Thursday, 16 October 2014

Comparative Ethics

OK, so you read the previous post? Good, bear that in mind.

Just lately, probably because of the older age group of most of my friends, the highbrow level of discussions we have (because it's more interesting), and the fact that I don't suffer fools gladly (and neither do they) there have been many, many discussions where we don't agree on a point of ethics. Well, there's a shock.

We have, after all, different backgrounds, different politicial perspectives, different attitudes and beliefs to religious and metaphysical topics, and quite simply, different personalities. On the other hand we are all essentially intelligent and ethical people. How do we manage to argue so vehemently on key points?

One could ask the same thing of the greatest philosophers of the age. They get along socially but can go head to head every so often, and no compromise is possible. They agree to differ, shake hands, and pour another one. But the difference remains. I am asking why.

Let's consider a totally hypothetical example. Two people agree there is a need for more help to the poor in the area of housing. But they disagree on how it should be done. One says benefits to help pay rent should be increased. The other says private landlords should be subsidized so they can lower the rents. The end result is identical. Tax money is used to cover some of the cost, but these two ideas are argued over.

This is not a logical matter, it's based on ideologies, possibly sub-conscious, and definitely emotional. Somewhere in the head of person A is the fundamental historical idea that we should give alms to the needy. He may not even be aware of that, but that's what's going on. At the same time he sees the landlord as a priviledged person and dislikes the idea of him being assisted. Person B, on the other hand sees the simplicity in the system of making the housing more affordable. He feels this gives low income families dignity, they are simply choosing the cheaper option, and don't need a "handout".

If you were to interfere in this discussion, and point out that it makes no difference when the pennies are counted, they just move around differently, you would be roundly ignored. Perhaps even rightly so, in fact, as at least both parties in the debate are trying to do the "correct" thing. They are trying to be fair, they are trying to help. The rest is details.

Another example goes back to our old discussion about women's clothing, and modesty. No reasonable person wants a woman to suffer unwanted male attention, but only a few insist that it should be possible for a woman to walk down the street naked without receiving it. At the other end of the scale are people who think the solution is for women to be de facto invisible (burqa). In between are a wide range of levels of modesty, and everyone has their own limit. You have yours. No matter what you consider to be a miniumum level of modesty, you can find, easily, others who think it's too much or too little. All of them are doing so from what they consider to be a place of ethics, and a place of what is reasonable.

But EVERYONE has a limit, in their heads. Whether they share it or not.

It may be impacted by their own personal experience, or by religious or other beliefs. It may have changed over time. It may be influenced by what they read, even something as simple as a meme on Facebook, seriously. A little lightbulb goes on that a previously-held belief was not quite right.

And they think they are being logical. And they're not.

There's nothing logical about limits. They are personal and emotional, and they can change.

How then can we decide what's wrong and right? We can't, and that's fine. We can only ever decide what's right for us. We can then use our efforts of persuasion to come to agreements on what society will tolerate. But there's no solid answer.

That's why religions and societies write this stuff into law, to end the arguments. Obviously, it doesn't work, but that's the plan. The book (holy or legal) states that the limit is X, and it is then a simple matter to chastise those who break the rules, or blame them when their rule-breaking causes them harm.

These are not the only two scenarios (two means to the same end, or movable goalposts of reasonable behaviour) that cause ethical arguments, but they are the two commonest or biggest. If you consider most arguments that crop up you'll find the vast majority fall under one or the other.

There is no solution for this, not even harsh dogma. Because harsh dogma leads to rebellion, and eventually the rebels win.

I suggest people spend more time listening, considering, and weighing things up. I also suggest they get their heads out of their arses. Finally I suggest that where possible they mind their own business and clean their own house.

OK, Melanie has put the world to rights for a Thursday morning, I'm off to prop up the Chinese economy. Now there's an argument waiting to happen.....................

Reasonable People

I don't know about you, but if somebody tries to flatter me, their best bet is to compliment my reasonableness. I'll tell you why. Most things about me are an accident of birth. I get compliments on my blue eyes, my intelligence, my sense of humour, my artistic abilities, etc. I also get compliments on my children and my animals. All of these things are random really, and mostly luck.

