Magritte, Kierkegaard, & de Saussure

If you name me, you negate me. By giving me a name, a label, you negate all the other things I could possibly be.” Danish Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard (1813 – 1855).

Rene Magritte (1898–1967) was a Belgian surrealist artist who is known for challenging the viewers’ preconditioned perceptions of reality.One could wax and wane endlessly about the philosophical underpinnings of his pipe painting, Treachery of Images (1929). Or the way I understand it – Magritte was saying two things here – this is not a pipe since you can’t really stuff some tobacco into it and smoke it as you would a pipe. The second is that it’s not a pipe because it’s an image of a pipe. And really the word pipe can be changed at any time to say for instance pig – in which case – this would still no longer be a pipe. So the word and the image are simply representations of the real thing, and not the real thing.

The Interpretation of Dreams 1935

Words and images are human representations of the real live tangible thing which we can touch and experience. They have names because we gave them these names – there is always a disconnect between the real thing and the way we see and name something – perhaps that’s why the images are also painted through a window.

Key to Dreams 1927 …the sky, the bird, the table, the sponge

The paintings are depictions of the challenges put forth by the influential Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) who clearly saw that the relationship between a thing and its name are totally arbitrary. The word gets its meaning from existing within a context of the system of naming that exists and has existed for centuries. Magritte challenged this same arbitrary relation in these paintings.

The Key To Dreams, 1930 …. the acacia flower, the moon, the snow, the roof, the storm, the desert

So Magritte, Kierkegaard, & de Saussure come together to help us understand and challenege, and find new ways of looking at old things.

Blue-Backed Speller

Before he wrote the dictionary, Webster wrote the book largely responsible for American pronunciation and spelling – the bestselling Blue-Backed Speller.

Noah Webster

Noah Webster was born in Connecticut in 1758 and came of age during the American Revolution. He went to Yale from 1774 to 1778, and became a teacher. It was then that he realized that American education system was too dependent on England and English books, and needed to be updated. He wanted to free American English from the pedantry of English forms and traditions, and in 1783 he wrote A Grammatical Institute of the English Language which became known as the “Blue-Backed Speller” – because of its blue binding.

Towards the end of the 18th and the early part of the 19th century the Blue-Backed Speller was sold in general stores for 14 cents a copy. Over the next 100 years it sold 60 million copies – more than any other book in the American history with the exception of the bible, and became one of the most influential books in the history of the English Language.

An 18th Century school in Winchester, MA

The words and sentences in the book were repeated over and over in classrooms across the fledgling nation – and this repetition of the words over time changed the way Americans sounded out and pronounced the words. With this book Webster made sure Americans spoke words in a way that removed the sounds of the clipped vowels of the English aristocracy whose influence he wanted to remove from everything American. It was all part of a larger cultural transformation that freed America from an English mindset.  

Edward Lamson Henry, A Country School, 1840

It was also from this book that America learnt how to spell in a standardized way across the country. Webster tried to remove all unnecessary letters and illogical spellings from American English – hence the dropping of the letter U from American honor, color etc. He also removed all unnecessary double letters – hence traveler and not traveller, wagon and not the English waggon. He simplified spelling – changing RE to ER as in theater and center, and replaced the C with an S as in defense, gaol became jail, plough became plow, and axe became ax.    

With this book, America also managed to keep English pure and unchanged  – even after 200 years Americans used words that had since dropped from the English language  – the best example is the word fall which England used in the 16th and 17th century but later dropped for the word autumn (which has a French origin). Americans continue to use Chaucer’s “I gesse” unknowingly each time they say “I guess.”

Webster took the American Revolution into the cultural world and the realm of language and literature. With this book he not only shaped the American identity, but managed to unify a linguistically and ethnically diverse nation. At the same time with the Blue-Backed Speller, America, particularly its East Coast, claimed the future of English and became its fiercest guardian.

(Source: YouTube – The History of the English Language, Images Courtesy – noahwebster.org).

