February 27, 2009

Oldest English words Identified


Some of the oldest words in English have been identified, scientists say. Reading University researchers claim "I", "we", "two" and "three" are among the most ancient, dating back tens of thousands of years.

Their computer model analyses the rate of change of words in English and the languages that share a common heritage. The team says it can predict which words are likely to become extinct - citing "squeeze", "guts", "stick" and "bad" as probable first casualties.

"We use a computer to fit a range of models that tell us how rapidly these words evolve," said Mark Pagel, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Reading. "We fit a wide range, so there's a lot of computation involved; and that range then brackets what the true answer is and we can estimate the rates at which these things are replaced through time." Sound and concept Across the Indo-European languages - which include most of the languages spoken from Europe to the Asian subcontinent - the vocal sound made to express a given concept can be similar. New words for a concept can arise in a given language, utilising different sounds, in turn giving a clue to a word's relative age in the language.

At the root of the Reading University effort is a lexicon of 200 words that is not specific to culture or technology, and is therefore likely to represent concepts that have not changed across nations or millennia.

"We have lists of words that linguists have produced for us that tell us if two words in related languages actually derive from a common ancestral word," said Professor Pagel. When we speak to each other we're playing this massive game of Chinese whispers Mark Pagel, University of Reading "We have descriptions of the ways we think words change and their ability to change into other words, and those descriptions can be turned into a mathematical language," he added.

The researchers used the university's IBM supercomputer to track the known relations between words, in order to develop estimates of how long ago a given ancestral word diverged in two different languages. They have integrated that into an algorithm that will produce a list of words relevant to a given date.

"You type in a date in the past or in the future and it will give you a list of words that would have changed going back in time or will change going into the future," Professor Pagel told BBC News. "From that list you can derive a phrasebook of words you could use if you tried to show up and talk to, for example, William the Conqueror."

That is, the model provides a list of words that are unlikely to have changed from their common ancestral root by the time of William the Conqueror. Words that have not diverged since then would comprise similar sounds to their modern descendants, whose meanings would therefore probably be recognisable on sound alone. However, the model cannot offer a guess as to what the ancestral words were. It can only estimate the likelihood that the sound from a modern English word might make some sense if called out during the Battle of Hastings. Dirty business.

What the researchers found was that the frequency with which a word is used relates to how slowly it changes through time, so that the most common words tend to be the oldest ones. For example, the words "I" and "who" are among the oldest, along with the words "two", "three", and "five". The word "one" is only slightly younger.

William the Conqueror (Getty) Time-travellers would find a few sounds familiar in William's words The word "four" experienced a linguistic evolutionary leap that makes it significantly younger in English and different from other Indo-European languages. Meanwhile, the fastest-changing words are projected to die out and be replaced by other words much sooner.

For example, "dirty" is a rapidly changing word; currently there are 46 different ways of saying it in the Indo-European languages, all words that are unrelated to each other. As a result, it is likely to die out soon in English, along with "stick" and "guts". Verbs also tend to change quite quickly, so "push", "turn", "wipe" and "stab" appear to be heading for the lexicographer's chopping block.

Again, the model cannot predict what words may change to; those linguistic changes are according to Professor Pagel "anybody's guess".

High fidelity "We think some of these words are as ancient as 40,000 years old. The sound used to make those words would have been used by all speakers of the Indo-European languages throughout history," Professor Pagel said. "Here's a sound that has been connected to a meaning - and it's a mostly arbitrary connection - yet that sound has persisted for those tens of thousands of years."

The work casts an interesting light on the connection between concepts and language in the human brain, and provides an insight into the evolution of a dynamic set of words. "If you've ever played 'Chinese whispers', what comes out the end is usually gibberish, and more or less when we speak to each other we're playing this massive game of Chinese whispers. Yet our language can somehow retain its fidelity.

BBC NEWS | Science & Environment | 'Oldest English words' identified

February 21, 2009

Positive Feedback

There seems to have been some positive feedback from the radio show last week. I got a text from Kath in the week to tell me the manager of Saint FM gave a ‘fantastic report’. I think he was also talking about the 2 extra ad hoc hours we did. A couple of the other DJ’s also gave positive feedback. It’ll be interesting to hear the CD recording.

I’ve yet to see Kath to talk to her about it some more and find out what has been said. I’m still seriously considering doing my own show if there’s room on the airwaves. At the very least I’d like to help Kath with her own show again.

