It’s likely that the first word ladder puzzles were created by none other than Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson), the talented British mathematician, and author of the Alice’s adventures. According to Carroll, he invented them on Christmas Day in 1877.
A word ladder puzzle consists of two end-cap words, and the goal is to derive a series of chain words that change one word to the other. At each stage, adjacent words on the ladder differ by the substitution of just one letter. Each chain word (or rung of the word ladder), also needs to be a valid word. Below is an example of turning TABLE into CROWN (this time, in nine steps):
What is your name for the playground game in which one child chases the rest and anyone who is touched becomes the pursuer?
Pretty accurate for me, although my answers to some of the questions – representing the diversity of places around Great Britain that I’ve lived and some of the words I’ve picked up along the way – clearly threw it off from time to time!
I’m reminded of an old joke (best read aloud), which I’ll repeat for your amusement:
The European Union commissioners have announced that agreement has been reached to adopt English as the preferred language for European communications, rather than German, which was the other possibility. As part of the negotiations, Her Majesty’s Government conceded that English spelling had some room for improvement and has accepted a five-year phased plan for what will be known as EuroEnglish (Euro for short).
In the first year, “s” will be used instead of the soft “c.” Sertainly, sivil servants will resieve this news with joy. Also, the hard “c” will be replaced with “k”. Not only will this klear up konfusion, but typewriters kan have one less letter.
There will be growing publik enthusiasm in the sekond year, when the troublesome “ph” will be replaced by “f”. This will make words like “fotograf” 20 persent shorter.
In the third year, publik akseptanse of the new spelling kan be expekted to reach the stage where more komplikated changes are possible. Governments will enkorage the removal of double letters, which have always ben a deterent to akurate speling. Also, al wil agre that the horible mes of silent “e”s in the languag is disgrasful, and they would go.
By the fourth year, peopl wil be reseptiv to steps such as replasing “th” by “z” and “w” by ” v”.
During ze fifz year, ze unesesary “o” kan be dropd from vords kontaining “ou”, and similar changes vud of kors be aplid to ozer kombinations of leters.
After zis fifz yer, ve vil hav a reli sensibl riten styl. Zer vil be no mor trubls or difikultis and evrivun vil find it ezi tu understand ech ozer.
Blissymbolics was conceived by Austro-Hungarian expatriate Charles K. Bliss (1897–1985), born Karl Kasiel Blitz to a Jewish family in the town of Czernowitz (now Chernivtsi in modern-day Ukraine). He was introduced to signs and symbols at an early age in the form of circuit diagrams – his father’s many occupations included mechanic and electrician – which he understood immediately as a “logical language”. Bliss (then Blitz) attended the Vienna University of Technology for chemical engineering and went on to become chief of the patent department at the German TV and radio company Telefunken, a career that was cut short in early 1938 when the Third Reich annexed Austria.
Bliss was sent to Dachau concentration camp, and then to Buchenwald, before escaping to England in 1939. The eight-month German bombing offensive against Britain known as The Blitz began only months later, prompting him to change his surname “from the war-like Blitz to the peaceful Bliss”, as he recalled in a taped interview. Bliss fled to Shanghai by way of Canada and Japan, where he was reunited with his wife. Claire, a German Catholic, had used her connections to get Bliss out of Buchenwald, but her relatively privileged status was not enough to spare her a fraught journey to safety across Europe and Asia. Even in Shanghai, the couple was forced into the Hongkew ghetto following the Japanese occupation.
Bliss became enraptured with written Chinese, which he mistook initially for ideograms. (Chinese characters are, in fact, logograms.) Nevertheless, certain Chinese characters have pictographic qualities, and it was the symbol for “man”, that sparked Bliss’s epiphany. As he learned enough to read Chinese newspaper headlines and shop signage, he soon realized that he was reading the symbols not in Chinese, but in his native German. At the age of 45, Bliss was inspired to develop a non-alphabetic writing system that could be mastered in a short period of time and read by anyone regardless of their spoken language. This work remained the focus of his life, even after he and Claire emigrated to Australia in 1946 and despite the general apathy and indifference with which it was met.
Fascinating article about the little-known “language” of Blissymbolics: coming from a similar era and background to Esperanto, Blissymbolics failed even more to gain widespread traction but encompasses some really interesting ideas (about graphic notation and design, about linguistic concepts, about communication theory) that we can still learn from. Read the full article…
Maybe it’s a subconscious effect of my return to the blog, but I’ve found myself reading more essays recently, and so I found myself returning to the nonfiction work of David Foster Wal…
Maybe it’s a subconscious effect of my return to the blog, but I’ve found myself reading more essays recently, and so I found myself returning to the nonfiction work of David Foster Wallace.1 Despite the seeming topical randomness of his essays—John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign, the tennis player Tracy Austin, a Maine lobster fest—there is a thematic consistency in DFW’s work, which revolves around the tension between authority and democracy, high culture intellectualism and overthinking and low culture entertainment and lack of self-reflection. That is, his essays are about America and Americans.2
Nowhere is this truer than in “Authority and American Usage,” his monumental review of Bryan A. Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern American Usage.3 DFW uses this review of a single book to recount and assess the much longer debate between prescriptive language mavens who sternly offer correct English usage, and the more permissive, descriptive scholars who eschew hard usage rules for the lived experience of language. That is, authority and democracy.