But my reasonableness was hard earned. I worked on it doggedly over the years, from a very poor start. When people admire how reasonable I am, that's a true compliment because it's something I DID. Along with my cooking skills, it's really all that I can claim as having worked for.

What is reasonableness? It is the choice of listening properly to what people say, and responding (speaking or behaving) in an appropriate way. A way that is fair, kind, and sensible. It involves wisdom and compassion. It involves thinking quickly, but not knee jerk reaction. It requires considering all angles, avoiding selfishness, and being careful in choice of words, all without dithering or delay.

It's not easy, and it shouldn't be. Worthwhile things are a bit of an effort. So laziness tends to compromise reasonableness too.

Sometimes I fail. I'm only human. Sometimes I'm stubborn and my reasonableness takes a dent. That's the opportunity to reflect on why and improve. I try, always, to improve.

This is important to me. I hear others say how often they mess up in this area, then say it's OK because they mean well and they love you. That's not good enough, and they aren't trying hard enough. So yes, I want other people to be very reasonable too. But I'm reasonable enough to know it isn't going to happen.

This is how I judge people. People come in all flavours, and nobody can be blamed for the cards they were dealt. But at some point as they mature they are taught by others how to behave as good members of society, as decent human beings, and it is then a matter of personal choice how they deal with other people.

I'm either lucky or choosy, or maybe I just don't get out much. Most of the people I come in contact with are reasonable, and most of those who aren't are obviously compromised in ways I understand and make allowances for.

Still, as I'm sure you experience also, from time to time I come up against those who have had all the same options, and have chosen to be unreasonable, and to be unreasonable about being unreasonable. Even if it's only on certain topics or in certain situations. They are predictably awkward, difficult, unreasonable, and sometimes downright obnoxious. I judge those people negatively, and I don't apologize for it.

There is a theory out there that we are all doing our best with the experience, character, and skills we each have available to us. I believe this is only true of reasonable people. That is to say, there are those who knowingly and deliberately do not do their best. They do not listen to reason. They do not listen to good advice even though they secretly recognize it as such. They do not care if they harm others as a result. I will not be tolerant of such behaviour, I call it out, and I will avoid those people if necessary.

Life is too short to have that sort of negativity poison it, and if you choose to be an arsehole, you should expect cause and effect to come into play. It is a choice. There is no excuse. It's not funny, it's not clever, and you can do better.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

TSIPGTL: Just A Dipthong At Twilight

So having messed with your head on the previous chapter of this series by telling you that you have up to 20 vowels, I'm now going to confuse you completely by telling you that you don't. Many of them are in fact dipthongs.

OK, a dipthong is a vowel sound, but it's actually made up of two - or more - vowels (although strictly speaking if it's 3 its a tripthong).

You are used to dipthongs. They are often written using multiple letters. You may or may not have ever thought much about this but there are plenty of examples.

The word "eye" is a good example. And indeed, the word "I". Two ways to write a well-known dipthong. If you say it very slowly you'll find that it actually begins, briefly with the sound "ah". It ends with the sound "ee". In the middle, when the the former slips into the latter you can definitely hear that yod sound ("y").

And curiously the letter y, pronounced why, is a tripthong. Say it very slowly.


Do this and be aware of the shape of your mouth.

This is why w can actually be considered a vowel, and is in some languages.

Later I'm going to throw in two more letters that you think of as consonants, that can be vowels, but let's look at dipthongs a bit more first.

Depending on your accent (there it is again) you may pronounce some of your vowels as dipthongs, or pure vowels. It isn't that accent A has more dipthongs than accent B, it's just a pick and choose thing. Scottish, for example, is often said to have pure vowels, but it also has plenty of dipthongs, just said so quickly that only an obsessive language geek can hear them.

In other accents it's really easy to hear them.

There's a sterotype, in fact, that certain accents (such as Cockney) is full of dipthongs, but perversely it also changes some "normal" dipthongs into pure vowels, which is why a Londoner can live in an ass. Many a confused American has been asked to "come rand my ass lighter". I daresay few actually arrived.

But it's this switch from pure vowel to dipthong that has caused Americans to talk of Hairy Potter, and taking their car across to the island on the fairy.

(OK, that's a fairy on a car, but it was the closest I could find).

