Saturday, December 25, 2004

Cultural habits

There is another deep kind of communication that takes place through cultural habit.

In Russia, for example, before you go on a trip, everyone in the house sits down, and is quiet, until someone feels that's enough, and they say good, and everyone gets up.

Every student knows that you must do these sorts of things, to get any understanding of a culture. And you can't understand a literature without experiencing the culture. Even further, you can't read the language ... references to these sort of habits are sometimes in idiomatic language, often derived from literature. But, really, a word can't resonate for you in quite the same way if you haven't certain experiences. Now, there's limits ... many of these habits get lost, and many are unavailable for other reasons. And it really isn't possible to become another person. But it is important to try.

Communication by gesture

Gestures are symbols made by human movement and shapes ... some, again, are cultural, and some universal, or a combination. As symbols, they need to be learned.

The only gesture I seem to have confirmation of, is this "thumb pointing through next two fingers" gesture, which apparently means 'not a chance' or 'you get nothing', when someone asks for something. It doesn't look like a very serious gesture, but I'd only use it among friends.

Communicating by expression

Vocal emotion is usually accompanied by reinforcing expressions. These are actually quite difficult to hide, and micro-expressions are quite famous for revealing secrets. These expressions aren't all universal, but those that are can add a layer of depth to your communication. Many of these expressions, of course, are culturally transmitted, and so need to be learned. You can see this in the expression mimicry (as well as the emotive delivery mimicry) of mass media entertainment in your own lifetime.

Friday, December 24, 2004

Communicating emotion

There are many human sounds that work across language barriers. When someone screams, for example. Many sounds aren't universal, and I'd like to make a list that works in Russia.

What is this sub-field called? Many of these sounds are even made by animals, although in that case their meaning is unverifiable in the normal sense. Try just making these emotive sounds without a sentence. Use 'meow', for example.

straightforward query
tentative query
tentative assertiveness
blustery frustration
blustery elation
quiet resignation
assertive, independent resignation
cautious assertion
cautious question
sigh of physical exhaustion
hopeless sigh
frustrated sigh, still hopeful
frustrated sigh, verging on hopeless
tone of regathering energies in face of exhaustion
tickled laughter
appreciative laughter
disbelieving laughter

I could go on. My question is whether these all work equally well across languages. I know many do. While this many not seem a alinguistic subject ... how often would we better be able to communicate if we understood this landscape as well as grammar & vocabulary? While it may seem like the territory of the mimic or the actor, just look at the range of expressions ... these are quite another dimension from vocabulary, and possibly as numerous.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Cyrillic & vowel sound guides

Monday, December 20, 2004

The fewest words, the most sounds

How many words in Russian would you need to know, to cover the entire alphabet? Beyond that, how many are necessary to provide examples of all sound shapes? Is this pedagogically useful?

I'll reduce the set from words in Russian: A Language Map, a guide by Bilingual books.


Доброе утро : д.о.б.р.е.у.т
[good morning]

спокойной ночи : с.п.к.й.н.ч.и
[good night]

извините : з.в
[excuse me]

Вы говорнте по-русски? : ы.г
[You speak russian?]




Ha помощь

где кафе?
[Where's a cafe?]


как вас зовут?

Still need ё

Good exercise. A little schoolroom competition ...

HTML & Cyrillic

Is is possible to publish Cyrillic here?

дa, дa

I'm on Mac OS X. Click on the little language flag at the top-right. Pick "Show character Palette". Pick Unicode from the drop-down list, and Cyrillic from the left list panel.

Now, if the above turns out to be "da, da" in Cyrillic, we're ok. Most browsers set to Unicode-8 will display it properly. So, I'm on Mac OS X, and the default setting is correct. Note that, unfortunately, if I go to Safari's preferences, the default listed is "Western ISO". Which is not true. Because if you select View->text encoding->Western ISO, the browser displays incorrectly. This is just the Safari bug.

In an old Internet Explorer (5.2 for Mac, which few people use anymore, right?) the default setting doesn't matter -- if there's a unicode-8 character in the text, you cannot select View->Character set->Western Latin 1.

To get a different view (I only have the browsers on my computer, after all) I went to If you click the instant Linux demo button, you get a remote desktop, and today, at least, it launches a Linux Mandrake 9.1 Gnome desktop with Galeon as a browser. Reasonable preferences seemed to have no effect on this page, such as "auto-detect->russian" and "default set->unicode-8" and "language->russian". Only selecting the "view->encoding->unicode-8" in the active window, and refreshing, showed the characters properly.

Well, good for Apple for doing it right with Safari. Unfortunately, it's really sad that browsers don't all do it right. You can see the characters above if you set Unicode-8. Russian websites like sets a Russian text encoding in a meta tag, which is very sensible for Russia, but not quite right for the whole world.

More on this as we go along.

Sounds are centers

There are 32 symbols used in Cyrillic, the alphabet which the greek-speaking Roman empire, also known as byzantium, gave to Russia. But these symbols represent just a kind of average or approximation of certain noises which Russians make. They are not discrete atoms, but rather centers of sound: they are fields which have no definite boundary.

But, anyway, I must use these symbols before going any further. The thorny problem of HTML & Cyrillic comes next.