Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘language’

24 NOVEMBER, 2014

Lost in Translation: An Illustrated Catalog of Beautiful Untranslatable Words from Around the World

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The euphoria experienced as you begin to fall in love, the pile of books bought but unread, the coffee “threefill,” and other lyrical linguistic delights.

“Words belong to each other,” Virginia Woolf said in the only surviving recording of her voice, a magnificent meditation on the beauty of language. But what happens when words are kept apart by too much unbridgeable otherness? “Barring downright deceivers, mild imbeciles and impotent poets, there exist, roughly speaking, three types of translators,” Vladimir Nabokov opened his strongly worded opinion on translation. Indeed, this immeasurably complex yet vastly underappreciated art of multilingual gymnastics, which helps words belong to each other and can reveal volumes about the human condition, is often best illuminated through the negative space around it — those foreign words so rich and layered in meaning that the English language, despite its own unusual vocabulary, renders them practically untranslatable.

Such beautifully elusive words is what writer and illustrator Ella Frances Sanders, a self-described “intentional” global nomad, explores in Lost in Translation: An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World (public library | IndieBound), published shortly before Sanders turned twenty-one.

Norwegian, noun

Japanese, noun

From the Japanese for leaving a book unread after buying it to the Swedish for the road-like reflection of the moon over the ocean to the Italian for being moved to tears by a story to the Welsh for a sarcastic smile, the words Sanders illustrates dance along the entire spectrum of human experience, gently reminding us that language is what made us human.

Arabic, noun

Norwegian, noun

Japanese, noun

In addition to the charming illustrations and sheer linguistic delight, the project is also a subtle antidote to our age of rapid communication that flattens nuanced emotional expression into textual shorthand and tyrannical clichés. These words, instead, represent not only curiosities of the global lexicon but also a rich array of sentiments, emotions, moods, and cultural priorities from a diverse range of heritage.

Yiddish, noun

Hindi, noun

These words invariably prompt you to wonder, for instance, whether a culture lacking a word for the sunlight that filters through the leaves of the trees is also one lacking the ennobling capacity for such quality of presence, for the attentive and appreciative stillness this very act requires. Our words bespeak our priorities.

Japanese, noun

Sanders writes in the introduction:

The words in this book may be answers to questions you didn’t know to ask, and perhaps some you did. They might pinpoint emotions and experiences that seemed elusive or indescribable, or they may cause you to remember a person you’d forgotten. If you take something away from this book … let it be the realization or affirmation that you are human, that you are fundamentally, intrinsically bound to every single person on the planet with language and feelings.

Swedish, verb

Portuguese, noun

Tagalog, noun

Italian, verb

Yiddish, noun

Swedish, noun

Complement Lost in Translation with Orin Hargraves on how to upgrade our uses and abolish our abuses of language, then treat yourself to this illustrated dictionary of unusual English words.

Illustrations courtesy of Ella Frances Sanders

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06 NOVEMBER, 2014

The Language of Lying: Animated Primer on How to Detect Deception

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The four most reliable telltale signs of the 10 to 200 lies we tell and are told each day.

Our yearning to discern deception so that we can protect ourselves from abuse, is ancient and almost primal — a marketable commodity for mystics and media manipulators alike. In one of the best explorations of the subject, Sam Harris defined lying as “both a failure of understanding and an unwillingness to be understood.” Susan Sontag wrote in her diary that “ordinary language is an accretion of lies.” But language itself, it turns out, is a remarkable lie-detector — the closest we can get to peering into another’s mind to understand motive and recognize deception.

From Noah Zandan and TED Ed comes this revelatory short animation on how to spot a liar, using communications science and linguistic text analysis to explore the four most common patterns in the subconscious language of deception.

  1. Liars reference themselves less when making deceptive statements. They write or talk more about others, often using the third person to distance and disassociate themselves from their life.
  2. Liars tend to be more negative because, on a subconscious level, they feel guilty about lying.
  3. Liars typically explain events in simple terms, since our brains struggle to build a complex lie. Judgment and evaluation are complex things for our brains to compute.
  4. Even though liars keep descriptions simple, they tend to use longer and more convoluted sentence structure, inserting unnecessary words and irrelevant but factual-sounding details in order to pad the lie.