So what is a pure vowel? It's when no matter how much you slow it down, it stays the same from beginning to end. Some of the purest vowels in the world can be found in South Africa, or perhaps I should say Suth Efrica. There are a few dipthongs there, but you'd hardly notice them. This is possibly why it's one of the nicest accents to listen to, and I could listen to Trevor Noah all night (I wonder if he's done any audio books).

This brings me to an interesting fact.

People really do feel strongly about accents. They have preferences and find some soothing, some grating. And accents revolve around vowels and dipthongs. On the whole, the accents with a lot of dipthongs are the ones we see as less "educated". Why? Because prestige accents in most parts of the English speaking world tend to have more pure vowels.

(This won't embed, but do watch it:

And Cockney, with its many dipthongs is the accent of the common people.

What you won't find in Cockney, or in the poshest London accent, is a rhotic vowel. Not even among pirates.

There isn't full agreement among linguists about this (just in case you thought this was an area of study which was cut and dried, thankfully linguists argue, just like all experts) as to whether such things as rhotic vowels exist. There is another term - the R-Coloured Vowel, which is another way of looking at it.

An example would be my poor husband's name - Martin. Most people here in Canada call him Mrtn. No traditional vowels at all. The R becomes the vowel. How can that be? Well, if you slow it down, you'd be hard-pressed to pick out which vowel came before it. I think it's a schwa (an unstressed vowel, i.e. "ugh"), if at all, but it's also possible that R really can be a vowel.

What it certainly CAN do, for non-Rhotic speakers (most of England, and parts of the Southern US, as well as Boston) is affect the vowel before it. Again, with Martin. The way we (non-rhotic speakers) say it, it sounds like Mahtin. The R has lengthened the A. Without it, it would be Matin. But we don't pronounce the R itself.

How did the R become - well - silent?

Because German is non-rhotic. It has been for a long time, nobody really knows how long, but it was certainly non-rhotic by the time Hanoverian kings arrived in London in the early 18th century. It's widely believed than their pronunciation was at first copied as an affectation by the elite at court, spreading quickly as a trend through the aristocracy, down through the gentry, and reaching the lowest social groups well before Dickens' time. It also spread out to other cities, and beyond, albeit slowly. 50 years ago there were still plenty of rhotic speakers in the countryside in Southern England, but they are rare today and it's a generational thing in some places.

But Londoners are very creative people and have managed to learn L into a vowel.

I've spent most of my life trying to deliberately refine my accent, but unless I'm really, really careful, I still do this. Milk? Mee-awk. Walk? Wawk. Etc. Still, my Canadian kids say WAHK for walk, so maybe it's not just Londoners.

And there, of course, H becomes a written vowel, even GH, sometimes, or at least part of one. Can you think of any more?

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Alternative Therapies vs. Mainstream Medicine

I am not a medical professional. I am an intelligent and well-read woman who has a basic understanding of "how things work", including human bodies, and I grew up in a home where vitamin and herbal supplements were used, with common sense, and I have never taken a "cold cure" in my life, because it was explained to me at a very young age that colds are caused by viruses, something your body has to deal with.

As an adult, especially as a mother, I have taken a great interest in the human body, and its care. I have provided, I hope, and encouraged a healthy lifestyle without becoming a fanatic. I believe very much in balance in all things.

I was a bit ahead of my time, and frequently derided for it, as I avoided antibiotics with my children unless absolutely essential. I used garlic oil for ear infections, which always worked. For example, Tom had his first antibiotic prescription at the age of 20 when he crushed his finger in a log splitter. He has grown up seeing doctors only for his autism, and injuries.

We vaccinated, but carefully. Balance.

For me it goes like this - if a medical issue is potentially life-threatening, or causing discomfort that interferes with the quality of life, then you need to see a doctor. If you have a cold or a clean wound, then you don't, and in between those extremes various decisions are made on a case by case basis.

I have tried White Willow Bark for headaches, and it didn't work. So I stick to Tylenol.

Homeopathy is a scam.

But we swear by Echincea and Vitamin D.

If it works, it works. If it works and there are few side-effects or risks, so much the better, but you still have to go with what works first. If a drug saves your life but makes your skin dry, big deal. If a drug gets the fungus off your toenails, but could kill you, forget it.