The Azure image processing API is a software tool powered by a neural net, a type of artificial intelligence that attempts to replicate a particular model of how (we believe) brains to work: connecting inputs (in this case, pixels of an image) to the entry nodes of a large, self-modifying network and reading the output, “retraining” the network based on feedback from the quality of the output it produces. Neural nets have loads of practical uses and even more theoretical ones, but Janelle’s article was about how confused the AI got when shown certain pictures containing (or not containing!) sheep.
The AI had clearly been trained with lots of pictures that contained green, foggy, rural hillsides and sheep, and had come to associate the two. Remember that all the machine is doing is learning to associate keywords with particular features, and it’s clearly been shown many pictures that “look like” this that do contain sheep, and so it’s come to learn that “sheep” is one of the words that you use when you see a scene like this. Janelle took to Twitter to ask for pictures of sheep in unusual places, and the Internet obliged.
Many of the experiments resulting from this – such as the one shown above – work well to demonstrate this hyper-focus on context: a sheep up a tree is a bird, a sheep on a lead is a dog, a sheep painted orange is a flower, and so on. And while we laugh at them, there’s something about them that’s actually pretty… “human”.
I say this because I’ve observed similar quirks in the way that small children pick up language, too (conveniently, I’ve got a pair of readily-available subjects, aged 4 and 1, for my experiments in language acquisition…). You’ve probably seen it yourself: a toddler whose “training set” of data has principally included a suburban landscape describing the first cow they see as a “dog”. Or when they use a new word or phrase they’ve learned in a way that makes no sense in the current context, like when our eldest interrupted dinner to say, in the most-polite voice imaginable, “for God’s sake would somebody give me some water please”. And just the other day, the youngest waved goodbye to an empty room, presumably because it’s one that he often leaves on his way up to bed
For all we joke, this similarity between the ways in which artificial neural nets and small humans learn language is perhaps the most-accessible evidence that neural nets are a strong (if imperfect) model for how brains actually work! The major differences between the two might be simply that:
Our artificial neural nets are significantly smaller and less-sophisticated than most biological ones.
Biological neural nets (brains) benefit from continuous varied stimuli from an enormous number of sensory inputs, and will even self-stimulate (via, for example, dreaming) – although the latter is something with which AI researchers sometimes experiment.
Things we take as fundamental, such as the nouns we assign to the objects in our world, are actually social/intellectual constructs. Our minds are powerful general-purpose computers, but they’re built on top of a biology with far simpler concerns: about what is and is-not part of our family or tribe, about what’s delicious to eat, about which animals are friendly and which are dangerous, and so on. Insofar as artificial neural nets are an effective model of human learning, the way they react to “pranks” like these might reveal underlying truths about how we perceive the world.
Respect des fonds: A principle in archival theory that proposes to group collections of archival records according to their fonds — that is to say, according to the administration, organization, individual, or entity by which they were created or from which they were received. (Ed Summers)
Realia: Objects and material from everyday life. (Deb Chachra)
While you’re tucking in to your turkey tomorrow and the jokes and puzzles in your crackers are failing to impress, here’s a little riddle to share with your dinner guests:
Which is the odd-one out: gypsies, turkeys, french fries, or the Kings of Leon?
In order to save you from “accidentally” reading too far and spoling the answer for yourself, here’s a picture of a kitten to act as filler:
Want a hint? This is a question about geography. Specifically, it’s a question about assumptions about geography. Have another think: the kittens will wait.
Okay. Let’s have a look at each of the candidates, shall we? And learn a little history as we go along:
The Romami are an ethnic group of traditionally-nomadic people, originating from Northern India and dispersing across Europe (and further) over the last millenium and a half. They brought with them some interesting anthropological artefacts of their culture, such as aspects of the Indian caste system and languages (it’s through linguistic similarities that we’ve been best-able to trace their multi-generational travels, as written records of their movements are scarce and incomplete), coupled with traditions related to a nomadic life. These traditions include strict rules about hygiene, designed to keep a travelling population free of disease, which helped to keep them safe during the European plagues of the 13th and 14th centuries.
