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Subject: ‘Language’

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In 1843 America’s Congress almost voted against adopting Samuel Morse’s Code

Posted in America, Communications, Famous Inventors, Historical articles, History, Inventions, Language on Thursday, 16 January 2014

This edited article about Morse Code first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 515 published on 27 November 1971.

Samuel Morse, picture, image, illustration
Samuel Morse in later life

The passengers aboard the sailing ship Sully, on their way from Le Havre to New York, were puzzled by the behaviour of a poor but popular artist who had done likenesses of them in his sketch-book.

Suddenly, for no apparent reason, 41-year-old Samuel Morse was no longer to be seen in the dining-room, or working at his pictures on deck. Instead he had locked himself in his cabin, and the only person who had access to him was the steward who brought him his meals.

He refused to answer any other knocks on his door, and was quite rude when people shouted through the panels, asking what he was doing. “Go away!” he cried. “I am working on something completely different. An invention which one day might save your lives!”

Discuss it as they might, his former friends could not imagine what this invention could possibly be. The last conversation they remembered having with him had been about safety at sea; and how invaluable it would be if there was a speedy and simple way of letting those on land know that a ship was in distress.

His invention could be concerned with that. But Morse was an artist and art teacher – not a man of science. Besides which there was little in the year 1832 to suggest that messages could be sent hundreds of miles across water. Telegraphic devices in England and France had not been greeted with widespread encouragement, and were too unreliable and costly for everyday or even emergency use.

As the month-long voyage drew to its end, the mystery was no nearer a solution. It was not until the last week of October, as the vessel entered New York Harbour, that Morse finally emerged from his cabin. He went straight to see the ship’s master, Captain David Pell, and said to him:

“I must apologize for having appeared so unsociable and discourteous. The fact is I have been drawing an electric telegraph which is going to prove a boon to mankind – a real life-saver. Remember when it is put into use that it was invented in a cabin on your ship!”

So Morse hurried ashore clutching his sketch-book and determined to be the first man to send information and calls for help across the entire Atlantic Ocean if necessary.

Since the death of his wife a few months earlier, he had travelled throughout the galleries and churches of Europe in an effort to ease the pain in his heart. Now he was back again in his native land, and the first thing he had to do was find a job and somewhere to live.

Through the help of some old colleagues and friends, he was employed as an art teacher at New York University. At night, when the lectures were over, he strove to perfect his model electric telegraph which “wrote out” messages by means of an electro-magnet, a battery, some wire, and a pencil stub.

The slanting strokes the pencil made could only be sent and received over distances of a very few feet. The whole process was extremely primitive, and for the next five years Morse endeavoured to solve the problem of relaying messages from, say, New York to Boston.

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Louis Braille reinvented the concept of language communication for the blind

Posted in Famous Inventors, Historical articles, History, Inventions, Language on Thursday, 16 January 2014

This edited article about Braille first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 514 published on 20 November 1971.

Children learning braille, picture, image, illustration
Blind children learning to read the raised dots which make up Braille by Harry Green

It was that time of evening when children like to play a game before going to bed. For young Louis Braille, and his fellow pupils at the Paris blind school, their choice of games was necessarily limited. But for those who cannot see, dominoes is always a popular choice.

That was what the youngsters were playing on the night when Louis was struck by his great idea. One of his friends had put down a double-six and it was Louis’ turn to follow. His finger felt the indentations on his hand of dominoes, but he failed to put one of the pieces down on the table.

“Hurry up, Louis,” urged the others. “If you can’t go then say so. We haven’t got all night.”

“Just a moment,” said Louis quietly. “Something is coming into my mind. . . If we can play dominoes by feeling the number of holes in them, why can’t we read words like that as well.”

The other boys laughed at this and told him not to be so foolish. Once you were blind that was it. The most you could hope for was to fumble with the clumsy wooden letters then in use, and make words slowly and laboriously that way.

