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June 22, 2004

Grace
Posted by Teresa at 01:46 PM *

Hope observed, via Byzantium’s Shores: which remarked this October ‘03 post from Jeff Cooper, author of Cooped Up, about why he was suspending his weblog; and this 18 June ‘04 post, about why Cooper is coming back.

Comments on Grace:
#1 ::: HP ::: (view all by) ::: June 22, 2004, 04:20 PM:

Oh, I can't believe I'm gonna do this....

And to think, I just went through 180 pages of edits, and alternately argued and cringed with each one....

Anyway, "94" should be "04," above.

That's it--no insights, no encouraging words for Jeff's baby. Just that. I'm such schmoe.

#2 ::: HP ::: (view all by) ::: June 22, 2004, 04:30 PM:

Such a schmoe. Now I'm doubly schmoe.

#3 ::: Tony Hellmann ::: (view all by) ::: June 22, 2004, 05:40 PM:

Shouldn't that be June, and not July?

*grin*

#4 ::: Argemone ::: (view all by) ::: June 22, 2004, 06:09 PM:

Wonderful news!

I admit that I checked both entries because of the time traveling dates. After all, if someone had really come up with a way to loop the time line, wouldn't we hear about it here first?

#5 ::: Will "scifantasy" Frank ::: (view all by) ::: June 22, 2004, 06:54 PM:

Argemone: Or we'd hear about it last, which would be the same, naturally.

#6 ::: Claude Muncey ::: (view all by) ::: June 22, 2004, 07:52 PM:

With a looped time line, is more than one post really necessary?

#7 ::: David Moles ::: (view all by) ::: June 22, 2004, 08:04 PM:

I would totally not it past Teresa to find a ’94 Usenet post (say) that only makes sense in 2004.

#8 ::: David Moles ::: (view all by) ::: June 22, 2004, 08:05 PM:

But that’s really good news.

#9 ::: antukin ::: (view all by) ::: June 22, 2004, 09:18 PM:

Oh that is so heartwarming. Though it is difficult to read items like this at work. My boss will probably start wondering why I'm getting all teary-eyed. Think she'll believe it's tears of joy from job satisfaction? ;p

#10 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: June 22, 2004, 09:49 PM:

I commented on Cooper's blog that his house is haunted by Annie Sullivan...that was a real "wa-wa" moment his son had. I had one of those myself, about reading, when I realized that I could read if I just ignored what they were teaching me about it in school (Phonics, he said, and spat). They'd been testing me for mental disability until that point.

#11 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: June 22, 2004, 10:04 PM:

That’d make one hell of a Macintosh ad.

#12 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: June 22, 2004, 10:30 PM:

Go ahead, make fun of the handicapped. I'll forgive you anyway.

#13 ::: Madeleine Robins ::: (view all by) ::: June 22, 2004, 10:51 PM:

That's a wonderful story. I hope Noah's progress continues steadily, right through graduate school...

Xopher, they were talking about giving me tests, too. When I finally stopped trying to decode the words via phonics and just read the damned things I went from a second grade reading level to 10th grade in a year (I was nine, I think).

I am a big fan of the progress that has made it possible for kids with learning differences to be diagnosed and helped...but when I hear a story like this I wonder if, a hundred years ago, when a kid had delays of this sort, the child wasn't allowed to catch up on his own. In the 1920s my grandmother's best friend had a son who hadn't talked by the time he was four, and they were beginning to get concerned; then, one afternoon, he was playing outside, fell in the mud, and stormed into the house demanding "Mrs. Stearns, come take these wet drawers off me!" I guess, as with the joke, everything had been satisfactory up to that time.

#14 ::: Tina ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2004, 12:25 AM:

hukd ohn fonix werkd for mee!

Seriously, that's interesting that not one, but two people here found phonics to be inhibiting, instead of helpful. My experience being pretty much the opposite... and a lot of people I know seemed to take well to it, too.

Just more proof that everyone's different.

Anyhow. Was very good news to read. No pun intended.

#15 ::: Andy Perrin ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2004, 12:35 AM:

Tina said: hukd ohn fonix werkd for mee!

Which reminds me. Are there really forty-four sounds in the English language? Just forty-four?

Calling all linguistics-nerds.

#16 ::: Calimac ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2004, 02:27 AM:

As someone who's had no contact with early schooling in 35 years, and who bypassed the whole reading-education process by teaching himself to read at the age of 2, I was puzzled by Xopher's and Madeleine's distaste for phonics - which always seemed to me much wiser than the "whole language" alternative - until Tina, the phonics defender, wrote a line in phonetic spelling. Does phonics instruction actually use phonetic spelling? If so, it's not nearly as good an idea as I'd thought. Tell me more, all.

#17 ::: Stephen Sample ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2004, 07:44 AM:

Andy Perrin:

Which reminds me. Are there really forty-four sounds in the English language? Just forty-four? Calling all linguistics-nerds.

Define "sounds." And for that matter, "in the English language." No, really, it's important.

The estimates vary, but 44 sounds reasonable for the number of phonemes in a given dialect of modern spoken English (perhaps even a bit high--the range of the estimates is something like 34-45). But that may be misleading for several reasons.

First, phonemes are a bit abstract--the basis for counting phonemes is looking for pairs of words that are distinguished only by one sound. This allows you to filter out the effects of the neighboring sounds from the pronunciation.

So "mitt" and "nit", for example, are a "minimal pair"--they have the same pronunciation except for the initial nasal--and thus, we know that /m/ and /n/ are different phonemes in English. But the word "emphasis" has a nasal sound that is actually halfway between [m] and [n]--now since there is no contrasting word with a clear [m] or [n] in that position, we conclude that the nasal there is not an actual *[mn], but an [m] that has been altered by the nearness of the [f] sound. So a list of phonemes for English would say that there are only two nasal consonants, even though "emphasis" has a nasal consonant sound which is neither.

Similarly, some American dialects have a vowel other than schwa in the 4th position in "roses", but this reduced lax i sound does not form a minimal pair with schwa anywhere I know of. So it would be an extra sound, but not an extra phoneme.

The number of sounds in a given dialect of English will thus be significantly larger than the number of phonemes.

On the "in English" front, different dialects make different distinctions. Some dialects pronounce "moan" and "mown" differently (the East Anglian accent does, for example), and thus, they have two vowel phonemes where other English dialects have one. And similar distinctions exist in other dialects, for different phonemes.

So the number of phonemes in English as a whole will be somewhat larger than that of any given dialect.

But yes, if we are talking about phonemes for a single dialect of English, 44 is about right. If we're talking about actual sounds for the whole language worldwide, it's pretty low.

Caveats: I've only taken one course in Phonology per se, and that was 10 years ago. But a bunch of my other linguistics classes touched on it.

By the way, are you the Andy Perrin who was Swarthmore '92? If so, we overlapped there by two years.

#18 ::: teep ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2004, 07:51 AM:

Like more than a few other folks here, I could read before I went to school. According to my mother, I picked this up at four.

Phonics, which I got in kindergarten in 1975, didn't impress me much. After all, I'd learned how to read without once drawing an upside-down and backwards letter e (the "schwa" sound). I didn't see what the "schwa" sound had to do with reading and I apparently TOLD the teacher so, in about that many words.

That was not our only area of conflict. I also asked why the pencils and crayons were so fat, who had cut the erasers off the ends of the pencils, why the lines were so far apart on the paper, why it mattered what COLOR crayon we used to circle the correct answer (because whether it was red or purple didn't affect the rightness of the answer, you see...), and why the directions she gave us out loud didn't always match the directions printed on the worksheets.