In order to make informed decisions you need information. Hearsay, gossip, guesswork, and pseudo-science is no way to learn whether a remedy is safe or efficacious. Reading independent reputable research reports, and plenty of them, is the way to go.

You don't have time? Then leave the decisions to somebody else.

But there's one small and simple fact that should be obvious to everyone.

A remedy cannot be both efficacious and harmless.

If it is taken at the correct dose, and all other precautions are observed (e.g. interactions with other substances) then the harm will be fleeting, minimal, and no big deal. This is what we aim for. Morphine will constipate you horribly, but after surgery you will be bloody miserable without it. Nothing a bit of romaine lettuce can't fix.

But if you were to eat 5 romaine lettuces (i.e. a food, not a drug) you'd get diarrhea you could spray paint a car with. This is simple cause and effect. Everything you ingest has an effect on your body.

The more powerful the effect on your body, the more risk of side-effects, expected or otherwise.

I repeat: A remedy cannot be both efficacious and harmless.

Inert substances will never relieve or cure anything.

So, it is utterly ludicrous to suggest that any treatment, mainstream or otherwise is harmless.

And that, dear friends, is my position in the entire debate.

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

TSIPGTL: Part Two: Vowels

How many vowels are there?





ARGH, I hear you say, I thought I at least knew the answer to THAT one. I learned it when I was small.

But no.

These are simply the letters used to write vowels sounds. They are not really vowels. Vowels are sounds. They are phonemes, see previous blog. You're all grown up now, so you can cope with this concept, oh yes you can!

One letter can represent several different vowel sounds. Why? Good question. That was a choice made by persons unknown long ago. What I can tell you is that English is not a phonetic language, so the written form is very little help much of the time as a guide to pronunciation. 

Was there ever a time when one letter equalled one sound?


Some experts believe that the alphabet we use - the Latin alphabet - was phonetic in Latin, in Roman times, at least to begin with. Unfortunately this theory cannot be proven, because we cannot hear the Romans speak. Latin as it spoken today in churches, etc, is not necessarily the same, and most likely isn't. Of course, there are other languages, known as Romance languages, some of which have fairly easy-to-guess vowels because they descend from Latin (the obvious ones being Italian and Spanish) but then there's French, which has deviated about as far from "pure" Latin vowels as it is possible to go. So, what do we know?

All we can do is learn our language as it is and suck it up, frankly. Children seem to cope, sooner or later, with all the quirks. 

So let's look at each vowel individually.

What does A represent?

It can be the A in cat.
It can be the A in man.
It can be the A in late.
It can be the A in father
It can be the A in all.

So there's 5 vowels already, with just one letter.

Already, I see some hands raised. Yes, you at the back, You are saying that two of these are the same. Say it out loud, I dare you. Oh, now look, that guy to your left, he's telling you that you are wrong. Oh dear, now a fight has broken out.

You're both right. Depending on your accent (see previous blog) you'll have a different quantity of vowels. There simply is no right and wrong about this, but it's another reason why phonetics don't work. It's also why there is no simple answer as to how many vowels there are. Americans have about 15, depending on region. Australians appear to have the most, up to 21. I have counted 20 in my London accent. How many do YOU have?

Vowels are made in different parts of the mouth. Experts talk of front vowels and back vowels, they also talk of high vowels and low vowels, which refers to where your tongue is. Totally deaf children can be taught to speak simply by learning how to shape their mouths. Actors who wish to accurately recreate other accents must pay close attention to this too. The main reason why people "doing" accents get them wrong, is failing to shape their mouths as a native speaker would. 

In fact the bulk of differences between accents is the vowels. This applies to learning other languages too. 

An example is the French word mais meaning "but". Some of you recognize this. You probably have a vague memory of it being pronounced "may". But it isn't. There is a difference between the correct pronunciation of mais and that of may. Knowing that difference, and of course, most of all, being about to pronounce that difference, is all about accent, and is all about getting it right. You will be understood if you say may, but you will sound as bad to the French as a bad English accent sounds to us. 

To hear an English speaker totally insult the French language, please watch this:

(For some reason it won't embed.)

The problem is that some people simply can't hear the difference. This goes back to my previous blog about James and his poor phonemic awareness, almost certainly due, at least in part, to having parents with a different accent. He learned to ignore it, and ended up struggling then to deliberately tell the difference.

Test your phonemic awareness.

