s Thoughts from the Physics Chick: October 2008

Sunday, October 19, 2008

A bit of darling etymology

Last night, as we were sitting at the dining room table, my roommate suddenly wanted to know the history and original meaning of the word "darling." (She's a curious person by nature. Happily, I like doing research and I'm good at it, so we're a good team.) So I pulled up The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language and discovered that it comes from Old English "deorling," which is comprised of "deore" ("dear") = "-ling" (a diminutive suffix).

A "suffix" is a word part which attaches to the end of a root word to change its meaning. (If it attaches to the beginning of the word, it's called a "prefix." The general term for all such words parts is "affix.") Suffixes usually can't stand along as a separate word, although they do carry meaning. Other suffixes include "-s" (which changes a singular noun into a plural noun), "-ing" (which changes a verb into its present participle), and "-er" (which changes verb "X" into a noun meaning "one who does X").

So "-ling" is a diminutive suffix, which means that it attaches to the end of a root word and changes the meaning of the word from "X" to "little X." I.e., "Darling" means not just "dear" but "small and dear."

I was curious to know what other modern English words included the suffix "-ling," so I fired up the OED online to do an advanced search on all entries which include "ling" as part of the etymology.

Many of the words I found were comprehensible in meaning, but simply not used by modern English speakers (cheeseling, doveling, authorling). Of the words we still use, a surprising number had to do with animals (duckling, fledgeling, gosling, hatchling), but not all (changeling, earthling). I found some words that I hadn't realized followed the (root + "-ling") pattern, because I didn't understand the root. These include:

dumpling (in this case "dump" may refer to a mass of something moist and heavy, such as dough)
sibling ("sib" being an Old English word meaning "kinship")
starling ("stare"/"stær" referred to any bird of the genus Sturnus, whereas "starling" referred to Sturnus vulgaris)

Suffixes can be either "productive" or "unproductive." Productive suffixes are still being used to make new words. Unproductive suffixes existed in an earlier form of the language and may still exist in some old words, but we're not making new words with them any more. "-er" is a productive suffix, as evidenced by the word "blogger." "Blog" isn't a very old word at all, so "blogger" must be even newer, but its meaning is instantly comprehensible to English speakers.

"-en" is an unproductive suffix. (It's so unproductive, that you might not even know what it means.) It's a pluralizing suffix, as in the words "oxen," "children" and "brethren." However, it has long since been replaced by "-s" as the current pluralizing suffix, so people wouldn't even know what you meant if you said "blogen," and the words which still contain it as a suffix are just learned individually as irregular plurals.

So, is "-ling" a productive suffix? There are some OED "-ling" entries which date from the 20th century, although they're not very common words. (In my vocabulary, at least. You may happen to use "sporeling," "waspling," or sharkling" on a more regular basis.) That said, I think someone would still get the general gist if you said "blogling," which probably wouldn't be the case with "blogen." I guess we'll call it "mostly unproductive."

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Books: Le Ton Beau de Marot

Le Ton Beau de Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language, by Douglas Hofstadter, is one of my favorite books of all time. Like many of my favorite books, it's hard to pin down exactly what it's about.

Its Library of Congress Subject Heading is "Translating and interpreting" which seems like a reasonable place to start. More generally, it's about why and how translators — especially poetry translators — make the choices they do.

Robert Frost once said "Poetry is what gets lost in translation." Hofstadter's book might well be considered a tome-length refutation of that statement. Of course you can't convey the exact same sentiments in the exact same way, but isn't making an attempt better than leaving us ignorant of the world's poetry because we lack a native comprehension of all languages? And given the three main aspects of poetry — literal meaning, figurative connotation, and poetic meter — how best to balance them to convey as much of the original as possible?

As a sample text, Hofstadter takes the poem "A une damoyselle malade," by Clément Marot and challenges various people to translate it into English. (This is the same Marot who's mentioned in the title which means, roughly, "The beautiful tone of Marot.") It's a very simple poem, written to a friend's sick daughter to say he hopes she feels better soon. However, it has a very tight rhyming structure and each line is only three syllables long, so it's a challenge to produce any poem under those constraints, let alone one which is a good translation of Marot's original.

The translations that Hofstadter presents play with aspects of this poem in different ways. Some preserve the form perfectly, while changing the meaning quite a bit. Some preserve the meaning of the poem, while loosening up the structure quite a bit. One poet even changes the structure and genre entirely, keeping nothing but the general intent.

