Dialogue, language, learning LO25290

From: Leo Minnigh (l.d.minnigh@library.tudelft.nl)
Date: 09/04/00

Replying to LO25273 and others

Dear LO'ers,

It is difficult to follow one thread in such a complex issue of language
and its relation with learning. It is apparantly an issue where all of us
have their personal thoughts and associations. Doc pointing to rhythm and
sound with Lewis Carrol's poem, Sajeela and Winfried Deijman thinking of
the non-verbal languages, At sketched the marvelous historical trajectory
that a language could follow and he pointed also to the two interfering
spheres of complexity of spoken and written language (apart from many
other intefering spheres of complexities). And Richard Seel referred to a
very interesting paper where the relationships of language and
thinking/understanding is mentioned. Well, I have not mentioned all others
who have contributed their thoughts on this subject.

It is because of all these very interesting contributions that my own
thoughts follow even other meanders in this vast flood plain.

Yes, At and I communicate in private in Afrikaans and (high??) Dutch.
Although I and many others now in the Netherlands became interested in
Afrikaans as language (not at least by the fantastic work of a famous
Dutch poet, Gerrit Komrij, who has recently compiled and annotated over
1000 Afrikaans poems), I have not the experience in that language that At
has of the Dutch language. But I can assure you that my understanding of
Afrikaans is usually perfect. Seldomly meet some difficulties, but when
reading aloud, I usually could relate the sound of the word or sentence
with the Dutch spelling/meaning of that word or sentence. And that is the
meander that my thoughts follows: spoken language - written language. But
I also like to mention some other directions that came into my mind: word
separation. This subject will be treated at the end of this contribution.

Written language is only one part. Reading e.g. Italian is one thing,
hearing it is another thing. The melody of a language is very special and
could give an extry view on the way people communicate and think. When I
worked for my PhD study in the Italian Alps I had many discussions with
Italian people about their language. One of the first things I heard from
them was that Italian is simple, because of the nearly one-to-one
relationship between writing and speaking. The spelling of Italian words
is indeed nearly always a direct reflection of the pronounciation (keeping
some simple rules in mind). These Italian people never talked about the
natural melody of their talkings. And that is difficult.

I wonder how the English written and spoken language developed, and where,
when and why all the bifurcations between these two happened. There is
absolutely no single set of rules that give you clues of the
pronounciation or the spelling of words. Just some examples that came in
my mind:
bow - cow
although - enough - plough
flute - root - route

In Dutch I know of two examples of different spelling, but same
pronounciation (ij - ei; au - ou), however in some dialects one can hear
the differences in pronounciation.

Some subtle differences in pronounciation have recently vanished. I know
of one example. People of my generation (I am now 52) have learned reading
and writing in the primary school with a method that was developed at the
end of the nineteenth century. It was a board of small pictures of daily
things and a box of small pieces of carton with printed letters (or
combinations of letters) on them. It was an ingenious set of - I think -
21 pictures with its words. Nearly the complete alphabet and all sounds
and common letter combinations were represented by these words. But there
were two pictures in this board that had nearly simmilar spelling and
pronounciation: HOK and BOK (pen and male goat). Why were there these two
words and pictures included in an otherwise so ingeniously economic
method? I learned it from my late mother in law. She new that there is a
slight difference in pronounciation. But now nobody will know that

At has mentioned in his contribution that sometimes politics have
confiscated the language to reach certain goals: one language, one nation.
However, there are also some other political influences on language. Dutch
is possibly the only language with a multinational committee to
standardise its spelling, since this language is spoken in Belgium
(flemish) and in the Netherlands (I thought that even some representatives
from South Africa are in this committee). I think we have had recently the
third revision of our official spelling after WWII. One of the great
issues of discussion and debate is always the spelling of words with a C
or a K. For instance, this commission could talk for hours of the spelling
of the word COMBINATION or KOMBINATION. Strange, but true. Why these
discussions? Because of some sensitivities in the political thinking in
these countries. In Belgium there is a strong language battle between the
northern (flemish/Dutch) part and the southern (French) part. And to
accentuate the difference between the southern and northern feelings in
Belgium, the flemish like to use the K, just to be different from the
French. However, in the Netherlands the sympathy goes for the C. Why? Not
because the relation between pronounciation and spelling becomes simpler
(on the contrary), but - hold your armchair - because the Germans during
WWII were very anti-latin and promoted the K. And because there are still
with some people in the Netherlands anti-German feelings, this K-promotion
is boycotted. Believe it or not. A good example of small mindedness!

I will not be surprised if in the Balkan simmilar things have occurred.

Changing spelling has other implications too. I know of an example from
the early sixties when a big store chain used in their shop-windows the
word KADO (official spelling: cadeau = present,gift). It was used as
eye-catcher,and possibly this commercial trick worked. Later, it became
mode to spell all kind of words litterary as their pronounciation; this
modern movement was typically of the late sixties and seventies, when
nearly everything' was allowed, or accepted. But these spellings became
not official.

However, even subtle changes in spelling could have great implications for
some people. I know of my wife that she thinks very much in
'word-pictures'. Especially, because for her some 15 letters from the
alphabet have special colours. Each letter, its own colour; there are some
subtle nuances with some of these coloures. That means, that for her a
change in spelling, means a complete different picture in her mind. I
wonder if others of this list know of this phenomenon.

And now some words on word-separations. In the English language
word-separation is possibly the most far developed in respect to all other
European languages. I mentioned in my first contribution on this subject,
that the Germans are possibly the greatest combinators. We remember
possibly the exposees of At on free energy. He mentioned several times
Free Energy - two words, one meaning. This illustrates the problem of word
separation. This is very common in the English language. Sea breeze, two
words, one meaning. In German and also in Dutch it would be seabreeze.
Each language is full of incongruences, e.g. seasick is one word. Word
separation (word-separation; wordseparation) has also advantages,
particularly in our modern age with search engines. If one likes to search
for all kind of breezes, including sea breezes, it is very handy that this
word 'breeze' is not combined with other words. But we should realize that
it is something very strange, that one subject could be separated over
several words. According to a dutch article that I saw some time ago,
these word separations originated in medieval times. In the beginning of
written language, particularly Latin, there were no words, all words were
linked together. And one had to read aloud to 'see' and hear the words. As
said word separation started in medieval times, to facilitate the reading
of manuscripts. This word separation started first with the Angelsaksian
languages, were Latin was not its mothertongue. In Gallia (France), where
the original Latin stayed much longer, word separation started only in the
eleventh century.
So word separation promoted easy reading.

As said, German is the champion language of word connection. Dutch is
somewhere in between English and German.
I think it was in 1960 or so when I heard the Dutch teacher in the
school class gving a typical example of a Germanism in Dutch. It was the
word 'frisdrank'. For us it was a new word and sounded completely
ridiculous, because according to our language rules it should be two
separate words. The class was in a great laugh. But not so much later,
this word was completely accepted and normal in the Netherlands. What was
so strange of this word? It litterary means 'a fresh drink', or 'a cool
drink'. However, it got its own meaning now, since this word does not says
anything about the temperature when served - it could be on room
temperature - but it refers to a non-alcoholic drink, like coca cola.

But does word separation impairs holism? As soon as one separates things
that belong together, one tends to forget the unity. Could it be that
Germans are more sensitive for holism (whole-ism), than people with
English as their mother tongue?

Best wishes,

dr. Leo D. Minnigh
Library Technical University Delft
PO BOX 98, 2600 MG Delft, The Netherlands
Tel.: 31 15 2782226
        Let your thoughts meander towards a sea of ideas.


Leo Minnigh <l.d.minnigh@library.tudelft.nl>

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