Linguistic Lingering, or Languor in Language

Like all other crusty sexagenarians, I get irritated by certain trends in the evolution of the language I speak. I suppose it’s natural to retain a deeply held desire to hold on to the speech cadences we suck in with our mothers’ milk. So when you’ve been around for more than half a century you inevitably encounter an increasing number of linguistic innovations which you feel reluctant to adopt. Some, of course, are refreshing and attractive; but it’s when certain phrases I’m used to are subverted or distorted by changing usage that I get that instinctive feeling of revulsion.

Here’s an example: when getting tired of something, my parents were always “bored with” it, or maybe “fed up with” it. And so, of course, was I. But nowadays it’s virtually universal to be “bored of” or “fed up of“. Of course, the prepositions we use are quite arbitrary: lately I’ve been learning some Italian, and knowing which preposition to use in each situation can be quite difficult for a beginner: ‘su’, ‘in’, ‘da’, ‘di’, ‘a’…? It just has to be learnt. And it can be quite important: ask for ‘un bicchiere di vino’ and you’ll be given a glass of wine; but if instead you go for ‘un bicchiere da vino’ what you’ll get is a wine glass.

But the conventions for our choice of prepositions are really quite arbitrary; and with the bored/fed up example there’s no danger of mistaking the meaning, so what am I making a fuss about? Well, my problem is that every time I hear the newer version I get that visceral, chalk-squeaking-on-a-blackboard spasm in the gut, and I can’t help it. And don’t get me started on some of those other verbal habits that so many of my generation love to hate: ‘phenomena’, ‘criteria’ or media’ used as singular nouns; or ‘disinterested’ to mean ‘uninterested’, ‘infer’ to mean ‘imply’ or (heard absolutely everywhere now) ‘refute’ to mean ‘deny’.

Of course all those who protest about such things are at pains to rationalise their distaste, and bring to bear an argued justification. The late philosopher Anthony Flew puts it this way:

If we oafishly employ our verbal chisels as verbal screwdrivers, we thereby unfit them for the job to which they are best suited. So what do we use for a chisel when a chisel is what we need?’ (Anthony Flew, Thinking about Thinking).

Well, true, I suppose, as far as it goes; once all your chisels are well and truly blunted there’s no means of resharpening them, in this instance at least. But language is endlessly innovative; it will always be rummaging around in the toolbox for replacements, or perhaps fashioning entirely new instruments. I think that what is really bothering Flew is that old bred-in, instinctive revulsion that kicks in when he detects the linguistic ground on which he originally learned to walk slipping and sliding around beneath his feet. Trust me, I know – I feel it myself.

Nevertheless, our standard sources often take a more relaxed view. The Oxford Dictionary, for example, accepts the shift in meaning of ‘disinterested’ – on the basis that a dictionary is in the business of reflecting usage, rather than dictating it. But do we pedants take that lying down? Oh no. There’s always that old fallback, ‘the purity of the language’.

‘What purity?’, you might justifiably ask. English, of all languages, has the most tenuous claim to this quality. As it has memorably been put:

The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and riffle through their pockets for new vocabulary. (Attributed to the Canadian writer James Davis Nicoll, from an internet forum in 1990).

So that’s one way of finding your replacement chisels – nick them out of the back of the nearest unsuspecting linguistic builder’s van.

A more recent self-appointed language policeman is Simon Heffer, whose book Strictly English: The Correct Way to Write…and Why It Matters offers a comprehensive guide to ‘correct’ English. There is, to be fair, much reasonable common-sense advice on clarity of expression between its covers, but once again, Heffer seems to share with me a distaste for deviations from what seem rather arbitrary rules – although he takes the crusade much further than I would dare; many critics have pointed out that his feet seem to be planted firmly in the early 1900s. And of course, it’s always fun to see whether the these guardians of supposed purity practise what they preach. Here, unfortunately, Heffer is rather open to ridicule on a number of counts. For example, on page 49 he tells us sternly:

The phrase each other can only apply to two people or things – “John and Mary wrote to each other” is correct but “John, Mary and Jane wrote to each other” is not. “John, Mary and Jane wrote to one another” is.

If Heffer is offended when this rule is flouted he must have had a particularly straight-laced education; I must admit it’s new one to me. But on page 189 we find Heffer saying:

…I advise my colleagues on The Daily Telegraph to bear in mind the sensitivities of the readers, because we would like them to continue to buy the newspaper and not feel alienated by its diction. So our readers communicate with each other on writing paper, not notepaper.

As one critic has pointed out, if we give Heffer the benefit of the doubt and assume he is not breaking his own rule, we can only conclude that the The Daily Telegraph has only two readers. But I’m inclined to forgive him, if only because on page 119 he is stipulating that ‘One is bored by or with something, never of it’, and that ‘One becomes fed up with things, not of them.’ (Hurray!)

But of course it’s true that without rules of some sort, we’d have no consistency at all and would be unable to understand each other – sorry, one another. As in so many other fields, the art is in finding creative ways to break these rules, thus opening up a whole new range of expressive possibilities. It’s rather like that graphic technique where you position a frame around an illustration, and then let the contents burst outside it – the effect always works, and injects extra vigour into the subject in way that wouldn’t have been achievable unless the frame were there in the first place. Rules can be used to great effect when they are broken, just as the frame is given a new purpose when its more obvious function is subverted.

However, with my pedant’s hat on I’d point out that rule breaking is more often a result of what Flew in the passage above called ‘oafishness’, and not the exercise of creative flair. But either way, it happens. It seems to me inevitable that there will always be tension between natural variety of expression and the restraining force of a rule framework. I am put in mind of one of the illuminating metaphors which the philosopher Wittgenstein was apt to employ. He compares those notions we accept implicitly – ‘bedrock’ notions as we might call them – with the rock of a river-bed, which guides the river’s flow of water – our day-to-day thoughts: “But I distinguish between the movement of the waters on the river-bed and the shift of the bed itself; though there is not a sharp division of the one from the other.” (On Certainty, §97) The rules of language seem to be a specific example of Wittgenstein’s idea: the rules of our language determine how we express ourselves, but our everyday discourse, in turn, gradually wears away and remoulds the rock of the rules themselves; the river changes course.