There were quite a few notes sent home the year I was in kindergarten.

I got through enough phonics to be allowed to not do phonics anymore... the only thing that remains in my mind as "phonics" is how frustrated, angry, and miserable I was about having to draw stupid backward upside-down letter e's that had nothing to do with reading so that I would be ALLOWED to read.

#19 ::: Rivka ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2004, 07:58 AM:

Madeline wrote: when I hear a story like this I wonder if, a hundred years ago, when a kid had delays of this sort, the child wasn't allowed to catch up on his own.

The thing is, though, that a lot of them didn't catch up on their own. Research shows that the earlier you intervene in a language delay, the better the outcome. So much of learning is dependent on language (spoken or signed) that delays snowball quickly. And there really is a critical period for language learning, after which they're a lot harder to acquire.

#20 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2004, 10:05 AM:

I'm another self-taught reader, but I used a phonics-oriented book (rhyming words).

I wonder whether aside from the having to draw upside-down e's issue people who have trouble with phonics have a tendency to believe in taking rules literally while people like me who have a rather-more-or-less attitude find phonics useful.

On yet another hand, I'd been vaguely thinking of phonics as just telling the kids something about how the letters sound rather than insisting on flashcards with no explanation--I hadn't thought about how phonics might actually be taught. What possible good would it do to insist on shwas?

#21 ::: Melissa Singer ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2004, 10:16 AM:

Calimac:

While phonics _instruction_ does not use phonetic spelling, children in the lower grades are allowed to use phonetic spelling in what they write.

It looks damned weird to a parent to see the written assignments in Kindergarten, where the only words spelled correctly are ones copied off the board or from other source material. It was hard for me, publishing professional that I am, not to correct my daughter's spelling _all the time_.

Until I realized that worrying about the spelling was interfering with the learning that was actually going on. Which wasn't necessarily learning about words, though that was part of it, but learning how to write, which actually seems to be a major component of learning how to read fluidly.

It still seemed counterintuitive to me, but I have to say that for the majority of the kids in my daughter's classes in K and 1st, "invented spelling," which is the technical term, seemed not to hinder them in any way.

Reading instruction in my daughter's school is a combination of whole-language and phonics, with different things stressed at different points. First the children learn how to recognize and write each consonant and learn the sound it makes (homework assignments were things like "write down and draw pictures of 5 words that begin with the M sound" or "end with the D sound"). One they'd been through half the alphabet, vowels were introduced. The two sounds of the vowels were taught separately at first and then together.

While all this was going on, the children also received lists of sight words to memorize (the, and, that--all very common words), which was mostly done by writing them down multiple times (see, there's that writing-reading connection again).

My daughter will finish second grade this year. While correct spelling became more important in the last part of first grade, second grade was the first time spelling mistakes were actively and consistently corrected (no points off yet, though) and learning to spell has become a bigger part of reading and writing lessons.

There have also been punctuation lessons this year. Last year they learned about periods, commas, question marks, and exclamation points, but were not expected to use them correctly all the time. This year they have been bringing home punctuation worksheets (in one of which I found an error--a misuse of serial comma--about which I wrote a note to the teacher, I'm sure they love me at school, lol).

In my daughter's case, I don't think the way reading was taught had a significant impact on her learning to read. She read her first words sometime around age 3.5. Her daycare teachers spotted it and suggested she be moved to the Pre-K classroom. Once I determined that she actually was reading and not reciting from memory, I agreed to the move. I won't say she was reading completely fluidly by the beginning of kindergarten, but she certainly was by the end.

She's 8 now and reads on at least a 5th grade level. Her writing workshop project for spring, when the children each had to write a nonfiction book on a topic of their choosing, was a biography of Pablo Picasso (illustrated with her own versions of cubist works and Guernica, and drawings of Picasso in his beret).

#22 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2004, 10:56 AM:

There was a little girl I heard about who came home from kindergarten and hid under the bed and read with a flashlight. Why? Because she thought you weren't ALLOWED to read until you could do the stupid worksheets they had at her school! This sort of thing happens all the time.

I told my first grade teacher that the only difference between a "B" sound and a "P" sound was that for "B" you use your voice. She told me I was wrong. Not "that doesn't matter right now," not even "please be quiet," but "that's not right." Of course, it IS right, and I was sure of it (it was my goddam larynx, and I knew damn well what it was doing), so it did nothing but make me stubborn and difficult. Which I still am.

Stephen, I see your point as to phoneme counting. Growing up with parents from Chicago, I had at least one more phoneme than my Michigander classmates. I distinguished between 'i' as in 'bit' and 'e' as in 'bet', which most of them did not; it was puzzling out why they said "ink pen" that really got me into linguistics. To me the phrase is redundant, at least in context, schools not being big on pig pens; they, of course, needed to disambiguate between an "ink pen" and a "safety pin," for example, which is why the phrase 'ink pen' doesn't usually occur in writing.

(It did, in an interview I read with Eminem, who is a Michigander. "I have to sit down with an ink pen and work it out," he said of his songwriting. Now I'm no fan of Eminem, for obvious reasons, but I consider that hostile editing. The word 'ink' should be dropped when going from speech to writing, just as you leave out 'um', 'uh', and the other fillers. Sounds OK, at least to a Michigander, but looks stupid on paper.)

But Stephen, I'd conjecture we might disagree on the number of vowels even in my dialect. Is it still accepted practice to consider the glide in words like 'beat' predictable? In SG we reason that you need the glide anyway to account for words like 'your' and 'buyer', and so we treat the glide as determining the tension of the vowel; thus 'bit' is /bit/ and 'beat' is /biyt/. Saves four phonemes (because /w/ works the same way in back).

I believe (I did a lot of phonology, but it was longer ago) that this is supported by the experimental data; if you say the wrong vowel but put the glide in the right place, people think you have an accent, whereas if you say the right vowel and leave out the glide, they hear the wrong word.

By the way, I'm talking about Phonics as of about 1965. Phonics may have developed new and better hooks (heh) since then, obviously. But any kid with an instinct for language would be impaired by the things I was taught. For example, they used the term 'blend' to describe spellings like 'bl' and 'dr' as in 'blush' and 'drain' - but also to describe the spellings 'sh' and 'th' as in 'shift' and 'throw'! These are obviously different things, and the second doesn't blend anything at all (I'd argue against the use of the term even for consonant clusters like /bl/, but that's another story). I knew they weren't the same thing, and got all confused.

Same thing happened a couple of years later when they used the ambiguous abomination 'homonym' to describe both homographs (e.g. 'unionized' as in "The particles are unionized" vs "The workers are unionized") and homophones (e.g. 'bread' and 'bred'). Add undiagnosed ADHD to the mix. I had a tough time in grade school (yes, I know others had it worse).

#23 ::: Michelle Sagara ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2004, 11:20 AM:

My experience with two children who are both ASD in different ways: the youngest is at least a year behind his peers in language acquisition, and has benefited from the approach to writing that Melissa Singer cited above. Oddly enough, his ability to recognize whole words of import (mostly subway stations ) was always good -- but he had a pretty narrow definition of important.

He can read fairly well, but has to be pushed; he can write more clearly now, but in order to read what he's written we have to pronounce the words as if the letters were sounds (so 'really' would be 'rele'). On the other hand, his sentences are more complex than they were when he first entered Junior Kindergarten, and we have hopes that he'll eventually catch up with his peers. (his math, otoh, is good, but this is not uncommon).

