Sunday, May 21, 2006

English as the Windows(TM) of languages

It only happened recently, maybe four years ago, that I started liking the language of my adopted country - English. Before that time I spent nearly 20 years in the US hating the language. Well - English is hard to learn, hard to pronounce, has a voluminous dictionary of words borrowed from all over and is full of idiosyncratic usage. Foreigners have trouble with all those elements.

Hard to pronounce - large set of vowel sounds and very specific articulation of many consonants make the phonetics a large part of the learning process. Foreigners have to make an enormous effort to control their speaking habits in order to approximate English sounds reasonably. Americans for that matter have trouble speaking standard English and love retaining their regional (Southern, New York, etc) speaking habits. Additionally, native English speakers have trouble learning other common world languages.

The large volume of adopted vocabulary - I think above 500k of words - is more than twice as large as the standard French dictionary. This is due to voracious adoption of foreign words that are used to designate very specific objects - for example seller, vendor or merchant - are really all synonyms but practice assigns them very specific differing semantics.

This leads to the problem of idiosyncratic usage. Words appearing as synonyms cannot be substituted one for another - they function correctly only in their environment designed by the intractable minds of native speakers. For example: airtime - functions correctly only when referring to mobile phone usage although it could mean a variety of things.

All those factors make English very hard to learn by non-native speakers and really a poor candidate for a lingua franca of the world which it has unfortunately become. There must be something else that propelled this language toward this function. I don't know what but its career is similar to that of Microsoft operating software known as Windows. Programming for that system is also full of inconsistencies and idiosyncrasies and forces one to guess around badly formulated paradigms that fail to express what the system does. Nevertheless that operating system and programming for it has become a dominant aspect of software usage in much of the world. Grappling with semantics filled with specificity and failing to plainly express the logical structure of concepts and operations has now become a fate of all of us.

Of course those who are native English speakers have the upper hand - just like those laptop computers where Windows is already preinstalled and preconfigured. There will be surprises and unpleasant discoveries but having English preinstalled in your head by your mother and your organs of speech pretrained gets you certain commercial advantages - like being an English tutor for those of us where the symbolic system does not run with native smoothness. Additionally a certain aristocratic aura surrounding the native English speaker tends to draw attention away from cultural and intellectual contributions expressed in other languages. It puts the center of the world in the US and British Isles.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Relationship to time

The most important factor in psychological health (=happiness?) of a person is the relationship to time. That is what someone told me in a recent conversation. I always hated the problem of time as pursued by certain Polish writers - and yes by Chekhov too - the most boring of playwrights.

But for some time now I have been thinking about time as the psychological experience of the flow of the future through the present moment which consumes all the possibilities of the future and leaves behind a hardened rock of the past. The present moment is the locus of emotional life. How we handle the flushing of the future into the past determines the basic emotional traits of our character. There seem to be three methods: rational, hedonistic and mystical.
  • In the most common rational way of handling time one makes the future in the form of the past. The past is built up of hardened artifacts of our facts and knowledge which are applied to making a plan for the future, a plan based on the past. If the future is normalized so to speak and made in the image of the past, the flow of time through the present moment is least disturbing. Emotional life of a rational person is calm.
  • Hedonistic life is one that seeks to erase, or at least parenthesize, the future and the past and live in the present. In that situation the present obviously expands and a hedonist is happy at the cost of possibly losing some of the intellectual and spiritual life that comes about from dealing with past and future. The term "hedonism" is used here quite broadly and tries to subsume more than just pleasure seeking. However, just as many a religion exhort us to submit to suffering and learn from it - let us propose that we also can get transfigured by pleasure.
  • Mystical life is where you trust that some spiritual authority pulls in the past and future into the "now". A mystical person hands over his individual life into the management by an authority - such as a monastery or some religious order, or perhaps dedicates himself to a government service. The time line "future-present-past" of a mystical person becomes immersed in the timeline of a larger entity and his/hers whole life appears again as an "eternal now". Again the term "mystical" may not be the best.
Two comments. Firstly, he three methods follow quite logically from the view of the flow of time and are rather unrelated to the much repeated four temperaments. Secondly, mystical and hedonistic methods share their manner of reduction of the experience of time.

As the premise of this post indicates a challenge for modern man is to work out a manner of reconciliation of these methods of dealing with time as we function differently for example in professional day jobs and during evening entertainment.

But here is Miłosz, who really was the one who introduced me to William Blake in his esoteric essay "Land of Ulro" - published in Polish around 1976. The title of the book is truly from Blake whose oeuvre is one great prescient spiritual pursuit rooted in the conflicts of the Enlightenment - the Romantic conflicts - reason versus feeling, determinism versus individual will. Miłosz's poetry always seemed to me quite intellectual, filled with a superiority of a being endowed with understanding and abstract thought looking down on those afflicted with and overtaken by base experience. Miłosz often is present in the world with his mind only - although the underlying intensity of his emotional experience is felt very strongly - it is always subservient to what he considers the higher mental functions.

Interestingly in his "Land of Ulro" Miłosz studies Blake and compares him with Dostoevsky. The four main characters in Blake's divine drama are compared and set in parallel to the four Karamazovs. There is quite likely a relevance here to the topic of the relationship to time into which I will dig in again.

Monday, May 01, 2006

American economic insecurity

It is a commonly accepted view that the American upward mobility and economic opportunity is partly the result of self-reliant attitude of individuals. Such individuals do not look for help or safety of social arrangements but boldly go and carve out a piece of the frontier for themselves. Such is the cursory view of the American ethic. Many of those individuals are characteristically immigrants - more or less unattached to the country where they have arrived.

In the times of the actual frontier there were truly numerous independent entrepreneurs uprooted from the old country that no longer would provide anything for them. In a way these people were emancipated from old dependencies. They were actual risk takers. The success of the few was as usual ransomed by the failure of the many. Rules of the game - one would say - romanticizing the harsh American reality of a chance of success without the safety net.

But that raw social reality is long gone. Everybody wants some social safety net - the citizens and the immigrants. However flimsy that social security net is for the citizens they fight for refusing access to it for immigrants - legal or illegal. The current immigrants are the lower-economic underclass that is somewhat deprived of social services in the host country, but since they maintain ties to the country of origin and families there, send them money - they somehow pay for a social safety structure, unofficial but real, that would protect them in case of failure in the land of opportunity. Perhaps it is even possible that the American land of opportunity is subsidized from abroad - as the immigrant workers can accept low-wage work as a result of protections that are extended to them from foreign societies.

These are thoughts shared by a friend and coworker at the occasion of a collapse of an American startup enterprise where the disgruntled workers asked themselves if their medical insurance is still in force or not. Foreign readers of this blog may not realize that for most American workers their medical insurance is chosen and purchased by their employer. So much for the former great self-reliant risk taker.