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pronunciation, its evolution over time
Posted: 17 September 2011 10:18 AM   [ Ignore ]
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In another thread, Dave pointed out:

That Wikipedia article contains the following caveat:

Latin pronunciation continually evolved over the centuries, making it difficult for speakers in one era to know how Latin was actually spoken in prior eras. This article deals primarily with modern scholarship’s best guess at Classical Latin’s phonemes (phonology) and their pronunciation and writing.

I’d say that about sums it up. Nothing about ancient Latin pronunciation is uncontroversial, and no one really knows how it was pronounced. Although some guesses are better than others.

Languagehat replied (in part):

... We know the pronunciation of classical Latin with a good deal of accuracy, ...

I became fascinated. 

Concerning pronunciation of a language such as Latin and its evolution over time, is there or could there be constructed such a thing as a single written word, phrase, paragraph, or even longer piece--possibly onomatopoetic--that might serve as a universal key to pronunciation over the course of its evolution?  Would such a key serve to fix pronunciation in time, and thus halt its evolution? 

I was thinking of the role cobalt-60 played in breaking the idea of ”conservation of parity” as detailed nicely for the lay public by Martin Gardner in his book, The Ambidextrous Universe..., 1964.  In one chapter, Gardner poses what he terms, ”The Ozma Problem” : 

...This is the problem of how to communicate the meaning of left and right, where the two communicants are conditionally not allowed to view any one object in common. The problem was first implied in Immanuel Kant’s discussion of left and right, and William James mentioned it in his chapter on “The Perception of Space” in Principles of Psychology (1890). It is also mentioned by Charles Howard Hinton.

The solution to the Ozma Problem is embodied in an experiment conducted by Chien-Shiung Wu involving the beta decay of cobalt-60. This experiment was the first to disprove the conservation of parity. However, Gardner added in the last chapter of his book that the Ozma Problem is only solved within our galaxy: due to the nature of antimatter, an antigalaxy would get the opposite result from the experiment conducted by Wu....

Please note: apparently it is now suspected that there are likely to be few, if any, antimatter galaxies, despite Vonnegut’s famous, ”Anti-Matter Galaxy 508-G”.

Physics and humor aside, is there [or could there be constructed] such a thing in linguistics as an exclusively written-down pronunciation key that is not entirely ambiguous?  Or are we constrained by historical fact to eek out clues--as I suspect we are?  Even the international phonetic alphabet seems to me to be ultimately linked with current pronunciation, unless I am seriously clueless.

[edited added stripped-out line-break for clarity in The Ozma Problem quote; added [] around “or could there be constructed” for clarity]

[ Edited: 17 September 2011 08:15 PM by sobiest ]
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Posted: 17 September 2011 05:21 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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I’d say that representation of pronunciation is no problem if one were inclined to take the time to describe with some precision the actions of the lips, mouth, tongue, throat, lungs, and voice box. It might prove a little cumbersome but it sure would have helped with anything prior to Edison.

Left and right. There’s something about the fact that all life on Earth is based on organic left-hand molecules while all organic right-hand molecules are poisonous and destructive. This was the problem with thalidomide, that some of the molecules changed direction and became destructive to life.

How could the alien communicants understand the model of cobalt-60 unless they could “view” it?

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Posted: 17 September 2011 06:09 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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Iron Pyrite - 17 September 2011 05:21 PM

I’d say that representation of pronunciation is no problem if one were inclined to take the time to describe with some precision the actions of the lips, mouth, tongue, throat, lungs, and voice box. It might prove a little cumbersome but it sure would have helped with anything prior to Edison.

It certainly would help, but my question is, would something like this be an absolutely fixating description?  There would still some vast room for accent and thus large variations in pronunciation, don’t you think? 

How could the alien communicants understand the model of cobalt-60 unless they could “view” it?

There would still be cobalt-60 in an antimatter galaxy--it would be antimatter cobalt-60 another galaxy, easily described by communicating the number of main sub-atomic particles: electrons, anti-electrons; protons, anti-protons; and neutrons, anti-neutrons.  I think the issue is that no one sample would be allowed to be viewed by us [and] the aliens, due to the physical distance involved or at least the construction of the puzzle.  The question is how would we know if it was an antimatter galaxy, and thus, if the handedness, or chirality of the chemicals involved with life (I remember now, that the aliens in Gardner’s posit were very much like us) would allow long-term survival if either of us were to send an emissary--i.e., would it be a suicide mission? 

In the case of my query here, the distance is time, and the communicants are sending information related to how the pronunciation sounds but it’s not a point for point analogy--it just started me thinking enough to ask the initial question.

[Major edit: applied gray and strike-out to correct certain rather large errors]

[ Edited: 18 September 2011 12:02 AM by sobiest ]
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Posted: 17 September 2011 06:18 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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[Never mind, misread Pyrite’s question.]