My oldest was reading before he hit school, and he clearly did this by the whole word approach (from computer screens, and matching words with what we read aloud; he once asked me why I'd inserted a 'space-bar' into hastily scribbled note).

He could not learn to puzzle out unfamiliar words until we taught him to sound them out, which would be considered more phonetic in approach. Once he learned that, he could read almost anything, because he only had to struggle to sound it out once before he realized what the letters mapped -to- in his daily vocabulary.

I think that whole word vs. phonetic depends on two things: the child and their age. I know adults, now, who have a difficult time reading anything out loud (or some things at all) because they -only- recognize whole words, and have no ability to sound the word out or approach it in that fashion.

#24 ::: Michelle Sagara ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2004, 11:22 AM:

I also feel compelled to point out that one of my younger son's first words was, in fact, 'apple', as in the brand. (We have both types of machines -- i.e. apple and anything else -- in our house).

#25 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2004, 11:42 AM:

The only thing that correllates with children learning to read is how much they are read to. So I hear, anyway. Could be old data.

The studies I've seen also concluded that children learn to read despite being taught, rather than because of it. Sit there with the book open and read aloud. Make sure the child can see the book. Pointing at the page being read is optional; pointing at each word is detrimental.

I'm one of those crazy radicals who believes that learning to read is a natural process in humans, like learning to talk. Some people have impairments, to be sure, but it happens on its own if the right environment is created. Of course, this puts the responsibility on the parents, who often don't have time to read to their kids, and big classrooms generally don't have the kids able to see the book.

But we're too factory-oriented in education in general. But that's another rant, and I'll stop this one here.

#26 ::: Andy Perrin ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2004, 11:49 AM:

Stephen Sample: Thanks— I've always wondered about the HoP commercial. I would have been listening to it on the way to elementary school back in 1992, to answer your question. (What's rather amusing is that if I google myself, I mostly get hits pertaining to Swathmore-Andy, but my interests seem similar to his. Eerie doppelgänger effect.)

When I was in first grade, we were made to slog through workbooks called "Programmed Reading." There were more than twenty of these boring booklets, and when you finished one, you would ostentatiously get up to procure the next. Your classmates would all write faster. (I think my teacher got a kick out of that part.) I was often chastised for hiding a book under my desk, when I should have been doing my Orwellian "Programmed Reading."

#27 ::: Yoon Ha Lee ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2004, 12:08 PM:

Xopher: The studies I've seen also concluded that children learn to read despite being taught, rather than because of it. Sit there with the book open and read aloud. Make sure the child can see the book. Pointing at the page being read is optional; pointing at each word is detrimental.

EEP! Must stop pointing at each word. Although really, since the kid is only 6 mos. old, I hope I haven't done too much damage. (Does reading from a lay-level but fairly technical book on material science and engineering--random paragraphs at random intervals when it amuses her/me to have me reading random stuff--cause harm? Aiee!)

I was taught to read by my mother, which meant that for preschool and kindergarten I had great reading comprehension, but had some difficulties in listening comprehension because basically I grew up hearing Korean spoken at home (my first language) and even in kindergarten had difficulty with [v] and [f], neither of which occur in Korean. My mom recounts that the teacher sent home a note or somesuch suggesting that she work on those sounds with me, which my mom ignored, figuring that I hadn't gotten them from her and sure wasn't going to, and that listening to English at school from my peers would do it in time.

Meanwhile, eep! Eep! Parenting is so confusing. At this rate maybe I should resign and let someone competent take over...

#28 ::: Nick Kiddle ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2004, 12:46 PM:

I didn't see what the "schwa" sound had to do with reading and I apparently TOLD the teacher so, in about that many words.

My mum tells two stories about me, both of which I have to take on trust since I don't remember either incident. The first is about how I taught myself to read through being read to regularly, and the first she knew about it was when I started asking awkward questions about things I'd read in the newspaper.

The second is about how my school taught using the Initial Teaching Alphabet when I started, and how I marched up to the head of Infants and announced that "I don't read that rubbish - I read *real* writing."

I do remember the head of Infants taking rather a dislike to me...

#29 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2004, 01:03 PM:

Andy: ...Orwellian "Programmed Reading."

I assume you mean "The cat is on the mat. The tot is in the pot" as in Brave New World. Yes, you're like the little girl I mentioned above, except that in her case it could have been a miscommunication, whereas your teacher was actually stoopid. (And I suspect there may be other differences as well...)

Yoon Ha Lee - Eep indeed. Your child will become a nerd if you read such things to her! And no, I'm not saying that like it's a bad thing...

Seriously, at 6 months it's all sounds and pictures (very blurry pictures). Pointing at each word is only a little detrimental (people do that when they're reading little-kid books, not technical manuals). I myself think reading things they're too young (in your daughter's case, WAY too young) to understand can't be a bad thing; might motivate them eventually, and I don't see a downside unless you mind being asked a LOT of questions ("Mommy, what's a hip-mo-pobbamus?" or in your case "bawb ga ba?"). I do recall the expression on my nephew's preschool teacher's face when he told her he wanted to be a paleontologist when he grew up (and he pronounced it right, and knew what it was).

Nick Kiddle: good, good, good on you!!!! And head of Infants (what country was this?) ought to have been delighted. But some folks got no sense.

#30 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2004, 01:10 PM:

I had two problems in kindergarten:

1. I was "antisocial," which cleared up when I got glasses.

2. My mother taught me the song as:

Row, row, row your boat, every girl and boy.
Marilee, Marilee, Marilee, Marilee, life is such a Joy.

The teacher had a different idea of how it should go, and I told her that my mother taught fifth grade so she had to be right.

Then in first grade, I had a teacher who knew less than I did, which is what got me my first IQ test, and my lack of formal schooling until near high school.

#31 ::: Andy Perrin ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2004, 01:29 PM:

Replying to Xopher: My first grade teacher wasn't that bad, except for the example I mentioned. She taught us about synonyms and antonyms and promised us that we would still remember them in ten years— she was right, of course.

My fifth grade geography teacher was the nightmare: Rules must be followed. Always use complete sentences. If you answer a true/false question veridically, you must write, "The answer is true." If there are twenty such questions, you must do that for all of them. He insisted on strict deadlines for students, but took ages to return our work. Once, he failed to grade a project for a month, and returned our posterboards in tatters. His laborador gnawed them, and he was reluctant to admit what happened. He is the only teacher of which I can claim, "His dog ate my homework."

#32 ::: Yoon Ha Lee ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2004, 01:47 PM:

Xopher: Yoon Ha Lee - Eep indeed. Your child will become a nerd if you read such things to her! And no, I'm not saying that like it's a bad thing...

Seriously, at 6 months it's all sounds and pictures (very blurry pictures). Pointing at each word is only a little detrimental (people do that when they're reading little-kid books, not technical manuals). I myself think reading things they're too young (in your daughter's case, WAY too young) to understand can't be a bad thing; might motivate them eventually, and I don't see a downside unless you mind being asked a LOT of questions ("Mommy, what's a hip-mo-pobbamus?" or in your case "bawb ga ba?"). I do recall the expression on my nephew's preschool teacher's face when he told her he wanted to be a paleontologist when he grew up (and he pronounced it right, and knew what it was).

