't capable and that he didn't get high marks on the exam (he probably did) but I just find it hard to believe that they didn't play a little bit fast and loose with the figures to get the guy they wanted on screen.

Now I've seen a couple of language aptitude tests in the past, and I'm not particularly impressed.  As with all tests, they can only test your current level of knowledge and not really your ability to be taught.  The most thorough language tests will try to get you to deal with concepts like conjugation, declension and word order without explanation.  So it says you'll pick up the initial concept pretty quickly.  So what?  Does the saving of half-an-hour at the start of the course make that much difference in the long term?  Is the language test putting off people who would actually do just as well in the long run as those that pass?  It's impossible to say, because for the most part, the people that run these tests only have data for those that passed in the first place.  (If anyone knows of any blind study that's given any empirical evidence for language batteries, I'd be very interested, but I doubt any exist.)

This is OK if you're running the US Defense Language Institute, where the number of applicants vastly outstrips the number of places available as they can afford to turn lots of possibly good candidates away -- heck, they really have to turn lots of possibly good candidates away.

It's also OK if you're producing a programme like Hidden Talents, because you only need one.

However, it's a horrible message to be sending out -- that people have specific talents.  On the surface it seems like a positive message (when everything goes wrong, it's just that you haven't found your talent) but it's actually pretty corrosive.  How many people give up on languages and say "I haven't got the head for languages" or "I'm no good at languages"?  People genuinely believe that they are inherently incapable of learning languages, with no real evidence, and it gives them an excuse to give up.

If talents exist, we still have no way of genuinely identifying them.  Furthermore, these talent characteristics are miniscule compared to the potential for education.  A 16-year-old coming out of a 21st century school knows almost as much about the world about them as some of the top scholars of the ancient world, and that's all down to education.  As the old phrase has it, most of us are nothing more than "dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants".

Isaac Newton did not invent this phrase -- here's the original citation for the phrase (taken from Wikipedia)
Bernard of Chartres used to say that we are like dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, so that we can see more than they, and things at a greater distance, not by virtue of any sharpness of sight on our part, or any physical distinction, but because we are carried high and raised up by their giant size.

Now, whenever I say there's no such thing as talent, someone always mentions sportsmen and physical pursuits.  I could claim it's a bad analogy, but actually, I don't think it is.

International competition sports can only be won by one individual (or team) out of the billions in the world, so yes, the most physically gifted generally win... if the training and equipment is equal.

But what if the training and equipment isn't equal?

I apologise for repeating myself, but I've used the example of marathons in a previous post.  The reason I'm repeating myself, though, is that it was in the comments section, so people may well have missed it.

The marathon: one of the great challenges of distance running.  And yet there are now people who run the length of six marathons in six days...in the Sahara desert!  And that's not to mention finishing times.  In the first modern Olympic Games (ooh, topical!) in 1896, the marathon was won by Spiridon Louis, in 2 hours 58 minutes and 50 seconds.  As I said previously, in the 2011 London marathon, 939 people beat his time.  The world record for the marathon currently stands at 2 hours 3 minutes and 38 seconds (Haile Gebrselassie).  How much of these improvements is down to better training regimes and better race-day nutrition?  How much is down to choice of footwear?

Overall, the lion's share of skill in any field appears to be teachable.  The talented will always be "best", but only by a whisker.

We can all be "good at" anything, as long as we don't expect to be the best.  After all, out of 7 billion people, it's pretty much impossible to be "best" at anything.

PS.  Sorry I haven't progressed with the study of novels.  I was with family at the weekend, and I never got my momentum back afterwards.  I'm travelling at the weekend as I'm starting a new job on Monday.  If the weather's bad where I am, I might make some progress in the evenings.  Otherwise, I'll be out exploring.