Archive for March, 2011

Phonetics: Surf’s Up!

March 30, 2011 9 comments


Phonetics: this is the most scientific of the Dragons of Grammar. It is the study of the sounds that people make–the study of the sounds themselves, not of the way that the mind forms or breaks them down for their meaning. Phonetics is the foundation of grammar, since it looks at the raw data that language is built of and the way that it is produced by the mouth, travels through the air, and is received by the ear.

Phonetics is broken down into three subfields: 1) Articulatory phonetics (the way that the lungs, throat, and mouth produce sounds); 2) Acoustic phonetics (the physical properties of human speech); and 3) Auditory phonetics (the way that the ear receives speech sounds). Another way to think of this is that phonetics breaks down the path of speech from lung to mouth to ear into three parts. And there’s no getting around it, folks: we’re down in the basement of grammar, peering into distant caves and tunnels, coming up occasionally to surf on streams of air.

Hmmm. Not everyone is into spelunking or surfing. But phonetics introduces distinctions that are vital to fully understanding the International Phonetic Alphabet–distinctions that make the IPA unintelligible at first glance.

So Team Leader RT says: grab your waterproof outfits, find that old handpick and rope in the attic, and borrow a surf board if you don’t already own one!!


Let’s look at some details of the phonetics subfields:

1) Articulatory. Speech begins with an airflow generated in our lungs (and thus called pulmonic) and directed up through the trachea (or windpipe) into the larynx (or voicebox). The larynx manipulates the airflow to produce volume and pitch (that is, how loud and how squeeky or rumbling our words sound). This basic sound then travels through the vocal tract where it is further shaped by the pharynx, the mouth, tongue, and lips. In the vocal tract, the sound is refined into consonants or vowels and acquires stress and tone. At this point, the sound has become a word, ready for passage through the air to its audience. Hurray!!

Fundamental Frequencies

2) Acoustic. Once a word has been spoken, it exists as a series of waves travelling through the air. Any wave has height (or amplitude) and length (duration). Any series of waves has frequency and resonance. Frequency (or frequencies, since more than one is always involved) is the number of times the wave occurs per unit of time; resonance is the tendency of waves to bunch or scrunch up at certain frequencies–so that these parts of the wave series are louder.

Waves can be deceptive–on paper they look well-defined and predictable, but in fact are loaded with nuances like voice quality and prosody. These details can reveal a speaker’s emotional state, indicate the kind of communication being made (e.g., statement, question, or command), and the presence of irony or sarcasm. People have learned to pack their sounds with meanings and implications.

3) Auditory. To decipher the bundle of intricate information contained in sound waves moving through air, the ear has developed an equally intricate system of hearing. The human ear is divided into the outer, middle, and inner ears. The outer ear (the part of the ear protruding out from the head, also called the “pinna,” and the auditory canal as far as the outer layer of the eardrum, or tympanic membrane) helps collect the physical sounds of speech and amplify them. The middle ear (located behind the eardrum) consists of three bones (the maleus, the incus, and the stapes) which successively transmit the motions sensed by the ear drum to the inner ear. In the middle ear, one of the more amazing things in hearing happens: the energy of speech, which has up til this point existed in air, will now be carried in the liquid-filled inner ear. The inner ear consists of the semi-circular canals (which enable us to maintain our balance); the vestibule (which transmits and equalizes the energy waves transmitted to it via the stapes to the SCC and  a membrane called the round window); and the cochlea, which contains sensory filaments that, when moved by the pressure waves transmitted from the round window, fire, sending neurosignals via the cochlear nerve to the brain.


Intricate it is, but the essential elements of speech and hearing are well understood, enabling the creation of speech recognition systems that accurately transcribe normal speech into digital information about 95 percent of the time. But the key word here is normal; variation in accent, volume, and local acoustic conditions can throw these systems off. So robots that understand what we say probably won’t show up for some time.


Whew! The expedition is over, and we have travelled where few (consciously) have ventured. Poets, however wedded to the written word, should always bear in mind the immense variety and subtleties of spoken language, a resource that will take their verses to new and amazing places.     RT


Images. Surfer: Marine Kris Burgmeister surfing in Hawaii, WikiCmns, Public Domain; Speech Passages & Cavities, WikiCmns, Public Domain; Fundamental Frequencies, WikiCmns, Public Domain; Diagram of Ear, Author–Chittka L. Brockmann, WikiCmns, CC 2.5.

e. e. cummings

March 27, 2011 13 comments

taken at Santa Monica Beach...


e.e. cummings was the first poet whose work I fell in love with. I was 12 or 13, not particularly happy, and looking for something to feel good about. The energy and whimsy of cumming’s poems captured me immediately, and more than three decades later I still tell people he is one of my favorite poets.