“I know I haven’t got it quite right yet,” said Louis. “But I feel I’m on the right track. Something valuable could come of this.”

He turned the problem over in his mind during the next few days. Then inspiration came to him again. It might not be possible to read by feeling indentations in wood – but what if raised dots were used, so many for each letter of the alphabet? Surely that would convince the scoffers he was not just dreaming in the dark!

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The terrifying punishment of King Tantalus gave a new word to the world

Posted in Ancient History, Interesting Words, Language, Legend, Myth on Saturday, 21 December 2013

This edited article about Greek mythology first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 500 published on 14 August 1971.

Tantalus, picture, image, illustration
The punishment of King Tantalus

Everyone has been tantalised in their time, including the man who was first to suffer – Tantalus! He was a king who had been invited to dinner with the gods on Mount Olympus, where he rashly stole their nectar and ambrosia. For this and other tactless crimes, including serving up his own son as a dish for the gods to test their divinity – he was put waist-deep in a lake with delicious fruit above him that he could never reach. And when he wanted to drink, the water always receded. Meanwhile, his son was returned to life by the gods and was exactly as before except for a portion of a shoulder that an absent-minded god had nibbled. It was replaced by ivory! Meanwhile his father went on being tantalised.

Wordsworth used the spoken language of humanity to touch the human heart

Posted in British Countryside, English Literature, Historical articles, History, Language, Literature, Nature on Tuesday, 3 December 2013

This edited article about English literature first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 476 published on 27 February 1971.

Wordsworth at Dove Cottage, picture, image, illustration
William Wordsworth at Dove Cottage by Harry Green

A casual observer seeing the two young men deep in conversation as they walked along a South Coast beach could hardly have guessed the nature of their discussion. It was about a poem which they planned to write – a poem which they hoped would earn them five pounds from a magazine and thus meet the expenses of their present walking tour.

At that moment Samuel Coleridge was the young man who was listening; his companion, William Wordsworth, was suggesting ideas about how the poem should go. It was to be called The Ancient Mariner.

“I have been reading,” said Wordsworth, “that while doubling Cape Horn sailors frequently see albatrosses in that latitude, the largest sort of sea-fowl, some extending their wings 12 or 13 ft. . . . Suppose you represent the old navigator as having killed one of these birds on entering the South Seas and that the spirits of these regions take upon them to avenge the crime?”

“An excellent idea,” Coleridge answered.

“And suppose the ship is navigated by a spirit helmsman?” Wordsworth went on.

This, too, was pronounced excellent. Later on their walk the two young men, who had met at Cambridge University a few years earlier and were to be lifelong friends as well as famous poets, began to write The Ancient Mariner. But they agreed that their writing styles were so different that Wordsworth withdrew from the poem and left it to Coleridge.

That walking tour in the autumn of 1797 produced more than a much loved masterpiece by Coleridge. At that time English poetry was in the doldrums. For years it had been severe and artificial, beyond the understanding or the inclination of many people. As they roamed the woods and fields of England together, Wordsworth and Coleridge agreed that what was needed was a new spirit in poetry – poems that expressed their own deep and simple feelings, poems about nature and about people.

Thus their five-pound poem grew and grew into a book of poems of which Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner was only one. It was called Lyrical Ballads, and it marked the turning point for English poetry. Among Wordsworth’s contributions was a poem which epitomised his genius, the haunting Lines on Tintern Abbey.

Many more of Wordsworth’s poems written during his long life were to show what he meant by the new simplicity of his poetic ideas. His poems did give our literature a new spirit.

Almost all his life Wordsworth, who was born at Cockermouth in Cumberland in 1770, was a resident of the English Lake District, an area where memories of him are thickly clustered. Round one or other of the two small lakes of Grasmere and Rydal he lived for the first 50 years of the last century.

Here, in the hillside walks and winding valleys, Wordsworth murmured his verses aloud, sometimes asking local village people to jot down a verse as he paced the turf while speaking a new poem aloud.

