Sticks, Stones, and the Effect of Language

About a million years ago, a proto-human picked up a stick and bludgeoned a deer with it, and voilà! dinner. And ever since, this was the way of mankind. Rather than talk things through, we communicated with sticks, some pointy, some thick and club-like with stones lashed to them. Later, we developed language, a way of describing all those sticks. We needed words as a delivery system for our more complex thoughts. And eventually, we would develop insults, and later, passive-aggressive tones. Hooray!

About a million years after this stick incident occurred, we were taught a pearl of wisdom that said words used against us were not going to harm us. This “sticks and stones” maxim reminded us that insults were the last refuge of the ignorant, and no words could injure us, no matter how harmful. It was a way of fending off bullies, by equating them to knuckle-dragging, thick-sculled cave men. The thing is, those insults and verbal jabs do take their toll. I argue that being punched does less harm in most cases, especially when I was a middle-schooler being punched by a pint-sized assailant.

But the words are sometimes used as ammunition by people other than our classmates and peers. Teachers and parents were capable of much more harm to us. I never would have believed that grown-ups could inflict such cruelty, but I was twelve, and I grew up believing that adults knew what was best for us. But they were as clueless as any 30-something today, perhaps even more so. At least now, people have a wealth of information at their disposal, practically the entire repository of human knowledge by way of the internet. You might expect there could be no excuse for being ignorant, and yet many of us are. We should know better, but we don’t.

Back to that sticks and stones analogy. Physical injuries tend to heal completely. There are of course cases where lasting damage occurs. Broken bones, like those in the little phrase, may heal, but it might affect the way you move further on. I broke my thumb when I was 14 (I was practicing throwing punches after being tripped earlier that day, and my thumb caught the edge of the chair and went “crack!”) That hurt like hell, and I felt really, really stupid. But the physical pain went away after a while, and my body “forgot” the pain. Decades later, when the barometer falls or when geese migrate, my thumb gets stiff or a little sore. It’s not my body “remembering” the original injury. Instead, this is a lasting result. Be that as it may, this injury troubles me a lot less than some of the things people said to me over the years. Even though the words dissipated in the atmosphere just after being spoken, they still echo in my mind to this day.

You see, words can indeed cause long-term emotional pain, far beyond what a physical injury might have. We must therefore be extremely careful when choosing our words. We might start by developing effective feedback skills. This might be one of the most important parts of being a manager or any kind of leader. Saying the wrong thing can create problems further down the road. It is very difficult to undo the damage once this happens. You cannot un-say the wrong thing. Positive yet constructive criticism is like a precious resource, because it is rare that we receive it, and not very many people know how to deliver it. Saying something like, “I’d like to tell you where I see your strengths,” rather than, “do you know what your problem is?” for instance.

Once we have delivered valuable feedback, we can encourage others to learn this skill, as they begin to appreciate its worth. It will be like currency in a world where good communication is rare yet valuable. Right now I fear it is rare but unappreciated. Eventually, as we mature, we do see the value of it, but by then a subsequent generation has already been at the helm of our society. It’s important for teachers to develop this skill and pass it on. It needs to begin early on in a child’s development, earlier than we thought in the old way of thinking. Back then, children were not regarded as contributors to our society, but our understanding of the brain’s development has improved, and we know better now, so we tell ourselves.

Words have amazing power. We use them to inspire one another, to incite crowds, to soothe, and to charm. The right words are absolutely necessary for certain events, like toasting the bride and groom, delivering a eulogy, or giving someone bad news. Our words can injure. Words can be a weapon. Words can even heal. With the right words, a skilled negotiator can change the world more than any number of rockets and tanks. And the simple statement of, “whatever” can stop some of us in our tracks. Yes, sticks and stones may break your bones, but words can injure you for a lifetime. So be careful with what you say.

Advertisements

I Know You’re Out There

I’d been wanting a telescope for a while. I had one when I was a kid. Later, my parents bought one for me and my brother, a reflector. It was small, but we were able to see the rings of Saturn and some of Jupiter’s moons. It was so cool to be able to see such things with my own eyes, that is, not in photographs, but looking at the actual planets and nebulae. We spent many hours in the back yard, late at night, looking to the skies.