Much of Zandan’s narrative calls to mind the work of Pamela Meyer, author of Liespotting: Proven Techniques to Detect Deception (public library), which examines truth-telling and its opposite through the trifecta of facial expression decoding, interrogation training, and behavioral psychology research. In her own 2011 TED talk, Meyer dives deeper into the tell-tale signs of lying:

On a given day, studies show that you may be lied to anywhere from 10 to 200 times.

[…]

Lying is complex. It’s woven into the fabric of our daily and our business lives. We’re deeply ambivalent about the truth. We parse it out on an as-needed basis, sometimes for very good reasons, other times just because we don’t understand the gaps in our lives… We’re against lying, but we’re covertly for it in ways that our society has sanctioned for centuries and centuries and centuries. It’s as old as breathing. It’s part of our culture, it’s part of our history. Think Dante, Shakespeare, the Bible, News of the World.

[…]

When you combine the science of recognizing deception with the art of looking, listening, you exempt yourself from collaborating in a lie. You start up that path of being just a little bit more explicit, because you signal to everyone around you, you say, “Hey, my world, our world, it’s going to be an honest one. My world is going to be one where truth is strengthened and falsehood is recognized and marginalized.” And when you do that, the ground around you starts to shift just a little bit.

In Liespotting, Meyer goes on to explore the evolutionary value of lying, the single most telling facial expression during deception, and the five-step method that most reliably flags lies in interviews, dates, negotiations, and various other interpersonal exchanges. Couple it with Sam Harris on lying then, for a complementary counterpoint, see David DeSteno’s remarkable work on the psychology of trust.

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23 OCTOBER, 2014

Once Upon an Alphabet: Oliver Jeffers’s Imaginative Illustrated Stories for the Letters

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A warm and wonderful celebration of the paradoxes and perplexities that make us human.

In the 1990s, three decades after the debut of his now-iconic grim alphabet book, the great Edward Gorey reimagined the letters in a series of 26-word cryptic stories. Now comes a worthy modern counterpart by one of the most original and imaginative children’s book storytellers and artists of our time: Once Upon an Alphabet: Short Stories for All the Letters (public library | IndieBound) by Oliver Jeffers — an unusual and utterly wonderful tour of the familiar letters that takes a whimsical detour via quirky, lyrical, delightfully alliterative tales for each, and makes a fine addition to the canon of offbeat alphabet books.

Jeffers’s art is subtle yet immeasurably expressive. His stories brim with the fallible and heartening humanity that makes up our vastly imperfect but mostly noble selves — our paradoxes (A is for “astronaut,” and Edmund the astronaut is afraid of heights), the silly stubbornnesses (B is for “burning a bridge” and we meet neighbors Bernard and Bob, who have spent years “battling each other for reasons neither could remember”), the playful flights of curiosity (E is for “enigma,” like the question of how many elephants can fit inside an envelope), the existential perplexities (in P, a “puzzled parsnip” spirals into anguish over realizing that he is neither a carrot nor a potato), the self-defeating control tactics we employ in attempting to assuage our fear of impermanence (the robots in R are so terrified of rusting that they steal the rainclouds from the sky and lug them around in carts).

There are touches of loveliness and thoughtfulness: The budding scientist (M is for “made of matter”) is a little girl and the manly lumberjack (L) lucubrates by lamplight, reading a copy of Once Upon an Alphabet.

There are also charming winks at continuity: The nun in N flips the enigma from E and posits that “nearly nine thousand” envelopes can fit inside an elephant; the fearless owl and octopus duo in O, who roam the ocean searching for problems to solve, come to the rescue when a regular cucumber plunges into the ocean in S (for “sink or swim”) because he “watched a program about sea cucumbers and thought it might be a better life for him,” only to realize he didn’t know how to swim; when Xavier in X wakes up one morning and is devastated to find out that his prized X-ray spectacles have been stolen, he rings the owl and the octopus for help.

There is, too, a sprinkle of Goreyesque darkness alongside the delight, speaking to Maurice Sendak’s conviction that children shouldn’t be sheltered from the dark: In T, a writer sits in front of his “terrible typewriter,” which has the uncanny ability to make his stories come true, until one day he is eaten by a monster he wrote. (The creature, coincidentally, is reminiscent of Sendak’s Wild Things.) In H, Helen lives in a half house, the other half having been swept into the sea by a hurricane; “being lazy, and not owning a hammer,” she hadn’t quite got around to fixing it yet” — so one day, she rolls out the wrong side of the bed and plummets into the ocean.