The Heffers of this world (and, I’m afraid, the Duncommutins) will always be vainly attempting to shore up the banks and maintain that river in the same course – but they will ultimately be defeated by the torrent. The fact is that I still prefer to say “fed up with” and “bored with”. Like any self-respecting dinosaur I shall remain set in my ways, and addicted to the comforting sound of the language I am used to. Until, that is, I become extinct.

Iceland – the Joker in the European Pack

Commuting days until retirement: 57

Rift ValleyA few days’ break from the daily commute for a first visit to Iceland: enough time to discover that, while every country is unique in one way or another, Iceland has more claims to uniqueness than most. The rift valley shown in the photo above illustrates one aspect of this: Iceland itself straddles the American and Eurasian tectonic plates of the earth’s crust, and the land masses either side of this valley are being dragged apart at around an inch a year.

Marteinn Briem

Marteinn Briem in full flow

It was a young former history student, Marteinn Briem, who gave us our first sense of the country’s character.  At the age of 25 he has, in the past year, set himself up entirely independently to conduct walking tours around Reykjavik. This isn’t just a matter of describing old buildings and memorials (although he does that too, in an off-beat and entertaining way). During the two hour walk you’re given a multifaceted guide to Icelandic history, culture and politics, with highlights ranging from an Icelander’s view of the banking crisis, through stories about the elves (see later) to a virtuoso performance of the extensive set of Icelandic vowel sounds. Nothing is charged for any of this – Marteinn simply invites donations, but claims that recommendations on TripAdvisor are even more valuable to him. I’d encourage you to take his tour if you ever visit – his website is at

My first impression of Icelandic people was of a polite, Scandinavian sort of blandness; but if Marteinn Briem hadn’t already dispelled this for me, I think I would have soon come to detect more in them. Historically they have not been an independent country for long; first colonised by Vikings a thousand plus years ago, they were a dependency of first Norway and then Denmark for some 700 years until 1944, when their occupation by the Allies, while Denmark was under the heel of the Nazis, led to their eventual independence. So while what ties they have are mainly to Europe, they are obviously set apart geographically. Their language, sounding to our ears Scandinavian but with a certain alien twang, is famously hard to learn and derives originally from Old Norse. The Sagas originating from that early era are at the core of Icelandic culture, and it’s said that the language in which they are written is perfectly understandable to modern Icelanders, while of course Old English texts from that period are incomprehensible to today’s English speakers without extensive training.

Icelandic handwriting

Some Icelandic handwriting

In the world there are around half a million Icelandic speakers – approximately the population of Sheffield. As in most countries without widely spoken languages, virtually everyone is fluent in English; but of course Icelanders can be more confident than most that no outsiders will understand their native tongue. Walking around Reykjavik, visiting cafes and shops, you are aware of Icelanders switching smoothly and effortlessly between English (mostly) and their own language as required, so that a private local community is effectively preserved amidst the onslaught of tourists such as ourselves. I didn’t detect anything hostile or xenophobic about this; just the understandable desire to guard national identity. In all but a few cases the friendliness with which we were received seemed quite genuine.

Polar bears

Polar bears as sales assistants

But this peculiarly Icelandic ambivalence is understandable especially in the light of recent history: the banking crisis affected the country more radically than most; the Icelandic kroner crashed, and as a result cheaper travel to the country has now caused tourism to take over from fisheries as the country’s principal industry. And Icelanders are quite adept at drumming up trade. In Reykjavik polar bears – fake, stuffed or animated – are on hand to attract us into the shops, as my photo shows. And no matter, as our guide Marteinn pointed out, that no real polar bears live in Iceland. The joke is on us, the tourists; but there’s no malice involved.  This was underlined for me when, as I lined up for my photo, taken across Reykjavik’s main shopping street, waiting for the cars to pass, I realised that they had stopped to let me take it. I can’t think of any other cities where that would happen.

Neither can I think of any other cities that offer such contrasting sights in a small area. There are ostentatious and confident modern buildings, such as the concert hall that overlooks the harbour, clad in coloured strip lights that coruscate at night like sequins on a dancer’s dress. But much of the city consists of the traditional clapboard houses painted in contrasting colours, seen here from the top of the Hallgrímskirkja, the cathedral that stands on the central hill – itself a pretty remarkable piece modern architecture.

Niew from Hallgrímskirkja

View from the Hallgrímskirkja


The Hallgrímskirkja

Once back in the street, and getting a bit cold and footsore, we took refuge in one of the warm, welcoming, cluttered cafés where we could have hot chocolate or traditional lamb soup. By this time I had collected in my camera more images that suggested the somewhat askance world view of Icelanders; here are two examples of the quirky murals to be found all over town.


Murals, or graffiti – whatever you prefer to call them

The explosive and unpredictable nature of Iceland’s physical environment must be a factor in the national character. There was the famous volcanic ash cloud of spring 2010 when, according to Marteinn Briem, the volcano (with the appropriately unpronounceable name of Eyjafjallajökull) had erupted in the south of the country, and the ash cloud blew south. As a result European air traffic was grounded while Icelanders could fly around their country as normal; this gave rise to much innocent schadenfreude.

A geyser

The original ‘Geysir’, from which we get our word ‘geyser’

We found the natural phenomena to be just as capricious as the Icelanders themselves: the Northern Lights refused to show, even on the few occasions when the sky partially cleared. However we did see a geyser. My photo of one blowing may not look that impressive, but you should view it with respect – your intrepid blogger undertook a 6 hour return coach trip, and it then took a 400 metre walk and a ten minute wait in a driving blizzard to land this image. As I say, a country where it’s normal for boiling steam to erupt from the snow must be bound to confer some contrary characteristics on its people.

