The Hungarian Language Test

OK, so I’m trying to learn Hungarian at the moment, and may I say, it’s bloody hard. There are various reasons for this and one of them is that Magyar is very definitely not in the huge Indo-European language family. Pretty much all the other languages of Europe are in that family, with the exception of Basque and Finnish – and Hungarian. Its family is Finno-Ugric which means that there are some tribes around Lake Uigher in Siberia and the Finns who speak something similar, though not very.

The Hungarians are quite proud of this, of course, and have an unfortunate tendency to laugh if you tell them you’re trying to learn it. They then shake their heads and say “Magyarúl nagyon nehéz” which means that Hungarian is very heavy, meaning difficult. Thank you, I know.

But this uniqueness means that Hungarian is perfect for a little test I am going to recommend to all language theorists.

If you’re talking about the original mother tongue, the ancestor to all living and dead human languages – yes, New Scientist 6 February2016 “The Eloquent Ape”, I’m looking at you – then you need a quick and easy test to make sure you’re not talking nonsense. Hungarian is a quick and easy test.

So, let’s say you’re searching for common sounds and similar-sounding words in languages all over the world. You find common sounds in all the languages you know like German and French and maybe even Sanskrit, and there it is. You proudly announce that this particular sound or word is universal, across all human languages and therefore part of the original ur-language.

You’re just being provincial. You haven’t ventured out of the comfortable branches of the Indo-European language group. That means you’re leaving out all sorts of languages like Mandarin or Qechua. But it’s hard to learn non-Indo-European languages and you need that test for non-Indo-European languages so you don’t waste time. Ta da! Hungarian is perfect. It’s indisputably spoken by humans and most of its words are very different. If you find your favourite candidate in Hungarian – well, maybe you’ve really found a proto-word. If you don’t, maybe you haven’t. Plus there are Hungarians everywhere and the educated ones seem to speak three or four languages. Every language lab needs at least one Hungarian, if only so there’ll be someone there who’s rock-solid on transitive and intransitive verbs (don’t ask).

There’s this researcher called Meritt Ruhlen at Stanford University, California, who contends that sounds like tik, tok, dik and tak mean “toe” in lots of languages and so must be from the ur-language.

Hungarian? The word for finger is “ujj” (ooee) and toes are “labujj” or leg-fingers. Ujj. Not very like toe, is it? You could argue even the concept of toe is sort of weak.

Numbers? Sure, in most Indo-European languages they all sound a bit similar up to ten. In Hungarian they go “egy, kettő, harom, négy, öt, hat, hét, nyolc, kilenc, tíz”. OK, so ten is similar. Oh and in Japan they apparently have different counting systems for people, long thin things and round things. So which one do you choose?

Ruhlen says social communication words like “who, what and where” and “he, she, it” are thought to be ur-words too.

Guess what you use for “he, she or it” in Hungarian? “Ő” That’s right. Just the one. “Ő” means “he,” “she” and “it”.

And that old favourite, Mama? Contentious. In Hungarian the word for mother is “anyu” – no “m”.

So Hungarian is a very special language, simple in some ways, fiendishly difficult in others. It’s quite young, having arrived in Europe with the fierce Magyar raiders only in the 9th century AD. Unlike Indo-European which reaches back to Persian, Hittite and Saskrit. Hungarian has an ancestry that’s lost in the roiling chaos of the nomad tribes on the eastern steppes. Also it got tidied up in the 19th century.

So if you’re looking for putative ur-words in Hungarian, and they’re totally different, maybe they’re not ur-words. Maybe you’re wasting your time looking for an ur-language before the Tower of Babel?

Personally I don’t think there was any such thing. Languages spoken by so-called primitive tribesmen aren’t simple, they’re complicated, even if they lack numbers after 5 or the idea of left and right. Simple is what you get when two languages like Anglo-Saxon and Old French crash into each other on an off-shore island and rub all the case-endings off (a sort of linguistic mating called a Creole which is what English is).

I think that the tribes that walked out of Africa all started with complicated languages of their own that had been evolving and developing since before we were human. The amazing social technology of language has continued to evolve and encourage sex between its enormous number of varieties right down to the present.

And when we get into space, languages will continue to flower and seed and change. Possibly something like a lingua franca will evolve from English or Spanish or Chinese but I bet that every habitat, every country on every planet will have its own complicated and irregular language. It’s a wonderful thought.

