Sunday, August 24, 2014

When we construe an aspect of the world as something that can be identified and counter or measured and that can play a role in events, language often allows us to express that aspect as a noun, whether or not it is a physical object.

The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates LanguageThe Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language by Steven Pinker
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I just finished reading the most challenging non-fiction leisure book I have ever read: Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct. It was a close call, but I'm relieved that I powered through.

Before I dive into my review, I'd like to clarify that I found it challenging not because my knowledge of linguistics prior to reading this book was terribly basic, but rather because there is so much information packed into The Language Instinct. That is, however, its greatest merit - and the reason why my mind was being blown after every chapter.

In The Language Instinct, Pinker argues that humans' ability to acquire language is not dependant on education or imitation. Rather, it's instinctual. It's "wired into our brains by evolution."
According to Pinker, "evolution did not make a ladder. It made a bush." That is to say, Pinker disagrees with Darwin's theory that we evolved from Monkeys.

That's why computers will never be able to learn language the way a child could, and also why apes will never be able to speak English or Learn American Sign Language. Indeed, Pinker's research shows that those who claimed that laboratory apes' gestures resembled sign language were actually overanalyzing what they observed.

Of course, there are many Darwinists out there who would shake their heads at such a thought (Pinker, however, is pretty convincing). All it would take, however, is the discovery of an evolved trait for an aesthetic, and not pragmatic, purpose, to defy the theory of natural selection.

Anyway - because Pinker is trying to prove that language is an instinct, he begins at the roots of language acquisition. There is a lot of research on children. Such research is especially interesting when Pinker discusses 'creoles,' mother tongues that are developed as a result of several languages meshed together. The possibility of such 'meshing' suggests that an universal grammar underlies all language.

The existence of a "universal grammar," however, would not wholly verify that language is an instinct. After all, we have words for 'water' not because our DNA dictates it but because we need to refer to water. Neither is there a 'grammar gene - an American-born Chinese can just as easily learn English as his or her American peers. So, it seems that "complexity in the mind is not caused by learning; learning is caused by complexity in the mind."

The Language Instinct is also in many ways a defense of language. Pinker argues that there is no reason to look down upon primitive dialects because primitive cultures have complex language systems and, after all, a language is also a dialect - just one with "an army and a navy."

In his chapter on language mavens, a.k.a grammar nazis, Pinker also explains why certain grammatical errors are perhaps even preferable. For example, language mavens will argue that "Who did you see" should be "Whom did you see" or at least "Which person did you see" according to the rules of grammar. Yet can you imagine, Pinker asks, saying something like "Whom did you sound like?" Moreover, the final option ("which person") restricts the 'who' from being an animal or multiple people.

The Language Instinct is an enlightening read that leaves reader with a deeper understanding, and growing curiosity, of language. Pinker writes in a clear and sometimes almost conversational way that renders a PhD-worthy subject into one that general audiences can grasp. Of course, certain sections are utterly perplexing and almost impossible to retain:

Above all, however, Pinker convincingly presents the thesis that language - contrary to what many believe - is instinctual.

As he says, "this is news." If language is innate, much more could be; such a revelation would revolutionize the way we consider education, study the human brain and even assess the validity of Darwin's theory of evolution!!


  • We are told that a noun is the most important part of a sentence because it is the doer; however, a noun cannot operate without verb. So, the verb is the boss of a sentence
  • Mentalese: the hypothetical "language of thought, or representation of concepts and propositions in the brain in which ideas, including the meanings of words and sentences, are couched.
  • Listeme: an element of language that must be memorized because its sound or meaning does not conform to some general rule. All word roots, irregular forms and idioms are listemes.
  • When your tongue is high and at front of your mouth, you'll produce high-frequency sounds (e.g. e in teeny); when your tongue is low and at the back of your mouth, you'll produce low-frequency sounds (e.g. a in large). Now, this is especially fascinating when we consider words such as frobbing, twiddling and tweaking. To frob is to move a dial or switch by drastically adjusting its range; to twiddle is to adjust the switch by a smaller margin; to tweak is to adjust the switch by only a litte. Interestingly, it's always the word with the high front vowel that goes first in expressions such as ping-pong and chit-chat. Hip-hop, flip-flop, the list goes on...
  • English is an isolating language, meaning that you must say "to go" to indicate the act of going somewhere - two units are used to express one definition. The french aller, however, does the deed in one word.

