Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Hidden Truth Behind the Light Bulb

Yesterday someone- I don't know who, the usual suspects I presume- was asking us all to turn off our lights for an hour. My first thought when I chanced to hear about it was that 8:30 PM is entirely the wrong time of day for that sort of thing, since at this time of year there is almost nowhere in the world you can see without artificial light at that time. It also struck me as unlikely that the power stations can respond to small fluctuations on that time-scale, so no energy will actually be saved. On the other hand, for those who like to worry about this sort of thing it is an act of symbolic importance to sit in the dark for an hour, and for the rest of us it serves as a reminder that if we light the rooms we are not in we are just increasing our bill, and so lining the pockets of those ruthless capitalists we hear so much about. More on this in a moment.

Others have urged us to celebrate, at the same time, the fact that we as a species have learned how to light up the darkness, talk across the world, and control our environment so that we can live long, healthy, comfortable and contented lives (anything you still can't cope with is therefore your own problem). To me this seems well worth celebrating, and only the fact that I had no desire to add a few pence to the sum I pay every month to the greedy capitalists (see above, below, and much of this blog for more information) stopped me turning on everything in the house from the sheer joy of living in such a world.

But then I began to investigate, idly at first, and I discovered something astounding- a conspiracy on a vast scale, hidden in plain sight, like the purloined letter. We are being forced to consume light by a capitalist plot which benefits shadowy figures who might be used as metonyms of pure evil.

Cui bono, I thought. Who can be interested in persuading us that a world full of artificial light is such an unquestionably wonderful thing, converting our passion for luminescence into a form of religion?

To cut a long story short, I embarked on an exhaustive and dangerous investigation, involving going under deep cover in the rare earth mines of Eastern Europe, and meetings in tastelessly decorated offices in various European capitals with men with gold teeth and suspicious bulges in their trousers (and believe me they were not pleased to see me). And I discovered this truth:

The capo di capi of the international scandium maffia is this man, Tim Worstall. Sinister and secretive (do you know what scandium is? Exactly, he doesn't want us to know) he is known to live in the south of Portugal, but the precise location is 'unknown'. He clearly has powerful friends. He controls a number of propaganda organs, including the Adam Smith Institute, the Register, the American and, it is even suggested, parts of the Guardian.

This is a man who claims to be a liberal, a free-marketeer, and even, just today, a socialist. He will clearly say anything he thinks may be expedient. He defends a professed belief in capitalism, markets, freedom and personal choice on the ludicrous grounds that they work, increasing prosperity and human happiness. He only, by this, shows his greed, his love of money and power, and his skill in manipulating ordinary people. He doesn't link to my blog, and he doesn't answer my comments, and I say, enough is enough.

Light is the opium of the people, electricity is the root of all evil, there exists a hideous plot to control the world through dependence on electricity, and it all comes back to Tim Worstall. Every time we buy a light bulb, every time we flick a switch, we put money in his pocket. It is time to stand up and say no, I WILL NOT BE LIT.

Note: Nanny says it's time I had my cocoa, and pehaps, a lie-down. But I'll be back.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

New Hominid Species?

Well, no. Like those questions that form the titles of articles in so much of our supposedly serious press, the answer is no. The paper doesn't talk of species, but form and lineage, and for a very good reason- there isn't enough difference in the mtDNA genome to be sure that it is more than a highly divergent eastern population of Neanderthal.

The story (behind a paywall) is discussed here, here, here, here, and here by people who mostly know what they're talking out.

The region of the Altai mountains where it was found was also home, at a similar time-depth (around 40,000 years) to modern humans and Neanderthals, and it came as a great surprise to Svante Pääbo and the team, because they had assumed it was just one more Neanderthal bone. 'It', by the way, is a single distal palanx, that is the tip, of a little finger, and it seems to be impossible to do any meaningful morphological analysis in order to learn about the phenotype of the creature it came from. But enough unadulterated DNA has been recovered to do the sequencing, and in the near future they hope to sequence the entire nuclear genome, too, which will provide a lot more information.