Climate Change March, Budapest, 29 November 2015

Well I went on the Climate Change March in Budapest.

I liked:

The friendly informal atmosphere, with everyone walking along and nobody trying to get in front of anyone else. There were leaders, mostly young students and the traditional mysterious Frenchman (Sartre? Camus?) but they weren’t too full of themselves. They pushed the sound system along on a bike and tried valiantly to get some chants started (but see below).

The organisation. At first I was worried we might be outnumbered by the cops, but in the end there was quite a respectable number of us, mostly youngsters and expats, with a few old hippies and punks (like me). I get a real thrill when they hold up the traffic for us as we walk past. Sorry, drivers, you must hate us… But it’s great!

I loved the samba drums – we could have done with more of them but the ones we had were great. I must get into samba drumming, it’s wonderful.

A beautiful final image – we were asked to pick up and carry autumn leaves and then at the end of the march, drop them in the Danube to symbolise the letters they’ve sent to the government (leaf and letter are the same word in Hungarian). Watching them fluttering down to land on the surface of the river was strangely satisfying, like playing Poohsticks.

I didn’t like:

The arguments I had with friends before the march – all saying, oh it’s not worth it, we’re doomed but not till I’m dead, what’s the point, one person can’t do anything, I’m sick of recycling, but I like eating meat… etc etc. I will get into the Competitive Austerity problem another time, but this really annoys me. The only thing that excuses you from a climate change march is having kids – and there were families with kids there. It’s important. Until we have sorted out the climate change problem, nothing else matters because climate change will KILL US ALL if we carry on ignoring it.

The speeches. Part of the problem was that they were mainly in Hungarian, valiantly translated into English as they went along. Now I’ve been here for two years, nearly, and even allowing 6 months off for having a stroke, I still don’t understand Hungarian very well. I can cope with a normal conversation, usually, but sooner or later the sentences will lengthen, the words will acquire a forest of endings and I will completely lose track. This despite a lot of work, may I say, so it depresses me. So bear that in mind when I say that I found the speeches too long and too complex, even when translated into English. Even worse were the points from an interminable pompous letter they had sent to the government. Honestly, I even felt sorry for Viktor Orban, though I’m sure he didn’t read it.

You need three points only, not ten. You need short punchy sentences. Like this. You need a poet’s ear for what people will actually hear.

When you’re shouting slogans, they need to be short and rhythmical, not long and well… lame. That’s why none of them really got going. Find a poet. There are lots of poets in Hungary, or there were. Chuck a rock into a kavezo and you’ll probably hit two. Even I can tell Hungarian poetry is wonderful, so I know you can do better.

See you next year!

Come on, New Scientist!

It\’s my comic. I\’ve been subscribing to it since I was doing A level Biology and Mrs Cruikshank insisted I had to read it and also read Dawkins\’ \”The Selfish Gene\” (bless you, Mrs Cruikshank, and I\’m sorry my course-work was so awful.)
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For a long while they would run a feature pretty much every month, the title of which could boil down to \”Spotty nerds discover answer to Life, Universe and everything and it isn\’t 42 but they\’re definitely right this time.\” This was always good for a laugh because it flatly contradicted the previous and following months\’ feature about identical spotty (or beardy) nerds who were equally sure of themselves.
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Every so often NS still runs wonderful exciting features and think pieces but recently it\’s got itself embroiled in the Atheists vs. Religion nonsense and to be honest, it\’s gone off the boil. Feedback and the Last Word have also gone dull and quite repetitive.
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I know it\’s difficult to explain the dizzying heights of physics or molecular biology to amateur nerds like me, but that\’s why it\’s worth doing. Maybe the Higgs boson is behaving like a boojum and softly and silently vanishing away, but that\’s no reason to sulk. Buck up, chaps.