I’ve read a lot of science fiction, and I’ve seen every episode of Star Trek TNG and Voyager. So, I’ve given the idea of extraterrestrial intelligence a lot of thought. I suppose most people don’t think about this much, and many don’t believe E.T. even exists. That might be true, but the universe is huge, and there’s bound to be at least one more world like ours out there. And scientists are discovering new planets every day. It’s a very exciting time to be alive. Within my lifetime, I believe we will send humans to Mars and further. I’m certain there is no limit to what we can accomplish.

If there are intelligent forms of life elsewhere in the universe, I wonder what they must think of us. We as a species make a lot of noise. We have been sending out radio and television transmissions for decades, now, and anyone with the most basic radio equipment could surely have picked up something by now. But do we really want Jerry Springer or Honey Boo-boo representing us to the galaxy. When some alien race does intercept our signals, they will see that we worship money, are highly fixated on the ideal human body; and we say we want to eat healthier food, and yet we continue to fill our bodies with poison.

If I were watching, I would seriously question the wisdom of visiting earth. The Arthur C. Clarke novel, Childhood’s End, portrayed this notion. Extra-terrestrial visitors were justifiably cautious about showing themselves (for good reason, as you will learn about halfway in). And human beings are, even to this day, decidedly superstitious and xenophobic. We hardly trust someone who doesn’t speak our language. In my country I am an outcast for promoting the metric system. Why do we believe we would not demonstrate our worst behaviour the moment first contact is initiated? Some of us will probably launch missiles. Others will panic and destroy themselves. Actually, we’re on our way to self-destruction without anyone’s help.

Well, this got depressing very quickly. My apologies. But while I appear to have absolutely no faith in humanity at this point in time, it should be noted that there is a lot of good in this world. Just listen to the works of Thomas Tallis, or contemplate the paintings of Van Gogh. I like to people watch. It’s a strange little game I play. I did it the other day, watching humans coming and going in a busy shopping area. It was fascinating to see people of all types, different shapes and sizes, clothing and hairstyle choices, the distinguished and the ludicrous, the ostentatious and the mundane. Oh, the humanity! But there were all are. We’re not easily dismissed, and you can’t put anyone into a single classification. Some of us are joyful, while others are contemplative and melancholy. Some are left-handed. Some of us are more creative than others. Some cannot discern red or green. Some of us are anxious. All of us are mortal.

If you are out there, here we are. We’re special, but we’re not remarkable, just like the stars in the sky. Some of them really shine. But there are so many that don’t even get a name. They have a number. But they’re all unique, like every human being. But I hope someday we will make contact. I hope we will be worthy of it. I hope that whoever represents the human race will not be a total embarrassment.

 

CUI BONO?

I’m fortunate that I am the recipient of a liberal arts education. This might seem like a contradiction in terms, since I did not receive specific job training from my university studies, aside from the credentials to teach literature, or having seemingly scattered reference points on the map of human history. Part of my career was in pursuit of the natural sciences, specifically human biology, at which I excelled. Ironically, I work in the field of information technology, which I came into purely by happy accident. So I am particularly blessed that I have a good job in spite of my area of study.

College may not be for everyone. There are many good-paying careers that do not require a college degree, not in the traditional sense. Electricians, plumbers, and welders, to name a few, while perhaps benefiting from study of a foreign language and some advanced maths, can find work after a one or two year course of study. Culinary arts and other fields promise the same results, with another year of study, possibly. But the traditional four year degree may not be necessary or economically feasible.

When I was an undergraduate back in the 1980’s, attending a school in the state university system, my tuition per semester amounted to about 8 weeks salary, based on minimum wage (then, $3.35 an hour) at 20 hours a week. Of course there was room and board, books, meals, and sundries. But I’m just talking about tuition. Here in 2017, that same state college tuition, based on minimum wage today of $7.25 an hour, will take you at least 60 weeks to pay off. It’s not unheard of for a college grad to be in hock for $100,000 or more in student debt. And if you are the parent of one of these students, you would pray that they have some career lined up, so they can start repaying their debt as soon as possible.