You're presumably familiar with the Harry Potter movies. You've heard the actors say Harry in several different accents.

Tell me, do any of them rhyme it with Hairy?

NOTE: One of my friends, who I was hoping would participate in this discussion, due to his perspective from having English as a 2nd language, died suddenly yesterday. Just found out, and such a shock. Treasure your online friends. They are REAL.

Sunday, 14 September 2014


The Slightly Interested Person's Guide to Language: Part One

My Purpose

I was asked to create a short course on language for ordinary people. I didn't know what to call it. I couldn't say "Beginners" because you're not. You've been talking and writing for years. And every alternative I came up with didn't work either, so that's what it's called. So, this is not a proper academic course. It won't be academic at all, come to think of it. It's meant for the layperson, it's the Discovery channel version. If you have studied linguistics at any level it's not going to enthuse you (although you may wish to correct me if I err, just remember that most of this arose to help a Grade 7 student). I shall simply try to cover those things they glossed over in school, or you weren't paying attention to (!), or didn't understand. My aim is to give you "Aha!" moments. I'll try to make it as entertaining as possible.

When my son James was in Grade 7, I got a call from his teacher to say he was struggling with phonemic awareness, and she was sending home some exercises to help him. I had no idea what a phoneme was and her explanation didn't help, so I looked it up online, and fell down a rabbit hole. What I found was the linguistics websites of several universities, and instead of just getting a better definition of "phoneme" I discovered a whole new world.

Language had always been my "thing". But understanding what goes on to make it happen, I found to be utterly fascinating. Not everyone does. It bores some people silly. But ever since then I've waffled on about it anyway, and one thing I learned is that many people share James's "poor phonemic awareness". That is to say, explaining this stuff is one thing, but can they actually hear it? Not always. So I've spent a long time finding ways to explain it better.

So, WTF is a phoneme anyway?

It's a single sound, used in speech, which we can represent by writing a letter or two. As a simple example I want you hiss like a snake. Go on, do it. This is a "join in" sort of course. Scare the dog. Hiss. That is a phoneme, and we write S to represent it. Does that mean S always sound like a snake? Well, no. That's the biggest problem we face. Since the invention of alphabets, a long, long time ago (the Bronze Age, actually) they have faced all sorts of variations and changes. The alphabet we use, commonly called the Roman alphabet, has had enough twists and turns of its own, is used in many languages, which in turn have changed over time.

So, today, in German, as an example, if you see the letter S, and it comes before the letter T, it is pronounced "sh" instead. Like Sean Connery impersonating a snake. (BTW if you hadn't noticed Sean's way of pronouncing the letter S, then you may have poor phonemic awareness.)

The point I'm labouring here is that a letter and a phoneme are not necessarily the same thing. This is sometimes true of just about any phoneme, there are few (if any? EXPERT PLEASE) that are always represented by the same letter. No, not even M, have a look at Gaelic. Or don't. Stay away from Gaelic, it'll mess with your head! For now PLEASE AVOID GAELIC. 

But that's the problem. Letters of the alphabet represent whatever the language in question deem they represent, no matter how strange it seems to those who are not familiar with said language. And don't think English is "normal" in any way.

Remember how to spell fish?


That is a perfectly logical spelling of fish according to English spelling.

George Bernard Shaw (writer, and great wit, 1856-1950), pointed out that you can spell fish as ghoti. How? Like this:

GH as in ROUGH
O as in WOMEN

(GH, O, and TI there all represent phonemes. Get it now? Good.)

Shaw actually wanted to change English spelling because of weirdness like this, and he wasn't the only one. Noah Webster (yes, he who created that dictionary) actually did change the spelling of some English words, at least in the United States. He objected to words like "colour" and put his own version into his dictionary, single-handedly manipulating the language of an entire nation. 

So, why DON'T we change the spelling to represent the way words are pronounced, make it phonetic? 

Because you can't. Oh, you could tweak it a bit, here and there. But people don't all talk the same. Not even within a small country. Just because people speak the same language doesn't mean they pronounce words the same way. What's more, there's no right or wrong involved. So you can't insist on any given pronunciation. Why? Because people have different accents.

What's an accent?

I still, regularly, run into people who don't understand what an accent is. Read this carefully:

An accent is the group of phonemes an individual uses in order to speak.

