Archive for the ‘Language’ Category

To write

September 23, 2009

I’m really enjoying Haruki Murakami’s memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. The content is wonderfully self-insightful, and (in translation, at least) he has a simple and natural style that encourages me “hey, I could do this!”

I’m also enjoying Tell It Slant, the textbook for my writing class.  The use of English is exquisite, and their insights are thought-provoking, though in a very different way.  While I luxuriate in rereading their perspectives on writing as art, it also leaves me fretting “I have to worry about all that!”

Well, clearly “good writing” and “commercially successful writing” are two different animals, and while I’d like to do (a), I’d really love to do (b).  Enough to pay the rent, anyway.  Well, then get on it, my little voice tells me.



September 17, 2009

My biggest worry about this blog, besides that it won’t get picked up by The Economist, is that I’m going to start repeating myself.  I see it already, on a micro level – using the same word several times in a couple of paragraphs, and not as deliberate alliteration.  That, at least, I sorta understand – I’m an aural person, and once the “sound” of a word is in the forefront of my mind, it’s more likely to pop out in the stream.

In addition to being aural, I have the memory of swiss cheese – the kind with really large holes.  It’s the consequence, I think, of all the memorization I had to do as a kid, particularly in middle school Sanskrit class.  I got the high grade without being able to independently speak or write a word of Sanskrit, by the expedient of memorizing the entire textbook, three years in a row.  Yaay, Indian educational system.

So that burned out my synapses (or whatever memory is made of), and now, if and when I repeat the essence of an entire blog post, I’m going to be mortified.  When you notice a repetition, please text me.  Thanks.

Misspent youth

September 16, 2009

I survived (a semester of) college Russian only thanks to much help from an extremely caring and talented girlfriend, as well as a very understanding instructor.  At the time, I had delusions of chessic grandeur, which was inevitably to follow from my study in the original of Never Before Revealed Secrets of Russian Grandmasters, following in the footsteps of Bobby Fischer before me.

Those were also the days Spam was something I enjoyed as an occasional guilty treat.

Fast forward twenty years, and … I remember a Russian swear word so very evil I will never ever be able to use it.  And I can read my email well enough to understand

ЗДеcЬ mоЖеТ БЫТЬ ВAШа рекЛамa

Well, whoopty doo.

(Actually, I cannot tell a lie:  I had to look up рекЛамa.)

Multi-cultural maven

September 13, 2009

Today I correctly identified the language being sung in a pop hit:  Romanian.  Feeling quite pleased with myself.

(How did I do it?  Well, you know that Romanian is a Romance language, right?  I got a hint of Romance from the song, but it clearly wasn’t any of the usual suspects, not even Portuguese, which sometimes sounds quite alien.  Then, upon each relistening, the Slavic tinge seemed stronger and stronger.  Romance + Slavic … ta daa!)

Well, this is reminding me of the time I thought the singers of Baccara were Russian.  Not a great moment in the history of linguistic detection.  And I also know that “linguistic” isn’t the word I need here, since the song was in English, but I can’t find the term for “of or relating to accents.”  If you know, I hope you’ll share.  I can add it to my spreadsheet, almost 1200 words now.  Time to retake that GRE!

Be the change

September 9, 2009

A saying widely ascribed to Gandhi (-ji, for the Indians among us) is “Be the change you want to see in the world.”  I don’t know the exact quote, and I don’t know whether he originally said this in English or perhaps in Gujarati or Hindi, but I like the idea.  More than, say, his idea about sleeping naked with young girls.  But I digress.

A big part of the change I’d like to see in the English-speaking world is better grammar.  I do enjoy finding the correct word or phrase, and I always appreciate an elegant and precise construction.  And yet, increasingly, I find myself leaning toward fluidity and colloquialism at the expense of, say, pronoun-antecedent agreement.

When I wrote in an email earlier today:  “Who is the artist?  Maybe I can look them up on Pandora?” … was I throwing in the towel and yielding to the inexorable advance of grammatical mediocrity?  Or was I making a pragmatic decision to accept a common usage that dates back at least to Shakespeare, and in doing so, breaking down a barrier I’d constructed to artificially distance myself from my friends and the world around me?  When hardly anyone knows a rule, am I truly clarifying anything by following it?

