The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Different words for the same thing

I learned on this trip that the German word for the small computer you carry everywhere is "Handy." That got me thinking.

In the US we call it a "cell phone." Most of the rest of the Anglosphere calls it a "mobile." Same in Czech ("mobilní telefon"), French ("téléphone mobile"), Spanish ("teléfono móvil") and most other European languages.

I find this interesting because in most parts of Europe, the name describes what the thing is. In German, it describes how you use it. But in the US, we still use a phrase that describes the underlying technology. It occurred to me that a US-based company invented the thing in the early 1970s, and it came into broad use in the US probably 10 years before the rest of the world.

But I wonder if that's also cultural? Are we Americans more interested in the tech than the thing itself? And why do Germans call it by an English name that has nothing to do with either the tech or its use?

Hypotheses welcomed.

The grammar of Great Andamanese languages

Linguist Anvita Abbi studied the language family on Great Andaman (just south of Myanmar in the Andaman Sea) and made a fascinating discovery:

Somehow my extensive experience with all five Indian language families was no help. One time I asked Nao Jr. to tell me the word for “blood.” He looked at me as if I were an utter fool and did not reply. When I insisted, he said, “Tell me where it is coming from.” I replied, “From nowhere.” Irritated, he repeated, “Where did you see it?” Now I had to make up something, so I said, “On the finger.” The reply came promptly—“ongtei!”—and then he rattled off several words for blood on different parts of the body. If the blood emerged from the feet or legs, it was otei; internal bleeding was etei; and a clot on the skin was ertei. Something as basic as a noun changed form depending on location.

The grammar I was piecing together was based primarily on Jero, but a look through Portman's and Man's books convinced me that the southern Great Andamanese languages had similar structures. The lexicon consisted of two classes of words: free and bound. The free words were all nouns that referred to the environment and its denizens, such as ra for “pig.” They could occur alone. The bound words were nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs that always existed with markers indicating a relation to other objects, events or states. The markers (specifically, a-er-ong-ot-or ut-e-or i-ara-; and o-) derived from seven zones of the body and were attached to a root word, usually as a prefix, to describe concepts such as “inside,” “outside,” “upper” and “lower.” For example, the morpheme er-, which qualified most anything having to do with an outer body part, could be stuck to -cho to yield ercho, meaning “head.” A pig's head was thus raercho.

[My] studies established that the 10 original Great Andamanese languages belonged to a single family. Moreover, that family was unique in having a grammatical system based on the human body at every structural level. A handful of other Indigenous languages, such as Papantla Totonac, spoken in Mexico, and Matsés, spoken in Peru and Brazil, also used terms referring to body parts to form words. But these terms had not morphed into abstract symbols, nor did they spread to every other part of speech.

I envy Abbi's ability to do that. I've spent 8 weeks now trying to sort out Czech grammar and have only just started to understand the accusative case. It makes a guy want to stick with German...

Wednesday afternoon potpourri

On this day in 2000, during that more-innocent time, Beverly Hills 90210 came to an end. (And not a day too soon.) As I contemplate the void in American culture its departure left, I will read these articles:

Finally, a new genetic study suggests that "modern humans descended from at least two populations that coexisted in Africa for a million years before merging in several independent events across the continent." Cool.

Free time resumes tomorrow

During the weeks around our Spring Concert, like during the first couple of weeks of December, I have almost no free time. The Beethoven performance also took away an entire day. Yesterday I had hoped to finish a bit of code linking my home weather station to Weather Now, but alas, I studied German instead.

Plus, with the aforementioned Spring Concerts on Friday and today, I felt that Cassie needed some couch time. (We both sit on the couch while I read or watch TV and she gets non-stop pats. It's good for both of us.) She'll get more couch time tonight, don't worry. But she'll also be home alone for about 7 hours today.

I don't have rehearsal tomorrow, and in fact I have no responsibilities beyond my normal day job until next Saturday, so I should finish the coding soon. (I also have a task for an old client that will take me a dozen or so hours, and I really need to start that before my trip.)

In the hour I have before Cassie's next walk and me driving out to Oak Park, I need to study more German and some Czech. In the former we're now discussing how the bear and the mouse need to an apartment („Der Bär und die Maus brauchen eine Wohnung”, for what purpose I can only imagine), and in the latter, whether I eat salt („Jíš sůl?”) and that they have good coffee („Kávu mají dobrou”). Clearly I have more work to do in Czech.

Meine Eule heißt Duo

At the end of the month, I'm taking the first real vacation I've had since 2017, to Central Europe. After connecting through Heathrow, I land in Prague, Czechia; then by train on to Vienna, Austria; then Salzburg, Austria; then a flight back to Gatwick and a night in London. And because of Vienna's and Salzburg's proximity to Austria's borders, I will probably also visit Slovakia, Hungary, and Germany—at least for a few minutes.

To prepare for this trip, about a month ago I downloaded Duolingo, and started the Czech program. I also jumped into the German program at unit 5, as I've studied German before.

I've had mixed results.

First, I want to make it clear that I love Duolingo. I have learned some basic Czech and I've gotten my German back to tourist-level fluency. When I get back to the US, I'm planning to load up French and Spanish, with the goal of getting both back to conversational levels. Just practicing languages every day keeps me learning them, so I believe I'll eventually finish the French and Spanish programs with some pretty good skills in both.

As for my upcoming trip, I've decided to change my approach. Thus far, I've spent about 20 minutes a day on Czech and 10 on German. And yet I'm going through the German lessons much faster, for a number of reasons, not least of which is that I first learned German in high school and I first learned Czech 37 days ago.

