Sunday, June 25, 2006

Memories of America: Arizona

In 1998 I went to a conference in Salt Lake City. My wife travelled with me and after the conference we headed off to tour around Utah, New Mexico and Arizona. We drove hundreds of miles through those otherwordly landscapes of Utah and Arizona. Once we took a wrong turn and after many miles realised that the road was turning into desert. It was like a strange dream. We hadn't seen a car since the wrong turn, but just as we pulled over, we were suddenly overtaken by a flat bed truck. Three Indian men sat up high in the back, hanging on to the top of the cab as if they were on horseback. They seemed to have come from nowhere and were going fast, sending up a cloud of dust and disappearing into the hot, red-brown landscape.

Some days later, still driving through desert, we passed a magnificent grey rock sticking vertically out of the desert. This was Shiprock, called Tse Bi Dahi or 'the rock with wings' by the Navajo indians. It is one of their sacred places. It was difficult to find anywhere to pull the car over and take a photograph as the wire fence was positioned right up against the road. It was as if an attempt was being made to stop people from pulling over and taking pictures. But there was no traffic coming and we just stopped the car in lane. I got out and raised my camera to take a photograph. But when I released the shutter, nothing happened. There was no click. The shutter mechanism had moved slighty and then jammed. Prior to this, the camera had functioned faultlessly for about twenty years. I took away no photograph of Shiprock. My camera never worked again.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

La Gogotte

This weekend I joined an excursion to see the Fontainbleau Sandstone, an Oligocene age (30 million year old) formation of the Paris Basin. While on the trip, I discovered the concretions that Roger Caillois had written about in a poem which I had translated some time ago and posted on Connaissances. I have since removed it from the site, so here it is again, posted below. The concretions really are fabulous to behold, and after a search of the internet, I think I can say they are probably the most fabulous in the world. These concretions are known as 'Gogottes'.

The most amazing example I have found is housed in the National Museum of Natural History at Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC. There is a good photograph of it here. However, there are not that many examples illustrated on the internet as far as I can tell.

I also posted my interpretation of the poem as part of a long article entitled 'Do Scientists Use Metaphor?'


Siliceous Concretions

after the French of Roger Caillois

In the Ile-de-France, in a sand pit, halfway up a quarry face, lie concretions of silicified sand. They have the appearance of palms or palm leaves, of half-open hands, of crumpled petals. Irregularly spaced, oriented in the same sense, they are aligned in a sort of discontinuous horizontal bed.

The longest concretions seem made of a flowing or crumbling substance, suddenly hardened by ice, then holed here and there by a stubborn wearing away which has hollowed out one part or another, surfaces offering themselves to be pierced at their weakest points. A game of forces which have the time for accumulating and altering, thickening and thinning the mysterious and perfect masses which make public their laws, sign and authenticate their needs.

Other volumes, more powerfully curved, hold up an efficient shield to invisible pressure. These are the ones which are slow to thin or fold themselves, the opposite of lazy they are fashioned by a long evasiveness.

An underground current filters through the sand to slowly form these great tears of stone fixed in a flight which is forever headlong, forever immobile. For it is the water which flees. And, fleeing day after day, century after century, it entrains a fine substance and deposits it on any poor obstacle, never ceasing from cloaking, expanding, changing it into some immortal form. Many of the most beautiful modern sculptures have been found in this sheltering place. They have been there for twenty-five million years.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Learn about Geology

I discovered a fabulous web site this evening all about geology. If you want to acquaint yourself with all the basics of geology, this site is for you. It explains everything from why the Himalayas formed to how graphite changes into diamonds.

It is also beautifully designed with copious explanatory animations, something that helps no end in understanding the dynamic nature of the earth. You can find the site, which was created at the University of Tromsø, by following this link.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Catastrophism in Linguistics

Following my precis of Lyell yesterday, today I read another learned article by Mario Alinei which discusses Catastrophism in Linguistics. Interestingly, this article takes issue with one of the conclusions I myself drew from reading Lyell when I stated that:

"Lyell's interest was to shed light on what happened to species, and thought to do this by using languages as an analogy. Thinking of language in this way allows us to see it as a living entity. An entity that can have a moment of birth and a moment of death."