Unfortunately for them, when the native populations of Western European countries saw that these travellers – who already had a reputation as outsiders – seemed to be immune to the diseases that were afflicting the rest of the population, their status in society rapidly degraded, and they were considered to be witches or devil-worshippers. This animosity made people unwilling to trade with them, which forced many of them into criminal activity, which only served to isolate them further. Eventually, here in the UK, laws were passed to attempt to deport them, and these laws help us to see the origins of the term gypsy, which by then had become commonplace.
Consider, for example, the Egyptians Act 1530, which uses the word “Egyptian” to describe these people. The Middle English word for Egypian was gypcian, from which the word gypsy or gipsy was a contraction. The word “gypsy” comes from a mistaken belief by 16th Century Western Europeans that the Romani who were entering their countries had emigrated from Egypt. We’ll get back to that.
When Europeans began to colonise the Americas, from the 15th Century onwards, they discovered an array of new plants and animals previously unseen by European eyes, and this ultimately lead to a dramatic diversification of the diets of Europeans back home. Green beans, cocoa beans, maize (sweetcorn), chillis, marrows, pumpkins, potatoes, tomatoes, buffalo, jaguars, and vanilla pods: things that are so well-understood in Britain now that it’s hard to imagine that there was a time that they were completely alien here.
Still thinking that the Americas could be a part of East Asia, the explorers and colonists didn’t recognise turkeys as being a distinct species, and categorised them as being a kind of guineafowl. They soon realised that they made for pretty good eating, and started sending them back to their home countries. Many of the turkeys sent back to Central Europe arrived via Turkey, and so English-speaking countries started calling them Turkey fowl, eventually just shortened to turkey. In actual fact, most of the turkeys reaching Britain probably came directly to Britain, or possibly via France, Portugal, or Spain, and so the name “turkey” is completely ridiculous.
Fun fact: in Turkey, turkeys are called hindi, which means Indian, because many of the traders importing turkeys were Indians (the French, Polish, Russians, and Ukranians also use words that imply an Indian origin). In Hindi, they’re called peru, after the region and later country of Peru, which also isn’t where they’re from (they’re native only to North America), but the Portugese – who helped to colonise Peru also call them that. And in Scottish Gaelic, they’re called cearc frangach – “French chicken”! The turkey is a seriously georgraphically-confused bird.
As I’m sure that everybody knows by now, “French” fries probably originated in either Belgium or in the Spanish Netherlands (now part of Belgium), although some French sources claim an earlier heritage. We don’t know how they were first invented, but the popularly-told tale of Meuse Valley fishing communities making up for not having enough fish by deep-frying pieces of potato, cut into the shape of fish, is almost certainly false: a peasant region would be extremely unlikely to have access to the large quantities of fat required to fry potatoes in this way.
So why do we – with the exception of some confusingly patriotic Americans – call them French fries. It’s hard to say for certain, but based on when the food became widely-known in the anglophonic world, the most-likely explanation comes from the First World War. When British and, later, American soldier landed in Belgium, they’ll have had the opportunity to taste these (now culturally-universal) treats for the first time. At that time, though, the official language of the Belgian army (and the most-popularly spoken language amongst Belgian citizens) was French. The British and American soldiers thus came to call them “French fries”.
The Kings of Leon
For a thousand years the Kingdom of Leon represented a significant part of what would not be considered Spain and/or Portugal, founded by Christian kings who’d recaptured the Northern half of the Iberian Peninsula from the Moors during the Reconquista (short version for those whose history lessons didn’t go in this direction: what the crusades were against the Ottomans, the Reconquista was against the Moors). The Kingdom of Leon remained until its power was gradually completely absorbed into that of the Kingdom of Spain. Leon still exists as a historic administrative region in Spain, similar to the counties of the British Isles, and even has its own minority language (the majority language, Spanish, would historically have been known as Castilian – the traditional language of the neighbouring Castillian Kingdom).
The band, however, isn’t from Leon but is from Nashville, Tennessee. They’ve got nothing linking them to actual Leon, or Spain at all, as far as I can tell, except for their name – not unlike gypsies and Egypt, turkeys and Turkey, and French fries and France. The Kings of Leon, a band of brothers, took the inspiration for their name from the first name of their father and their grandfather: Leon.
The Odd One Out
The Kings of Leon are the odd one out, because while all four have names which imply that they’re from somewhere that they’re not, the inventors of the name “The Kings of Leon” were the only ones who knew that the implication was correct.
The people who first started calling gypsies “gypsies” genuinely believed that they came from Egypt. The first person to call a turkey a “Turkey fowl” really was under the impression that it was a bird that had come from, or via, Turkey. And whoever first started spreading the word about the tasty Belgian food they’d discovered while serving overseas really thought that they were a French invention. But the Kings of Leon always knew that they weren’t from Leon (and, presumably, that they weren’t kings).
And as for you? Your sex is on fire. Well, either that or it’s your turkey. You oughta go get it out of the oven if it’s the latter, or – if it’s the former – see if you can get some cream for that. And have a Merry Christmas.