The elf rock

The elf rock in Reykjavik

Not surprising, perhaps, that unseen life is popularly attributed to the landscape. The elves, or ‘hidden people’ are often spoken of, having something of the nature of the leprechauns of Ireland. Last year a construction project was held up because a large rock which had to be moved was said to be important to these mysterious beings. The story is that more than one piece of heavy equipment brought in to move the rock inexplicably malfunctioned. The solution was arranged by someone who claimed to be able to communicate with the elves, and promised them that part of their rock would be given a home in the centre of Reykjavik – and there it stands, as our guide Marteinn proudly showed us. (There was also a BBC report about it.)

Ísafjörður peninsula

The Ísafjörður peninsula

I noticed how Marteinn and most of his compatriots who mentioned the Huldufolk, or hidden people, left you with a carefully cultivated sense of uncertainty as to whether they actually believed in them. My feeling was that this was an expression of the subversive Icelandic sense of humour – as well as a useful draw for tourists. All this added to the impression of Iceland as a sort of court joker to the rest of the world; even the map of Iceland has the Ísafjörður peninsula in the northwest, appearing like rakishly worn cap and bells. The country is historically linked with Europe but claims the licence to mock its failings – a Fool to Europe’s King Lear.

The Unknown Bureaucrat

The Unknown Bureaucrat

What summed this up for me was a sculpture that stands near the centre of Reykjavik: it’s called The Unknown Bureaucrat, and in characteristic Icelandic fashion it celebrates the notional worker who gets things done and keeps everything functioning – but at the same time pokes fun at him. Maybe it also appealed to Duncommutin because he saw himself in it: only three months remain before I drop my brief case and free my head from the big stone block of work and commuting in which it is embedded.

Read All About It (Part 2)

Commuting days until retirement: 285

You’ll remember, if you have paid me the compliment of reading my previous post, that we started with that crumbling copy of the works of Shakespeare, incongruously finding itself on the moon. I diverged from the debate that I had inherited from my brother and sister-in-law, to discuss what this suggested regarding ‘aboutness’, or intentionality. But now I’m going to get back to what their disagreement was. The specific question at issue was this: was the value – the intrinsic merit we ascribe to the contents of that book – going to be locked within it for all time and all places, or would its value perish with the human race, or indeed wither away as a result of its remote location? More broadly, is value of this sort – literary merit – something absolute and unchangeable, or a quality which exists only in relation to the opinion of certain people?

I went on to distinguish between ‘book’ as physical object in time and space, and ‘book’ regarded as a collection of ideas and their expression in language, and not therefore entirely rooted in any particular spatial or temporal location. It’s the latter, the abstract creation, which we ascribe value to. So immediately it looks as if the location of this particular object is neither here nor there, and and the belief in absolutism gains support. If a work we admire is great regardless of where it is in time or space, and then surely it is great for all times and all places?

But then, in looking at the quality of ‘aboutness’, or intentionality, we concluded that nothing possessed it except by virtue of being created – or understood by – a conscious being such as a human. So, if it can derive intentionality only through the cognition of human beings, it looks as if the same is true for literary merit, and we seem to have landed up in a relativist position. On this view, to assert that something has a certain value is only to express an opinion, my opinion; if you like, it’s more a statement about me than about the work in question. Any idea of absolute literary merit dissolves away, to be replaced by a multitude of statements reflecting only the dispositions of individuals. And of course there may be as many opinions of a piece of work as readers or viewers – and perhaps more, given changes over time. Which isn’t to mention the creator herself or himself; anyone who has ever attempted to write anything with more pretensions than an email or a postcard will know how a writer’s opinion of their own work ricochets feverishly up and down from self-satisfaction to despair.

The dilemma: absolute or relative?

How do we reconcile these two opposed positions, each of which seems to flow from one of the conclusions in Part 1? I want to try and approach this question by way of a small example; I’m going to retrieve our Shakespeare from the moon and pick out a small passage. This is from near the start of Hamlet; it’s the ghost of Hamlet’s father speaking, starting to convey to his son a flavour of the evil that has been done:

I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combined locks to part
And each particular hair to stand on end,
Like quills upon the fretful porpentine.

This conveys a message very similar to something you’ll have heard quite often if you watch TV news:

This report contains scenes which some viewers may find upsetting.

So which of these two quotes has more literary value? Obviously a somewhat absurd example, since one is a piece of poetry that’s alive with fizzing imagery, and the other a plain statement with no poetic pretensions at all (although I would find it very gratifying if BBC newsreaders tried using the former). The point I want to make is that, in the first place, a passage will qualify as poetry through its use of the techniques we see here – imagery contributing to the subtle rhythm and shape of the passage, culminating in the completely unexpected and almost comical image of the porcupine.

Of course much poetry will try to use these techniques, and opinion will usually vary on how successful it is – on whether the poetry is good, bad or indifferent. And of course each opinion will depend on its owner’s prejudices and previous experiences; there’s a big helping of relativism here. But when it happens that a body of work, like the one I have taken my example from, becomes revered throughout a culture over a long period of time – well, it looks like as if we have something like an absolute quality here. Particularly so, given that the plays have long been popular, even in translation, across many cultures.

Britain’s Royal Shakespeare company has recently been introducing his work to primary school children from the age of five or so, and have found that they respond to it well, despite (or maybe because of) the complex language (a report here). I can vouch for this: one of the reasons I chose the passage I did was that I can remember quoting it to my son when he was around that age, and and he loved it, being particularly taken with the ‘porpentine’.

So when something appeals to young, unprejudiced children, there’s certainly a case for claiming that it reflects the absolute truth about some set of qualities possessed by our race. You may object that I am missing the point of consigning Shakespeare to the moon – that it would be nothing more than a puzzle to some future civilisation, human-descended or otherwise, and therefore of only relative value. Well, in the last post I brought in the example of the forty thousand year old Spanish cave art, which I’ve reproduced again here.

