Thursday, 25 August 2016

Good morning Tokyo and the politics of medal-gathering

Something must have happened in 1964 ...
<autobiographical_note theme="docLewis"  date_range="1964">
...apart from my getting  116% in a Maths exam set by a lazy examiner. He set 16 questions, with a mark of 10"%" for each. He assumed nobody would score over 100. His plan was to take the marks and just call them "%". But as a mathematician he couldn't live with such a "percentage", so he scaled everyone's mark down. You can imagine how popular I was with my peers – especially the ones who had scraped a pass at the first pass and were now downgraded..
... because, of all the Olympic theme tunes (even the one for Rio), Tokyo Melody is the only one that sticks in my mind, Well, that's its official name, but I've always thought of it as Good morning Tokyo, because those words fit the tune (a correspondence exploited, I think, by the BBC at the time). Maybe there was even a song with that name..

This is strange (the persistence of the ear-worm), as (because of heat before September and typhoons in that month),  the Tokyo games were scheduled for October, a time when – as I had just started my 2nd year  at big school , taking  3 or (on a bad day) over 4 hours on public transport each day – I can't have spent much time in front of the television.

Which brings me to the recent success of British athletes. I must say it makes me feel uneasy. At those Olympics (Tokyo 1964) a united team from East and West Germany performed together for the last time (before the reunification); they came 4th in the medals table . In the 1968 Olympics, East Germany came 5th in the medals table , with West Germany placed 8th (they won 1 more medal overall, but  East Germany won nearly twice as  many golds. It is hard to avoid thinking that the practice of entering a united German team was discontinued because East Germany wanted to strut their (Communistic) stuff.

It was a commonly  held belief at the time that East Germany's success was questionable. TV commentators routinely looked askance at records set by East Germans. They must have been taking drugs, surely?

Since the reunification of Germany and the collapse of the USSR, it has been left to China to fly the Communist flag at the Olympics, and they have done it very well.  In Beijing in 2008 they came top of the medals table. I seem to remember cynics at the time saying it was a fix; they were joint first with the USA.  And admittedly they did have exactly the same number of medals as the USA; just many more golds – nearly 42% more. (But USA led the world in silvers and bronzes.). For 8 years I have swallowed the capitalist line that China didn't deserve top ranking.

But they did win, outright. What was the reason? "Drugs, of course", said some commentators. Some openly disregard certain World and Olympic Records because "they must have been drug-assisted". OK, some athletes take drugs; but not just Chinese ones. Why can't China's success just be the result of state support?

Now, at Rio, British athletes have collected precisely  THREE TIM5ES  as many gold medals as East Germany won in 1968, and nearly three times as many medals overall (67 as against 25). They have come ahead of China. But has anyone mentioned drugs (in the context of the Team GB's success?) Of course not – at least, not in the UK's press.  And quite rightly so. The improvement, as many a commentator and athlete and coach agrees, is due to  nothing more than money (or to use the euphemism du jourFUNDING.

Of course, that "nothing more" is arguable. More money means more facilities, more routes for enthusiasms to be funnelled down. It's easier (indeed, possible) to wake at 7.00 to go to train at the local track (or whatever)  than to get up at 5.30 to get your parents to drive you to the next county. Athletes win medals because of effort, tenacity, courage .... etc, etc. But all those things can only yield medals (in the quantities we have come to expect) if there is money (from either capitalism red in tooth and claw or communism [red... just RED]).

Personally I find "our" athletes' untoward success faintly obscene. At Tokyo, supposing we win "only" – say – 30  medals, commentators will be up in arms. Heads will roll. There will be phone-ins to talk interminably about "the crisis". Even more of the time devoted to TV sports will be talking heads rather than actual stuff.

But that sort of medal-count (still a few more than East Germany's 25 in 1968) would strike me as perfectly satisfactory – especially if it meant that more UK children had a chance to have a go at sports with exorbitant start-up costs, that schools could stop selling sports fields, and that children didn't have to go to fee-paying schools to get any experience of certain sports,


Sunday, 21 August 2016

Shedding light on sounds

<autobiographical_note theme="sound and light" time_span="1971"> 
When my family was in Rome in the Summer of 1961, we went to a presentation that my parents, for some reason unknown to me at the time, referred to as Son et Lumière; why French?, I wondered  (or rather, as I was in only my tenth year, why not Suoni e Luci as the posters said? Why not, indeed, the rather pedestrian Sound and Light? (though what was the point of that  for pity's sake [as Auntie Katy might have said in a moment of extreme confusion])? 
For a 9⅞-year-old it was pretty tedious stuff anyway. The only lasting impression it made on me was the recurrent Senatus Populus[Q]ue Romanus booming out every few minutes. Otherwise it was just some words, accompanied more-or-less randomly by floodlights picking out bits of ruined Forum; I wasn't paying enough attention to make the link between the commentary and the lit ruins. How did they dare to charge for what anyone could see just as well in daylight? (And an additional point of interest was the actual lights, which you couldn't see in the dark. Even then I was more interested in causes than in effects) 
But this tangent from an accidental pun in the subject line is pushing it – even for me
But coming to the point (if that's the word for my latest TEZZY nomination [Time-Wasting Site of the Year]): researchers at "Cambridge and Oxford" ...
<parenthesis speculation="north_south_divide_query"> 
(as the article says, though I suspect most native speakers of English would reverse that order [perhaps the provenance of the article,, had something to do with it...?]
...have done (or have convinced themselves they have done) something that generations of philologists have dreamed about).

