Relearning how to spell

Lower case a with circumflex
Lower case a with circumflex.
The #JeSuisCirconflexe shitstorm that is currently engulfing France is a reminder of how hard it is to implement an orthographic reform. People who witnessed Denmark’s “mayonnaise war” (when the Danish language academy wanted to change the spelling of mayonnaise to majonæse) or the German spelling reform fights will not be surprised. People who’ve invested many hours in becoming good spellers in order to feel clever and superior simply don’t want any reforms that make them worse at spelling than primary school children.

This is probably the reason why systematic spelling reforms that are really easy to learn often get accepted without too much of a fight. For instance, it’s my impression that the change of “aa” to “å” in Danish in 1948 was implemented without too much pain (albeit slowly because typewriters and typesetters didn’t have access to that letter at first), and the bit of the German spelling reform that changed “ß” to “ss” after a short vowel (but not after a long one) was much less contested than the other changes (such as the change from “radfahren” to “Rad fahren”) that require more of an effort to remember.

I therefore suspect that the French would have been happier with a reform that dropped all the circumflexes rather than the one at hand that removes it in coût and paraître but keeps it in and je croîs (“I grow”). It’s simply too hard to learn the new rules for people who’ve left school already.

What does this mean for the prospects for changing the spelling of the English language? (Let’s just ignore for a moment the fact that there isn’t any language board that could instigate such a reform – it would be relatively easy for the major dictionary publishers of the English-speaking world to get together and create one if there was a demand.)

Some reforms that would seem straightforward in one part of the world are of course impossible because of pronunciation differences. For instance, many Americans use the same vowel in father and hot, but changing the spelling of the former to fother would be a disaster elsewhere. In the same way, people from southern England might want to drop the silent r’s, but of course they’re not silent in Scotland and most of America. Even changes that would be popular in most places would often face steep resistance in small areas – for instance only people from Scotland and Northern Ireland would object strongly to changing the spelling of bird and nerd to burd and nurd, but they really wouldn’t be popular here.

A reform that changed those words that go against all the normal rules – e.g., gaugegaige, debtdet, nightnite – would be eminently sensible, but the experience from other languages makes me think it would face enormous resistance, especially if the new spellings were made obligatory rather than just optional variants.

The only type of reform that would stand a chance would probably be wholesale changes of letters or letter groups, such as changing “ph” to “f(f)” or initial “x” to “z”, but to be honest changes like these wouldn’t make English significantly easier to spell, and what’s the point in that case?

A proper English spelling reform would be marvellous, but I doubt it’ll happen during my lifetime.

Hellenic Traders

The four Hellenic Traders books.
The four Hellenic Traders books.
I recently discovered Harry Turtledove’s “Hellenic Traders” series (written under the pseudonym Turteltaub).

The four books follow two cousins from Rhodes who sail around the eastern Mediterranean selling luxury goods between 310 and 307 BC. In the first book (“Over the Wine-Dark Sea”) they sail to Italy with peacocks, in the second one (“The Gryphon’s Skull”) they try to sail to Athens with the skull of a dinosaur but end up getting mixed up in the infighting amongst the Macedonian generals who took over after Alexander the Great instead, in the third one (“The Sacred Land”) they sail east, to Cyprus, Sidon and Jerusalem, and in the last one (“Owls to Athens”) they travel to Athens.

Turtledove’s style is — as usual — very repetitive. The good thing about this is that you really get Ancient Greek culture hammered in with sledgehammers (he has a Ph.D. in Byzantine history and is clearly very knowledgeable about Ancient Greece). After reading the books, you’ll never confuse opson and sitos, you’ll know exactly how much water to mix into the wine depending on the occasion, and you’ll know much more about the sexual mores of Ancient Greece than you ever wanted to know. I’m sure I’ve learnt much more from reading these books than from the obligatory high school course in Greek culture (“oldtidskundskab” in Danish). The bad thing is you get utterly fed up with the same (at first vaguely amusing) lines being repeated ad nauseam; you might have to skip these bits to stay sane unless you have the memory span of a goldfish.

The last book doesn’t feel like the last book of the series. They’re dropping hints about travelling to Alexandria (the capital of Egypt) the following summer, Menedemos’ love life is in a crisis, and according to the history books, the Siege of Rhodes happened just two years later. Did Turtledove really intend to stop after four books, or did his publisher call an end to the series?

PS: The series has been reissued as e-books under Turtledove’s name, but you’ll pay more for these than for second-hand copies of the original hardcovers (linked to above).

Being the god of kitchen plans


I once took a very interesting postgrad course in genetic algorithms (taught by Zbigniew Michalewicz), and since then it’s been a technique I occasionally pull out of my sleeve.

For a number of years I’ve been producing kitchen plans telling all members of the family when they’ve got to cook, set the table, fill the dishwasher and tidy up the kitchen. In my experience, it’s very hard to get kids to do anything if you try to convince them on the day that’s it’s their turn, but if you put up a plan on the fridge, they’ll moan once the day you put it up and will then get on with it.