Cave painting

A 40,000 year old cave painting in the El Castillo Cave in Puente Viesgo, Spain (

In looking at this, we are in very much the same position as those future beings who are ignorant of Shakespeare. Here’s something whose meaning is opaque to us, and if we saw it transcribed on to paper we might dismiss it as the random doodlings of a child. But I argued before that there are reasons to suppose it was of immense significance to its creators. And if so, it may represent some absolute truth about them. It’s valuable to us as it was valuable to them – but in admittedly in our case for rather different reasons. But there’s a link – we value it, I’d argue, because they did.  The fact that we are ignorant of what it meant to them does not render it of purely relative value; it goes without saying that there are many absolute truths about the universe of which we are ignorant. And one of them is the significance of that painting for its creators.

We live in a disputatious age, and people are now much more likely to argue that any opinion, however widely held, is merely relative. (Although the view that any opinion is relative sounds suspiciously absolute).  The BBC has a long-running radio programme of which most people will be aware, called Desert Island Discs. After choosing the eight records they would want to have with them on a lonely desert island, and they are invited to select a single book, “apart from Shakespeare and the Bible, which are already provided”. Given this permanent provision, many people find the programme rather quaint and out of touch with the modern age. But of course when the programme began, even more people than now would have chosen one of those items if it were not provided. They have been, if you like, the sacred texts of Western culture, our myths.

A myth, as is often pointed out, is not simply an untrue story, but expresses truth on a deeper level than its surface meaning. Many of Shakespeare’s plots are derived from traditional, myth-like stories, and I don’t need to rehearse here any of what has been said about the truth content of the Bible. It will be objected, of course, that since fewer people would now want these works for their desert island, that there is a strong case for believing that the sacred, or not-so-sacred, status of the works is a purely relative matter. Yes – but only to an extent. There’s no escaping their central position in the history and origins of our culture. Thinking of that crumbling book, as it nestles in the lunar dust, it seems to me that the truths it contains possess – if in a rather different way – some of the absolute truths about the universe that are also to be found in the chemical composition of the dust around it. Maybe those future discoverers will be able to decode one but not the other; but that is a fact about them, and not about the Shakespeare.

(Any comments supporting either absolutism or relativism welcome.)

A Few Pointers

Commuting days until retirement: 342

Michaelangelo's finger

The act of creation, in the detail from the Sistine Chapel ceiling which provides Tallis’s title

After looking in the previous post at how certain human artistic activities map on to the world at large, let’s move our attention to something that seems much more primitive. Primitive, at any rate, in the sense that most small children become adept at it before they develop any articulate speech. This post is prompted by a characteristically original book by Raymond Tallis I read a few years back – Michaelangelo’s Finger. Tallis shows how pointing is a quintessentially human activity, depending on a whole range of capabilities that are exclusive to humans. In the first place, it could be thought of as a language in itself – Pointish, as Tallis calls it. But aren’t pointing fingers, or arrows, obvious in their meaning, and capable of only one interpretation? I’ve thought of a couple of examples to muddy the waters a little.

Pointing – but which way?

TV aerial

Which way does it point?

The first is perhaps a little trivial, even silly. Look at this picture of a TV aerial. If asked where it is pointing, you would say the TV transmitter, which will be in the direction of the thin end of the aerial. But if we turn it sideways, as I’ve done underneath, we find what we would naturally interpret as an arrow pointing in the opposite direction. It seems that our basic arrow understanding is weakened by the aerial’s appearance and overlaid by other considerations, such as a sense of how TV aerials work.

My second example is something I heard about which is far more profound and interesting, and deliciously counter-intuitive. It has to do with the stages by which a child learns language, and also with signing, as used by deaf people. Two facts are needed to explain the context: first is that, as you may know, sign language is not a mere substitute for language, but is itself a language in every sense. This can be demonstrated in numerous ways: for example, conversing in sign has been shown to use exactly the same area of the brain as does the use of spoken language. And, compared with those rare and tragic cases where a child is not exposed to language in early life, and consequently never develops a proper linguistic capability, young children using only sign language at this age are not similarly handicapped. Generally, for most features of spoken language, equivalents can be found in signing. (To explore this further, you could try Oliver Sacks’ book Seeing Voices.) The second fact concerns conventional language development: at a certain stage, many children, hearing themselves referred to as ‘you’, come to think of ‘you’ as a name for themselves, and start to call themselves ‘you’; I remember both my children doing this.

And so here’s the payoff: in most forms of sign language, the word for ‘you’ is to simply point at the person one is speaking to. But children who are learning signing as a first language will make exactly the same mistake as their hearing counterparts, pointing at the person they are addressing in order to refer to themselves. We could say, perhaps, that they are still learning the vocabulary of Pointish. The aerial example didn’t seem very important, as it merely involved a pointing action that we ascribe to a physical object. Of course the object itself can’t have an intention; it’s only a human interpretation we are considering, which can work either way. This sign language example is more surprising because the action of pointing – the intention – is a human one, and in thinking of it we implicitly transfer our consciousness into the mind of the pointer, and attempt to get our head around how they can make a sign whose meaning is intuitively obvious to us, but intend it in exactly the opposite sense.

What’s involved in pointing?

Tallis teases out how pointing relies on a far more sophisticated set of mental functions than it might seem to involve at first sight. As a first stab at demonstrating this, there is the fact that pointing, either the action or the understanding of it, appears to be absent in animals – Tallis devotes a chapter to this. He describes a slightly odd-feeling experience which I have also had, when throwing a stick for a dog to retrieve. The animal is often in a high state of excitement and distraction at this point, and dogs do not have very keen sight. Consequently it often fails to notice that you have actually thrown the stick, and continues to stare at you expectantly. You point vigorously with an outstretched arm: “It’s over there!” Intuitively, you feel the dog should respond to that, but of course it just continues to watch you even more intensely, and you realise that it simply has no notion of the meaning of the gesture – no notion, in fact, of ‘meaning’ at all. You may object that there is a breed of dog called a Pointer, because it does just that – points. But let’s just examine for a moment what pointing involves.

