Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Q & A

I went to a panel discussion organized by a local church and I was really impressed with most of the questions and answers. Of course there were the usual "problem of pain" questions, but I like to think I really threw the panel for a loop with my "Why can't we just have right and wrong, black and white" question. I like to stir pots. 

I've marked the panel answers (paraphrased, of course) with "A" unless I actually remembered the name of the person answering, in which case it's there. Rachael was there with me and we discussed our own questions and answers on the side.

Q: Why is there evil in the world? Why do bad things happen to good people?
A: Well, this presupposes that there are good people in the world. But since no one is wholly good, then the truth of the matter is, "bad things happen to bad people (which is all people)”. So, no bad things are “undeserved”.
Me: So...Does this mean, “Original Sin” or, "you got cancer because you deserve it"?

Q: So, why DO bad things happen?
A: To teach us to love him - to teach us right from wrong – everything happens for a reason.
Rachael: People keep score, and expect that if we're good, we deserve something good, or that if we get something bad, we must have done something bad.  
Rick: The rain falls on everyone, good or bad.
Me: Try telling a believer OR a nonbeliever that they got cancer so they could learn a valuable lesson. It's insensitive. Original Sin is nicer to our psyches, but I think this is the wrong question altogether. The question should be, how should we respond when bad stuff happens to anyone?

Q: How do I know what to do, what decisions to make? How do I know if I’m following God’s Will?
A: The questioning is actually a part of the process. You can never be completely sure either way, but you will learn what it is important to question and what is a likely answer. Also, in following Christ and becoming like Him, you will also learn to make decisions like Him and increase your own confidence.
Me: "Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, 'This is the way; walk in it.'" Isaiah 30:21. This means, that whatever you do, God’s Will can still envelop you. Mistakes, wrong turns, and missteps are all an acceptable part of God's larger plan.

Q: Is KJV "THE" bible?
A: "Did God really say that?" –One of Satan’s earliest strategies was to question, “What is God’s REAL word on the matter?”  - So the history of the bible is that the scholars did the best with what they had, and though the KJV doesn’t line up 100% with the fragments we’ve found in the years since, it was a great scholarly effort, and it’s not wrong, nor is it the only one that's right.
Me: Don’t forget that the KJV was the first bible that was accessible to and readable by the general public. Putting the Word of God in the hands of the lay people was a crucial moment in history.

Q: Why can't there be just right and wrong in the world? Why all the gray area?
A: Sometimes we don't even KNOW what's right or wrong. Discernment sucks sometimes because it's a process. And a faith-building exercise. Maybe we're not supposed to know what's the perfect response in every eventuality. The idea that there is no right and wrong is a very contemporary one, and not a historical one. In the Post-modern/Post-Christian era, we’ve begun to believe that there are no rights and wrongs as opposed to in the modern period, ending in 1800's.
Me: This is my question. I don’t have an answer. My only solution is to watch The People’s Court, where there is right and wrong for an hour a day.

Q: When is a sin not a sin?  
Rachael: What about doing the wrong thing for the right reasons?
A: Sometimes a white lie is a mercy, but sin is sin and there’s no loophole.
Me: The grace and mercy is the hardest thing to deal with. If something's wrong, it's wrong. It's not fair to me or anyone else to have forgiveness even exist.
Rick: "When is a sin not a sin? When it's forgiven.”

Q: Do Christians have to go to church?
A: Why wouldn't you want to spend time with like-minded people? Board games players play board games together. Hockey players play hockey together & talk hockey with other hockey fans. A major part of Christianity is community. We need other people.
Me: We do need people to mentor us, and challenge us. Not wanting to go to a certain church is sort of understandable, but one shouldn’t dislike the whole Church.
Nate: When you’re coming over to hang out with me at my house, would you say, “Hey, I don’t really like your wife, though, so can you ask her to stay in the back room?” – No. if you like me, you’ll like the person I love and married. Jesus says the same thing about His Bride, the Church.
Me: But sometimes it’s so hard to love the churchgoers!