I certainly have zero expectation for the kid to understand the oddments of Tanith Lee or Norse myth or material science/engineering or history that I read her (whatever I'm reading, basically). The more immediate problem is that, since she sees me with books every chance I get, she has drawn the only reasonable conclusion, which is that books must be ueber-tasty-yum-delicious! This is okay with her board books, which are there to be abused learned on. This is far less okay with my husband's Brust or my math texts...

As for questions...I remember one year Dad got me and my sister books along the lines of The Big Book of Tell Me Why and Panati's Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things (or somesuch), claiming he couldn't keep up with our questions! I'm sure generational revenge will be particularly piquant.

In the meantime, it's good to know I'm not alone in nerdhood. (Yes, I'm still bitter about being told I was a smart@$$ for bringing up quarks in 6th grade. I was curious, dammit.)

#33 ::: Michelle Sagara ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2004, 01:58 PM:

Sit there with the book open and read aloud. Make sure the child can see the book. Pointing at the page being read is optional; pointing at each word is detrimental.

My oldest son would not let us finish a book until he was well past the age of reading himself. Period. We tried to read things to him; he never got past the first few pages. Not from boredom; his particular view of the universe takes no axioms for granted. Reading Goldilocks and the Three Bears, his nursery school teacher was stopped with a "but why did the chair break?" and when she failed to answer this in a way that was consistent with his own internal logic, he failed to hear anything else she had to say (he was pretty good at that; if someone was not making sense on one front, he pretty much assumed they simply didn't make sense, and diverted his attention elsewhere).

So while I understand the generalization (and would like to see that study), I can point out at least one case in which it is not true.

And, for completeness, he learned to read because of two computer games: The Incredible Machine and Diablo. He simply could not stand to have to wait for us to read him the instructions (for the former) and couldn't stand not to know what it was that had dropped on the floor after the monsters had been killed (for the latter).

#34 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2004, 02:06 PM:

Xopher --

Teaching them to write, to make letters and that the letters have sounds, also counts toward learning how to read. (Melissa's kid is in a good school.)

Which is no surprise; the monastic scriptoria used the method for close to a thousand years.

Yoon --

"Babies bounce" has metaphorical application. Honest.

#35 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2004, 02:18 PM:

Graydon - While teaching them that letters have sounds may help them learn to read, it isn't actually true. If the child notices that it isn't true and says so, I think the teacher should say "Yes, Christopher,(1) I know, but we're going to pretend they do for now" rather than "You're wrong."

That's all I'm saying.

I'm assuming that by "counts toward" you mean "contributes to" rather than "counts as" - a much more theoretical, and IMO less interesting, question.

(1) Another name may be substituted if the child's name is not Christopher.

#36 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2004, 02:24 PM:

Xopher --

Letters do have sounds. They don't have perfectly consistent sounds, and spelling is of necessity a complex historical mish-mash, but the correspondence between letter and sound is real.

The lack of a perfect consistency index to the correspondene should certainly be acknowledged when a child notices, but the evidence that teaching kids to write during or before teaching them to read is a help with learning to read is quite convincing.

#37 ::: Melissa Singer ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2004, 02:40 PM:

Michelle: My daughter's first spoken word was "book."

I kid you not.

#38 ::: Melissa Singer ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2004, 02:47 PM:

Xopher:

Problems with the correlation between ability to read and being read to:

In far too many households, the parents are functional illiterates; they do not read very much, if at all, and reading to their children is a very difficult task.

In many parts of the country, the adults may be perfectly literate in languages other than English, but their children are being taught to read in English, and from what I've seen, parents who are unsure of their ability to read well in English will not read to their children.

My daughter's school recommends a minimum of 15 minutes of reading to children in K and 1st, and 30 minutes to 2nd graders. Plus the children themselves are supposed to read for similar amounts of time. In a household with working parents, it's hard to find time for this in addition to homework time, food prep and consumption, bath, and everything else that must be done between arrival home sometime after 6 PM and whenever bedtime is.

In my family, reading is a highly-valued skill as well as a time for family bonding and shared pleasure, and it's simply not possible to find an hour a day for reading. Imagine how hard that is in families where reading is less valued and where family members are less proficient.

I agree that factory-processing children is terrible; the fights I've had with school administration this year have all been in rebellion against factory-processing education. But completely individuated learning is not possible either, at least not here (NYC) and now.

#39 ::: Melissa Singer ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2004, 02:50 PM:

Meant to add:

Pointing at each word is not necessarily detrimental if the child at your elbow is saying, "show me the words, mommy."

My daughter also found it interesting that "the" is still "the" even if it's The, the, or THE, though when I was showing her that, I pointed only to the various "the"s.

#40 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2004, 03:09 PM:

Graydon, cross-purpose talk. Lemme 'splain: I agree that there are correspondences between letters and sounds. The fact that the letters do not have sounds is why those correspondences can vary. This enables us to spell Dr. Suess's classic "The tough coughs as he ploughs through the dough." What sound does 't' have? "Terry thinks of animation." Any answer you gave was wrong in 2 of 3 cases.

A bell has a sound. An schematic diagram of a bell does not. Letters are more like the diagram than the bell.

Melissa: I agree. And countries like Cuba have done wonders by having children teach adults to read - the guise of "let me show you what I learned in school" defeats the shame of illiteracy pretty effectively, I'm told; in the 1980s Cuba had a higher literacy rate than the US; don't know if this is still true.

Let me clarify something: I was talking about what works best, not what policy should be. I'm not a parent or an education expert, and even my linguistics is rather out of date. I would suggest that reading to children be something we encourage anyone who's so inclined to do. Possibly we could even pay them, just for that. (Think of it!)

I also agree about pointing to words. The detriment comes when the child is lagging or even reading ahead (yay!) and then is distracted by the pointing finger, leading to confusion. If the child ASKS for the words, presumably she'll also say "OK, mommy, just read now" if she starts to have trouble.

#41 ::: Catie Murphy ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2004, 05:28 PM:

Speaking of peculiar ideas children get about reading, as a small person I got it into my head that reading was something you did out loud ("Mommy, will you read me a story?"). When I was four or fiveish and we were driving home from the library, I finished a book just as we were pulling into the driveway. Mom said to me, "Wow, did you read that whole book?"

"Oh, no," I said airily, "I was just looking at the words." :)

Mom taught me to read, although I don't know by what process, when I was about three. My little sister, as far as Mom can tell, picked up reading by osmosis, also around age three.

And with regards to children not learning to speak until late, and that old joke, I have a friend who didn't start talking until he was three and a bit, but when he began, he spoke in complete sentences. His parents were very, very concerned, until one night his mom went by his room and heard him practicing: "May I have a peanutbutter and jelly sandwich, please?" They were much less worried after that. :) Evidently, having two older siblings and two parents in the house who all spoke in complete sentences gave him a very specific idea of *how* one was supposed to speak, and he wasn't going to talk until he'd gotten it right.

#42 ::: Debra Doyle ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2004, 07:14 PM:

(It did, in an interview I read with Eminem, who is a Michigander. "I have to sit down with an ink pen and work it out," he said of his songwriting. Now I'm no fan of Eminem, for obvious reasons, but I consider that hostile editing. The word 'ink' should be dropped when going from speech to writing, just as you leave out 'um', 'uh', and the other fillers. Sounds OK, at least to a Michigander, but looks stupid on paper.)

I don't know . . . speaking as someone who also has been known to employ the locution "ink pen", I might well consider it "hostile editing" if an interviewer (or an interviewer's editor) forcefully ironed out any traces of my native dialect from the finished product.

