Saturday, December 02, 2006

Lost in translation: Two language-related links, and two not-

The title of this post is pretty self-explanatory, so let's get right to it.

On NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday was this interview with Kitty Burns Florey, the author of Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog, a book on the almost-lost art of sentence diagramming. I might as well come out of the pedagogical closet here and confess that, though I'm out of practice, I have been known to diagram the occasional sentence in class to the gasps of students who think I'm drawing and labelling a picture of the Nazca lines. For those of you in the know about diagramming, you know it's a good tool to help visual learners learn grammar in ways that merely labelling words in sentences as subjects, verbs, etc., doesn't always help. But it was good of Ms. Florey to note that no, one can't always reconstruct the original sentence from the diagram, just a grammatically-correct version of it. At any rate, it reminded me of Walker Percy's essay on the perils of mediated knowledge, "The Loss of the Creature" (here is an excerpt): splayed on the board, looking remarkably like a dissected animal with its spine of subject and verb and, off to the side, its innards of modifiers, one can indeed see that one can make grammatical sense of, say, the typical Faulknerian or Proustian sentence, but lost is why one should bother reading either in the first place.

Next up, via 3 Quarks Daily, comes "Me Translate Pretty One Day," an article on the newest advance in Machine Translation (MT) (of which Babelfish is an example): you basically feed in not just a really big dictionary (20 times the size of a desk-sized Merriam-Webster) but also lots and lots of examples of actual usage, so that the program also looks at chunks of words so as to render more idiomatic translations. In other words, these new programs do something more like reading than the older MT programs did.

Pretty cool. I don't have much substance to add to either of these pieces except that each seems to address a different aspect of language, neither of which is its essence but each of which suffers without the other. While diagrammed Proust is not as elegant a read as undiagrammed Proust, we'd be able to make no sense of him at all if it weren't for that internal architecture of grammar; and, as Evan Ratliff, the author of the Wired article, notes, "There's no rule that says 'between a rock and a hard place' isn't literal. We just know."

We are in Ishmael-gazing-at-the-whale territory here:

"While you take in hand to school others, and to teach them by what name a whale-fish is to be called in our tongue leaving out, through ignorance, the letter H, which almost alone maketh the signification of the word, you deliver that which is not true." HACKLUYT

To which I'd simply add that "H"'s are aspirated, and I've just now reminded myself that Ishmael was consumptive in his latter years. This merits yet further thinking.

But: another time for that. You're here for laughs, I know you are!

Not connected to any of the above, but something that I think one of my regular readers, at least, might find some tangential connection to: He is British and, he confesses, a wee bit anal-retentive. She is German and, um, isn't. Hijinks ensue, of which a small sample appears here:
#I came home from work on Friday and, as I wearily opened the door into the house, Second Born, Peter, heard me entering and poked his head out of the living room.
'Hello, Papa - I've missed you,' he shouts. From within the living room Margret's voice calls out to him 'No you haven't, Peter.'

You're all up for testifying for me in court, right?

More delights below the fold:

#First Born cut his hair on Friday morning. Apparently the casual notion that his fringe was too long and didn't look sufficiently wicked strolled through his head, so - without the use of anything as lame as a mirror, naturally - he got a pair of scissors and cut his own hair; he now looks like a tiny Howard Devoto. Except blond. And without the spectacles. ("So, not very much like Howard Devoto at all, then. Also, we were born in 1987 and have entirely no idea who Howard Devoto is." - Everyone.)
Now, Margret and I don't do that widespread thing of transferring ownership of the children depending on the situation; 'My son is a neurosurgeon,' 'Your son has just poured byriani behind the radiator,' that kind of thing. We do another thing. Margret, who is the one to spot Jonathan appears to be the first seven-year-old to be suffering from male pattern baldness, marches into the room where I'm sitting, reading the paper, and, looming over me with her arms knotted tightly across her ribs says:
'Jonathan's cut loads of his hair off.'
I look up at her and, after a few moments of thought, naturally reply:
She's unable to find herself entirely satisfied with this.
'So, that's it then, is it? You're all parented out now?'
'What am I supposed to do?' I ask, bewildered. 'He's cut the hair off. Do you want me to wrap it in frozen peas and race to the hospital to see if they can do an emergency weave?'
'I think,' she replies, 'that you should go and speak to him.'
And there it is. There is only one specific type of occasion when Margret feels I should 'go and speak to' one of the children, and that's when they have done something forehead-slappingly idiotic. The implication she is making is that Idiocy is my area. That only I can speak to the children when they've done something comprehensively crackbrained because, unlike her, I can speak The Language Of Fools. 'Maybe you can get through to him,' she's saying, 'Because you know how the asinine mind works.'
I drop the newspaper with a sigh, resigned, now, to the fact that I'll never get to find out what Kevin Spacey's favourite pasta dish is, and plod into the other room. Jonathan is happily drawing a picture at the table.
'Don't do stuff like that. Your hair looks stupid.'
I see his eyes flick, for the briefest moment, up to my hair. I'm dead in the water and we both know it.
'I like it,' he says.
'Oh, you like it, do you?' I laugh. 'So, it doesn't matter that everyone else in the world thinks it looks stupid? You like it? That's... Um, that's really good, actually. That's good.' I ruffle (what's left of) his hair.
Margret walks in behind me. Quickly, I furrow my eyebrows and point a sharp finger at Jonathan.
'So? Is that clear?'
'Yes,' he replies.
I walk out past Margret. 'Let's not say another word about this, then.'
Of course, next week he'll probably get into homemade tattoos, and his defence will begin, 'Well, Papa said...'
I have my bags packed ready.