Here is one of his celebrations of spring, ever-fresh (Oh, sweet Spring!):


[in Just-] by E. E. Cummings : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry..


Photo: User: 38ws; src: WikiCmns; License: Public Domain.

Text: Src: Poetry Foundation.

Did Jacob Climb His Ladder?

March 26, 2011 6 comments


Jacob dreamed: he saw a ladder, anchored in the earth and reaching up until it disappeared into the sky. Angels were climbing up and down on it. …” (Gen. 28:11-13)


Here we have an appearance by the enigmatic Elohist, also known as the author of the “E” text of the Old Testament. Even in these two sentences, we sense a great writer at work, someone capable of taking folktale and transforming it into sublime art. And certainly the image of Jacob’s Ladder has become one of the iconic moments in the Bible and Western culture, referenced again and again in writing, song, architecture, and visual art.

Unfortunately, what we have in this episode is a fragment. The Elohist, who, I suspect, was the first of the Bible’s authors, has suffered from centuries of editing and rewriting, rearranging, and “cleaning up.” The Documentary Hypothesis (formulated in 1883 by Julius Wellhausen) argues that there are five principle authors of the Bible: “J” (for the Jahwist); “E” (for the Elohist); “D” (for the Deuteronomist); “P” (for the Priestly author); and “R” (for the Redactor, who combined JEDP into the text we have today). The sources are given here in the chronological order assigned to them by the DH; “J” is understood to have been written first of all the biblical materials, with the Elohist either editing the “J” material or composing an original work on his own.

But it seems to me that at least the material that the Elohist worked with is older than the material in the J text (which is far more complete than E, though much edited itself): the author’s milieu and references take us back to the time of the Judges, if not earlier—when stone circles and pillars were as common in the Middle East as they are today in celtic countries. And Beth-el, where Jacob dreamed of the ladder, might have been such a stone circle—or so the use of a stone for a pillow (and its subsequent transformation into a pillar) suggests.

Did Jacob climb his ladder in E’s version of events? It seems strange to me that, in contrast to the many people who have wanted to climb the ladder, Jacob would have stayed safe on earth; he would have taken his chances, this master thief. What did he see when he climbed the ladder? That’s much harder to guess; though a meeting with El (as “E” refers to God in the first half of his materials) seems plausible.

The Elohist was a poet, and his writings provide a dreamlike (and at moments terrifying) foundation for Western religious sensibility. Readers who take the time to sort through the Bible’s chapters to discover his contribution will find themselves well rewarded.


Image: The Morgan Bible, WikiCmns, Public Domain.

The Story that Holds the World Together

March 21, 2011 4 comments

North African Python

Sometimes (and admittedly, not very often) a poem has seemed impossibly easy to write. Practice makes perfect, as they say, but so does a long day’s work, talking to buddies on the commuter trip home, and the long, rolling rhythms of the railroad. Here is a piece that showed up unexpectedly a few years back:


the Story that holds the world together


we’re always killing


we can’t help it


time is the usual suspect

thrown up against

the wall



exposed to



still, we should

know better


that peace

is the culprit


no stillness

can hold


no ragged

wound keep

the breath


there’s that

damned word


you try to



and it won’t

sit still



its trantrums

of panic


the facts into



its voices snaking

through the garden

of pain


the needle of its rhyme

caressing the ear


the golden thread

of the poem

running through

the poet’s mind.




Images: Python: WikiCmns, Public Domain. Match: Sebastian Ritter; WikiCmns; CC 2.5; Hallstat Culture Hairpins; author: Flominator; CC 3.0 Unported.

Moon Lovers…

March 20, 2011 5 comments


…just when you thought it couldn’t get any better…


Photo: Titan & Tethys; WikiCmns; NASA/JPL; Public Domain

The Power of Zhe

March 18, 2011 5 comments

Writers of English have lived with this problem for decades: the use of “he or she” or the search for some other device to indicate that a pronoun refers to both men and women. In not so distant days of yore, gender neutral pronouns (GNPs) were not an issue for the English-speaking world: we used the masculine pronoun, he, and its derivitives to indicate both genders; after all, men usually were the actors in any public or formal setting. The ladies were at home.

But, presto! the Gender Revolution has changed all that. Women are earning their spurs and proving their mettle in all manner of work. Any office bulletin board had better take note!

“He or she” is a laborious solution. No one uses this phrase in conversation; when we talk and are trying for a GNP, we’re more likely to use the singular “they”: “Anyone arriving at the door can let themself in using the key.” In ordinary speech, from my perspective, this comes close to being a solution. The singular they (ST) doesn’t grate on the ear, and the meaning and gender-neutrality are both clear.


My little editorial monster, however, is rattling its cage: the ST solution feels like a band-aid, and it doesn’t cover more formal situations, like written text, where brevity and clarity are essential. For government documents, legal briefs, and public signs, GNPs might be more than welcome.