So I was fortunate. I did have to take out student loans, but not for too much. But I would gladly pay it all over again (provided I was paying 1980’s dollars). But reliving those years would offer no guarantee that things would work out the way they had. (Of course, things might have been better.) But was it worth it? Who benefited? (Cui Bono?) What did I really get with my degree? It didn’t provide any training germain to my current career. In fact, client-server software development didn’t really exist as we know it, not that anyone truly understands it now. (Incidentally, I met my wife at college). The skills needed to work in today’s IT world can be obtained from a local community college certificate program. But many companies still look for at least a bachelor’s degree (or equivalent work experience) from their candidates. Equivalent work experience? Abraham Lincoln was self-educated, and many people in their fields are self-taught.

But I would recommend the university experience for some. That experience is unique, and the memories last a lifetime. You may never apply your knowledge gained in that one semester of poli-sci, or remember the French you studied. But you will have benefitted from it. Will that experience be worth the thousands of dollars you will eventually have to pay? That may depend on what happens in the future. As I said, looking back, it seems worthwhile to me. But that was a different time, I suppose. It seems that colleges and universities are not what they used to be, academically speaking. Students may not wish to study literature, and they may see no value in analyzing Othello for hidden meaning.

It’s too bad you can’t simply certify yourself as self-taught. It worked for Lincoln. Why can’t a person study law and attempt the bar exam? What about medicine? Well, some areas of study really need to be at the university level. In the future, a four year degree might cost more than a house. I think we’re starting to see that now. It’s shocking how much tuition has increased over the years. As I mentioned above, calculated in terms of weeks worth of salary, it’s gone up by more than 7 times in 30 years. Is the answer in increasing the minimum wage? Should tuition be regulated? Is Bernie Sanders’ plan feasible? Could the US pay for anyone who wants a college education to receive one? In the meantime, certain skills are hard to come by. Even someone with a masters degree is not automatically qualified. On the other hand, I have a friend who has never set foot on a college campus and excels in the field of technology. But even then, education is the key. Education takes many forms. It can be through diligent observation of the world around us. It can be through books, extension of the great minds of the past. It may be through experience. Education is crucial.

And for you lawyers out there, cui bono does have a specific legal definition, but I am thinking of the broader meaning. Thanks for noticing.

Do Animals Have Language?

To us modern folks it seems perfectly natural that we, the highly evolved primates that we are, would eventually develop a sophisticated means of communication (beyond throwing feces). Linguists, scholars, and language experts will tell you that humans have a monopoly on language, and that no other creature uses it. That is not to say that other animals do not communicate. On the contrary, practically every organism on earth communicates in some form, even plants. But do crickets have a language in their dulcet chirping sounds? Are howler monkeys speaking to one another, or are they just signalling danger or mating calls? How would we ever know?

In 1971, Penny Patterson began working with a gorilla named Koko, and communication was established when Koko learned sign language. Over the years, Koko has learned over 1000 signs and appears to have about 2,000 words in her vocabulary, according to the Gorilla Foundation website. Koko can apparently tell someone when she is tired or hungry, but also that her favorite color is red, and how she felt when she lost All Ball, her first kitten. We humans have, in our arrogance, assumed that only we have true emotions or the means to express them. But it appeared that Koko was entirely capable of expressing her grief. Decades later, the project still manages to amaze the world.

During an episode of “A Way With Words” that aired in October 2016, a listener called to ask whether his parrot really understood language, or was it simply imitating it. Host Grant Barrett, after listening to the caller’s story, maintained his view that animals, at least parrots, do not use language even though they may be capable of communicating. So what is a word, as the caller put it? What is the difference between a sound and a word? Huh? Meh. Ack! These are all sounds you can make, but do they mean anything? Of course they do, within some context. For instance, “huh” in the States usually means, “can you repeat that?” “Meh” is more modern, and I believe it is used to convey ambivalence. “Ack!” is from Bloom County, and I think it means “ack!” You’d have to ask Bill the Cat.