In fact, my conclusion from reading Lyell, that language behaves like an organism, is, according to Alinei, exactly the same conclusion that late 19th and early 20th century linguists drew from Lyell. They started to think of language as an organism, which is to say something which had definable lifespan. The death of a language was considered to have occurred through a cultural 'blitz' (to use Alinei's translator's word). Hence, Pre-Indo-European languages (PIE) were deemed to have died out 6000 years ago as a result of a widespread cultural invasion. While linguists adhered to uniformitarian ideas such as those postulated by Lyell, their actual interpretation of the evidence was catastrophist. Not only that, but the language which prevailed following the 'blitz' was considered superior, the vanquished language being inferior and 'damned'. Alinei makes a point of criticising these points of views, just as Claude Levi-Strauss criticises earlier anthroplogists for relativistic attitudes in their studies of tribespeople.

To remind readers, catastrophist thinking came about when geologists tried to fit the known geological record into the period of time (roughly 6000 years) ordained by Archbishop Ussher to be the age of the earth based on his interpretation of biblical events. The only way to explain such a thick pile of rocks was to invoke a series of major catastrophes by which they could be emplaced. William Buckland was an advocate of this kind of thinking and his study of the remnants of the flood served to bolster the view that the flood described in Genesis could be underpinned by real geological evidence.

Alinei thinks that the interpretations of early linguists betrays their colonialist (racist) thinking. He notes that these linguists considered the Indo-European languages as the most sophisticated and beautiful, a sort of peak of intellectual development. Such a peak must (naturally) have been attained relatively recently and hence a relatively short history was ascribed to the development of the IE language as compared to, for example, the language of Australian aborigines which was considered to have had a development beginning some 40,000 years ago. At the same time, learned societies such as the Société Linguistique de Paris banned communications concerning the origin of language making the 6000 year origin into a doctrine.

Alinei's view is that the IE language came about not by a major cultural invasion, but by a process of slow change that goes back much further than the start of the metal age some 6000 years ago. This is actually much truer to Lyell's original thesis that both languages and species change slowly, continuously and incrementally, the apparent gaps in the record being due to absence of preservation and difficulty of conservation.

My own view is that, very much like geology, linguistics probably contains some uniformitarian and some catastrophic elements. The effect, for example, of the Norman invasion of Britain was a profound one for the English language. It radically altered the language in a way that was sudden and one might say catastrophic. Whether these catastrophic changes outweigh the changes brought about by the bartering of languages between interested parties, I am unable to judge.

I do think, however, that these links between geology and linguistics contain some fascinating grounds for thought. Sea level rises in the post-glacial period of 120m that occurred between 15,000 and 8,000 years ago considerably altered the geographical landscape. For example, the present day English Channel would have been dry land not just between Dover and Calais but as far as the Current Atlantic margin shelf break.

These sea level rises may have been up to 2m in a hundred years, which, compared to current rates of 20cm in the last 100 years might be considered as quite catastrophic, possible resulting in flooding of extensive lowland areas within a single lifetime. What would be the cultural effect if the whole of Bangladesh suddenly disappeared underwater, for example. Surely it would have a strong cultural influence on the people of the surrounding areas as a mass exodus was imposed on them?

Monday, June 12, 2006

Uniformitarianism in Linguistics

Pursuing my line of investigation into the lineage of Ferdinand de Saussure and the influence of geology on linguistics I have discovered this site which discusses how the concept of uniformitarianism, originally applied solely in the geological sciences, particularly by Charles Lyell, began to find usage in linguistics. In fact, it was Lyell himself who, in Chapter 23 of his book 'The Antiquity of Man' first compared the origin and development of languages and species. Lyell draws a number of conclusions:

A number of languages may have a common ancestor language that is no longer spoken, but which can be identified based on common word roots in the daughter languages.

