Thursday, August 31, 2017


Dawg Sez 15

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What do you see?
wolves at play; jaw sparring
wildearth photographs
Yer ears ain't any better than yer eyes. What do you hear?

Something called standard English is taught in American public schools. Most languages have an 'official version' that the government encourages. This is fine. If you're building a house, good to have a solid foundation.

A dialect is usually defined as a variation of the standard language. Not everyone agrees on this definition. The problem has a number of issues. Can a dialect continue to change and become a language? Are dialects 'bad' and standard forms 'good'? If two standard forms are combined, what results?

Ebonics is a term coined to describe to Black English. If Ebonics is considered dialect, as many Caucasians think, then it can be labeled as 'bad'. Bad grammar. Faulty syntax. A vocabulary that seems bent on confusion.

If Ebonics is a language, then it is no more incorrect than French.

Toni Morrison is quite sure it is a language.

It’s terrible to think that a child with five different tenses comes to school to be faced with books that are less than his own language.1

What she refers to is the sense of time in Black English.

Some of the ways to talk about walking2:
  • He walk– an action without regard to time
  • He is walkin’– an action in the present
  • He be walkin’– an action that is done all the time or over and over again
  • He been walkin’– an action in the past that took some time
  • He done walked – an action completed in the past

Every language has the same problem. The more established the language, the bigger the problem. The less established the language, the more likely it be that 'dialects' will flourish. The French have a government bureau dedicated to purifying the one true language. In Papua New Guinea, a small island nation in the South Pacific, 840 languages are spoken.

Best, it seems , not to be gettin' too dogmatic 'bout yer stuff.

We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives. 3
Toni Morrison


Monday, August 28, 2017


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Katharine Payne, a student of both music and biology during her undergraduate years, combined those interests to discover and document the songs of humpback whales. Since the late 1960s when this research began, these 'songs' have entered into the realm of common knowledge. This familiarity and a rather egocentric tendency that homo sapiens exhibit towards other species seems to have trivialized whale communication.

Whales have their own language. It is as simple as that. Humans are not unique in their ability to communicate. In fact, an argument can be made that human language, at best, is rather clumsy and inefficient. If one considers end results, all of human history and the current state of the planet provide all the facts anyone might need to make such an argument. The good that has been accomplished by our species seems to have been done by small groups of people working locally, people who have overcome the language barrier.

What evidence is there that whale sounds are no more than the equivalent of our grunts and groans? A discovery by Dr Payne made in 1969 is one piece of the puzzle. She found that whale songs change over time. As winter approaches, all the 'singers' in a particular breeding ground will start singing the previous winter's song. By the end of their migration and the time spent at their feeding ground, these whales will be singing a new song, a very different song. And all the 'singers' in the population will have learned the new song. Obviously, something more complex than grunts and groans is going on here.

Katy Payne asserts that the humpbacks do more than just 'talk'; they are using their language to compose and make their own brand of music.

The salient fact about all communication within and between species (except humans) is that of integration. Whales are one with their environment, perfectly adapted to all contingencies of life at sea; and the same might be said of aardvarks and zebras and everything in between. And though some humans speak disparagingly of nature red in tooth and claw, the relationships between species and with the environment generally is symbiotic. Are there malicious beasts in the jungle? Nasty brutes that prey on the weak simply from some perverse enjoyment of inflicting pain and suffering?

Only homo sapiens. Our language seems, by design, to confuse and confront, to set us apart from one another and from the world around us.

Music, however, does seem to be a different behavior all together. Perhaps the whales are on to something. Perhaps what we all need to do is talk a whole lot less and sing a whole lot more.

Recommended reading:

on the language of elephants

Thursday, August 24, 2017


Dawg Sez 14

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Ever wonder why dogs circle each other sniffing their hind ends? Obviously, they are looking for errant prepositions. Everyone knows that you cannot end a sentence with a preposition. The rule is etched in stone.

Well, that's what yer 3rd grade language arts teacher would have you believe. I'm here today to tell ya that this rule is not something to bet the farm on. Take Shakespeare's famous line "We are such stuff as dreams are made on". Or, if something more practical is wanted: He is a man you can count on. Those are prepositions at the end of these sentences.

Why do these phrases work and impugn the rule? The general slant is that if the verb is relatively weak and the preposition strong, the preposition belongs at the end. If the opposite is true, the verb goes last.

If Shakespeare's line is held to the rule, it stumbles badly. We are such stuff on which dreams are made. A bit pompous, that. Or: He is a man on whom you can count. Pompous and pedantic.

Many expressions have become idioms simply from long usage. The preposition is at the end, but the preceding word is where the stress lands. Examples are: "Nothing to sneeze at"; "Something to guard against"; " You don't know what I've been through".