I have heard that by comparing the results of a kaon decay experiment and the Co-60 experiment, it would be possible for the aliens to determine if they are (by our standards) matter or antimatter, but I haven’t investigated deeply enough to confirm or refute this.

[ Edited: 17 September 2011 06:22 PM by Dr. Techie ]
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Posted: 17 September 2011 07:00 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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I’d say that representation of pronunciation is no problem if one were inclined to take the time to describe with some precision the actions of the lips, mouth, tongue, throat, lungs, and voice box. It might prove a little cumbersome but it sure would have helped with anything prior to Edison.
---

Such descriptions _were_ of course made (with varying accuracy) before Edison, from classical Greece onwards.

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Posted: 18 September 2011 12:34 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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I have always understood that (in the US, at least) left=hay, right=straw (or is it the other way round?). In IDF basic training, we recruits were often threatened by our NCO’s with cucmber (left) and tomato (right) as aide-memoires (or is it aides-memoire?). Nobody mentioned cobalt-60 or Ozma

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Posted: 18 September 2011 01:00 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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lionello - 18 September 2011 12:34 AM

I have always understood that (in the US, at least) left=hay, right=straw (or is it the other way round?). In IDF basic training, we recruits were often threatened by our NCO’s with cucmber (left) and tomato (right) as aide-memoires (or is it aides-memoire?). Nobody mentioned cobalt-60 or Ozma

Languagelog has an excellent article on these right/left, strawfoot/hayfoot ideas--sans cobalt-60, and far from Oz, to boot! (Excerpt):

...And in Notes and Queries for Dec. 5, 1857, W.W. (Malta) contributed “A Highlander’s Drill by chalking his left foot”,


“I shall never forget,” says Strang in his Glasgow and its Clubs, “the fun which during my boyhood my companions and myself had in witnessing the daily drilling of the new-caught Highlanders, in the low Green, or the pity we felt for the cruel usage of the poor fellows by the cane-wielding sergeants or corporals who were utting them through their facings. No doubt some of them were stupid enough, and was worse, it was their misfortune to comprehend but indifferently the English word of command, so much that it was found absolutely necessary to chalk their left feet, and instead of crying out when marching, left, right, the common call was caukit foot foremost.”

Alas, there is no mention of cucumber or tomato…

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Posted: 19 September 2011 09:09 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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I suppose there is nothing like a perfectly unambiguous “key” to pronunciation that would communicate accurate details of pronunciation across time.  So, to clean up a bit:

Applying the fact that parity is not conserved in the colbalt-60 experiment in order to discover whether the handedness of the alien life chemicals would allow us to live in their environment extendedly does not address the matter-antimatter question.  Analyzing data from the results of an alien cobalt-60 experiment by itself cannot determine the matter/anti-matter question. 

An alien cobalt-60 experiment would allow us to answer the question of the handedness of the alien life chemicals in this fashion: “[We] could tell the alien to turn the experiment until the electrons come out in the upward direction (the direction opposite gravity), and the front edge of the rotating nucleus will move from right to left or clockwise to make the angular momentum. This works because the parity violation of the weak interaction allows us, at a fundamental level, to distinguish right from left.” --Richard P. Feynman

About this puzzle, Feynman also said, “...Suppose, after lots of communication you finally can go into space and meet your alien counterpart.  If, as you approach one another, the alien extends its left hand to shake, watch out!  He’s made of antimatter!  This, of course, is because a parity violation experiment constructed of antimatter would give the opposite result.”

Since the universe consists ‘almost entirely’ of matter rather than antimatter (revealed in part by the “kaon decay” experiment mentioned by Dr._T above), the cobalt-60 experiment should yield ‘almost entirely’ accurate results in determining the ‘handedness’ of life-supporting alien chemicals. 

.

Unless they live in an antimatter region… *ahem*

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Posted: 19 September 2011 10:44 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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JFTR, the Ozma problem is about the general problem of distinguishing right and left when communicating with a non-human intelligence that cannot observe a human body or any other object observable by humans.  I don’t think Gardner posed it in specific reference to determining if the stereochemistry of the alien biosphere was compatible with human metabolism, and indeed, given the other constraints in the problem, the likelihood of that issue being of any practical significance is nil.  Moreover, merely knowing that the handedness of the aliens sugars and amino acids (assuming they had these) was the same as ours would not be sufficient to say that humans could live in their environment, eat their food, etc.

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Posted: 19 September 2011 08:08 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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The question is how would we know ... /if it was an antimatter galaxy, and thus,/ ... if the handedness, or chirality of the chemicals involved with life (I remember now, that the aliens in Gardner’s posit were very much like us) would allow long-term survival if either of us were to send an emissary--i.e., would it be a suicide mission? 

