Tag Archives: Language

Olga Tokarczuk’s “The Books of Jacob”

Goodreads rating 4.19.

A sweeping novel of 950 pages (!) which starts on page 960. The Nobel laureate describes hundreds of characters, with even more names; immerses in countless locations, languages, and creeds. Her protagonists always remain strangers.

There is something wonderful in being a stranger, in being foreign, something to be relished, something as alluring as candy. It is good not to be able to understand a language, not to know the customs, to glide like a spirit among others who are distant and unrecognizable. Then a particular kind of wisdom awakens—an ability to surmise, to grasp the things that aren’t obvious. Cleverness and acumen come about. A person who is a stranger gains a new point of view, becomes, whether he likes it or not, a particular type of sage. Who was it who convinced us that being comfortable and familiar was so great? Only foreigners can truly understand the way things work. (pp. 390)

From Smyrna and Athos to Ivanie, across fluid Poland, Brünn (exact location), Vienna (exact location) and Offenbach to Paris in times of the French Revolution and the Supreme Court. From pariah creditors to noble debtors. Jacob and his daughter Eva; Yente and Nahman; and the heroes in the background, Hayah, Asher, and Thomas. Life in the eighteenth century, torn between hunger, disease, murder and rape; lies that kill, curses that float; and debates about Aufklärung, when religious zeal morphs into political activism and the practice of law.

The Word rules.

… the world is made of words that, once uttered, lay claim to every order, so that all things seem to occur at their behest. All things belong to them. Every curse, even the slightest, has an effect. Every single word that’s said. (pp. 645)

Nahman’s creed:

… I patiently stumble forward, not inquiring into the price I will have to pay, and even less so about any reward. My friend and ally is that moment, that urgent hour, the dearest time to me, when suddenly out of nowhere the writing gets easy, and then everything appears to be wonderfully able to be expressed. What a blissful state it is! Then I feel sage, and the whole world becomes a cradle that the Shekhinah has laid me down in, and now the Shekhinah leans in over me like a mother over an infant.

The path to the left is only for those who have shown they deserve it, those who understand what Reb Mordke always said—that the world itself demands to be narrated, and only then does it truly exist, only then can it flourish fully. But also that by telling the story of the world, we are changing the world.

That is why God created the letters of the alphabet, that we might have the opportunity to narrate to him what he created. Reb Mordke always chuckled at this. “God is blind. Did you not know that?” he would say. “He created us that we would be his guides, his five senses.” And he would chuckle long and hard until he began to cough from the smoke.

The novel comes with a bibliography, so is the story real?

Literature is a particular type of knowledge, it is … the perfection of imprecise forms. (p. 14)

In any case,

… any person who toils over matters of Messiahs, even failed ones, even just to tell their stories, will be treated just the same as he who studies the eternal mysteries of light. (p. 10)

Goodreads summary:

The Nobel Prize-winner’s richest, most sweeping and ambitious novel yet follows the comet-like rise and fall of a mysterious, messianic religious leader as he blazes his way across eighteenth-century Europe.

In the mid-eighteenth century, as new ideas–and a new unrest–begin to sweep the Continent, a young Jew of mysterious origins arrives in a village in Poland. Before long, he has changed not only his name but his persona; visited by what seem to be ecstatic experiences, Jacob Frank casts a charismatic spell that attracts an increasingly fervent following. In the decade to come, Frank will traverse the Hapsburg and Ottoman empires with throngs of disciples in his thrall as he reinvents himself again and again, converts to Islam and then Catholicism, is pilloried as a heretic and revered as the Messiah, and wreaks havoc on the conventional order, Jewish and Christian alike, with scandalous rumors of his sect’s secret rituals and the spread of his increasingly iconoclastic beliefs. The story of Frank–a real historical figure around whom mystery and controversy swirl to this day–is the perfect canvas for the genius and unparalleled reach of Olga Tokarczuk. Narrated through the perspectives of his contemporaries–those who revere him, those who revile him, the friend who betrays him, the lone woman who sees him for what he is–The Books of Jacob captures a world on the cusp of precipitous change, searching for certainty and longing for transcendence.

Goodreads reader Marc’s summary:

For those who like wide-ranging historical novels, this is the real thing. Tokarczuk immersed herself in 18th-century Greater Poland, which then covered large parts of Eastern Europe. Seen from the West, it was a perifere area, but it stood in intense contact with the Eastern Ottoman Empire, which at that time still controlled almost the entire Balkans. Tokarczuk sketches dozens of characters who constantly go back and forth between those two regions. These are especially Jews, and the author examines that Jewish world in great detail.

