Friday, March 25, 2016

Born to lie

Can I get away with this?
No one wants to be called a liar. Or worse, to be caught lying. Yet lying is something we all do, often without even realizing it. This paradox of the human condition is explored in an episode of Ideas, a weekly radio programme by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.  

Called Born to lie, and broadcast on January 13th, it looks at our instinct to lie, why we do it, how we teach children to do the same (yes we do though we kid ourselves the opposite is true) and why it can sometimes be a good thing.

The highlight for me was a recording of an experiment with a three year old child. I laughed out loud and had to put down a bag of logs I was carrying. It's a guessing game.  On the table is a toy animal which Cormac (the child) can't see, as he has to face the wall. A researcher (Sarah) tells him to guess what it is from the sound it makes, and as it quacks, Cormac correctly guesses it’s a duck.   Same procedure with a toy dog. Next up is bear. But at this juncture Sarah unexpectedly finds she has to interrupt the game. “Oh! You know what? I forgot something in the other room that I need. I'll put the toy on the table with the sound playing but don’t turn around and peek.  I'll be back in a minute.”  The sound plays: it's a tune having no association whatever with teddy bears.  Door closes. Cormac, satisfied he's alone in the room, peeks at the bear. Sarah the researcher returns with a blanket. She drapes it over the bear and Cormac is now allowed to turn round and guess what the toy is.  “A bear” he says.  “Wow, how clever, you didn't peek did you?” “No”. “How did you know it was a bear” “I just knew”.

Paul Kennedy host of Ideas
on CBC radio
Apparently it's a standard experiment in psychology, used to assess whether a child has reached the developmental milestone of pulling off a lie.  The test is to see if the child will volunteer the fact that he cheated or not.  There's also a white lie experiment. As a reward for taking part on the game, Cormac is given boring bar of plain white soap, and the test is does he pretend to like it.  (The presenter claims he does, though it didn't sound that way to me.)

Kang Lee of University of Toronto says: "If you discover your two-year old is telling a lie, instead of being alarmed, you should celebrate! Your child has arrived at an important stage of his or her life."  At two years of age about a third of children will lie to cover up a transgression. At three, about half. At four, about 80%. After five its almost 100%.

David Livingstone Smith, philosophy professor at the University of New England, says we have a collective investment in dishonesty. “A measure of dishonesty isn't optional. It's necessary. "   A contrary point of view is held by the Radical Honesty movement, founded by Brad Blanton, a psychotherapist.  You should always say just what you think even when this is uncomfortable. "I recommend you hurt peoples'  feelings and offend people. And then stick with them."  Unconvincing.  But a brilliant piece of radio.

I can't recommend Ideas too highly.  Here's the page for past episodes.  And here are a few of my favourites:-

Talking Philosophy: War and Peace. War is bad - but does this mean that peace at any price will do? Philosophers grapple with the nature, rules, and challenges of war and peace. November 2015, in two parts.

The Myth of the Secular is a 7-part series originally broadcast in 2012. The theme is that the old map of the religious and the secular no longer fits the territory, and we hear from theologians, anthropologists, sociologists and political philosophers. Does the mid 20th century orthodoxy of the withering away of religion need to be replaced? What about the Marxist idea that religion is a compensatory activity that the powerless resort to when politics doesn't work?  Is the very concept of “religion” a western category that never fully applied to non-Christian religions?

Global Justice - protecting human rights in a world of conflict. Global Justice is rooted in the aspiration to make the world a better place; but who decides what justice really is? And what happens when “universal” human values collide with interests? December 2015, in two parts.

By the way, there's a problem with the search function on the Ideas webpage. It's problematic using Firefox but it works well with Chrome or Internet Explorer. I imagine this applies to the whole CBC website.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Changing day length in Luleå

Spring soon.  Evenings stretching out apace, wasn’t really dark tonight till seven. Though here in County Cork we're in the wrong time zone. This means that sun-wise, it would be truer to say it got dark about a quarter past six. 

I now want to say something about the stretching of the days in Luleå during my recent stay there. In Cork the shortest day is 7 hours 46 minutes, and the longest 16 hours 43 minutes: hence between midwinter and midsummer the sun has almost 9 hours to chase. In Luleå, it's nearly 20 hours; consequently the stretching of the days is more rapid, and I was hoping to be able to observe this effect over the course of the seven days I was there. But I was disappointed, and if you bear with me I shall explore the reasons for this.