However, in a family as big as ours, making such a plan is a very difficult problem. For instance, I can’t cook on Mondays, nobody should do anything on their birthday, Marcel is only here during holidays, and nobody should do two things on the same day or the same task two days in a row, etc., etc. To make it even worse, if anybody has skipped a task the month before (or done too much), the new plan should take it into account.

For a long time, I’ve been using an old-fashioned program to generate these plans, and its complexity has grown and grown with time. At the same time, the quality has decreased because it was simply getting too hard for the computer to satisfy all the competing requirements.

I therefore decided to employ genetic algorithms.

I created a world consisting of 27 islands, each with a population of kitchen plans (initially they were all random, but consisting of the right number of tasks for each person). I then let them live their rich and satisfying lives, having sex, producing offspring (sometimes with random mutations), and as a good Darwinist I ensured only the fittest individuals survived to have kids. After 200 generations, I took the fittest plan from each island, put them all on a new island of champions and let them evolve for another 1000 generations. I then took the fittest plan of all time, put it on our fridge, and extinguished the world. Basically I was the God of kitchen plans for ten minutes.

The result is so much better than the old plans, but then this type of problem really lends itself to the genetic approach: It’s very easy to assign a fitness value to a plan (-5 points if I cook on a Monday, -2 points for a repeated task, etc.) — in fact it’s much easier than actually producing a plan — and it’s also easy to figure out how to breed plans (e.g., take all the cooking tasks from one plan and combine it with the other tasks from another one).

That’s basically the basis for successful evolution: If it’s hard to calculate the right answer, but you can rank individuals by fitness and figure out how to let the fit ones have sex, then your solution will evolve over time, and as a bonus, you will be a god for a little while.

Enzo’s rabbit recipe

Two rabbitsLast time we visited my parents in the Tuscan village they’ve retired to, we got invited to dinner by two brothers, Enzo and Franco. Enzo is a trained chef, and he cooked an absolutely perfect meal. Amaia has been raving about his rabbit ever since (she ate half of it), so when I asked her what she wanted to eat on her sixth birthday, it was no surprise that the answer was rabbit.

I therefore sent my dad down to their house to beg Enzo for the recipe, and I thought I’d share it with the world. It’s a wonderful dish — the rabbit is moist and tender.

  1. Chuck a lot of rosemary, sage and wild fennel (don’t substitute normal fennel if you don’t have any — just leave it out), nutmeg, garlic, olive oil, salt and chilli enter to blender and process to obtain a thin paste. (Enzo used black pepper instead of chilli, put the whole garlic cloves into the rabbit instead of adding them at this stage, and I don’t think he used a blender.) I also added a bit of lemon juice after tasting it, but the recipe didn’t call for it.
  2. Rub the rabbits (I used two for eight people) inside and out with this paste. Put the rabbit livers and one or two thick slices of pancetta into each rabbit and tie them shut with some string.
  3. Put them into an oven at 180ºC. After half an hour, pour over enough white wine to cover the bottom.
  4. Cook them for another 60 to 90 minutes (depending on size), turning them over a couple of times.

Norwegian language lessons for Scots

Norway is in some regards at least 150 years ahead of Scotland: Until the mid-19th century Norwegians wrote standard Danish, although they spoke Norwegian dialects or at the very least Danish with a strong Norwegian accent; however, for political reasons they decided to recreate a language of their own (they ended up with two separate written languages for good measure, but that’s a different story). In Scotland, there is still no standard way to write Scots, and many people have negative feelings towards the language.

Here I’ll discuss two lessons Scots language standardisers can learn from Norwegian.

Speak yer dialeck, write staundart Scots!

"Speak dialect – write Nynorsk".
“Speak dialect – write Nynorsk”.
I sense that many Scots speakers feel that a written standard would be harmful to the Scots dialects.

However, Nynorsk (the form of Norwegian that is closest to the dialects) proves this isn’t the case. For years, a common slogan was “snakk dialekt – skriv nynorsk” (“speak dialect – write Nynorsk”), and my impression is that it’s been very successful. Norwegian television is certainly full of people speaking various dialects, and I’ve seen school books teaching how to understand them.

There’s no reason whatsoever why the Scots language community couldn’t go down the same route. That is, it should be feasible to tell people to write standardised Scots while encouraging them to speak their local dialect.

Main forms and side forms

main forms and side forms
Main forms (lysbiletapparat and ljosbiletapparat) and side forms (lysbildeapparat and ljosbildeapparat).
For many years, Norwegian dictionaries have been full of so-called “main forms” (hovedformer) and “side forms” (sideformer). (The proportion tends to go up and down over time, but that’s not important here.) Both types are correct, but in official contexts (such as in school books) only the main forms can be used.

I think this is a great way to encourage some spellings without discouraging people who aren’t aware of them (for instance because the norm has changed or because their dialect uses a divergent form). Here are some examples of how a Scots dictionary using main and side forms could look:

If a word has two forms that are both considered main forms, they are shown in the same typeface:

daurk or derk adj dark.

This means that everybody has a free choice between writing daurk or derk.

If the word has a main form and a side form with no regional differences (for instance where one word has almost been replaced by the English equivalent), square brackets and a different colour are employed, and a cross-reference is created from the side form to the main one:

Dens [or Danish] adj Danish.
[Danish] see Dens.

