Sunday, May 8, 2011

Last Post

The end of my senior year is approaching and my thoughts have shifted away from high school towards college. I will be attending the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the fall, majoring in bioengineering. On paper it sounds odd to be writing a blog about language when I plan to study engineering and hopefully work with science and math for the rest of my life.

Tomorrow night I’m attending the science awards night at school so that I can accept an award for doing well in AP chemistry. How does the science department get away with giving awards for good grades, but there are no regular rewards for getting an A in English class? Is it because language touches multiple aspects of life?

Over the course of senior year, I’ve learned that language is not exclusive. It’s wrong of me to say that my journey with the English language is over because I’m going to study bioengineering. Besides the obvious “I speak English so I deal with it every day,” language is involved in almost every aspect of life, including science.

Hopefully next year I’ll be able to:

  • Learn the vocabulary used in bioengineering

  • Read some books about engineering (duh, it's college)

  • Analyze how we speak about engineering and science

  • Improve my writing in lab reports and other bioengineering papers

  • Work on my speaking skills (presentation and otherwise because engineering often become consultants and therefore need communication skills)

  • And maybe even take a rhetoric class

Looking ahead, I need not worry about losing my knowledge from English class. Language and science work hand in hand. I'm nervous for next school year, but I'm also excited to learn new things and to work hands on with technology. I'll always keep in mind the power of words and how they shape the way we think, even the way we view engineering.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Failure to Understand Legal Language

While looking for a TED Talk about the environment to use in a research paper for English class, I stumbled across an interesting title in the sidebar. It read, “Alan Siegel: Let’s simplify legal jargon!” Seeing as my blog title contains the word jargon, I figured it would be treasonous if I didn’t click the link. Here’s what TED has to say, “Alan Siegel is a branding expert and one of the leading authorities on business communication, Alan Siegel wants to put plain English into legal documents for government and business.” Throughout this speech, Alan Siegel explains how he takes unintelligible legal documents and translates them into plain English so that consumers can better understand the content. His company tests the confusion level of documents and tries to simplify the language or provide examples of computations for paperwork like tax returns (Ironically, tax day is today). Siegel says that difficult language puts consumers at risk. I agree that helping the general population to understand legal documents is important; however, this method shows little faith in the people. Should we be changing the language or educating people before they approach legal paperwork (some of the simplification process does include teaching through example, as mentioned above)? In consumer education I learned to fill out very simple tax returns, but I don’t think I’m prepared to approach complex versions. Maybe schools should focus on strengthening the curriculum for classes like consumer education. I respect Alan Siegel’s work, but it seems like a short term solution. Siegel’s company is merely a band-aid for the larger issue at hand. Once again my computer is having formatting issues. I'll get this checked out. On a happier note, my favorite line from Siegel’s speech: I define simplicity as a means to achieving clarity, transparency and empathy, building humanity into communications.

Monday, April 11, 2011

'Like' it or not

Looking at a blog post by a teenager (for instance those written by my classmates), you might never realize the age of the writer. Through writing teens are capable of disguising their youth. We have time to edit our thoughts into concise, meaningful sentences. Oral language is a different story. Ideas are racing through our minds faster than we can filter, so you might hear the occasional (or frequent) slip up. ‘Like’ is a very common language “mistake” for American teenagers. ‘Like’ is used as a filler to indicate a pause in order to think. To adults, teen conversations can seem very juvenile when fillers such as ‘like’ and ‘y’know’ are used. Believe it or not, filler words are not limited to American teens. Every language and age group has a set of filler words. It's more common for adults to use the fillers ‘um’ and ‘ah’. Often times adults think the use of ‘like’ is more incorrect than other fillers because ‘like’ is an actual word in the English language and has a correct use. ‘Like’ is a confusing filler because it is used to establish a pause, to indicate metaphor, to introduce gestures/reactions, to replace ‘says’ in dialogue, to show similarities, and to express delight. Wikipedia indicates that ‘like’ is a slang term in Finnish, French, Norwegian, and Portuguese. Obviously these languages use words that have the same meaning as ‘like’, not necessarily the exact word. To prove that fillers aren’t strictly American, the first link featured below has an entertaining video of teens from the UK speaking in slang and then translating into more universal English. See how much you understand! Finally, I find it interesting that certain filler words are common in occupations. For instance, the word ‘so’ has become typical for radio hosts and I guess anyone with a story to tell. Why is ‘so’ and introductory and transition filler? Any thoughts? BBC article about UK teenage slang: BBC article about like: Wikipedia page about filler words: Freakonomics blog post about so: I apologize for the odd format of this post and lack of spacing between paragraphs. Neither of my home computers will allow me to add spacing to my blog post. I will attempt to fix this problem elsewhere.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Musicks Empire

First was the World as one great Cymbal made,
Where Jarring Windes to infant Nature plaid.
All Musick was a solitary sound,
To hollow Rocks and murm'ring Fountains bound.