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Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Grâce à l'exil, mes enfants n'ont jamais été des prolongements de moi, de mon histoire

RuRu by Kim Thúy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Kim Thúy's Ru is a moving, elegantly written and deeply personal work that demonstrates the relentlessness of the past and the immortal pull of home.

A semi-autobiography that draws on Thúy's own experiences as well as those of her kin, Ru recounts the musings and recollections of, Nguyên An Tinh, a Vietnamese woman in her 30s who spent her youth running away from a cage home in Saigon, escaping the communist terror in Southern Vietnam and travelling by boat with her fellow refugees to seek safety.

Ru is recounted in snippets, des bribes, as Thúy takes readers back and forth in time, distance and memory. Initially, it seems that we are only reading the story of one woman; as the novel progresses, however, the gates of history open up as we learn the stories of soldiers in the war, the host family that supported the refugees, the Vietnamese women who worked in the rice fields...
Much tradition and culture is also discussed in Ru as Thúy writes about noodles and soup, staples of Vietnamese breakfasts, and how touching another's head is a grave insult in Vietnamese culture.

Thúy tells the most memorable and horrifying stories in simple and poetic ways, moving and shocking us all at once. We learn of diamonds etched into the teeth of escapees, a Vietnamese woman dying after falling into an open-air toilet, soldiers needing to sleep with ice to forget the heat of war. All stories are told in an interrupted and graceful stream of thought, which is fitting since ru means 'flow' in French and 'lullaby' in Vietnamese.

So in a string of short and non-linear flashbacks, we begin to piece together not only Nguyên's story, but also that of the boat people, those expelled from their homeland by war and armed with only the courage to live.

In this way, Ru demonstrates the power of literature in helping readers become more accepting, empathetic and internationally-minded people. One's heart goes out to Nguyên in compassion and pity as she recollects the lure of the American dream; one cannot help but feel for her when she remembers the nostalgic pull of Bounce. It is through the characters we meet in books that we come to love our protagonists regardless of their race and gender and eventually develop a world view considers human beings by character and not premeditated judgement.

In Ru, there is a scene where Nguyên explains that she tells her son, Pascal, a Vietnamese story so that he learns something no schools will teach today - so that he carries on a part of that lost history. If such passage of information is Nguyên's aim in writing Ru, she succeeds. She not only captures the essence of childhood, young adulthood and motherhood in a style that is beautifully poetic, but also captures the hardships of the "gens du pays" to whom the novel is dedicated.

Ru is a beautiful and evocative tribute to all who lost their lives - both in death and in displacement - in seeking a better future. It's a novel that reminds us to be grateful for our present - but to never dismiss the past.

Mes parents nous rappellent souvent, à mes frères et à moi, qu'ils n'auront pas d'argent à nous laisser en héritage, mais je crois qu'ils nous ont déjà légué la richesse de leur mémoire, qui nous permet de saisir la beauté d'une grappe de glycine, la fragilité d'un mot, la force de l'émerveillement. Plus encore, ils nous ont offert des pieds pour marcher jusqu'à nos rêves, jusqu'à l'infini.

J'avais oublié que l'amour vient de la tête et non pas du coeur. De tout le corps, seule la tête importe. Il suffit de toucher la tête d'un Vietnamien pour l'insulter, non seulement lui mais tout son arbre généalogique.
Si une marque d'affection peut parfois être prise pour une offense, peut-être que le geste d'aimer n'est pas universel: il doit être traduit d'une langue à l'autre, il doit être appris. Dans le cas du vietnamien, il est possible de classifier , de quantifier le geste d'aimer par des mots spécifiques: aimer par goût (thích), aimer sans être amoureux ( thuong), aimer amoureusement (yeu), aimer avec ivresse ( mê), aimer aveuglément ( mu quang), aimer par gratitude (tinh nghia). Il est donc impossible d'aimer tout court, d'aimer sans sa tête.

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Monday, August 18, 2014


TinkersTinkers by Paul Harding
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Who is a tinker, and what does a tinker do?

Simply put, a tinker is a repairer - someone who mends various contraptions, fixes broken instruments and gets into the tiny, metallic, brass-filled heart of appliances to make necessary adjustments.

In Paul Hardings' 2010 Pulitzer-Prize winning novel Tinkers, we meet two such characters: George Washington Crosby and his father, Howard Aaron Crosby.