#43 ::: obeah ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2004, 07:15 PM:

Your friend's name wouldn't be Charles Wallace Murry, by any chance?

#44 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2004, 07:27 PM:

Debra Doyle, I never thought of it that way. They may even have asked Eminem how he felt about it; I have no doubt, now that you mention it, that he would insist on his actual words.

Huh. I'm appalled, actually, that I didn't think of that. Conciousness++

#45 ::: Tina ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2004, 08:06 PM:

I should point out I wasn't taught some offishul phonics via school. My mother taught me to read through some combination of reading to me and teaching me how to figure out the way written words sounded.

This led to some interesting pronunciation problems for a while. The one that sticks with me is "Ak-a-lator", which somehow is how my brain intereprted "accelerator" (I'm not sure where that other syllable went). Eventually, I learned to pay attention to the pronunciation in the dictionary as well as the meaning when I came across a new word.

I suspect I actually learned more initially via osmosis than via the phonetics lessons since I was reading on my own very young, but the phonics end definitely carried me through the later years of vocabulary development.

#46 ::: Madeleine Robins ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2004, 10:59 PM:

One of the most sensible comments on the subject of reading to one's children that I know of came from Penelope Leach (whose childrearing advice I otherwise often found a bit too pat). She noted that for small children reading is a "cuddle" activity--the child sits in the parent's lap or snuggles up beside him/her, and is read to. And all too often, once the child is able to read him/herself, the parents say "Go off and read, sweetie. You don't need Mom for that!" There go the cuddles, there goes the association of reading with closeness and warmth...and for some kids (certainly not all) reading is associated with being cast out of Eden.

I will add that this made sense to me largely because, at the point when the cuddling stopped and I was supposed to be an autonomous unit, reading gave me some of that cuddling *buzz* that I remembered from when I was tiny.

#47 ::: Melissa Singer ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2004, 09:47 AM:

Madeleine:

That Leach comment is interesting. I don't care for her in general either, but there's food for thought there.

Reading is a big motivator for us--I got my kid to walk by holding up books from across the room and telling her that if she made it all the way on her feet, I'd read to her.

At 8, we are still cuddled in bed every night for reading time, though nowadays she reads to me sometimes, which is also nice. The day just wouldn't be complete--for either one of us--without it. I do wonder how this will change as the kid gets older and the hormones start up . . . .

#48 ::: Madeleine Robins ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2004, 11:24 AM:

Melissa--

I cannot speak to Jacqueline's hormones--but I can tell you that the other night Julie (now terrifyingly 14) asked me to read to her. That it was already an hour past bedtime and it might have been a delaying tactic did not lessen the pleasure of the moment.

Rebecca (8) and I read most nights (occasionally she'll swap reading time for something else--last night it was to finish watching My Fair Lady) and have lately taken to going to a local coffee shop, where she parks me, goes down the street to the library by herself, picks out books, and comes back to eat a cookie while I finish my coffee and we both read. Very companionable, very literary.

#49 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2004, 11:26 AM:

Tina, I remember "sounding out" the brand label on the garbage disposal in my parents' house when I was about 6 or 7. The first two parts were familiar words "In-sink-" - and that made sense, because it was in the sink. The last part, which I sounded out as "air-a-tore" did not, but I never asked.

I looked at the label without reading it for many years, and never thought about it until a friend took a look and said "Insinkerator? What a terrible pun!"

The look on my face must have been priceless.

#50 ::: Melissa Singer ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2004, 11:49 AM:

And she's tall, too, that 14-yo of yours! It was nice to see her, fleetingly, the other week. I owe you a letter, and will write.

#51 ::: HP ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2004, 11:50 AM:

I learned by phonics circa 1970--at that time it was still experimental, and was taught alongside the New Math (e.g., set theory before arithmetic).

Re. ack-a-lator: I pronounced "origin" with the accent on the second syllable well into high school (cf. "original"); a friend of mine who learned the same way pronounced "misled" as though it were the past tense of "misle."

A side benefit of having internalized phonics is that I have no trouble with multisyllabic Indian names that leave my other Western colleagues stumbling. "Balasubramanian" or "Puthenpurakal" are dead easy, phonetically. (Although that dotted-ess sound midway between s and sh is a bit tricky.)

#52 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2004, 12:03 PM:

HP - like the past of the verb 'missle' (to fire a missle at) you mean? Yes, I know that one. I'm not sure that's due to phonics, but more a consequence of reading words before you hear them. I accented 'shrapnel' on the second syllable, and I know someone whose internal logic decided that 'bedraggled' meant 'raggled by a bed' and pronounced it accordingly.

The retroflex 's' is rather tricky, but worth it, if only to see the look on people's faces when you're the first American they've ever met who gets it right. I like to prove to my Chinese coworkers that I can get the tones right on their names, though I then go back to calling them Charles and Patrick like everyone else (no one would know who I meant otherwise).

#53 ::: Jill Smith ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2004, 12:09 PM:

My entire family had always pronounced innovative as in-NAHV-a-tive for some unknown reason. I still like the way it sounds, though I hew to the correct pronunciation ever since I had a group of people ask, "What are you talking about?" and I looked it up.

*sigh*

#54 ::: Douglas ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2004, 12:58 PM:

Yoon Ha Lee wrote: "Meanwhile, eep! Eep! Parenting is so confusing. At this rate maybe I should resign and let someone competent take over..."

My sentiments exactly. This parenting thing is too hard for me. My only hope is that love can substitute for competence..

I was reading long before I got to school but I don't recollect how - my mother says she just read to us a lot. My own son at age six is reading but not particularly well, so I wonder where I went wrong.. I guess parental guilt is forever (both children get read to every day, usually for 30min at least - partly because I enjoy it). On the other hand, #1 son was telling me "that's alliteration!" at the age of 3 while reading Practical Poppy's Potty Guide, so maybe there is hope.

#55 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2004, 01:13 PM:

Jill Smith - sounds like a British pronunciation to me. UK people?

#56 ::: Jill Smith ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2004, 02:00 PM:

Xopher - Grandmother was Norwegian: she had that hard-to-place Scandahoovian accent which does contain certain British-sounding vowels (though she never did live in Britain and learned to speak English on these shores). It's possible that our pretentious-sounding pronunciation stems from her speech patterns. Alas, cannot ask her, as she passed on a few years ago.

...and just "Jill" is fine with me...

#57 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2004, 02:30 PM:

". . . for small children reading is a 'cuddle"' activity . . ."

I will quietly note that this works for adults, too, and then I will step back. Fast.

#58 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2004, 11:20 PM:

My bad year for pronunciation was 12. I'd read so many words where I knew what they meant but didn't know how to pronounce them that I was constantly being corrected. Fortunately, I was fan-like already, and liked getting the words right.

#59 ::: Jeremy Leader ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2004, 05:48 PM:

My big moment of realization was when I discovered that the "inditements" I heard about on the radio and the "indiktments" in the newspaper were the same thing.

Showing my age, this was during/after Watergate.

#60 ::: Stephen Sample ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2004, 07:38 PM:

Xopher wrote:

I'd conjecture we might disagree on the number of vowels even in my dialect.