Here, too, Wordsworth and his wife and his sister Dorothy lived in primitive simplicity. Their funds were not great and they ate the simplest food. Wordsworth gardened and all together, or more often the poet and his sister, wandered almost daily over the neighbouring hills. They had few friends, chief of whom were Coleridge and his family, and the poet Southey; and scarcely a neighbour.

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Navvies spoke in rhyming slang very similar to the famous Cockney lingo

Posted in Historical articles, History, Industry, Interesting Words, Language on Thursday, 28 November 2013

This edited article about navvies first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 467 published on 26 December 1970.

Railway navvies on Birmingham line, picture, image, illustration
Railway navvies on the London to Birmingham line by Harry Green

Nicknames had their drawbacks. A scripture reader called Dennis, at Worsthorne, appealed to navvies in June 1887, asking those who gave wrong names at the office to carry their proper names and addresses on a piece of paper in their pockets. Mr. Dennis had had a lot of trouble with a man who had been killed on the works. He had given his name as Charles Fisher, and was also known as Reed. He had in his pocket a ticket for a pair of trousers pawned at Skipton, made out to J. Wilson. Eventually his real name was found to be Peter Lendall, from Askham.

Then there was another navvy, the son of a widow, who left home and found work on a line only 12 miles off. He took a new name, was unknown by his old one, and when he fell ill with fever was nursed and then buried by strangers. After he had been away for some time the widow became alarmed and asked a clergyman to help find her son, and they eventually traced the man. But it was too late, and the only consolation the priest could offer the mother was to show her the grave to which her son had been carried six weeks before. Another navvy lost his inheritance because of his nickname. An old man died leaving a considerable sum to be divided among his nephews and nieces. But one nephew had not been heard of for many years – he had become a navvy and adopted an alias, and so could not be traced. When the man did hear of his uncle’s death many years had gone by, he had been presumed dead, his share had been apportioned among the others, and he had lost a thousand pounds.

But the strangest story is that of a navvy called Warren, who had taken the harmless alias of George Brown. In the autumn of 1882 he was working on the Midland Railway, widening the line near Irchester. On 29th August, he was injured by a fall of earth and taken back to his lodgings, opposite the Dog and Duck at Wellingborough, where he died a few days later. An inquest was held, a verdict of accidental death returned, and two days later the man was buried. Then, as the Northampton Herald put it, “an event took place which proved that truth was stranger than fiction.” Under the headline, “A Strange Occurrence,” the newspaper report read:

“Soon after the funeral a man named George Warren, from Kislingbury, presented himself, and said he believed that, from what he had heard, the deceased was his son. He said he had not seen his son for a number of years, but he should know him by a peculiar scar on the breast, received from a scald during childhood, and he expressed a strong desire to see the body. An application was made to the Coroner, but he said he could not interfere. Other officials were applied to with the same result, and at last the grave-digger at the cemetery re-opened the newly-closed grave between 11 and 12 o’clock on Saturday night. The carpenter who made the coffin took off the lid, and the father by means of a ladder descended into the grave, removed the clothes, and there saw the scar which proclaimed the dead man to be his long-lost son.”

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The Rosetta Stone held the key to understanding Egyptian hyeroglyphs

Posted in Ancient History, Archaeology, Historical articles, History, Language on Wednesday, 30 October 2013

This edited article about Ancient Egypt originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 443 published on 11 July 1970.

The Rosetta Stone, picture, image, illustration
Napoleon brought in scholars to solve the secrets of the ancient languages of the Rosetta Stone by C L Doughty

A soldier’s spade found a black slab of stone 3 ft. 9 in. long, 2 ft. 4 ½ in. wide and 11 in. thick. This was the vital clue to a mystery that the best brains in Europe had failed to solve during centuries of brow-furrowing thought.