Her central story focuses on a Jewish heretic movement which actually existed in the middle of the 18th century. The movement was led by Jacob Frank, an Ottoman Jew. He was a very unlikely guru, but had an enormous charisma and managed to get tens of thousands of Jews behind his ‘Trinity Faith’. He seduced them with an eclectic mix of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, which was particularly attractive because it offered the Jews, with their always precarious position in Catholic Poland, the prospect of civil rights through baptism.

Olga Tokarczuk is the most acclaimed Polish writer of the moment (twice the Niké prize, once the Man Booker International prize, and, of course, the Nobel Prize 2018), but with this book she has had a really difficult time in her own country. Her focus on the Catholic discrimination against Jews in Greater Poland was not appreciated by the right-wing, conservative government currently in power in Warsaw. Also the picture she paints of an extremely diversified Polish nation, with a jumble of ethnicities and religious movements that lived together, contradicts the homogenic Polish identity that has been cultivated since the 2nd world war.

But that is precisely what makes this book extremely interesting. The way Tokarczuk brings all these different movements, cultures and ethnicities to life is a feast for the reader’s eye. Her narrative style even has a certain Marquezian flair, with a dash of magical realism through the character of the old Yenta who remains in a state of coma for hundreds of pages, and – stepped out of herself – glides through space and time, guiding the story a step further.

But there is a downside to this verbal firework: the immersion in all those worlds, the dozens of characters, the constant changes in perspective and time, all this makes reading this very bulky book a real test. For instance, it takes a quarter of the book, almost 250 pages, before the real story about the heresy of Jacob Frank takes off; until then Tokarczuk builds up, with constantly new characters, and travels back and forth between Poland, the Balkans and Smyrna (present-day Izmir in Turkey). Also the sometimes very intense theological discussions among the Jewish rabbis, diving into kabbala, demand a lot from the reader.

Again: this historical novel is quite a tour de force , not only in terms of size and depth. For me, the charm of the reading was mainly in the Chagal-like character of the visual language of Tokarczuk: she regularly sketches dreamy scenes with the comatose Yenta that floats over time and space and oversees everything. But in the long run it’s all a bit too much: the story just lingers on, endlessly, and I missed a real existential story, with people of flesh and blood. Hence the slightly lesser rating. But I’m definitely going to dive into Tokarczuk’s other work!

Richard Bandler and John Grinder’s “The Structure of Magic”

Goodreads rating 4.06.

Human beings have their personal models of the world. These models are wrong and sometimes very wrong, leaving people with the impression that they have no choice, are being excluded, etc. The authors argue that successful psychotherapies and -therapists all use similar methods to help clients change and correct their models, opening new perspectives for them. In the book the authors systematize this argument.

They emphasize errors that humans make when mistaking models for reality—errors due to inadequate generalization, deletion, or distortion—and they use the language and tools from linguistics (transformational grammar)—distinguishing between the deep structure and the surface structure of sentences—to provide a toolkit for psychotherapists to help identify and correct these errors. Essentially, the therapist and the client are meant to identify the errors in the client’s model by insisting on well-formed sentences.

This quote is from the end of ch. 3:

This set, the set of sentences which are well formed in therapy and acceptable to us as therapists, are sentences which:
(1) Are well formed in English, and
(2) Contain no transformational deletions or unexplored deletions in the portion of the model in which the client experiences no choice.
(3) Contain no nominalization (process -> event).
(4) Contain no words or phrases lacking referential indices.
(5) Contain no verbs incompletely specified.
(6) Contain no unexplored presuppositions in the portion of the model in which the client experiences no choice.
(7) Contain no sentences which violate the semantic conditions of well-formedness.

Yuval Noah Harari’s “Sapiens—A Brief History of Humankind”

Homo appeared roughly 2 million years ago in Africa and Homo sapiens roughly 200’000 years ago in East Africa. Harari divides his account of the last 70’000 years into four parts: The cognitive revolution (language), the agricultural revolution (about 10’000 years ago in today’s Turkey, Iran, Levant), the unification of humankind (through money, empire, and religion), and the scientific revolution. According to Harari, Sapiens developed more efficient strategies for cooperation than other species and in particular, Neanderthals (which sapiens eradicated around 30’000 years ago). The rest is history, i.e., evolutionary biology and cultural history.

On his website, Harari summarizes:

Homo sapiens rules the world because it is the only animal that can believe in things that exist purely in its own imagination, such as gods, states, money and human rights.