Probably not, actually. I don't have particularly strong feelings about the issue--my phonology background is a bit odd, so I tend to defer to experts on the exact phoneme count, unless they are clearly being silly. Hence my note that "the range of the estimates is something like 34-45"

Is it still accepted practice to consider the glide in words like 'beat' predictable? In SG we reason that you need the glide anyway to account for words like 'your' and 'buyer', and so we treat the glide as determining the tension of the vowel; thus 'bit' is /bit/ and 'beat' is /biyt/. Saves four phonemes (because /w/ works the same way in back).
I believe (I did a lot of phonology, but it was longer ago) that this is supported by the experimental data; if you say the wrong vowel but put the glide in the right place, people think you have an accent, whereas if you say the right vowel and leave out the glide, they hear the wrong word.

Very cool. I'll check with a friend here about the current classification of the glide if you like. I'm not really up with the state of the art in phonology.

Actually, given that I bypassed the usual Phonetics & Phonology intro class and went straight to Metrical Phonology, I probably was never up with the state of the art insofar as things like phoneme inventories are concerned. We covered a fair amount of phonology (in passing) in my Morphology class, but we focused on agglutinative and polysynthetic languages, so I don't know how English is analyzed.

But I have a college friend in town who is a Phonology professor, so he certainly should know all the current theories.

#61 ::: Dan Hoey ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2004, 01:44 AM:

Jeremy Leader: My big moment of realization was when I discovered that the "inditements" I heard about on the radio and the "indiktments" in the newspaper were the same thing.

I had much the same experience with hearing the Three Stooges say "uh-nile-ate" and sounding out "anna-hilly-ate" from some Heinlein book. And when I found out that what the teacher called the "verb to be" was already a verb I knew about, not some unknown thing waiting to become a verb, I was enlightened again. Whoever decided we could supplant vocalization with visual symbols has a lot to answer for.

On the other hand, I now find that surprise is often a good thing

#62 ::: elise ::: (view all by) ::: June 27, 2004, 06:27 AM:

jmf: I will quietly note that this works for adults, too, and then I will step back. Fast.

Doesn't it just, though? And you can read to me any time you want, dear heart. Pretty please?

Xopher: speaking as someone who has only done a few interviews for smallish venues, but who took the job seriously, it is a Very Bad Thing to file off all the interesting bits from a subject's statements. Those bits are where a lot of the characterization lives. Thou shalt not homogenize the speech of thy interview subjects. In fact, the smartest thing you can do is look for where the distinctive speech lives in them, and then introduce it to the readers.

[Snipping digression on the usefulness of being the second interviewer for someone on a day when their first interviewer was lousy, in the prescriptive and preachy sense; there's a lot to be said for not trying to make someone over, and certainly not to their face. This was politics and not pronunciation, but still.]

#63 ::: Paula Lieberman ::: (view all by) ::: June 27, 2004, 11:12 AM:

[speculation....]

Xopher wrote,

"I'm one of those crazy radicals who believes that learning to read is a natural process in humans, like learning to talk. Some people have impairments, to be sure, but it happens on its own if the right environment is created. Of course, this puts the responsibility on the parents, who often don't have time to read to their kids, and big classrooms generally don't have the kids able to see the book."

Hmm, just occurred to me that "reading" could be looked at as a combination of pattern matching and interpretation. One "reads" tracks of animals, the condition of plants from the color, shape, etc. of the leaves and stem and such.... those all could be considered, abstractly, as symbols, combine the symbols and one has a syntax, to read messages from.... holes in the bag of cocoa bark mulch weren't put there by me, and didn't have the characteristics of a knife. Plus, it was extremely improbable that someone would have walked the 50+ feet from the street into my yard to go looking for a bag of cocoa bark mulch to make a hole in [hmm, I typed "whole" there unthinkingly at first, definitely a homonym crossconnect, I was thinking "hole" and not gestalt, but the typing didn't correspond to the thought6!]. The ragged hole I presumed was therefore the work of some kind of animal... and when I was a off-white plumed tail with black and white in front of it, in the bushes by the front door of the house last week, I realized that the hole must've been made by what seems to be a resident skunk (I got a rear glimpse of it a second time last week, and I am quite happy to say the evidence was PURELY visual, not olofactory!).

Anyway, skunk claws make visual patterns. Pawprints are visual patterns. Put visual patterns together and one gets a story, one "reads" what one sees. Letters are merely visual patterns, that get interpreted by their order. People recognize words that are misspelled or have letters left out or obscured by a combination of redundancy, context, and guesswork. But in the "natural" world, not all pawprints are full ones. The species has always read visual indicators and interpreted them, whether it be to determine where a missing tribe member might have wandered off to, or to track an aminal, or to see where a water source might be.

The difference with reading from letters or human made symbols, is that they're not "naturally" occurring, that it, abstraction got done such that two different types of symbles, letters and pictograms/glyphs, got generated as symbols to use for visual message generation.

"But we're too factory-oriented in education in general. But that's another rant, and I'll stop this one here."

The Educational Establishment, bah, bah, bah. I loathed phonics, another one of the spontaneous reader crowd. I pattern-matched. I don't remember anymore the first word that I recognized patternmatching as my mother read to me, but the first letter I recognized in a word and patterned matches with was an A [the words was all in capital letters if I remember correctly and the A in caps also]. My sister had before then gone with letter blocks doing alphabet stuff, but reading words out of books isn't the same thing as isolated words made of letter blocks, or letter blocks. There's recognizing letters, but there are putting them together and having them be recognized as constituting words, there are cognitive and qualitative and quantitative differences involved.

I majorly disliked phonics, because I was visually pattern-matching words. The proof of that still is that there are names/terms I don't recognize by pronunciation and don't have a correct pronunciation associated with when I read them, I'm not fully necessarily sounding them out--and I recognize typoes sometimes by the word not looking right, that the visual pattern of the letters in it is -wrong-, and the reason that it's wrong, is that I left out say a "e" in "consecrated" and typoed it as "conscrated" or some such such. Sometimes I will sound something out when I can't remember how to spell it or it looks wrong and I know I'm doing -something- wrong to that word, because it looks wrong--so I would be using phonetics there, but not the phonics theory of phonetics.

But then, I am much more oriented to visual information input than audio, I remember things a lot better reading something than hearing it, and if someone tells me something, I often say, send me email, I'm not going to remember it." Audio input, it gets weird for me--my father went deaf in his early teenage years from environmental noise, my sister's hearing impaired presumably from environmental noise (eight years of playing in the RPI band in concrete hockey arenas), and I run from too-loud bands [no nightclubbing for me... I could stand it years ago via numbication of sensory input from alcohol.]

#64 ::: Paula Lieberman ::: (view all by) ::: June 27, 2004, 11:15 AM:

My father used reading out loud as a combination of Authority Enforcement and I'm Enjoying This/or/This Is Good for You To Hear. He'd sit eating supper at the kitchen table and -read- out loud from the newspaper....

#65 ::: Paula Lieberman ::: (view all by) ::: June 27, 2004, 11:24 AM:

That reminded me of a particularly unpleasant for me being-read-out loud-to incident. I was one of three people in a vehicle that was in Utah, I think it was, headed home from ConFransico. The owner of the car had Snowcrash with him, and though it incredibly entertaining and amusing. Me, I'm allergic to Neil Stephenson's writing. The car owner was reading an EXTENDED scene out of the book, finding it hilarious, as was the driver. I was getting more and more annoyed and had requested a cease and desist from it, but the person reading kept going on and on and on after saying it would only be another page [as opposed to many pages].

