No Gender Neutral God

taylor-mason

In the steady stream of bullshit news about Sweden, you might have seen the one about the Swedish church banning the use of “he” to refer to God.

IT NOT TRUE. I know; shocker. It seems there have been theologically interesting amendments – in places, not throughout – in order to agree with original Hebrew texts on the one hand, and the nature of the Trinity on the other.

It’s also not a news story here in Sweden, but it’s been widely circulated by spittle-flecked English-speaking Scandi-bashers. Farage (tell me why that doesn’t rhyme with English ‘garage’, again?), O’Reilly, et cetera ad nauseum.

No, it’s not been on the radar here. Not to say that Sweden doesn’t have its traditionalists. The gender neutral pronoun “hen” has become reasonably well established (created 1960’s, popularised this century, dictionarised 2015), but it still attracts flack.

Most of the ire seems to stem from fear of hen’s magical gender-warping properties as also evinced in this – of all places – Slate article from 2012. No, even the most right-on Swedes are not trying to “banish gender”. In my experience of Swedish TV news, I’ve more often heard hen deployed when gender is unknown – say, discussing what a hypothetical future minister might do.

At least no-one really objects to hen on grammatical grounds, it avoids the prescriptivist nonsense that English singular pronoun “they” attracts. As I noted re: the snopp/snippa phenomenon, these linguistic adaptations have been absorbed by modern Swedish without great friction. Which is perhaps more an indication of the small, contained nature of the linguistic group than any testament to the open-minded fairness of the Swedes, though that’s surely a factor too.

Anyway, the Lord God is still a He, here, though the Trinity is sometimes God instead of He, and the Holy Ghost, yes is Hen, but was the Ghost ever a He anyway? Excuse me, I’m exhausted. That stream of negative propaganda about Sweden is likely to turn into a flood in the coming year, with an election on the horizon.

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Warning: Parental Language

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As the parent of a girl and a boy, both under five, and both Swedish-English, I’ve discovered at least one area where Swedish, despite its much tinier vocabulary, has the edge over English.

Swedish boys possess a snopp; girls, a snippa. That’s standard, pre-school appropriate terminology. English boys have a ‘willy’, though it sounds slightly silly. Or a ‘pee-pee’, though that strikes me as both twee and kinda American.

But for infant English girls? No, the options are all terrible: Mumsnet, surely the holy gospel and iron fisted authority on such matters, proves it. There are arcane, family-specific codewords. There’s the stuffy ‘fanny’, archaic-sounding and confusing to Americans to boot (I promise, I’ll leave American English out if it now).

Worst of all there are the prurient British circumlocutions, the ‘front bottoms’ and ‘lady bits’. FFS. Dreadful. Those seem to be common currency purely because there is nothing else on offer, but I can’t help but think that it’s a strange to set your child out unable to directly name their own anatomies, only approaching warily, through the sanitizing gauze of euphemism.

Sweden didn’t always have snippa to help out us poor struggling parents of girls. No, snopp for boys has been around since… oh, ages! (Note To Self: more research here plz.) Snippa was a relatively recent development, only popularised as recently as 2000, thanks to Anna Kosztovics, a social worker in Malmö. But it’s already established itself as firmly as its male counterpart. A word, fit for purpose, meeting a need that was introduced without much fuss and quickly established itself as the de facto term.

Sensible, practical, and equitable. About as Swedish as you can get.

Slow Learning

Dilatory Autodidact TY SwedishLast week I finished a protracted slog through the pages and exercises of Teach Yourself: Swedish.

“That took a while,” I thought, as I marked the textbook completed on Goodreads. (Yeah okay, logging textbooks on Goodreads, you got me. TBH if they were printed with an ISBN I’d probably have a Goodreads shelf of takeaway menus.)

In fact it took more than “a while”. The start date was March 2012. Back when we lived in Amsterdam. 3.5 apartment moves and five years ago.

FIVE FRIGGING YEARS. (Nothing against the book, it’s fine. Serviceable. Okay.)