Clicking back from link to link I find  that the announcement is old news:

But in my defence  I was getting ready for my choir's tour, mentioned here; so it was only last week that a Cambridge Research paper first caught my eye:

The Daily Mail article, of course, gets the wrong end of the stick. If there's a stick to get the wrong end of, you can rely on the Daily Mail to grasp it firmly with both hands.
... [R]esearchers have recreated what they claim is the mother tongue of one of the largest group of languages spoken around the world - the Indo-European languages. 
...However, as no texts exist from the time, linguists have struggled to reconstruct this original language and the way it sounds remained a mystery. 
The researchers have now recreated it
[I suppose I have to keep this in, though  I don't like to encourage them: ]
Read more: Follow us: @MailOnline on Twitter | DailyMail on Facebook
Recreated PIE? Of  course they haven't, and only a fool would believe they either had done or had claimed to have done.

But in fact I find it hard to work  out what they have done. The examples they have collected on another site show "progressions" from one language to another, as if French had, in some sense. "MORPHED INTO" Italian (an extravagantly silly idea). And there is my old bugbear, the widespread assumption that Portuguese tout sec (rather than Brazilian Portuguese) is what they speak everywhere that Portuguese is spoken.

Here are some of the paths (???) they track:
  • the acoustic-historical path from Latin [u:n-] via Portuguese [ũ]
  • to French [œ̃]...
  • Spanish [seis] → Portuguese [seiʃ]... [OK, but...]
  • Postalveolarization plus affrication is also seen in e.g. French [set] → Portuguese [setʃ]
That's the way it's pronounced in Brasil.

And can they really believe that vernacular speakers in Gaul waited for Iberians to demonstrate how to mispronounce Latin, remaining tongue-tied until about the seventh century AD? Indeed, there are even greater anachronisticals at work in that last bullet: French grew into Brazilian Portuguese, by-passing the Iberian version (which derived from Spanish according to the previous bullet), even though a Latin-based vernacular in Portugal had at least two centuries' start on Spanish because of the pattern of the Reconquest).

I suspect the researchers have been seduced into playing with some clever tech and just churning out "examples"  – which they would know better than to produce if they had studied a bit of philology. But before I risk venturing any further into the I'llEatMyHat zone I'd better read the accompanying papers (which I've only just found). Stay tuned for an update.


PS Meanwhile, here are a few clues:
  • Reportedly small jail break best planned here? (4,4)
  • Flag shows impolite degree of interest and removes clothes after Eastward migration (5,3,6)
  • Felon is in the clear after retrial, considering their endless omissions. (9)
Update: 2016.08.25.15:50 – Add PPS

I've looked at one of the papers (sorry, PDF). The Abstract reads:
The process of change, particularly understanding the historical and geographical spread, from older to modern languages has long been studied from the point of view of textual changes and phonetic transcriptions. However, it is somewhat more difficult to analyze these from an acoustic point of view, ...
You don't say
...although this is likely to be the dominant method of transmission rather than through written records.  
Of course it was. Has any philologist ever suggested it wasn't. Texts are no more than clues to what sounds were happening at the time. 
Here, we propose a novel approach to the analysis of acoustic phonetic data, where the aim will be to model statistically speech sounds. In particular, we explore phonetic variation and change using a time-frequency representation, namely the log-spectrograms of speech recordings....
At this point they lose me – going off into statistical analysis, and talking about log-spectrograms. When I first saw the (very impressive) picture that is, of course, front-and-centre in that Daily Mail article I was confused*. The spectrograms I had met in Cambridge in the early '70s were all two-dimensional. I wondered where the third dimension came from. That prefixed log- must be a clue. The third dimension is supplied by something statistical.

Having no grounding in statistics, I'm not qualified to criticize, however much I'm inclined to. The authors of the paper are widespread:

Statistical Laboratory, DPMMS, University of Cambridge 
2 Department of Statistics, UC Davis 
Phonetics Laboratory, University of Oxford 
4 Statistical Laboratory, DPMMS, University of Cambridge 

I imagine this made for communications problems. And three of the four are statisticians. I suspect that this may have hampered the philological input. I suppose the philologist did originate some of the text. But I doubt very much that he wrote the abstract, which even I can see is philologically naïve.