(Don’t know how to do a strike-through.)

Looks like we’re operating on several levels here, most of it over my head, Co-60 and anti-matter included. I mainly was trying to indicate that this is a linguistics/semantics issue, because you have to posit a certain level of commonality between the communicants. Referring to a thing is basic to communication. It’s hard to understand what that thing is unless you can “view” it. Anyway, it’s an interesting question from a physics standpoint.

As for chirality, I was going on the info from a radio program that overstated the case, seeming to imply that most or all of organic chemistry was based on left/right handedness of molecules. As Dr. T points out, it has to do with stereochemistry in amino acids and sugars, a smaller case. Still, kind of suggeastive for a good sci-fi story.

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Posted: 20 September 2011 06:54 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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Yes indeed.  Actually, there are a number of science-fiction stories that use this as a gimmick.  Many of them relate to the problems encountered by a person who has been “flipped” through the 4th dimension, so that all of their molecules are also mirror-reversed.  Roger Zelazny, in Doorways in the Sand, correctly pointed out that ethyl alcohol, being a non-chiral molecule (not affected by mirror-inversion), would still be metabolizable by such a person, and thus liquor could provide calories to delay starvation, although since many of the molecules that provide flavor are chiral, it would probably taste strange.

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Posted: 20 September 2011 08:37 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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Stereo-isomers and levo- dextro- symmetry played a major role in Gardner’s book.  This fostered my interest in organic chemistry and in all things science.  I think the question of being able to eat the food and use the levo- for long-term survival played a major role in part of the book.  I could certainly be wrong; it’s been more than 40 years since I last read it. 

...ethyl alcohol, being a non-chiral molecule (not affected by mirror-inversion), would still be metabolizable by such a person, and thus liquor could provide calories to delay starvation, although since many of the molecules that provide flavor are chiral, it would probably taste strange.

I think it was Spider Robinson, in one of his “Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon” stories that had rotgut liquor similarly flipped and thus tasting better than the highest shelf stuff.  I remember that a fly flew over the bar, through the vapor trail of a just-poured shot, and subsequently augured into the sawdust, raising a small mushroom-shaped cloud.  Don’t recall if this was the flipped rotgut or the raw rotgut… I’ve been in bars like that, so it’s probably a true story.

.
[edit: grammar, etc.]

[ Edited: 20 September 2011 08:54 AM by sobiest ]
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Posted: 20 September 2011 02:50 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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The “universal key” to pronunciation is called a tape recorder.  I expect that it has had a substantial effect on limiting changes in pronunciation just as it has curtailed regional variations in pronunciation.

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Posted: 20 September 2011 04:07 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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I’m not sure that technology has had all that much influence over curtailing regional pronunciations or in limiting changes to pronunciation.

Any reduction in regional pronunciation probably has had more to do with increased travel and mobility, especially migration patterns to large urban centers and then back again. As regions become more accustomed to seeing and hearing other pronunciations every day, the regional accents shift toward the standard. People are much less likely to grow up, live their lives, and die in the same village than in the past. And if they do, they’re still surrounded by others who haven’t.

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Posted: 20 September 2011 07:27 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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JFTR, I’ve reviewed my copies of Gardner’s The Ambidextrous Universe (1st ed., 1964) and The New Ambidextrous Universe (3rd revised ed., 1990).  Certainly it discusses stereochemistry, and it mentions the possibility that life on other planets would use different stereoisomers from life on Earth.  It even mentions, very briefly, the fact that a human who was inverted through the 4th dimension would not be able to digest and metabolize the molecules in un-inverted food.  But there is no mention, in the discussion of the Ozma problem or elsewhere, of the problems facing a space-traveler trying to sustain life on a planet with mirror-reversed biochemistry.

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Posted: 21 September 2011 09:34 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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Dave Wilton - 20 September 2011 04:07 PM

I’m not sure that technology has had all that much influence over curtailing regional pronunciations or in limiting changes to pronunciation.

Any reduction in regional pronunciation probably has had more to do with increased travel and mobility, especially migration patterns to large urban centers and then back again. As regions become more accustomed to seeing and hearing other pronunciations every day, the regional accents shift toward the standard. People are much less likely to grow up, live their lives, and die in the same village than in the past. And if they do, they’re still surrounded by others who haven’t.

It seems to me that technology (television and radio, mostly) would be the principal means of exposing people to those other pronunciations nowadays, rather than travel.  You can only travel to one place at a time, but you can also see and hear people from all over the world without leaving the couch.

Now that I think about it, though, being surrounded by people using a certain pronunciation and interacting with them on a regular basis would have much more of an effect on one’s own pronunciation than simply watching them on TV.

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