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Don’t be frightened. This isn’t about THAT string theory – the one from physics that replace the particles of particle physics with one-dimensional objects called strings. That is a tough one to explain. I can’t even imagine strings propagating through space and interacting with each other and all kinds of vibrational states and the graviton. Nope, no theory of quantum gravity today.

These strings are khipus (“knots”). They are made of twisted and tied cords and were once used by indigenous Andeans for record keeping.

These khipus (AKA Spanish spelling quipus) are best known by archaeologists as record keeping devices of the Inca Empire. That Empire had more than 18 million people and covered 3,000 miles of South America. It existed from the early 1400s until the Spanish conquest in 1532.

But what did they mean? How were they used? Was it their form of “writing?”

One older theory was that they were simple memory aids, similar to prayer beads. Current research seems to point to them being a three-dimensional writing system. Analyzing color, fiber and twist direction they found 95 unique signs. That is enough to constitute a writing system.

Those colonial-era Spaniards observed them being used never learned how they were use. But they appeared to be the way the numerical data (censuses, inventories) were recorded. But they might have also been used for narrative (phonetic) records such as letters and histories.

There are less than a thousand surviving khipus in museums and collections. Some remote mountain villages still used khipus as cultural artifacts into the 20th century, but reading them has not survived.

So far, there is no link between a quipu and Quechua, the native language of the Peruvian Andes, which suggests that they are not a glottographic or true writing system. Perhaps, they are a system of representative symbols, more like music notation, and relay information but are not directly related to the speech sounds of a particular language.

Looking at some of those strings and knots seems as difficult to interpret as the strings supposedly floating all around us in the quantum universe.


Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu in Peru is the best known religious site for Inca leaders. Their civilization was virtually wiped out by Spanish invaders in the 16th century.

grammarMy wife and I were both reading this morning and I stopped to ask her about a sentence I had just read in an article. “Tim Cook announced last year he is gay.” I asked her if she thought it should be “is” or “was.” Being that we have both been teachers, we actually have these kinds of conversations. She voted for “was” for the sake of parallel construction. I voted for “is” (which is what the magazine used) because it’s not that he was gay and no longer is gay.

Some of my wife’s argument may come from her having taught French for many years. “It would never be correct in French,” she told me.

That led me to wonder if she was a “French teacher” or more correctly “a teacher of French.” She was constantly referred to as a French teacher, but she did not have any French ancestry. In fact, she is Italian. Was she an Italian French teacher? Now that is confusing. She was certified to teach Italian too. She could be called an Italian teacher for both reasons.

After I refilled my coffee cup, she continued the topic and asked me “Would you say ‘Hemingway was a great writer’ or ‘Hemingway is a great writer’?” I would say “is.” He still is a great writer. “Would you say at her funeral that Mary was or is very kind?” I would say “was.” My wife asked why I saw a difference.

Hemingway still is a great writer, even though he is dead. Just like I would say that his A Moveable Feast is a great book. “That’s because the book still exists. Hemingway doesn’t,” said my wife.

It is confusing.

Later in my reading, I came across a review of a new book, Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris who has spent more 30+ year in The New Yorker‘s copy department, home of high standards.

It is a burden that my own 30+ years have been spent teaching English. People both expect my grammar to be perfect, and say they feel uncomfortable speaking or writing to me because I may “correct their grammar.”

When I started teaching, grammar and punctuation were at least a third of the curriculum. We taught it very much isolated from real writing tasks, even though we graded it in those writing tasks.

In the 1980s, that loosened. Instead of being an “English teacher,” may teachers in the grades below high school were referred to as “language arts” teachers.  We still taught that “i” came before “e,” except after “c” and a  few other exceptions. Students never really understood that the verb “to be” was like an equal sign and that meant that you used the nominative case on both sides of it.  Saying “It is I” didn’t sound correct in anyone in the classroom even if the book said so.

In college, I was tortured by a grammar class that taught me about deep structures and linguistics, all of which was useless in teaching eighth grade. I was happily able to almost completely avoid diagramming sentences as a student and as a teacher.

Norris’ book is the kind I have very mixed feelings about reading. I never wanted to be a “comma king” and avoided many grammar gurus and the books they wrote. From what I can glean from reviews, hers is not a grammar textbook and I suspect she may be kinder about everyday speaking and writing than she would be for an article in the magazine. And we should be tougher on published writing.

One reviewer mentions an example of hers concerning the use of dashes. She quotes a note Jacqueline Kennedy wrote to Richard Nixon after her husband’s death. The very personal note was in Jackie’s “breathy” style and contained lots of dashes. Norris does the English teacher (or editor) thing and “corrects” it. The grammatically correct result just isn’t Jackie.