My visit was from 18th to 25th February, during which time the days lengthened by 49 minutes. I know this from tables available at

Over those seven days, sunrise moved 26 minutes earlier, and sunset 24 minutes later. That adds up to a 49 minute increase (due to rounding). This is almost double the difference in Cork, where during the same week sunrise got 14 minutes earlier and sunset 12 minutes later. You can see all this in the table next to the map.

Location map for Luleå, and sunrise/sunset table for Luleå and Cork. Minutes are rounded.

To put it another way, when I arrived in Luleå, the day was 1 hour 20 minutes shorter than in Cork, and when I left, it was 1 hour 6 minutes shorter.  Today it was a mere 24 minutes shorter. Come the 21st March (just to remind you) the days in Cork and Luleå will be the same length, namely 12 hours, indeed the same all over the globe. [1]

I said I was disappointed. I actually noticed no change while in Luleå, no stretching of the mornings or evenings. This was partly because for several days skies were overcast.  But only partly. On reflection I realise that two factors work against each other.  The further from the equator, the shallower the sun’s trajectory in the sky. This makes sunrise and sunset more gradual, extending the period of twilight; and it means that during the northern spring, even though the daily increment in sunlight becomes greater as you travel north, the stretching of the days becomes harder to mark.

I cast my mind back to Trinidad where I spent a year in 1968. In the tropics the sun never rises and sets far from 6 o’clock.  A typical sunset conversation would go: “You noticed the sun’s setting much later now?” ... “Yes, tonight it was 7 minutes past. A few weeks ago it was 4 minutes past.”

Here is a table comparing Luleå, Cork and Trinidad for the week in question. It shows that where the daily increment in daylight is greater, twilight is also longer.  [2]

The paradoxical consequence is that in Trinidad, even a tiny difference in day length can be more noticeable over a short period of time than a very significant increase over the same period in Luleå.

I have a set of three diagrammes which may help to illustrate this. They apply to the winter solstice, 21st December, and show sunrise, sunset and the sun’s altitude at midday, comparing the cases of Luleå (midday sun altitude 1°), Cork (15°) and Trinidad (56°).

Daylength table

I'll now mention an anomaly I can't get to grips with.  This arises from studying the daylength tables in preparation for writing this blog post.

In the spring, as the sun sets further and further north each day, the daily increment in day length ought to peak around the equinox (21st March), and after that gradually lessen. From equinox to midsummer, though the days continue to get longer, the increment from one day to the next becomes less and less marked. When midsummer arrives, the day to day increase is zero; the sun no longer sets further north but stands still and then starts to set further south; so that after 21st June (the solstice) the day length begins to decrease again.

Why is it called the solstice? A digression

Solstice is a bad word. It means sun stands still in Latin - but who knows or cares for Latin? In Swedish it's
solstånd (sun-stand) and in German Sonnenwende (sun-turn). Much better.

Thus in Cork, the daily increment in day length peaks in mid March at 4 minutes 1 second, and begins to decline after the 27th.  During April the daily increment slows, so that at the end of that month the daily increment is down at 3 minutes 35 seconds.  The decline in the daily increment continues during May, down to under 2 minutes. By 12th June it's down to 54 seconds.  All that is good and just as it ought to be.

But the day length table for Luleå tells a strange tale.

Throughout February the daily difference is just over 7 minutes - oddly 4 seconds longer at the beginning of February that at the end.  For most of March - when you would expect the daily day length increment to be at its maximum – it dips just under 7 minutes. Then, throughout April, when the daily increment ought to be slowing,  it again tops 7 minutes.  The daily difference is 7 minutes 22 seconds on 30th April and continues to rise, peaking, extraordinarily, in the second half of May, at 7 minutes 40 seconds.  And it doesn't dip under 7 minutes till 9th June. Weird!  I must find out why this is, something to do with the Earth wobbling on its axis or being a funny shape I suppose.


