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Rosetta Stone Ads hyped? Language evolution, and poetics

September 22nd, 2012 · 3 Comments

Update: the discussion of blank verse in English verse was perhaps a little unfair to modern actors who have a tough jog: I faield to point out that while pentameter level metrics needs correct emphasis, an actor must also assign a useful lilt to the sentence in question as a whole, a really tough assignment if you have no recorded examples of how the original actors under Shakespeare’s direction pronounced the results.———-

The long series of seemingly hyped ads on Rosetta Stone language software invites a series of other thoughts…First, although I haven’t ever tried Rosetta Stone software I can guess from looking at the material in a bookstore, what the method is that is so successful: it is a commercial version of the old Army Language training method, needed for rapid training of thousands, which then entered academia in various guises, thence repackaged as a commercial product.
The trick is simple: don’t teach grammar and vocab raw. Students of Latin and Greek suffer the worst here, as they learn ‘frankenstein’ versions of these languages by ad hoc grammar/vocab exercises, rarely even speaking the abstractions being learned. Ancient Greek’s pronunciation is lost (but there are good conjunctural attempts to reconstruct the pronunciation) but was an exotic beauty, with a system of tones (like Chinese, but not usually phenomeic tonality) and probably complex lilts (tonal patterns in whole sentences, very hard for new learners, and not recorded in the written versions, frequent in English, with some real beauts often in Irish-ish English, French lilts etc… A sentence that is a question is the simplest case of a lilt, with a rising tone at the end) that are lost. Trying to learn to speak a tonal language that is extinct is not viable except for a few experts in sound reconstructin (?), a talent on the level of piano tuning.
Those two cases have tended to influence all teaching of language, but it is very inefficient.
Instead, create a list of fully functional sentences sampling all the basics of the core language.
Counterintuitively (for some): memorize the heck out of those sentences, as speech and probably also as writing.
Then when you can recite those sentences perfectly (or do this in a small takes of five at a time and/or from simple to hard), and you should be confident you are pronouncing them properly, vary small parts of each sentence, nouns, verbs, etc,… Presto, in no time at all you have a small core language at your command. A usable core of millions of viable sentences in a few weeks.
An easy method, simple but profound, but you would be surprised how hard it is to stick to the method, without someone to enforce the simple discipline.

I have tried this method, years ago in a short course in Japanese, and the method was indeed very useful.
Armed with this you could construct your own version of the software, if you can find a way to get feedback on pronunciation. The commercial version is so overhyped that false expectations will make the method backfire.
The question remains, how does this resemble the way kids learn to speak. Answer, nothing can compare with young
children as language learners, but the secret is something with a slight resemblance to the ‘fast learning method’ here. However, the mystery of early human language learning remains unsolved, for the same reason that the functionality of language remains a mystery. Ditto at the level of the evolution of language.

The question of language has completely defeated biologists, so far, and the Darwinian cover story is a disgrace, as a deception of science.

It is interesting that even as we have lost the ability to ‘hear’ the spectacular Greek poetry with what must have been its tonal echoes and lilts, as in Homer, or the great tragedies, we have also lost the ability to ‘hear’ Shakespearean blank verse: we no longer know how it was spoken by actors. Actors now flatten out that type of verse until it is almost prose, but one suspects the original was very evidently sing song blankverse: it wouldn’t have become standard otherwise. If you listen to ‘rap’ prose lyrics or declamations, with or without music, you suddenly realize a ‘poetic beat’ meter just got reborn, very different from pentameter, of course, but it shows how the overemphasis of beats can work so effectively. Early blank verse might have had a similar sing song ‘drive it home’ beat.
Ironically, you can appreciate blank verse almost better by reading it to yourself, silently ‘almost out loud’, emphasizing the beats. The music stands out, in a way that is lost on modern actors. In Shakespeare, blank verse goes incandescent in a mystery that is, well, a mystery. Blank verse is so simple as to be ridiculous, x /, short/long (unstressed/stressed). Scan a few paragraphs in Hamlet, and you will see the pattern, without exception, with but a few variants:
x / x / x / x / x / (x) : that’s one ‘iambic pentameter’ line of five beats (stressed syllables) in five ‘iambs’ or two syllable unstressed/stressed, sometimes with an eleventh unstressed falloff syllable….
The boy became a man and lived alone is a pentameter, no big deal, at first.
A very short list of rules and variants make up the whole art:
x / can be double stressed, //
x / be reversed / x creating a frequent ‘well’ pattern in two iambs: Come to this place and be my friend awhile
And another classic variant: two shorts and two longs:
x x / /
At a fast pace, return to see your home at last