It sounds like the book is more of a journey through Norris’ life with words. I do like language oddities. Nuggets like learning that there was once a serious movement to settle the “is it she or he” situation led to a suggestion to start using “heesh” are amusing.  (I might have opted for s/he, but the pronunciation is an issue.)

policeI have a good-sized list of language items that annoyed me in student writing and in the larger world and still annoy me: everyday vs. every day; that damned alot for a lot; it’s vs. its, your vs. you’re and all those; the overuse of “basically” and “literally.” But I can’t get excited enough to do battle over one or two spaces at the end of a sentence or punctuation inside or outside the quotation marks any more. “But you are an English teacher, ” friends say, fully expecting outrage from me about some error by a politician in a speech or in an advertisement.

I am on the edge of all this. I know that “Grammar Girl” has a website, podcast and books and I have checked all of them out and they can be fun, but it is just not a big part in my world in and out of the classroom these days. I still love language, but I am more interested in the stories behind words and phrases and following how the language changes than I am in being the grammar policeman trying to keep things in line and behind the barricades.

Norris’ title plays off a common mistake of “using ‘I’ instead of ‘me’ in phrases such as ‘between you and me,’ after any preposition or as the object of a verb.” She would tell you, like any good teacher, that a little memory trick is to put the “I” first. Though people might make the mistake of saying “between you and I,” I doubt any of them would make the mistake of saying “between I and you.”

What was the Rosetta Stone? A Ptolemaic age granodiorite (similar to granite) stele (a kind of monument) inscribed with a decree issued at Memphis in 196 BC on behalf of King Ptolemy V.

It contains versions written in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, Demotic script, and Ancient Greek. That is the key. It has essentially the same text in all three versions and so it became the key to understanding (translating) Egyptian hieroglyphs.

It has traveled a lot. It probably was displayed in a temple at Sais, moved during the early Christian or medieval period, used as building material for Fort Julien near Rosetta in the Nile Delta where it was rediscovered there by a soldier in 1799. When the British troops defeated the French in Egypt in 1801, the stone was taken to London. It is the most-visited object in the British Museum.

The term “Rosetta stone” is often used to mean a key that helps in the decryption of encoded information, or when a small sample is recognized as the clue to understanding a larger whole.

You may also know of Rosetta Stone as a brand of language-learning software

Rosetta@home is a distributed computing project that asks you to run their Rosetta program on your computer when you aren’t using it to help them speed up and extend their research. A network of computers as a super computer. They are trying to design new proteins to fight diseases such as HIV, Malaria, Cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease.

There is also the Rosetta Project that brings language specialists and native speakers together to develop an archive of 1,500 languages, intended to last from AD 2000 to 12,000.

The Rosetta spacecraft is on a ten-year mission to study the comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, in the hopes that determining its composition will reveal the origins of the Solar System.

Unlocking mysteries.

Ptolemaic: Rosetta Stone

Most people have checked out what their name means.  I’m not talking about surnames and family histories, but your “given” first name.  The study of names is called onomastics. It can lead you into linguistics, history, anthropology, sociology and philology.

When people ask what is the meaning of a name, they are really asking for the etymology – the origin of the name. This etymology, as with most words, is a kind of history of the language(s) where the name was first used, the ways it has changed over the years, and the meaning of the words or roots that are contained within the name.

I know that my mom chose Kenneth as my name because it was the name of a boy she had a crush on in high school. But she claimed that she had also looked in a book of baby names and liked that it meant, in its origin, “handsome.”

I discovered that ken is from Scottish meaning “to know” which goes back to the Norse “kenna“, also meaning “to know.” The word cennan “make known, declare, acknowledge.”

The name developed from the convergence of two Irish Gaelic names – Cinaed (”fire born”) and Cainnech (meaning ”Good-looking”). Scots Gaels are descendants of the Irish. The two cultures developed distinct cultures, but it explains how Kenneth, from two Irish Gaelic names, became identified with Scotland. The Scots surname MacKenzie mean “son of Kenneth.”

The noun ken means “range of sight” and goes back to the late 1500s and is a nautical abbreviation of kenning. Today the word ken usually means cognizance or the range of what one can know or understand, as in the usage “beyond my ken.” I like this attachment to my name of the idea of the range of vision.

The kèn is also an instrument used in traditional Vietnamese music. It it similar to an oboe with a double reed and a conical wooden body.