[1]  In most of the tables I've looked at, it's actually 18th March when the day length hits 12 hours.  The leap day on 29th February distorts the picture of course, but even adjusting for that, you get the 19th March. I don't know why this is.  And what about the two Poles I ask myself?  I haven't found any table for them.  My understanding is that they have only one day and one night, sunrise at the North Pole on 21st March and sunset on 21st September. South Pole vice versa. So is “12 hours all over the globe” correct or not?

[2]  About twilight. I've used civil twilight: the limit of which is defined by the sun's centre being 6° below the horizon. Solar illumination is insufficient, even under clear weather conditions, for terrestrial objects to be clearly distinguished, and artificial light is needed to carry on most outdoor activities. There are actually three definitions of twilight, the other two being nautical twilight and astronomical twilight, but civil twilight is most relevant for my purposes today.

Friday, March 4, 2016

A winter diary from Luleå

I pose in the town centre beside two ice sculptures. And cars heedless of an icy road.
A few notes I made whilst in Luleå for a week with two of my mother’s sisters, Kerstin and Barbro. Normally I come in summer, this was my first winter visit for many years.

Thursday 18 Feb

Clear sky but not very cold, only -3°. A couple of weeks ago was -20°. Snow heaped by the roadside.  As there's been a recent fall, it's all white. In late winter the roadside snowheaps tend to get very grubby, I remember this from being here in 1967, age 18. The roadway, I was surprised to see, consisted largely of compacted snow. On the way from the airport my cousin made some tight turns at a fair old speed, which on our tyres in Ireland would have been catastrophic, but here their winter tyres can cope with ease. Inspected them later, small studs which looked insignificant to me but they certainly do the job.

Walked into town with Barbro. Today's temperature -4.9°.  My boots are good and comfy, and the ice grips work well.  To the Culture House to use the wifi.    Couldn’t get it to work, thought it was stupidity on my part, but it turns out the system had been changed the previous night. The three staff went into a huddle to figure it out for me. 

Anxious about walking home in the dark in a dark coat, but Barbro says it doesn't matter, you show up against the snow. She remarked that the other day when it had been somewhat colder, she feared a packet of spinach leaves in her rucksack would freeze and be spoilt before she got home.

Luleå's Culture House. And a Semla bun.
A digression about Semla buns

A semla is a wheat flour bun, flavoured with cardamom and filled with almond paste and whipped cream, a bit rich for my taste.  They start eating them the first Sunday in Lent. A heathen tradition if ever I saw one, as Lent (fastan in Swedish) is meant to be a time of fasting and self denial. 

These buns are blamed for a royal demise. King Adolf Frederick of Sweden died of digestion problems on February 12, 1771 after consuming a meal consisting of lobster, caviar, sauerkraut, smoked herring and champagne, topped off by fourteen helpings of semla.

The tradition is rooted in fettisdag (Shrove Tuesday, or Fat Tuesday) when, like pancakes in England, the buns were eaten at a last celebratory feast before the Christian fasting period of Lent. At first, a semla was simply a bun eaten soaked in hot milk (known as hetvägg, ughh!).

At some point Swedes grew tired of the strict observance of Lent, added cream and almond paste and started eating semla every Tuesday between Shrove Tuesday and Easter.  The foregoing is partly what I was told and partly what I looked up, with some unresolved inconsistencies between the two.

Friday 19 Feb

Kerstin told me a sad tale that occurred in the 1930’s. It concerned a family who lived in a distant part of Sweden, he being a train conductor and she a school teacher. For several summers they looked after Kerstin and her brother Gösta, an arrangement which started so far as I can tell when Kerstin was 4 and Gösta 8.

They had several children who had died as babies, but did have one surviving daughter, much older than Gösta & Kerstin, who became pregnant out of wedlock, and on account of social ostracism, she and her boyfriend killed themselves in a wilderness area. Kerstin, age 4 at the time, witnessed the mother’s grief when she was told of this. At the time Kerstin was bemused, it was only later in life that she realised what all this was about. There are several details of this story I didn't follow. One such detail is how they died: poisoning themselves with sulphur from matches and starvation were both mentioned. Barbro knows the story in outline only, can't add anything.

Kerstin indignant about the cruelty of neighbours whose job it is to help not to condemn. An immoral morality she says. But the neighbours are afraid too of course, that's how they get you.  I can't help remarking that it's a pity the same spirit of rebellion that leads to cream buns in Lent wasn't exercised in this case as well. There is of course a larger question of whether the church leads or follows popular morality.

