Thoughts filed in: Language

Orientalists of the East India Company

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The infamous East India Company, "the Company that Owned a Nation", is remembered harshly by history. And rightly so. On the whole, it was an exploitative venture, and the British individuals involved with it were ruthless opportunists. The Company's actions directly resulted in the impoverishment, the subjugation, and in several instances the death of countless citizens of the Indian Subcontinent.

Company rule, and the subsequent rule of the British Raj, are also acknowledged as contributing positively to the shaping of Modern India, having introduced the English language, built the railways, and established political and military unity. But these are overshadowed by its legacy of corporate greed and wholesale plunder, which continues to haunt the region to this day.

I recently read Four Heroes of India (1898), by F.M. Holmes, an antique book that paints a rose-coloured picture of Company (and later British Government) rule on the Subcontinent. To the modern reader, the book is so incredibly biased in favour of British colonialism that it would be hilarious, were it not so alarming. Holmes's four heroes were notable military and government figures of 18th and 19th century British India.

Clive, Hastings, Havelock, Lawrence; with a Concluding Note on the Rule of Lord Mayo.
Clive, Hastings, Havelock, Lawrence; with a Concluding Note on the Rule of Lord Mayo.
Image source: eBay.

I'd like to present here four alternative heroes: men (yes, sorry, still all men!) who in my opinion represented the British far more nobly, and who left a far more worthwhile legacy in India. All four of these figures were founders or early members of The Asiatic Society (of Bengal), and all were pioneering academics who contributed to linguistics, science, and literature in the context of South Asian studies.

On and off

English is a language bursting with ambiguity and double meanings. But the words "on" and "off" would have to be two of the worst offenders. I was thinking about words that foreign-language speakers would surely find particularly hard to master, when learning to speak English. And I couldn't go past these two. From the most basic meaning of the words, which relates to position — e.g. "the book is on the table", and "the plane is off the ground" — "on" and "off" have been overloaded more thoroughly than an Indian freight train.

The English Language and The Celtic Question

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According to most linguistic / historical sources, the English language as we know it today is a West Germanic language (the other two languages in this family being German and Dutch). Modern English is the descendant of Old English, and Old English was essentially born when the Anglo-Saxons migrated to the isle of Great Britain in the 5th c. C.E., from their traditional homeland in the north-west of modern Germany. Prior to this time, it's believed that the inhabitants of all parts of the British Isles were predominantly Celtic speakers, with a small Latin influence resulting from the Roman occupation of Britain.

Of the languages that have influenced the development of English over the years, there are three whose effect can be overwhelmingly observed in modern English: French ("Old Norman"), Latin, and Germanic (i.e. "Old English"). But what about Celtic? It's believed that the majority of England's pre-Anglo-Saxon population spoke Brythonic (i.e. British Celtic). It's also been recently asserted that the majority of England's population today is genetically pre-Anglo-Saxon Briton stock. How, then — if those statements are both true — how can it be that the Celtic languages have left next to no legacy on modern English?

A count of Unicode characters grouped by script

We all know what Unicode is (if you don't, then read all about it and come back later). We all know that it's big. Hey, of course it's big: its aim is to allow for the representation of characters from every major language script in the world. That's gotta be a lot of characters, right? It's reasonably easy to find out how many unicode characters there are in total: e.g. the Wikipedia page (linked above) states that: "As of Unicode 5.1 there are 100,507 graphic [assigned] characters." I got a bit curious today, and — to my disappointment — after some searching, I was unable to find a nice summary of how many characters there are in each script that Unicode supports. And thus it is that I present to you my count of all assigned Unicode characters (as of v5.1), grouped by script and by category.

Legislation and programming: two peas in a pod

The language of law and the language of computers hardly seem like the most obvious of best buddies. Legislation endeavours to be unambiguous, and yet it's infamous for being plagued with ambiguity problems, largely because it's ultimately interpreted by subjective and unpredictable humang beings. Computer code doesn't try to be unambiguous, it simply is unambiguous — by its very definition. A piece of code, when supplied with any given input, is quite literally incapable of returning inconsistent output. A few weeks ago, I finished an elective subject that I studied at university, called Legal Method and Research. The main topic of the subject was statutory interpretation: that is, the process of interpreting the meaning of a single unit of law, and applying a given set of facts to it. After having completed this subject, one lesson that I couldn't help but take away (being a geek 'n' all) was how strikingly similar the structure of legislation is to the structure of modern programming code. This is because at the end of the day, legislation — just like code — needs to be applied to a real case, and it needs to yield a Boolean outcome.

A novel style

The novel is considered the most ubiquitous of all forms of literature. You can find novels by the truckload in any old bookstore. But what is the true 'novel style', and just how common are 'real novels'? Read on to find out why novels aren't quite so common as you might think.

Draft dodging: the first and final version

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The concept of a 'draft version' has always seemed rather alien to me. Without ever even realising it, I always correct and analyse my writing as I go, making sure that my first version is as near to final as can be. It recently occurred to me that I am incapable of writing in 'rough form'. Is this a blessing or a curse?

What a mean word

Some words are perfectly suited to their alternative definitions. The word 'mean' is one of these. 'Mean' refers to the average of a set of numbers. A mean is a cruel, unforgiving, and brutally honest number: in short, it really is a mean number. Read on for more about 'mean', and about other words that have multiple but related meanings (polysemes).

Room to swing a cat

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There are plenty of weird proverbs in the English language, but this one would have to be among the weirdest. Seriously, who swings cats? How does someone know that there's no room to swing a cat? Have they tried? Join me as I seek the answer to these and other questions.