Once Upon an Alphabet is immeasurably wonderful in its totality, both sensitive and irreverent, kind and quirky. Complement it with Jeffers’s Stuck, then revisit a few other marvelous alphabet books by Gertrude Stein, Quentin Blake, and Maurice Sendak.

Illustrations courtesy of Oliver Jeffers; photographs my own

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24 SEPTEMBER, 2014

The Edge of the Sky: An Unusual and Poetic Primer on the Universe Written in the 1,000 Most Common Words in the English Language

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“Perhaps the All-There-Is is not all there is.”

“If one cannot state a matter clearly enough so that even an intelligent twelve-year-old can understand it,” pioneering anthropologist Margaret Mead wrote in the 1979 volume Some Personal Views, “one should remain within the cloistered walls of the university and laboratory until one gets a better grasp of one’s subject matter.” Whether or not theoretical cosmologist Roberto Trotta read Mead, he embodies her unambiguous ethos with heartening elegance in The Edge of the Sky: All You Need to Know About the All-There-Is (public library | IndieBound) — an unusual “short story about what we think the All-There-Is is made of, and how it got to be the way it is,” told in the one thousand most common words in the English language. Under such admirable self-imposed restriction — the idea for which was given to Trotta by Randall Munroe, who knows a thing or two about illuminating complexity through simplicity — Trotta composes a poetic primer on the universe by replacing some of the densest terminology of astrophysics with invariably lyrical synonyms constructed from these common English words. The universe becomes the “All-There-Is,” Earth our “Home World,” the planets “Crazy Stars,” our galaxy a “Star-Crowd” — because, really, whoever needs supersymmetric particles when one could simply say “Mirror Drops”?

What emerges is a narrative that explains some of the most complex science in modern astrophysics, told in language that sounds like a translation of ancient storytelling, like the folkloric fables of African mythology, the kinds of tales written before we had the words for phenomena, before we had the understanding that demanded those words. Language, after all, always evolves as a mashup of our most commonly held ideas.

Trotta’s story, which spans from the Big Bang (“Big Flash”) to the invention of the telescope (“Big-Seer”) to the discoveries and unknowns that play out at the Large Hadron Collider (“Big Ring”), also features a thoughtfully equalizing play of gender pronouns, casting both women and men as “student-people” — the protagonist-scientists in the history of cosmology and astrophysics.

The story is peppered with appropriately lyrical illustrations by French artist Antoine Déprez.

DARK MATTER: 'In the time it takes you to blink, the number of dark matter drops that fly through your hand is two times the number of people living today in the city that never sleeps.'

In a particularly poetic chapter on space-time and the quest to grasp the scale of the universe, Trotta, who works at the astrophysics group of Imperial College London and has held research positions at Oxford and the University of Geneva, chronicles Einstein’s most enduring legacy:

Doctor Einstein was to become one of the most important student-people ever. He had a quick brain and he had been thinking carefully about the building blocks of the All-There-Is. To his surprise, he found that light was the key to understanding how far-away things in the sky — Crazy Stars, our Star-Crowd, and perhaps even the White Shadows — appear to us.

[…]

You could not explain this using the normal idea of space and time. Mr. Einstein then said that space and time had to be married and form a new thing that he called space-time. Thanks to space-time, he found that time slows down if you fly almost as fast as light and that your arm appears shorter in the direction you are going.

He then asked himself what would happen if you put some heavy stuff, as heavy as a star, in the middle of space-time. He was the first to understand that matter pulls in space-time and changes the way it looks. In turn, the form of space-time is what moves matter one way or another.

It followed that light from stars and the White Shadows in the sky would also be dragged around by the form of space-time. Understanding space-time meant understanding where exactly and how far away from us things are in the sky.

[…]

Mr. Einstein then began to wonder what would happen if he used his space-time idea for the entire All-There-Is.

LARGE HADRON COLLIDER: 'Near that city, student-people have built a large ring under the ground. It would take you over five hours to walk around that Big Ring.'

But Trotta’s greatest feat is the grace with which he addresses the greatest question of cosmology, the one at the heart of the ancient tension between science and religion — the idea that the universe we have seems like a miraculous accident since, despite an infinity of other possible combinations, it somehow cultivated the exact conditions that make life viable. Science rejects the idea of a grand “Creator” who orchestrated these conditions, and religious traditions are predicated on the terror of admitting to such purely accidental origin — a bind with which humanity still tussles vigorously to this day, yet one Trotta untangles with extraordinary intellectual elegance:

Imagine for a minute the following situation.