A ken (“bay” in English) in Japanese architecture is both a term for the distance between pillars and a unit of measurement. Ken is also a Japanese name which can have many different meanings depending on the kanji used. (Kanji are the Chinese characters used in the modern Japanese logographic writing system.)

But, my favorite discovery in looking at my name was following its use in two Japanese traditions.

First, is its use in the I Ching (a form of divinatory practice used for predicting the future taken from the ancient Chinese The I Ching or Book of Changes) which uses 64 hexagrams.

Hexagrams are patterns of 6 broken and unbroken lines. The hexagram for Ken means the mountain spirit.

It’s representations include:
Family: Youngest Son
Body Part: Hand
Compass Point: Northeast
Element: Wood
Season: Late Winter/Early Spring
Natural Element: Mountain

This hexagram comprises one unbroken Yang line above two broken Yin lines. It signifies stillness, waiting and solitude.  It is symbolic of the youngest son, who is quiet, still and stubborn and who is the limit and end of the family.

It is suggestive of the Palace of the Immortals, never-ending images that start and finish everything. It also symbolizes closure and a finishing of things, for example a rounding off. However the endings are all with new beginnings in mind. It is also symbolic of the power to put into words one’s achievements that have now come to a close.

Another Japanese usage that I like is  kenshō (見性) which is a Japanese term for an enlightenment experience. It is usually used within the study of Zen Buddhism.  Literally it means “seeing one’s nature” or “true self.”

Kenshō experiences are tiered and escalate from initial glimpses into the nature of mind, on to an experience of emptiness, and then perhaps on to Buddhahood. They are a briefer experience than satori.

I mix all these together and envision a solitary figure on the mountaintop in early spring seeking enlightenment.

Do you think we grow into our names or become more like our names? Or, are we somehow named with some mystical process involved so that our names are cosmically chosen for us?

Or is it because your mom had a crush on a kid in high school with that name?

Want to start some searching on your name?

blue moon

The moon itself won’t be blue this week, but still…

There is a full moon to end 2009. (December 31, 2009, 19:13 GMT, 2:13 PM EST, 1:13 PM CST, 12:13 PM MST, 11:30 AM PST. (Don’t be surprised that the moon frequently doesn’t become full  during your particular “night.”)

It is also the second full moon this month. And, it is a “Blue Moon.”

Defining a blue moon is a bit confusing. The third full moon in a season with four full moons is actually what is called a Blue Moon. People often think that the second full moon in a month is a blue moon, but it turns out that idea was erroneously reported in an issue of Sky & Telescope magazine way back in 1946 and it has taken on a life in the media ever since. (Like those stupid emails you get.)

Prior to that article, a “blue moon” traditionally referred to an extra moon in a season. If a season had four full moons (rather than the more common three), then the third of the four moons was known as a blue moon. (A “season” is defined here by solstices and equinoxes.)

But, the idea that it is just the second full moon in a calendar month is a common one. Since there are 12.37 full moons in a year, a “blue moon” would occur on the average every 2.7 years, by either definition.

Unlike the other full moons during the year, Native Americans did not have a particular name for this moon. Why? Well, the idea of a “month” was not part of their timekeeping. Another moon simply signaled the start of another lunar period.

All this leads us today to use the idiom “once in a blue moon” to mean something which occurs very infrequently.

In researching the etymology of this term, I discovered an interesting alternative interpretation which is based on the old English meanings of “belewe” which were “blue” or “betrayer.”  The church was responsible for the calendar and it based church events, such as Easter, on the full moon. Lent falls before Easter starting at the beginning of the Lent moon cycle (late winter moon). The next moon is the egg moon (early spring moon), and Easter usually falls on the first Sunday after the full egg moon. Every one to three years the Lent and egg moons would come too early, so the clergy would have to tell people whether the moon was the Lent moon or a false one, which they may have called a “betrayer moon”.

As a kid, I thought the term just referred to a literal color of the moon. Ask a bunch of people to define a blue moon and someone will say something about the color. This actual rare event can occur because of smoke or dust particles in the atmosphere, such as after forest fires or the eruption of a volcano. It is a causal event much like the appearance of a red moonrise due to particles and pollution in the atmosphere, and not connected to any astronomical event.

The next seasonal blue moon won’t occur until August 21, 2013. But, if you want to plan some blue moon parties, you can also go with the calendar version (two full moons in one month) and plan celebrations for 2012 (August 2, August 31) and 2015 (July 2, July 31).

Sounds like this New Year’s Eve might be a good night to listen to Elvis’ “Blue Christmas” and break out the Blue Moon beer. Send me an invite and save me a bottle of Grand Cru…

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