I’ve always been a sucker for the stoic will-to-mastery of autodidacticism. Or rather for the *idea* of it.

Self-motivated, me-powered learning! It’s a daydream, one of those poisonous momentum-sapping ones where the fantasy gives a watered-down version of the satisfaction you’d get from the actual achievement, hobbling any real progress. Because that’s the only languge exercise book I think I’ve ever finished.

And language apps are handy, since they’re always pinging at you from your handset. Addictive when they get the gamification right. IMO yer Memrises and Duolingos are lacking, pedagogically speaking: TBH I’ve found them best for building vocabulary,  but the grammar doesn’t stick.

When it comes to educating humans, nothing beats another human.

Deploying that slowly-absorbed book-learning, that app-jacked rote learning, in conversations with Real People. Or signing up for lessons, group or one-on-one, where it’s harder to skim over exercises, or worse, let them slide. For, say, five years.

In truth, it’s a mix of inputs that is best. Practice in the wild is always critical, courses are great. TV, radio, films, books and podcasts too, though they’re best absorbed with some attention, even if intermittent.

The apps and lonely exercise books of the self-learner have their place too, whether it’s by providing new vocabulary and grammar to test out, or explaining the why behind language you might already be using.

But ivory tower learning in solitude just makes the whole process needlessly hard. It’s like training for MMA with shadow boxing only – how much training would you feel was enough before you ever stepped into a cage?

 

Three Swimming Elk: Telling Lessons in Swedish

I’ve been slogging my way through a Swedish course on Duolingo. I don’t know whether the French course, say, uses the same examples. But I suspect not.

The nature questions are heavy on Swedish flora and fauna – pines and spruce, wolves and elk. The supernatural ones are lousy with trolls and gnomes.

  • Vi såg tre simmande älgar (“we saw three swimming elk”).
  • Ett fullt troll tittade in genom fönstret (“An ugly troll looked in through the window”)

There are those characteristically inexplicable language course headscratchers. I’m fairly confident I’ll never need to tell a Swede that “a turtle came swimming” (En skölpadda kom simmande). But on the whole you’re less likely to stumble across surrealistic whimsy than you are the kind of thing you expect from Henning Mankel. Antalet mord i staden har ökat: “the number of murders in the city has increased”, indeed.

The most arresting examples, though, sit squarely and morosely in Bergman territory:

  • Hennes moster är döende (“Her aunt is dying”)
  • Din fru kommer att ha tagit alla dina drömmar från dig (“Your wife is going to have taken all your dreams from you”)
  • Gav du henne en rakhyvel? (“Did you give her a razor?”)

And the unbeatable:

  • Det är jag som är Döden (“It is I who is Death”)

For the sake of my emotional equilibrium, I’m not sure I can carry on with this course for much longer…

Google Translate and Plato

google-translate-ai-2016-11-24-01

So you’ve seen this news [New Scientist/Wired], right? That the Google Translate AI has supposedly invented a new internal language to help it translate language pairs it hasn’t learnt. Having been taught English <> Japanese and English <> Korean, it can then do the job for Japanese <> Korean.

The headlines position this as the AI inventing its own internal language, or interlingua, to handle those conversions. Every article notes the difficulty in anyone knowing exactly what is happening in there, the deep learning that’s going on inside the AI. (Engadget had the slightly more nuanced report on this, further from the “invented a language” headline.)

An invented language? That’s one interpretation. But if a language consists of signs, symbols that exist in the world, is that the best description for the process?

So Google Translate learns that English table means both Spanish mesa and Swedish bord. Does it then need to tell itself:

IF table = 1010101011101 = bord
AND table = 1010101011101 = mesa
THEN bord = 1010101011101 = mesa

?

That’s not how we meat-sacks use language. It skips over another interpretation, lacking from the reporting I’ve seen so far, which is either totally thrilling or utterly chilling, depending on whether or not you’re looking forward to the ascendancy of Skynet.

