Posted in History & Literature

Bingo Bango Bongo

Spot the odd one out: King Kong, Ding Dong, Chit Chat, Jibber Jabber, Tick Tock, Flip Flop, Zag Zig. The last one is obviously wrong, with the correct version being “Zig Zag”. The astute reader may have noticed a funny rule here: in words that are repeated with only the vowel sounds changed, I comes before A and O.

This peculiar pattern is known as the IAO rule and it is best shown in the example “Tic Tac Toe”. For some strange reason, words just don’t sound right in English when it doesn’t follow the IAO rule. Pong Ping, Hop Hip, Dally Dilly and Clop Clip all just sound weird.

This rule is formally known as ablaut reduplication and it is seen in almost every English-speaking country. The origin of the rule is unclear (likely Germanic), yet it is so prevalent and ingrained into us. Even if you have never heard of “ablaut reduplication”, the words sound very wrong and awkward if said in a different order.

There is another strange rule in English when it comes to ordering words. When it comes to a list of adjectives, such as “Little Red Riding Hood”, not listing the adjectives in a specific order makes it sound strange.

For reference, the order is:

Opinion – size – age – shape – colour – origin – material – purpose, then the noun.

This means that you can say something like “my big fat Greek wedding” or “that lovely large old brown French wooden clock”, but you can’t say “a red big ball” without it sounding off.

One notable exception is “the Big Bad Wolf”, where the opinion comes after the size. But if you look carefully, you can see it follows the IAO rule instead.

The more you learn about it, the more you realise how (sometimes needlessly) complex the English language is.

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Posted in History & Literature

Meese

The plural for goose is geese. But the plural for moose is not meese: it is just moose. Why is this the case? This is because English is formed from words of various origins, all following different rules.

Goose is an old word that derives from Old English with Germanic roots. Typically in Old English, words were pluralised (turned into plurals) by a process called mutation, where the vowel sounds are changed to an adjacent sound (e.g. “oo” to “ee”). This explains why goose becomes geese, foot becomes feet and tooth becomes teeth.

However, the word moose traces its roots back to a Northeastern Algonquian language – a subfamily of Native American languages. This means that it does not follow the Old English rules of mutation. Furthermore, because Algonquian languages do not pluralise, the plural for moose is just “moose”.

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Posted in History & Literature

Pineapple

A strange linguistic fact is that other than English, almost every other language calls the pineapple fruit ananas. This is true for French, German, Dutch, Italian, Greek, Arabic, Russian, Turkish and even Icelandic. The scientific name for the genus that pineapples belong to is also Ananas. The few countries that use a different name include Spain (piña), China (boluo) and countries where the pineapple was introduced to by an English-speaking country (e.g. Korea and Japan).

So why do English-speakers use a completely different word for the fruit? Pineapples were first brought back to Europe from the Americas in the early 1600’s. They named it ananas after the native Old Tupi word nanas, meaning “excellent fruit“.

However, the Spanish and English thought the fruit was shaped more like a pinecone and named it separately. In fact, the word “pineapple” was used prior to the introduction of the fruit, first recorded in 1398 used to describe actual pinecones.

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Posted in Life & Happiness

How To Read A Book

Books are one of the greatest inventions in human history and is considered a “complete” invention, in that it cannot really be improved on any further. Books provide us with knowledge, stories, advice and wonder. The Laurentian Library in Florence, designed by Michelangelo, symbolises this by having a dark entrance lead in to a bright, Pantheon-like library to suggest that books are the key to enlightenment.

Why do we read? Non-fiction books are normally clear in their purpose: they provide objective (for the most part) knowledge in various fields, ranging from history to science. But what about fiction? How can reading fiction enrich our lives, when it is the product of imagination?

When we are in school, we are taught how to critically read fiction. We scrutinise a piece of literature so that we can decipher the motives of the characters, understand symbolism and uncover the hidden social criticism that the author may have intended to portray. We learn to analyse a book, rather than to enjoy it.

But this is not the intention of the author. Unlike non-fiction books that attempt to provide answers, most fiction books don’t try to hide some truth or a deep, meaningful answer. Instead, they are meant to be a journey

A journey is different from a quest in that there is no specific goal or a mission. All you have to do is wander around, take in the sights, feel emotions that arise in response and expand your inner horizons through reflection. You may even learn something new, whether it is a historical fact, an observation about people, or more about yourself. The point is, there is no “right way” to read fiction; you can enjoy it however you want, without any expectation or judgement.

A writer does not hope for their book to teach one answer to every reader. Everyone has different world views, past experiences and values, so they react to a given situation in variable ways. You could recommend a book that you love to a friend, but they may experience the book in a completely different way. They may not even enjoy it. But that is okay, because the purpose of fiction is not so that it can be enjoyed in one, formulaic way. It is meant to teach us how different we all are.

