Sunday, 18 March 2018

Steven Pinker, 'The Language Instinct'

My Goodreads review:

Comrades, this book made me a Chomskyite. No, no, no, not politically, OBVS, but linguistically. I read Chomsky many years ago, and wasn't quite convinced, somewhat under the influence of eg George Steiner.

New readers start here: Chomsky said, essentially, that language was innate, and had what he called a deep structure, common to all human languages. Children have a universal grammar, which is hardwired into their brains before birth, so they do not learn language from others but develop it themselves. This is why children who have just started talking say things like "I goed" instead of "I went" - words they have never heard, but have extrapolated from their pre-verbal grammar. My daughter, aged two, when urged "Quickly!", often replied "I am quickling". Anyway, I wasn't totally convinced, back then, and was in any case prejudiced against Chomsky because, like too many USian academics, he is a monoglot - but Pinker has done it now. It's certainly clear that children are not language tabulae rasae.

Along the way, Pinker points out the Great Eskimo Language Hoax (that there are many words for snow) - in fact the languages of that region typically have fewer words for snow than English does - which hoax is still widely believed; largely I think because people want it to be true.

Pinker is also educational and clear. He tells us straight, for instance, that a creole is the language that results when children make a pidgin their native language. All languages are created by children, and they do it by creating a grammar for the words they use. This would invalidate Orwell's Newspeak, as children would creolise it within a generation.

Thoughts are not words, Pinker informs us. If they were, how could more than one thought be expressed by a single word? Or vice versa?

This book treats of cognitive psychology, and is often complex. I confess to reading the complex accounts of experiments and studies in speech and thought quite quickly, not stopping to study and consider them as I would have to do if I were reading this book in an academic setting.

Pinker points out that what he calls "language mavens", but which he means prescriptive pedants (people who write to newspapers saying that a preposition is something with which a sentence should never be ended) choose their examples of abominable English from sources like welfare applications, insurance claims, and student papers; in all of these the writers are trying to convince, and to make a good impression, and are only rarely using language that is natural to them. And yes, I know how long that sentence just was.

This is not a crowd-pleaser, or a particularly easy read. Pinker's own passions do show through, at times entertainingly: he hates relativism, he says "more than I hate anything, excepting, maybe, fiberglass powerboats", and it is a quirkily amusing read in many places without ever being arch or droll.

This is a book for anyone interested in language - and we all, in our own ways, are.">View all my reviews

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Phantom Thread

Allegedly based on the fashion designer Cristobal Balenciaga, this is the story of a fashion designer in 1950s London (Daniel Day-Lewis, in what he says is his last film), his sister and business partner, the splendidly named Cyril (Lesley Manville) the woman who comes into his life and disrupts it (no spoilers here) (Vicky Krieps), and the ghost of his mother. Paul Thomas Anderson is a genius, There Will Be Blood is one of the greatest films ever made, and this is pretty damn brilliant too. London doesn't look like it did in the 1950s, I am very glad to say (I can just about remember what it did look like), so they are reduced to repeatedly showing a single Georgian terrace, probably empty now and probably owned by a Russian oligarch. There's a lot of rather annoying sub-West Wing walking in through doors. There's a lot of breakfast going on. I like films with breakfast in them. A lot of people walk up staircases a lot. There's a rather creepy soundtrack by Jonny Greenwood, who is apparently a former member of a popular beat combo called Radiohead. Oh and did I mention, all the characters are MONSTERS. With the probable exception of two of the seamstresses. Actually, I thought all those monstrous fashion designer chappies were gayers, but seemingly not. More than this I cannot say without spoilers. Go and see it immediately.

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Jane Is The One: Seven people or things that changed my life (3) Sandra Tooman

Jane Is The One: Seven people or things that changed my life (3) Sandra Tooman

woman for the West

Reading West will need to select a Labour candidate soon. It will have to be a woman, to the chagrin of the Central Committee. In recent years there have been apparently good and able female Labour parliamentary candidates in that constituency, but they have naturally been respectively undermined, briefed against and outflanked. So it goes. And the Reading West constituency retains a Member in the Conservative interest. Now the minds of the Central Committee core have been focused by the disastrous (to them) election of a Labour MP in Reading East, despite their best efforts. Something Must Be Done, they cry. Fear not. Step forward Cllr Sarah Hacker, erstwhile Mayor of the Borough of Reading, whose dad bought her a council seat for her birthday. Oh yes. She has thrown her hat into this particular ring, she tells us, and in these words: she has been considering this move for "a few of years" (Google Translate from Albanian, or Howarth speak?) and wants to "deliver on our city's potential as well as representing the town" - make your mind up girl, is Reading a town or a city? There's more! She continues "Being Mayor means I have an expansive network" - wtf does that mean? Something to do with exercise bands for the Zumba classes she keeps going on about? They aren't doing her much good, by the look of her. If I were her I'd ask for my money back. Where was I? Ah yes. This network is so "expansive", she says, it has "given me the chance to improves". Oh yesss. What has it got in its pocketses? It has gots lovely Reading Borough Council cashes, yess, it has. She wants to be "the first woman to represent Reading West in Parliament". Maybe she does. There is at least one Reading Labour woman other than this creature who is (a) possessed of an intellect and political nous (b) not corrupt (c) has some idea of what the world is all about. So there is still hope for Labour in Reading West.