Throughout the novel, each either tinkers with clocks, various paraphernalia in the drawers of wagons, and finally - in an attempt to revisit the past or as a result of being helplessly thrown back in time because of a hallucination - their own memories.

The novel begins with George Washington Crosby, who is suffering one such hallucination:
"George Washington Crosby began to hallucinate eight days before he died."
Using variations on that same sentence, Harding places markers throughout the novel that gradually count down the hours to the day George dies (the end of the novel).

The story itself, however, does not progress so linearly. Rather, key moments in the childhoods of both George and Howard are fleshed out in the span of 191 pages in prose that is at once devoid of quotation marks yet punctuated by italicized text and the occasional 'extract from a manual' (more on that later). Indeed, why should there be any quotation marks? After all, everything is happening inside George's/Howard's head. It is therefore fitting that Harding also heavily uses parentheses to indicate interruptions in otherwise ceaseless trains of thought - thought that is often spelled out in long, Proust-worthy sentences.

(don't feel obliged to read the quote below, but it's a great example of 1) Harding's style 2) George's reflection on death as he considers his future )
“And so this end in confusion, where when things stop I never get to know it, and this moving is the space, is that what is yet to be, which is for others to see filled wherever it may finally be in the frame when the last pieces are fitted and the others stop, and there will be the stopped pattern, the final array [...272 words...] why can't I stop all the moving and look out over the vast arrangements and find by the contours and colors and qualities of light where my father is, not to solve anything but just simple even to see it again one last time, before what, before it ends, before it stops. But it doesn't stop; it simply ends. It is a final pattern scattered without so much as a pause at the end, at the end of what, at the end of this.”
Apart from these long sentences, extracts taken from various manuals (e.g. The Reasonable Horologist) also appear in Tinkers and deal mostly with clocks: their parts, their history, their inner workings: time. After all, the characters are all so immersed in time and revisit it throughout the novel. In remembering his past and remembering about his father, George is 'tinkering' with time and his memory of his father. In changing his name after running away from home, Howard is tinkering with his identity.

Another defining stylistic feature of Tinkers emerges in Harding's very detailed descriptions of nature.
Here's a lovely example:
Those early flowers smelled like cold water. Their fragrance was not the still perfume of high summer; it was the mineral smell of cold, raw green. He crouched to look at a daffodil. Its six-petaled corona was fully unfurled, like a bright miniature sun. A bee crawled in its cup, massaging stigma and anther and style. 
Indeed, nature is omnipresent in Tinkers and tied to its characters. The mute and enigmatic Gilbert practically seems like wild nature in homo sapien form; at one point, Howard's brain is likened to branches that flare in the "metallic blue of dusk" before they are "drained from the sky."

When Howard has his epileptic seizures, a thick stick shoved into his mouth saves him from biting off his tongue and leaves him with bark caught between in teeth. So the presence of the natural world in Tinkers isn't 'light;' such an image brims with violence. Nature in this novel is described with such detail, strength and rawness that Harding's language itself is what powerfully transforms the experience of reading Tinkers. His diction, although not always reader-friendly, is what magnifies an otherwise short 192-page novel into a work that transcends time.

I don't think Tinkers changed my life or is a book that will, mostly due to its inaccessible prose. But I can still see why it won the Pulitzer - Tinkers is deep despite its brevity, thought-provoking and absolutely, ABSOLUTELY beautifully written.
Choose any hour on the clock. It is possible, then, to conceive that the clock’s purpose is to return the hands back to that time, a time which, from the moment chosen, the hands leave and skate across the rest of the clock’s painted signs and calibrations and numbers. These other markings on the face become irrelevant in themselves; they are now simply clues pointing in the direction of the chosen time. It is then possible, too, to conceive of the clock’s gears and springs as each having its own intrinsic function, but within a whole mechanism, the larger purpose of which is to return to the chosen time. In this manner, the clock resembles the universe.
Your cold mornings are filled with the heartache about the fact that although we are not at ease in this world, it is all we have, that it is ours but that it is full of strife, so that all we can call our own is strife; but even that is better than nothing at all, isn’t it?
And as the ax bites into the wood, be comforted in the fact that the ache in your heart and the confusion in your soul means that you are still alive, still human, and still open to the beauty of the world, even though you have done nothing to deserve it. And when you resent the ache in your heart, remember : You will be dead and buried soon enough.