February 17, 2009

Radio Debut

Today I was on local radio. Saint FM to be precise. Broadcasting to the Maldon and Dengie area from St. Peter’s School in Burnham.

Kath persuaded me to go on her show, “The Universal Therapy Show”, after I’d talked to her about my re-union with my Aunt and Uncle and Cousin. She thought there would be an interested audience out there so I obliged.

Much of what I’ve written about here was talked about; finding and meeting Uncle Fred and Auntie Joan, what impact that seems to have had on me and relationships in general, researching family trees. I felt relaxed and thoroughly enjoyed myself.

It got to the end of the hour and the 2 people who were supposed to take over the next show didn’t arrive. Kath asked me if I was alright to hang around while she took the show, I said yes.

We bantered and bounced off each other and I found horoscopes on the internet and read them out and got the hang of the sliders and buttons that control the microphone and the music.

By the time we finished I felt I really could do my own show.

Saint FM is an independent community radio station licensed by Ofcom, governed by a board of directors and based at St. Peter's High School in Burnham-on-Crouch, Essex.

Burning Bridges

“We cross our bridges when we come to them and burn them behind us, with nothing to show for our progress except a memory of the smell of smoke, and a presumption that once our eyes watered.”

-- Tom Stoppard --

February 16, 2009

A Question of Attraction

What is about some people that causes an excitement, an instant attraction?

A man came to the office today to drop in a quote for some work for us and I went down to answer the door. He was tall, roughly my age, rugged with slightly pock-marked skin, and fairly good looking. If I’d passed him in the street I might not have thought much about him. But it was his manner that instantly attracted me the minute he started talking.

He stood close, reached out and touched my shoulder in an inclusive manner, smiled a lot, asked my name, smelt of a nice aftershave (which was at odds with his jeans and Hi-Viz jacket).

I wanted to stand closer to him when I felt that tingle go through my stomach and my arms and legs. Of course, he may have just wanted to endear himself to me, and in turn to the organisation, because he hoped to do the work he was quoting for. He would have known he was in competition with at least 2 others.

But I felt more than that. I wanted to ask him more about himself. I wanted to ask him to stay longer. I wanted to call him back and ask him about his terrier that was perched on the dashboard of his van. I wanted to say I was an animal lover too. I didn’t want him to go.

It all seems unreasonable now but the memory has lingered in my mind and in my gut – that hot rush you get when you are attracted to someone. It’s that feeling that has lingered all day.

He may not even remember me now. He may not have taken much notice of me when he stood there talking to me. I may never know.

It’s not something I’ve felt often and it was unexpected. The thing I’m curious about is what causes it? What made me feel that when he may well not have done?

February 14, 2009

Short Trousers

I just heard on QI this evening that to save cloth in the second world war turnups on trousers were banned and boys had to wear shorts until the age of 12. This idea obviously carried on beyond the war as I can remember (like all other boys) having to wear shorts until I went to secondary school. And I was born in 1954! It seemed quite grown up to eventually move on to wearing long trousers. I don’t remember when turnups came back into being though.

February 11, 2009

Look Well To This Day For It Is Life

I seem to be reading books I need lately. I seem to be choosing books I need. Books about love, life and how to move forward. How life springs from death but more importantly how life springs from allowing yourself to mourn death … the death of loved ones and the things you love. It can only be through mourning these things that you can truly allow yourself to live.

Mourning/Morning = a beginning which comes about through an end. How odd that two words that seem so far apart can have similar meaning to me now.

There will be moments throughout the rest of my life which I will long to tell my parents about – when I will have to love them and leave them over and over again (acknowledgement to Julia Gregson – ‘East of the Sun’). I’ve felt those moments throughout my life but chose to block them out as they got too painful. The pain is many things; the love I had, the love I never thought I had, the love I lost, the love I chose to throw away. I never allowed myself to really mourn those losses and move on. It would have meant feeling a sense of belonging and loss in a world I was determined to live in on my own. But I’m coming to realise that the desolation of living on my own is more painful than the desolation of losing someone close to me and acknowledging it.

How can I move on if I don’t acknowledge that lost love? And is it really ever lost? I carry it with me in many ways. It seems now that to carry it forward with me is to allow myself to love and live.