This is why the idea of "having no accent" is silly. If you don't have an accent you can't speak. 

What people really mean, when they say "I don't have an accent" is "I talk like everyone around me". Yes, you all have the same accent. If you travel elsewhere, your accent is now different to those around you. It's wrong to say "they" have an accent. Everyone does, they just vary.

This is also why you can't "lose" an accent, despite the frequency you hear this being said. You can change your accent, either deliberately, or over time simply by being exposed to a different one. You can learn accents, and be able to copy them. You can try very hard to speak a different language without an English accent. But no matter what you do, you cannot speak without some sort of accent. 

Although accents affect all phonemes to a certain extent, they have the most impact on vowels. 

Part Two will be about vowels. 

Friday, 12 September 2014


I want you to look at these words:

Judgment. Bigotry. Prejudice. Discrimination. Chauvisim. Antipathy.

Do you think they all mean roughly the same thing? Well, they don't.

I've seen these words used interchangably many times and it annoys me, because two of them can have a positive effect, used carefully.

Let's go back in time. I grew up in a very judgmental culture. I've never quite figured out what made it that way, but for some reason the time/place/social group I found myself in was very keen on summing people up quickly, criticizing them, and seeing nothing wrong with it.

I was fortunate to have a mother who was less judgmental in many ways, but she was not innocent. In some ways she was a snob. Not that she'd ever have caused anyone any harm, in word or deed, she kept her thoughts mostly to herself. But every so often she'd share them with me, so on the one hand she taught me to be respectful and tolerant, but now and again, I'd see her own limits. It was awfully confusing, as a matter of fact.

When I became a mother myself I tried to copy her good points and avoid her bad ones. I think a lot of us do that as parents. I tried hard to be non-judgmental at least within earshot of my children, to give everyone a chance, as it were, and I tried not to confuse them on the matter. I kept it simple - be kind to everyone, but don't be a doormat.

I don't like everyone, of course I don't. I don't approve of everyone's lifestyle. But I work hard on minding my own business. It seems to have worked. My kids, on the whole, are pretty broad-minded people.

But it was a process. I would say that as a teenager I was quite judgmental. I had good influences, and bad. I consider myself very lucky that I had loyal, brave friends who called me out on it when I uttered opinions that were not well-considered. I was also lucky enough to have been given the germ of an idea, at home, that one should be ashamed of any hint of bigotry. And probably being "bright" helped, too.

If I could change anything in my life, I wish I had been taught far more just how important tolerance was, and at a young age. All my regrets are on unkindnesses I have done others, maybe not to their faces, but in my harsh opinions from lack of empathy.

Perhaps it takes maturity to learn empathy, but it just seemed to take me longer than it has taken my own children. Well, at least I achieved that.

I don't think it works very well to "preach" tolerance. I think this is where a lot of churches get it wrong, but we won't go there right now. I think it has to be taught gently, continuously, and as far as possible by example. I don't believe that "don't do as I do, do as I tell you" works at all well.

I think it also has to be understood that there are limits.

So, those words again.

Bigotry has no excuses at all. It is illogical, cruel, and dangerous.
Chauvinism isn't far behind it, no matter how noble its basis.
Antipathy may be visceral, based on bad experiences, or teachings, but an intelligent person should be able to get past it.
Prejudice is just stupid. We are all guilty of it, and the sooner we accept that the better, it takes effort to avoid. But it has to go.


Discrimination is simply selection, and it can be a good thing. It only becomes a problem when connected to those words above. Discrimation based on bigotry is probably the darkest aspect of human history and society.

Judgment is useful, and can save your life. It's not necessarily a bad thing at all, until it becomes self-righteous, and therefore self-serving. It's a matter of using it well.

So, when we share our opinions, whatever they are, what is the purpose?

If there is no useful, constructive purpose, it's better not to share them, and quietly work on them alone.

But this post is all my opinion, why am I sharing it? Am I trying to convince you that I'm right? Many of you will agree with me, at least in the broadest way, so you'll just nod and move on. But maybe, just maybe, somebody reading this will say to themselves "Yes, she has a point. I need to work on that." and this is a good thing.

Because I'm glad it was pointed out to me, before it was too late. Before I became bitter and critical.