If the person reading had not been the owner of the vehicle, I would have grabbed the book and flung it out the window to stop the torment. I really, really, REALLY am unamused by Snowcrash.

#66 ::: Madeleine Robins ::: (view all by) ::: June 27, 2004, 02:18 PM:

"". . . for small children reading is a 'cuddle"' activity . . ."


"I will quietly note that this works for adults, too, and then I will step back. Fast."

It certainly does for the lucky ones, Mike.

#67 ::: Larry Brennan ::: (view all by) ::: June 27, 2004, 04:14 PM:

I wonder if they way we receive the written form of language differs with age and the urgency with which it is introduced.

I read English by symbol recognition, stopping only to puzzle out the occasional new word. The inconsistencies of spelling in my native tongue don't bother me much, and I get things right more often than not.

When I started studying German at about age 30, things were suddenly different. I would look at compound nouns and have to sound them out (thankfully German spelling is very consistent with speech), puzzle apart the words into their component parts and then make an effort to say them aloud. I'll often read German stories and magazine articles aloud, as it helps my comprehension - something I've never had to do in English.

My very rusty high school French lies somewhere in between. I do OK sight reading French, but when I'm searching for a word I often produce a German word and place it in the middle of a French sentence. This is usually much to the amusement of anyone who is indulging me by letting me practice with them.

Am I alone in this lingustic limbo, or do others read foreign languages so differently from their native language?

#68 ::: Paula Lieberman ::: (view all by) ::: June 27, 2004, 09:34 PM:

German tends to have some Really Long words, which consist of bunches of otherwordsallstucktogether. That makes it harder to do visual sight-recognitions of symbols, because of the level of complexity involved, the words have to be broken down more to be comprehensible.

#69 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: June 27, 2004, 10:01 PM:

Paula - I found Snowcrash mostly pretty ridiculous, but ultimately offensive. I dislike religious bigotry in general, and I'm unlikely to read more of this author's work.

#70 ::: fidelio ::: (view all by) ::: June 27, 2004, 10:14 PM:

Larry Brennan wrote:

"My very rusty high school French lies somewhere in between. I do OK sight reading French, but when I'm searching for a word I often produce a German word and place it in the middle of a French sentence."

I don't know about the reading silently vs. reading aloud part, but my mother was deeply frustrated when she tried learning Spanish in her late 40s, because her high-school and college French and Latin kept intruding, not only on the vocabulary, but also on the grammar. It wasn't just the words with a close resemblance, either--femme moved into the space she was supposeed to put mujer in, and it wouldn't budge no matter what.

#71 ::: Andy Perrin ::: (view all by) ::: June 27, 2004, 11:06 PM:

Xopher: I'm probably being dense, but why are you saying Snow Crash is bigoted? I read the book very rapidly one night three years ago for an English class, and I was mostly focused on picking up plot points. Usually bigotry would come up in our classroom discussions (e.g. when we read Hemingway) but I don't remember it being an issue. I'm not saying it isn't, just that I've never heard the book criticized on those grounds before.

#72 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: June 28, 2004, 12:29 AM:

Andy - just briefly, because it's past my bedtime: he thinks that the religious rituals practiced in ancient Sumer (or was it Babylon?) somehow demonstrate the inferior brains of the people at that time...like ancient pagan people couldn't actually think.

I'd have to look at the damn thing again to remember the details. But I recall being pretty pissed off, especially since I've spent some time changing "Nammu nammu namMU na-nammu NAMmu NA..." myself. I think that when I got to that part I said "Why you fucking PIG!" (or words to that effect) right out loud.

#73 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: June 28, 2004, 01:11 AM:

Fidelio, the same thing happened to me with Spanish and Latin, but it happened in my twenties. It's like my brain can sop up vast amounts of language as long as it's English, but it doesn't have room for more than one other full-size foreign language.

#74 ::: Jeremy Leader ::: (view all by) ::: June 28, 2004, 01:58 AM:

Xopher, wow. I only vaguely remember mention of ancient religious rituals in that book (which I read quite a while back). Stephenson didn't strike me as someone who would think that evolution could effect very significant changes in the human brain in a mere few thousand years.

Are you sure it was the author, and not a character, espousing these views?

As I say, I don't recall much about the ancient religion references in Snowcrash.

#75 ::: Jill Smith ::: (view all by) ::: June 28, 2004, 06:56 AM:

Larry - years ago, when I still played the piano, I hit a wall with sight-reading sheet music. I was able to learn to sight-read pretty easily until... my assignments reached a certain level of complexity (chords that were the musical equivalent of otherwordsallstucktogether) and I my brain would jam.

I always wondered what it was that tripped that switch - now it makes sense - I was reading music using pattern recognition, and my brain just overheated with too much information (the same thing would happen if I had a new piece that went way down or way up the keyboard - I was in little-traveled territory there, and none of the landmarks were familiar).

#76 ::: Jill Smith ::: (view all by) ::: June 28, 2004, 06:57 AM:

"I my" ---

speaking of brain jam, more coffee is obviously in order (and perhaps some toast for the jam).

#77 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: June 28, 2004, 10:42 AM:

Jeremy, it was a while ago. I haven't thrown out my copy of the book, but I'm not willing to reread the whole thing...perhaps I'll have a look in it when I get home, and see if I can find the parts that pissed me off without having to read too much of it.

From memory, for now: it was a character, but it was also the only explanation given at any point for the unlikely events of the book.

#78 ::: Seth Ellis ::: (view all by) ::: June 28, 2004, 10:51 AM:

Jeremy & Xopher - I remember, reading Snow Crash, thinking that Stephenson showed signs of having done research solely in one or two old-fashioned general-interest archaeology books. He actually mentions one by the late Samuel Kramer, who was famous for a book about "firsts" in ancient Sumer: The first civilization in the world! The first towns! The first agriculture! And, more relevantly to Snow Crash, the first writing!

Of course it would be more accurate to call cuneiform "the earliest known surviving example of writing that we've yet discovered from this region," but it's less exciting. Anyway, my impression was that Stephenson took the idea of "first" language and went with it, without looking into it very carefully. (Jeremy, it is a character who explains the idea, but the notion of a single evolutionary shift in human consciousness about 5000 years ago is what motivates the plot.) I don't know that I'd call it real racism so much as shallow research.

I also remember thinking that he could have gotten away with it as a story if he hadn't explained it so thoroughly, which just displayed the holes in his reasoning. The perils of the infodump.

#79 ::: Epacris ::: (view all by) ::: June 28, 2004, 10:55 AM:

Re Snow Crash & religion: Am not over all the details, but it used a theory which is around that there was quite a different type of consciousness around in earlier societies, reflected in their social organization/religion, language & art, and that this changed to something closer to 'modern' mindsets, resulting in a bunch of changes & probably the development of the modern type of society. I think the book postulates it happened through some sort of 'viral meme' type of language.

That part reminded me of bits of Babel 17 and, was it Ballard?, Blish?, Aldiss?, a book with 'tree' in the title? where the conceit was that a type of fungus had gone into symbiosis in the brain of hominids, enlarging it & leading to our further development (a la 2001), but a climate change had resulted in a world-wide jungle (based on a giant Banyan) & also killed off the fungus and humans had reverted to small ape-like beings.

There was so much sprawled across Snow Crash, that I tend to only remember some images & a few bits that I'm particularly interested in, like the fractionated uber-deregulated corporate/clan society.

