Archive for February, 2009

love of languages (Television without pity)

Sunday, February 22nd, 2009

(Did you know I taught myself Welsh? That’s like the Daily Double trivia question of things about me. Consider it your object lesson in how boring Lubbock, Texas actually is. I pick up and lose languages really quickly, if I don’t use them, and dead languages are hard to keep current on so I’m pretty rusty now, but I do remember that the first sentence I put together was “I believe you’re in league with the butcher,” because that’s the always the first sentence you should learn when you learn a new language.)

– Jacob, as in aside in a recap of Dr Who, Television Without Pity

Poems and brains (“The reader became the book”)

Sunday, February 1st, 2009

From Poem of the Week, a beautiful poem for a quiet Sunday:

The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm

The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The reader became the book; and summer night

Was like the conscious being of the book.
The house was quiet and the world was calm.

The words were spoken as if there was no book,
Except that the reader leaned above the page,

Wanted to lean, wanted much to be
The scholar to whom his book is true, to whom

The summer night is like a perfection of thought.
The house was quiet because it had to be.

The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind:
The access of perfection to the page.

And the world was calm. The truth in a calm world,
In which there is no other meaning, itself

Is calm, itself is summer and night, itself
Is the reader leaning late and reading there

– Wallace Shawn

This links in with an article I read today (via Boing Boing) on a brain-imaging study on reading.

…findings demonstrate that reading is by no means a passive exercise. Rather, readers mentally simulate each new situation encountered in a narrative. Details about actions and sensation are captured from the text and integrated with personal knowledge from past experiences. These data are then run through mental simulations using brain regions that closely mirror those involved when people perform, imagine, or observe similar real-world activities…

For example, changes in the objects a character interacted with (e.g., “pulled a light cord”) were associated with increases in a region in the frontal lobes known to be important for controlling grasping motions. Changes in characters’ locations (e.g., “went through the front door into the kitchen”) were associated with increases in regions in the temporal lobes that are selectively activate when people view pictures of spatial scenes.
– Gerry Everding, “Readers build vivid mental simulations of narrative situations, brain scans suggest

It seems obvious that reading activates the imagination, enabling the reader to empathize, to understand and for most people, to form mental pictures of the contents of the book. What is fascinating about this study is the notion that reading doesn’t stimulate imagination as an abstract, separate brain fuction but that in some ways, when reading, the brain behaves as though the events are actually happening, as though the reader was experiencing the actions and feelings themselves. As Shawn said: “The reader became the book”.

Things I saw today (beautiful words)

Sunday, February 1st, 2009

Wordle: words

Book Ninja notes an online dictionary’s list of the 100 most beautiful words. For years I have thought about words I like and don’t like and funny words or just jarring words so I was curious to read it.

There were some I agreed with, or thought sufficiently nice to plump out a list if you had to get to 100. A few I really liked:

11. chiaroscuro: The arrangement of dark and light elements in a picture.
15. cynosure: A focal point of admiration.
30. eschew : To reject or avoid.
48. imbroglio: An altercation or complicated situation.
51. ingenue: A naïve young woman.
54. inure: To jade.
61. lilt: To move musically or lively, to have a lively sou
72. odalisque: A concubine in a harem.
98. seraglio: Housing for a harem.

but there were a few I was really surprised at:

12. cockle: A heart-shaped bivalve or a garden flower.
Cockle is too harsh, too agressive a sound to be beautiful to me. The “k” is sharp, spikey in any word (though I know it is reckoned to be a good word for comedy as it ‘sounds funny’) but with the “coc” sound in front the word and the buzz of the “le” sound at the end it becomes a bit jagged and rough to my ears).

28. epiphany: A sudden revelation.
I like the word ephiphany. The movement from the lower “e” to the higher point of the “pi” noise is perhaps an aural metaphor for ascending and also, questioning (questioning phrases ending on a higher note). With the coming down of the smoother “phany” sound following, it neatly includes question, ascent and continuation. But the transition from the “pi” sound to the “ph”, takes over the word a bit too much for me to find it as roundly flowing as I tend to like. So I’m pro-ephiphany as a word, I just can’t say I find it exactly beautiful to hear.

and 41. fugacioius: Running, escaping.
Really? that’s beautiful? The short dull punch of “fug” with the slippery “acious”? I just don’t hear it.

To be fair I’ll put myself on the line and open myself up for judgement by listing some of words I think are beautiful:


There are words l really like to say but don’t necessarily find beautiful like:

fumble (or rumple – very similar)
flim flam

Honorary mention: “elbow.” I read that the band Elbow (of whom I’m a great fan) chose the name when someone said it was the most sensuous word to say – the way the mouth itself moves when saying it. I’d never have thought it on my own but just say it a few times and see for yourself.

And speaking of “sensuous,” that is one of my sister Krissy’s least favorite words. Over the years we’ve developed a list of words we hate (it often seems to come up with us at seafood restaurants due to the 3rd word). I think I’m forgetting a few but the big ones are:


Now that I’ve been adamant with my Strong Opinions on words, I must admit that the preferences I outlined above are doubtless influenced by my own accent – the way I hear the words in my head. I know, for example, that if I were to say “Glastonbury” it would sound rather nasal and a bit stilted but I know from research for an earlier blog post that I find it to be very warm and rolling when said in the Northern UK accent). A lot of things sound nicer in a Northern UK accent to my ear (along w/ some other UK regional accents). I generally find my own US regional accent rather nasal and flat (though not as much as some other US accents) but I can quite like the accent from a few parts of the US South. I find Italian to be an absolutely gorgeous language, full of curves and flourish and melody.

I love the way Australians say “nice,” “where” and “better” (anything ending in with “er” really). The French accent can make just about anything sound more beautiful (get Coralie to say the word “moron” or “Nascar” sometime and you’ll see what I mean). I like how Brits can say “water” and make it sound so crisp and sharp and how people from where I grew up say “door” as though it has two-syllables.

I hadn’t seen this before but I found Monty Python’s ‘Woody and Tinny Words’ sketch and of course it’s great (the girl reacting to “leap” and “tin” is pretty close to how Krissy can get about the word “fondle” and me about “ointment”. Dinner at seafood restaurants with us are great fun, I can assure you).