What does it mean? Did an unknown hominin leave Africa at an unknown time and evolve into something that we have only just discovered? Did it evolve from a known species of Homo, in a previously unrecorded exodus? How similar was it to Neanderthals and humans? Insofar as these questions can be answered at the moment, the answers will be found in the links.

So many gaps exist in our knowledge of hominid evolution (in fact it consists almost entirely of gaps, with random islets of information strewn over a vast ocean of total, and possibly permanent, ignorance. Finds usually come about by chance, and in many regions, including much of Africa, the geology is such that the likelihood of recovering anything from them is almost zero) that any new discovery is likely to require a big restructuring of our entire understanding of the matter. This bone has not quite put us in that position, but the nuclear DNA sequence may well do.

Palaeoanthropolgy is a science and, as such, it collects data, formulates hypotheses and detemines ways by which these might be tested, new data obtained and so the hypotheses rejected or refined. The usual caveats apply, concerning the limits of human nature, the weakness, pride, complacency and stupidity to which it is prone, but there is behind it all a well tested system for approaching the truth. The problem with the field, as I suggested above, is that the data become available rarely and randomly, and it is impossible to design experiments or to test hypotheses unless new data happen to emerge by chance which are more or less what was needed. It makes the search for truth a deeply frustrating one, and it means that every new site, or even a new bone, that appears, may show the previous, tentative but painstakingly constructed chronology to be false.

It is highly unlikely that we will ever know the full story of human evolution, but we have just learned something else, which might, one day, help us to understand a bit of the story, rather than being a few random syllables from a seemingly unconnected chapter.

It is a search I find endlessly fascinating, not only in itself as a constantly changing field of science, full of important surprises, but also because I, at least, am interested in it in part in order to get a clearer, fuller idea of what it means to human. To know something more of where we came from, and how, and what we might have been, is to have a better understanding of yourself. I think it matters, or perhaps I just find it interesting.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010


This story, covered briefly in the Independent and the Times, but not really followed up by anyone, in the press or on the blogs, is important because the most dangerous opponents of freedom- that is, those who have a chance of actually succeeding in reducing the freedom of others- are those who do it in the name of fashionable causes. So the following scene is instructive, and needs to be properly analysed (Unity of place and time are observed, unity of action may be assumed for the sake of argument):

The setting: Central Bolton on an overcast Sunday afternoon (not a promising start, I know)

The dramatis personae: The English Defence League (a bunch of thugs cobbled together from odds and ends not bright enough or clean enough to get into the BNP. They don't like militant Islam).

Unite Against Fascism (A bunch of thugs cobbled together from student politics and fringe bits of the extreme left. They like a punch up, don't like anyone who won't parrot their own pieties, don't know what fascism is, or freedom, and respond to provocation with the maturity of a 6 year old who's forgotten to take his Ritalin).

If you need to resort to abuse and threats you may just have lost the argument. If you start by setting out your intention to use violence and threats as your only answer then you are undoubtedly a bigger problem than the one you claim to be addressing. and you certainly don't deserve to be taken seriously.

The BNP, who were the original target of the UAF, are not fascists, and they are not right-wing. They raison d'etre is that they don't like immigrants, blacks, etc (insert term of choice) but as far as they have a coherent set of policies in other areas, which isn't far at all, they are left-wing, statist, and seek the working class vote. I wish they didn't exist, but they do, and we have to live with it.

The EDL, on the other hand, don't even pretend to have any coherent policies about anything, adn can hardly be grouped at all, politically. They claim to be against the supine acceptance of militant Islam, which may or not be an excuse to attack immigrants, but in itself it is at least defensible. They also, despite being mostly a chance for a bunch of thugs to have a little fun, have some intelligent leaders, who have learnt a lot from the BNP. The propaganda value of being the one who are violently attacked while peacefully protesting is high, even though the press tries to pretend it hasn't happened, and so the EDL isues rules for its own demonstrations, provides stewards from its own ranks, bans its supporters from carrying alcohol, and knows it can rely on the UAF to turn up and throw things, break things, and assault people, because that's what they do.

