The Dirty Secret your Parents Never Told You about Columbus

There are people are see what is in front of their eyes, who learn what is told to them. And then there are exceptional individuals with special powers of insight, who see patterns and connections that others overlook.

I am one of those exceptional individuals.

Consider these well-known facts:

1. Horses were introduced to the Americas soon after Columbus's 1492 voyage (in fact by Columbus in 1493).

2. Crossing the Atlantic by ship in the era of Columbus took roughly a month or more.

3. Ships of the era were small by today's standards, with few amenities. Most of the crew were expected to sleep wherever they could find space. The Captain's own stateroom was not much bigger than an elevator.

Where did the horses ride on the ship? Clearly they must have been confined to a small space during the long weeks of the voyage.

And now we come to the crucial insight, whereby events of centuries ago suddenly shed light on the human condition today:

When your parents told you there was not enough space in the family room to keep a pony, clearly they were lying.

The Alphabet That Will Save a People From Disappearing



Interesting article at the Atlantic on the creation of a new alphabet for the Fulani language.

Marred by a slight instance of cultural chauvinism: I snorted my milk at the following sentence: "But unlike Arabic, whose short vowels are written as diacritical marks above and below letters, the script assigned its five vowels proper letters." Arabic vowels may be different from Latin vowels; that hardly makes them "improper."

I also learned a useful marketing idea for those creating a new alphabet: Choose a catchy word with no repeating letters; make those letters the first of your alphabet; then take that same word to be the name of your alphabet (just as "alphabet"="Alpha"+"Beta", the first two letters of the Greek alphabet). Such is the case with "Adlam", the new alphabet described here.


Starting up a New Language: Some Case Studies

Photo by Ryan Buterbaugh 

How best to tackle a new language depends on many factors:

1. How difficult do you expect it to be?

2. Is a new script involved?

3. What's your immediate goal? Your ultimate goal?

4. What tools are available?

5. How much time do you have available?

Herewith some examples of how I chose to attack some new languages.

Swahili. (First of all, my answers to the questions above: 1: easy. 2: no. 3: just want to make incremental progress. 4: fair number of courses and books available. 5: almost none.)

The approach: I use the Language/30 Swahili course and an old edition of Teach Yourself Swahili, which gives a bare-bones presentation of grammar and vocabulary.  I use Audacity to clip audio sentences from the Language/30 course and put the sentences with text into Anki flashcards. I create additional cards with words and sentences from the Teach Yourself book. The Teach Yourself cards have no audio, unless and until I find a good source for ad-hoc Swahili audio.

But Swahili pronunciation is pretty easy. The Language/30 samples should provide ample pronunciation practice, as well as providing a storehouse of useful sentences "in the bank." So far, at the rate of one new card per day (one new word or sentence every two or three days) it takes less than a minute a day, plus occasional prep time to create new cards.

Thai. (1: moderate to difficult. 2: yes. 3: just want to make incremental progress. 4: fair number of courses and books available. 5: very little.)

The approach. First I designed some mnemonics to help me memorize the Thai alphabet. I spent about a minute a day for some months just practicing the letters. I made Anki cards from the first few reading lessons of the Thai Pimsleur course, mostly just nonsense syllables, but it helped me get a foothold on reading. I continued with the Teach Yourself Thai book (with accompanying CD's--some form of audio companion is a huge advantage). Sample sentences from the book go onto flashcards, while I download audio for individual words from Google translate. (Note: I don't do this for Swahili because Google Translate's Swahili voice is a weird robot which I have no desire to emulate.) I also picked up Stu Jay Raj's unusual book Cracking Thai Fundamentals and started reading through it and making flash cards as necessary (it has less memory-intensive content). And by dint of some effort, I devised a streamlined formulation of the rules for determining tones from the Thai script.

Generally speaking, for each word, phrase, or sentence I have as many as five cards:

(1 "English to Thai") Input: English. Output: Thai audio.
(2 "Reading") Input: Thai script. Output: English and incidentally Thai audio.
(3 "Listening") Input: Thai audio. Output: English and incidentally Thai script.
(4 "Spelling") Input: English and Thai audio. Output: Thai script.