Let me try that again: which came first, the colour or the fruit?
Still not quite right – one more try: which came first, orange, the English name of the colour, or orange, the English name of the fruit? What I really want to know is: is the fruit named after the colour or the colour after the fruit? (I find it hard to believe that the two share a name and colour simply by coincidence)
It turns out that the fruit came first. Prior to the introduction of oranges to Western Europe in around the 16th or 17th century by Portugese merchants, English-speaking countries referred to the colour by the name ġeolurēad. Say that Old English word out loud and you’ll hear its roots: it’s a combination of the historical versions of the words “yellow” and “red”. Alternatively, people substituted words like “gold” or “amber”: also both words for naturally-occurring substances whose identity is confirmed by their colouration.
There wasn’t much need for a dedicated word in English to describe the colour, before the introduction of the fruit, because there wasn’t much around of that colour. The colour orange isn’t common in nature: a few fruits, copper-rich soils and rocks, a small number of tropical fish, a handful of flowers… and of course autumn leaves during that brief period before they go brown and are washed away by Britain’s encroaching winter weather.
Brent Berlin and Paul Kay theorise that the evolution of a language tends towards the introduction of words for particular colours in a strict order: so words to distinguish between green and blue (famously absent in Japanese, Vietnamese, and Thai) are introduced before brown is added, which in term appears before the distinction of pink, orange, and grey. At a basic level, this seems to fit: looking at a variety of languages and their words for different colours, you’ll note that the ‘orange’ column is filled far less-often than the ‘brown’ column, which in turn is filled less-often than the ‘green’ column.
This is a rather crude analogy, of course, because some languages go further than others in their refinement of a particular area of the spectrum. Greek, for example, breaks down what we would call “blue” into τυρκουάζ (turquoise) and κυανό (azure), and arguably βιολέ (violet), although a Greek-speaker would probably put the latter down as a shade of purple, rather than of blue. It makes sense, I suppose, that languages are expected to develop a name for the colour “red” no later than they do for other colours (other than to differentiate between darkness and lightness) – a lot of important distinctions in biology, food, and safety depend on our ability to communicate about red things! But it seems to me that we’ve still got a way to go, working on our linguistic models of colour.
If we’d evolved on Mars (and were still a sighted, communicative, pack creature, but – for some reason – still had a comparable range and resolution of colour vision), our languages would probably contain an enormous variety of words for colours in the 650-750 nanometre wavelengths (the colours that English speakers universally call “red”). Being able to navigate the red planet based on the different ratios of hematites in the rocks, plains, soils and dusts would doubtless mean that the ability to linguistically distinguish between a dark-red feature and a medium-red feature could be of great value!
The names we have for colours represent a part of our history, and our environment. From an anthropological and linguistic perspective, that’s incredibly interesting.
If it weren’t for the ubiquity of, say, violets and lavender in the Northern hemisphere, perhaps the English language wouldn’t have been for a word for that particular colour, and the rainbow would have six colours instead of seven. And if I’d say, “Richard Of York Gave Battle In…”, nobody would know how to finish the sentence.
In other news, I recently switched phone network, and I’m now on Orange (after many years on Vodafone). There is no connection between this fact and this blog post; I just thought I’d share.
I’d like to share with you the worst joke that I ever heard. Those of you who’ve heard me tell jokes before might think that you’ve already suffered through the worst joke I ever heard, but you honestly haven’t. The worst joke I ever heard was simply too awful to share. But maybe now is the time.
To understand the joke, though, you must first understand where I grew up. For most of my school years, I lived in Preston, in the North-West of England. After first starting school in Scotland, and having been brought up by parents who’d grown up in the North-East, I quickly found that there were a plethora of local dialect differences and regional slang terms that I needed to get to grips with in order to fit into my new environment. Pants, pumps, toffee, and bap, among others, had a different meaning here, along with entirely new words like belm (an insult), gizzit (a contraction of “give it [to me]”), pegging it (running away, perhaps related to “legging it”?), and kegs (trousers). The playground game of “tag” was called “tig”. “Nosh” switched from being a noun to a verb. And when you wanted somebody to stop doing something, you’d invariably use the imperative “pack it in!”
And it’s that last one that spawned the worst joke I ever heard. Try, if you can, to imagine the words “pack it in”, spoken quickly, in a broad Lancashire accent, by a young child. And then appreciate this exchange, which was disturbingly common in my primary school:
Child 1: Pack it in!
Child 2: Pakis don’t come in tins. They come from India.
In case it’s too subtle for you, the “joke” stems from the phonetic similarity, especially in the dialect in question, between the phrase “pack it in” and the phrase “paki tin”.
In case you need to ask why this is the worst joke I ever heard, allow me to explain in detail everything that’s wrong with it.