Perhaps we are unique. It is possible that even though Koko can communicate with her human handlers, she may not truly understand the meaning of the words she uses. For now, we cannot know either way. The only means of understanding what is going on in her brain is through her language. But that’s true for any human as well. We struggle with our words. They’re on the tip of our tongue. The mind usually works a lot faster than the connection to the muscles in the face and tongue that allow us to form words. Speech and writing can only transmit a finite amount of information, even with the massive collection of text we have at our disposal. Most of what has been written by humanity has been abridged by the limitations of our ability to focus our thoughts and transmit that information to the page or elsewhere.

This brings me to music. Music has been referred to as a language. Indeed it has its own “alphabet”, musical notation. Like any language, many aspects of it have evolved over the centuries, seeing changes in style, notation, and the use of polyphony – more than one voice or instrument at a time. In the 1977 film Close Encounters of the Third Kind, writer Steven Spielberg explored the notion that extraterrestrial life might be able to communicate with other intelligent life by using tones in sequence and patterns. Music. The ships arrived at various times around the globe and delivered a “message” in the form of a unique and now familiar melody. In the film’s climax, there ensued a lively exchange of musical notes in seemingly random patterns. (Randomness is in the ear of the beholder.)

Spielberg’s concept of how two very different species might communicate was probably the first of its kind. Others would follow. If we are ever visited by aliens, I like to think we’d have a chance at not being completely annihilated. How will we understand them when we have so much trouble understanding one another? Hopefully whoever has the ability to travel from the stars to get here has also listened to our broadcasts over the decades. If they have, they will have heard everything, or almost all of our vast catalog of recordings, everything from elation to heartache. I’m guessing the music might have spoken to them far beyond the words’ ability to do so.

But Koko doesn’t sing. She signs. Sign language might bridge the gap, assuming the extraterrestrials have hands or appendages of some sort. For all we know, jellyfish are from space, and they have been trying to tell us something important all along. From where we stand, come to think of it, how could we ever hope to understand? We need to reach out, pushing against the boundary of what we think we know about the universe, blundering into the unknown in hopes of the happy accident of a breakthrough. How long did we wait before we made contact with our nearest neighbors? Is it as simple as Spielberg made it look? Is it just a matter of making the right sounds in the correct order, hoping to make some sense? Isn’t that exactly what language is?

What I Learned from Yoda

Someone I know told me a few weeks ago how they had tried calling me one night. I think it went, “I tried calling, but you I couldn’t reach you.” What, is it 1988? I check my voicemail all the time. And I carry my phone with me nearly everywhere (I actually don’t take my phone inside church, and sometimes I turn it off when we go out.)

But I am more reachable than most people, even here in the 21st century. If someone were to try to call me, I’m confident I would answer. I think what that person meant to say was, “I didn’t call you, but I meant to.” To say that you tried to do something strongly implies that you made every effort. At least you could infer that some effort was made. Some fans of “Star Wars” will recognize the reference to Episode V, “The Empire Strikes Back” where we first encounter Yoda. During Luke Skywalker’s Jedi training, he tells Yoda that he will try to lift a spaceship from the swamp, or something like that. Yoda retorts, “Do or do not; there is no try.” In its simple elegance, Yoda’s statement instructs young Skywalker that he must put his heart into anything he wishes to succeed in. Luke fails, but he at least made an effort. I think his teacher was thoroughly disappointed in him, which inspires me to talk about parents and children. That will be the subject for another post.

I used to catch myself saying “I’ll try” many times. I’m reminded of this scene in the movie every time. I think it has changed the way I speak, but also I look at problems differently, too. It’s not just Yoda’s philosophy that I credit for this shift. I can also point to Emily Post, among others, including some teachers and a priest. The message is, again, pretty simple: If you want to succeed in something, make every effort. Do the things that you expect it would take to accomplish it, including practice, study, and rest.

I told my wife that I considered moving to Denmark. She appeared to perceive it as a joke, but I think she suspected I was serious deep down. I have various reasons, notably the fact that I am allergic to many plants where we live, and there are more restrictions in Europe to what may be added to food, and we are both sensitive to these things. Also, we have friends there, so we would not be entirely alone. So I looked up immigration requirements for Denmark. One big one was the requirement to speak Danish. Long story short, Jeg lærer Dansk. I’m just in the beginning lessons, but it’s my fifth language to study, so I’m optimistic.

