Obdormio.com Unwasted Hours

10 September, 2012

Words, Words, Words: Endling

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , — Obdormio @ 00:00

During a random wiki walk yesterday, I stumbled upon a word I’d never heard before: endling – the last living member of a species.

This is possibly the saddest single word I have ever heard. I don’t think there’s any need to explain the etymology on this one – it’s the end, with a sad little diminutive tacked on. It’s both poetic and childish and tragic. At the same time, it’s a great example of how language can be so cool sometimes.

See, obviously I know that there are species on the verge of extinction, and that in some cases there is only one member left, and this is sad. When they have names like Lonesome George, it gets sadder. But when you name the whole group endlings, well, that’s just utterly heart-breaking. I picture other animals weeping and Find the Lady singing the extinct-song.

And I think that’s a good thing. We should be broken up about this. Look at the picture of the passenger pigeon on wikipedia, and consider that is was the very last of its kind – doesn’t it just extrude sadness? Endling doesn’t appear to be a widely accepted term – it actually kind of looks like it was invented by some wikipedia person. I haven’t found much other use of it, except in a news article that was clearly based strongly on said wikipedia article. I think it should see use, though. It makes more of an impact than a longer phrase would.

I’m adding this to my vocabulary – although I hope I won’t have much opportunity to use it in everyday speech. A word as good as this must surely win ground and end up in the dictionaries some day.

16 August, 2012

Indulging Geeky Habits

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Gallifreyan circle writing

OK, admittedly, this post is going to be me indulging in a bit of weird geekery.

I am a big fan of the TV series Doctor Who. I am one of those Johnny-come-latelies who only started with the modern series, but I am trying to round out my Whovian education by going back and watching a bunch of the old series – it’s slow going, but it’s there.

But that’s not the point of this post. As xkcd has just pointed out, there’s always a geekier level further down.

The modern series of Doctor Who has at several points featured writing in the Gallifreyan language, the native tongue of the main character. These samples of writing have been circles, interlocking in patterns. It looks pretty cool. I assume the people who put it in – would that be set dressing, I wonder? – have some sort of system to make it more than just random circles. At least I hope so. I think I recall someone saying in a DVD commentary that there was one. Of course, if there is one, we the viewers don’t know what it is, because it hasn’t been released. This is where we descend one level deeper – not just Doctor Whoand fictional writing systems, we enter the realm of rampant fandom and the home-made variety.

Some clever cat of a doctor who fan actually sat down and worked out a usable script of circle patterns. His website seems to be down for the moment, but there’s a pretty good explanation of the script here. Now, it’s not really a script with a particular language in mind, it’s mostly just an elaborate cypher for the Latin alphabet – but good enough to include separate glyphs for digraphs like ng, th, sh and ch, and it drops c, so there’s some movement towards phonetic transcription. Since I am not yet quite at the level below, where you’d actually learn Gallifreyan, a cypher is enough of a toy for me. I love this thing, it looks cool and very Who-y. Here’s the name of this blog:

Gallifreyan circle writing

Like I said, this post is mostly just indulging the geekery. Lookit the pretty pictures! I’ve always had a bit of an interest in constructed languages and the constructed scripts that go with them – and as a relevant aside, have a look at Omniglot some time – but this is the first one that’s got me sitting there just playing around with making pretty circles.

Gallifreyan circle writing

Go on, have a go transliterating that back into English! It’s not as hard as it looks. And it’s fun!

11 June, 2012

Je Ne Parle Pas Français

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I don’t speak French.

That’s not really a remarkable fact in and of itself; there are actually a great number of languages I do not speak a word of, but French is the one that eats at me.

It’s not that I have a great interest in French, or indeed France, either. I have no particular plans or desires to visit France or travel in the Francophone world. One summer, I was given the opportunity to go either to Paris or Fredrikstad. I chose the latter. I have no special fascination with French culture, no interest in its literature so great that I cannot read translation, no love for its film so great that I cannot read subtitles. I do own a CD entitled “The Best of Bizet”, but I don’t think learning the language would have any real impact on my enjoyment of the music.

No, the reason why not speaking French eats at me is the  fact that I spent several hours, every week, for three years, in a class that aimed to teach me French.

Now, there were plenty of subjects in school I didn’t particularly care for, and several in which I was no good, but I think I still walked away from those with something. I can calculate the area of a circle, and probably solve an equation or two given enough time and paper to scribble on. I’m aware of the general function of tectonic plates. I can set up a monthly budget in a spreadsheet, and I could make a very basic database in Microsoft Access 2000, if I should ever see a copy of that again. I know how to light a butane burner, and I know the rules of dodgeball, but I do not speak French.

The thing is, I like language. I think linguistics is super interesting. I feel like I should have had something to show for it all at the end of those three years in secondary school, but nope! I can muddle through the title of this post, but that’s about it. I keep thinking that one day – one day! – I will find the time to go through those language courses they have in the library, or find some awesome online course, and really dig up all the knowledge that never really took back in school and learn the damn thing. It doesn’t happen of course – even when I do have free time, this goes way down the list of priorities.

Enter the thing I actually wanted to talk about in this post: Duolingo. Duolingo is one of these newfangled Internet crowdsourcing services, which aims to teach you a language while simultaneously using you to translate various web pages. You gradually get given more complex words and sentences, and the idea is that as you grow in proficiency, you can help translate more tricky stuff.

I read about this thing when they announced who knows how long ago, and though it sounded like a neat idea. I signed up for their mailing list, and promptly forgot the whole thing until a beta invitation landed in my inbox a few days ago. Over the weekend, I’ve been playing around a bit with their French module, and want to jot down some thoughts.

One the plus, I absolutely see how this might be useful – taking the language in small daily doses, and building up a slow rise in competence. I have, in fact, dug up some of those things I learned in school, enough to make heads and tails of the sentences and basic verbs, and have managed to advance to level four. I don’t know if that’s four out of ten (unlikely) or four out of ten million (also somewhat unlikely), but I am at level four.

And that’s the part of Duolingo I’m sort of sceptical about: the points advancement system. See, every lesson you complete or sentence you translate wins you points. When you have enough points, you advance a level.  There’s even a big medal hanging around the neck of my default profile picture whenever I log in, proudly proclaiming my prowess as a level four Frenchie.

I don’t feel like a level four Frenchie. I still don’t speak French. I can make it thought some of the sentences that keep getting repeated in these lessons (L’homme boit du bière et la femme boit l’eau, because stereotypes fuel early learning or something, I guess), but that doesn’t mean I’ve actually learned much. There’s no real explanation for verb conjugation so far, for instance – and if there’s one thing I remember from French class in school, it’s the endless word document of verb conjugations I had amassed by the end – so I feel like I’m perpetually one step behind what I’m being asked to translate. Like an important step has been skipped. Why should I get points for that?

More insidious still, I think the points and levels could easily foster a false sense of accomplishment. It promotes a train of though where you graduate from one thing and move on to another – “I have mastered this word, now I need not look at it or think of it again!” I won the trophy, now I need not expend further effort on the task. Language doesn’t work like that, it’s not a continually growing pool of points you amass, it’s a thing you practice regularly to maintain, or let atrophy into nothing. Like a muscle. This is Fitocracy all over again.

I’ll probably keep going with these lessons a while longer. It’d be mad to give up after three days, and the core idea is still a neat one. Maybe it’ll even help, after a month or two. Maybe I’ll even have to eat my words about the points system.

But I’ll only do that if I can do it in French.

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