Primarily, in most cases, the the key concept is attention: you may want to draw the attention of another to something,. Or maybe, if you are creating a sign with an arrow, you may be indicating by proxy where others should go, on the assumption that they have a certain objective. Attention, objective: these are mental entities which we can only ascribe to others if we first have a theory of mind – that is, if we have already achieved the sophisticated ability to infer that others have minds, and and a private world, like our own. Young children will normally start to point before they have very much speech (as opposed to language – understanding develops in advance of expression). It’s significant that autistic children usually don’t show any pointing behaviour at this stage. Lack of insight into the minds of others – an under-developed theory of mind – is a defining characteristic of autism.

So, returning to the example of the dog, we can take it that for an animal to show genuine pointing behaviour, it must have a developed notion of other minds, and which seems unlikely. The action of the Pointer dog looks more like instinctive behaviour, evolved through the cooperation of packs and accentuated by selective breeding. There are other examples of instinctive pointing in animal species: that of bees is particularly interesting, with the worker ‘dance’ that communicates to the hive where a food source is. This, however, can be analysed down into a sequence of instinctive automatic responses which will always take the same form in the same circumstances, showing no sign of intelligent variation. Chimpanzees can be trained to point, and show some capacity for imitating humans, but there are no known examples of their use of pointing in the wild.

But there is some recent research which suggests a counter-example to Tallis’s assertion that pointing is unknown in animals. This shows elephants responding to human pointing gestures, and it seems there is a possibility that they point spontaneously with their trunks. This rather fits with other human-like behaviour that has been observed in elephants, such as apparently grieving for their dead. Grieving, it seems to me, has something in common with pointing, in that it also implies a theory of mind; the death of another individual is not just a neutral change in the shape and pattern of your world, but the loss of another mind. It’s not surprising that, in investigating ancient remains, we take signs of burial ritual to be a potent indicator of the emergence of a sophisticated civilisation of people who are able to recognise and communicate with minds other than their own – probably the emergence of language, in fact.

Pointing in philosophy

We have looked at the emergence of pointing and language in young children; and the relation between the two has an important place in the history of philosophy. There’s a simple, but intuitive notion that language is taught to a child by pointing to objects and saying the word for them – so-called ostensive definition. And it can’t be denied that this has a place. I can remember both of my children taking obvious pleasure in what was, to them, a discovery – each time they pointed to something they could elicit a name for it from their parent. In a famous passage at the start of Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein identifies this notion – of ostensive definition as the cornerstone of language learning – in a passage from the writings of St Augustine, and takes him to task over it. Wittgenstein goes on to show, with numerous examples, how dynamic and varied an activity the use of language is, in contrast to the monolithic and static picture suggested by Augustine (and indeed by Wittgenstein himself in his earlier incarnation). We already have our own example in the curious and unique way in which the word ‘you’ and its derivatives are used, and a sense of the stages by which children develop the ability to use it correctly.

The Boyhood of Raleigh

Perhaps the second most famous pointing finger in art: Millais’ The Boyhood of Raleigh

The passage of Augustine also suggests a notion of pointing as a primitive,  primary action, needing no further explanation. However, we’ve seen how it relies on a prior set of sophisticated abilities: having the notion that oneself is distinct from the world – a world that contains other minds like one’s own, whose attention may have different contents from one’s own; that it’s possible to communicate meaning by gestures to modify those contents; an idea of how these gestures can be ‘about’ objects within the world; and that there needs to be agreement on how to interpret the gestures, which aren’t always as intuitive and unambiguous as we may imagine. As Tallis rather nicely puts it, the arch of ostensive definition is constructed from these building bricks, with the pointing action as the coping stone which completes it.

The theme underlying both this and my previous post is the notion of how one thing can be ‘about’ another – the notion of intentionality. This idea is presented to us in an especially stark way when it comes to the action of pointing. In the next post I intend to approach that more general theme head-on.

Words and Music

Commuting days until retirement: 360

Words and MusicThis piece was kicked off by some comments I heard from the poet Sean O’Brien on a recent radio programme. Speaking on the BBC’s Private Passions, where guests choose favourite music, and talking about Debussy, he said:

Poetry is always envious of music because that’s what poetry wants to be, whereas music has no need to be poetry. So [poets] are always following in the wake of music – but the two come quite close in sensibility here, it seems to me.

Discuss. Well, for me this immediately brought to mind a comment I once heard attributed to the composer Mendelssohn, to the effect that ‘music is not too vague for words, but too precise.’ So I went and did some Googling, and here’s the original quote:

People often complain that music is too ambiguous, that what they should think when they hear it is so unclear, whereas everyone understands words. With me, it is exactly the opposite, and not only with regard to an entire speech but also with individual words. These, too, seem to me so ambiguous, so vague, so easily misunderstood in comparison to genuine music, which fills the soul with a thousand things better than words. The thoughts which are expressed to me by music that I love are not too indefinite to be put into words, but on the contrary, too definite.

(Source: Wikiquote, where you can also see the original German.)

These two statements seem superficially similar – are they saying the same thing, from different standpoints? One difference, of course, is that O’Brien is specifically talking of poetry rather than words in general. In comparison with prose, poetry shares more of the characteristics of music: it employs rhythm, cadence, phrasing and repetition, and is frequently performed rather than read from the page; and music of course is virtually exclusively a performance art. So that’s a first thought about how poetry departs from the prosaic and finds itself approaching the territory inhabited by music.

But what is the precision which Mendelssohn insists is music’s preserve? It’s true that music is entirely bound up with the mathematics of sound frequency ratios in intervals between notes: it was this that gave Pythagoras and others their obsession with the mystique of numbers, in antiquity. A musician need not be grounded deeply in mathematical theory, but but he or she will always be intensely aware of the differing characters of musical intervals – as is anyone who enjoys music at all, if perhaps more indirectly.

I haven’t read a lot of theorising on this topic, but it seems to me that there is a strong link here with everyday speech. In my own language, as, I should imagine, in most others, pitch and phrasing indicate the emotional register of what you are saying, and hence an important element of the meaning. One can imagine this evolving from the less articulate cries of our ancestors, with an awareness of intervals of pitch developing as a method of communication, hence fostering group cohesion and Darwinian survival value. Indeed, in some languages, such as Chinese, intonation can be integral to the meaning of a word. And there’s scientific evidence of the closeness of music and language: here’s an example.