Like I said, I work at not saying “I’m trying to learn Danish”. Instead, I say that I am learning to speak the language. According to Yoda’s epistemology, I would either be successful or I would not. Actually, as long as I’m working toward a goal, how could I fail unless I stopped? I guess you could say that trying is working toward achieving success. But I like to think Yoda is right. Try has a connotation that implies that a person can withhold effort, leading to a strong possibility of failure. Whereas, working indicates that you intend not to fail.

Now, I often say to myself that I want to be a successful writer. What this might look like is not clear to me, but I imagine the fundamental aspect that I would earn a decent living based on things I write and publish. Would those be novels or magazine articles? Short stories? Or could I earn enough from writing blog posts? Some people do it, so it’s possible. I don’t know if magazines get enough circulation, and I think print journalism is dying anyway. (That’s probably as much my fault as anyone else’s.) But let’s say my dream is to be a novelist. I think I know what that would take. And I am confident I am not willing to do those things, at least not now. My point is that if I really wanted to do it, I would not rest until I found the answer. Perhaps that’s not what I really want to do. Maybe the timing is off.

I think I am like many people. I have big dreams, but I’m kind of lazy. I was with my dad in a modern art museum a few years ago when he noticed a painting that was nothing more than a canvas with one half painted black and the other half painted red. My dad looked at it for a minute without saying a word. Then he stretched his hand out toward the painting and turned to look at me saying, “I could do that!”

I said, “I bet you could, Dad, but you didn’t. Someone beat you to it.”

Success is whatever you want it to be, within reason. I can’t say I am a successful basketball player by any measure, even though I have played, and I can make baskets from the three-point line. But I can’t do it when someone is doing their best to prevent me from making the shot. And being 170 cm, I am not very effective on the court. But I can say that I play basketball. I don’t try. I just do.

I will not say that I’ll try to publish. I can’t actually say that I’ve even made an attempt. But when I decide that I want to, I will put forth my best effort. I think I really will. I will also have to make a decision about how I will accomplish that with my current schedule. But my friend, who is publishing his first novel, has managed to do it, sequestering himself for weeks at a time. If that’s what it takes, then I have some major adjustments to make. If I am going to put my whole heart into something, I will need a lot of extra time.

Okay, Master Yoda, how do I create spare time out of thin air? Tell me that.

 

Morphology

Words are important. Context is even more so. Words can have multiple meanings in the same sentence, like “The man who hunts ducks out on weekends.” In this case, “ducks” is a verb, but because it follows “hunts”, we first assume it is the object of the hunt, the animal. The sentence would be better understood by inserting another word and adding a comma, “The man who hunts animals, ducks out on weekends.”

But sometimes a word starts to take on a new meaning, and it becomes less ambiguous. The original meaning is morphed. This is why we call every facial tissue a Kleenex, using a specific brand name. Or why people often say “literally” to describe something with emphasis, when in fact, they are misusing the word. Saying “I literally died laughing,” is a completely inaccurate statement unless you were resuscitated after laughing so hard that your heart stopped.

I studied language and linguistics, so I am a bit of a stickler when it comes to choosing the right word. I am by no means as rigid about language as so many lawyers, but I believe it’s important to be accurate. For example, people often say, “whatever” when they can’t think of the right word or when they’re simply being lazy. I heard two people coming out of a store talking about where they would go next. One woman in the group said, “we’ll go to Bed, Bath, and whatever,” as if “whatever” was easier to say than “Beyond.” My wife and I joke about this, and whenever we need to go shopping, I say, “we need some ‘whatever’.”

Laziness might be less to blame for the emergence of textspeak. The need to be succinct because of the cost of mobile data usage, and the 140 character limit of Twitter, not to mention our lower attention spans, have all contributed to abandoning of proper grammar and spelling. “You’re” is now “UR”, and “that’s hilarious” or “very funny” are now “LOL”. This is probably the beginning of persistent changes to language as we have known it, and indeed English has changed dramatically over the past 200 years. New words have entered our lexicon, and older, lesser-used, words have become extinct. Some have taken on new meaning. Case in point, we don’t use “gay” to mean happy anymore.