Drinking Earl Grey tea. It's actually rather good as long as you leave the tea bag in a nice long time.

A Systembolag (pic from the internet). And the Luleå-Kiruna railway.
Sat 20 Feb

This afternoon walked to town on my own. My errand was to the Systembolag for wine and brännvin (snaps). -4.9° again and the wind in my face, which Barbro was concerned about when I came back, but was in fact no problem to me. Whilst my boots grip perfectly on the ice, I'm not so at ease in town where the main pavements are completely clear, or in shops, and I actually prefer walking in the roadway where there's snow and ice for the studs to grip on. The tie-on ice grips which I brought with me are called brådar, and Barbro approves them, says they are just the thing.

Cycling past a snow heap in the town centre, note the heated pavement in foreground. And a postman on a moped.
Found out how the pavements in the main shopping street are so clear of snow. They are heated. Is this ecological I wonder? Still surprised that in general the Swedes are content for both roadways and footpaths to remain covered in snow and ice. People cycle and we saw a postman on a moped.

The Systembolag displays a sign saying they will not serve anyone under 20, nor anyone who appears under the influence, nor anyone who is suspected of making purchases for another person who is in either of the foregoing categories. "This is important to us, our prime motive is not profit but restricting alcohol problems."  I should explain that the Systembolag is a state-run chain of off-licenses and is the only place you can buy alcohol stronger than medium-strength beer.  I had to buy a white wine suitable for salmon with a lemon sauce. Barbro told me to ask the staff for advice, which I did, she says they go on courses for this sort of thing, and like to be asked to demonstrate their skill.

This puts me in mind of a story that I think my cousin Tolle told me. In the 1930’s the Systemet had an even more severe protocol. Alcohol was rationed and everyone had a ration book called a motbok. Tolle's father Calle and Albert (my granddad) were brothers-in-law and both engine drivers on the Kiruna-Luleå route. Calle asked Albert to get him some bottles during his break in Luleå, and lent Albert his ration book. There was nothing inherently wrong with this proceeding, the only problem being that Albert noticed Calle’s motbok was invalid as he had forgotten to sign it. Albert was in Luleå and Calle 200 miles away in Kiruna, so there was nothing for it but to forge Calle's signature. Here the problem began, for when he presented the motbok, the cashier went to fetch the manager, and Albert had to go into the office to answer the question "whose signature is this?".  It turns out that Calle had remembered his oversight and had rung ahead to the Luleå Systembolag in order to explain!  Quick thinking was called for. "That damned idiot!" expostulated Albert, "He can't remember from one minute to the next what he's been doing, of course this is his signature!"

Tonight Barbro and I stayed up late writing our dairies. Interruptions from time to time, the latest about religion.  I told her how when I was in Trinidad in 1968 I made it my mission to investigate which of the three religions there, Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism, was true, and at the year's end I concluded none was.

Barbro has given me tomorrow's weather forecast. There will be a blizzard and the wind will be 15 m/sec. Not enough to be called a storm but still strong. Surprisingly, they have no dedicated word for blizzard, they just use snöstorm. But it's interesting that wind speed is sufficiently important to be measured in meters per second, and also that they concern themselves with tenths of a degree. Kerstin's thermometer has measured -4.9° for a couple of days now. I thought it was broken, but apparently it's not unusual for the temperature to remain constant over a 24-hour period, day and night.

Here English is extremely clumpy. Where I have to say "over a 24-hour period, day and night " in Swedish I would simply say "för ett dygn", or if emphasis was needed "för ett helt dygn".

Sunday 21 Feb

Last night there was neither blizzard nor snowstorm but there is about an inch of fresh snow, kramsnö Barbro called it, and demonstrated that you can squeeze it into a snowball. This means you must go carefully, as it sticks to the ice grips under your boots making them ineffective. We saw some boys having a snowball fight. Here it's called a snowball war, snöbollskrig.

A Spanish Ido-comrade called Pilar sent Kerstin a nice grey blouse for her birthday. Kerstin thanked Pilar, writing in Ido of course. Ido is a harmless eccentricity that Albert was keen on, and has infected several members of the Åkerlund family.