I'm not black and I'm not from Bolton, so I can look at this more in the abstract. The EDL may or may not be a spontaneous response to a genuine problem, but it is certainly not the answer to that problem. Nevertheless, it exists, and it's members are entitled to their views and to express them publicly. To deny that freedom is to make it conditional on orthodoxy or fashion, and it is amply demonstrated in human history that no one can be trusted to determine what people may be permitted to think.

If the EDL are a problem, and they probably are, the UAF, a violent, illiberal gang led by Trots, is certainly not the answer to it.

Don't believe me, go and read what they have to say. Listen to them speak. Let them tell you, through their words and actions, what they are. Unlike them, you see, I do believe in freedom, and not just for people who are like me.

I thought there was a point to this post when I started, but now I'm not so sure. In any case, read what everyone has to say about this. The Independent, you will notice, talks about the police battling right-wingers, but the police spokesman makes it clear that it was the UAF causing all the trouble. The EDL have, as I say, learned a lot very quickly. And don't trust anyone who wants to tell you what you are allowed to hear, and what you are allowed to say. They are not on your side.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Rivers and Bridges Again

You can get a bit obsessed with water down here, as regular readers may have noticed. Usually we don't have enough of it. Just now we have a bit too much, but it may have to last us years, so we won't complain too much. There are several places along the river not far from the city which are attractive enough to be worth walking out to, and now that it really is a river rather than a ditch I'm trying to have a look at them all before the whole place dries up again.

Yesterday I went out to an old bridge on a very minor road from Carrión to Malagón (yes, quite), within view of another mediaeval castle once home to the knights of Calatrava, before they went off to somewhere sufficiently distant from the swamp to avoid being wiped out by typhus or cholera every few years. The new bridge is a flimsy looking thing, strung together with leftover bits of metal and tarmac, but it gets you over to the other side, which the old bridge no longer does. The old one is made of stone, and rather than go directly from bank to bank in the fashion of more traditional bridges, it winds across. This is explained by the remnants of old mills still lying on the riverbed. There used to be a lot of them along the river, but social change (electricity) and the everfalling level of the water put an end to them decades ago.

The last time I went there, back in October was with Mrs Hickory, and an old man on a bike who claimed to be eighty told us of how he remembered the water reaching near the top of the banks when he used to go past as a child, and how it was all much greener then. He was probably telling the truth. Yesterday it was not very green, as many of the trees in the bed are dead, but there were almonds in flower, and a smell of fresh, running water about the place.

Before and after photos, for comparison.

Friday, March 19, 2010

In Which I Shudder at Change

I've always disliked the Duckworth-Lewis handicap system for one-day cricket, partly because of its quite unnecessary complexity, and partly for the related reason that, being rather opaque, it is not obviously fair. This may not make it unfair, but when it produces an impossibly high target after a few lost overs for a side that was going along quite nicely, or every ball, run or especially wicket causes the DL figure to lurch and bounce about like a drunk in a dark alley, or there is a rush to shorten the innings and calculate a target at the first sign of a drop of rain, even though there is plenty of time left to finish the game, it is hard to avoid the impression that it was bought up after a gleaming pitching session at HQ by men in shiny suits and sunglasses with cybernetic blackboards and laser pointers, and promises of free merchandising products if they got the nod, rather than for what it might actually add to the beauty of the game. It was too clever, and too pretty, to refuse, but what problem was is it intended to solve? Something much, much simpler had always been used. Everyone knew where they were all the time, you could easily change your tactics if there was a chance of rain, and it was both transparent and intuitively fair.

Mind you, being, in all the important things in life, as entrenched a conservative as ever wore tights and walked backwards at the State Opening of Parliament, I never liked this new-fangled limited overs stuff in the first place (even though it's older than I am). So I may well be missing something.