Q: Could God forgive even the worst sins? Is there a sin that’s unforgivable?
A: Someone who says “my sins are too big to forgive” is revealing more about themselves than about the nature of God. False humility is a sin of the heart just as pride is. Apparently there is one apostasy (unforgivable sin), and that is, truly believing that Jesus can’t forgive your sins. Which is the dark side of the false humility.
Me: Okay, I get that if you don’t believe in Jesus, that you would believe that sin doesn’t exist or that he’s not the person to ask forgiveness from, and therefore you wouldn’t bother to even ask. You can’t ask a favor of someone who doesn’t exist, after all. But if you DO believe in Jesus, and just cannot imagine that he has the power to forgive, I guess that’s the sin?

Q: How can a baby have Original Sin? Why are we born sinful? Why are even babies not innocent?
A: Sin is a hereditary disease (in the genes?) that is passed down from the First generation. (They don’t use the words Original Sin, but the idea is the same.)
Rick: All sin comes from selfishness, Adam & Eve’s, even Satan’s fall originates in selfishness. And, yes, before a child learns to lie or cheat, they feel selfishness, that “I Need” that drives sinful actions.

Q: Christians in the First World have an advantage of having heard about Christianity. But what about the headhunter on Island X who never hears about God or Jesus?
A: Let’s talk about the “many paths” idea, using the elephant analogy: 5 blind guys describing an elephant. One says it’s tall and skinny, one says it’s flat and thin, one says it’s round and strong. They’re all right but they experience different aspects. The problem is that this analogy told from the viewpoint of a person with sight. Sounds good, but not really accurate, and definitely arrogant. Not all religions can be reconciled into one.
A: Now, about the Headhunter: Don’t make God small. Don’t say “God can’t”.  God can do whatever he pleases, and He’s merciful. Maybe he has another plan for the Headhunter.
Me: God, in the Old Testament, would have condemned the nonbelievers who hadn't even heard about the Israelites' god. Whether you know the rules or not, he judges you according to His rules. It doesn’t sound lovey-dovey, and it is not Post-modern, but it may be true, after all.

Q: All the world religions say they are the one. How can we Christians answer that when our friends suggest that Christianity is no better than any other religion for this very reason?
Rachael: It's a logical fallacy that religions are all wrong because they all each say they are the only right one. In fact, not even all religions say they are the only way.
Me: And ultimately, we get our free will. The point is, you get to choose. You have to search your heart to see what you believe. And you can be wrong. But that's your right.

As you can see, every answer begets more questions. I love these types of discussions, and I think people can learn a lot from them. My last question went unasked, but I'd like to leave you with it: 
Q: Is it a theological necessity for Jesus to have been unmarried? How would Christianity be different if he'd had a wife? Of course, if he had children, there would be some interesting things going on with birth-rights (think of any movie where either Jesus or Satan have children or descendants). But why is it crucial for our religion that Jesus remained unmarried?

Wednesday, 4 July 2012


*My husband's name has been changed because he thinks this is all “bunkum”.

My husband, Jerry*, and I have been arguing for some days now about the appropriate pronunciation of the word lure, as in fishing lures and lure the bunny with carrots. He maintains that “lurr” [lɜː(r)] is the correct form, and I am sure that there is a dipthong in there, making it sound like “looer” [l(j)ʊə(r)]. The vowel sounds in each are what makes the difference.

In order to prove my point, I first went to the Source of All Knowledge – the Oxford English Dictionary. OED agrees with me, and supplies the IPA reading you see above. To further prove my point, I consulted the Macmillan dictionary online, Wiktionary, and even the lowly Merriam-Webster. Furthermore, I played audio files from at least three English pronunciation websites to cement my win. (I might be considered a poor winner by these standards; I might be considered a poor winner by any standards.)

Despite the abundance of evidence for my case, Jerry refused to give in. I put the vote to our Facebook friends. Six voted for my pronunciation; none for his. Jerry remained stubborn; he claims he “doesn’t believe in surveys”, especially when they don’t go his way.

One of these Facebook friends even looked it up in her own dictionary and said that lure is pronounced like cure, with the “oo-er” sound in both. That’s when we hit our breakthrough. Jerry considered this the proving point in his argument! He went on to say, over and over, “cure [kjʊə(r)], lure [lɜː(r)], cure [kjʊə(r)], lure [lɜː(r)], cure [kjʊə(r)], lure [lɜː(r)].”