He Said What ‽

Sometimes an exclamation mark just does not suffice – neither does just a question mark – the two have to be used together for full impact of the incredulity and shock expressed by the question. For those times we have the interrobang. A perfect example of when an interrobang is required is when one girlfriend says to another – “He said what‽” or when you ask your family, “Who ate the last piece of cake‽”

The interrobang was first used by advertising agency owner Martin K. Specter when he used it in a TYPEtalks magazine article in 1962. The term itself is a combination of the Latin word for a rhetorical questions interrogatio, and the printer and proofreader’s slang for the exclamation mark, bang. The Remington typewriter included the interrobang key in its typewriter in 1968 – but sadly this very useful punctuation mark did not really gain much traction after the 1960s.

Interrogati+ Bang ?!

With its balance of excitement and outrage, and the prevalence of social media in our lives, I am surprised the interrobang has not caught on more, it seems to be a match made in heaven. Perhaps the time is right for the interrobang to rise again and take its rightful place in our shockaholic world.

The 27th Alphabet

The beauty of language is that it is always changing – it molds itself to fit the needs of the times. Over the ages, as we have gone from using scribes who wrote and copied everything by hand, to the printing press, and now to word-processing tools, it is not just language – the alphabet too has changed.

The much loved and decorated ampersand is one such character that was once an alphabet and is today considered punctuation (in Unicode) and a symbol. In fact it was, for a while, the 27th alphabet of the English language.

Ampersand traces its origins to the Roman scribes.

The ampersand traces its origin – as does so much else – to Ancient Romans, specifically Ancient Roman scribes. The scribes would write in cursive in order to speed up their work and when they wrote et – Latin for “and” – they started joining the two letter together and formed the ligature &. So the e and the t – hastily written started to look like the symbol or glyph &.   

The ligature was then adopted by the printing press – in fact the Gutenberg press had 292 such glyphs. For years, the glyph & was the 27th letter of the alphabet – so when students recited the alphabet they would end with X, Y, Z and per se and – which literally translates to (the character) & by itself (is the word) and. The “and per se and” got corrupted and started to be pronounced as ampersand – and the name stuck even when it was removed from the alphabet (sometime in the mid to late 19th century).

Ampersands are most commonly used today in names of companies – AT&T, Barnes & Noble, Ben & Jerry’s, H&M are some that come to mind instantly.

Next up….. Interrobangs!!

Say Shibboleth !!

Shibboleth: Ear of Grain in ancient Hebrew

I saw the word “Shibboleth”for the first time earlier this week. When I logged out of an account, it said something along the lines of a Shibboleth logout. Which of course, got me wondering – what was that? It seemed so incongruous.

The word – which clearly sounds like a Hebrew word – has a very interesting story. In Hebrew the word Shibboleth actually means ear of grain. Some ancient Semitic tribes pronounced the word with a “sh” sound, while others pronounced it with an “s” sound, and that – believe it or not  – is the beginning of the story of how it eventually came to be part of current network security.  

When two Semitic tribes went to war during biblical times, the victors, who pronounced the “sh” sound, identified the enemy by making everyone say the word shibboleth – and those that said it with an “s” sound were found to be the enemy and – well – slaughtered.

And from there the word came to mean linguistic password – a way of speaking that is used to identify a group of people. It can also be customs, mannerisms, and ways of doing something. One example would be identifying an American from a Britisher by the way they use a fork and knife; a Britisher does not switch the fork from the left to the right hand – whereas an American switches the fork to the right hand after cutting their food. Shibboleth became a way of including and excluding people and identifying them – and I can imagine it must have also been quite useful during modern warfare too, including World War I & II.

Shibboleth has been used a lot when two neighboring countries are at war – or during a civil war – when it is difficult to distinguish between people because there are more similarities than dissimilarities. In the Lebanese Civil war of 1975, Lebanese soldiers checked to see is someone was Lebanese or Palestinian by making them say the word for tomato in Arabic. Lebanese say “banadoura,” while Palestinians say “bandoura.” With this tomayto-tomato they were able to identify the Palestinians. There are many similar wartime stories linked with this word.

It is this very ability to identify who belongs and who does not that enabled the word to lend itself to be used in reference to secure identification when a user logs into or out of a network system run by institutions such as public service organizations or universities. And that is what I recently saw when I logged out of a network.

Doris Salcedo’s Shibboleth exhibition at the Tate Modern in London shows cracks in the floor – symbolizing the damage cultural exclusion can cause.