In the German program, I'm breezing through things like „wie ist das Wetter in Wien?” and „entschuldigung, wo ist der Geldautomat”, both of which which I actually want to know, and I'm acing (almost) all the speech and listening exercises. (Im and in gave me a bit of a bother for a hot minute.) I've gone from my start in section 1, unit 5 to section 2, unit 4, and the app says I've learned about 300 new German words.

In the Czech program, by contrast, 37 days have gotten me to...section 1, unit 5. And that's only because I gave up on the optional grammar drills after unit 4. I can say things like „jsem David” (I'm David) and „jsou to zvláštní zvířata” ("those are strange animals"), but not every time, and with no guarantee of grammatical accuracy. You see, Czech is a declined language, where all the grammar lives at the ends of words. I just can't seem to get the correct word endings 6 times out of 10. It's supremely frustrating.

So starting today, I'm going to change my approach.

First, I'm going to flip my priorities and spend 2/3 or more of my time on German. That's closer to my trip plan, anyway: from wheels down at Václav Havel Airport to my train crossing the Austrian border, I'll spend at most 48 hours of the 7-day trip in Czechia.

Second, I'm going to concentrate on Czech vocabulary, not mastery. For example, I'm going to skip the grammar drills at the end of each Czech unit and concentrate on just getting enough sentences right to move on to the next unit.

I'll continue to do the German drills, though. This will be my 5th trip to German-speaking countries, and will not be my last, but I have no idea if I'll ever get back to Czechia after this month. I'm singing Bruckner next year and probably Bach in 2025, but I have never to my knowledge sung in Czech. And I'm far more likely to remember the difference between „wo ist der Bahnhof” and „wo ist die U-Bahnstation” than I am to recall (or even say) „Jsem velký klukvs. „Jsme vel kluci”.

I only hope „jsi hezká” comes in handy at least once...

Clear, cool April morning

The clouds have moved off to the east, so it's a bit warmer and a lot sunnier than yesterday. I still have to wait for an automated build to run. For some reason (which I will have to track down after lunch), our CI builds have gone from 22 minutes to 37. Somewhere in the 90 kB of logs I'll find out why.

Meanwhile, happy Fox News On Trial Day:

Finally, I've started reading The Odyssey, so I applaud National Geographic's article this month on the history of the ancient world in which Homer set the poem.

Packing day

As far as I know, I'm moving in 2½ weeks, though the exact timing of both real-estate closings remain unknown. Last time I moved it took me about 38 hours to pack and 15 to unpack. This time I expect it to go faster, in part because I'm not spending as much time going "oh, I love this book!"

I'm taking a quick break and catching up on some reading:

Finally, a new survey says Chicagoans swear a lot less than most Americans, with people from Columbus, Ohio, swearing the most. Fuck that shit.

A quick dictionary of political terms

Back in February, Tom Nichols published a short primer on what political terms actually mean, in hopes of more reasonable and accurate discussion:

There was a thing, years ago, called The Handbook of Political Science. It’s now out of print, but no one wants to read hundreds of pages of that. Instead, let me offer a quick and dirty version of some of these terms, with a bit of snark and apologies to Ambrose Bierce (wherever he is) for incompetently lifting a Devil’s Dictionary approach.

Some of my fellow political scientists and historians will take issue with what I have here. I say to them: If you want to have long arguments about Juan Linz or Hannah Arendt, let’s do that in our patched elbows over some sherry. For now, I just want informed and engaged citizens to think twice about the kinds of words they’re slinging about a tad too loosely these days.

Liberal Democracy

What it is: A system of government that lets you read cranky articles about politics like the one you’re reading right now.

More specifically, democracies derive a ruling mandate from the free choices of citizens, who are equal before the law and who can freely express their preferences. Liberal democracies enshrine a respect for basic human rights (including the right of old cranks to speak their mind). Rights are, one might say, unalienable: The losers of elections do not have their rights stripped away. All citizens abide by constitutional and legal rules agreed upon in advance of elections and are willing to transfer power back and forth to each other peaceably.

What it isn’t: “The majority always rules.” Getting everything you want every time. Governing without negotiation or compromise. Winning every election. Never living with outcomes that disappoint you. Never running out of toilet paper or cat food.

Democracy, in sum, is not “things you happen to like.”

It turns out, most things, in sum, are not “things you happen to (dis-)like.”

He also has some comforting words about what the end of our democracy will look like to most people. Not very comforting, but, well... "Remember always that the post-Trump Republicans are now, at heart, mostly a kind of venal junta, a claque of avaricious mooks who want to stay in office but who don’t really know why, other than that they like money, power, and being on television. (Also, I firmly agree with George Will that they don’t want to live among their own constituents, who mostly scare the bejeebers out of them.) Most of them have no actual program beyond political survival."

Lazy Sunday morning reading

A couple of articles piqued my interest over the last day:

Finally, with only a few days left in December, we have now had 5 days this month with more Americans dead from Covid-19 than died on 9/11, and the STBXPOTUS won't sign even the miserly, half-assed recovery bill that Republicans in the Senate would agree to. January 20th can't come soon enough.

Yesterday got away from me

Just reviewing what I actually got up to yesterday, I'm surprised that I didn't post anything. I'm not surprised, however, that all of these articles piled up for me to read today:

While I'm reading all of that, I've got a stew going in my Instant Pot (on slow-cooker mode). Unfortunately, it seems I underestimated the bulkiness of stew ingredients. I think I'll have a lot of leftovers: