A new word I have

Question: What do Yoda and Gerard Manley-Hopkins have in common?

Answer: The speech of both is characterised by anastrophe.

There’s a fairly good chance that you’re familiar with the Star Wars films and therefore aware that Yoda tends to speak with a non-standard word order (“Help you I can” or “When 900 years old you reach, look as good you will not”).  It is less likely that you knew that anastrophe is the technical term for this.

I was first introduced to this term a few weeks ago when my brother, Wulf, was visiting me and happened to mention it in conversation.  Being a fan both of the small, green Jedi Master and of obscure words, I was delighted to learn this word and resolved to slip it into conversation at the first available opportunity.  Unfortunately I forgot it before I had a chance to do so, but Wulf wrote about the word in his blog the other day.

To save me forgetting it again, I decided I would write about it here (with links both to Wulf’s post and the Wikipedia article on the subject, which you’ll find above).

The term “anastrophe” is  a Greek word (ἀναστροφή in its native alphabet) meaning “a turning back or about”.  As a technical term in English (and a number of other languages which have also borrowed it from Greek, with slightly varying transliterations) it refers to deviations from the usual word order of a given language for the sake of emphasis.

The Wikipedia article remarks that Yoda, as a non-native speaker of English (or rather, Galactic Basic, which is represented by English in the Star Wars films) may have been using non-standard word order by mistake rather than on purpose, so his speech may not technically class as anastrophe.  Interestingly though, he does occasionally use standard word order.  Sometimes it seems to be for special emphasis (e.g. “You must not go!” when warning Luke against going to help his friends in Cloud City before completing his Jedi training), which suggests that it could be a kind of inverted anastrophe. At other times there doesn’t seem to be any special emphasis and one is led to suspect that the scriptwriters were just being inconsistent (or, if the weird word order is due to Yoda’s imperfect grasp of Basic and, presumably, the influence of his first language, perhaps it  is intentional that he sometimes gets it right and sometimes wrong; I’m sure my Welsh is a bit like that!).

The other example of an anastrophe user I mentioned was Gerard Manley Hopkins, a 19th century English poet who, according to Wikipedia, was particularly identified with the use of anastrophe.  He was quite experimental compared to many poets of his time and made several (fairly successful, IMHO) attempts to adapt the Welsh-language poetic techniques of cynghanedd to English verse, which is what especially attracts me to his work.

Here is just one example of a line from Hopkins, taken from The Wreck of the Deutschland (one of his longest and best-known works):

To the shrouds they took,—they shook in the hurling and horrible airs.

This line illustrates both anastrophe – in the rearrangement of “they took to the shrouds” – and cynghanedd-like features — the repetition of the “sh” sound and the “took” – “shook” internal rhyme, and possibly also the alliteration of “hurling” and “horrible”.  It certainly works well, at least within the context of the poem.


Pi Day comes round again

As I said this time last year, and will probably continue to say every year I’m still blogging: “Happy Pi Day”.

This is nothing to do with pies of the edible variety or with the Raspberry Pi, although both will probably be featuring in my celebrations.  Rather, it is a celebration of the mathematical constant, π (or “pi”, for those of you who don’t read Greek or maths), which is the ratio of a circle’s diameter to its circumference.  This is  a universal constant for all circles (at least in this universe!) and its value, despite attempts (apparently) by at least one US state to legislate a change to 4, is approximately 3.14159.  That’s as many digits as I can generally remember without having to look it up, and is sufficiently accurate for most purposes (actually, 3.14 is good enough quite often).   Since π is irrational, its exact value cannot be written as a ratio of integers (aka. a fraction) or a finite decimal.

In case you’re wondering why π is celebrated today, it helps to look at the date in either ISO or US standard format.   In the UK, we’d usually write today’s date in figures as “14/3/2013” – that’s the 14th day of the 3rd month in the year 2013AD (or CE if you prefer).   The US version would be “3/14/2013” and the ISO version “2013-03-14”.  Leaving aside the question of which order is most logical (FWIW, IMHO it’s ISO, closely followed by UK, with US a long way behind), if you drop the year then both the US and ISO versions leave you with “3.14” (using a cunningly chosen neutral separator for the two remaining parts of the date), which should make it obvious why Pi Day is today.  If you’re wondering why we bother to celebrate Pi Day at all, you’re probably not a mathematician. 🙂

As alluded to earlier, I make full use of the homophony between “pi” and “pie” as an excuse to celebrate Pi Day with the eating of pies.  I haven’t yet been to the shops today, so I don’t know what sort of pie I’ll be eating, but it will probably be a pork pie for dinner followed by a rhubarb pie or treacle tart, or something like that, for pudding.  Sadly, I won’t have time to bake my own pies this year, so I’ll have to rely on commercial offerings.  I’m not sure how non-English speakers celebrate Pi Day without conveniently homophonic comestibles in their languages.

As well as eating pie, I usually celebrate pi day by listening to songs about pi (of which I only know one — Pi by Kate Bush) and songs about pie (of which there are many).  I have set up a Spotify playlist of about 40 songs mentioning pie in the title, which I’ve listened to on Pi Day for the last several years.  This year, by way of change, I decided to just listen to songs from my own music collection with pie (or pi) in the title.  There are rather fewer of these (just 8 currently on my computer), including Don McLean’s American Pie, Bob Dylan’s Country Pie, 3 versions of Charles Mingus’ jazz classic Goodbye Pork Pie Hat (one by Mingus himself, one by Swedish sax/flute player Magnus Lindgren and a rather tasty guitar version by John Renbourn), and a cover by my own band, the Rice Hooligan Orchestra, of June Christy’s Shoo Fly Pie, as well as the aforementioned Kate Bush song, which mostly seems to be a recitation of the first few hundred digits of π set to music.

Since last year, of course, I have acquired a Raspberry Pi, so if I get time later today I’ll probably do a bit of tinkering with that as part of my celebrations.  My Pi has been slightly neglected of late, as I’ve been concentrating on other things.  Since my last post on the subject, I’ve picked up a LedBorg, a fairly simple expansion board for the Pi which essentially adds a multicoloured LED operated via the GPIO interface.  I have got this up and running and written a couple of simple scripts for it but my next plan is to rewrite my tea timer script to use the LedBorg instead of a lashup of LEDs and resistors on a breadboard).

Incidentally, I gather that an authentic Greek pronunciation of π would be “pee” rather than “pie” but for the sake of celebrating in homophonic style I’m more than happy to go with the anglicised mispronunciation. 🙂

Practical Cats and Poetic Tempo

The other day I gave myself a treat and reread one of my favourite volumes of poetry: Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by T. S. Eliot.  I can’t remember when I first read this and I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve read it (certainly well into double figures by now) but it always gives me great pleasure to return to it.  As with all good poetry, I think it works best when read aloud so that you can enjoy the sounds of the language.

I would struggle to choose my absolute favourite from among these poems, but there are several I’m particularly fond of.  One of these is “The Old Gumbie Cat”.  I particularly like this one because of the masterful way that Eliot uses a mixture of two different meters to signal changes in pace within the poem.

By day, the Gumbie Cat likes to do nothing more than sit in warm sunny places and the stanzas which describe this (numbers 1, 3 and 5) are written in iambic octameter (i.e. each line has eight feet, each with two syllables and the stress on the second one).  The length of the lines and the even distribution of stressed syllables makes this quite a leisurely meter which well captures the general relaxation of the cat’s lifestyle:

I have a Gumbie cat in mind, her name is Jennyanydots;

Her coat is of the tabby kind, with tiger stripes and leopard spots.

All day she sits upon the stair…

In addition to the meter, the last line of each of these stanzas makes repeated use of the word “sits” to emphasise the laid-back nature  of the Gumbie Cat:

She sits and sits and sits and sits – and that’s what makes a Gumbie Cat.

By contrast, the even numbered stanzas describe the Gumbie Cat’s rather more active night life.  At this point the meter switches to using mostly dactyls (feet with 3 syllables and the stress on the first one):

But when the day’s hustle and bustle is done,

Then the Gumbie Cat’s work is but hardly begun…

In these first two lines from stanza two, the very first syllable of the first line is unstressed as are the first two of the second line (which effectively complete the final dactyl from the previous line).  The combination of shorter lines (roughly twelve syllables instead of 16) and the dactylic stress pattern give a much greater sense of movement which reinforces the description of the Gumbie Cat’s nocturnal busyness.

Incidentally (and possibly the reason why I was particularly sensitive to the meters this time I was reading Old Possum), I was recently trying to get my head round Dactylic Hexameter, the meter used throughout Homer’s poetry (and apparently the most common meter in ancient Greek poetry – possibly due at least in part to the major influence Homer had on later poets).  In ancient Greek verse, the feet determine the length of syllables instead of the stress pattern (long/short rather than stressed/unstressed) but the shape of the feet is essentially the same.  As the name suggests, dactylic hexameter consists of six feet per line.  Most of the feet are dactyls but some are spondees (two syllables, both long / stressed); in particular the final foot is always a spondee.  I cobbled together a line of dactylic hexameter (in English) which demonstrates the meter and describes the feet:

This is a dactyl and this is a spondee; here is another.

Apart from the final foot, which is always a spondee, there is more-or-less complete flexibility about which feet are dactyls and which are spondees, which allows for quite considerable variation of the rhythm within the confines of dactylic hexameter.  I’m not sure whether it’s required to have at least one dactyl in the line or whether a line consisting solely of spondees would be allowed.  So far the most spondees I’ve seen in a single line of Homer is 5 (which happens as early as Iliad 1:3).

Bonne idée in theory

The other day, while I was searching for a completely different Google Chrome extension, I came across an interesting one called Language Immersion for Chrome, which had the intriguing strapline “learn a new language while you browse the web”.

It describes itself as “an experimental extension that aims to simulate the experience of being immersed in a foreign language” and is powered by Google Translate.  It  works by translating certain words and phrases on any webpage into the target language of your choice (any of the 60 or so supported by Google Translate), substituting the translated phrase for the original on the page (it highlights the translated bits so you can spot them more easily) .  For instance, if you had la langue set to French vous pouvez see something comme this.   The context of the surrounding words in a language you can speak (I’m not sure if it only works for pages in English or for other source languages) enables you to grasp the meaning and the repeated exposure helps to cement the word in your head.  I think it is supposed to mimic, to some extent, the way that children naturally acquire language more-or-less by osmosis rather than sitting down to memorise long vocabulary lists.

The tool offers a couple of extra features, which are selectable as options.  One is the ability to click on a highlighted/translated phrase to revert it to the original language, enabling you to check your understanding; this feature is reversible, so you can click again to get the translated version back.  The other facility is the ability to hover over the phrase and hear an audio clip of it being spoken, handy if you want to work on your pronunciation.  Also, the tool enables you to specify your fluency level in the target language (on a sliding scale from “novice” to “fluent”), which alters the proportion of the page to be translated and possibly also the choice of the words translated (though I assume the words are selected pretty much at random and if it can’t find a translation for a particular word or phrase it picks another one nearby and tries again; I doubt it maintains lists of approved phrases to translate for each language and level).

So far that sounds like a pretty useful tool.  Unfortunately there are a couple of reasons why it didn’t work altogether smoothly and why, in consequence, I’ve removed it from my browser at least for now.  It takes a while to load the translations and the audio feature only seems to be available for certain languages and can be quite slow to kick in even with those ones.  There is also, of course, the problem of the inherent inaccuracy of a machine translation in the first place. I  spotted plenty of mistakes when I tried the tool using Welsh (which I speak quite fluently) and French (rusty but passable) so I’m sure there are also lots of mistranslations in the other languages.

To some extent those problems may get alleviated, although probably never solved entirely (especially the machine translation issue) as the software (both the extension and the GT backend) continues to be developed.  However, I don’t know whether I will use it again in any case.  I’m not sure of the pedagogic value of inserting random phrases from another language into a stream of text; it may be quite handy for reviewing and extending vocabulary but doesn’t necessarily offer any great benefits over more traditional tools like flashcards, and it doesn’t show you how to actually use the words idiomatically in the target language.

I think I’m more likely to get benefit from continuing to look at websites in the languages I’m trying to learn (when available – there aren’t that many written in ancient Greek!). Google Translate can be quite a handy tool for checking understanding of specific words and phrases with this approach, especially as there are several browser extensions available that let you select some text and get a translation immediately; however, I generally prefer to try and read to get a general idea of the gist of a passage without getting too bogged down in the details of individual words.  As with the language immersion extension, the surrounding text often helps you to get an understanding of an unfamiliar word, but if the surrounding text is also in the target language that gives you a much better feel of how the word fits in context.

I suppose it may be interesting to start trying to learn a more-or-less completely unfamiliar language (for which trying to read a website entirely in that language may be too much) with the immersion tool and then switch to (or at least supplement with) websites in the target language once I begin to acquire sufficient vocabulary.   This might be helpful as part of an attempt to learn a language but I suspect that it would work better in conjunction with other language-learning tools than trying to use it on its own.

5.30591 Olympic swimming pools

It’s been a while since the last entry in my series on length measurements, so I thought it was about time for another.  Since I’ve been thinking about ancient Greece recently, it seemed appropriate to go for an ancient Greek unit of measure.  However, apart from one of a number of different cubit measures (which I’m planning to write about later), there were no  Greek units amongst the list of measurements that I prepared from the Google maps DMT when I first planned the series. Checking back with the DMT, it seems that this was because there weren’t any to choose from rather than just that I didn’t pick any for my list.