In line with a principle that good flash cards should expect a single response, the term "incidentally" here indicates that the card presents the information as part of the response but I need not reproduce it as a "correct" response.

Only a few cards are of type 4. I am ramping up gradually to writing Thai. I use conditional compilation for Anki to generate these cards only when I specify.

On the other hand, I like the daily exposure to reading Thai.

I currently spend about four minutes a day working through my Thai Anki deck, adding new cards from the Teach Yourself book, Cracking Thai Fundamentals, or occasionally the Pimsleur reading lessons as necessary.

Starting up Khmer and Burmese was very similar, the main difference being a relative paucity of available resources.

Sumerian. (1: moderate. 2: yes. 3: finish Hayes book [see below]. 4. Chiefly books. 5. very little [see a trend here?])

Sumerian is a dead language, which entails both advantages and disadvantages.

Advantages: 

(1) You need not be concerned about acquiring a perfect accent. For most dead languages, scholars are happy to inform you about the pronunciation with considerable detail and subtlety, but I'm always a little skeptical that they know quite as much as they think they do. Whether or not they really know what they're talking about, there's no harm in making things easy on yourself. This does not mean pronunciation can be ignored. I have yet to come across a writing system in which sound does not play some partial role at least. In the case of Sumerian, the writing is a combination of ideographic and phonetic symbols. Many words and phrases have alternate spellings. Having a crude idea of the pronunciation makes it much easier to recognize these.

(2) Likewise, you may choose to (or be forced to) downplay skills of writing and listening in favor of reading. Focusing on just one of the four standard language skills certainly simplifies matters.

For Sumerian, I depended on a single resource: John Hayes' book A Manual of Sumerian Grammar and TextsIncidentally I see the hardcover edition of the book is now going for $4000. which makes me feel strangely wealthy. The book provides many samples of Sumerian texts, with vocabulary lists and extensive discussions of each.

Sumerian is written in a cuneiform script, which my computer does not support. Certainly the computer would not reproduce the variety of sizes and shapes of the historical texts. Here Anki's ability to handle images facilitates greatly. By scanning a page, and clipping out samples of text, I can reproduce any word or phrase from the book.

Generally I use two Anki cards for each item of Sumerian text:

(1 "Reading") Input: Sumerian text. Output: the transliteration (phonetic reading) of the text.
(2 "English") Input: Sumerian text and transliteration. Output: the English translation.

I also use Anki Cloze cards for grammar rules, historical facts, etc.

This approach lets me work through at a steady (if slow) pace, while committing to heart the memorization-related content and reading some phrases of text (while reviewing Anki cards) every day.




"Nude" and "Flesh" Are Not Colors

A photo posted by Chyrstyn Mariah Fentroy (@chyrstynmariah) on

In the "institutional/pervasive racism" category for today, note the photo above, courtesy of Chyrstyn Mariah Fentroy, who, based on the evidence of the photo above: (1) is a ballet dancer, and (2) has a richly-hued complexion. The story told by the photo is that apparently it is impossible to buy ballet slippers in any color other than off-white. If your natural skin shade is something other than off-white, then you are doomed to hand-paint every new pair of ballet slippers that you buy. (Apparently ballet slippers that contrast with your skin are taboo.)

I sympathize with all ballet dancers who have to deal with this. It is something of a burden to have to do this all the time. More important the situation sends a message that you're the wrong color to be doing this. Sure, you can shrug it off, but at some point everyone experiences shrug fatigue.

I learned of this particular issue thanks to a Huffington Post article by Katherine Brooks.  Ms. Brooks is a serious contender for the Lack of Self-Awareness Awards. Note how the article becomes incomprehensible halfway through thanks to the profligate use of the term "flesh tone." What does this mean? Is it the pale peach one finds in a box of crayons? I literally could not follow the sense of the article once the term "flesh tone" is bandied about with reference to a diverse cast of characters.

Why are people still talking about "flesh tone"? I learned back in 1975 that this was uncool: