Tag Archives: further education

Searching for Satori

In which The Author gets lost in translation

As far as I understand it, in Zen Buddhism, Satori can be considered as the first step towards Nirvana. If Nirvana is perfect peace and bliss resulting from enlightenment, then Satori is a glimpse of self-awareness which opens the way to deeper understanding of one’s own nature. ‘Searching for Satori’ is also a line from a Bauhaus song, ‘A Kick in the Eye’, which I haven’t listened to for many years. It just made a nice title for tonight’s little musing. I don’t know very much about Buddhism, so if I’m wrong, please don’t take me too much to task…
By 9.30 on Sunday night, most of the people who’d packed the pub for the rugby and the band had drifted away. Only the die-hards remained. I was doing the crossword when I overheard one of those pub arguments that often break out spontaneously, and usually with no hope of sensible resolution. They just enter a weird time loop, going round and round in circles until one person or the other goes home/falls asleep/dies/whatever.
I’ve been a witness to many of these over the years. I always enjoy observing the intellectual cut-and-thrust going on at the bar or at the adjacent table. As a general rule, the topic is something about which I have no interest (football, say, or cars). For this reason I usually manage to keep my head down, rather than get involved. There’s a nice picture doing the rounds on Facebook at the moment:

Last time I got actively embroiled in such a discussion, it concerned the origins of the English language. I don’t think any of the AAPAA members involved knew very much about the subject. They’d probably read odd bits in the side columns of tabloid newspapers over the years, and maybe even seen something on the television. I’ve read numerous books on the subject, as it’s been an interest of mine for thirty years or so. I’d also only recently finished a university module called History and Development of the English Language.
Consequently, I felt rather more qualified than the majority of the mass debaters to offer some input. After trying to lay a few misconceptions to rest and bring them up to speed on the current state of research, one of them as good as told me that I was talking out of my arse.
A couple of days later, I tracked down this esteemed authority on linguistics in a different pub. It wasn’t hard. I just followed the smell of bullshit until I found him propping up the bar as usual. Prepared for such an eventuality, I showed him the relevant chapter in David Crystal’s The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, which has lived in my reference library for nearly fifteen years. In the face of such compelling evidence, I’d expected at least an apology, and maybe even a pint for my trouble.
Not a fucking hope! As far as my drinking companion was concerned, the scholarly opinion was worthless. So, just for a moment, let’s examine their respective credentials.
According to his own website, David Crystal
read English at University College London (1959–62), specialised in English language studies, did some research there at the Survey of English Usage under Randolph Quirk (1962–3), then joined academic life as a lecturer in linguistics, first at Bangor, then at Reading. He published the first of his 100 or so books in 1964, and became known chiefly for his research work in English language studies, in such fields as intonation and stylistics, and in the application of linguistics to religious, educational and clinical contexts, notably in the development of a range of linguistic profiling techniques for diagnostic and therapeutic purposes. He held a chair at the University of Reading for 10 years, and is now Honorary Professor of Linguistics at the University of Wales, Bangor. These days he divides his time between work on language and work on internet applications.
David Crystal’s authored works are mainly in the field of language, including several Penguin books, but he is perhaps best known for his two encyclopedias for Cambridge University Press, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language and The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. Recent books include A Little Book of Language and Begat: the King James Bible and the English language (both 2010) and a linguistic autobiography, Just a Phrase I’m Going Through (2009). Co-authored books include Words on Words (2000, a dictionary of language quotations compiled with his wife and business-partner, Hilary – Wheatley Medal, 2001) and Shakespeare’s Words (2002) and The Shakespeare Miscellany (2005), the last two in collaboration with his actor son, Ben. Other Shakespeare work includes a regular article for the magazine of Shakespeare’s Globe, Around the Globe. Think On My Words, an introduction to Shakespeare’s language, appeared in 2008.