You enter a room where you find a table with a large number of small, gray, round pieces on it — of the type that you can use to buy a coffee, or a paper, or to pay for parking. The ones with one head on one side and some other picture on the flip side.

Let’s say that there are four hundred of the gray pieces on the table. And they all show heads.

You would not believe for a second that they were all just thrown on the table and happened to land this way. Although this could happen, it would be a hard thing to accept.

It would be easier to imagine that someone had walked into the room before you and had put them all down like this, heads up, all four hundred of them.

The strange thing about the Dark Push is that it is a bit like the four hundred heads-up gray pieces in the room.

If the Dark Push were only a tiny bit larger than it is, then everything we see around us would be very different.

It is as if changing only one of the heads in the four hundred would make the entire world change.

Change the Dark Push by a little bit, and Star-Crowds could not form; none of the stars we see in the sky would be there; the Sun would not be there; our Home-World would not be there; and life, as we know it, could not be here.

We wouldn’t be here to talk about this in the first place.

So the question is: Who or what put down all four hundred heads exactly this way?

MULTIVERSE THEORY: 'Let’s say that there are four hundred of the gray pieces on the table. And they all show heads.'

Trotta offers an answer through a remarkably succinct explanation of the concept of the multiverse and the notion of parallel universes:

Some student-people came to believe that they could understand this by imagining more rooms. A very large number of rooms.

In each of them, the four hundred gray pieces are all thrown up in the air and flipped. And they land in some way, however they may.

In most of the rooms, some of pieces will land heads, and some won’t.

But if you have enough rooms, in the end you’ll find one room where all of the pieces have landed heads-up. Just like that.

There is no need to imagine anyone setting them up in this way.

It’s only a question of having enough rooms and trying them all.

And so the idea is that perhaps the All-There-Is is not all there is.

Trotta also chronicles the origin of the universe and the mechanics of the Big Bang with elegant simplicity:

The All-There-Is started from a single point, but then grew very, very quickly to become very, very large.

It is almost not possible to picture how fast it grew. Imagine breathing into a colored party ball, so that with every breath the ball becomes ten times bigger than before. If every breath took you an hour, you would have to keep going for over three days to make the ball grow as much as the All-There-Is grew right after the Big Flash. By that time, your party ball would have become much bigger than the White Road, so that one hundred party balls would fill the entire part of the All-There-Is we can see!

We don’t know what made it grow so much, so fast.

THE BIG BANG: 'Nearly every matter drop had a Sister Drop flying around, and when they met, they hugged each other and disappeared in a flash of light.'

He distills what we do know about those first few moments of cosmic import, painting a sensual portrait of the science:

At the beginning, all the matter drops were hot and moved around quickly. Nearly every matter drop had a Sister Drop flying around, and when they met, they hugged each other and disappeared in a flash of light. All the drops would have gone and only light would be left over, if it wasn’t for a strange fact.

Imagine a number of matter drops as large as the number of people who live in the land of Mr. Mao today. Each one of them had a matching Sister Drop, and when they found it, both disappeared.

Except for one.

Everything we see around us today is made of the few matter drops that did not have a Sister Drop and that escaped their death hug. As space continued to grow bigger and bigger, it cooled down. During the next three minutes, when the left-over matter drops met another drop they liked, they kissed each other and stuck together. Most matter drops did not find any other drop to kiss, so they stayed alone. We call them the Single Drops.

Almost all the matter drops that kissed each other ended up as Heavier Drops, made of two pairs of different drops. Very few matter drops stuck together to form even bigger drops than the Heavier Drops.

At the end, there were about ten times as many Single Drops as Heavier Drops. Single Drops and Heavier Drops are the same kind of drops that today make up most of the Sun.

Also, a whole lot of much lighter Very Small Drops were still flying around like crazy.

After three minutes, the All-There-Is had grown too much for matter drops to kiss: they simply could not find each other any more in all that big, empty space! Once matter drops stopped kissing one another, nothing much happened for a long time.

The Edge of the Sky: All You Need to Know About the All-There-Is is one part children’s book for grownups, one part imaginative exercise in economical yet lyrical language, and wholly wonderful. For a counterpoint that might well be written in the one thousand least common words in English but is utterly mind-expanding and at least as delightful, see Alan Lightman’s The Accidental Universe.

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