In any case this post is not about cricket, but ski-jumping. Mrs Hickory and I are both fans. They do it mostly at Sunday lunchtime, and there are few better ways of digesting your roast than watching people throwing themselves over cliffs in the frozen wastes of northern Scandinavia (watching the Addis Ababa marathon is up there with it, perhaps). Suddenly, someone has come up with a way of compensating for differences in the starting gate (which had never existed before, everyone jumped from the same gate) and for variations in the wind, which have always been thought of as part of the sport, the rub of the green.

There are two major problems with this that I can see (three if you include the aforesaid conservatism). The first is the same as with DL, that is, although there is a reassuringly complex procedure for coming up with a reassuringly precise figure to add to or subtract from the points total, there is no obvious way of checking that it is fair. The figure is not intuitively meaningful, and so it looks like an arbitrary correcting factor. The second problem is that it diminishes the spectacle enormously. Until now you knew what each jumper had to do to go ahead of the current leader, you could see what he had done, and you could see whether there were any clear technical defects which would cause the judges to mark it down. Suddenly the jump itself is not that important; you have to wait for the machine to spit out the number before you know what's happened. And this is every time, every jump, not just a bad solution to what is in cricket at least a real problem, the rain, but a solution to nothing at all which has made the whole thing much less fun to watch. For that reason I suspect it will not survive. I hope not, anyway.

This may not be important in the great scheme of things, but it got me wondering about how these decisions are arrived at, and I suspect dark plottings, money spinning, and stupidity.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Miguel Delibes, Man

Miguel Delibes died on Friday. He has been the grand old man of Spanish letters for as long as I've lived here, which is over twenty years. His first novels, recognised as good, were written in the 1940's and he continued to publish until a few years before his death.

He had competition as the great Spanish writer, particularly from Camilo José Cela, but Cela, though undoubtedly a writer of genius, was also an irrascible old s***e, whereas Delibes wrote, then went off for a pint, or to the football, or to pot a few rabbits in the woods.

His place in the hearts and minds of Spain as a whole, and particularly Valladolid, which is in a genuine and unaffected state of mourning, was won largely by being an agreeable, intelligent man who liked people, was aware of those around him, placed enormous value on his family and friends, and told very good stories very well. He wrote because he enjoyed it and was good at it, not to publicise his sense of his own importance or to express simplistic political opinion. He rarely gave interviews, and he never got involved in the great self-appreciation movement that for many seems to be the main purpose of literature and the arts in general. His great loves were hunting and Real Valladolid football club. I should imagine the former gave him more unmixed pleasure than the latter.

A great man, has left us. And part of his greatness was that he himself would never have imagined that he was more than a normal chap.

Broadly on the same subject, Óscar Pujol is a Sanskrit scholar who spent 13 years preparing a Sanskrit-Catalán dictionary, said to be the first in a Peninsular language. This may well be true, I certainly know no other, not even in Spanish. I use Monier-Williams in theory, though in practice, Theodore Benfey's dictionary is easier to handle. (There's an on-line Monier-Williams, by the way, which is fiddly and often unhelpful, but can be a lot quicker. This one's useful, too.)

Pujol is now at the Casa Asia, and collaborates with the University of Valladolid, and I mention him here because he seems to have a deep love and knowledge of Sanskrit literature and the culture that created it, and to some extent still does. Also, a man who can spend 13 years of his life writing a dictionary to help speakers of one small minority language (nearly all of whom are bilingual in Spanish, so it reduces his possible readership very dramatically and quite unnecessarity) understand another language which, despite its beauty, and its historical, cultural and literary richness, is of interest to very few people indeed outside of India, has my respect and regard. (The only Sanskrit department I know of in Spain is at Salamanca.)

And so I raise my glass this evening to these two men. Without pretending to compare anything about them, I merely recognise that they have both made the world, as I understand it, a better place by being in it.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

I Feel it in my Bones

The damp, that is.