It’s needlessly racist
Now I don’t believe that race is necessarily above humour – and the same goes for gender, sexuality, religion, politics, etc. But there’s difference between using a racial slur to no benefit (think: any joke containing the word “nigger” or “polak”), and jokes which make use of race. Here’s one of my favourite jokes involving race:
The Pope goes on a tour of South Africa, and he’s travelling in his Popemobile alongside a large river when he catches sight of a black man in the river. The man is struggling and screaming as he tries in vain to fight off a huge crocodile. Suddenly, the Pope sees two white men leap into the water, drag the man and the crocodile to land, and beat the crocodile to death with sticks, saving the black man’s life.
The Pope, impressed, goes over to where the two men are standing. “That was the most wonderful thing to do,” his holiness says. “You put yourselves at risk to kill the crocodile and save the life of your fellow man. I can see that it is men like you who will rebuild this country as an example to the world of true racial harmony.”
The Pope goes on his way. “Who was that?” asks one of the white men.
The other replies: “That was the Pope. He is in direct communication with God. He knows everything.”
“Maybe,” says the first, “But he knows fuck all about crocodile fishing!”
The butt of this joke is not race, but racists. In this example, the joke does not condone the actions of the ‘crocodile fishers’: in fact, it contrasts them (through the Pope’s mistake in understanding) to the opposite state of racial harmony. It does not work to reinforce stereotypes. Oh, and it’s funny: that’s always a benefit in a joke. Contrast to jokes about negative racial sterotypes or using offensive terms for no value other than for the words themselves: these types of jokes can serve to reinforce the position of actual racists who see their use (and acceptance) as reinforcement for their position, and – if you enjoy them – it’s worth asking yourself what that says about you, or might be seen to say about you.
It’s an incredibly weak pun
What would “paki tin” even mean, if that were what the first child had meant? It’s not as if we say “beans tin” or “soup tin” or “peas tin”. Surely, if this piece of wordplay were to make any sense whatsoever, it would have to be based on the phrase “tin of pakis”, which I’m pretty sure nobody has ever said before, ever.
To illustrate, let me have a go at making a pun-based joke without the requirement that the pun actually make sense:
Youdough not understand how jokes are supposed to work, do you?
You see? Not funny (except perhaps in the most dadaist of humour circles). It’s not funny because Yoodough isn’t actually a name. The format of the joke is ruined by balancing a pun against a phrase that just doesn’t exist. Let’s try again, but this time actually make the pun make sense (note that it’s still a knock knock joke, and therefore it probably still isn’t funny, except in an academic way):
Yuri-ly expect me to laugh at this, do you?
It’s stupidly inaccurate
Let’s just stop and take a look at that punchline again, shall we: “Pakis… come from India.” Even ignoring everything else that’s wrong with this joke, this is simply… wrong! Now that’s not to say that jokes always have to reflect reality. Here’s a classic joke that doesn’t:
Lion woke up one morning with an overbearing desire to remind his fellow creatures that he was king of the jungle. So he marched over to a monkey and roared: “Who is the mightiest animal in the jungle?”
“You are, Master,” said the monkey, quivering.
Then the lion came across a wildebeest.
“Who is the mightiest animal in the jungle?” roared the lion.
“You are, Master,” answered the wildebeest, shaking with fear.
Next the lion met an elephant.
“Who is the mightiest animal in the jungle?” roared the lion.
The elephant grabbed the lion with his trunk, slammed him repeatedly against a tree, dropped him like a stone and ambled off.
“All right,” shouted the lion. “There’s no need to turn nasty just because you don’t know the answer.”
Aside from the suspension of disbelief required for the dialogues to function at all – none of these animals are known to be able to talk! – there’s an underlying issue that lions don’t live in jungles. But who cares! That’s not the point of the joke.
In the case of the “paki” joke, the problem could easily be corrected by saying “…they come from Pakistan.” It’d still probably be the worst joke I ever heard, but at least it’d be trying to improve itself. I remember being about 8 or 9 and explaining this to a classmate, but he wasn’t convinced. As I remember it, he called me a belm and left it at that.
So that’s the worst joke I ever heard. And now you’ve heard it, you can rest assured that every joke you hear from me – no matter how corny, obscure, long-winded or pun-laden – will at least be better than that one.
Here’s one last joke, for now:
A woman gets on a bus with her baby. “Ugh!” says the bus driver, “That’s got to be the ugliest baby I’ve ever seen!”
The woman walks to the rear of the bus and sits down, fuming and close to tears. She says to a man next to her: “The driver just insulted me! I’m so upset!”
“You go up there and tell him off,” the man replies, “Go on, I’ll hold your monkey for you.”
Door Anguish languish moose beer month a moth faux net tickley verses tile ant flecks a bill languishes spur ken honours. Wither ladle procters, eaters easer two ewes whirrs inn quiet weedy queue louse weighs.