The Bullshit Guide to Bullshit part 4

Stephen Law has taken the trouble to comment on my blogs and so I\’ll try and cut to the chase. These are the other things that really annoyed me in the article I\’ve been moaning about [New Scientist 11 June 2011, p 28].
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1. Here\’s one warning that puzzled me: \”You should be suspicious when people pile up anecdotes in favour of their pet theory…\” Why? Anecdotes are where you start. Anecdotes said that elephants could mysteriously find each other across hundreds of miles of savannah… woo woo. Many people dismissed these anecdotes as coincidence – but then investigation showed the elephants were communicating via infrasound. I like this because nobody had thought to check for sounds too low for us to hear. I suspect a lot of the things currently classed under whacky-woowoo-bullshit paranormal will eventually yield to this kind of imaginative investigation.
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They won\’t, of course, if the people who are most able to find out what\’s really going are so busy dismissing the anecdotes with shoddy old lawyer tricks that they never actually take a proper look at them.
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2. \”Of course… comments such as: \’Not being able to prove the existence of something does not disprove its existence. Much is yet to be discovered.\’… [this is] just a smokescreen…\”
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Or put more pithily, \’absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.\’ Absence of evidence is certainly a circumstantial hint that something may not exist. The fact that nobody found any evidence for the famous Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction, is a heavy hint that they didn\’t exist.
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However it is not just a smokescreen to say \’much is yet to be discovered.\’ It\’s a painful truth. At the moment, astrophysicists have mislaid 96% of the universe. They\’ve taken to calling this missing 96% by exciting and romantic names like dark matter and dark energy, for which they have so far been unable to find any hard evidence whatsoever (but absence of evidence is not… Whoops. That\’s what heathen smokescreening New Agers say.)
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Tell you what. When you\’ve found the missing 96% of the universe, then you\’re entitled to tell me I\’m using mystery as a carpet under which to sweep inconvenient facts, thus laying myself open to deceit.
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I suspect that Stephen Law and I are essentially on the same side, but that while I have immense respect for the scientific method that shows us the empirically real world, I have none of his tolerance for the increasingly dogmatic scientism of the modern collective institution known as Science.
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The current scientific paradigm is effective and powerful and in deep theoretical dogshit. The two outstanding theories of physics, Quantum Physics and Relativity, both confirmed experimentally in hundreds of different ways, will not talk to each other. Anomalies are piling up, particle zoos proliferate, Higgs bosons behave like Boojums and 96% of the universe just won\’t.. um… appear. Theoretical physicists seem to be sunk in a cerebral multiverse of elaborate (untestable) mathematical theology.
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This is exactly the state the Aristotelian paradigm was in, epi-epicycles and all, when the Pope commissioned Copernicus to try and tidy it all up. The church then spent another 400 odd years trying to suppress his whacky solution.
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We need some whacky woo woo thinking, frankly, followed by hard-eyed rigorous experiment. Stephen Law may never have heard the ancient story of the Treasure in the Dungheap, but he should check it out. In the big heap of steaming bullshit that is New Age thinking, may lie the hidden jewels that will give an open-minded genius that vital clue to a revolutionary new paradigm.
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All of us – not just scientists and philosophers – desperately need it.

13 June 2011

The Bullshit Guide to Bullshit pt 3

\”Q: You identify some strategies people use to defend black hole beliefs. Tell me about one of them – \’playing the mystery card.\’
A: This involves appealing to mystery to get out of intellectual hot water when someone is, say, propounding paranormal beliefs. They might say something like: \’Ah but this is beyond the ability of science and reason to decide.You, Mr Clever Dick Scientist, are guilty of scientism, of assuming science can answer every question.\’ This is often followed by that quote from Shakespeare\’s Hamlet: \’There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy\’. When you hear that, alarm bells should go off.\”
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We\’re looking at another rhetorical trick here, apart from the ever-popular guilt by association (vide \’playing the mystery card\’ – ah, they\’re just card-sharps you see…) While he attributes childish insults to the wicked heathen propounders of the paranormal (Mr Clever Dick Scientist), Stephen Law is in a bit of trouble here. There are indeed questions science can\’t answer. It is indeed scientism to claim that it can.
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Famously, science can answer questions about \’what\’ and \’how?\’ Generally, it\’s much less good at answering the question \’why?\’ Normally philosophy does that.
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Most obviously, science really can\’t answer questions like \’why is there something rather than nothing?\’ or \’is there actually some kind of God?\’ These questions are not falsifiable. You can\’t run experiments. Any argument you can come up with that\’s pro-God can be answered by another one that\’s anti. And frankly these are boring questions in a scientific context. Science has more interesting and answerable questions to deal with such as \’what went on 13.4 billion years ago and how did galaxies happen?\’ – though as a slightly embarassed article in the same issue explains [Mystery of the Pristine Spirals p 32], everybody\’s suddenly got a bit less sure of the answer due to new data. But that\’s science for you. Always (and rightly) changing its collective mind in the light of new data.
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Rather than deal with the fact that these are perfectly reasonable points to make, Law swings the argument sideways into the question of how much does science as a philosophy actually know for sure. The answer to that is, happily, not as much as it likes to think. There are indeed more things in heaven and earth than we are currently dreaming of.
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By crashing together two separate points about what questions can science answer and how much do we actually know, Law is really avoiding both of them. That\’s what should make your alarm bells sound.