Jubal first made the wilder Notes agree;
And Jubal tun'd Musicks Jubilee:
He call'd the Ecchoes from their sullen Cell,
And built the Organs City where they dwell.

Each sought a consort in that lovely place;
And Virgin Trebles wed the manly Base.
From whence the Progeny of numbers new
Into harmonious Colonies withdrew.

Some to the Lute, some to the Viol went,
And others chose the Cornet eloquent.
These practising the Wind, and those the Wire,
To sing Mens Triumphs, or in Heavens quire.

Then Musick, the Mosaique of the Air,
Did of all these a Solemn noise prepare:
With which She gain'd the Empire of the Ear,
Including all between the Earth and Sphear.

Victorious Sounds. yet here your Homage do
Unto a gentler Conqueror then you;
Who though He flies the Musick of his praise,
Would with you Heavens Hallelujahs raise.

Andrew Marvell

I’ve been inspired this week, inspired by great music, a beautiful atmosphere, and by a fellow blogger. The featured poem above is Musicks Empire by Andrew Marvell. This weekend I had the opportunity to sing Musicks Empire, a composition by Lloyd Pfautsch, at my school district’s annual Techny festival. Which brings me to my next inspiration, the Techny Towers. The achetecture is amazing and the acoustics are even better. Finally, my last inspiration comes from my friend and fellow blogger Melanie V, author of Silver-Lined Strata, who prompted me to write a blog about the songs featured at this weekend’s choral concert.

I loved this piece because the poetry is striking on its own, but the addition of music fits the mood of the text which heightens the experience. The song starts out with an ominous chant like tone as if the tenors and bases are quietly revealing the creation story of music. The idea that the World was made by a cymbal triggers images of a crash, or spontaneous event. The empire created by music gradually expands into nature, and cities, and people.

The song continues to build momentum as the solitary sounds eventually grow together into “harmonious colonies.” In my opinion the text is paired seamlessly with the music. For instance, the lyric “to sing men’s triumphs” is matched by a grand and full style and the words “victorious sounds” are accompanied by a lively melody. At the climactic end of the song you get the exaltation of Hallelujah, praising music and its effect on mankind.

The pairing of words and music can be a very powerful experienc especially when the music conveys emotions that the text might not have if it was just read aloud. This song is one of those moments of greatness between words and music. I highly recommend listening to Musicks Empire.

Monday, March 7, 2011

New Historicism

Hamlet is said to be a play that is universal; it’s understood by most and interpreted by many. Critics of Hamlet have even been applying “approaches to literature” to the text. To give you an idea, these critical approaches include: anthropological, archetypal, biographical, formalist, marxist, mythological, narratological, new criticism, new historicism, post-structuralism, psychoanalytic, reader response, semiotics, social, and structuralism. The perspectives are vast, but I’m going to narrow this post down to new historicism.

I initially thought that any historic approach to literature would involve crosschecking which parts of the book are historically correct. I was wrong. New historicism is not about looking up facts; it’s about what a text can reveal about the time it was set or the time in which it was written.

For Hamlet, the new historic critical approach reveals information about what it was like to be an actor, typical burial ceremonies, traditional royal succession, power structure, views of ghosts, and more. Culture is key.

No "history" can be truly objective or comprehensive because history is constantly written and rewritten. The writing of history is based on interpretation, and all interpretations are valid. Any piece of literature is valuable. That’s what I like about the new historic approach to literature…it’s an equalizer for all texts.

Similarly to my previous posts that say words should all be treated equally, for new historic critics, texts should be treated equally.

Being able to compare how Hamlet was received in the Elizabethan era and how it is read now, readers can more easily notice their own biases. The way audiences and readers respond to Hamlet is constantly changing because literature is shaped by culture and culture can be shaped by literature. The same interconnection can be applied to individual words. Words and text go in and out of use, but their existence demonstrates their importance at some point in time.

Here is a helpful link that applies multiple approaches to Hamlet.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Day of Rage

Day of Rage. This term has surfaced several times in the news over the past month due to protests in the Middle East and North Africa. A day of rage refers to the climactic day of a protest. These heightened protests in the Middle East and North Africa have involved violence and even military intervention. But what does this phrasing "day of rage" accomplish?

Merriam Webster defines rage as a violent and uncontrollable anger, a fit of violent wrath, insanity, and passion. Protests have become chaotic and by naming these outbursts as "days of rage," journalists almost give protesters the right to run wild. The uncontrollable aspect of rage seems to imply danger to participants involved in protests. While passion would be a safer word choice, rage gives the cause urgency and magnitude. Passion could be applied to positive and negative events. Rage takes a strong position towards unrest and unhappiness. Not all protests have to be violent, but to get any point across rage is a more effective tool.