A dialect becomes a distinct language when speakers of two dialects are no longer able to effectively communicate. He draws an analogy with the test of different species in which they are considered distinct if unable to produce fertile hybrids.

Races change more slowly than languages. Over a period of a thousand years, a language has typically changed to the point where it is no longer comprehensible to the same race that has always spoken it.

Areas that are geographically remote and mountainous can produce many distinct languages. Lyell quotes the seventy languages of the Caucases, but reference could equally be made to the forested mountain valleys of Papua New Guinea.

Lack of evidence for the derivation of living languages from dead ones does not prove that one did not evolve from the other: "to question the theory of all known languages being derivative on the ground that we can rarely trace a passage from the ancient to the modern through all the dialects which must have flourished one after the other in the intermediate ages, implies a want of reflection on the laws which govern the recording as well as the obliterating processes."

Although language seems unchanging, new words are creeping in all the time and changing them. It is thus the slowness of language change which makes it undetectable.

The common vocabulary pool is limited, therefore new words must displace old ones. Terms and dialects struggle against each other for existence. This is the motor for change.

Languages spread over a wide area and spoken by large numbers of people will have longer lifespans. Standardisation may attempt to arrest language development, but popular writers continue to evolve the language (c.f. Irving Welsh).

That silent letters, once useful in the parent speech, have been aptly compared to rudimentary organs in living beings, which have at some former period been more fully developed, having had their proper functions to perform in the organisation of a remote progenitor (this was Darwin's idea).

Isolated languages can cease to develop. Peoples that trade abroad tend to have languages that evolve rapidly, taking in new terms, for example, the isolated, unevolved Icelandic tongue as compared to the evolved Norwegian from which it is derived.

The ability of a language to adapt to new wants is fundamental in its survival. This may be compared to the ability of a certain genetic mix to survive a given environment,

Languages evolve and become more sophisticated. This may be seen as analogous to the evolution of simple organisms into more complex ones.

Lyell's interest was to shed light on what happened to species, and thought to do this by using languages as an analogy. Thinking of language in this way allows us to see it as a living entity. An entity that can have a moment of birth and a moment of death. Mankind is the environment in which the language lives. Languages have to compete inside the human mind. If a language does not serve well, like a dinosaur, it will become extinct. Successful languages thrive on the mutations which allow them to adapt.

Lyell's Chapter 23 began with a quotation from Prof. Max Muller. The next year Muller returned the compliment by quoting Lyell and in the same work took account of Lyell's ideas in a much profounder way. For in an earlier chapter (Ch. 2) he virtually incorporated uniformitarianism into linguistics, by formulating two principles on which the science of language rests, namely, that what is real in modern formations must be admitted as possible in more ancient formations, and that what has been found to be true on a small scale may be true on a large scale.

I think that Muller's ideas serve as a precursor for more recent theories postulated by Chomsky that there is an underlying deep structure to languages which are common to all languages ("what has been found to be true on a small scale may be true on a large scale") and that these deep structures may be indicative of the workings of mind ("what is real in modern formations must be admitted as possible in more ancient formations"). You can read more about structuralism in linguistics here.


The same site also mentions that besides the major influence of uniformitarianism, linguistics shows influence from geology in two minor ways, namely, in its metaphors "substratum" and "linguistic paleontology". Thought on linguistic paleontology is particularly interesting since it comes from an exclusively Swiss circle of thinkers including Pictet (1859-63); Techmer (1880), Saussure (1922) and Nehring (1931). The history of the latter metaphor may involve some connection between A. Pictet (1799-1875) and F.-J. Pictet (1809-72), professors at the University of Geneva. the latter being an eminent paleontologist.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Remembering Soley

I have no philosophy to explain
why the music stops
or to tell why little children
blow upon their hands
and cannot make them warm.

On a summer’s day
why does a butterfly flapping its wings
on the other side of the earth
create a storm? A throw
of the dice won’t change chance.