Dizzy woo nose a tin naan teen fitter sex, ah gentile moon aimed Hough Ardle Chase deed eggs ark lead art? Hear oat uh buck kern tame in severer furry tells, nosier rams, fey mouse tells, ant thongs, end duke cane henge joy atoll own lion. Half pun wit tit!
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There were so many unanswered questions in my mind: what is a “virus noise” (is it a bit like the sound of somebody sneezing?)? How a polyester coating protects against them? And what kind of viruses are transmitted down video cables, anyway?
There’s a word that seems to be being gradually redefined in our collective vocabulary, I was considering recently. That word is “nontheist”. It’s a relatively new word as it is, but in its earliest uses it seems to have been an umbrella term covering a variety of different (and broadly-compatible) theological outlooks.
Here are some of them, in alphabetical order:
“It is not possible to know whether God exists.”
Agnostics believe that it is not possible to know whether or not there are any gods. They vary in the strength of their definition of the word “know”, as well as their definition of the word “god”. Like most of these terms, they’re not mutually-exclusive: there exist agnostic atheists, for example (and, of course, there exist agnostic theists, gnostic atheists, and gnostic theists).
“Believing in gods is a bad thing.”
Antitheists are opposed to the belief in gods in general, or to the practice of religion. Often, they will believe that the world would be better in the absence of religious faith, to some degree or another. In rarer contexts, the word can also mean an opposition to a specific deity (e.g. “I believe that in God, but I hate Him.”).
“If the existence of God could be proven/disproven to me, it would not affect my behaviour.”
An apatheist belives that the existence or non-existence of gods is irrelevant. It is perfectly possible to define oneself as a theist, an atheist, or neither, and still be apathetic about the subject. Most of them are atheists, but not all: there are theists – even theists with a belief in a personal god – who claim that their behaviour would be no different even if you could (hypothetically) disprove the existence of that god, to them.
“There are no gods.”
As traditionally-defined, atheists deny the existence of either a specific deity, or – more-commonly – any deities at all. Within the last few hundred years, it has also come to mean somebody who rejects that there is any valid evidence for the existence of a god, a subtle difference which tends to separate absolutists from relativists. If you can’t see the difference between this and agnosticism, this blog post might help. Note also that atheism does not always imply materialism or naturalism: there exist atheists for example who believe in ghosts or in the idea of an immortal soul.
“God does not interfere with the Universe.”
Deism is characterised by a belief in a ‘creator’ or ‘architect’ deity which put the universe into motion, but which does has not had any direct impact on it thereafter. Deists may or may not believe that this creator has an interest in humanity (or life at all), and may or may not feel that worship is relevant. Note that deism is nontheistic (and, by some definitions, atheistic) in that it denies the existence of a specific God – a personal God with a concern for human affairs – and so appears on this list even though it’s incompatible with many people’s idea of nontheism.
“Science and reason are a stronger basis for decision-making than tradition and authority.”
To be precise, freethought is a philosophical rather than a theological position, but its roots lie in the religious: in the West, the term appeared in the 17th century to describe those who rejected a literalist interpretation of the Bible. It historically had a broad crossover with early pantheism, as science began to find answers (especially in the fields of astronomy and biology) which contradicted the religious orthodoxy. Nowadays, most definitions are functionally synonymous with naturalism and/or rationalism.
“Human development is furthered by reason and ethics, and rejection of superstition.”
In the secular sense (as opposed to the word’s many other meanings in other fields), humanism posits that ethical and moral behaviour, for the benefit of individual humans and for society in general, can be attained without religion or a deity. It requires that individuals assess viewpoints for themselves and not simply accept them on faith. Note that like much of this list, secular humanism is not incompatible with other viewpoints – even theism: it’s certainly possible to believe in a god but still to feel that society is always best-served by a human-centric (rather than a faith-based) model.
“There exists no definition of God for which one can make a claim of theism or atheism.”
One of my favourite nontheistic terms, igtheism (also called ignosticism) holds that words like “god” are not cognitively meaningful and can not be argued for or against. The igtheist holds that the question of whether or not any deities exist is meaningless not because any such deities are uninterested in human affairs (like the deist) or because such a revelation would have no impact upon their life (like the apatheist) but because the terms themselves have no value. The word “god” is either ill-defined, undefinable, or represents an idea that is unfalsifiable.
“The only reality is matter and energy. All else is an illusion caused by these.”
The materialist perspective holds that the physical universe is as it appears to be: an effectively-infinite quantity of matter and energy, traveling through time. It’s incompatible with many forms of theism and spiritual beliefs, but not necessarily with some deistic and pantheistic outlooks: in many ways, it’s more of a philosophical stance than a nontheistic position. It grew out of the philosophy of physicalism, and sharply contrasts the idealist or solipsist thinking.