His books on English phonetics and phonology include Prosodic Systems and Intonation in English and The English Tone of Voice. His clinical books include Introduction to Language Pathology, Profiling Linguistic Disability, Clinical Linguistics, and Linguistic Encounters with Language Handicap. His work for schools includes the Skylarks, Databank, and Datasearch programmes, Nineties Knowledge, Language A to Z, Rediscover Grammar, Discover Grammar, and Making Sense of Grammar. His creative writing includes volumes of devotional poetry (Pilgrimage; Happenings); biographies of the Convent and of the Ucheldre Centre in Holyhead; a play, Living On, on the endangered languages theme; and he is currently editing the poetry of the African missionary John Bradburne. Performances include a dramatic reading of the St John Gospel, now available on CD.
He was founding editor of the Journal of Child Language, Child Language Teaching and Therapy, and Linguistics Abstracts, and has edited several book series, such as Penguin Linguistics and Blackwell’s Language Library. In the 1980s, he became editor of general encyclopedias for Cambridge University Press, along with their various abridged editions.
In 1996 the database supporting these books came under the ownership of AND International Publishers, who began to develop the database for electronic media. As part of his consultancy work with this company, he devised a knowledge management system (the Global Data Model, or GDM) which allows electronic databases to be searched in a highly sophisticated way (UK and US patents). In 2001, both the database and the GDM became the property of a new company, called Crystal Reference Systems, with two divisions: Crystal Reference had as its primary aim the provision of reference data; Crystal Semantics, the provision of systems for document classification, Internet searching, contextual advertising, e-commerce, online security, and related areas. Products of the new regime included editions of The Penguin Encyclopedia (from 2002), The Penguin Factfinder (from 2003), and The Penguin Concise Encyclopedia (from 2003). Crystal Reference Systems was acquired by Adpepper Media in 2006, and he then switched roles to become director of research and development within the firm (to 2009). Adpepper closed the Crystal Reference division in 2008, and general encyclopedia publishing then ceased. He continues to act as a consultant to Adpepper on Internet applications.
David Crystal has been a consultant, contributor, or presenter on several radio and television programmes and series. These include The Story of English (BBC TV, 8 × 1 hour series 1986, consultant), The Story of English (radio version, 18 × 30-min series, BBC World Service, 1987, writer and presenter), several series on English for BBC Radio 4, Radio 5, and BBC Wales during the 1980s and 1990s (as writer and presenter), and The Routes of English (as consultant and contributor). Other television work includes Back to Babel (Infonation and Discovery Channel, 4 × 1-hour series, 2000, as consultant and continuity contributor), Blimey (BBC Knowledge, 3 x 1-hour series, 2001, as continuity contributor), The Routes of Welsh (BBC1, 6 × 30-min series, 2002, as consultant and contributor), The Way that We Say It (BBC Wales, 50-min, 2005, consultant and co-presenter), The Word on the Street (BBC1, 2005, 30 mins, as consultant), Voices of the World (Final Cut, 2005, as consultant and contributor), and several programmes for Open University television, beginning with Grammar Rules (1980, as writer and presenter). He was the consultant for the BBC Voices project in 2005 and is currently consultant for the British Library ‘Evolving English’ exhibition (November 2010 to April 2011), and author of the accompanying book.
He is currently patron of the International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language (IATEFL) and the Association for Language Learning (ALL), president of the UK National Literacy Association, and an honorary vice-president of the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists, the Institute of Linguists, and the Society for Editors and Proofreaders. He is a past honorary president of the National Association for Professionals concerned with Language-Impaired Children, the International Association of Forensic Phonetics, and the Society of Indexers. He was Sam Wanamaker Fellow at Shakespeare’s Globe in 2003–4 and was honorary president of the Johnson Society for 2005–6. He has also been a member of the Board of the British Council and of the English-Speaking Union. He received an OBE for services to the English language in 1995, and was made a Fellow of the British Academy (FBA) in 2000.
Call me a cynic if you must, but I think it’s fair to assume that Prof Crystal knows rather more about the English language than G—. B—., Senior Lecturer in Alcohol Consumption and Applied Crap at the Pickled Pepper, Aberdare.
But, remarkably, it would seem that this latter authority is never wrong.
When another dispute reared its head a couple of months later, I had the Netbook with me. I called up the relevant Wikipedia entry and showed it to everyone concerned, in the hope that it would settle the issue. This time, the objection to the contrary evidence was even more imaginative. Apparently I’d spent the previous thirty seconds composing, publishing and hyperlinking an entirely fictitious article to the Internet, simply to undermine the guy who was defending an erroneous position. As someone who still finds HTML coding a necessary evil at best, I was flattered that he rated my IT skills so highly.
Anyway, on Sunday evening a similar situation kicked off again. Mal, one of the evening regulars, has a habit of throwing the Welsh words Iesu mawr! into conversation. His irreverent invocation of Jesus’ name is a playful throwback to the past. For my grandparents’ generation blasphemy was almost unthinkable, reserved only for the ultimate stressful situation. I zoned back into the conversation just as a guy who claims to be a fluent Welsh speaker challenged Mal to explain why he kept saying ‘Big Jesus!’ Because, as any fule kno, mawr is the Welsh word for ‘big’. Mal isn’t a Welsh speaker. Neither am I. But we’re intelligent guys. So we both knew that Mistar Siaradwr Cymraeg was missing the point.
As a regular crossword solver (with varying degrees of success) I appreciate the subtlety and slipperiness of words and their related concepts. Even within a single linguistic frame of reference, words can slide around like a Labrador on ice. Their meanings change over time and across space. Naj and I had an odd conversation on the train one day, about the Old Testament. I had to explain that the old Bible references to the ‘awful God’ would now be translated as ‘awesome’ or ‘awe-inspiring.’ It originally meant, ‘Oh wow! It’s God!’ rather than, ‘Oh no, it’s God …’
When Jasmin from Stuttgart worked with us for two weeks back in the day, she kept apologising for her mistakes in English. I kept telling her not to worry – her English was far better than my German will ever be! When she got home she sent me a postcard with a long message, ending in the charming words, ‘Must stop now, no more place.’ I knew what she meant. Jasmin knew what she meant. But faced with three possible alternatives – room, space or place – she chose the wrong one. Perfectly understandable. If I was working from an English-German dictionary, I might well have made a similar faux pas. (Oddly enough, I’ve just called to mind Brian Eno’s sleeve notes to his 1975 LP Discreet Music. One of the three variations on Pachelbel’s Canon is called ‘Fullness of Wind’, inspired by an earlier inaccurate translation from French to English.)
It’s a well-known feature of translation that very few words have a single, direct, unambiguous mapping onto the same concept in the target language. George Steiner, in his seminal book After Babel, discusses the inherent problems in conveying meaning across languages. (That doesn’t even begin to consider the possibility of made-up words, like this article by Douglas R. Hofstadter about the difficulty of translating Jabberwocky from English.)
When we learn a foreign language in school, we have only a very basic dictionary. We learn vocabulary by rote, with no regard for the subtle meanings that come to advanced speakers. As we acquire competence in the target language and progress towards fluency, the mental barriers between words and concepts should (in theory, at least) break down.
So, when a ‘fluent Welsh speaker’ didn’t know that there was more than one meaning of mawr, I felt it was my duty to intervene. I Googled the word, and the first thing I came up with was Rhodri Mawr – a 9th century King of Gwynedd. I challenged him in mid-flow:
‘Excuse me – was this Rhodri Mawr just a very big bloke, or does it mean something else in that context?’
No answer. Because this particular ‘fluent Welsh speaker’ seems to have only the vocabulary range of a nine-year-old second-language learner. I asked him about the possibility that mawr might mean ‘great’ in this context, but he was adamant. The dictionary said it meant ‘big.’ As far as he was concerned. that was its sole, invariant and eternal meaning.
This afternoon I called into the library on the way home. I decided that I’d give Mal some ammunition with which to fight his corner. I picked up one of the four volumes of Y Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru. This monumental work of scholarship was finally completed in 2001, eighty years after a team of volunteers started gathering the corpus on which it was based. I think it’s safe to say that when it comes to the Welsh language, it’s the nearest thing we have at present to a world authority. Towards the start of Vol III (M – rhywyr), I found two pages worthy of photocopying. I was so chuffed that I left without paying for the copies. I’ll drop the money in with Judith tomorrow.