This means that nobody would get a red mark for writing Danish instead of Dens (and spell-checkers would allow both), but school books and other official documents would always use Dens.

The same applies where the side form is regional:

bairn [or wean (W)] n child.
[wean (W)] see bairn.

I don’t see any reason why one couldn’t also add disallowed form in a separate typeface as a help for learners, e.g.:

ane num one.

Some word with main, side and disallowed forms would admittedly produce quite a lot of entries, but this shouldn’t be a problem, especially at a time when more and more people use dictionaries in electronic format:

[far (N)] see whaur.
[whair (S)] see whaur.
whaur [or far (N) or whair (S)] adv where.

If we learn these lessons from Norwegian, we can encourage both standard Scots and the Scots dialects while improving literacy in Scots and raising the status of the language.

The death of love in Scots

3191235469_89f59a7129_mA while ago, Anna had to learn My Luve’s like a red, red rose by Rabbie Burns and she asked me for help with the pronunciation, considering me to be the resident Scots language expert.

Most of it was straightforward enough, but what pronunciation did Burns have in mind when he wrote Luve? All you hear today is /lʌv/, but if Burns had intended the same pronunciation as in English, he would surely have written Love instead.

Fortunately the SND has a very helpful etymological note:

[O.Sc. lufe, luff, 1375, love, 1450, O.E. lufu, love, lufian, to love. The reg. development in Sc. through North. Mid.Eng. lōve(n) is [lø:(v), ne.Sc. li:(v). See O, letter.], attested by J. Elphinston Propriety (1787) II. 200 (“u French”), W. Aiton Agric. Ayr. (1811) 688 (“Greek upsilon”), J. A. H. Murray D.S.C.S. (1873) 147 and the spelling lee, but the mod. unrounded forms of these [lɪv, lev] have been wholly replaced by Eng. [lʌv]. The 18th c. spelling with oo adopted by Ramsay and others has misled singers and reciters into the now common pronunciation [lu:], the word having dropped out of colloq. use.]

What this means is that Burns probably pronounced Luve as /le:(v)/ (there’s evidence for the unrounding of /ø/ in his pronunciation in rhymes such as ane /jɪn/ — abuin /əbɪn/, not /əbøn/), but that this pronunciation died out a while ago.

In effect modern Scottish love is thus a borrowing from English, and this has fully replaced the native word.

If anyone wants to revive the auld Scots word (or just wants to pronounce it correctly in older poetry), there’s thus a choice between luiv(e) and lae (not *lui: <ui> is never used word-finally — we write dae and shae, not *dui and *shui in spite of the vowel being the same as the one in puir and shuir), with the expected pronunciations (/le:(v)/ in Central Scots, /li:(v)/ in Northern, /lø:(v)/ in Insular).

I can’t help wondering whether /le:/ died out because it became homophonous with ‘lay’ in the Central dialects, which might for instance have added a potential new meaning to the line And I will luve thee still, my dear.

To conclude, here’s a version of Burns’ poem using modern Scots spellings (of course there’s more than one way to spell Scots, and many people will disagree with some of my choices):

Och ma lae’s like a reid, reid rose,
That’s newlie sprung in Juin:
Och ma lae’s like the melodie,
That’s sweetlie played in tuin.

As fair art thou, ma bonnie lass,
Sae deep in lae am I;
And A will lae thee still, ma dear,
Till aw the seas gang dry.

Till aw the seas gang dry, ma dear,
An the rokes melt wi the sin;
An A will lae thee still, ma dear,
While the saunds o life sall rin.

An fare-thee-weel, ma ainlie lae!
An fare-thee-weel, a while!
An A will come again, ma lae,
Tho ‘t were ten thousen mile!

Self-driving cars

I just discovered that Google have realised some videos that really show how revolutionary their self-driving cars will be. Have a look at the blind gentleman in this one, for instance:

It just demonstrates that the current discussions in many countries (where politicians are still in favour of having a human driver in each car who is legally responsible) are awfully silly. What kind of court would hold a blind man responsible for an injury caused by his car? Also, what if there’s nobody in the car (it might for instance be parking itself)?

It’s interesting that reducing the number of traffic injuries seems to be one of the things that are really motivating Google:

Personally I’m really looking forward to getting a self-driving car. It’ll be great to be able to do useful or fun things instead of watching motorway traffic, and it’ll be wonderful to be able to take the car home from a pub or sending the car up to school to get the kids.

I do wonder how self-driving cars will be furnished after a few years. Will they look like old-fashioned train compartments, where the passengers face each other across a table? Or will they look more like a living room, with comfy couches and a telly in the corner? Or perhaps like a caravan, with convertible beds and other useful things?

Also, will people actually want to own self-driving cars or will they just use them as cheap taxis? That would have the advantage that you could send for very different models depending on your journey, e.g., a tiny office-like car for going to work, a bedroom-like car for going to the 8am meeting in London, or a car full of toys for collecting kids from nursery.

The more I think about it, the more I believe that once self-driving cars become ubiquitous, they will dramatically change the way we live.

Formerly known as the Widmann Blog