“Everything can be potentially explained in terms of naturally-occurring phenomena.”
A closely-related position to that of materialism is that of naturalism. The naturalist, like the materialist, claims that there can be, by definition, no supernatural occurrences in our natural universe, and as such is similarly incompatible with many forms of theism. Its difference, depending on who you ask, tends to be described as being that naturalism does not seek to assume that there is not possibly more to the universe than we could even theoretically be capable of observing, but that does not make such things “unnatural”, much less “divine”. However, in practice, the terms naturalism and materialism are (in the area of nontheism) used interchangeably. The two are also similar to some definitions of the related term, “rationalism”.
“The Universe and God are one and the same.”
The pantheist believes that it is impossible to distinguish between God and the University itself. This belief is nontheistic because it typically denies the possibility of a personal deity. There’s an interesting crossover between deists and pantheists: a subset of nontheists, sometimes calling themselves “pandeists”, who believe that the Universe and the divine are one and the same, having come into existence of its own accord and running according to laws of its own design. A related but even-less-common concept is panentheism, the belief that the Universe is only a part of an even-greater god.
“Human activities, and especially corporate activities, should be separated from religious teaching.”
The secularist viewpoint is that religion and spiritual thought, while not necessarily harmful (depending on the secularist), is not to be used as the basis for imposing upon humans the a particular way of life. Secularism, therefore, tends to claim that religion should be separated from politics, education, and justice. The reasons for secularism are diverse: some secularists are antitheistic and would prefer that religion was unacceptable in general; others take a libertarian approach, and feel that it is unfair for one person to impose their beliefs upon another; still others simply feel that religion is something to be “kept in the home” and not to be involved in public life.
“Religious authority does not intrinsically imply correctness.”
Religious skeptics, as implied by their name, doubt the legitimacy of religious teaching as a mechanism to determine the truth. It’s a somewhat old-fashioned term, dating back to an era in which religious skepticism – questioning the authority of priests, for example – was in itself heretical: something which in the West is far rarer than it once was.
“I neither accept nor reject the notion of a deity, but find a greater truth beyond both possibilities.”
The notion of transtheism, a form of post-theism, is that there exists a religious philosophy that exists both outside and beyond that of both theism and atheism. Differentiating between this and deism, or apatheism, is not always easy, but it’s a similar concept to Jain “transcendence”: the idea that there may or may not exist things which may be called “godlike”, but the ultimate state of being goes beyond this. It can be nontheistic, because it rejects the idea that a god plays a part in human lives, but is not necessarily atheistic.
However, I’ve observed that the word “nontheist” seems to be finding a new definition, quite apart from the umbrella description above.
In recent years, a number of books have been published on the subject of atheism, some of which – and especially The God Delusion – carry a significant antitheistic undertone. This has helped to inspire the idea that atheism and antitheism are the same thing (which for many atheists, and a tiny minority of antitheists, simply isn’t true), and has lead some people who might otherwise have described themselves as one or several of the terms above to instead use the word “nontheist” as a category of its own.
This “new nontheist” definition is still very much in its infancy, but I’ve heard it described as “areligious, but spiritual”, or “atheistic, but not antitheistic”.
Personally, I don’t like this kind of redefinition. It’s already hard enough to have a reasonable theological debate – having to stop and define your terms every step of the way is quite tiresome! – without people whipping your language out from underneath you right when you were standing on it. I can see how those people who are, for example, “atheistic, but not antitheistic” might want to distance themselves from the (alliterative) antitheistic atheist authors, but can’t they pick a different word?
After all: there’s plenty of terms going spare, above, to define any combination of nontheistic belief, and enough redundancy that you can form a pile of words higher than any Tower of Babel. Then… perhaps… we can talk about religion without stopping to fight over which dictionary is the true word.
As I mentioned earlier, I spent some of the period between Christmas and New Year in Preston. And there, while taking a shower at my mother’s house, I had a strange experience.
One of the funky features of my mother’s shower cubicle is that it includes a fully working FM radio. Its controls are pretty limited and there’s no user interface to provide feedback about what frequency you’re tuned to already, so it’s hard to deliberately tune in to a specific station. Instead, the house policy seems to be that if you don’t like what you’re listening to, you press the “cycle to the next station” button until you hear something you like.
Listening to music is about the third or second most-enjoyable thing that one can possibly do in a shower, in my experience, so I gave it a go. Local station Radio Wave came on, and they were playing some fun tunes, so I sang along as I washed myself under the hot steamy “drench” setting on the shower.
At the end of a couple of songs, there were some commercials and the show’s presenter shared a few words. And it occurred to me quite how very Northern he sounded.