Anyway, this was the gold I’d struck. Two thirds of the way down the second column of the entry devoted to the word mawr, we find this:
Pwysig, arwyddocaol, galluog, dylanwadol; mawreddog, bonheddig, hynod, enwog (yn aml am frenin, ymherodr, &c.), hunanbwysig, balch; gweithgar, brwdfrydig, selog, medrus, gwybodus; hoff; trawiadol, rhyfedd, rhyfeddol, ofnadwy, alaethus: great, important, significant, powerful, influential, grand, noble, remarkable, renowned (often corresponding to ‘the Great’ of kings, emperors, &c,) self-important, proud, active, enthusiastic, skilful, adroit, knowledgeable, favourite, striking, strange, surprising, wonderful, awful, terrible.)
I’ve kept the photocopy so I can give it to Mistar Siaradwr Cymraeg next time he’s in the pub. Maybe he’ll enjoy it. Maybe it’ll open his eyes. Maybe it’ll stop him smiling for a minute or so. After all, if Ignorance is Bliss, he’s certainly well on the road to Satori.
BEVAN G.A., DONOVAN, P.J. (1998.) Y Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru. Vol III. (Cardiff: University of Wales Press.)
CRYSTAL, D. (1995) The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language. (Cambridge: Cambridge UP.)
STEINER, G. (1975) After Babel: Aspects of language and translation. (Oxford: Oxford UP.)

Monday, Bloody Monday

In which The Author spends the day in the pub

It’s the last Monday in August (barring the Bank Holiday, which is by no means part of a representative sample) and I’m in the pub.
I got captured before 12.30 by Ian L., an old schoolmate of mine, while walking through town. He’s a fully-trained and very experienced unisex hairdresser who works here and there, mostly for friends and contacts. I had a glass of Coke while Ian had a pint. For a while we were discussing what to do next week, when the FE Colleges start back. For two years in a row, Ian has been looking to change direction and gain some real qualifications. He spent some time working in Canada, and has the offer of a job if he ever decides to go back there. But he wants to do something different. I walked away from Waterstone’s at the end of May, after 16½ years, with the aim of doing something different. Ian and I are in the same boat.
We were in junior school together, but went to different schools at age 11. Ian left school with a handful of CSEs – a couple of them, at Grade 1, were equivalent to a Grade C pass at O level. This was back in the days when O levels and A levels had some value. Now, when everyone (except Keira, of course) pisses their A levels at the first attempt, our intellectual currency is worth nothing. Ian’s been told that his Grade C O level equivalents don’t count for anything. Of course they don’t – they’re pre-decimal currency in the 21st century. In an age when A levels are given away with breakfast cereal and soft drinks, the buying power of our hard-earned 1980s qualifications has diminished to the point of worthlessness.
For two years in a row, Ian’s been fobbed off onto a Humanities Access Course in Rhydyfelin by the people at Aberdare College. As he said earlier, if he wants to study (say) Geology, a thorough grounding in the outdated theories of Freud and Marx isn’t going to do him much good. By the same token, if I wanted to resume my study of Mathematics, or even go back to Biology, I’d be a bit pissed off if I was told that the only option open to me was to study Psychology, English, Sociology, Law and History for a year or so. It’s a bums on seats course. As long as a couple of dozen people sign up for it at the start of term, the lecturer gets paid.
Ian and I are looking at vocational qualifications. I’m interested in Electrical Installation, with Plumbing as a second option. I’ve been potching with home electrics since I was a teenager. I rewired the upstairs of our house in Trecynon when I was about fifteen with the aid of a book from Dad’s book club, some helpful hints from Mansel, and the approval of our neighbour John – an electrician of many years’ standing, who inspected my work and was impressed by it.
To this day I regret never following Mansel’s hint that he needed an apprentice. I’ll tackle most aspects of domestic electrical work without hesitation. I’ve done it for years. If I do a job at home and need to get it signed off, I know that my mate can come along and certify it immediately for a couple of pints afterwards. Everything is safe, and it saves me a fortune in tradesman’s fees. I’ve also been doing a few simple plumbing jobs about the house over the last couple of years. They’re easy when you know how – you just couldn’t do a full installation from scratch without formal training in the theory. So, maybe the time has come to make some money for myself out of something I know how to do. I just need the paperwork under my belt.