For hundreds of years the Ancient Egyptians had been regarded as a mysterious people. Fanciful stories and legends abounded about them. Mediaeval scholars, magicians and alchemists believed that the ancients of Egypt had solved all the mysteries of the Universe, understood all the secrets of life and death, had made contact with the life beyond, and could summon up the Powers of Darkness and strange gods of good and evil.

Certainly the Egyptians were master-builders, or, in the modern term, “civil engineers.” The Pyramids have remained for 28 centuries as undeniable proof of this.

Carvings of fabulous animals of gigantic size slept for eons half-buried in the sands of the North African desert. There were statues and pillars all with lengthy inscriptions painstakingly chiselled by long-dead scribes on the plinths of these great mysterious memories from the past.

The inscriptions would explain all . . . if only they could be read.

The strange fact was, that for all the might of Egypt that had endured for 30 centuries or more, the language had died. The reading and writing of that ancient empire was a forgotten art. All knowledge of it had been lost, and until it was found again, the myriad of careful carvings would remain as meaningless as Chinese to a South American Indian.

The death of the ancient Egyptian language had been a gradual process. It began when the Greek, Alexander the Great, invaded the land and founded the flourishing city of Alexandria. Greek traders introduced their own simple alphabet for business transactions, as did the Hebrew traders who also set up in the new city.

Eventually Egypt became a province of Rome, and Latin was used as well as Greek, but the picturesque Egyptian writing did survive for formal purposes until the end of the 4th century A.D. The spoken word vanished with the sweeping advance of the Moslems in the 7th century, and since then Arabic has been the language of Egypt.

Thus, ancient Egyptian became a dead and baffling tongue, and remained so until the early years of the 19th century, when the key to the riddle was found by a combination of accident and genius.

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Early Tudor England began to favour the southern accent over the northern

Posted in Farming, Historical articles, History, Industry, Language on Friday, 27 September 2013

This edited article about Tudor England originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 412 published on 6 December 1969.

C15 homeless farmworkers, picture, image, illustration
Displaced farm workers were a common sight in the late fifteenth century by Ron Embleton

A Londoner travelling northwards or a Yorkshireman travelling southwards on a trading errand 600 years ago faced one problem that seems unbelieveable to us today. It was a problem of language. For neither would have been able to understand the other without listening with considerable care.

“Therefore,” says a writer of that day, “it is that the Mercians, who are men of Middle England, being as it were partners of both extremes, understand the side languages of Northern and Southern better than North and South understand each other.”

The reason for this state of affairs is not hard to understand. When the Battle of Hastings was fought, most Englishmen spoke and understood the language of the West Saxons. After the Conquest the Saxon tongue was forced to fight for its life against an inrush of Norman French, and it survived by splitting itself up into dozens of regional dialects.

Because communications between these regions were rare, the regional dialects soon became languages of their own, with French intermingled and changed according to the wishes of each region. The result was that in the 14th century Englishmen spoke at least several languages, and because thinking men were aware that a common language was necessary for the advancement of trade and learning, they turned to the Midlanders and Anglians to act, so to speak, as interpreters, and to supply a common language for the nation.

As the centre of trade and politics, London took the lead in this transformation. Londoners who had once spoken a distinctly South Saxon dialect, began to adopt the accents of the Midlanders and East Anglians, the only dialect which most people could understand.

Just as a common language was essential to literature, so a great writer was necessary to cement the dialects together in an important book, to promote a style that others would accept and follow. The great writer responsible for setting the standard for literary English was Geoffrey Chaucer. Although he was a Londoner, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales contains both Midland and Kentish dialect, arising from the fact that his family were East Midlanders from Ipswich, and he had personal connections with Kent.

For 100 years Chaucer’s English laid the foundations of our literature and was similar to the spoken language of educated people all over the country, as well as most of the people living within a 60-mile radius of London. You might, if you had heard men speaking it in the 15th century, have just about understood their meaning, without understanding many of their words and phrases.