These sound files are fun to play with, but I'm not convinced they're of any use to philology.

Update: 2016.08.25.23:00 – Added footnote, having repaired brain-fart.

* Just checking to see if you were awake.

Monday, 15 August 2016

Notes and queries

For the last few months – years, actually, but months with respect to this blog – I've been prey to self-doubt; I thought I was losing it. So it was with some relief the other day that I noticed the presence of two recent pieces in the "All-time" top-ten (that's what they call it at Blogger [omitting   the hyphen, of course, in the best tradition of Strunk & White], though I have an automatic lip-curl response to the word all-time, which seems to me to debase the currency [rather like a phrase I noticed in a recent ad for beds: "Have a great night's sleep". I wouldn't call that use of the word , erm, GENIUS.]):

Top-of-the-shop is an old piece about Latin; I've never been able to work out why this one is so popular – more than 3 times as frequently visited as any other. It must be linked to from some (or several?) influential sites; or perhaps some MOOC links to it. The next 3 or 4 are all at least 3 years old. But at 5 and 7 are two recent offerings  – the most recent being a reflection on the irony of Argentina's response to the colonial name "FALKLAND ISLANDS" by insisting on a name based on a much earlier instance of colonialism.

The Colour Carmine

I was leafing through this week's The Times on Saturday when my eye was caught by an advertisement for the new ballet based on Carmen:

And rather than make the obvious assumption that the designer had chosen red as the main colour for its association with blood and lust and bull-fighting I wondered if the pun on carmine was relevant. And from that idle (some would say pathological – or at least wild) surmise (see what he did there?) I progressed to the further speculation about a possible (PRO TEM – but read on) connection between red and carmina (Latin, = songs).

By chance this further speculation was reinforced by another ad:
red again – was I on the track of something thingish? Well ...NO. Sorry to disappoint, but some madcap seeds fall on stony ground, and no amount of John Innes No. 2 is going to save this one.

Spanish is graced by many seemingly oddball girls'  names such as Sorrows (dolores) or Pillar (pilar). They are all epithets attached to Mary: Nuestra Señora del Pilar for example (a sort of early Christian stylite). The name Carmen is an abbreviation of María del Carmen.

So the colour of those two ads has nothing to do with carmine, which is derived (ultimately) from the Arabic qirmiz:
          carmine (n.) Look up carmine at
1712, originally of the dyestuff, from French carmin (12c.), from Medieval Latin carminium, from Arabic qirmiz "crimson" (see kermes). Form influenced in Latin by minium "red lead, cinnabar," a word said to be of Iberian origin. As an adjective from 1737; as a color name from 1799.
[From Etymonline. That link to kermes is well worth pursuing, if you have a spare minute.]
Which I haven't.
But before I go I must just record a (vanishingly small) victory. A recent edition of Great Lives started with Matthew Parris asking 'Why hadn't I heard of him before?' Well I had, by chance. During my brief stay at OUP in and around 1980, my friend and mentor Richard Brain (sadly no longer with us) edited a book about the extraordinary Muir of Huntershill, and as his assistant I had some dealings with it (not as many as I should have, as Richard – for all his many talents – was not terribly good at delegating, but the author was a personal friend).


Biased news: Cockneys' kosher butchers, we hear. (10)

Update: 2016.12.30.11:25  – Time's up (long gone, more like): PROPAGANDA

Update: 2018.04.30.11:40  –  Added PS

PS I was brushng this post up, in preparation for an update, when I realized that the history of this blog was rebooted when I discovered the MFL Teachers' Lounge and started  recycling earlier postys that dealt with language. So whereas I had been heartened by the fact that two relatively recent (recent at the time, that is) posts had already made into Blogger's "All-time" stats, the story now is heartening for a different reason.

In this chart, there are three pieces all written since the time of the original post; theses are marked as Brand new.  But three older pieces, boosted by the MTL (MFL Teachers' Lounge) Effect, are new arrivals. And one of the two new pieces I'd previously hailed as a Promising Newcomer has been left in the dust (and fallen out of the top ten because 325 just doesn't register any more):

Thassall, except for a few new clues:
  • Argot Frenchwoman used to make early ripener. (9)
  • Pointy cover for fruit salad making French jam. (9)

Sunday, 7 August 2016


<rant id="1"  ferocity="intense, but not as strong as that of MrsK">
The term highlights has a longer history than one might think, given that its meaning today is so closely related to radio or television. Etymonline, glossing over the pluralized version (which it doesn't distinguish as a headword), says

highlight (n.) Look up highlight at Dictionary.com1650s, originally of paintings, "the brightest part of a subject," from high (adj.) + light (n.). The figurative sense of "outstanding feature or characteristic" is from 1855....  Related: Highlights.