Cycles outside Kerstin's flat. And walking on the frozen harbour.
Three cycles left out all winter in a rack outside Kerstin's window have given rise to comments on how some people are so careless of their possessions. Covered in snow almost to the tops of the wheels. Took photos of them on my first and last day to be used as a snowfall meter.

Monday 22 Feb

Tonight Barbro and I discussed the refugee problem. In Barbro's view this consists in the fact that Swedish people ought to be more welcoming. There have been instances of refugee centres being attacked and attempts to burn them down. There is one in Sundsvall near her, a disused school. They are given Swedish ready meals.  What sort of idea do these refugees get of Swedish food, she asked, when they have to make do with ready meals here, whilst having such fantastic food in their homelands. She told how the refugees delivered leaflets in the locality inviting the Swedes to the centre for a meal, and a marvellous meal it was too, the only downside was all the Swedes were sitting together, there wasn't enough mixing.

There's a magazine here with a piece on an initiative called the Invitation Department.  It's about inviting a refugee into your home for dinner. Members of Barbro's family participate in the scheme. Subsequently found a New York Times article on this.

Tuesday 23 Feb

At breakfast Kerstin looked up bible quotations. The question of a serving woman's son came up and this led us to the Epistle to the Galatians amongst other places. English bible, Swedish bible and bible dictionary all on the breakfast table.

Brilliant sun on the snow this morning and I walked into town, leaving Kerstin & Barbro to follow in the special taxi. We are to meet Tolle and have lunch at the Culture House. The restaurant gives a marvellous view over the frozen harbour, a distant prospect of people walking and skiing on it, and a tractor ploughing the path and ejecting snow through a chute. Like a combine harvester ejecting grain. Apparently there's an 8-km walk to an island with a restaurant on it. I don't mean the island is 8 km out to sea, it's just that you have to walk around a headland to get to it. A superb lunch praised by all, with huge thanks expressed to Eileen, and regrets that she wasn't there. 

The Culture House is an excellent institution: library, art gallery, theatre, restaurant, café, tourist information, and spacious open areas, in two of which lunchtime piano recitals were in progress.

Later asked Tolle about längre än mig as opposed to längre än jag, exactly equivalent to "taller than me" or "taller than I". At first he gave a convoluted grammatical justification for the "taller than I" option (just like Kerstin & Barbro). But when I told him I wanted to speak Swedish like a person and not like a schoolmistress, he admitted that many people said längre än mig, and so does he from time to time, and there is nothing wrong with it. Later when I brought the subject up, Kerstin & Barbro admitted that it is in common use, including amongst educated people, which they decry.

Tolle talked of his UN tour in Cyprus where he had the temporary rank of Second Lieutenant in charge of a platoon. Repeated the story of how in 1940 his father had thrown all the German cigarettes, about four or five packets, in the stove, when Tolle, age about 11, had done errands for German soldiers travelling on Swedish trains. "Never again bring any more German stuff into this house."  On the Norwegian-Swedish border in the vicinity of the railway line linking Kiruna to Narvik, there was a forbidden zone 400 metres wide with Swedish and German soldiers stationed opposite each other, and Tolle went skiing there with some friends. The Swedish soldiers waved and Tolle and his companions waved back. When the soldiers shot in the air, the skiers grasped the situation, and later had a big telling off from the police. Gave me the recipe for gravad lax, though this may not be popular at home. Discussed the two Swedish words for large rivers: flod and älv. The word flod is only used for a large river outside Scandinavia, and the word älv is only used for a large river within Scandinavia. Looked in several dictionaries. One suggested that flod is for tidal rivers. This sounds implausible to me, and in any event Norwegian rivers are tidal, which seems to kibosh it.

Learnt a brilliant saying but it doesn't work in English. The translation would be "Everyone else is busy thinking about themselves, I'm the only one thinking about me." The Swedish has a zing to it that I can't reproduce: Alla tänkar på sig, det är bara jag som tänkar på mig.

