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 Psychology & Medicine

The Silent Twins

The story of June and Jennifer Gibbons is a fascinating case of linguistics.

June and Jennifer were twin sisters born in 1963 from Barbadian parents. They were raised in Wales, where they were bullied in school due to their dark skin. This was a traumatising event that led to the twins becoming more and more isolated as children, often choosing to hermit themselves in their own secluded world.

An interesting phenomenon that developed at the time was that June and Jennifer would talk in an unintelligible language between the two of them. At first, it started with a mix of English and Bajan Creole (an English-based Caribbean language) spoken very rapidly. However, over the years, their shared language became more and more cryptic to the point that only the two of them could understand each other (and their younger sister Rose).

To add to this, the two made a pact with each other that they would never speak to other people, based on their trauma of being ostracised by their schoolmates. Furthermore, the twins exhibited mirroring movements and mannerisms, and would become catatonic when forcibly separated from each other.

In their teenage years, June and Jennifer started writing various plays, poems and stories. They also began experimenting with drugs and alcohol, leading to them committing crimes such as arson, theft and vandalism. Instead of being sent to juvenile prison, they were admitted to a psychiatric hospital due to their mutism.

The two would be admitted at Broadmoor Hospital for a total of 12 years, where they were treated with antipsychotics despite not having objective signs of psychotic illnesses. Their institutionalisation resulted in the worsening of their “symptoms”.

Later on, it was revealed by June that this was the point that the two came to an agreement that their pact could only be broken if one of the sisters died. In other words, one person had to die for the other to live a normal life. Jennifer decided to make the sacrifice.

At the age of 30, they were finally discharged from Broadmoor to be transferred to a more open clinic. When they arrived at the clinic, Jennifer was found to be unconscious. She was transferred to a hospital where she was diagnosed with acute myocarditis (heart muscle inflammation), resulting in her demise. The cause of the myocarditis was never found and had appeared unprovoked.

After a period of grief, June started to speak to other people. Regarding Jennifer’s sacrifice, she said:

“I’m free at last, liberated, and at last Jennifer has given up her life for me”.

June would go onto give interviews detailing her and Jennifer’s life journey and suffering, giving us insight into a remarkable case of cryptophasia.

Cryptophasia is a common phenomenon in twins, where they develop a language spoken only between the two of them. This may be accompanied by mirroring actions. It is thought that up to 50% of twins invent some form of language or code between the two. Cryptophasia is possibly a result of speech delay, with the twins compensating for each other by creating a language that they find more relatable. As in the case of June and Jennifer, environmental and social factors are also likely to play a crucial role.

The desire for connection is innate to human beings. When we feel isolated in the world, we may cling to the few connections we feel comfortable with, even if it means causing further isolation and loneliness. This may manifest in a healthy way, such as investing more time and energy cultivating a fulfilling relationship with friends and family. However, it may also result in co-dependent or toxic relationships, social isolation, addiction and restricting ourselves from leading a full life.

June and Jennifer Gibbons are reminders to us of the importance of connection in our life. How far would you go to feel connected to something – anything – in life?

Cuombajj Witches by Seb McKinnon
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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 History & Literature

Rosetta Stone

In 1799, during Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt, a French officer named Pierre-François Bouchard came across a granite slab a couple of miles from a port city named Rosetta. The slab – about 112cm by 75cm in size – was densely filled with ancient inscriptions on one face of it. But strangely, there were three distinct languages written on the slab: Egyptian hieroglyphs, an unknown script and Greek.

The discovery of this stone sparked immediate scientific interest. Up until this point, no scholar had been able to decipher the Egyptian hieroglyphs. The hieroglyphs had not been used formally for almost 1800 years, so the way to read it had been lost to time. Europe was going through an “Egyptomania” at the time, with great interest in this ancient civilisation. However, little was known about the culture as the ancient texts could not be read.

People quickly noted that there was a strong chance that the so-called “Rosetta Stone” contained the same text in three different languages, which meant that if you could translate one of the languages, then you could decipher the alphabet of the other two. This proved to be true, with the text being a royal decree exempting priests from taxation. Numerous scholars from all over Europe pored over the Rosetta Stone to solve the mystery of Egyptian hieroglyphs.

The first step was to translate the Greek version, as ancient Greek had already been studied in depth by scholars.
Around a similar time, a Swedish linguist named Johan David Åkerblad figured out that the middle, unknown script was Demotic, a cursive script used in ancient Egypt. Åkerblad was able to decipher the Demotic alphabet by comparing it to the Greek script, particularly through comparing names, as both languages were largely phonetic, meaning the characters used to write the name will have the same sounds in the two languages.

The final step – deciphering hieroglyphics – proved to be much harder. It was theorised that hieroglyphs were not phonetic, but ideographic, meaning each letter represented a whole word or concept (similar to Chinese) rather than a sound. If this is true, then it is impossible to decipher the hieroglyphic alphabet just by comparing it to the phonetic Demotic and Greek scripts.