Starting from this provocative idea, Sapiens goes on to retell the history of our species from a completely fresh perspective. It explains that money is the most pluralistic system of mutual trust ever devised; that capitalism is the most successful religion ever invented; that the treatment of animals in modern agriculture is probably the worst crime in history; and that even though we are far more powerful than our ancient ancestors, we aren’t much happier.

According to Harari, the agricultural revolution fostered population growth but made life harsher for most humans (due to less varied diet, harder work, infectious diseases)—and for the animals that Sapiens domesticated; religion, empires, money and trade fostered globalization and unification; the scientific revolution arose from Europeans’ admission of ignorance, and it was intertwined with imperialism and capitalism; whether humankind has become happier over time is unknown but doubtful; and we may soon confront a singularity:

Physicists define the Big Bang as a singularity. It is a point at which all the known laws of nature did not exist. Time too did not exist. It is thus meaningless to say that anything existed `before’ the Big Bang. We may be fast approaching a new singularity, when all the concepts that give meaning to our world—me, you, men, women, love and hate—will become irrelevant. Anything happening beyond that point is meaningless to us (p. 461 in the Vintage 2015 edition).

Other tidbits:

  • Settlement of Australia (“The Flood”), America, New Zealand: 45’000, 16’000, 800 years ago. Each settlement was associated with mass extinction of species.
  • “[F]iction has enabled us not merely to imagine things, but to do so collectively” (p. 27). “Ever since the Cognitive Revolution Homo sapiens has been able to revise its behaviour rapidly in accordance with changing needs. This opened a fast lane of cultural evolution, bypassing the traffic jams of genetic evolution.” (p. 36).
  • “The Agricultural Revolution was history’s greatest fraud. … These plants domesticated Homo sapiens, rather than vice versa” (p. 90). The revolution bred worries about the future. Food surpluses brought rulers and elites, palaces and temples, politics, wars, art and philosophy (p. 114). One `imagined order’ with three classes and two genders—the Code of Hammurabi—dates from 1’776 B.C. (p. 117). Writing, archiving, cataloguing (invented by Sumerians around 3’500 B.C.) preserves information about imagined social order; this is critical because the information is not preserved in DNA. Script undermined holistic thought. Hindus invented `Arab’ numerals around 800 AD (pp. 137–146).
  • Cognitive dissonance, contradictory beliefs are necessary to maintain any human culture (p. 184). Over the last 10’000 years, thousands of `human worlds’ have collapsed to a single one (p. 186). Three universal (imagined) orders: Money, empire, religion (p. 191). “Money is the most universal and most efficient system of mutual trust ever devised” (p. 201). Empires are stable, inclusive, not that bad (p. 219). Religious norms are founded on a belief in a superhuman order (p. 234). “Much of ancient mythology is in fact a legal contract in which humans promise everlasting devotion to the gods in exchange for mastery over plants and animals” (p. 236). Polytheist and animist religions recognize a supreme power in the background, devoid of biases and interests (p. 238). Humanist religions worship Homo sapiens. Liberal humanism believes in the humanity of the individual. Socialist humanism believes in the humanity of the collective. (Both build on Christian tradition). Evolutionary humanism (e.g., Nazism) believes that humankind can evolve or degenerate  (pp. 256–263).
  • Science started from the admission of ignorance; observation and math; and the acquisition of new powers (p. 279). Social stability requires that certain `scientific results’ are a dogma or that basic truths are non-scientific (p. 282). With the capitalist system and the industrial revolution, science, industry and military technology intertwined (p. 294). “[S]cientific research can flourish only in alliance with some religion or ideology. The ideology justifies the costs of the research” (p. 305). Science and empire supported each other (ch. 15, 16). The scientific revolution and the idea of progress fostered credit; this reinforced each other (p. 346). The industrial revolution has been a revolution in energy conversion (p. 379) and it was a second agricultural revolution (p. 382). Animal suffering, consumerism (ch. 17). The national time (p. 396). State and market replace family and local community (p. 398). “The state and the market are the mother and the father of the individual” (p. 402). “The nation is the imagined community of the state” (p. 406). The world is safer than ever, and war does not pay any more. Have humans become happier? Answer 1: “Lasting happiness comes only from serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin” (p. 436). Answer 2: Meaning. But “[p]erhaps happiness is synchronising one’s personal delusions of meaning with the prevailing collective delusions” (p. 438). Answer 3: Feelings are not to be trusted; of key import is whether people know the truth about themselves (p. 443). Intelligent design and extreme inequality (ch. 20).