By the harbour: a remarkably silly dog, and a snow castle.
Wednesday 24 Feb

My last day in Luleå. Down to the quay in brilliant sunshine. A snow castle with kids playing. A dog owner throwing snowballs for the dog to chase after searching for snowballs in the snow, what a silly dog. Many people coming and going on the ice, some skiing, some skating, most walking, so decided to join them. Surprised how many people bare-headed even though between -7° and -5.5°.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Money is like muck, not good unless it be spread

This aphorism is attributed to King James I of England / VI of Scotland.  The attribution may be false but it's contained in a collection described as a “Royal Chain of Golden Sentences” published in 1650 (25 years after James’s death). This was during the English civil war, which may be significant.

Francis Bacon (1561 – 1626)
The true originator may be the English philosopher and scientist Francis Bacon who in 1625 wrote a piece discussing statecraft titled “Of Seditions and Troubles”.

Above all things, good Policie is to be used, that the Treasure and Moneyes, in a State, be not gathered into few Hands. For otherwise, a State may have a great Stock, and yet starve. And Money is like Muck, not good except it be spread. This is done, chiefly, by suppressing, or at the least, keeping a strait Hand, upon the Devouring Trades of Usurie, Ingrossing, great Pasturages, and the like.

In the same year Bacon attributed a similar saying to a Mr. Bettenham, including the pleasing image of money stinking when kept in a heap instead of being spread. [1]

Mr. Bettenham vsed to say; That Riches were like Mucke: When it lay, vpon an heape, it gaue but a stench, and ill odour; but when it was spread vpon the ground, then it was cause of much fruit.

All this you can find in the Quote Investigator.

It started with someone writing in to ask for the origin of a saying of the British entrepreneur Richard Branson who used the image of money stinking when it's in a pile on his website: “If you let money pile up, it starts to stink. But if you spread it around then it can do a lot of good.”  

Francis Bacon by the bye was the first to make the cogent observation that the modern world was distinguished from the ancient one by the three key inventions of gunpowder, printing, and the magnetic compass. All of which, unbeknownst to him, came from China, a fact unearthed by Joseph Needham in the 20th century, see my essay The day I met a famous man.

My closing thought is to wonder if the Levellers used Bacon's saying that money stinks in a pile in their pamphlets, and if the attribution to James I (by a royalist, clearly) was intended to draw the sting out of it. Pure speculation on my part, I've googled in vain to find any connection. 

A pamphlet by Gerard Winstanley printed in 1649

[1] “Apophthegmes New and Old” (1625) (apophthegme being French for aphorism).

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Hey! You with the stained sink!

This one’s about TV adverts and grammar.

There's plenty to irritate in TV adverts and I'll mention one irritation in particular, presumptuous injunctions such as “Organize that messy closet” or “Get rid of those unsightly stains in your sink.”  Where the copy writer pretends to be on such familiar terms with you that they have peered into your home.  Why they do it, and why it irritates, is easy enough to see; but exactly how do they do it?

A tidy closet, or should I say wardrobe

It's the word “that” and its plural, “those”, the grammatical name for which is demonstrative adjectives.  In the foregoing slogans “that” and “those” modify a noun, in effect pointing at it; thereby indicating, from amongst all the possible closets and sinks, which one (or ones) the speaker is referring to - yours.

A stained sink - or it was when the photo was taken, but please be assured, not now!

Putting advertising aside for a minute, let me take this sentence spoken by a normal person: “Sam misses that dog.”

Or this:  “These sneakers belong to Janet.”

The demonstrative adjectives demonstrate which dog Sam misses, which sneakers belong to Janet.  “That” and “these” refer to nouns that actually exist—dog, sneakers.  The speaker and the audience both take for granted that the dog and sneakers indicated are known and exist.

Now back to the advertising slogans, with an anonymous voice telling you to “organize that messy closet” or “get rid of those unsightly stains”. The voice isn’t pointing to an actual condition in your house - but instead is presupposing its existence and treating it as a fact.  It seems linguists have a name for this, and  the slogans are examples of “presupposition.”

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language says, “The information contained in a presupposition is backgrounded, taken for granted, presented as something that is not currently at issue.”  In the cases in point,  the presupposed information is that you have a messy closet and a sink with unsightly stains.

In a study entitled “Presupposition, Persuasion and Mag Food Advertising” (2012), Tamara Bouso uses the example “Do you expect to fit into that beach bikini in the New Year?”  This sales pitch presupposes not only that the consumer has such a bikini but that she’s probably too fat to wear it.