I spoke a while back of our attitude to rain over here. Good stuff, is how we think of it, wish there were more of it. You'll need an umbrella, about time, is our reaction. Filling the reservoirs, wetting the soil. These things matter here, and we are always glad to see the rain.


It started raining in late November, and hasn't really stopped. The reservoirs are overflowing, the rivers are bursting their banks, whole estates built on dried up riverbeds are being all but swept away, the soil is so damp you can sink into it up to your knees and we are all, fickle types that we are, thoroughly sick of the sight of rain. We don't need any more, not for a year or so.

It is rather pretty, though. Compare these before and after photos of the river below the old town (basically an abandoned fortress compound from the 12thC, recently re-excavated. The more modern city is several miles from the river, for reasons not unconnected to some serious smiting at the hands of the conquering Arabs in 1195).

The whole effect is remarkable to see, if you are used to the browns and yellows that we have here nearly all the year, including winter, outside of the field that are irrigated one way or another, and we don't do much irrigation here, you need water for that. The yellows and browns are light and bright, and have character and beauty, but it is good to see green from time to time. The lakes this year in Ruidera will be spectacular. I look forward to seeing them soon.

The bridge is called Roman, because of the style it is perceived to have, rather than its origins. It's 19thC and not of any special interest. The second photo is taken from it, looking towards what is the foreground in the first photo.

It is very rare indeed to have so much rain, and so much cold. It snowed again on Monday. I don't know whether this is global warming, incipient Armageddon or just time to move to the Bahamas. Or perhaps it's no more than an excuse to post some photographs.

Monday, March 8, 2010

In Praise of Ignorance

"Dear Mr Delibes,

It is always a pleasure to hear from someone who’s read the blog. I don’t think many people do, to be honest, and only about half a dozen have ever written proper emails, rather than quick comments. Not all of them said anything relevant to what I’d written, either, but there you are. It’s nice to know you have some kind of public, so I thank you for being mine.

You may, however, not have quite understood the point of my recent posts, which were, I admit, out of tenor with the stated purpose of the blog, and with most of the usual content. But why not, it’s my blog, and I’ll digress if I want to. (That’s quite snappy in its way.)

I wasn’t suggesting that I aspire to ignorance. I don’t. I’ve been fairly well-educated for far too long to really want to change that much. I like knowing things, and I wish I understood more of them...

Old habits etc. And better the devil you know, you know. We invest much of our security and happiness, and probably our sanity, in our own ideas about what we are, and I can’t imagine not knowing at least what I know, because I would be someone else, or I might just not exist at all. It’s a frightening idea isn’t it, not being who you are? And I’m not trying to force ignorance on anybody else, either. Don’t think I’m being hypocritical. I am not suggesting we should stop trying to educate the young nor that we should expose foetuses to neat alcohol, merely that there may be some advantages to be found in total, or almost total, ignorance.

I suppose it can never be considered a goal in life, partly because no one who is not ignorant would ever wish to be, and those who are are, I should think, incapable of conceiving the difference between themselves and others clearly enough to articulate a meaningful desire to remain as they are. I hope that makes sense. I just mean that I don’t think anyone would consciously wish to be ignorant, and ignorant people probably don’t realize that it’s not all bad- or that it’s not all good, either.


In order to explain why I think there may be benefits in ignorance, we have to look at what it means to have learning, or at least a little knowledge. So let’s consider a few things:

The more you know, the more you realize there is to know. Socrates said it, more or less, and a lot of other people have discovered it to be true. Why is it that the people with the loudest, most unshakeable opinions on any subject are those who know least about it. It’s easy to oppose fanatically a law when you haven’t read it, or condemn a film you haven’t seen, or label a person you don’t know as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or some such thing...

...all we do is confuse ourselves, take away our certainty, and waste a lot of time, all for nothing. It’s much easier not to know, and better psychologically, surely.


So the first obvious reason to remain in ignorance is that it makes for greater intellectual comfort and avoids unnecessary complications. In other words, it makes for a quiet life, which most of us would consider an excellent thing..."