The growth of a common language was also essential to the success of printing which, in the 15th century, propelled civilisation into an exciting new era. In England this great step forward was begun by William Caxton, who set up his press at Westminster and printed, corrected and edited more than 30 titles in his first three years there – an indication of how successful business must have been.

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Acknowledging fault and making amends used to require sack-cloth and ashes

Posted in Bible, Interesting Words, Language, Religion, Sinners on Tuesday, 3 September 2013

This edited article about the language of the Bible originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 392 published on 19 July 1969.

Mordecai, picture, image, illustration
Mordecai wearing sack-cloth with ashes cries out bitterly among his threatened people, the Jews

We aren’t happy when we have made a mistake, and if we dislike admitting it to ourselves, we dislike admitting it to others even more.

Sometimes, however, we may be able to make things easier by a phrase which may bring a faint smile to the face of the person we have to confess to. “I really am sorry,” we may say. “It was a stupid thing to do. Here I am in sack-cloth and ashes.”

This is an odd thing to say, and it would be an even odder sight if it were literally true! What we mean, of course, is that we are pretending to have dressed ourselves in the clothing which represented a penitent person in Biblical times.

There are several references to this custom in the Bible. Sometimes sackcloth was used to mark a great misfortune, as when a decree was issued by a certain Persian King ordering a great persecution of the Jews. One of their leaders, Mordecai, “rent his clothes, and put on sackcloth with ashes, and went out into the midst of the city, and cried with a loud and bitter cry.” (Esther, Chapter 4 verse 1).

But the custom was usually a way of expressing deep sorrow for something that had displeased God. When Jonah preached to the people in the wicked city of Nineveh, we are told that the people there “put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them even to the least of them,” and that even the King removed his robe, and covered himself with sackcloth and sat in ashes (Jonah, Chapter 3, verses 5 and 6).

A famous instance of a King wearing sackcloth as a mark of his own repentance is that of the wicked King Ahab. With the help of his evil wife, Jezebel, Ahab had arranged for an innocent man named Naboth to be stoned to death on a false charge. This had been contrived so that the King could seize a little vineyard which Naboth had owned, next door to the palace grounds. Ahab badly wanted this vineyard for himself, to turn into a herb garden.

The prophet Elijah learned of the cruel plot by which Naboth had been got out of the way, and, confronting the King boldly, warned him that a terrible fate would overtake not only Ahab and Jezebel but their whole household, in punishment for their crime. Frightened by the prophet’s words, Ahab “rent his clothes, and put sackcloth upon his flesh, and fasted, and lay in sackcloth,” and went about dejectedly (1 Kings 21, verse 27).

In their writings, the prophets often advised their hearers to “gird themselves with sackcloth” as a mark of sorrow for their sins. And Jesus himself used the words. Rebuking the people of certain villages, he said, “If the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.”

In view of the widespread use of this phrase, it is not surprising that it has passed into our everyday speech as an expression of regret and a desire to make amends.

Job’s comforters probably needed the patience of Job

Posted in Bible, Interesting Words, Language, Religion on Monday, 2 September 2013

This edited article about the language of the Bible originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 391 published on 12 July 1969.

Job and friends, picture, image, illustration
Job and his friends by Gustave Dore

“You need the patience of Job to sort out a mess like this!”

This is a remark which is sometimes heard when a complicated problem has to be faced. It may be the sorting out of a firm’s orders, the tidying of a cupboard, or it could be only untangling a badly-knotted fishing line. All these are situations demanding “the patience of Job.”

Many of us know that the Book of Job is one of the books in the Bible. It comes just before the Psalms in the Old Testament. But in addition to being the chief character in the Hebrew Book which bears his name, Job figures in the proverbs of all the Arab nations, to whom he is always known as “Job the patient one.”

Why was Job noted for his patience? It is because, as the Book of Job reveals, he suffered a great many misfortunes without ever losing his sense of God’s goodness and care.