The Bullshit Guide to Bullshit cont\’d

\”Q: But isn\’t one person\’s claptrap another\’s truth?
A: There\’s a belief system about water to which we all sign up: it freezes at 0deg C and boils at 100 deg C. We are powerfully wedded to this but that doesn\’t make it an intellectual black hole. That\’s because these beliefs are genuinely reasonable. Beliefs at the core of intellectual black holes aren\’t reasonable. They merely appear so to those trapped inside.\”
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Those poor deluded people who got swallowed by the Demon – their beliefs are heresy. Ours are right and pure…
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Oh sainted Sir Isaac preserve me. Water (hydrogen dioxide), at a certain temperature, undergoes a very interesting, not completely understood phase transition and becomes solid. If you apply heat to it, eventually it will undergo a better understood transition to a gas. For convenience we call these temperatures 0 deg C – freezing – and 100 deg C – boiling. We could easily call them something else like 32 deg Fahrenheit for freezing or 250 deg Blarkx for boiling.
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That water does this is a fact not a belief system. What numbers we give the temperatures are conventions. We don\’t sign up to it because nobody is giving out forms. If you don\’t get the water hot enough it won\’t boil and that\’s that. We can test it any time we like and get totally unambiguous results.
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What\’s happening here is another ancient rhetorical dodge called Comparing Chalk and Cheese. The chemistry of water is quite well understood (though with some interesting holes). Homeopathy, psychic powers and alien abductions are (to put it mildly) ambiguous, hard to explore and prone to all sorts of self-deluding failures of thought and observation. Calling them both belief-systems is so thundering a category error it\’s got to be deliberate.
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With friends like this, science doesn\’t need enemies.

The Bullshit Guide to Bullshit

I\’ve always loved reading New Scientist so it breaks my heart to have to say this, but recent issues have been dire. Dull, poorly thought out, worst of all, dogmatic. And it particularly annoys me to see them using lame rhetorical tricks and bad logic against the people they see as their Heathen enemy – the New Agers. For Pete\’s sake, if you\’re going to act like the 17th century Papacy, do it properly. Science is worthy of better defenders.
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What\’s brought on this particular rant is their Opinion Interview this week [11 June] \”The plain person\’s guide to bullshit.\” It features \’philosopher\’ Stephen Law of Heythrop College, University of London, who has a tough but soulful look that will probably get him a TV career so long as he hasn\’t got a squeaky voice.
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Just for fun, I\’m going to go through this piece and identify the old dodges and missed opportunities.
\”Q; you describe your new book \’Believing Bullshit\’ as a guide to avoid getting sucked into \”intellectual black holes\”. What are they?
A: Intellectual black holes are belief systems that draw people in and hold them captive so they become willing slaves of claptrap. Belief in homeopathy, psychic powers, alien abductions… As you approach them, you need to be on your guard because if you get sucked in, it can be extremely difficult to think your way clear again.\”
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Ooh. Scary. This is a rhetorical trick known as Give A Dog A Bad Name. You identify your enemy as something Evil. Then you warn the faithful against investigating on the grounds that they might be sucked in by the Demon/Black Hole and never escape its clutches.
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What you haven\’t done is shown any reason for people not to believe in homeopathy etc. You\’ve just shouted Bad! Keep away! What you should do if you\’re a scientist is cite the double blind trials and animal experiments (to exclude placebo effects) which show how little effect the treatment has.
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If there haven\’t been any properly conducted experiments, then you organise some. That\’s what science does. It\’s not a bloody belief system, it\’s a marvellously effective mental tool for exploring reality which always starts with an anomaly, something that doesn\’t fit. Maybe homeopathy is that anomaly. More likely it\’s a brilliant way of mobilising the immune system of believers through the placebo effect. You don\’t know until you test it properly.
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Only dogmas need to use the Give A Dog A Bad Name ploy.