So, going back to Mendelssohn, it’s as if music has developed by abstracting certain elements from speech, leaving direct, referential meaning behind and evolving a vocabulary from pitch, timbre and the free-floating emotional states associated with them. Think for a moment of film music. It can be an interesting exercise, in the middle of a film or TV drama, to make yourself directly aware of the background music, and then imagine how your perception of what is happening would differ if it were absent. You come to realise that the music is often instructing you what to feel about a scene or a character, and it often connects with your emotions so directly that it doesn’t consciously occur to you that the feelings you experience are not your own spontaneous ones. And if you add to this the complex structures formed from key relationships and temporal development, which a professional musician would be particularly aware of, you can start to see what Mendelssohn was talking about.

The musical piece O’Brien was introducing was the ‘Dialogue between the wind and the sea’ from Debussy ‘s La Mer. In other words,a passage which seeks to evoke a visual and auditory scene, rather than simply exploring musical ideas and the emotions that arise directly from them. By contrast, we could imagine a description of such a scene in prose: to be effective the writer needs to choose the words whose meanings and associations come together in such a way that readers can recreate the sensory impressions, and and the subjective impact of the scene in their own minds. The music, on the other hand, can combine its direct emotional access with an auditory picture, in a highly effective way.

Rain Steam and Speed

Rain, Steam and Speed – J.M.W Turner (National Gallery, London)

I was trying to think of an equivalent in visual art, and and the painting that came to mind was this one, with its emphasis on the raw sensory feelings evoked by the scene, rather than a faithful (prosaic) portrayal. In his use of this technique, Turner was of course controversial in his time, and is now seen as a forerunner of the impressionist movement. Interestingly, what I didn’t know before Googling the painting was that he is also known to have influenced Debussy, who mentions him in his letters. Debussy was also sometimes spoken of as impressionist, but he hated this term being applied to his work, and here is a quote from one of those letters:

I am trying to do something different – an effect of reality… what the imbeciles call impressionism, a term which is as poorly used as possible, particularly by the critics, since they do not hesitate to apply it to Turner, the finest creator of mysterious effects in all the world of art.

I like to think that perhaps Debussy is also to some extent lining up with Mendelssohn here, and, beside his reference to Turner’s painting, maybe has in mind the unique form of access to our consciousness which music has, as opposed to other art forms. A portrayal in poetry would perhaps come somewhere between prose and music, given that poetry, as we’ve seen, borrows some of music’s tricks. I looked around for an example of a storm at sea in poetry: here’s a snippet from Swinburne, around the turn of the 20th century, describing a storm in the English Channel.

As a wild steed ramps in rebellion, and and rears till it swerves from a backward fall,
The strong ship struggled and reared, and her deck was upright as a sheer cliff’s wall.

In two lines here we have – besides two similes with one of them extended into a metaphor – alliteration, repetition and rhyme, all couched in an irregular, bucking rhythm which suggests the movement of the ship with the sea and wind. Much in common here, then, with a musical evocation of a storm. This I take to be part of what O’Brien means by poetry ‘wanting’ to be music, and being ‘close in sensibility’ in the example he was talking about.

But I don’t see how all this implies that we should somehow demote poetry to an inferior role. Yes, it’s true that words don’t so often trigger emotions as directly, by their sound alone, as does music – except perhaps in individual cases where someone has become sensitised to a word through experience. But the Swinburne passage is an example of poetry flexing the muscles which it alone possesses, in pursuit of its goal. And even when its direct purpose is not the evocation of a specific scene, the addition of the use of imagery to the auditory effects it commands can create a very compelling kind of ‘music’. A couple of instances that occur to me: first T. S. Eliot in Burnt Norton, from The Four Quartets.

Garlic and sapphires in the mud
Clot the bedded axle-tree.
The trilling wire in the blood
Sings below inveterate scars
Appeasing long-forgotten wars.

I’m vaguely aware that there all sorts of allusions in the poet’s mind which are beyond my awareness, but just at the level of the sound of the words combined with the immediate images they conjure, there is for me a magic about this which fastens itself in my mind, making it intensely enjoyable to repeat the words to myself, I just as a snatch of music can stick in the consciousness. Another example, from Dylan Thomas, known for his wayward and idiosyncratic use of language. This is the second stanza from Especially When the October Wind:

Shut, too, in a tower of words, I mark
On the horizon walking like the trees
The wordy shapes of women, and the rows
Of the star-gestured children in the park.
Some let me make you of the vowelled beeches,
Some of the oaken voices, from the roots
Of many a thorny shire tell you notes,
Some let me make you of the water’s speeches.

Again, I find pure pleasure in the play of sounds and images here, before ever considering what further meaning there may be. But what I also love about the whole poem (here is the poet reading it) is the way it is self-referential: while exploiting the power of words, it explicitly links language-words to  images – ‘vowelled beeches’ rhymed with ‘water’s speeches’. The poet himself is ‘shut in a tower of words’ .

But, returning to the comparison with music, there’s one obvious superficial difference between it and language, namely that language is generally ‘about’ something, but while music is not. But of course there are plenty of exceptions: music can be, at least in part, deliberately descriptive, as we saw with Debussy, he while poetry often does away with literal meaning to transform itself into a sort of word-music, as I’ve tried to show above. And another obvious point I haven’t made is that words and music are often – perhaps more often than not – yoked together in song. The voice itself can simultaneously be a musical instrument and a purveyor of meaning. And it may be that the music is recruited to add emotional resonance to the language – think opera or musical drama – or that the words serve to give the music a further dimension and personality, as often in popular music. In the light of his statement above, it’s interesting that Mendelssohn is famous particularly for his piano pieces entitled Songs Without Words. The oxymoron is a suggestive one, and he strongly resisted an attempt by a friend to put words to them.