    From Hamlet
    Good now, sit down, and tell me, he that knows,
    Why this same strict and most observant watch
    So nightly toils the subject of the land,
    And why such daily cast of brazen cannon,
    And foreign mart for implements of war;
    Why such impress of shipwrights, whose sore task
    Does not divide the Sunday from the week;

Note how the next to last line has three of the the variants, and is still perfect blank verse. Why such impress of shipwrights, whose sore task: / / / x x / x x / /. (!)

There are a number of additional variants, but that is basically it. And what a stupendous wonder Shakespeare can make out of it, then again later in his career (check out Othello) creating a new stunning style that is still exactly blank vers, but also more than blank verse, but with a prose sound and lilt, a true poetic wonder. Sad to say, almost noone can reproduce it now, unless I am mistaken. Not to worry! Your unconscious ‘ear’ can still ‘hear’ the effect as long as the pattern of iambic is maintained, however minimized. You won’t quite realize what it is, but you will hear it. A complete dolt like Mel Gibson in a Hollywood version of Hamlet comes close to almost ‘not bad’ as a declaimer of blank verse, a child’s art or knack, perhaps.
The form endures, despite the inability to really match Shakespeare, and has a cousin in the heroic couplet which is not as subtle as blank verse, and easier for modern ears to catch as poetry. The last great exemplar is Woordsworth’s Prelude, more or less, and then the rest is silence, and prose verse, and, sad to say, not much. Ever again. For English. The trick must be to emerge from a Dark Ages with a full band of lyric bards who can recite poetry in a native meter, until the ‘modern’ phase sees the forms die away. That pattern is clearly evident in Greek history, English, French, German, and Latin, and, I suspect, Vedic/Sanskrit/Pali…(Sanskrit is an artificially created literary language). The cases of non-Indo-European languages show much of the same, all around, but is less familiar, at least to me.

All this leaves the suspicion that language evolution is more than a set of spoken forms: it comes, in too many cases to be chance, with all the extras in the form of languages, plus poetics, songs, meters, and, above all, stories, stories, stories, versical or prose, but stories with a full and almost forever invariant spectrum of archetypes. That is so obvious from the clearly documented case of the grand Greek sequence, which clearly had a set of bards of primordial lineage, a set of poetics, songs, and stories, stories: epics, and much else. This resource was clearly present much earlier, and present in Mycenaean times, but really takes off and becomes incandescent with the onset of the Axial period, like clockwork, with the Homeric consolidation of the epic corpus starting it all off, and then a massive literary flowering, climaxing in Greek Tragedy/Comedy, all over by the end of the fifth century, as the forms begin to settle into a decline, sort of steady state. It is almost unnerving the way Greek Tragedy stops after Euripides, despite endless attempted imitators, and more unnerving to see this in the timing of the eonic effect, and more uncanny still to see the same sudden flowering and decline with analogous timing in modern English tragedy. Sit down and try to write a blank verse tragedy. It will elude you! You couldn’t even write a bad one.
How explain all of this?

At least start with the early ‘primitive’ cases (more advanced poetically than space-age cretins called ‘moderns’) like the Homeric Greeks, and study the mystery of language/poetry creation/evolution. A mystery indeed.

Etc,… All of these issues have been factored out of evolutionary analysis, but their vestiges are clear in world history, and show we haven’t clue about what real evolution is, or how it works. Language evolution was hard enough, but the addition of these factors shows how primitive our sciences are.

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