That was when I realized that our argument was invalid. It wasn’t a pronunciation argument; it was a phonological argument. Jerry actually believed that the sounds were identical. So it’s not a problem of speaking, but of listening.

Phonology is the study of how the phonetics of a language are systematized. Along with vocabulary and syntax, every language (even sign language) has a pattern of phonology that dictates where and when certain sounds occur.

To give an example in English, the written words are as follows:

The native speaker knows that by adding the –s to the end of the word indicates pluralization, changing the meaning of the root word. The native speaker also knows how to pronounce the words, [kæts] and [dɒgz]. But look closely at the phonetics of the words. Whereas “cats” ends with an unvoiced alveolar fricative [s], “dogs” ends with a voiced alveolar fricative [z]. 
Why do we voice the fricative on one word and not the other? The answer is: phonology. By using phonological problem-solving techniques, we can come to the conclusion that English speakers voice the plural –s when it follows a voiced sound, and it is unvoiced after following an unvoiced sound. (In dogs and cats, the g and the t are voiced and unvoiced, respectively.) The native speaker knows this intuitively and actually makes no distinction between the two sounds, having been influenced by the spelling that they are the same. Nothing could be further from the truth in a phonetic sense. The sounds are distinct, though they make no difference to the meaning of the words.  

Have a look at the following word list and try to identify the occurrence of the voiced pairs of sounds and the unvoiced pairs of sounds.

Another example of a phonological system is in the following related words:
Breaths [brɛθs]
Breathes [briːðz]

Once again we have the –s­ in the writing of the word, but there is a [s]/[z] discrepancy in the pronunciation. Why, when the words both end in –th? Because there are two ways of pronouncing th. One is unvoiced, the [θ] at the beginning of thanks and throw; and the other is voiced, the [ð] in there and then. Try saying thanks with the voiced sound. It’s odd, and different, even if it still conveys the same meaning. (I have a friend who purposely uses this pronunciation to surprise people.) Well, the phonology of English tells us that whether we use the voiced or unvoiced sound, the meaning of the word remains the same. Not so in all languages, because one may exhibit two words which have differing meanings based on which of these sounds are uttered.

But back to Jerry, and his assertion that “cure” and “lure” sound the same, even though he uses different vowel sounds in each. The orthography of English and his native upbringing have conspired to convince him that his mouth is making the same movements for both. He could not be more wrong. What he doesn’t know about his own mouth movements is what makes phonology fascinating for the linguist. The native speakers have no clue that they are making different sounds, because the brain filters them according to meaning and not by the sound. It brings up a question of the nature of reality: can we trust that our brains are processing the raw sensations correctly? 

Jerry does, though, distinguish between rule and lure. "Rule has an oo-sound," he says, instantaneously confounding my argument in its entirety. 

However, in a sense, Jerry’s original argument is correct. Objectively, he and I are making different sounds with our mouths, but to any listener, we would both be repeating the same word. There is no alternate meaning for “l—r” based on our distinct pronunciations, so we will both still be able to be understood in communication.

In conclusion: tomayto, tomahto. However it's pronounced, it's the same word. He won’t stop saying lurr and I won’t stop hating it. He is also now calling me “Inspector Clouseau”, because he thinks I "sound like a dog with peanut butter on the roof of its mouth".

Friday, 8 July 2011

Musical Pictures

Gobsmacked, adj. : flabbergasted, astounded; speechless or incoherent with amazement.

It’s been four weeks since I posted my musings on the nature of my ‘verbal’ thoughts and lack of ‘pictorial’ memory. In discussing this with a friend of mine, she suggested something that left me utterly gobsmacked. In fact it has taken me this long to come to terms with just a few of the idea’s ramifications.

What I learned was simply that when people listen to music, they see pictures in their heads. Is this true? Are people really going around watching and making up brand-new Fantasias in their heads all the times they listen to music? Consider my mind blown.

The suggestion was made after I had given a fairly in-depth rant about how London’s best orchestras were lost on me. I’d had the good fortune to see some of the finest musicians in London on a school arts trip in 2003, but within the first movement of each concert I would invariably fall asleep.