#80 ::: Epacris ::: (view all by) ::: June 28, 2004, 11:02 AM:

Oh, and possibly linked to William S Burrough's quote, used by Laurie Andersen: "Language is a virus".

#81 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: June 28, 2004, 11:39 AM:

I think that Stephenson probably read The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind and mistook it for current scientific theory...or for science of any kind, I'm tempted to add, but I haven't read the book.

Anyway, Julian Jaynes was the one who started this whole idea that people 5000 years ago did not actually think consciously (they just obeyed "the gods"). Sounds like nonsense to me, and Stephenson was saying that their whole religion (and I think he extended that to all paleopagan religion, but I'm not sure) only works for preconscious people. As I said upthread, I need to find the bits I'm referring to in his book, so grain of salt.

#82 ::: LNHammer ::: (view all by) ::: June 28, 2004, 01:53 PM:

Jaynes's book shows up in multiple early Stephenson books, and is used even more in The Big U than Snow Crash. From its use, I suspect he doesn't take Jaynes as factual so much as useful for a good story. Much like a prehistorical novelist taking Robert Graves's theories as the basis for a tale, or Gaminas(sp?) matriarchal goddess worshipers.

---L.

#83 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: June 28, 2004, 06:54 PM:

The witches are flying,
And the sable cats scurry,
With a hey nonny nonny,
And a Margaret Murray.

It's worth a quire of altered states
To scry a glass with Frances Yates.

The maenads whirl nightly,
And the greenish blokes burrow,
Where my Goddess shows whitely,
Through the Robert Graves furrow.

But this I vouch I know full well:
I do not love thee, Barry Fell.

#84 ::: Lenny Bailes ::: (view all by) ::: June 28, 2004, 08:48 PM:

Xopher, variations on Jayne's idea inform other science fiction novels, as well -- including Michael Bishop's "Transfigurations" and Harry Turtledove's "Between the Rivers."

I kind of buy into the possibility that humans (or homo sapiens) might have had a different mode of consciousness before the development of agriculture and spoken language: a "tribe mind" with the experience of being rewarded for hearing gods in your head. There are literary echoes of this idea, of course, in the Old Testament story of the Fall after eating of the Tree of Knowledge.

I'd want to go back 10,000 years instead of 5,000 to believe more seriously in the idea -- that human consciousness might once have been like what we'd now classify as mutual psychosis.

#85 ::: Paula Lieberman ::: (view all by) ::: June 29, 2004, 02:01 AM:

What, you're not a cultural diffusionist, Mike? You don't follow Ancient American magazine?? [The local Barnes & Noble hasn't seemed to have had copies of it in recent months....]

#86 ::: Larry Brennan ::: (view all by) ::: June 29, 2004, 02:04 AM:

There was undoubtedly a band of proto-humans who started thinking like modern humans, and eventually became us.

I don't really like the various "community mind" or "hearing voices" ideas. Rather, I think that people just as smart as we are lived in a world where they understood little and figuring things out, like measuring the seasons, carried tangible rewards. The inexplicable was clearly the work of the gods, and the realm of belief rather than knowledge. Belief offsets feelings of ignorance and helplessness, therefore reducing anxiety.

I mean no disrespect to people of faith, but I think that entrenched beliefs slow the progress of knowledge, such as during the European Middle Ages and the early Renaissance. In fact, it still does so today, as certain faith communities seek to block whole areas of research on the basis of their beliefs.

As far as Snowcrash goes, I just read it a few weeks ago and thoroughly enjoyed it. Attribute it to my own ignorance, but I'm surprised that people with Pagan belief systems would be offended by it. Rather, I read it as a not-too-subtle attack on power hungry evangelicals. Post-rational religion, indeed.

#87 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: June 29, 2004, 02:33 AM:

Paula, I highly prize my copy of Stephen Williams's FANTASTIC ARCHEOLOGY (and, you may recall, was the noodgesance behind trying to get him to write an introduction for NESFA's Chad Oliver collection).

I admit I don't find Fell very interesting. Frances Yates has historical value, and is entertaining to read; I'd put her more in the category of "use with caution" rather than "hopeless crank." Fell pretends that scratches on rocks are a language that nobody else can read but him, and somehow the translations always support his conclusions. The only real point he's got over the "Bible Code" is that he's fibbing about knowing the past rather than the future.

Actually on the topic, well, yes, I think it's obvious that human consciousness as-we-sorta-know-it must have emerged at some point, the only alternatives being that all those Precambrian calamaroids in the museum reconstructions were just as self-aware as us*, or else special creation plus the gigantic practical joke of the fossil record.

*First calamaroid: "So let us imagine that we are in a dark sinkhole, and can see only the patterns that the light from the great Above casts upon its walls. Would we not perceive those quasi-random movements as existence itself, rather than a mere wavering image thereof?"
Second calamaroid: "Dude, did you see the feelers on that trilobite? Awesome!"

#88 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: June 29, 2004, 04:33 AM:

I've read Jaynes' book. I thought Daniel Dennett had it about right--his answers are probably wrong, but he's asking the right questions about what an intermediate stage of language development would be like.

Regardless of that, I think using crackpot theories as the basis for SF can be lots of fun. I really like what Paul Park did with Velikovsky, for example. My problem with the use of Jaynes' theory in Snow Crash is that it marked the exact boundary between the part that was a rather funny parody of second-rate cyberpunk and the part that was an all-too-vivid example of second-rate cyberpunk.

#89 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: June 29, 2004, 04:38 AM:

was it Ballard?, Blish?, Aldiss?, a book with 'tree' in the title? where the conceit was that a type of fungus...

Aldiss, Hothouse (aka The Long Afternoon of Earth). Another example of excellent SF based on gloriously goofy science (spider webs stretching between the earth and the Moon...)

#90 ::: LNHammer ::: (view all by) ::: June 29, 2004, 10:59 AM:

I still want to write a hard-SF novel set in the Industrial Revolution where the phlogiston theory of heat is correct. Though I suspect Greg Feeley will get to it before I do.

---L.

#91 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: June 29, 2004, 11:25 AM:

My problem with the use of Jaynes' theory in Snow Crash is that it marked the exact boundary between the part that was a rather funny parody of second-rate cyberpunk and the part that was an all-too-vivid example of second-rate cyberpunk.

If only I'd thought of putting it exactly that way. Wow.

#92 ::: Paula Lieberman ::: (view all by) ::: June 29, 2004, 03:32 PM:

'"My problem with the use of Jaynes' theory in Snow Crash is that it marked the exact boundary between the part that was a rather funny parody of second-rate cyberpunk and the part that was an all-too-vivid example of second-rate cyberpunk."

'If only I'd thought of putting it exactly that way. Wow.'

And since I'm allergic to cyberpunk, by inheritance of course I would be allergic to Snowcrash as corollary.

[meanwhile, I've been inveigled into looking at VBA code for a database in Microsoft Access. I would almost rather get stuck in a car with Snowcrash being read aloud. Why is the modern world FULL of examples of Gresham's Law?!]

===============

On yet another topic, when I was toddler I wondered if other people were self-aware (I didn't know the term at the time). I was standing in back of my (older) sister, who was sharpening a pencil, musing on this. She didn't realize I was behind her, and the result was she turned around and somehow the very sharp time of the newly sharpened pencil jabbed into me under my nose breaking off and embedding itself--teaching me at a VERY early age to beware getting too philosophically involved, because the resuls can HURT and literally get and STAY under your skin. Eventually the carbon dissolved or some such, but it was there for a long time.

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