I thought it strange that when I finally got the pictures of my father that I had longed for that I missed him more than ever. 35 years later! Perhaps it’s not so strange after all. Looking at the photographs was like facing up to him and facing up to the loss of him. I can see in the pictures of him holding me, without a shadow of a doubt, that he loved me. I can see that my mother loved me too. It’s written in their faces. After all these years of wondering, now I know. With the pain comes comfort and I hope it is the comfort that will ease the pain.

East of the Sun made me weep uncontrollably towards the end because it touched so brightly on something that flared inside me.

Look well to this Day
For it is Life...
the very Best of Life!
In its brief course lie all
the Realities and Truths of Existence
the Joy of Growth!
the Splendour of Action!
the Glory of Power!

For Yesterday is but a memory
and Tomorrow is only a vision
but Today if lived well makes
every yesterday a Memory of Happiness
and every tomorrow a Vision of Hope
Look well therefore to this day.

(Ancient Sanskrit Poem)

February 08, 2009

Time for Contemplation

I thought it had been a lot longer since I last wrote anything here. I was surprised to find it was only early January. The times I’ve sat down to write and then closed the page without writing anything. It’s like wanting to approach something and then shying away from it when I get too close.

The meaning of life I’ve been looking for has been becoming more apparent lately but also becomes more elusive the closer I get to it. I can only liken it to chasing a kite that has caught the wind and I’m running after it, grasping at the tail.

The revelations of finding family and finding a sense of belonging have started to cement some of my identity for me. I feel like I know who I am and where I came from more than I ever did before. But there are still unanswered questions that I think only I can answer now.

Trawling the internet today I came across the blog of Alistair Appleton; a TV presenter, Buddhist and therapist.

This page in particular struck a chord with me http://alistairappleton.com/blog/?p=609 and I would like to quote excerpts from it. It describes in a way that I would find difficult to put into words what I identify with almost absolutely:

For me, aged 6, I made a decision to deal with the singular fact of my sexuality. Knowing that I was gay and my desire was contrary to everyone else around me, I made a decision that I would have to survive in the world on my own ….. always alone, always under threat, and only the most extreme fearful self-consciousness will protect him …… that paranoid thought (”It’s me, alone, against the world, for ever”) ran like a scarlet thread through my entire life, colouring every stage of my teenage, adult years. Obviously, at some point, I let go of it as a literal belief but - because it remained unconscious and unquestioned - that sense of fear and distrust and that extreme, paralysing self-consciousness became the fundamental building block of my personality. It totally pre-programmed my relationships to failure, of course

I couldn’t have said this before I read it but I knew instantly that it was me!

Sometime way back when, I decided I was on my own in the world. I think fear of being found out and anger – that those closest to me couldn’t see the fear - were mixed up in the decision. I distanced myself from my parents and it adversely affected every other relationship I’ve ever had.

Growing up in the 50’s and 60’s, when homosexuality was not only a taboo subject but also illegal meant I was outside the scope of what I saw as ‘normal’ life. ‘Normal’ being the illusion created by me, and for me, by everyday input and perception.

I had thought I’d come to terms with my sexuality completely. I’ve been quite open about it for years and all my friends and the people who matter to me know about it. They also know it’s never been the defining part of my personality. I’ve always said it’s as much a part of me as having brown hair and hazel eyes and being level-headed and understanding.

I’ve never been a part of the ‘gay’ scene and still don’t want to be. There isn’t a ‘straight’ scene and I don’t see why I should scream to the world that I’m gay when there is no need for the rest of the world to scream they are straight.

It’s only one aspect of me as a whole person but that aspect has kept me lonely and apart from a closeness I crave. It even surprises me sometimes that I have friends who’ve been around for over 20 years! It’s also a very comforting thought in contrast to other relationships that haven’t lasted. But then I can keep my friends at bay to some extent. The question is, ‘Do I need to?

Friendships have often been like being on a piece of elastic for me. I get close and draw back, get close and draw back. I can keep my friends at a distance that a life-partnership can’t be kept at. The solidity of a life-partner is something I’m not used to and have always been guarded against. It’s a bit like being as close to my parents in a way I couldn’t be when I was much younger.

And now I’m running out of steam and need to finish for now. I’ve touched the nerve I never thought I’d touch and it’s a bit raw.

Time now for contemplation ………….