The solution for official and formal situations, I think, is the adoption of a set of official neologisms. And many candidates have been proposed, some of them based on usages going back to Middle English.

Here is a set of GNPs that might meet our needs:

1. Zhe: as in “The writer is advised to consult our online style guide; zhe may access it at”

2. Zher/Zhim (interchangable use): as in “Each student expects feedback on the completed project; the instructor should contact zher within the next two weeks.”

3. Zhers: as in “All the kids exchanged gifts and took zhers home without complaining or fighting over who got the best one.”


I prefer zhe over its competitors (which include Co, Hu, Per, and Phe) because zhe

a) sounds like personal pronouns already in use: he, she, zhe;

b) is easy to pronounce;

c) is distinct enough not to be confused with other words; and

d) offers the benefit of using zhim/zher to weight a group towards one gender or the other when appropriate: “The physics students never forget to take the homework assignment with zhim.”


Revolutions happen when no one is looking, and this revolution is far too public to happen spontaneously in everyday use. But the benefits to government, law, and careful writing in general could be so great that zhe might be adopted successfully by state and federal agencies as part of the global Plain Language movement. Bloggers could also experiment with it…  RT


image: Author: Spider; WikiCmns; Public Domain.

Words that Abduct your Audience

March 16, 2011 13 comments



Words That Abduct Your Audience


Gone. That’s right. Nothing says more about you than the way you speak (or write).

Here is a list of words that will turn your audience off and make them disappear into space: 




1) Ain’t. This is the classic American mistake. I still remember the way my Mom reacted when I tried this one out on her during Kindergarden. If you want to sound educated, avoid this word at all costs.

2) Dude. What kind of a guy is a dude? Only movie stars can use “dude” without sounding patronizing. “Guy” is the usual American expression for an unremarkable man.

3) Booze/Boozer/Druggie. The words you choose reflect your assessment of your audience, and in particular whether or not you respect them. Respect is one of the cardinal virtues of communication; any word that conveys unfounded disrespect for audience or subject will undercut your argument. When referring to people fighting an addiction, use “alcoholic,” “has a drinking problem,” or “is struggling with substance abuse.”

4) Awesome/Mindboggling. Emotional responses have their uses, but in writing and mixed company, avoid them. Keep the emotional tone as even as possible in formal venues.


UFOs. What are these? Do they exist?

1) Thing (when used as an initial reference): “The thing just isn’t going to work.” Get specific: which thing?

2) Concept: This is the intangible version of “thing.” Use “idea.”

3) I Feel/I Believe/I Think. All of these verbs take attention away from your argument and place it squarely on you. Deleting these phrases will help keep people focused on what you’re trying to say.

4) The Public. Does anyone speak for the public? How much of the public have you encountered so far? Use “people.”

5) Very/Really. These words have been worn down to nothing. Cut them whenever you see them.

6) Sort of/Kind of. Verbiage. Get rid of them.


Buzz Words

1) Unique. Few things exist without another of their kind. In most instances, “unusual” is closer to the mark.

2) Creative. Shakespeare was creative; Blake was, too. How many people or ideas do you know that remind you of them? use “ingenious” or “artistic.”

3) Just: “I just want you to know…” Meant to suggest that the speaker or writer isn’t trying to do what he or she is trying to do, or that the subject of the conversation isn’t important. It is important.


Bad Yuppie Words. The Worst of the Worst.

1) Innovative/Cutting Edge. How many innovations change the world? Use “new.”

2) Paradigm/Synergy. These words will beam folks up into space every time. Use “model” and “complement.”

3) Key: “The new building was key to our plan.” Maybe the most common BYW. Use “essential” or “critical.”



Photo–Moonbeam; Author: P199; WikiCmns; Public Domain.

Friday Freeforall: Come and Get ’em

Sor Juana

March 14, 2011 4 comments

Juana at the Viceregal Court (1666)


My father was a foreign service officer, and one of my most vivid memories from childhood comes from the period we were stationed in San Jose, Costa Rica. We were driving through the Central Valley and entered a small town that looked like something out of a fairytale. The middle of the town was occupied by an enormous Baroque church, around which the town crowded like a fringe. Of course, we had to see the church–and standing on its marble parquet floor in the dimness, looking up at the glass windows, I experienced a moment of awe. I had glimpsed something fundamental about Central America–its rich beauty and intense spiritual life.

So, sadly, it was not until recently that I learned of Sor (Sister) Juana de la Cruz–though she lived during the 17th Century, Octavio Paz has called her Mexico’s greatest poet. I hope that by writing about her, I can do something, in a small way, to mend the generally difficult relations between the United States and its Latin American neighbors.