Employing a bit of lateral thinking, the closest I could come up with from my list was the Olympic swimming pool.  I suspect that if swimming featured in the ancient Olympic Games (it’s not mentioned in the Wikipedia article, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it was never contested) they didn’t use a standard size pool.  A swimming pool used for the modern Olympics, though, is supposed to have a standardised length of 50m.  It also has other details (such as width, water temperature, number of lanes and minimum depth) standardised according to the FINA specification, but it is the length (the greater of the two horizontal dimensions) that is used when an Olympic swimming pool features in Google’s DMT.  As far as I’m aware, it’s not a particularly common unit of length for measuring things other than swimming pools (the other common size of pool for competetive use being 25m, or half Olympic size).

As the title of this post indicates, the span of the Menai Suspension Bridge is about 5.3 Olympic swimming pools.  I suppose that means that swimming across the straits would be equivalent to doing 5 lengths of the pool (ignoring the added difficulties imposed by the strong currents and the distinctly sub-spec water temperature).  In any case, I think I’ll stick to cycling across the bridge rather than swimming under it.

I was interested to note that the Google DMT’s list of units didn’t include the σταδιον (stadion, plural: stadia; usually anglicised as stadium or stade), which is one of the better known ancient Greek distance units.  The problem could be that there is no single authoritative conversion factor from metres to stadia: although a stadion was defined as 600ft (according to Herodotus), there were several conflicting definitions of a foot in use at the time (dependent on geographical location) and hence a stadion in one place could be longer or shorter than one somewhere else.

Apparently the stadion unit was named after a running race over that distance, and the race in turn was named after the building in which it took place; as you might expect, this building also gave rise to the modern word “stadium” as a sports venue.  Wikipedia is slightly confusing as the stadion unit page says an Olympic stadion was about 176m, while the stadion race page says that the stadion race track at Olympia was about 190m long.  It could be that the stadion unit began life as the length of the race track and later standardised as 600ft and that the definition of a foot in use at Olympia was 1/600 of 176m, thus leaving the race track slightly longer than the new definition of a stadion.

Taking the definition of 1 stadion = 176m, the Menai Suspension Bridge measures about 1.5 stadia.  Using the length of the Olympic racetrack (1 stadion = 190m), it is about 1.4 stadia.

Bad breath

My recent foray into Euclid’s Elements has rekindled my interest in Ancient Greece, so I have decided the time has come to have another bash at learning Homeric Greek.  As well as being an interesting project in its own right, which will enable me to appreciate two of the classics of world literature (and, arguably, pillars of European culture) in their original language, I hope the exercise will enrich my understanding of Koine (aka. New Testament) Greek and provide a good doorway to other Greek dialects.

I already have some Homeric study material from a previous fling with the language, the main one being Clyde Pharr’s classic textbook Homeric Greek.

Working through some of the early exercises in the book this morning, I found a sentence which seems to demonstrate in quite an amusing way the range of variation possible in translating a sentence, due to the range of meanings of each word.

The sentence (lesson IV, no. 5) reads: καλη ἐστι θεα, ἐχει δε ψυχην κακην.

I don’t have a copy of the key to Pharr’s exercises, if such a thing exists, but I’m assuming the translation he had in mind was along the lines of the goddess is beautiful but she has an evil spirit (or perhaps an ugly spirit to contrast with her physical beauty).

However,   καλη can mean good, beautiful or several other things (all generally positive) while κακη is bad as well as ugly, evil etc. and ψυχη can be spirit, soul,breath or life. So there are several other possible translations for this sentence, including the goddess is good but she has bad breath.

Two phone-related observations to finish with:

I wrote the bulk of this post using the WordPress app on my phone, though I finished it on my PC (mainly to access the polytonic Greek keyboard, so I could put the breathings on the Greek sentence – I decided to leave out the accents though).  I notice that I seem to have written much shorter paragraphs than usual (indeed, several of them are just single sentences) and I wonder if this is largely due to the phone having a much smaller screen so a paragraph that is short on the computer screen looks quite long on there.  As you will probably have noticed, the current paragraph (which I’m writing on the PC) is just about the longest one in the whole post.

Yesterday I discovered what appears to be quite a promising app to help with my study of Homeric Greek.  It’s called Phlash Cards and is basically a set of flash cards designed to be used with Pharr’s textbook.   I’ve not made much use of it yet, but so far it seems to be working well.  It offers flashcards to test the vocabulary for each lesson (going Greek -> English or vice versa) as well as the paradigms for verbs, nouns etc. that are to be learned, and it has all the lines from the Iliad (all book 1, I think) that are introduced in the later lessons (as I recall from my previous outings with Pharr, the student is encouraged to memorise these).