I can’t go back to bookselling. I don’t believe in it any more. I’ve been selling books since I was a teenager. I got into it (as with most things in my life) by accident.
I wanted to get hold of a particular book by Philip José Farmer. At the back of his Granada paperback editions there was a little order form which you could send to a PO Box in Falmouth. It was years before I discovered they were J. Barnicoat & Sons, Trade Wholesalers. They went out of business a decade or more ago. In those days, you sent them the money, plus a small amount for p&p, and they sent you the books you wanted.
But they also sent you catalogues. Before long I had the complete Penguin catalogue, the New English Library list, the Granada list, the Pan/Picador list, the Corgi/Transworld list, the Star/Wyndham list, the Sphere/Orbit list …
A good many years ago, Ross and I were at our friend Rob H.’s house, watching a very strange interview between Clive James and Dr Timothy Leary’s arch-enemy G. Gordon Liddy, which Rob had taped from the TV. Neither he nor Ross were entirely sure who this moustachioed neo-fascist idiot was – but I remember having the publisher’s catalogue when Liddy’s autobiography was first published in the UK. When I read Illuminatus! by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson, many years after the fact, I wondered whether I should have bought a copy …
I took the catalogues into school, and soon my friends were asking me to obtain books for them. I’d collect the money, my mother would write the cheque, I’d post the order, and a few days later the parcel would arrive, so that I could deliver the goods to my pals. Of course, I made a loss because I was covering the postage charges myself, but it was a first tentative step into the world of bookselling. It never occurred to us that Graham Ewington, who ran Aberdare’s only real bookshop, would have been able to meet our needs if we’d asked him – and made some money from us, by the time you took wholesalers’ terms into account. Nowadays, my embryonic enterprise would have probably got me some way towards a pass at Business Studies A Level.
[A Digression: About fifteen years ago the bookselling environment changed. The end of the Net Book Agreement, and the subsequent growth of the Internet, sounded the death knell for independent booksellers. There are still a few (like my former area manager and, I’m proud to say my friend, Harry Wainwright) hanging on where they can. Even Waterstone’s, with its marvellous new distribution network which made the redundancies necessary in the first place, failed to take the sheer volume of throughput into account. The last time I called into the Cardiff shop there were about forty or so crates of unshelved stock on a Saturday morning, and three people on the shop floor downstairs. There was apparently a load of stock waiting to be unpacked. The goods-in guys were laid off at the same time as I was. There was nobody to unpack it. Apparently there were ‘hundreds’ of unfulfilled customer orders. (I still dream about that place. I must be suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.)
A week or so ago I was awake at at the crack of dawn, and commented about the fact on Facebook. My former floor manager replied that I should come down and give them a hand with the backlog of shelving. Trish (who finished at the same time as me) told him that the company had thought they could cope with the reduced staffing level, and therefore it was their own fault. I was tempted to second Trish’s comment, but said nothing.]
Over twenty-five years ago, there was no such thing as A level Business Studies. Even if there had been, none of us would have been able to study it. The nearest we got was the option of an O level in ‘Commerce’ ― which was basically foundation book-keeping and elementary economics, designed for someone who was heading for an office job. You were still working for the Man at the end of the day. Our ‘Careers’ teacher was an unreconstructed Communist, who viewed any ambition towards personal gain as a betrayal of our working-class heritage. Those of us who demonstrated academic promise were (reluctantly) steered towards the sixth form. Everyone else was sent down what we now know as the vocational route. They were sent off to learn ‘a trade’ with an apprenticeship, or a City & Guilds course at best. Maybe ‘Red’ Ray Williams had the right idea after all, in spite of all his Marxist bluster. A lot of guys I know who left school with bugger all qualifications on paper are now making bloody good wedge as builders, carpenters, plumbers, electricians …
And now it’s 4.30, just over four hours since I came in here. An hour ago, in the corner, a pissed friend of mine was trying to persuade another pissed friend of mine not to take two Extra Strength Anadins washed down with a can of Carling Black Label. She even asked me to intervene. What was I supposed to say? I used to knock back two 500/30 Co-codamols before a shedful of lager, simply to blank the pain from my shoulder. I’m hardly the best person to ask about possible contraindications. I didn’t get to study Pharmacy after I fucked up my Chemistry A level. I’m certainly not a doctor – people can read my writing, so I was immediately rejected when I applied to medical school.