But then, one scholar named Silvestre de Sacy realised that foreign names would have been written phonetically, much like Chinese scripts. This allowed him to zero in to Greek names in each script, such as Ptolemaios, thus creating a skeleton for the phonetic alphabet for both  Demotic and hieroglyphs. Scholars could then use the phonetic reading of hieroglyphs to make more headway into reading the Rosetta Stone.

After 20 years of exhausting research, the Rosetta Stone was finally fully deciphered. The Rosetta Stone is famous because it was the key required to decipher the entire Egyptian hieroglyph system, while birthing the new field of Egyptology. Being able to read hieroglyphs allowed us to better understand the ancient Egyptians’ way of life. Nowadays, the term Rosetta Stone is also used as a symbol of a key to understanding an entirely new field of knowledge.

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Posted in Life & Happiness

Hidden Messages

Communication is easy on paper. We say what we think or feel, the other person hears it, and understands it. But in practice, so much can go wrong. Failure to communicate has been the cause of so much grief for people throughout history, even resulting in wars and disasters. Most importantly, poor communication is one of the greatest barriers to building a deep connection with another person.

The problem lies in the fact that despite being social animals, we are quite bad at being social. We care too much about how others may judge us, so we avoid being direct and literal when we communicate our thoughts and feelings. Instead, we choose to encrypt our messages and hope (or worse, expect) that the other person will understand the hidden meaning behind our words.

For example, instead of telling our partner that we are angry at them over something they did, we act passive-aggressively or pick a fight over an unrelated manner. Instead of speaking up about something that is unfair or unjust, we choose to stay silent and accept it to avoid conflict. We will flirt and tease with someone without telling them just how much we adore them. Instead of just saying what is on our mind, we try to package what we want to say in a cryptic form through vague, suggestive messages. Sometimes, we act out like a little boy pulling at the ponytail of a girl he likes on the playground, by sulking or being cruel to our loved ones.

Because we all tend to hide our feelings behind our words and actions, we become conditioned to try and analyse and decode messages to interpret the true meaning of what other people say. But because we are not mind readers, this often leads to misunderstandings. Instead of trying to talk openly with the person, we assume that we have unraveled their true intentions and act on it, which often leads to even more misunderstandings. In time, the relationship breaks down.

This is the reason why practising good communication is such a crucial relationship advice. Why waste our time and energy crafting delicate riddles and trying to be codebreakers, when it will only result in misunderstandings? It would be far more efficient to fight through our awkwardness and insecurities to talk about what is really on your minds.

That said, this is not a simple task and takes a lot of courage and trust. That is why the other takeaway point is how lucky it is to find someone who truly “gets you” – someone who has the patience to listen to you talk in a roundabout way, and spend the effort to try to understand what you really mean. If you find someone who knows you well enough that they can decipher your messages and actually listen to what you are really trying to say, then that is something to be grateful for.

Because the greatest gift we can receive from another person is for them to truly understand us.

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Posted in History & Literature

Namaste

Yoga has become a popular fitness trend in the developed world. People enjoy yoga as they feel it combines regular exercise, flexibility and meditation all in one session. One popular tradition that is seen in modern yoga is how instructors (yogi) will say “Namaste” at the start and end of a session.

What does namaste mean? Some people think it means “goodbye” in Hindi, while some people ascribe deeper meaning to the word such as “love and peace to all” or “the divine in me bows to the divine in you”. All in all, it has become somewhat of a catchphrase in the yoga world.

In reality, namaste is simply a greeting. It can be used either when you meet someone or say goodbye, but the important point is that it is a very formal greeting. It is more often used in formal settings such as important meetings. The word comes from the Sanskrit roots namas, meaning “bow” or “to pay homage to”, and te, essentially meaning “to you”. Therefore, a literal translation of namaste would be “I pay homage to you”.

Interestingly, namaste has never been an important part of traditional yoga. Yoga in India generally come from religious traditions. Since Hinduism is a polytheistic religion involving many gods, each yoga lineage would have a specific greeting praising their respective gods. This is in contrast to namaste, which puts more importance on the individual person than the god. So ironically, namaste somewhat contradicts the traditional philosophy of yoga.

Unfortunately, the worst part is that most people do not even pronounce the word correctly, saying “NA-ma-stay” instead of the correct “nuh-MAS-the” (“t” is pronounced as “th” in Hindi) with the emphasis on the middle syllable.

It is unclear when the trend of saying namaste in modern yoga came from, but it is certainly a product of the Western appropriation of the practice. Perhaps it was introduced to add a more spiritual, faux-profound flavour to exercising.