But the question of what music itself is ‘about’ is a perplexing, and perhaps profound one. I am intending this post to be one approach to the philosophical question of how it’s possible for one thing to be ‘about’ another: the topic known as intentionality. In an interesting paper, Music and meaning, ambiguity and evolution, Ian Cross of the Cambridge Faculty of Music explores this question (1), referring to the fact that the associations and effects of a piece of music may differ between the performer and a listener, or between different listeners. Music has, as he puts it, ‘floating intentionality’. This reminds me of a debate that has taken place about the performance of early music. For authenticity in, say 16th century music, some claim, it’s essential that it is played on the instruments of the time. Their opponents retort that you won’t achieve that authenticity unless you have a 16th century audience as well.

Some might claim that most music is not ‘about’ anything but itself, or perhaps about the emotions it generates. I am not intending to come to any conclusion on that particular topic, but just to raise some questions in a fascinating area. In the next post I intend to approach this topic of intentionality from a completely different direction.

1. Cross, Ian: Music and meaning, ambiguity and evolution, in D. Miell, R. MacDonald & D. Hargreaves, Musical Communication, OUP, 2004.
You can read part of it here.

Right Now

Commuting days until retirement: 491

Right now I am at home – another day off – waiting for some gravel to be delivered for our front drive. Right now, you are reading this (well I hope somebody is, or will). You can see I am having trouble with tenses here, because your ‘now’ is not my ‘now’. I know you are not reading this now, because I haven’t published it. But you know you are reading it now.

BlackboardThis all might seem a bit trivial and pointless, but stay with me for a bit. The notion I am circling around is the curious status of this concept of now. Let’s approach it another way: imagine yourself back at school, in a physics lesson. This may seem either an enticing or an entirely appalling prospect to you, but please indulge my little thought experiment. The teacher has chalked a diagram up on the blackboard (well, that was the cutting edge of presentation technology when I was at school). There’s the diagram up on the right. t1 and t2 obviously represent two instants of time for the ball, in its progress down the slope.

Somehow you are managing to stay awake, just. But in your semi-stupor you find yourself putting up your hand.

‘Yes?’, says the teacher irritably, wondering how there could be any serious question to be asked so far, and expecting something entirely facetious.

‘Er – which one is now?’ you ask. The teacher could perhaps consider your question carefully, for the sake any deep conceptual problem concealed within it, but instead she wonders why she bothered to get up this morning.

Not in the curriculum

Warwick University

Warwick University

However there is a serious philosophical issue here – admittedly not in the physics curriculum, to be fair to the teacher. And the reason it’s not in the curriculum is that the concept of ‘now’ is alien to physics. ‘Now’ is entirely confined to our subjective perception of the world. Think of the earth in its nascent state, a ball of molten lava and all that. Does it even make sense to imagine there was a ‘now’ then? We can say that this red-hot lava whirlpool formed before that one did – but we can’t say that either of them is forming now. Well of course not, in the obvious sense – it was four and a half billion years ago. But you could say that there was a time when your first day at school was ‘now’; and you can also say that there was a time when the execution of Marie Antoinette was ‘now’ – for somebody, that is, even perhaps for the unfortunate woman herself. But as for the formation of the earth – there was no one around for whom it could be a ‘now’. (Small green men excepted.)  You’re thinking of it as a ‘now’, I expect, but that’s because in your imagined scenario you are in fact there, as some sort of implicit presence suspended in space, viewing the proceedings.

It’s odd to try and visualise an exclusively objective world – one without a point of view – “The View from Nowhere” as the philosopher Thomas Nagel has put it; it’s the title of one of his books. In such a world there is no ‘now’, and therefore no past and no future, but only a ‘before’ and ‘after’ relative to any arbitrary point in time. And I was always struck by the way that T. S. Eliot, in Burnt Norton, from his Four Quartets, associates ‘time past and time future’ with the poetic and spiritual, and ‘time before and time after’ with the prosaic and mundane.


Our language – indeed most languages – are built around the ‘now’, in that tenses correspond to past and future. Without the subjective sense of a ‘now’, language would surely work in a very different way. Interestingly, there is an example possibly relevant to this from the Pirahã people of the Amazon, who have been studied by the controversial linguist Daniel Everett. Their relationship to the passage of time seems to be different from ours – Everett claims that they have no real sense of history or of planning for the future, and so live in a kind of perpetual present. Correspondingly, inflections in their utterances are related not to temporal comparisons, like our tenses, but to the surrounding circumstances – e.g. whether something being described is right here, or is known first-hand, or has been reported by some other person. (Everett originally went to them as a Christian missionary, but was dismayed to find that they had no interest at all in Jesus unless Everett could claim to have met him.)

So all this would seem to support a philosopher I remember reading a long time ago. I don’t remember who he was, and can no longer find the passage. But I remember the sentence “Our language has a tiresome bias in favour of time.” I think this man was from the old-school style of linguistic philosophy, which held that most philosophical problems can be resolved into confusions caused by our use of language – and so time concepts were just another example of this. But I don’t think this is at all adequate as an approach, Pirahã or no Pirahã. However my language works, I would still have a sense of the differing character of past events, which cannot be changed, and future events, which mostly cannot be known – and of course a present, a now, which is the defining division between them. I would be surprised if the experience of a Pirahã person did not include that.

Space and time

How about another attack on the problem – to make an analogy between the spatial and the temporal? The spatial equivalent of ‘now’ is ‘here’. And there doesn’t seem to be any perplexity about that. ‘Here’ is where I am, er, now. Oh dear. Maybe these aren’t so easy to separate out. Perhaps ‘here’ seems simpler because we each have our own particular ‘here’. It’s where our body is, and that’s easily seen by others. And we can change it at will. But we all share the same ‘now’, and there’s not a lot we can do to change that. There is, of course, the remote possibility of relativistic time travel. I could in some sense change my ‘now’ relative to yours – but when I come back to earth I am back in the same predicament – just one that differs slightly in degree.

