Everyone knows “Eskimos have 50 words for snow.” Everyone knows that’s an urban myth. Both statements are true for appropriate values of everyone. The truth, of course and as usual, lies in the middle and is both more elusive and more nuanced.
The frosting: as with many of life’s more vexing issues, there is also a definitional component, and things depend, at least somewhat, on perspective. What constitutes a word and how does the basic language structure introduce new concepts, with new words or phrases?
But no matter because this post isn’t about the 50 words for snow.
In Through the Looking-Glass, Humpty Dumpty famously declares that words mean what he wants them to mean. I’ve known people to declare the same thing — that, for whatever reason, they can use their own meanings for words. (To be clear, Lewis Carroll was mocking the idea.)
While ideas matter more than the words used to express them, it’s a lot more challenging to communicate and discuss those ideas without a shared vocabulary. A common language that is rich and detailed makes the expression of ideas all the more precise and accurate.
This is why con artists prefer convoluted language: it’s a mask.
I hadn’t planned to post today, but cool things I want to memoize and share continue to accumulate (it’s worse than having to dust — that I can ignore). I already had one Holy Cow! item paired with a So Cool! item, plus another little piece of beko mochi beauty to share.
Then this morning I read an OMG, Yes!! article about actress Michelle Gomez, and then a really touching piece by musician Rosanne Cash. Lastly (technically firstly, as it was the first item added), I have a cute bit of AI research to make you smile.
So once more unto the breach, dear friends,…
Credit where credit is due, both the major ideas in this post come from Fareed Zakaria on his CNN Sunday program, GPS. If you follow TV news at all, you know Sunday mornings have such long-running standards as Meet the Press (on NBC since 1947!) and Face the Nation (on CBS since 1954). (Or was it Meet the Nation and Face the Press?)
Zakaria is one of the good ones: very intelligent, highly educated, calm and measured. He’s well worth listening to. (I’ve realized one attraction to TV news is the chance to — at least sometimes — hear educated, intelligent talk. It’s a nice respite from most TV entertainment.)
Two things on Zakaria’s last episode really rang a bell with me.
You couldn’t know this, but my blogging workspace is littered with balls of virtual crumpled paper. The ones writers make when they rip failed writing attempts from their typewriter, smush them up in disgust, and toss them disdainfully over their shoulder. This post — which has been in my mental queue for well over a year — has the strongest resistance to being written that I’ve ever encountered.
I wrote the note you see here somewhere back in 2013. It seemed like exactly the sort of thought chain that would make an interesting post. Many of the items in that chain (consciousness, art, science) are things that fascinate me and are even areas this blog tries to discuss.
So why is a post about it so dang hard to write?
Computer programmers, and others who work with languages, sometimes use the related terms: semantics & syntax. They are concepts with a specific application to language, but language is communication and there are many forms of communication. For example, when music is viewed as a language one can apply the concepts of syntax and semantics.
This article (in my queue for years) was meant to introduce those two concepts, but my vision for this blog has evolved in ways that largely moot those original intentions. Why write about topics no one is casually interested in, and which are already covered in exhaustive detail elsewhere for those with a serious interest?
Besides,… this one… turned out different…
I was exposed to Shakespeare in high school. We read several of his plays in various English classes. I took to it about the same as most high school kids. That is, I found it opaque and dull (like “classical” music). The first glimmer of the magic and wonder of Shakespeare came only when I became involved in staging some of his plays in drama class.
When I was a sophomore, I helped stage—and acted in—our high school drama group’s presentation of Hamlet (one of his greatest works). I’ve written about my high school drama teacher; he was a professional theatre person who’d gone into teaching (while waiting for his big break in Hollywood). Our production of Hamlet received rave reviews from local papers. “Better than most college productions,” they said!
As a direct consequence of that production, Hamlet is my favorite play!