In this way, demonstrative adjectives are employed to create a false sense of familiarity, of intimacy with the consumer. It's a forced intimacy that can strike listeners as intrusive or annoying, but whether it's more intrusive and annoying to those with tidy closets and spotless sinks, or messy closets and stained sinks, is hard to say.

Two names have been proposed by linguists for demonstrative adjectives used in this presumptuous way: “affective demonstratives” and  “emotive demonstratives.”  “Emotive” because such terms convey a sense that both speaker and listener share some relevant knowledge or emotion about the referent of the demonstrative—that is, the closet or sink it points to.  And “affective” to imply an emotional element—in this case familiarity and a shared experience of a closet or a sink.

How do I know all this?  Well yesterday I didn't, but today I've read my daily email from the Grammarphobia Blog and it's all there, with links and references. I've used the word closet because they do, it's an American blog.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Younger or youngest? Can Jane Austen err?

By indirections we find directions out.  I'll start with an alleged mistake in the second sentence of Jane Austen’s Emma.  Here we read that Emma “was the youngest of the two daughters of a most affectionate, indulgent father”, and it's the word “youngest” that gave rise to a difference of opinion. To set the scene, it was last November, and we were at lunch before a lecture in Dublin hosted by the Jane Austen society to mark the novel’s bi-centenary.  Professor Darryl Jones of Trinity College thought that Emma is a landmark in the history of the English novel, being the first designed to be read more than once.  It only makes sense on the second or third time of reading, he said, as all the questions Emma gets spectacularly wrong, we do too, the first time.  The most complex of Jane Austen’s novels and one of most complex novels in English.

Chapter 10 of Persuasion in the Jane Austen’s Fiction Manuscripts Digital Edition  curated by Prof Kathryn Sutherland

But back to lunch, and Emma being the youngest of two daughters. Someone asserted that Austen was in error here, as you can be the younger of two but not the youngest of two.  And indeed I've subsequently seen numerous posts on websites supporting this ruling.

The first thing to say about this point of view is that it assumes the existence of a Big Book Of English Grammar where such rules are written down.  As I've lived 66 years without encountering such a book, I think I can plausibly suggest there isn't one.

I did however in the heat of debate make an ill-considered statement, which was that Jane Austen can't be wrong, and if she wrote the youngest of two then youngest of two is okay. Reflecting on this later I decided I ought to investigate whether Jane Austen actually took care of such matters; whether "youngest" is what she actually wrote; would she leave a decision about younger/youngest to the printer, and how carefully did she proof-read?  I was travelling down a blind alley of course, because these questions matter not one jot.  What's important is that the text of Emma is what it is, however many hands are responsible; not whether Jane Austen herself was interested in grammar.

William Gifford

Actually my blind alley was not entirely blind, for it led to me some new nuggets of knowledge. One of these is that Jane Austen did have an editor, William Gifford, who took great pains with grammar and punctuation.  Indeed in 2010 a brouhaha erupted over a claim that his influence on the final text was such that Jane Austen’s style can't really be said to be her own.  All this was attributed to Oxford Professor Kathryn Sutherland who had assembled Jane Austen’s extant manuscripts, though in fact the professor’s remarks seem to have been distorted. Be that as it may, we can be sure that the said Gifford wouldn't allow anything untoward to slip past him, and in the novel’s second sentence of all places.  

Prof Kathryn Sutherland and Jane Austen. The Kathryn Sutherland image is (so far as I know) a good likeness, whereas the Jane Austen one is not

The Kathryn Sutherland controversy makes some fascinating reading, or fascinating to me at any rate, and I have a fellow Jane Austen society member to thank for drawing it to my attention. You could start with this blog by linguist professor Geoffrey K. Pullum. Writing in October 2010 when the spat over Austen's alleged failings in style and grammar was still fresh,  he says he has seen no examples to back these claims up.

Dubious basis

Another nugget that came my way following my “Jane Austen can't be wrong” outburst: it seems that from about 1750 to about 1850 creating new rules of English grammar became a favourite passtime, and a prohibition on the “youngest of two” was being suggested around the time that Jane Austen was writing.  There's plenty on this in the excellent grammarphobia blog which I've newly discovered.   Here they reproduce the conclusion of Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage on the matter:-

    “The rule requiring the comparative has a dubious basis in theory and no basis in practice, and it serves no useful communicative purpose. Because it does have a fair number of devoted adherents, however, you may well want to follow it in your most dignified or elevated writing.”