But do we all share the same ‘now’?  Here’s a slightly more disturbing thought. I have made out that my own sense of ‘now’ is confined to my own private experience, and doesn’t exist in the world ‘out there’. And the same is true of you, of course. I can see and hear you, and I find from your behaviour and the things you say that you are experiencing the the same, contemporaneous events that I am. But it’s not your private experience, or your ‘now’ that I am seeing – only your body. And your body – including of course your brain – is very much a part of the world ‘out there’. It’s only your private experience which isn’t, and I can’t experience that, by definition. So how do I know that your ‘now’ is the same as mine? Do we each float around in our own isolated time bubbles?

I think perhaps there is a solution of some sort to this. If your ‘now’ is different from mine, it must therefore be either before it or after it. Let’s suppose it’s an hour after. Then if my ‘now’ is at 4.30, yours is now at 5.30. But of course there’s a problem with the now that I have put in bold. It doesn’t refer to actual time, but to a sort of meta-time by which we mark out time itself. And how could this make sense? It’s rather like asking “how fast does time flow?” when there is no other secondary, or meta-time by which we could measure the ‘speed’ of normal time.

So perhaps this last idea crumbles into nonsense. But I still believe that, in the notion of ‘now’ there is a deep problem, which is one aspect of the more general mystery of consciousness. Do you agree? Most don’t.

But right now, the gravel is here, and is spread over the drive. So at least I’ve managed to do something more practical and down-to-earth today than write this post. And that’s a little bit of my past – or what is now my past – that I can be proud of.

Exciting times

Commuting days until retirement: 515

Up to now, there’s been a lot here about how I go to and from work, but not much about what happens when I’m there. I suppose I’ve been fighting a little shy of the topic – after all, it’s the reason this blog is anonymous. Well as I have said elsewhere, I do find satisfaction in the job, and I’m lucky to have a decent set of people as co-workers. Most – no, all of them – are younger than me, you won’t be surprised to hear, and I ‘m very happy with that.

fruitfliesWhat I wanted to do here was just to say something about the linguistic oddities of the work environment. I have found that in the artificial atmosphere of a big company – and this one is certainly the largest I have ever worked for – these rather grotesque business-speak distortions of everyday language thrive and breed like mutant fruit flies.

Perhaps it’s the superfluity of written communication which encourages this. As if the excess of personal emails, and copies of emails, which multiply exponentially with the size of the organisation, were not enough, there are official collections of ‘news’ that thud into your inbox two or three times daily. These of course are relentlessly upbeat in tone, even at times when the public business press (which I don’t often read) is painting a gloomier picture of the company. It’s rather like living in a totalitarian society, albeit a reasonably benevolent one. On the shop floor these emails appear to meet with the same sort of unspoken, weary indifference as official pronouncements in the streets of communist era Moscow.

But what of the language? Emails, both corporate and individual, are replete with the sort of jargon you can find in any Web dictionary of business clichés. And of course they find their way into spoken language – or is it the other way around?  This is well worked-over territory, so I’ll just look at a few of those that particularly irritate me.  Here are three that I encounter especially frequently:

  • Going forward – in the future, from now on.
  • Leverage (pronounced the American way, and used as a verb) – to make effective use of.
  • Bandwidth – the capacity or time you have available to take on additional work.

It has to be admitted, looking at the definitions, that the last two are succinct, even if they are ugly. And looking over the Web I have found some that I positively like. Here’s one I found which describes a situation I am well familiar with from my working life – only I never knew of a name for it. Imagine you have a boss who makes it his duty to find shortcomings, real or imagined, in any work that you come up with, and puts you to extra work remedying them. The way to deal with such a person is to deliberately insert a flaw which is glaringly obvious but easily put right. The boss finds it, you save time, and everyone is happy. This is giving the dog a bone.

But descend with me now into the teeth-on-edge zone, if you haven’t got there already. There’s poor, weary old thinking outside the box, so universally derided that it should have been in its grave long ago. But nevertheless, its undead carcass continues to lurch about the workplace; I still hear people use it without irony or embarrassment.  And here’s one I particularly detest: any ordinary, workaday act of communication with someone (emailing, phoning or simply meeting them) is referred to as reaching out to them. In traditional language, you might reach out to someone in distress, for example. But importing this phrase into the utilitarian world of commercialism seems like an attempt to clothe perfectly honest, but quite insignificant actions with a bogus air of wisdom and beneficence which they really don’t merit. And of course it’s used so often that it has become meaningless.

excitedBut now I come to what is for me the buttock-clenching nadir of business-speak – and this is one that I haven’t seen in anyone else’s list. My first encounter with it was when I was only just starting my job, after some years of working for myself. An email from one of the heads of the new company welcomed me, and said that, with my business knowledge, he was excited about taking me on. I wasn’t sure whether to be more surprised at the image of him jumping all over the furniture with breathless euphoria in his office, or at the idea that I had any business knowledge. (I haven’t – I can only put it down to having done my homework and tried to ask some intelligent questions in the interview.)

But I soon found that this was now the standard way of speaking of any forthcoming development in the corporate world, especially in written communication. It’s difficult to believe, seeing people soberly go about the everyday tasks of their jobs, that all this excitement is crackling in the air. But everything issued by the leaders of the company is saturated with it – it’s as if they are all competing with each other to be more excited than their fellow executives. You imagine that a board meeting must be like a pentecostal prayer gathering in the American bible belt. And of course those emails I mentioned are positively tumescent with excitement.

Well not so long ago, an employee questionnaire went round. Yes, as you’ve guessed, up came the question I dreaded. Was I excited?  A dilemma – it was supposedly anonymous, but bearing in mind that totalitarian analogy, you can’t be entirely sure.  Reader, I entered into a Faustian pact, and said I was excited. (Well, quite high on a scale of 0-10 – you know how those questionnaire things work.)  So I just hope that He Who Knows the Identity of Every Anonymous Blogger won’t hold it against me in the final reckoning.

So it’s not just the end of commuting that makes me to look forward to retirement. It’s a life of breakfast cereal, the postman, the shopping, grass, trees, earth – ordinary things and ordinary language. Now that makes me excited.