The Story of Human Language

I listened to John McWhorter’s course The Story of Human Language. ‘Language’ primarily refers to spoken communication. Written language is considered a relatively new invention; how people write is quite distinct from how they actually speak, even within the same language. A person who speaks in paragraphs is very odd, suggests McWhorter.

The story of language change is all about how sounds evolve over time. Vowels shift, consonants merge. Sometimes sounds get ‘rebracketed’ — word boundaries of commonly used phrases change. Certain combinations of syllables are simply hard (like trying to pronounce ‘February’) and over generations, they morph into something simpler. Certain sounds are in constant danger of disappearing, like the ‘h’ at the start of a word. Word order occasionally flips from subject-object-verb to subject-verb-object, or the other way around. Grammar is, to a degree, optional — a lot of information is derived from context.

Many modern languages have so-called high and low varieties, the high variety being what is considered ‘proper’, and the low variety being what is normally used by everyone. This phenomenon is called diglossia. A newcomer learning a language may mistakenly learn the high form, use it in ordinary speech, and get laughed at. The high form is what’s taught in schools, the low form is what you pick up through everyday experience. Strangely, the low form is generally not considered fit to be formally taught.

Languages don’t really exist, it turns out. All you have is bundles of dialects, each one a little further removed from the other. Language distinctions are drawn by geopolitics; certain languages are even closer to each other than certain dialects. All you have is a continuous evolution of dialects into others as they get separated by geography. These dialects keep evolving further and further until they start looking quite different from the original.

When people of different tongues are forced to interact with each other on a temporary basis, they may create an ultra-simplified language that enables a minimal degree of communication. Such languages are called pidgins and not expressive enough to be considered full-fledged languages. But when the arrangement becomes more permanent over multiple generations, these stunted languages may then develop into new ones called creoles.

The Story of Human Language is an exciting and beautifully narrated tale; I highly recommend listening to it.

Lucky Bamboo

I sense the light, although I cannot quite see it. I feel the warmth in my veins, a sense of richness filling my body that contrasts vividly against the coolness at my feet. The light beckons to me from one side, and I reach out longingly. I feel strength growing inside of me, bit by bit, everyday.

I stay very still; I know of no other way. As I am, I meditate upon the world – who am I and why do I exist? I do not know the answers, and I have no one else to ask, but I am in harmony with the world, and the world is in harmony with me; I know of no other way.

I dream sometimes. I don’t always know the difference between what is real and what is dreamt. It is difficult to judge reality harshly when you know so little of it.

I can’t quite see my beginning, and I certainly can’t predict my end, but I am not afraid, for I think I am loved.

Painting “Lucky Bamboo” by Geetha on

The Bread Is Gone

For a while, I’d been craving this dessert I could recall from years ago: bread soaked in sugar syrup. It’s a bit like bread pudding, judging from the bread pudding I had recently. Last month, I decided to take the plunge and make it myself. It seemed easy enough. You bring some sugar water to boil until it becomes a syrup, soak freshly toasted bread in it, and that’s it!

Unfortunately, my theory was way off. For one thing, I wasn’t sure how well-done the toast had to be. After all, making good toast is quite an art. I soaked the bread for too long and it became soggy. But the main surprise was with the sugar. For some reason, I decided to use brown sugar instead of the regular white variety. The end result…tasted a bit funny, to be honest. On the bright side, I think Anu liked it after all, so it wasn’t a complete waste of effort.

Fast-forward to last week: Anu offered to make शाही टुकड़ा (shahi tukda). As some of you may know, that’s also a dessert, also a lot like bread pudding, but with condensed milk. Burnt as I was by my recent experience, I cautiously offered my moral support as she made the syrup. It was at this point that I realized we were out of bread.

There was, of course, a good explanation for this state of affairs. You see, bread has a short shelf life (in our case, kitchen counter life). I’d become a bit too enthusiastic about cleaning for the New Year, and had thrown out the last loaf just the day before. In any case, I ran out to buy some bread.

Trade Joe’s had a long line of people waiting to enter the store. Bummer, but no surprises there. I drove to our regular QFC in Wallingford and was stymied by yet another line! Maybe it had something to do with it being New Year’s Eve and all that. Should I try the corner grocery store in Wallingford? I’d never found anything I needed in there, but maybe today was opposite day? Darn, no luck. Finally, I drove to the Safeway on University Ave, my last hope. The building was gone.

That’s right, the entire building had been razed to the ground for redevelopment. I took this as a sign and returned home empty-handed. No dessert for you!