Under the natural span of grief we lie
shadowed by a world that’s torn.
Things seem more fragile
than they did before.
Hands feel worn.

But speak Soley’s name
and the room fills up.
No ambassador, passing
could make such a claim
to be true to Iceland’s molten heart.

In the end, we find
it’s a simple thing to say
that we loved her for the good
that she was, and feel sharply
this intolerable loss.

What’s best? To be kind
as Soley was, to laugh like her.
Light heart, clear spirit.
We touch the space where you were
and feel your presence still.

Our friend Soley Mangal died in a tragic accident last weekend. She was only 41. Soley was born in Iceland where her parents still live. She was a very kind lady who loved children. I wrote this poem in rememberance of her and read it yesterday at the family's memorial service held at the Norwegian Seaman's Church in Le Vesinet. Our thoughts are with her husband, her children and all her family at this sad time.

Digital Storytime

A few years ago, I made my first attempt at publishing poetry on the internet using a yahoo web site. I had almost forgotten about it, but recently received an e-mail which suggested that if I did not update the site, it would be automatically deleted.

The site shows some of the collaborative work that I did with my brother Nick Wonham in the production of illustrated poetry pamphlets. My brother is a teacher and illustrator. He studied at the Camberwell School of Arts and is now very involved in the creation of interactive story CDs, a concept that he developed himself through teaching children with learning difficulties.

The CDs are great fun, often illiciting laughter from children and adults alike. My brother does the story, the narration, the animation design and all of the pictures himself. Although the stories work on computers, they are very simple to use, involving only choices and mouse clicks to navigate. My three year old daughter can use them quite easily.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Memories of America: New York State

The first time I remember being influenced by America was when my father visited on a business trip and brought back some American artifacts. I particularly remember some Superhero comics, one of which contained adverts for fabulous toys including a submarine which you could actually get inside. Of course, I wanted one of those desperately and I would go to sleep at night imagining American boys plumbing the depths of swimming pools and lakes in their tiny submersibles.

My first visit to America was when I was fourteen. We visited my Uncle and Aunt in Toronto and made a tour of New York State, passing by Niagara Falls and the Finger Lakes. We refilled the car with petrol in Niagara and the forecourt assistant leant over our windscreen to clean it with a cloth. When he'd finished he gave us a wide smile and said "Have a nice day."

This first trip, taught me what a large and provincial country America is: travelling almost constantly for three weeks, staying in motels, driving day after day through hilly forests and flat farmlands where many of the farm gates had a few crates loaded with cucumbers and a sign saying 'CUKES 5c'.

As we neared New York city, people we stayed with warned us not to go there, and so we didn't, fearing that we would be attacked on the freeway and dragged from our car. One night we stayed in a small town near the Finger Lakes and went to a pasta restaurant. The portions were huge and flavourless. Seeing that none of us could eat more than a third of the serving, the waitress asked: "Would you like a doggy bag?" to which my father replied: "No thank you, we haven't got a doggy."

Monday, June 05, 2006

The Poetry of Saying

I have just received a copy of The North, a poetry magazine published in the UK. It contains a review by Cliff Yates of a book called "The Poetry of Saying: British Poetry and its Discontents, 1950-2000" published by Liverpool University Press. The book discusses the kind of 'underground' or alternative poetry which I mentioned in my previous blog about Joe Ross' book "EQUATIONS=equals". Yates quotes author Robert Sheppard's remark about Tom Raworth:

The poems cohere more by a reading of their formal means than by attempting to chart the semantics of a supposed context, even as readers are drawn into dialogue. The discourses are powerfully questioned and defamiliarized; indeed, the poems may never read the same way twice... They are both empty and full. They turn content into form and turn form into content that is read... they do not have designs on us. We must make designs with them.

It is the last sentence I wanted to draw attention to. This kind of poetry makes great demands on the reader and the poems "may never read the same way twice'. This is because each reader brings their own experience, perhaps of only a few moments earlier, to the interpretation of the poem. The poems contain no 'closure'. They remain open to interpretation.