The Collins Online site avoids this dilemma (geddit? LEMMA), even giving it its own frequency graph:

In the words of a comment I made recently to the Collins Online site
The definition 'a selection on the TV or radio of the most important and exciting parts of an event, esp a sporting event' doesn't work any more. To judge by the BBC's coverage of Rio 2016, "highlights" seems to mean "about an hour of celebrity chat, punctuated by very occasional and sparse clips of sports action".


<rant id="2" ferocity="mild – not even a rant really, just an occasion of vague regret and nostalgia">

I know I know  I KNOW, this is the way language develops – I've defended so-called "mistakes" often enough in this blog.

But I'll never say (or write, except here, of course) appeal the decision. The most recent "infraction"("He only does it to annoy, because he  knows it teases") was probably to do with drug cheats before Rio.  I compared this construction (and the version we dinosaurs still use, with a preposition and no direct object) in the British National Corpus and in its American analogue COCA.

The search appeal against the [n*] (by the magic of BNC, you can just click on that link) occurs 136 times in BNC. Meanwhile, appeal the [n*] occurs only 36 times: the version with the preposition outnumbers the newcomer about 4:1. (That word newcomer suggests a possible PhD study: "The usage of non-traditional grammatical forms – an age-related study". That would put some numbers on what to me at least is a self-evident truth: as language develops over time, the trail-blazers are the young.)

In COCA, unsurprisingly (although possibly the extent of the preponderance [nearly 20:1] is a bit of a surprise), the relative weights are reversed: the American English strong preference is for appeal the [n*]. (Given the state of the hedge [] I must leave the workings as an exercise for the reader.)


Monday, 1 August 2016

Monte Cristo (Olympics Special)

Getting my retraction in first
I  know I know. I made the same mistake I was analysing. The YouTube  thing is fine. The Jobim song doesn't mention the Pão de Açúcar at all. I've left the text as-is rather than unpick it all.

The Hunchback (Corcovado, Rio de Janeiro) is sometimes called Monte Cristo (although the statue of Cristo Redentor is not on the hunch itself – assuming, as I do, that the hunch is the eminence just over half-way up).

For reasons that aren't entirely clear to me, Wikipedia says that Corcovado is sometimes confused with nearby Sugarloaf Mountain. Evidence of this confusion  – which I admit I thought unlikely when I read it  –  is provided by this YouTube clip, which has this image for a performance of the Jobim song Corcovado (sung here by Nara Leão):

A possible explanation of this confusion is the song's lines
Da janela vê-se o Corcovado, 
O Redentor que lindo.
It's a list of what the reflective guitarist sees from the window (da janela). The view must include both Corcovado and Sugarloaf Mountain (as does the photo below  – although the singer would have had to be on a ship to get this view).

When I first came across this name I assumed that it referred to some kind of Brazilian pastel. It was only much later, when I was visiting a National Trust kitchen, that I saw a real sugarloaf. As Elizabeth David explains in English Bread and Yeast Cookery
Households bought their white sugar in tall. conical loaves, from which pieces were broken off with special iron sugar-cutters (sugar nips). Shaped something like very large heavy pliers with sharp blades attached to the cutting sides, these cutters had to be strong and tough, because the loaves were large, about 14 inches (36 cm) in diameter at the base, and 3 feet (0.91 m) [15th century]
So that other mountain dominating the Rio skyline is well-named; Sugarloaf  (a name that is used for various mountains all over the world) could be added to my list of culinary metaphors.
Sugarloaf Mountain with the much taller Corcovado 
(nearly twice the height) in the background
So much for Brazil.

But before I sign off, here are a couple of  statistical pictures, relating to the popularity of this blog – Citius, Altius, Fortius [Quicker, higher, stronger*]  (which is about as close as this post is going to get to the the Olympics  ). Before my choral tour 10 days ago, visits for the first three weeks of July amounted to just over 700; they looked to be heading for a monthly total of about 900. For the last few days, though, the average has been over 100, giving a monthly total of nearly 2000 (a record). Hardly viral, but quite satisfactory

But before I get too excited by this rise, I've collected  the data for this graph, showing quarterly totals, which show more of a plateau:


  • Penny-pinching trust of late (8)
  • Sounds like Tessa's insolence is too close for comfort (5-2-4)
  • Mistaking area for regional leader leads to decoration. (7)
Update: 2016.08.01.18:40 – Added preamble in red.
Update: 2016.08.02.12:50 – Added footnote.

* Possibly there may still be people who would prefer it if the translation reflected the comparative adverbs: more quickly, more highly, more strongly. The synthetic comparative adverb (with an ending simply added to a stem) did not make it into Vulgar Latin. If you're interested in the way Vulgar Latin created an analytic one, by compounding a feminine adverbjective (of course) with -mente ("in that state of mind"), I tell the tale here.