[lots o' snipping]

*We had an earthquake here the other week. Surprisingly, I'm not being metaphorical. I mean we had an actual earthquake: in the geological rather than the emotional sense. It happened at about one o'clock in the morning, we were pretty close to the epicentre, and it was 4.8 on the Richter scale. Now, I'm depressingly aware that all you Californians are right now glancing up from your crystals and pausing mid-mantra to snort, '4.8? Poh. That's not an earthquake, that's just someone slamming a door.' Well, yes, I suppose it's all relative, but here in England where tectonics is less brash and showy, 4.8 is easily vulgar enough to stand out.
The important thing is that just before 1 A.M. the whole house shook. Naturally, this woke us up. Cupboards rattled and banged, furniture shivered across the floor, the bed struggled like it was possessed by the spirit of a wild animal that was trying to get out. The instant it ended, Margret's freshly woken face slid in front of me. Her voice irritated and her eyes accusatively thin, she hissed, 'Was that you?'

And finally, this Mo Rocca quip from today's Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me: "I'm assuming Panda Porn is in black-and-white."

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Winston said...

Great posting, John. As a student I thoroughly enjoyed sentence diagramming. And as with most things, since I enjoyed it, I excelled at it. Maybe it was the same logical side of my brain that led me to engineering school. But, while I had never thought about it, I would have just assumed that diagramming was still a part of basic English curriculum in our schools. Sounds as if you are suggesting otherwise.

Makes me wonder if my favorite, straight A, subject is still taught. Spelling. I really wanted to major in spelling in college, but was told that it did not pay too well.

John B. said...

Two things:
1) I was going to say this in the post, but I didn't want it to get longer than it already was: in the NPR interview, Florey says that the teaching of diagramming began to die out in the '70s, yet my very first introduction to diagramming was in college in 1981. One of the profs wrote the grammar review text we used in our comp classes, and diagramming was the chief pedagogical tool used in that text for teaching it. So, I'm a late arrival to diagramming. A few of my (older--that is, my age or a bit younger) students have seen and in some cases done some diagramming back in the long ago, too. As I said in the post, I'm really out of practice, but I do like doing it. Also, I now realize after writing my post (I'm so slow to see these things sometimes) it might be useful to use with those students who, when confronted with a sentence, have trouble "seeing" the grammatical relationships between/among words, so I can add that to my bag of tricks when discussing grammar in class.

2) Spelling. Alas, no, it's not taught in college, and SpellChecks have not rendered that need obsolete, either, seeing as they don't always catch obviously-misspelled words. Word choice problems (e.g., "their" or "there") are what I see far more trouble with, though: there's the subconscious thought that if a word is spelled right, it is, ipso facto, the right word. Word-processing has made word processing--that is, writing--so easy, I think sometimes, that it has tricked some of us into thinking that the computer is doing a whole lot more than what it is in fact doing. Case in point: In one of my classes, I have a citation exercise intended to teach students the rudiments of MLA style. At the end of one of these classes, a student said, "I have a program that does all this for you." Well, okay, Smart Boy. But you still have to know WHAT TO ENTER INTO THE PROGRAM!!! Not to mention where to find that information. It was reminiscent of the joke where a bookseller tells a student, "You need this book--it'll do half your work for you," and the student says, "Okay! Give me two of them!"

Sorry. Can you tell the semester ends in two weeks?