Tag Archives: Language

“Do you believe in God?”: 4 meta-questions

Do you believe in God?” is a question we have all heard.  Most people take this to be a straightforward question, but readers know that I take every opportunity to discuss the unquestioned assumptions hiding behind common sense.

Here are four big activities hiding behind “Do you believe in God?”:

  1. You” (“You” are not who you think you are.)
  2. Believe” (Beliefs are not what you think they are.)
  3. God” (There are different sorts of contrary gods)
  4. ?  (The question is not asking for facts, but offering a signaling opportunity.)

Understanding these four meta-questions, can help unravel the illusion spun by the apparently simple question of “Do you believe in God?”


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

Language’s Components

Above I have sketched out some of the components of language. Using this diagram, let me discuss two topics.

Learning Another Language

We all start learning new languages by learning new vocabulary. Next we may add some grammar. But a large vocabulary and rich grammar are not enough. As you can see, to really have fun in another language, there is lots more to learn which is not often in text books.

Poor accents, for instance can be the result of the learning not paying attention to rhythm, stress, and intonations which are all rule bound in languages — and vary between dialects and ideolects of that same language. Next, add gestures and posture and a native speaker may begin to understand you even better. Add rhyme, alliterations and more, and you are cruising for fluent. Finally, understand the history of a language, the etymology of words and various uses over history and your have entered the native speaker’s linguistic playground.


The action and phonology aspects of language are fantastic at communicating feeling and emotion. Written poetry, not using these two parts of language, is handicapped and poets must rely on style, rhythm and phonetics to try a make up for that loss but are inevitably susceptible to a larger degree of subjectivity — something poetry readers can deeply enjoy. Depending on its use, however, subjectivity is both a weakness and a strength in poetry.


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

The History of The English Language

History_of_EnglishI created this diagram to help me learn this material better and hopefully it helps others who learn like I do. I created it after consulting several sources on the history of English Language: my main information source was The History of English.

Here are some links to help explore items on the chart:

Question to readers: Any corrections, suggestions or thoughts?


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

Is All religion bad? An Ethical Dissection

What are Ethics?

People disagree on ethics — and for very good reasons. To clear up the disagreement, the wrong move is to try and figure out the “right” ethical theory — arguing endlessly about the truth of your system and the foibles of others. Instead, understanding how our minds work may reveal far more useful information.

Every Ethics 101 course classifies the majority of ethical systems into:

    • Deontological Ethics: methods matter
    • Consequentialism Ethics: consequences matter
    • Virtual Ethics: attitudes matter

Our brains seem to contain all three of these behavior calculators (and more). Depending on situations (triggers), the brain uses one calculator, at the exclusion of others, or uses two or three but weighs them each differently. We are complex creatures. We are not what we think we are. It is this phenomena that leads us to all our wheel spinning when discussing ethics.

Is All-Religion-is-Bad?

Another wheel-spinner is the debate of whether “all-religion-is-bad” or not.  Massimo Pigliucci discusses this issue on his post criticizing a 3-Quark daily post (remember, the site where I was banned — it is safer to criticize them from your own blog.)

Massimo criticizes the pro-religion go-free-card position often promoted by 3QD authors, but also lambasts many blogging atheist who loudly exaggerate that “all religion is bad”. Massimo interestingly points out that typically those atheists’ arguments are based on an ironic illogical jumping between contrary ethical platforms to rationalize their claim — a fault of theists too he emphasizes.

The hyper-pseudo rationalist atheist will claim that:

False beliefs always (eventually) lead to bad consequences.

Did you catch that? They just told us that “false beliefs” [a method or attitude, depending how you view beliefs] should not be used. That is the Deontological or the Virtue Ethical calculator going off. But when you read posts by these anti-religion atheists, their judgement that bad beliefs are always bad is based on the consequences of those bad beliefs — they tell us all the horrible things religion do.  That is their Consequentialism calculator weighing in.

The 3QD article pejoratively creates the phrase “undergraduate atheists“, which Massimo concedes may be appropriate since such atheists have:

“… simplistic, scientistic, anti-intellectual streak of self-professed “rational” thinking that too many atheists quickly and shamelessly engage in.”

And he broadens the criticism saying:

“We talk a lot about supporting critical thinking in the skeptic/atheist community(es), but we aren’t necessarily that good at cleaning up our own sloppy reasoning.”

I love Massimo because he is clear writer, very bright and does not pull punches. So if you disagree with him, it is easy to figure out where you disagree!

I won’t go into all the subtle nuances of this argument about “Is ALL religion bad” — please don’t clutter the thread with those rants because that is not the purpose of this post and would ironically indulge in the very error of thinking I am trying to illustrate here. Namely, that we [theists, atheists: all of us] are often deceived about how our minds work, and that this confusion then causes us the spend millennium in useless debates.