A good work of fiction tells the story of how an individual or a group of people navigate through a specific scenario or life in general. We get to peer into their thoughts and emotions, while wondering how we would act if we were in their shoes. It teaches us empathy by showing us that people think and act differently to us. We can learn from the characters’ developments how we can tackle our own life problems or worries. It provides a safe environment for us to explore our inner psyche, our insecurities and traumas.

Lastly, remember that just because you travelled to a place once, it does not mean that you know the place. You might have only looked at the key sights and missed how the locals live, or maybe you were not even aware that a certain area existed. Much like this, what you take away from reading a book can be quite variable. The more you immerse yourself, connect with the characters and reflect on the book, the more it will add to your life. You might also find that the second time you read the book, your experience is very different because you have matured or have new problems to deal with.

Now, think of a book that you loved reading. What made the experience so enjoyable? What thoughts or feelings did the book inspire? How did it add to your life?

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Posted in History & Literature

Spelling Alphabet

One weakness with the English alphabet is that when they are spelt out aloud, some letters are too similar and end up being confused. For example, B sounds like D and M sounds like N. Although this is not too major an issue in normal life, it becomes very problematic when giving important information over the phone, such as an identification number. The same problem applies in the military where precise orders are required. To overcome the issue of similar-sounding letters, many systems have been developed to replace the letters with words when spelling words aloud over the phone or radio. For example, if the ID number EFS9201 has to be told to the other person, it can be read as “echo-foxtrot-sierra-nine-two-zero-one”. It is also used in the military to say abbreviations, such as “oscar mike” for “on the move”. As the spelling alphabet system is designed so that no two words sound similar, it is a very effective way of accurately transmitting information over the phone.

The spelling alphabet (NATO phonetic alphabet) is as follows:

image

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Posted in History & Literature

Ghoti

If the gh sound in “tough” is pronounced “F”,
And the o in “people” makes the short “I” sound,
And the ti in “nation” is pronounced “SH”, 
Then the word “ghoti” is pronounced just like “fish”.

This is the shortcoming of the English language, where so many letters can be pronounced in various ways depending on the context of the word. This problem cannot be found in languages such as Korean where every Hangul character can be pronounced a set way, as they each represent a certain sound.

Therefore, there is no other way of saying “moolgogi (물고기, fish in Korean)” other than just that. This is why the Korean Hangul is a far superior and more logical method of writing than the English alphabet.

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Posted in History & Literature

The Lamb And The Tyger

The creator made the Lamb, but he also made the Tyger.
In this world, there is no light without darkness. No good without evil. No life without death. The Lamb represents innocence, Christ and aesthetic beauty, while the Tyger represents evil, the Devil and primal ferocity.
An all-powerful deity that created the world; if he exists, then all rules of this universe were devised by his design. So why did he – the supposedly loving, benevolent maker – create these dualities? What god would make such a monstrosity, as beautiful as it is, that is the Tyger?
And how is it that we are both a Lamb and a Tyger at the same time?

(Both The Lamb and The Tyger by William Blake after the break)

The Lamb

Little Lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?
Gave thee life, and bid thee feed
By the stream and o’er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing, woolly, bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice?
Little Lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?

Little Lamb, I’ll tell thee,
Little Lamb, I’ll tell thee:
He is called by thy name,
For he calls himself a Lamb.
He is meek, and he is mild;
He became a little child.
I a child, and thou a lamb.
We are called by his name.
Little Lamb, God bless thee!
Little Lamb, God bless thee!

~ William Blake

The Tyger

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies,
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare sieze the fire?

And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp,
Dare its deadly terrors clasp!

When the stars threw down their spears
And water’d heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

~ William Blake

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Posted in Science & Nature

Shrew

A shrew is a small rodent, similar in size to a rat, that has many fascinating characteristics.

Funnily enough, this animal has a notorious name in history. Ancient Egyptians considered shrews the spirits of darkness and the English believed that if a shrew ran over a lying animal, the animal would suffer great pain. The name shrew comes from the Middle Age English word shrewe, which meant “evil” or “scolding person”.
This is probably attributable to the putrid smell a shrew makes when threatened, and its poisonous bite.

Despite its tiny figure, the shrew has the greatest surface-area-to-weight ratio out of any mammal on the face of the Earth. Because of this, they also have a high heat expenditure, meaning they have to eat constantly to replenish the energy. This means that they sometimes die from starvation during prolonged naps.
Also, they have an extremely high heart rate, averaging about 700 beats per minute. When they are frightened, the heart rate can spike leading to cardiac arrest. For example, shrews are known to die from being frightened by the sound of thunder.

An animal that dies if it naps too much or when thunder strikes – the shrew is a very sad animal.

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