To paraphrase dear Alice, what is the use of a song, without words or lyrics? Well, now I know that is quite easy to relax and let your mind make up its own stories for the music--that is, if you have a visual imagination. I’ve always thought of songs as having their own colors, but any pictures in my head I find directly relate to the story in the lyrics or the actual music video. I don’t get the Fantasia Channel, I guess. So even when I can appreciate the skill that goes into a performance, I can't keep myself awake without lyrics.

Now this has got me thinking: what does this mean in other areas of my life? Do I see pictures when reading books? Yes. A book tells you exactly what’s happening, and it’s easy to turn that into pictures. But could I do the same with an audio book? No. I have never been able to concentrate on an audio book for more than a few sentences. What about a play—a book without the easy-to-picture narration? Again, yes, I can make pictures out of the scripts of plays. So it seems that there is a visual element to my verbal thoughts. Just as I “see” the words of my thoughts inside my head, I must also “see” the words coming from external sources, if I am to give them pictures and/or concentrate on them. 

Just how different am I from all these pictorial thinkers? And how many of "us" are there?

Sunday, 29 May 2011


This is my brain—on words. 

While I was in middle school, I attended an after-school lecture regarding sex in the media. I would learn why beer and cigarette ads showed copious amounts of female skin. It was the first time that I had heard that axiom, “sex sells”, yet I don’t recall being surprised.

No, I was reeling from a bigger shock: that I was fundamentally unlike my peers.

In order to introduce his topic, the speaker asked the hundred of us to close our eyes and see what happened when he said a word. We closed our eyes, and he said the word “chair”. After a moment’s pause, we opened our eyes again.

“How many people saw the word ‘chair’ spelled out in their mind?” the speaker asked. I raised my hand high. “I see, okay, a few of you. Okay, thanks. Now, how many people saw the picture of a chair in their mind’s eye?”

Ninety-five hands shot into the air.

The speaker went on, connecting this illustration to the way advertising puts images into the mind, selling sex to sell products and yadda, yadda.

But I couldn’t concentrate on that. Until that moment, I’d thought that everyone sees words in their mind. I was shocked by the idea that people see pictures in their mind.

I mean, sure, if you ask me to picture something, I will. But as for the inner monologue, don’t people read it off the inside of their skulls?

My inner monologue, as far back as I can remember, has been like a ticker-tape rolling through my mind. As a youngster, I imagined my words as white letters embossed on black Dymo-style labels. One of my favorite games was to see how many of these tickers I could get going at once. I’d start thinking about something, then I’d start thinking about thinking it, then thinking about thinking about thinking about it, and so on. Little strips of thought would begin to build up, one in front of the other, and they would all keep going as my thoughts became more and more abstracted.

Of course, there was a time before I could read, but I can’t remember what came before—whether I would see images or words or something else in my head while I thought.

So, how many people think in pictures? How many in words? How many people think in pictures of words? What does it say about who we are and how we learn? And, how does this affect our theories of language?

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

The Etymology of 'Woman'

This is by far my favorite story about English. 

Although the majority of English words are loaned, borrowed, or stolen from other languages, woman has no cognates in contemporary or historic foreign languages, making it one of few exclusively English words. The word is derived from wyfman, the combination of wyf [wife] and man. Following is an examination of the word’s history, and a brief glance at its possible future.  

The word wyf is a cognate of several languages, including Old French (OF) and Old Saxon (OS). In the Early Old English (eOE), wyf was used to describe a member of the female gender, unlike our contemporary use of the word, meaning ‘a married woman’ and correlating to husband. “Alduuif” makes an appearance in one of the oldest English texts, the Corpus Glossary, in around the year 725, then “wiifa” we see in 900 and “uif” in 950. By 1175 wife began to be used to denote a married female, and the two meanings coexisted until the late 16th century when a new meaning emerged: that of the marketer or saleswoman. In 1635, we see “Oyster wives, herb wives, tripe wives”, the structure of which we recognize in the words ale-wife and fishwife, with the connotation of a lower class woman. From this point on, the sense of ‘adult human female’ in the word wife is completely replaced by ‘lower class marketer’ and ‘female spouse’.