The blog authors Pat O’Conner & Stewart Kellerman were kind enough to email me with some additional comments on Jane Austen’s use of “youngest”, and they say that whilst there are differences of opinion here,  it’s probable that Jane Austen  was unaware of any “rule” banning a superlative with only two members; indeed many popular grammar prohibitions emerged only in the latter half of the 18th century and the early part of the 19th, so it’s not fair to call an author “incorrect” for ignoring a convention that was not yet firmly established in common usage at the time she was writing.

As I've already indicated, I'm reluctant to use the word “incorrect” at all, moreover I can adduce plenty of evidence against there being, even today, any firmly established convention that you can't be the youngest of two.

Finally, I nearly wrote "the authoritative" Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage, but then I would stand accused of inconsistency, as I've already suggested that no-one is entitled to lay down rules. And that’s true, but Merriam-Webster is authoritative in this sense, that they have exhaustively investigated English usage, and if you want to know what’s been written and by whom, Merriam-Webster is a good place to look. Maybe all of this leaves you thinking that some of the things that interest me are very dull indeed, in which case I salute you for getting this far.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Jane Austen and a shop in Devon

This happened when I was about 10, which would make the year 1959. We were driving home through Devon after visiting my English grandmother in a nursing home in Teignmouth (my father’s mother that is, an explanation I wouldn't need to give were I writing in Swedish).  Passing through a town my mother caught sight of a shop sign and called out to my father to stop and go back because the name on the shopfront was Household. I glimpsed it fleetingly, it looked a substantial affair. No, it was just a household stores said my father. My mother insisted she was sure Household was the proprietor’s actual name, and with so rare a surname it must be some sort of relation, we ought to call and say hello. But my father drove stolidly on refusing to turn back and investigate. Later my mother explained to me the reason for this strange behaviour: my father would be ashamed to be related to anyone engaged in trade.  But it looked like a big shop I protested. No matter, this was the way he had been brought up; my granny, my mother told me, was a snob. We had a small car and a small rented flat in Brighton, and what made me ashamed was that the stuffing was coming out of the arms of the sofa.

Title page of Emma, published
200 years ago this month
(though it says 1816, hmm)
The memory came to me because I'm working on the question of Jane Austen and snobbery. I've promised to lead off a discussion on this topic in a small book group we have in Cork - the Cork Friends of Jane Austen that’s what we call ourselves.  Several prominent snobs feature in Jane Austen’s works. Emma, Darcy, Sir Walter Elliott are names that spring to mind, and the snobbery theme is a staple of Jane Austen criticism. For example in a famous 1957 essay the critic Lionel Trilling wrote of Emma: “Her self-love leads her to be a self-deceiver. She can be unkind. She is a dreadful snob.”  One occasion of her snobbery - and this takes us back to the shop in Devon - is when a family by the name of Cole give a large evening party, an enterprise Emma treats with disdain.  "Nothing should tempt her to go”; the Coles were "of low origin, in trade, and only moderately genteel  …  they ought to be taught that it was not for them to arrange the terms on which the superior families would visit them".  

I must make it clear my mother didn't blame my father for his attitudes, she accepted it was part of his upbringing and couldn’t be changed. And I suppose I must extend the same charity to my grandmother, who grew up part of the landed gentry; my mother grew up in the north of Sweden, the daughter of an engine driver.  I also need to add something about the state of the sofa.  This was due to my parents spending far more than they could afford on my expensive schooling. For better or worse that’s made me what I am, so it's not my place to complain about the stuffing.  

I'll finish on a puzzle. It occurs to me to ask whether and how Jane Austen and her contemporaries talked about snobbery, since according to my understanding, the word was not yet in use.   Did they have another word for it? I don't think they did. I can't help wondering if there's something anachronistic going on when we talk of Jane Austen and snobbery.  It's something I should like to explore, if only I knew where to begin.  I hope to have an answer by the first Tuesday of February.

Note : The Trilling essay is “Emma and the legend of Jane Austen” in Beyond Culture, 1965. The Emma quotation is from ch 25.