Sue me.

Thursday, 4 January 2018

Maggie O'Farrell, 'I Am, I Am, I Am'

This is an account of Maggie O’Farrell’s 17 brushes with death, her own and those of her children.  Some of them would be seen that way by anyone – her own serious illness as a child, her own child’s severe anaphylactic shock – and some brought her close to death perhaps only in her own mind – a frightening encounter with a man who might have murdered someone else, being caught in a riptide, her mother almost, but not, slamming a car boot on her head – but all of them caused her to meditate on the closeness of death, mainly without fear. She suggests that once you have confronted the immediate possibility of dying, which she did aged eight when she contracted encephalitis, there is never again any cause to fear death. I think this is right. I had my own encounter with the Grim Reaper much later in life, in the form of an ectopic pregnancy when I was 38. Undiagnosed it would have killed me within hours (thank you my GP at the time, Dr Asghar), and in the two or three hours from first symptoms to emergency surgery I knew perfectly well what I was facing. There was no fear, and there has been none since, including when I was suspected of having oesophageal cancer two years ago (I haven’t).

She writes it interestingly, setting the scene for each encounter and then veering to another time and place in her life, and then back to the history that led to the encounter itself. In the process she tells what seems to be the whole of her life. I liked the way she describes the men in her life, briefly and obliquely, but tellingly and vividly. There is a lot of love in these stories.

Maybe this work will set a new trend, for an episodic picture of a life, on a theme, rather than straight autobiography.

I hope so.

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Maggie O'Farrell, 'This Must Be The Place': a gold-hatted, high-bouncing lover

This is an accomplished work, and is the story of a man, Daniel Sullivan, a New Yorker who is a linguistics professor living in the wilds of Ireland, and his relationship, mainly, with his second wife Claudette. There is a shifting cast of other characters, and notably of children and adolescents. It is stupendously atmospheric in places, although a bit annoying as it jumps around in time and place, and, particularly if you put it down for a day or so, you have to remind yourself what time and place you are currently in. Two of the female characters, Teresa and Rosalind, are under-used, so that I wondered why they were even there. Some are dismissed too glibly "Maeve always did as she was told", and the second wife, reclusive ex-actor Claudette, becomes more and more perfect as the story goes on, so that I wanted to mess up her perfect face, or for her to actually do something WRONG for once. Also, the total recluse business - Claudette lives in a remote place and no one knows where she is; she also has a demonic Max von Sydow-like Swedish ex-lover who is her nemesis - would never have worked. Those people always have People, who Know Their Secrets. A tour de force, this, but I'm not sure I actually liked it all that much. And there are gaps in the story, but I can't even be bothered to go through it and identify them. I can though forgive a writer a lot if they quote, and use as a conceit, F. Scott Fitzgerald's "gold-hatted, high-bouncing lover".

Sunday, 31 December 2017

My 2017

January came in on the beach on Rabbit Island (so called for its shape not its animal population) on the Gulf of Thailand, a short boat ride from the southern coast at Kep, where Cambodian families go at holiday times to dance in the water, fully clothed.

We’d slept in a tent on the sand, as there were no beach chalets left – as with most things in Cambodia, you can’t easily book in advance – and I woke at first light as I usually do, about 6 am here. Straight into the water (I still had my swimsuit on under my clothes from the night before, and modesty is a thing here) with a pink light on the ripples, and a boat rocking. Two little boys swimming and jumping around the boat. Plastic bottles in the water. The first time for me.

There is no winter here, only a time in December and January of breezy blue mornings and no rain, with a light coating of dust and dead insects on the faces of the tuktuk drivers on Monivong Boulevard. I think sometimes about the four years in the 1970s when Phnom Penh was empty. No people at all. They were driven out, and some were even pushed along the roads in hospital beds, with drip stands rattling at their sides. Money was burned in the streets. The people would have no need of it now. It was April, when the heat is like a punishment. The 17th of April, which is my birthday. I cannot tell Khmer people when my birthday is, though they sometimes ask. The date is one of infamy and the deepest of bad fortune. It is also the date of the battle of Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam in 1954, the day I was born in fact, when the French lost their empire in Indochina. I am quite sure that Brother No. 1, Pol Pot, and his henchpeople chose this date for the boy soldiers in black pyjamas to go in and take the capital, as a deliberate reminder of the end of war and colonial bombing. Of course the Khmer Rouge were welcomed at first, which is how they were able to fan out and take over the city. The people were told at the beginning that they were being evacuated to protect them against American bombing. Some of them even believed it, at first, but none of them had a choice. Four years later people began coming back to the city, though a civil war of sorts dragged on until the 1990s. The people just moved into houses. Not necessarily their houses, any houses. They and their children and grandchildren still live in them today.