I (and I’m willing to assume you too) have an idea of a table, based on years of experience:

  • It’s a flat surface atop a number of legs (often 4);
  • It’s usually (not always) around thigh height;
  • Most are made of wood, or metal, or plastic;

All these things contribute to a mental representation of [table]: a confluence of images, physical experiences, language labels, and a heap of Venn diagrams of different properties that coalesce around the label of table. A lot of overlap with something like [chair]; less – but some – overlap with [dog]. A mess of connections and firings in the neural pathways, impossible to pin down, even while it’s possible to see where they cluster.

The Platonic form of a table, if you like. That is what’s triggered when I hear the English or Spanish or Whateverish word for [table]. English is my mother tongue, but if I were to translate a Stockholm restaurant reservation for a Spanish speaker, the mental process wouldn’t be “(Swedish) bord = (English) table = (Spanish) mesa”. It would be “bord <> [idea or Platonic form of the table] <> mesa”.

Look at that map up top again. That string of Japanese word/concepts on side, the English string on the other, the Korean somewhere in the middle but tending closer to the Japanese. The whole forming a neat oval, a cluster of meaning. OK, so the AI only has language input, there are no sights/feelings/memories of [stratosphere] associated, not yet.

But what if that oval, that pattern of pinpricks of understanding, represents the rough formation of a Platonic form; an AI idea?

Priorities: Reading v Writing v Due Date

Maslow's Hierarchy of NeedsNo GoodReads Reading Challenge for me this year. I reached last year’s target, again thanks to a few choice graphic novels/comic hardbacks to counterbalance doorstep’s like The Luminaries. But TB-brutally-H it felt as if I was reading to bump up the book count, with the target always to finish fast. Is that conducive to good reading? Wide reading, intensive reading, yes. Clinical, technical, checkbox reading, yes. Not so much with the luxuriating in a text, wallowing there, inhabiting it body and soul.

There’s also the twinge of cynicism I can’t help but feel about GoodReads now that it’s Amazon-owned. In that light, the Reading Challenge just feels like a prompt to buy, buy, buy more inventory.

Reading is no problem. But it’s writing I need to be doing more of. Isn’t that always the complaint? Write, write more, write about anything. To blah or not to blah. Here it comes, another blogpost about blogposts. *SHUDDERS*

It’s never a thoughtful blogpost for me. Is that a mistake? Instead, it’s the first draft brain dump. Unedited stunt writing, unexpurgated, a la Knausgård – who BTW in Book 2 of My Struggle (“A Man In Love“) is coming across as a total dick, which okay is a bravery all of its own, an honesty less glamorous than petty criminality or heroin hijinks, because let’s be honest who comes off best, the helpless addict or the father whinging about his childcare duties? So Knausgård struggles against the selflessness required to be a parent in order to pursue the erasure of self he finds in writing. Transcendence, flow, engagement… it’s all pushing up towards the point of Maslow’s pyramid. Right?

So yes, we have a baby on the way, and that was probably the impetus for this post. We’re moving, and I’m freelancing, and I still need to learn Swedish (not nearly fluent yet). And even now it’s hard enough to maintain the writing necessary to keep contributing to the Amsterdam writing group that I’m still Skyping in to. How’s having a baby going to impact that? Or will it bring regularity and order to our lives, minute-to-minute scheduling that magically *does* give me the space to write?

Glide: Glided, Glid, Glode. Strider Strode.

Strider

I’ll never really believe that the past tense of “to glide” is glided.

It seems childish. Any reason it should follow “to elide”, i.e. elided?

That’s a Latinate word. Not Germanic, like “to stride” which gives strode,

And “to ride”, obv. rode. So what about glode?

It might be archaic, but it feels right. Righter even than glid,

As per “to hide” giving hid, “to slide” and then slid.

By analogy, I look to Swedish for a similar pattern. There, glida (to glide), rida (to ride), strida (to battle) give gled, redstred. Well, that was no help.

Come to mention it, strider (Swedish: “fights”) does remind me that Tolkein’s Strider (aka Aragorn) is secretly a warrior, not just someone with a leggy gait.

*END OF THOUGHT*