Another pissed bloke asked whether we thought Marilyn Monroe’s death was murder or suicide. What the fuck do I care? She died before I was born, so I couldn’t give a toss anyway. Maybe – if my medical school ambition hadn’t been just a pipe dream – I could have reviewed the autopsy reports and made a decision based on the forensic evidence. As things are, she was just another mediocre actress. She made a couple of decent films and snuffed it. That’s my interest in her summed up. This bloke seems to think the circumstances surrounding her death are still of interest. Maybe he watches too many documentaries on digital TV. Or maybe he just needs to get a life.
Around me, the fuckups of Aberdare are gathering to recover from the weekend, or to carry on from the weekend, or to prepare for the week ahead. This isn’t the only pub where the Monday Club gathers. In fact, there’s a pub a couple of hundred yards away which is the true Monday Club hangout. I’m only on my second pint. Ian and some of his mates have gone to Merthyr on the piss. What’s the point? It costs over £5 to get there on the bus, and you’ll see the same faces and hear the same conversations in the pubs there.
In short, I’m fed up and depressed and bored with Aberdare – and if the college tries to push me into a Humanities Access course next week, I think I’ll be telling them some home truths about life, the universe and everything.
It’s now 6.45. Andrew F., yet another pisshead of my acquaintance, has reappeared after nearly two weeks off-grid. His friend Angela T. has been worried sick about him. I’ve told her before (several times) that I had a mate who used to vanish for weeks at a time, sleeping rough, until he suddenly turned up like a bad penny without offering a word of explanation.
Andrew appeared at my side earlier on, and decided to offer me a full account of his absence. I told him I wasn’t interested. I’ve seen all this before. I told him he needed to apologize to Angela – who had been worrying about him during his fugue – and it seems they might have made up their differences. Or maybe not. No doubt at some time over the next week I’ll get the blow-by-blow story of Andrew’s Lost Weeekend (Director’s Cut) but I bet it’s not as good as my alien abduction.
It’s 7.00. I’m still in the pub, watching some weird videos I’ve downloaded to my hard drive. Carys texted me earlier – very hungover, it seems. I gave her a couple of software links to look at and warned her to sober up beforehand. We’ve agreed to stay Just Good Friends. It’s for the best, really. She doesn’t fancy me, and I don’t go for blondes, even when they’re tiny and mental and extremely pretty. We’re going to go to Pontypridd some time soon, to do a bit of the Taff Trail together – and when we get off the train, we’ll have to pass the office where Jenny works. She might see us together. That would be good. It might make her jealous.
Wesley and I were talking about Jenny earlier. He thought she was a really nice girl. So did I. I thought maybe I’d found a girl who liked me, and whom I could have a relationship with. Her insecurities and commitment phobias drove us apart. We’ve seen each other four times since my birthday, in the middle of March. When she didn’t show up, there was no explanation or excuse until a couple of days later. I was left hanging every time. She had more excuses than Arriva Trains Wales for not turning up.At least Carys is well known for missing trains.
I didn’t want to cast Jenny adrift, but I had to. As Goldfinger says in Ian Fleming’s book of that title: ‘Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times is enemy action.’
Ten times is … The sound of a young girl pissing on her chips.
If Carys and I are seen out and about often enough, there’s a small part of me which hopes it might make Jenny jealous. She still knows how to contact me, if the mood takes her. I can’t contact her – she’s blocked on all fronts. She has to make the next move. I’ve wasted enough time on her – but she’s still the only girl who’s really made an impact on me since Emma. It’s up to her to make the next move. I really hope she gets over her psychological hurdles and gets back in touch. It’s selfish and childish, I know, but I don’t want to spend another winter alone …