In actual fact, Job was not always very patient, and had to be calmed down by various people who tried to reassure him that he had not been abandoned by God.

Job, once a prosperous and happy man, suffered the loss of just about everything he possessed. His flocks and herds, even the members of his family, all perished in a series of terrible disasters. He himself became ill, and sat brooding over his sufferings.

This is what the word “patience” really means here; in the language of Shakespeare’s day, when our best-known version of the Bible was translated (the Authorised Version of 1611), “to be patient” meant “to suffer,” rather than “to wait without complaining,” as it does today. So the phrase “the patience of Job” originally meant “the sufferings of Job,” but has altered its meaning in the course of four centuries.

Job, then, was patient in the sense that he suffered greatly, but he cried out bitterly against his misfortunes. Much of the Book of Job consists of his conversations with “Job’s Comforters,” as to why a good person such as he was should have to suffer so grievously. The book is written in the form of a drama, in which Job himself remains at the centre of the stage, while others come and go.

Curiously enough, another common phrase comes from one of Job’s speeches in this drama, but probably not one person in a thousand who uses the words realises that they are of Biblical origin. Look up Chapter 19, verse 20 of the Book of Job and you will find these words, with their surprisingly modern ring: “I am escaped with the skin of my teeth”!

Samson is a name forever associated with phenomenal physical strength

Posted in Bible, Interesting Words, Language, Religion on Friday, 30 August 2013

This edited article about the language of the Bible originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 390 published on 5 July 1969.

Samson carrying the gates, picture, image, illustration
Samson carrying the gates of Gaza

In a garage, while my car was being repaired, I watched a young but sturdy mechanic lift a heavy machine and carry it across the workshop floor.

“That must be some weight,” I said. “You’re a regular Samson!” And then, when he looked blankly at me, I added, “You know who Samson was?”

Obviously puzzled, he replied, “Was he a great boxer?”

Samson was not, of course, a great boxer, although he was a notable fighter, and his name has become a byword for someone of great physical strength.

Samson lived at the time when the Hebrew nation had just settled in Palestine, and his exploits are recorded in the Bible, mainly in the Book of Judges (Chapters 13 to 16).

Samson was early noted for his strength. As a young man he was attacked by a lion, and is said to have killed it with his bare hands.

But it was against a rival tribe, the Philistines, that his most daring feats were carried out. He actually ventured into one of their cities, where a band of men planned to trap him. The great wooden gates of the city were bolted, and Samson seemed to be at the mercy of his enemies. In the night, however, Samson left his hiding place, made his way unseen to the city walls, lifted the great gates from off their hinges and carried them away – before his enemies even knew of his escape!

In another encounter with the Philistines, Samson, surrounded by his attackers, picked up the jaw bone of a dead donkey and, using it as a club, felled many of his enemies to the ground.

It was Samson’s misfortune to fall in love with Delilah, a woman of the Philistine tribe. He used to visit her secretly, not realising that, far from loving him, she was plotting to betray him to his enemies.

One day Delilah asked him, in what seemed to be a casual manner, where the secret of his great strength lay.

Three times Samson gave her untrue answers, and at last she reproached him for teasing her, and for not being honest with someone he claimed to love. As a result, Samson revealed to her the secret that his strength lay in his hair. Cut that off, he said, and he would only have the strength of a child.

Delilah lulled Samson off to sleep, then had his head swiftly shaved by a skilled barber, and handed him over to his enemies.

The story did not end there. Blinded and made to work as a slave, Samson was one day dragged out to entertain his enemies. By then, his hair had grown again, and with that his strength had returned.

Samson used his new-found strength to wreak a terrible revenge. He forced apart the pillars of the great hall in which his enemies had assembled. The roof crashed in, and Samson died in the ruins, together with those who had come to make fun of him.

No wonder he is remembered as the strong man of the Bible!