Blending Confusion: ethical delusions & the myth of religion

As a final caveat, in such conversations, what adds insult to injury of our foolishness is, as I have written often, the illusion that we know what “religion” is. Further, people continually forget the nature of language and that “religion” is a created word used in many different ways. Religion is not something out there waiting to be discovered — anathema to Plato fans. Thus, we don’t understand our own ethical declarations, nor our own use of language, so how can we even begin to adress the question of this post intelligently.


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

Language Families


Dividing up Languages

Linguists divide up the world’s languages into families. Above is a map showing the world’s top ten language families and below is a table showing their subgroups. I ranked the top 10 languages by the number of present speakers as of November 2013. My data was taken from Ethnologue and map from wiki.  Looking at Ethnologue: here are the language families (there are dozens) and here are the number of speakers. The map and table shows the name of the family, the percent of world speakers for whom it is their native tongue and then the number of individual languages in that group.


Jumping Language Families

Trust me, for any of you who can speak fluently more than one language fluently, you have never studied a “foreign” language, until as an adult, you have learned a language outside of your mother language’s family group.  For instance, my mother language is English.  I first studied German, then dabbled with Greek, then learned to speak/read/write Hindi & Urdu.  At that time, I thought my language skills were pretty broad.  But all those languages are Indo-European.  And when I landed in Japan, I quickly found out what “Language Family” meant.  In Japanese I had to twist my linguist brain into completely new knots.

Choosing the Top Ten

I arbitrarily chose the top 10 languages and arbitrarily chose what qualified as “top” by the number of speakers (not land covered).  If my arbitrary choices excluded your favorite language or seems to minimize it, then tough luck I’m sorry. Also, for sake of size, I left the Americas off the map because the only top 10 language family there is Indo-European.  Remember, as of today there are 7,105 living languages — hard to include them all.



Filed under Linquistics

Foreign Languages: 10 benefits

Having  been immersed in several very different religions has given me insights that are often hard to communicate to folks who have either never embraced a religion as an adult or who have only embraced one religion. I feel the insights of knowing more than one very different language are similar. Having learned a few foreign languages in depth, I have always felt they have affected me in deep ways which are almost impossible to communicate with monolinguists or even with people who may know more than one language but who have never learned a second language as an adult. I hope this doesn’t sound snobby, because I feel the same phenomena can happen in many fields.

Today I read a short, fun article in PsyBlog which lists 10 “superb psychological advantages of learning another language” and offers links to research backing each point.  As my diagram below shows that I can only relate to four of these supposed benefits:


Here are my comments on the benefits I have definitely felt from learning a foreign tongue:

  • 3, 4 and 10: Little difference is dialects of English or slight accents of foreign speakers stand out incredibly clear to me now.  Choice of words and nuances are much more amplified now than when I was not fluent in other tongues.  All this has improved my own language.
  • 9: I remember this strongly when I reached a certain fluency in Urdu —  in contrast to German (a cousin of English) where I felt no real shift in “ways of seeing”.  But when I learned Japanese, the different views were dazzling.  These differences in “ways of seeing” are very hard to successfully communicate to monolinguists.

Question to readers:  How about you folks?  Have you had similar experiences moving between religions or languages?


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

Cut by a Mandolin

woman-playing-a-mandolinThe mandolin is a string instrument in the lute family. Lutes (and thus mandolins) have 4 courses or pairs of strings.  Each pair is identical but inevitably generating slightly different frequency to add a tremelo or richness to the tone as compared to only a 4 string equivalent.  Each pair tuned in perfect fifths and plucked with a plectrum. Mandolins evolved in the 1700s in Italy and descended from the mandore which was seen in the 1500s — probably used in King Henry VIII court (remember, I am watching the Tudors). For your entertainment, here is a link to a mandolin performance of a piece by J.S.Bach’s (1685-1750).

Yesterday at my clinic, a patient came in complaining that she cut her finger on a mandolin. Fascinated, I wondered how she could have possibly plucked her mandolin to hard as to cut herself?  But she had, when I walk into the suturing room, I found that she had avulsed the tip of her finger and it was bleeding profusely. After I stopped the bleeding with some foam, I then asked her if she was plucking her mandolin with her fingers because I figured that a pick (a plectrum) would have protected her.  She said she was using a large potato!

“What?”, I said, “Why a potato?”

She replied, “Yeah, I was making dinner.”

I said, “You were using your mandolin to make dinner!”

She said “Yes, I use it all the time to cut things.” It took another minute or so to realize that this was the mandolin she was using.  I laughed!

This misunderstanding illustrates how we can hear only what our mind is steeped in. I am watching the Tudors where I have been thinking about medieval musical instruments — but she was talking about a potato slicer.

Question to Readers:  Is it just me? Please tell me that you had never heard of the food slicer called “a mandolin”!


Filed under Linquistics