Spoiled men—how smooth

your insinuations, the bait

of our desire… Sor Juana (from “Spoiled Men”)


I don’t think I’m far off when I say that current U.S. perceptions of Latin America are strongly influenced by memories of the Mexican Revolution–images of a desert land and a rough, struggling culture. But during the 17th Century, Mexico was home to a high civilization, an amalgam of Colonial Spanish rectitude and the underlying genius of its native peoples.

Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec Empire, fell to the Spanish in August 1521, and by the mid-1600s, the Spanish had secured their conquest of Mesoamerica. But winning the peace was another matter: it could be argued that the Aztecs are the most alien civilization that Europeans have ever encountered. Blood worship and cannabalism were essential parts of Mesoamerican culture, and, the most ardent efforts of the Spanish notwithstanding, it was sometime towards the end of the 17th century before these practices were finally eliminated. Despite their abhorrence of native religion, the Spanish instituted a special court to which Indians could bring legal complaints, and the Indians quickly learned how to avail themselves of this legal recourse. In Puebla, the Spanish established Talavera-majolica pottery workshops very early in their rule, and these workshops were soon employing Indians. Finally, Indian gods and rituals were absorbed into New Spain’s Catholic practice, and a core population of the Indian peoples survived the Colonial period, bequeathing to modern-day Mexico the largest number of native language speakers in the hemisphere.

As if all this were not enough, a building boom swept New Spain soon after its founding, as new towns, churches, and public conveniences were constructed–all financed by the discovery of gold and silver (Mexico is still the second largest producer of silver in the world).

Readers should bear in mind that these achievements were accompanied by widespread exploitation of Indians, especially as the Spanish Empire declined in the 1640s and later. But the degree to which the Spanish accomplished the seemingly impossible fusion of their culture and Mesoamerican society is testament to the resources and sincerity they brought to the task.


Red in the flesh; you stare.

A loud technique and studied,

you argue your colors so well

that flesh forgets its coldness…

Sor Juana (from “To Her Portrait”)


It was into this world that Juana Ines de Asbaje y Ramirez de Santillana was born in 1648. To begin with, Juana was illegitimate: her father was a Spanish captain; her mother, a criollo (a full-blooded Spanish woman born in Mexico). When she was small, she lived on her maternal grandfather’s hacienda.

From her earliest years, Juana was deeply religious. By age 3, she had taught herself to read; by age 8, she had composed a poem on the Eucharist. She taught herself both Latin and Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. At 16, Juana was sent to the viceregal court in Mexico City, where her request to study at the University disguised as a boy was refused. The wife of the Vice Regent, Leonor Carreta, sensed Juana’s gifts and took her under her wing. The young woman continued her studies in private.

The Vice Regent himself (Antonio Sebastian de Toledo) soon arranged a difficult test of Juana’s genius: a panel of jurists, philosophers, and poets examined her knowledge, asking demanding questions that she answered unprepared. Her responses were so impressive that the examination helped establish her reputation thoughout the colony, which was further extended by the publication of her poems.

In such circumstances, many men proposed to her, but she decided against marriage and entered a Carmelite convent, and then the Convent of St. Jerome, where she remained for the rest of her life, becoming known as Sor Juana de la Cruz. Though it seems she endured a period of penance in the years just before her death, in the main she was supported in her studies and writings by the Viceregal Court and the Jesuits. She had a significant audience in Spain and became known as the first great poet of the colonies.


Which offense is worse—

to have sex for money or

to pay for it?

Sor Juana


All of this would have been remarkable if Sor Juana had merely been a brilliant poet and advocate of the church and status quo. But while she remained deeply committed to her faith, Sor Juana wrote verses that challenged social realities–and in particular the inferior status of women. That she also continued her studies in science many people found deeply disturbing. And yet she perservered, outwitting the Counter-Reformation and dying of a fever in 1695.

Not many of Sor Juana’s writings have survived, and we are indebted to the Viceregent’s wife for saving what we have. Fortunately, good translations of her work are beginning to appear in English. This thinker and poet early in the history of post-conquest Mexico is worth reading both for her beautiful poetry and for her courage in defying stereotypes and expectations.


Image. Author: J. Sanchez; Source: WikiCmns; License: Public Domain

Poetry. Translations copyright, The Rag Tree, 2011.

You Are Here

Specular Reflection on Saturn's moon, Titan

This is the first photo taken of specular reflection–the reflection of sunlight by a liquid surface–on Titan, Saturn’s largest moon (and the second largest moon in the Solar System). The liquid surface in question is Kraken Mare, a lake of liquid ethane and methane 150,000 square miles in size.

The photo seems appropriate for a moment of symmetry like the approaching Vernal Equinox. And Daylight Savings starts at midnight today–don’t forget to set your clocks an hour forward!

Photo: NASA/JPL; WikiCommons; Public Domain.