Some things are slow to change. A mobile intensive care unit (MICU) may still be referred to as an ambulance, even though it doesn’t resemble that antiquated vehicle much. Also, we have abandoned the word “pianoforte” for the modern “piano”, and the list continues. Things change, and sometimes change is pretty fast. As people live longer they will no doubt witness more changes in their lifetime. The late grandmother of one of my friends reportedly remembered arriving in California in a covered wagon as a little girl, and she lived long enough to watch Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walking on the surface of the moon. A lot of radical changes happened in the meantime, as you might imagine.

I expect many things will change in my lifetime. I have already witnessed dramatic changes to the English language, and I am split. On one hand, I lament the disappearance of the language I grew up with, but on the other, it is not good to remain in the past. I think I will always insist on proper 20th century American English when I communicate here or in business. I dare not elevate my language when texting or on Twitter. There’s no room, and there is no call for it. I say “lol”. But I say “you are” or “you’re” as opposed to “UR”. That’s just my brain’s unwillingness to cut off pathways to the memorized portions of the Chicago Manual of Style. It’s hard to let go. Kind of like trying to breathe while submerged.

Change will happen whether we like it or not. Just like people don’t ride around by horse-and-buggy, some things aren’t meant to stick around. That said, I say “toodle-oo”, as the old folks say. (God, I’m glad that’s no longer a thing.)

Myth of Blue

Season 10, Episode 13 of Radio Lab discussed the inconceivable idea that the color blue doesn’t really exist. Strange, I know. Homer, in writing the Iliad and the Odyssey, while using a slew of colors to describe everything from sea monsters to the blood on the sand during the Trojan War, did not once use the word “blue”. As it turns out, many ancient texts never mention the color blue. In the original Hebrew, there is no mention of the color blue in the Bible. Was it that ancient people could not see blue? Is that possible? I mean, what color was the sky 5000 years ago?

ThatRadioLab story really got my attention. In fact, I listened to it repeatedly, again and again. It’s the final segment that gets my attention. It got me thinking to the extent that I wonder now about how our universe exists in our perception, and maybe we don’t have the words to describe it. The ancient world could not describe the color blue because they could not produce the color? If this is true, then we may not be able to perceive the universe as it is, not yet. Looking further in our future, I can conceive that humans may be able to overcome obstacles like self-doubt, regret, hubris, and other roadblocks to our progress. Once hurdled, I believe we could and will solve our biggest problems, like violence, greed, hunger, racism, and the list goes on.

In our future, we may have a word for the thing we don’t know exists. We might let go of our security blanket. We will have answers for all the questions we have today. But I am confident that we will have more answers. And it is my hope that we will never stop searching for the truth. Until then, I believe there is time enough for the things that matter: art, poetry, science, teaching, field trips, exploration, and daydreaming.

Work, the daily grind, will never be celebrated. No one will remember what we toiled at, only that we had our noses to the grindstone. To what point? Work is gratifying sometimes. But creating things, art, architecture, landmarks, and our achievements, these are things that inspire us.

“Earthrise” – Apollo 8 crew

I was just now listening to an interview with Buzz Aldrin, who was talking about his experiences as he walked on the surface of the moon. He and other astronauts were overwhelmed by the magnitude of their achievement, and his subsequent speeches and writings would testify to his feelings of awe in the presence of such a magnificent spectacle of seeing earth from a distance, not to mention walking on another celestial body. For his part, he inspired countless people to follow after him, taking up the banner of reaching further heights than anyone before.

Before people saw earth from the moon, there was no word “earthrise”; at least it was not a common word. There was no word for it because no one had ever seen it, the partially-shaded disc of the earth appearing over the horizon of the moon. It took humanity a million years to get there. I like to imagine, or try to imagine, the strange and beautiful, the bizarre and inconceivable that we will encounter in the future. But we will not get there if we are unable to let go of our superstitions and fears.

WHy is the sky blue? Well, it’s not, really. It’s black and pink and fuzzy and tingly, and it smells like cotton candy. And that’s without mind-altering chemicals.

Now I just need more time to absorb all this. Keep on dreaming, people.