Living and working in Oxford, I don’t in my day to day life come across people with that broad lanky dialect. Growing up in Preston, and going to school there, I came across it on a daily basis, but didn’t notice it. Now, in its absence, it’s starkly noticable, with its traditional short gutteral “t” instead of “the”, use of the archaic second-person “tha” (related to “thou”), and the ever-present pronunciation of words like “right” and “light” as “reet” and “leet”, and “cold” and “old” as “cowd” and “owd”.
It’s unfamiliar, but still “homely”. Like that smell that reminds you of where you grew up, this sound to my ears filled me with a strange nostalgia.
It’s funny, because I’m sure I carry a little bit of that accent with me. To the folks in my life around Oxford way, I perhaps sound as foreign as those people in Preston sound to me, now. I spoke on the phone the other week to a couple of people I used to hang out with, back in the day, and my immediate thought was that they’d become more Lanky than I remembered – as if they’d somehow overdosed on butter pie and barm cakes in the years since I last saw them.
But that’s clearly not the case: it’s not their voices that have changed, but my ears. Untouched by the North-Western tongue for so long, it sounds very strange to me now to hear it over the phone, on the radio, or even in person.
It’s a strange side-effect of moving around the country. I wonder what it’s like for my American friends, who have an even bigger gap (both geographically and linguistically) between their homes in the UK and their families in the US, to “phone home”.
“Thanks to these changes,” I said, “The Bodleian Libraries websites CMS can now support the use of Unicode characters. That means that the editors can now write web content in Arabic, Japanese, Russian… or even Ancient Egyptian!”
It sounded like a good soundbite for the internal newsletter, although of course I meant that last suggestion as a joke. While I’m aware of libraries within the Bodleian who’d benefit from being able to provide some of their content in non-Latin characters – and Arabic, Japanese, and Russian were obvious candidate languages – I didn’t actually anticipate that mentioning Ancient Egyptian would attract much attention. Everybody knows that’s meant as a joke, right?
“Is that just Demotic symbols, then? Or can we use all hieroglyphics?” came back the reply. My heart stopped. Somebody actually wanted to use a four thousand plus year old alphabet to write their web pages?
It turns out that there’s only one font in existence that supports the parts of the Unicode font set corresponding to Egyptian hieroglyphics: Aegyptus. So you need to ensure that your readers have that installed or they’ll just see lots of boxes. And you’ll need to be able to type the characters in the first place – if you don’t have an Ancient Egyptian Keyboard (and who does, these days), you’re going to spend a lot of time clicking on characters from a table or memorising five-digit hex-codes.
But yes, it’s doable. With a properly set-up web server, database, CMS, and templates, and sufficient motivation, it’s possible to type in Ancient Egyptian. And now, thanks to me, the Bodleian has all of those things.
Well: except perhaps the motivation. The chap who asked about Ancient Egyptian was, in fact, having a laugh. In the strange academic environment of Oxford University, it’s hard to be certain, sometimes.
I do find myself wondering what scribes of the Old Kingdom would have made of this whole exercise. To a scribe, for example, it will have been clear that to express his meaning he needed to draw a flock of three herons facing left. Millenia later, we treat “three herons facing left” as a distinct separate glyph from “one heron facing left”, perhaps in a similar way to the way that we treat the Æ ligature as being separate from the letters A and E from which it is derived. He couldn’t draw just one heron, because… well, that just wouldn’t make any sense, would it? So this symbol – no: more importantly, it’s meaning – is encoded as U+13163, the 78,180th character in an attempted “univeral alphabet”.
To what purpose? So that we can continue to pass messages around in Ancient Egyptian in a form that will continue to be human and machine-readable for as long as is possible. But why? That’s what I imagine our scribe would say. We’re talking about a dead language here: one whose continued study is only justified by an attempt to understand ancient texts that we keep digging up. And he’d be right.
All existing texts written in Ancient Egyptian aren’t encoded in Unicode. They’re penned on rotting papyrus and carved into decaying sandstone walls. Sure, we could transcribe them, but we’d get exactly the same amount of data by transliterating them or using an encoding format for that specific purpose (which I’m sure must exist), and even more data by photographing them. There’s no need to create more documents in this ancient language: just to preserve the existing ones for at least as long as it takes to translate and interpret them. So why the effort to make an encoding system – and an associated font! – to display them?
Don’t get me wrong: I approve. I think Unicode is awesome, and I think that UTF-16 and UTF-8 are fantastic (if slightly hacky) ways to make use of the breadth of Unicode without doubling or quadrupling the amount of memory consumed by current 8-bit documents. I just don’t know how to justify it. All of those bits, just to store information in a language in which we’re producing no new information.
What I’m saying is: I think it’s wonderful that we can now put Egyptian hieroglyphics on the Bodleian Libraries websites. I just don’t know how I’d explain why it’s cool to a time-traveling Egyptian scribe. Y’know; in case I come across one.