Hofstadter also examines other highly structured literary classics, such as Dante's Divine Comedy, and Pushkin's Eugene Onegin (a novel composed entirely in sonnets). There are also some lighthearted moments where Hofstadter wonders why it is that the Germans in American WWII movies speak to each other in English with a German accent. Wouldn't they speak to each other in (accentless) German? So why not have them speak in perfect English? Or in German, with subtitles? He also has some funny stories to tell about arguing with the translators of an earlier book of his, the Pullizer-prize winning Gödel, Escher, Bach. (He's always encouraging the translators to use local, natural-sounding phrases, while they insist on preserving the American English idioms of the original.)

In addition to the linguistic juggling, both serious and lighthearted, there is an undercurrent of profound grief which runs through this book. Hofstadter's wife, Carol, died suddenly of a brain tumor between the first and final drafts. As one reads the book, she flits back and forth between life and death, alive on one page as she contributes her own translation of "A une damoyselle malade," then dead on the next one as Hofstadter muses on their shared life and love of language at her funeral. It's no exaggeration to say that this book made me cry.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Ladybirds, Firebirds, and Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds"

I'm reading a book right now by George Lakoff called Women, Fire and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal about the Mind. It's about, well, "what categories reveal about the mind." (As a side note, have you even noticed how the subtitle of a book is often much more informative as to the book's actual content than the title proper? As a cataloger, I notice this a lot.) Lakoff touches on many different ideas in the book, but two I find very interesting are the ideas of "graded categories" and "prototypes."

A graded category is a category that's not defined in a binary fashion (you're in or you're out), but along a spectrum or a range. "Tall" is a good example. There are some people who are undisputably "tall" and there are some people who are undisputably not. However, if you had to pick some cutoff point between "tall" and "not tall," any single point would be unavoidably arbitrary. (This is not to say that height cutoffs don't exist in various specific circumstances — you can be too short to ride a roller coaster and too tall to be a flight attendant.)

A binary category is a category where you're either in or you're out — it's not relative and there aren't an infinite number of gradations. "Bird" is a good example. There's a clear set of requirements for an object to qualify as a "bird," and it's pretty easy to draw a clear line between "bird" and "not bird." (I concede that it's still possible to come up with examples — hypothetical or otherwise — which would still straddle that line. However, you have to admit that most things in this world are pretty clearly in one camp or the other.)

So, that's graded vs. binary categories, in a nutshell. Now we move on to prototypes.

A prototype is the best example of a category, in terms of being most representative. With a graded category, prototypes are pretty easy to understand: They're the examples that everyone can agree on, something that's really tall or really blue or really funny.

Prototypes don't seem to make sense when it comes to binary categories, though. What would make something really a bird or really a U.S. President or really an object-oriented programming language?

Here's the weird thing, though: Even when it comes to binary categories, prototypes still exist.

When someone says "bird" you're more likely to picture some species than others. The same is true for illustrations in children's books or dictionaries. Even though we can all agree that a flamingo is as much a bird as a robin, the latter is more prototypical when it comes to our mental conception of the category.

So, it's all well and good for me to say "When I picture a generic bird, I think of a robin," but the cool thing is that you can actually make an empirical measurement of prototypicality. Sit someone down at a computer and tell them that words will flash on the screen, and they need to hit one key if the thing is a bird and another key if it's not (maybe there could be a third key if they don't know). If you measure the response time for each word, the more prototypical categories will have faster response times than the non-prototypical members. (I wonder if there's an inverse phenomenon with things that aren't members of the set — would it take longer to determine that something isn't a bird if it's still sort of like a bird?)

There are a lot of factors which contribute to prototypicality. One is personal experience (common birds vs. rare ones). Another is having secondary characteristics which are seen as typical to the set. (E.g., flying birds are seen as more prototypical than flightless ones. Also, it's common for a bird to be described as flightless, but rare for it to be described as flying, because that feature is assumed unless specifically negated.)

Anyway, I'd love it if any of my awesome programmer friends wants to set up a keystroke experiment for me. Prototype sets are typically mapped radially, with more prototypical members in the center. I guess the "yes" response time would go to infinity as it approached the yes/no border and the "no" response time should start at infinity and then go to whatever the minimum response time turns out to be. Also, people are generally faster at determining that something does belong in a set than they are at ruling it out, for what it's worth.