Rules aplenty have been penned in an attempt to make the grammar and syntax of language clear. Language, however, is not mathematics. 2 + 2 is always 4; but two and too are homophones.

Monday, August 21, 2017


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Words and, subsequently, language apparently originated 100,000 to 300,000 years ago. A long time by most reckoning; but, in evolutionary terms, just an eyeblink. The span of years is long enough to satisfy most linguist that some form of evolution took place. Perhaps that should read 'is taking place'. Language continues to evolve.

Biological speciation, the development through evolution of homo sapiens, seems a logical first step. The larynx of humans is peculiar to our species and is a considerable factor in our ability to speak. Speech, it is, that sets us apart from all other species. This, at least, is the prevailing wisdom.

The problem of origin of a proto-language may never be solved to anyone's satisfaction. Too little data. On the other hand, the differentiation of language does lend itself to examination, and some conclusion may yet be reached on why so many different languages come to be spoken.

Theoretical conclusions abound; consensus remains elusive.

In 1861, speculation by one Max Muller produced the following theories: bow-wow theory, pooh-pooh, ding-dong, and yo-he-ho. Muller's notions are today considered a bit naive, though imitation of animal sounds, emotional interjections, echoing natural frequencies, and collective rhythmic labor all seem to play some small role in the more complex theoretical musings of today.

Currently, there are a dozen or so theories concerning the origin of words and language. Many of these build on the simplistic ideas of Muller. One does argue that there can be no 'theory of the origins of language' (social anthropologist Roy Rappaport). The argument considers language not as a separate adaptation, but as just one facet of the symbolic cultural development of humans.

For many the main impediment in delineating the origins of language is that all symbols, including speech and gestures, are all too likely to be false signals. In his book The Selfish Gene, biologist Richard Dawkins argues just this point; and he includes behavior generally along with communication in his theory. He writes:

Whenever a system of communication evolves, there is always the danger that some will exploit the system for their own ends. Brought up as we have been on the 'good of the species' view of evolution, we naturally think first of liars and deceivers as belonging to different species: predators, prey, parasites, and so on. However, we must expect lies and deceit ... to arise whenever the interests of the genes of different individuals diverge.1

Carried further, such an argument might be used to argue that the language of homo sapiens is not a blessing but a curse. Future posts will explore this notion.

1Dawkins, R (1976). The Selfish Gene. Oxford University Press, New York. pp69-70.

Thursday, August 17, 2017


Dawg Sez 13

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Stella Ann

Taking a new tack. Our guest author is the famed water dog, Stella Ann. She does have her own facebook page, but has agreed to contribute some thoughts to CwHD. Stella suggested changing the name of the piece to Conversations with a Salty Dog, but Zudnik objected.

Stella is a leonberger. The breed name derives from the city of Leonberg, Germany, where the animals were first bred. A mix of Great Pyrenees, St Bernard, and New Newfoundland, males can weigh as much as 170 pounds, while females usually weigh in around 130 pounds. They became internationally known as guard dogs as well as search and rescue dogs, particularly on water.


Some people think leonbergers are haughty creatures. Not so. Consider the word 'aloof'. Back in the days when Shakespeare penned his plays, a common Dutch word loef meant 'towards the wind' or 'into the wind'. Windward. English sailors adopted the phrase; and, with usage, it became aluffe, aluff, and aloof.

Sailors were using the term to describe a ship sailing into the wind, usually one trying to beat off a lee shore. Bad business, those lee shores. Usually rocky and unforgiving. Old sailing ships did not do well going to windward. 15 degrees off the wind was about as good as they could manage. If the wind were strong enough and the seas high enough, the ship was doomed.

Sailing with her head pointing high into the wind became the goal of every ship as it made its way off the rocky coast. The term was also used for a ship that could point higher than others in a fleet, and so drew apart.

'Aloof' these days is a word whose salty antecedents are largely forgotten. It has come to mean one who stands apart with a connotation of arrogance, condescension, pomposity.

An arrogant leonberger? I don't think so. We might knock you down in play and slobber your face with kisses, but aloof. Not a bit of it.

pooped after a swim

Monday, August 14, 2017

KOLOKOTRONICUS, a short story

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To conclude this month's cycle, the story 'Kolokotronicus' which recounts a voyage across the Ionian Sea. Misunderstanding and language play their parts. The sun shines. The sea ... well, the sea, as always, is implacable, indifferent.

The story is ten pages long, or so; and reads better as a pdf file. I have begun the tale here, then a link is provided to the pdf file.

Bon voyage.


Her body bobs and dips briefly, hair fanned flat in the eddies about the stern swirl. A thin green cotton dress clings to her torso and furls about her hips revealing thin white thighs as her head follows her feet and sinks suddenly from sight.
A seagull squawks.
The young man looks over the rail once again. Sits. A frown. He reads the lines he has written. He rises up on one knee and once again peers over the stern rail. Sits. He reads his lines.

There is never an end to the journey
Within the court of the Sun
No twilight comes.
The beautiful boy, the moon car
The wolf following forever.

They had hunched in the privacy of the bow, sheltered by the dual hulks of the winch housings, a blanket draped over their shoulders, shivering. He had watched them: she apparently sick, vomiting once, her hands cradling her abdomen in that peculiar manner that, to Harry, suggested pregnancy. He thought her too old. She looked old. The man with her comforted her, a hand caressing her cheek, his body rounded to support her as she leaned against him, dependent; yet Harry heard the rise in pitch of her voice, the sharpness that suggested anger and despair. They had squatted in the relative privacy of the bow winches and thick, flaked lines until a crewman came and ousted them.
"Go from here, go, get," shouted the crewman. He spoke Greek, but the waving arms and insistence were clear. "Aussteigen," he said; and, in English, "Shoo there. Out, out."
Harry frowned. He wrote the words he had heard.

Shoo there. Out, out.

The crewman stood over Harry as he wrote.

How innocent the words appear on the page. The repetition picks up some of the crewman's anger, but his brutality is lost completely. He despises these people. Where will they go now, on this crowded ship? The bastard.

Thursday, August 10, 2017


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Dawg Sez 12:

Fiddlesticks is a derisive phrase commonly used to express disappointment and disbelief over some bit of nonsense.

Literally derived from fiddle stick, the bow used to play the violin; originally the wording was 'I don't give a fiddlestick's end'. The reference here is clearly to something of insignificance. Since the 14th century, when it first appeared, the phrase was shortened and has taken on a more pejorative cast.

Fiddlesticks became rather popular in all likely hood solely due to its amusing sound. Other such phrases are scuttlebutt, lickspittle, and snollygoster.

Click the link to see Cajun fiddler Dewey Balfa and friend working the sticks:

Monday, August 7, 2017


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Noam Chomsky is a linguist. Language is his business. He is also a liberal thinking fellow and has opposed ever imperialistic venture of the United States from Viet Nam to Afghanistan. These are not two isolated and independent areas of the man's persona. He is all of a piece.

Chomsky's notion of language suggest a universe within our minds that has the same complexity and richness as the universe without, Einstein's universe.1 This notion might also lend itself to the argument that, as some Buddhists view the problem, inside and outside are one and the same.

Language, for Chomsky, is innate. A kitten and an infant, for example, growing up together in the same household, seem to be exposed to the same sensual influences, the same 'linguistic data'; the child will grow up with the ability to understand and produce language while the cat will not. The theory from this became one that argued for the unique position of homo sapiens, the only creature in which language has evolved.

Perhaps. Perhaps not.

It can be argued, and I do, that human language is simply a different form of communication; that all things animate communicate (see Roger Payne, Among Whales); that something besides language is at issue here.

We seem to be pattern seekers. And this propensity can be leaned on to explain all behavior, including language. If one is bold enough, pattern seeking might also be applied to all things both animate and inanimate.

If one is bold enough.

Noam Chomsky

1Daniel Yergin, The New York Times Magazine [159]

Thursday, August 3, 2017


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Dawg Sez 11:

When you simply cannot remember the name of something, what do you do? Exactly. You make up a nonsense word to substitute for the forgotten word. The same applies for the names of gizmos, usually electronc or mechanical, whose name we don't know.

Curiously, most European languages have some equivalent. In French, it is 'bidule' or 'machin'. In Dutch, it is 'Dingen'. In Italian, it is 'aggeggio'. All of these European equivalents will have their local meanings which shade the use specifically towards machine type devices or just stuff in general.

Thingamabob was used as early as 1750. Back then folks just said 'thingumbob' or 'thingananny' or some 'thingajig'. The third syllable---which may be 'a', 'e', 'u', or 'um'---was added only after the word was in use for some time.

Other such nonsense words were: doohickey, usually referring to a rather small thingamabob; doodad, whichamacallit, whatamacallit, or, just thingy.

One other variation of thingamabob came to light in my voluminous research. Edgar Allen Poe wrote a curious, sometimes comical, relatively unknown story entitled 'Literary Life Of Thingum Bob, Esquire'. If you are interested in mid-19th century humor, have a go. Otherwise, give it a pass. 

Thingum Bob, Esq