While the sense of wife was changing, there arose a need for a word to take up the mantle of ‘adult human female’. Meanwhile, there was a need in ME for a word meaning ‘adult human male’. The words were and wapman, meaning ‘male’ and ‘males’ respectively, had become entirely obsolete by the 13th century. The only word left to mean ‘adult human male’ was the word man, which had until then been used irrespective of sex to mean simply, ‘human’. Both problems were temporarily solved by the combination of the words wife and man into wifman, literally meaning ‘female human’. The earliest usage of wifmon occurs by 893, and by 1225 we see wummon appear, indicating the shift in the first vowel sound from wi to wu.

By 1400, the singular woman and plural women were established, and these became the usual spellings. The suffix –en was a common suffix used for pluralization, such as is found in the modern oxen, but also bears a similarity to the suffix –en used for feminization, which survives singularly in the modern word vixen, meaning ‘female fox’. Also, it is interesting to note that although the spelling of the second vowel changes between the singular and plural forms, the pronunciation does not. Instead, it is the first vowel sound that changes, from the singular: wu-, to the plural: wi-. The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that this may be due to the “associative influence of pairs like foot and feet” (“woman, n.” etymology).

The phrases “woe man” and “wee men”, convincing homonyms though they might be, are neither synonyms nor sources for woman or women. They are simply the result of happy coincidence, and have been used as puns, commonly in the Early Modern period. This usage could be humorous or serious. For example, in 1534, Sir Thomas More writes in his A Dialogue of Comforte Against Tribulation, “Man himselfe borne of a woman, is in deede a wo man, that is, ful of wo and miserie” (“woman, n.” 1k).  Richard Flecknoe is quoted in the OED with “Say of Woman worst ye can, What prolongs their woe, but man?” in 1653 (Ibid). These puns are not exclusive to the 16th and 17th centuries, for surely they are made today, but it is interesting to note that they were the most prolific at the time of the English tract-writing controversy known as The Querelle de la Rose. During this time, the virtues and vices of the female gender were being argued, with women writers emerging to argue for the first time on behalf of their own sex. It was surely a time for upsetting the genders’ status quo.

Currently, in the late 20th and early 21st century, we are in the midst of another shift in the ongoing history of the word woman, especially as it relates to man. This shift is due in large part to the growing awareness of feminism, which has its roots in the Querelle. The usage of the word man to indicate humanity is being protested, especially in the compound words such as chairman and policeman, in which the –man is becoming obsolete and is being replaced by –person. Because of the feminist movement and the shift in meaning in man from ‘human’ to ‘male’ growing ever stronger, we are in need of gender-neutral words for mankind. (Human and mankind, for example, both employ the root word man.) We can connect this gap in our language back to the 13th century when, rather than using a new word for ‘male human’ when were became obsolete, we simply added to the established gender-neutral man to create woman, thereby leaving man to indicate maleness by default. A better fix would have been to add something to man to indicate maleness as well as adding wyf to indicate femaleness. However, language is never created by design, but by evolution and adaptation. We may yet see a prefix added to man to indicate maleness, or we may see something entirely new arise to fit the meaning we need.

In addition to protesting the compound words chairman and policeman, some feminists have removed man from the very word woman. ‘Womyn’ is a new alteration of the plural women, replacing –men with the nonce suffix –myn, appearing for the first time in 1975. Currently it is only used by feminist groups, but 100 years from now may be a foundation for menmyn, replacing the etymological wyf with the current man to mean ‘adult male human’, while man reverts back to its original genderless state.  


Works Consulted or Cited

“man, n.1 (and int.)” OED Online. June 2003. Oxford University Press.  31 January 2009 <http://dictionary.oed.com.proxy.lib.sfu.ca/cgi/entry/00300790>
 “wife, n.” The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. OED Online. Oxford University Press. 31 January 2009 <http://dictionary.oed.com.proxy.lib.sfu.ca/cgi/entry/50285384>
 “woman, n.” The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. OED Online. Oxford University Press. 31 January 2009 <http://dictionary.oed.com.proxy.lib.sfu.ca/cgi/entry/50286733>
 “womyn, n.” OED Online. June 2003. Oxford University Press.  31 January 2009 <http://dictionary.oed.com.proxy.lib.sfu.ca/cgi/entry/20010437>

Saturday, 21 May 2011

So, part 2: with verbs or not

I'm so not into adding 'so' to verbs.

The OED online has two more new entries for so as of 2005, in addition to the adjectival intensifier in my last post. In one, the word is used with verbs, and in the other, the word is used with negatives.  I smile to myself to think that both Clueless and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the series) get credit in the OED in the entry for so modifying a verb. “Oh thank you, Josh, I so need lessons from you on how to be cool,” Cher says, “Tell me that part about Kenny G again…?” Interestingly, Friends is not cited in the OED at all under “so”.

The other two citations in the OED for so as a verb modifier make it clear that the usage is merely slang, no more—nothing even resembling standard, formal, real English. Therefore, it should sound strange when we stumble across it in print. Which is exactly what happens:

“Silas shakes his head, and his eyes fill with pain, pity, love; he so wants to be able to tell her that he’s not the Potential.” – Sisters Red by Jackson Pearce, page 301

Although this is a Young Adult novel, the usage seems forced here. In 256 uses of the word “so” in the book, it is never paired with a verb until right at the end.  Call me nitpicky, but it is an abrupt change of style. And there are many other ways of intensifying the verb “want” that do not sound so out-of-place. (I’m not sure, but I think an editor’s job is to catch stuff like that.)

Tagliamonte’s description of so with a negative is “Gen-X so”, and quite apt. Examples include “That’s so not cool,” or “That’s so not what I meant.” If memory serves, Friends was quite the proponent of this so. But wait—the data says otherwise. Tagliamonte noted only six times in the entire series that this type of so was used. I’m so surprised! As a Gen-X hanger-on, I’m so guilty of using this term to excess. But I would so never write like that! 

Works Cited
Pearce, Jackson. Sisters Red. New York: Hachette Book Group, 2010.

so, adv. and conj. Oxford English Dictionary, Second edition, 1989; online version March 2011. <http://www.oed.com.proxy.lib.sfu.ca/Entry/183635>; accessed 19 May 2011.

 Tagliamonte, Sali A. and Chris Roberts. "So weird; so cool; so innovative: The use of intensifiers in the television series Friends." American Speech 80.3 (n.d.): 280-300.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

So, part 1: with adjectives

I miss Friends so much; it was so funny and so true.

While reading an interesting journal article about adjectival intensifiers in the TV show Friends by Sali Tagliamonte and Chris Roberts, I learned two things: one, I would be totally willing to work as a linguistic researcher and/or data compiler; and two, Friends is not to be blamed for the usage of the word ‘so’ as adjectival intensifier. It’s only to blame for making some of us aware of it.

Tagliamonte and Roberts went straight to the source for the history of the word so, the OED 2nd Edition. Their reading of the entry is that so, used as an intensifier, dates back to Beowulf; however, the OED online only admits so specifically as an intensifier as early as 1923. Either case pre-dates Friends definitively. Tagliamonte and Roberts’ claims are that intensifier use is based on trend and popularity (like slang, unlike other parts of speech) and that, even in Friends, the word follows strict usage rules for intensifiers coming into popularity.

Apparently, there are rules about how intensifiers act when they are coming into or going out of popularity. The process is called “delexicalization” and follows these stages of broadening usage:
  1. Lexical word 
  2. Used for occasional emphasis 
  3. Used more frequently 
  4. Used with wider and wider range of words. 
Meanwhile, the original meaning of the word is gradually lost. (Psst, quick, define “very”!)

In the Friends data, the word first only applies with certain other words, as in “so dated” or “so old” but all other adjectives go with the other intensifiers such as really or very. Later in the series and in real life, the word is applied with more diverse adjectives. Another “rule” is that females tend to use new intensifiers more than males, and again, the Friends data are in line with this theory.

But Friends ended in the spring of 2004. In the seven years since, how has the word been used? Is it still on the rise? Has it yet settled into the vernacular? “Intensifier use has long been associated with colloquial and nonstandard usage”, writes Tagliamonte. So we wouldn’t see the usage of so as intensifier from a major publications such as newspapers or literature… would we? 

I want to make it clear that I'm mostly summarizing and commenting on the journal article, the full citation of which follows: 
Tagliamonte, Sali A. and Chris Roberts. "So weird; so cool; so innovative: The use of intensifiers in the television series Friends." American Speech 80.3 (n.d.): 280-300.