The photo shows our local river, the Guadiana, last Sunday. It is usually no more than a foul-smelling ditch, but this winter it is a genuine swirling torrent. it even smells like a river now.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Australians: The Observer Speaks

Via The Englishman I was pointed to this article in the Observer, which is a long, ignorant stream of nonsense about Australian aborigines. It's really not worth reading. Among other things, he asks this question, which led me to leave the following comment, and I thought it was worth making into a post.

It's difficult to believe that anything can pass down unchanged, though, for a thousand generations. Is that really possible?

No, it isn't.

These stories, fascinating as they undoubtedly are, are no more a description of anything real than the book of Genesis or the Works and Days or the Mahabharata. Over a very few generations the stories change out of all recognition, at least with regard to any useful details. They serve a religious function, justifying certain behaviours and outlawing others; an identifying function, giving people a sense of themselves and their history and importance; an entertainment function, the evenings can be very long and tedious there; a political function, giving a natural and unanswerable rightness to the customs of the group, which is very useful to those who want to control it.

Every change in the leadership, every battle won or lost, every time a part of the group fought with another and left to make it's own way, every migration, every alteration of the accepted circumstance, needs a new set of foundation myths, which some- call them shamans, call them politicians- will be happy to provide. No, these stories, myths, customs, laws etc have not survived intact through 1,000 generations.

I know it's a bit much to expect a journalist to consult someone who knows something about the subject before writing an article, but a bit of input from an anthropologist would have stopped him making an idiot of himself. Or, indeed, a bit of thought.

There have been humans in Australia for at least 40,000 years, that much is true, but linguistic and other evidence suggests very strongly that for much of that time they were concentrated in the northwest, close to the coast. A thousand generations ago the ancestors of 'John', who, despite being an adult Australian educated by missionaries speaks English like a Hollywood Indian of the 1950's (not the only example of casual racism in the article), certainly did not live anywhere near Alice Springs. It is highly unlikely that anyone did.

Why does he think that 'no other humans can claim this'? As I have said, 'John''s tribe can't claim it anyway, but people have lived in East Africa since there have been people, and in Southern Africa for far longer than they have lived in Australia.

Better told, it would have made a good story, but no more than that. There is nothing it can tell us.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Willy Toledo: We Have Them Over Here, Too

You won't have heard of Willy Toledo. I hadn't either until last week. He turns out to be both a B-list actor and a communist, so you would expect anything he says to be nasty narcissistic twaddle. And you would not be disappointed.

Following the death of the Cuban dissident Orlando Zapata after a hunger strike, this paragon of virtue and clear thinking declared that Zapata was just a common criminal, that the so-called political prisoners in that paradise island were nothing more than terrorists and traitors and that Cuba is a model to be followed by other countries (perhaps if N Korea were to follow the Cuban model the sum of human happiness might be increased slightly, but I would advise other countries to leave it well alone).

The press reported these ramblings (he's a celebrity, after all, so what he says is important) and he was, not surprisingly, criticised. Rather than reflect on the rightness of his words, or even defend them properly, he started whining about the press ganging up on him and denying him the right to free speech. Yes, indeed, a man who has the national media hanging on his every word complains that his right to free speech is being compromised because some people (including me) have dared to disagree with him and this in the context of a discussion about a country which uses brutal force against those try to speak freely, and a man who starved himself to death rather than recognise that Fidel could tell him what to think. Toledo also thinks that comparable human rights abuses take place in Spain every day, which I take to mean that not taking people like him seriously is broadly similar to murdering thousands, imprisoning many more for daring to stand up to you, and condemning your entire country to 50 years of poverty, misery and effective slavery. Given the egos these people have that is probably what he does mean.

The official press in Cuba quickly started planting articles like this one, which creates a criminal past for Zapata, and a touching tale of how he was given the best medical care in an attempt to save him from himself. That's probably what Toledo was quoting, but it's quite obviously made up, in the same way that the figures for longevity and literacy, which place Cuba among the top half-dozen countries in the world, are simply invented by Fidel. Who's going to question them?