Thinking too hard about this makes me nauseated.  Just momentarily, though.


August 8, 2009

I’m trying to qualify for Boston.  Cross-training, everyone tells me, is the way to build training volume while keeping injuries to a minimum.  Cross-training means biking, and biking means embarrassing myself trying to extract tire from rim, and thorn from tire, by the side of the road.  Well, it also means I get to go a bit further afield, and enjoy more varied scenery, than I can on my own two feet.

I don’t have to bike too far, though, well within running distance, to see a fair bit of demographic diversity.  I’m  just a mile from Atherton, our nation’s reigning “most expensive ZIP code,” while heading ninety degrees east quickly finds me in East Palo Alto, erst “murder capital of the USA.”  (Apparently “erst” is a shorter synonym for “erstwhile.”  Omit needless syllables.)

The change of neighborhoods is what interests me.  It happens so quickly, even unexpectedly.  One block you’re in lovely Palo Alto, lawns beautifully manicured, kids blonde – then cross a little bridge, the length of a couple of Hummers, and now the streets are potholed and littered with broken beer bottles, and everyone looks a lot more like me.

Most intriguing are the neighborhood shifts that are just as real, but less blatant. I wonder how I detect them.  On my ride this afternoon, for instance, I all of a sudden just “knew” that I had crossed into another financial stratum, without a physical cue I can pinpoint.  The houses were nice enough, the closest car in sight was a BMW M5, a standard VC ride, and yet … something had changed.  When at the end of the block a 70s muscle car sat on its owners lawn … I felt … not surprise, but “I told you so.”  How did I know?  It’s a sign:  I need to trust my instincts.

Words, words, words

June 25, 2009

As fast as I look up definitions for the new words I notice around me, more keep coming.  Now that I’m really paying attention, a single story in The New Yorker will yield twenty words – words I’ve seen before, and could even throw into a hastily written sentence, but wouldn’t be able to precisely define.  How have I been managing all these years?  It’s reminiscent of getting new glasses – for the first time clearly perceiving the world around me.  Assuming, of course, that those wielding these instruments of language do it correctly.  (The plane does NOT take off “momentarily,” thank you very much!)  After William Safire misused “begging the question,” I’ve learned not to take anything for granted.

I have 425 definitions noted, 100 words waiting to be defined, and … the processes of lookups yields ever more.  I don’t need to look up asymptotic, but that may be the process on my hands.  Which is a shame, ‘cos I’ve been waiting to “complete” my list before uploading it all to Mental Case for iPhone flashcard practice.   At this rate, I’ll soon have more English than Spanish words to learn!  Maybe my dream job is taking the SAT/GRE for desperate trustafarians.  (I didn’t just say that.)

What are these words, you’re probably wondering by now.  A favorite addition to my quiver is crepuscular:  primarily active at twilight or dusk.   “Zee firefly, she is crepuscular.”  Quotidian usage for the home schooled crowd, I’m sure, but new to me.


June 8, 2009

I like words – I like the way they look, and sound, and most of all I enjoy their meanings and derivations.

Johnson O’Connor thinks that I have excellent – well, “high, ” they don’t use judgmental words like “excellent” – vocabulary, and that I should be writing, or using my linguistic capacities in some way.  Since taking their test more than three years ago, I’ve been inspired to make a note of every word I encounter whose exact meaning I don’t know.  That’s it – I write down the word, and then continue with my reading, possibly completely missing the point of the text before me.  (Gabriel Garcia Marquez, in particular, uses vocabulary quite above me – and that’s just in translation.  The Spanish must be quite scary.)

Now that I’ve discovered the fabulous Mental Case app for my iPhone, I’ve typed my hundreds of words into a spreadsheet, and have begun the long process of looking up and entering definitions.  Some of these words are so great! Heterodox, for instance – a sentiment so close to my heart.  And I realize I’ve often heard it used in the context of renegade priests in the Catholic church – I’m doubly embarrassed to admit my ignorance.  But now that I know what it means, I can use it in public all the time.  And I just did!  Not only in the title of this post, I mean.

I have another word for you:  salient. Yeah, I know we see it all the time, but what exactly does it mean?  Write down what you think, and then look it up.  You might be surprised.