Nevertheless, to quote Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride:

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

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Posted in History & Literature

Evolution Of Colour

We often take the beauty of colour for granted. How would you explain the colour red to a blind person? With that in mind, how do we know that the colour we see with our own eyes is the same hue that others see? A scholar by the name of William Gladstone came across a similar question in 1858 while studying ancient Greek literature. He noticed that in most literature of ancient times, the description of colour was wildly inconsistent, such as the sea being described as “wine-dark”, the sky being “copper-coloured” and other oddities such as violet sheep and green honey. After further analysis, Gladstone found that white and black were referenced frequently, while other colours were much rarer, with red, yellow and green being the most common colours respectively.

Another scholar named Lazarus Geiger expanded on Gladstone’s research and found that throughout ancient literature – including the Bible, Hindu poems, ancient Chinese stories and Norse tales – described beautiful scenes while omitting a certain detail: a blue sky. It appeared that the colour “blue” did not appear in most languages until a certain point in time, despite the people having lived under the same blue sky that we do now.

Geiger tracked the appearance of different colours in different languages and found a pattern of development. Each language would typically describe white (light) and black (dark) first. The next colour to develop was red, then yellow and green, with blue being one of the last colours to appear. This is likely related to the abundance of each colour (e.g. blood, dirt, vegetation) and the ease of making coloured dye (blue dye is notoriously difficult to make).

This raises an interesting question: if the ancient Greeks did not have a word for the colour blue, could they still perceive the colour blue? Biologically speaking, our eyes are not so different to that of the ancient Greeks. But of course vision is a two-part processyour eye captures the image and then your brain processes the image. Does language have a significant enough impact on how we perceive our world?

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There is a tribe in Namibia whose language does not distinguish blue and green. A study was held where people from this tribe were shown a circle of 12 squares – 11 green and 1 blue. To the researcher’s intrigue, the men and women of the Himba tribe could not tell which square was the odd one out – suggesting that their brain was processing the two colours as identical. However, the Himba language has more words distinguishing shades of green than English. In another study involving a circle of green squares with one square being a slightly different shade of green, the Himba tribe could pick out the different square much more easily than English-speakers.

The so-called “colour debate” is a hotly debated topic, with some arguing that language plays a crucial role in determining our perception of the world, while others state that language is separate to our senses. What did the ancient Greeks see when they gazed up into the sky? If we cannot describe something with words, then does it truly exist? But one thing is clear – things are not always as they seem.

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Posted in Simple Pleasures of Life

Simple Pleasures of Life #22

Being proud of and propagating your cultural heritage.

First of all apologies for not keeping to the “post every day” rule. I had short cases on Tuesday and was up till 4am the night before prepping for it : Was pretty shattered last night so instead of studying I chose to play Magic with a friend for hours, get Nandos for dinner, and watch TV shows until I went to bed early. Recovered since but study is boooring.

Anyway, today was Hangul Day (한글날), yay!!! Hangul is the Korean alphabet and was invented by King Sejong the Great (세종대왕) 567 years ago. It is a beautiful written language that was designed scientifically and logically to better represent sounds, making it easier for common people to learn. To celebrate it, I made a small event on Facebook where I wrote my friends’ names in Korean haha. One friend jokingly said “Arnold Schwarzenegger”, so I happily obliged… along with a sketch 😛

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Posted in Science & Nature

Mathematical Beauty

What is the most “beautiful” mathematical equation? For millenia, many mathematical formulas and concepts have been described as beautiful (and some defining beauty, as the golden ratio does). In the mathematical world, the adjective “beautiful” is used in the sense that certain mathematical concepts, despite the fact they are rational and objective, are so pure, simple and elegant that they can only be described as art.

One such formula is Euler’s identity:

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Renowned physicist Richard Feynman described it as “the most remarkable formula in mathematics”. What makes this array of symbols and numbers so beautiful? Firstly, it contains the three basic arithmetic operations exactly once each: addition, multiplication and exponentiation. It also connects five fundamental mathematical constants with nothing other than themselves and the arithmetic operations.

0 is the additive identity, as adding it to another number results in the original number. 1 is the multiplicative identity for the same reason as 0. Pi(π) is one of the most important mathematical constants in the history of mathematics that is ubiquitous in Euclidean geometry and trigonometry. Euler’s number(e) is the base of natural logarithms and is used widely in mathematical and scientific analysis. i(√-1) is the imaginary unit of complex numbers, a field of imaginary numbers that are not “real”, allowing for the calculation of all roots of polynomials. Euler’s identity neatly sums up the relation between these five numbers that are so crucial in the field of mathematics. It is also interesting to note that these five numbers were discovered at different points in history spanning over 3000 years.

Some people describe mathematics as a distinct language in itself. Not only that, but mathematics is considered the universal language as it is both universal and ubiquitous. If that is the case, than Euler’s identity can be considered an extremely pithy literary masterpiece.

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