I have lived the expat life here this year, teaching English to Cambodian teenagers whose parents can afford to pay for lessons. The students have a fair knowledge of English grammar and vocabulary, but they cannot pronounce or speak in any way that someone who is not Khmer or resident in Cambodia can understand. This is not a problem for most, as very few have any intention of ever leaving Cambodia. As far as I can tell they mostly want to be web designers and YouTube billionaires. They also cannot get information from what they hear or read, as they are used to being told what to think by their teachers. They do not willingly ask questions, and given the opportunity they copy each other’s work and cheat in exams. But there are many compensations and rewards in this work despite all this. We have talked about Cambodian ghost stories, of which there are many, and some of the students have written wonderful (and very scary) ghost stories in English. We have learned songs, and even written some. And I can teach past modals like a BASTARD.

The expat life here is a good one. I define an expat as someone who goes to live in a country where the cost of living is lower than their income presupposes, and they are not obliged to learn the language. By contrast, a migrant worker is someone who is poorer than their income presupposes, and who is obliged to learn the language to survive. The latter was the situation of my companion in France, which is where we lived for nine and ten years respectively before coming to Cambodia. I have of course been trying to learn the language in Cambodia, with so far limited success. One difficulty is that Khmer people assume that if a foreigner is speaking to them it must be in English, and so they patiently try and decode what they hear. If the foreigner is actually speaking in Khmer, they fail, and so does communication.

This has been 2017. I left Cambodia in June, taking a term out to go to the UK and see family, especially Third Granddaughter, who was born in early July. I spent five weeks on the campus of Brunel University, Uxbridge, outer west London (a mile or two from where I was born and spent my first seven years), teaching multinational teenagers at summer school, and topped this off with a week in Bloomsbury for the same organisation. It was surprisingly good fun, and I made some new friends too. One of them is even coming to work in Cambodia next month! I hope to be back next year. The rest of the chilly English summer was spent travelling around the UK seeing various friends and spending time with family, all good. I like the peripatetic life, only wish I could afford to lead it permanently. I made a short visit to France with First Granddaughter. She is now my travelling companion of choice.

A general election in the UK came and went in June. I didn’t vote. I had a proxy arranged, but seeing my (Labour) MP posing with Nigel Farage, and seeing the racist Jew-hatred at the heart of the Labour Party, made me draw the line. Anyway, I have been out of the UK over ten years now, and as an overseas voter you have to vote in the last constituency you were registered in, an area I no longer feel any connection with. Well, the time difference meant I saw the exit poll, ‘Hung Parliament’, at 3.45 am, and was able to follow the results through the morning, overnight UK time. Ultimately the only two I connected with emotionally were ‘Con Hold Reading West’ – cue much glee at the confirmed political ineptitude of the corrupt group of men (still) running Reading Labour Party – and, even better, ‘Lab Gain Reading East’. I hope Matt Rodda has as good a time representing Reading East for Labour as I did, and I say so without irony. I also hope he is better at circumventing the corrupt bullies at the heart of Reading Labour than I was.

Well, it doesn’t much matter what I think or feel about UK politics in 2017. I do hope though that something good can come out of all the crap, even Brexit. But it’s hard to be optimistic. I would say too that Theresa May is doing an almost impossible job not badly. I did know her when in politics – we represented neighbouring constituencies and went to some of the same functions.

I started learning Khmer (pronounced K’my), the language spoken by the overwhelming majority of Cambodia’s 13-million population, in January. I unashamedly plug the school, Gateway to Khmer, who do not know I am writing this. They use the CELTA method (those who know, know) and the teachers, all native speakers of Khmer, are not allowed to speak English to the students, even absolute beginners as I was in January. There is a strong emphasis on phonics and phonetics, a Very Good Thing in my view. It means I can PRONOUNCE yay! Well, trying to speak Khmer when all Khmer people seem to assume that if a foreigner is speaking to them it must be in English, and patiently try to decode your Khmer into the English they don’t know, has its moments of misery and frustration. But I am keeping on. It has been striking that ALL my fellow students so far, almost all USians, with the occasional Australian and Brit, have been Christian missionaries. Because all those people have it as a rule that you have to learn the language before you can do the missioning, so that is where the market is. I’ve learned a lot from them. My failings as a language learner so far are however all my responsibility.

September to December, back teaching in Phnom Penh. Also going to the gym and having adventures in sobriety, all part of my preparation for being old, which some would say I am already. Some days in Penang, Malaysia (go there! it's fab!), when term ended in December, followed by a lovely laid-back Australian Christmas with Andrew’s family. Thanks to them all for their kind and generous hospitality, and for the opportunity for Andrew to get to know his niece and nephew. Now we’re back, and I’m still here, still negotiating the Phnom Penh traffic on my bike with what I hope is aplomb.

See you in 2018.