Tag Archive | philosophy

Fortune

IMG_9729

March 4, 2012

“It’s meaningless, but…sometimes we need something to survive” – my new Turkish friend, Feyza on reading fortunes in coffee grounds. It was all the more powerful because she is still learning English and I found her word choice really poignant and powerful.

On Slowing Down

I just checked, and I didn’t take a single photo on any of the Sabbaths I spent in Jerusalem, which is not entirely surprising, but an impressive fact. I did, however, do a good deal of reading on Saturdays, finishing the entirety of Middlesex and part of Let the Great World Spin. These novels were a wonderful escape from the often-depressing political articles I read every other day of the week. I also recall reading a publication by Breaking the Silence which was excellent, but not relaxing, and it occurs to me that I perhaps should have considered it a form of work.

After 4 years at a rigorous college where I was a double major, this whole not-working thing was sort of a delicious challenge, and it grew to be something I took refuge in. My friend Mori, who I was living with, is the most active activist I have ever met and works his butt off for 6 days a week. But many times, I heard him turn down an invitation for a Saturday protest or action, his philosophy being that the day of rest enabled his other work. By this time last year, I had developed a deep respect for this philosophy, and understood its necessity.

I sometimes feel uncomfortable or insecure when I don’t have a clear objective at a given moment. I guess you could call this a good habit, but I think it sometimes gets in the way of what could be valuable reflection or wandering. Trying out Shabbat was a nice step to slowing down, if only a little, if only for a day.

Do not make for yourself an Idol

We may not be able to control how the cards fall when walls are built by states that are motivated by fear. We can protest, be arrested, go to court, but there too often comes a time when the foundation has been built and division is cemented on the ground, and these measures become less effective because it is harder to bring a wall down than to leave it there. Walls, after all, are about limiting these options, beating your path for you by dictating where you can and cannot go, what experiences you have, and implying what you should think about the other side by making it almost impossible not to think in us-versus-them terms.

IMG_9700
But when walls change the rules, we can choose what they represent to us. If we are taken in by their unfeeling, monolith blocks, if we live in fear of their prickly-poking barbed wire, if we treat them as the alpha and omega of our world, then they have won, and things will begin to unravel around them accordingly as people’s conceptions of their place in the world shrink and spiral. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy of the cruelest variety; the walls themselves lack agency in this process, it is entirely based on how people act around them. If those who guard the wall worship it as their idol, they will destroy anyone who thinks otherwise. If those who oppose the wall cannot see through it’s sham, they too will fall under its spell of violent dichotomy. If we choose to empower walls and the places they inhabit with the mystic fear of the edge of the world and monsters unknown, we surrender ourselves to base human behavior as the walls come to represent the edge of our minds, reflecting the fear, doubt, and lack of reason that lurks there.

IMG_9472sm

I do not know much about bringing walls down because they are so often resilient to attacks that humans can muster. If we let them, they will grow larger in our minds and should brick and mortar ever crumble, our eyes will be unaccustomed to the sunlight revealed by cracks and holes. But by refusing to worship the walls, we can prevent the edges they create from fraying and curling upon themselves, burned. If we reject the idolatry that has always been so tempting for humans, and instead maintain a vision that extends beyond the concrete plane that surrounds us, subverting the wall for a higher, and more difficult purpose: human relationships. I do not know much about bringing walls down, but if we can see through them, we will be ready when they fall.

What’s in a Name: Linguistic Colonization

Europe in PolishOn my recent trip to Poland, I spent a good deal of time ogling over a map just like the one on the right.

At a glance, it’s just Europe, right?

WRONG.

This map is in Polish, and a lot of the country names are pretty different, if not unrecognizable.

So this got me thinking: why are place names different in different languages?

Wouldn’t it be easier if everyone just used the same names? Think how much easier travel would be if everyone referred to Vienna as Wien. Pronunciation woes erased if Warszawa was just Warsaw.

But thankfully, the world is not so uniform or predictable.

I have a theory about this: when a language has a unique name for place or a country, people who speak said language then have a small stake in the country, a foot in the door, a piece of the nation’s pie, just for them: Linguistic colonization.

Then I started thinking about different languages, different countries and place-names. And I came up with a hypothesis: more influential countries will have a greater variety of names across languages, because a piece of their pie is tastier than less influential countries.

Then, I did an experiment. Download this pdf to follow along: CountryNamebyLanguageshort

Firstly, I’m not a linguist. There’s probably a lot more going on than what I’m observing, so I’d like to hear your thoughts on this, too.

Observations:

1.Generally, the “More Influential Countries” have a wider variety of names. They have an average of 6 significant differences across 7 languages. The “Less Influential Countries” have an average of 3.8 significant differences. (significant difference = change in spelling, not accent placements. Pronunciation plays no role here). Hypothesis proven true.

2.Look at Germany. It has 4 drastically different spellings. Only the United Kingdom and the United States also differed so drastically, and I would posit that these changes can be accounted for by the fact that their names are made up of two independent words: United and States/Kingdom. Is it possible that the roller coaster of German history and its array of incarnations (Prussia, First Reich, Weimar Republic, Third Reich, East/West Germany, United Germany, all within 150 years!) plays a role in the way it is conceptualized and referred to across languages? I think I’m on to something.

3.Honduras, Laos, Liechtenstein, Niger, Uganda boast just 2-3 variations. What’s up with that? Is it because the names just don’t translate in the languages I’m sampling? Can’t be the whole story, Honduras is definitely Spanish and Liechtenstein screams German. Or is it just that these countries aren’t important enough to these languages and their speakers to warrant a linguistic stake in their names?

I’m fascinated by this and I’d love to hear your thoughts, especially if you’re an actual linguist or a colonialist.

UPDATE:

My friend Andrew, who actually got his BA in Linguistics and is now studying at Oxford, says (via Facebook):

I feel way underqualified to answer this, but it’s so interesting! i know what you mean about random name changes. during the winter olympics in Torino different news networks used Turin (as in the shroud) or Torino. People weren’t sure if it was famous enough to use the English name or not. I think sometimes city name differences have to do with changes in pronunciation. For example, the word Rome 500 years ago would have been pronounced with two syllables by an English speaker, pretty similarly to Roma.

I like your idea about power and naming, but I’m not sure if it’s right. There are historically old names that languages have for neighboring regions, ethnic groups, or countries. It seems like different ones are used for Germany. England goes by Britain or UK and the Netherlands gets subjected to metonymy all the time when it’s called Holland, but that doesn’t have to do with power just history and government. The Chinese names are usually transliterations that get shortened. Deguo is short for Deyizhi (Deutsch) plus guo meaning country. Likewise France usually gets shortened to Faguo. America is the same too. It seems like a better way to divide names up is by language family rather than power, with proximity to the language being a factor.

I’d also say that writing systems mess everything up when moving things into new languages. sometimes people spell things the same way and then they get pronounced different ways in different places. other times, things are spelled so that they are pronounced the same but then they don’t look the same on paper. like i’d say that uganda and Fiji only have one version. although they’re spelled differently, i think that’s just as close as the languages could get either in spelling or in sound while maintaining their native phonemes.

And points interested parties to this book: Off the Map: The Curious History of Place-Names

Thanks, Andrew!