Wikipedia points to critical scholarly reception.

Thomas Schelling

In the Washington Post, Henry Farrell writes about Schelling’s work and how it shaped the Cold War.

Schelling’s contribution was to show how the two sides could think systematically about coordinating (where they had common interests) and deterring each other from unwanted actions (where they did not). This arguably gave rise to a much more stable world — the world of the Cold War — where both sides struggled with each other for dominance, but tacitly agreed on some of the rules of the game, and didn’t try to push each other too far. The Cold War was organized around deterrence, and deterrence mostly rested on Schelling’s ideas about credible threats. …

The U.S. stationed a small garrison in Berlin, which was embedded deep in East German territory, and indefensible against any serious attack. As Schelling described it, these soldiers’ job was not to defend the city but to die if it were attacked. This would then trigger a large scale U.S. response, since no U.S. president could tolerate the USSR killing American soldiers and not retaliate. Hence, by the logic of credible threats, the USSR would not attack Berlin.

In the New York Times, William Grimes writes that

Schelling analyzed superpower negotiations in the way that he analyzed the conflicts between, say, a blackmailer and his client, a parent and a child, or management and labor. In each case, he wrote, “there is a mutual dependence as well as opposition,” with each side seeking out tests of strength at less than crisis levels. …

one side in a negotiation can strengthen its position by narrowing its options … He also argued that uncertain retaliation is more credible and more efficient than certain retaliation. …

“The Strategy of Conflict” introduced the concept of the focal point, often called the Schelling point, to describe a solution that people reach without benefit of communicating, relying instead on “each person’s expectation of what the other expects him to expect to be expected to do.” …

Professor Schelling moved on to other social questions that seemed to be fertile ground for game theory, notably the dynamics behind racial change in American neighborhoods.

Why Does Music Give Chills?

David Shariatmadari suggests some answers in The Guardian.

  • What’s happening? An “autonomic nervous system arousal, the evolutionarily ancient preparation for fight or flight.” Plus a positive emotional component, related to brain activity and dopamine release.
  • To whom? Not to everybody. According to some estimates, only to every second non-musician.
  • Why? Emotional experiences can be related to specific musical structures like “enharmonic changes” or “appoggiaturas” (examples given in the article), connected with unexpected, dramatic shifts that force the listener to pay attention. Add to this memories and “feelings of transcendence.” Maybe music helps to form bonds with other human beings or it played a role in the development of language. “Music simply taps into [linguistic ability] in the same way that drugs tap into a system that wasn’t designed for drugs”.
  • Example: “The last few minutes of Bach’s Mass in B Minor, the last page or so of the Dona Nobis Pacem.”

Swiss German, Standard German, and Swiss Standard German

In the NZZ am Sonntag, Reto Hunziker argues that the schooling system in the German speaking part of Switzerland undermines students’ ability to speak proper German. Hunziker wants the Swiss to speak either their Swiss German dialect or Standard German—not the Swiss German dialect or Standard-German-As-Spoken-In-Schools-In-Switzerland.

Wikipedia article on High German languages. Wikipedia article on German dialects.

Languages, Specifically English

Dylan Matthews presents interesting facts about the use of languages, their roots and in particular, about the English language, in Vox.

The median number of languages spoken in Denmark, the Netherlands or Slovenia equals 3. In the English language, the letter “b” mostly appears at the beginning of a word, the letter “d” at the end and the letter “u” in the middle. Also in the English language, a “d” or “y” is most often followed by a blank; a “h”, “v” or “z” by an “e”; and a “q” almost always by a “u”. And the most common letter combinations in Google Book archive are


Languages and Their Structure

Martin Haspelmath has posted a fascinating set of slides (PDF, in German) about languages. Some facts:

  • About 7000 languages are spoken; more than 800 in Papua New Guinea; 170 in the US; 7 in Germany.
  • About 150 languages are spoken in Europe.
  • 280 languages are spoken by more than one million people each, 450 languages by less than one hundred people each.
  • The ranking of languages: 1. Mandarin. 2. English. 3. Spanish. 4. Hindi. 5. Arabic. 6. Portuguese. 7. Bengali. 8. Russian. 9. Japanese. 10. German.
  • Roughly half of the world population speak one of these ten languages.
  • The Georgian language allows for up to 7 consonants in a row.
  • All languages feature words and sentences; questions and negation; names; expressions for “up” and “down.”
  • Not all languages distinguish tempi or feature adjectives or expressions for numbers or for “and, or, left, right.”