Rage is also a good word to associate with protests because of the way it sounds/flows. Phonetic intensives, or sounds that connect and add to a words meaning, can be applied to the word rage. The R sound is refered to as "liquid" and "euphonious" while the harsher G at the end of the word implies cacophony. Cacophony is definitely characteristic of protests, but the R is also important to make the word catchy/roll of the tongue. This might be a stretch, but even the shift from smooth to fragmented exemplifies the process of protesting: you start calm and get more motivated.

Now to tackle the day part. Day might seem only explanatory, especially since weeks of rage have even been proclaimed, but the brevity of the period of time is important to note. A day implies a short lived protest where people can be lawless and free to oppose the government. I emphasize the word short. A day of protest is a time when angry citizens can vent, but it is imperative that violence is promptly ended so that more time can be focused on reshaping governments etc instead of calming down enraged crowds.

In my opinion, violence won't create any solutions for corrupt governments, but at least protesters are getting their opinions heard and changes are starting to be made. In countries where the average person's voice can't be heard by local government officials, days of rage may be the only option to call attention to shared concerns.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Approaching Hamlet

We just began reading William Shakespeare’s Hamlet in my English class. It’s been over a year since I last read Shakespeare and the language seems kinda foreign. I find that because I spend so much time figuring out what the text means, I’m missing out on metaphors and symbolism etc. Is it ever possible for the “casual/inexperienced reader” to understand all the nuances of Hamlet? Probably not, but I’m hoping that my English class enlightens me a bit on the subject.

Similar problems are bound to arise in literature translated from other languages. Editors can translate word for word even if the final product seems less poetic than the original, or editors can create the same mood of a piece while altering the original words. Altering words or meaning could conflict with the author’s intentions.

Readers of translated texts might have no idea they’re missing out on interesting sentence structure or a cultural allusion. That seems like a pretty dangerous risk for readers.

Ralph Waldo Emerson has some words of wisdom on language, especially language over the ages. In his famous essay Nature, Emerson says, “As we go back in history, language becomes more picturesque, until its infancy, when it is all poetry; or all spiritual facts are represented by natural symbols.” I took this quote to mean that when languages first emerge, they seem foreign, new, exciting, and poetic. Looking back at languages, they can seem just as foreign (like my experience with Shakespeare).

As for “language becomes more picturesque,” either language today has become more dry/boring and therefore less picturesque or today there is an urge to say that all language from the past is precious and poetic. Not all historic literature is as great as we make it out to be. Take the bad quarto for instance; it’s basically a bad copy of Hamlet that is one of the original few transcriptions of the play. Should readers always give such high esteem to historic literature?

The glimmer of hope from Emerson’s quote: natural symbols. I think the threads that ties history to the future are symbols and archetypes. Their meanings are timeless and are subconsciously embedded into our brains. Hopefully, while reading Hamlet I can draw upon these natural symbols to more easily connect my experiences to the text.

This post is just my intro to a potentially long list of Hamlet posts.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Model United Nations: Cyberlaw

This past weekend I attended the Model United Nations Program hosted by the University of Chicago. I spent many loooong hours as a delegate of Venezuela in the Legal Committee. The Legal Committee’s goal was to form a consensus on cyberlaw (the alternate topic which we did not discuss was nongovernmental organizations or NGO’s). As a representative of Venezuela, I tried to stay true to the country’s policies, even when they conflicted with the majority’s perspective or my own views. Overall, it was a learning experience in cooperation and persuasion.

Here are a few words and phrases that were central to our discussions and play key roles in the topic of cyberlaw.

Cyberwarfare-Actions by a nation-state to penetrate another nation's computers or networks for the purposes of causing damage or disruption. What is a way to defend against a cyber war or a cyber-attack? Cyber Army! Estonia is the first country to have a volunteer cyber army. This NPR article describes Estonia’s Cyber Army as a force of programmers, computer scientists and software engineers who make up a Cyber Defense League, a volunteer organization that in wartime would function under a unified military command.

Jurisdiction-The geographic area over which authority extends; legal authority; the authority to hear and determine causes of action. This was probably one of the most controversial words in my committee. First of all, many delegates failed to use this word correctly. Secondly, cyberlaw is an issue that extends across several countries (or maybe over no actual land at all if you think about it). One possible solution to the question of jurisdiction is to declare cyberspace as a new global space or Common Heritage of Mankind. As a committee, we didn’t utilize this form of jurisdiction very often. Instead, most countries (including me and my partner as Venezuela) argued for national sovereignty. It became a very touchy subject. Even Wikipedia says that a cyber crime may involve the laws of several jurisdictions such as
1. the laws of the state/nation in which the user resides,
2. the laws of the state/nation that apply where the server hosting the transaction is located, and
3. the laws of the state/nation which apply to the person or business with whom the transaction takes place.