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This is Berk...

^struggling to find the right words to describe my experience of watching How to Train Your Dragon 2 

Today, I did what I did not have the guts (or time) to do two months ago: watch How to Train Your Dragon 2, the sequel that I feared would ruin my impression of my favourite 21st century film, How to Train Your Dragon.

Post-movie, I am glad to say that no dreams have been crushed and that I hope
1) there will be a third movie (pretty please, Dreamworks) and that
2) How to Train your Dragon 2 gets recognized by the Academy!!!

Unless you, like me, have watched these shorts on Youtube, you arrive at a very different Berk at the beginning of How to Train Your Dragon 2. The villagers are no longer the conservative, dragon-fearing Vikings they were five years ago (Berk-time) but happy dragon riders who, like our protagonist Hiccup (Jay Baruchel)  have adopted the dragons as pets and consider them their friends. There is even an old cat-lady, or should I say dragon-lady, who makes sporadic and amusing appearances throughout the movie.

But Berk's dragon-viking alliance is soon threatened by the dark and hulking Bludvist, who has an evil plan to eradicate the dragon race by building an army of dragons and turning them against each other - OR, as Hiccup accurately surmises, by using the dragons' power to conquer the world. Classic.

While Bludvist is plotting away, Hiccup is having a mild identity crisis: he is unsure about becoming chief, much keener on mapping new lands with his dragon, Toothless, AND - on top of all this - finds his long-lost mother, Valka (Cate Blanchett), who is as much of a dragon-lover as he is and has made the dragon lair her home.

It is in this lair that we meet, for the first time, one of two beasts whose species is the "king of all dragons:" The Bewilderbeast.

These Bewilderbeasts have the power to summon and control all dragons at will (hence, bewilder). The  Snowy Bewilderbeast in the lair uses his powers to take care of his fellow dragons and feed them; the Muddy Bewilderbeast, however, is vicious, dangerous and the tool Bludvist uses to rally up his dragon army.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 is about change: there's Hiccup, who is initially uncertain about chiefship but finally realizes that he does not have to be the same kind of chief his father was. There are the aforementioned Bewilderbeasts who can change and control any dragon's actions. Even Eret, Son of Eret, changes his mind about dragons after Astrid's (America Ferrera) dragon saves his life.

At the beginning of the movie, however, Stoick (Gerald Butler) tells Hiccup that - despite all the change Berk has experienced - change is impossible. Drago Bludvist is quite set on this idea too, and decides to prove it to Hiccup by using the Muddy Bewilderbeast to turn Toothless against him, a tragic move that results in Stoick's death.

Stoick's funeral is moving, the monologues are tear-inducing and everything, as a Youtube commenter rightly put it, has a Qui-Gon-Jinn's-funeral vibe. It's the darkest and most moving moment in the whole movie.

But Hiccup, as his mother reminds him, has "the heart of a chief and the soul of a dragon." So the dragon riders return to Berk to catch Bludvist in the middle of rallying all the dragons there.

Then, in an incredibly moving scene that captures everything I love about the How to Train Your Dragon films, audiences witness the truest proof of change: Toothless fights and throws off the Bewilderbeast's hypnosis as Hiccup says to him, "you're my best friend."

That is how you win the loyalty of the dragon.

Of course, How to Train Your Dragon 2 is not without its flaws - numerous happenings are unexplainable (HOW did Stoick find the lair?) and, thanks to CGI, many improbabilities are dismissible (all those insane dragon turns). There are also illogical but hilarious (therefore, forgivable) moments that crop up, such as Ruffnut's whimsical infatuation for Eret. Sometimes, I also felt like the action was a bit much.

Yet How to Train Your Dragon 2 is a maturer movie than its precursor. It is more of a bildungsroman although it has less plot development since the milestones that made How to Train Your Dragon so beautiful and important, such as Toothless and Hiccup's friendship and Hiccup and Astrid's relationship, had already been established.

But How to Train Your Dragon 2 succeeds as a sequel because it takes us a step further in Hiccup's coming of age journey, amplifies an already spectacular soundtrack and reinforces the strength of a one-in-a-million friendship - not a bond that Bludvist and his pathetic iron staff can destroy so easily.

P.S. Thank goodness puberty hit Hiccup *swoon*