For better reflections on Cuba, including comments on the life and death of Orlando Zapata, see this and this.

The Spanish Communist Party has defended Toledo, of course, and complained that he is quiet right and its very beastly and repressive of us to tell him he's wrong. Amazing how liberal these tyrants can become when it's their freedom that's in question (not that anyone is trying to stop him speaking, they are just pointing out that he talks cobblers).

The English Wikipedia page on Willy Toledo consists at the moment of a very brief biography, a filmography and this rather splendid paragraph, which I reproduce in full because I'm sure it'll soon be removed (rightly, as it's not encyclopaedic). I didn't write it, but I have said similar things before about people like him:

"Mr. Toledo is a supporter of the communist regime of Fidel Castro in Cuba, which he considers "a model to follow". Surprisingly he never considered moving to the politically oppressed and economically ruined island. Instead he enjoys the luxuries of capitalism and democracy in Spain, where he has become a wealthy actor and is free to express his opinions without fear of being imprisoned, tortured or killed.

According to some of his critics[,][1] he is just a vulgar example of a hypocritical scum, which would never accept living under the oppression of the communist Cuban regime he so outspokenly defends.

In March 2010, in a round table in support of Sahara independence groups, celebrated in Madrid Spain, Mr. Toledo declared that Orlando Zapata Tamayo was merely a common criminal and not a dissident. He added that "all political prisoners in Cuba were not dissidents but people who had committed terrorist acts against the Cuban Government, acts that constitute treason against the Homeland and a bunch of crimes". He also declared in the same meeting that "the Cuban Government is a victim of a sort of paranoid persecution" by the Western democracies and the international community.[1] He then opined about the Castro regime by saying that «with its defects and virtues, it is a model to be followed in many aspects"."

Sorry most of the links are in Spanish, but those of you who can read them will find it very rewarding.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Decay of Language Part 2

There are two main threads to the ‘language is decaying’ argument. One laments the fact that some people do not use the terms, meanings, pronunciations or structures that we learnt when we were young. The other suggests that the effectiveness of the language for communication will be impaired if a certain change or changes is ‘allowed’ to happen. Neither is a serious problem. Language use changes more or less randomly over time, and is widely different across regions, ages, classes and professions. This doesn't stop people understanding each other when they wish to. Differences in education, knowledge, cultural reference and interests are more likely to cause difficulties than differences in the way words and structures they have in common are used.

Meaning is constantly being negotiated, even during the course of a single conversation, and much more so across wider linguistic communities. But the young and the old, the British and the Nigerians, the Metropolitan professional and the rural worker, those with backgrounds in the sciences and those from the humanities, even left-wingers and right-wingers, may not belong to one linguistic community in any meaningful way, despite sharing a mother tongue and perhaps even a hometown. When they speak to each other, neither uses the language they would naturally use when speaking to those they instinctively feel are 'like them.' Each seeks a form of accommodation, a way of making the communication work, with greater or lesser effort depending on how much interest they have in it. Most of us are capable of speaking with a range of styles, registers, semantic fields and even accents, according to the communicative context, and we think nothing of it.

While there are enough people in constant communication with each other in sufficiently varying groups a language will not decay; it will only change. Those changes will leave some people mildly confused while others assimilate them completely without even realizing it. But language will decay if it ceases to be used for literary or academic purposes, or if it ceases to be written at all, or if those who use it do so for a very limited range of purposes, or or if it becomes solely a literary or academic language, no longer used for real communication at all, or if the groups who use it are too small or too isolated. Then it can lose plasticity, expressive power, or comprehensibilty between groups.

The problem with trying to impose standards in language is that nobody really listens to you. For most of human history it hasn't mattered and, except in certain specific forms of communication, they don't matter very much now. Communication in everyday life is as much about seeking ways of understanding each other as it is about exchanging information. We create standards as we go,for the times when we need them.