Net Neutrality- The principle that ISP’s (Internet Service Providers) should treat all content equally, regardless of content type or origin, instead of prioritizing some content. ISP’s drive internet traffic to websites and the issues lies in the fact that ISP’s direct internet users to certain websites more often based on payments.

The internet has become so vital in the world today; we even debated whether or not access to the internet is a human right! By reading this blog post you've even proved the widespread influence and importance of the internet today. A consensus on cyberlaw is, in my opinion, an important topic for the actual UN to address.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

2010 Word of the Year

It’s is well known, at least among my peers, that Sarah Palin’s ‘refudiate’ was voted the 2010 word of the year by Oxford Dictionary; however, I believe the more noteworthy word of the year comes from the American Dialect Society’s vote.

App’, or an abbreviated form of application, a software program for a computer or phone operating system, was the linguist’s selection of the year. In a press release the American Dialect Society explains, “Word of the Year is interpreted in its broader sense as “vocabulary item”—not just words but phrases. The words or phrases do not have to be brand-new, but they have to be newly prominent or notable in the past year, in the manner of Time magazine’s Person of the Year.” As a blogger about language this quote is very relevant because words like ‘refudiate’, or Merriam Webster’s choice of ‘austerity’, might get media attention or are frequently searched online, but the American Dialect Society makes sure to pick pop-culture words that are sweeping the entire nation. For me, a true word of the year should be frequently used and therefore applicable to daily life.

Even though President Obama didn’t directly mention ‘app’ in his State of the Union Address, I believe his emphasis on innovation makes a strong argument for the word. Obama described the many forms of innovation, from the age of the internet and the ‘app’ that we now live in, to clean energy, creating new jobs, and reinventing old ones.

Here is some proof that technology has been a rising area of interest in America, even in language. Previous American Dialect Society words of the year have included ‘e’ as in email (1998), ‘web’ (1990s), ‘information superhighway’ (1993), ‘tweet’ (2009), and ‘Google’ (word of the millennium). Those who voted in favor of ‘app’ say that the word has become omnipresent. I agree, and the same is true for many other technological terms.

The internet is penetrating and even enriching our vocabulary. Technology is no doubt an integral part of the American society in 2011. All of this innovation should be embraced in order to “win the future” as President Obama might say.

I just wanted endorse the point that vocabulary and language isn’t some mystical, foreign entity only changed by highly educated linguists. Everyday people and modern ideas shape language. Similarly, language reveals prominent trends of the people.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Book Review: The Translator

Over the winter holidays I had some free time so I picked up a book I’ve been meaning to read for a while. As an active member of my high school’s STAND chapter (Students Taking Action Now Darfur) I thought it wise to read The Translator a Tribesman’s Memoir of Darfur by Daoud Hari. This memoir traces the genocidal conflicts encountered by Daoud Hari, a Zaghawa tribesman from Sudan and translator to the BBC, NGO’s, the New York Time, and National Geographic. Hari explains his many trips back and forth between Chad and the war-torn Darfur. In 2006 Daoud Hari and Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Paul Salopek were captured, detained, and beaten by the government of Sudan; they were accused of being spies. The Translator vividly describes the harsh conditions of the Sudanese prison as well as the strong support of US diplomats and military in order to free Hari and Salopek from jail.

I was very impressed with Daoud Hari’s ability to remain calm in dangerous situations and he had the utmost praise towards those whose aid he received. I was quite surprised by Hari’s reaction to American and European reporters and diplomats. In previous posts I have mentioned otherizing and American exceptionalism, which negatively portray America to the rest of the world. Hearing many critiques of reporters and America in general, it was refreshing to see how much compassion Hari feels towards his western companions.

The Translator reaffirms the idea that conflicts are not two sided. There are many more perspectives. In the case of the Darfurian genocide there is the Sudanese government, many sometimes conflicting rebel groups, Chadians, refugees, and internally displaced people (IDP’s). Hari kept returning to the issue that even though the rebel groups were all against the Sudanese government, often the rebels would fight each other. They were hurting their cause and killing their own kind.

Since this blog usually focuses on words I’m going to talk a bit about Hari’s writing style and respect for the reader. First of all, Daoud Hari’s writing can be very graphic at times so interested readers beware. Secondly, I really commend Hari for his simplistic sense of writing because even complicated situations were written in clearly and concisely. Finally, Daoud Hari is very aware of his audience (which is always good from the reader’s perspective). He takes the time to translate words and he even included two appendices in the back of the book, one explaining more about the genocide in Darfur and another about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Overall, I would recommend The Translator as a quick yet informative read with several heart wrenching and heart-warming scenes.
To learn more about the book visit