alan little’s weblog archive for december 2007

he gives it to john

29th December 2007 permanent link

Tim Ferriss’s keys to rapid language learning: Sentence Five in Russian. (Sentence One, Sentence Two, Sentence Three, Sentence Four, Sentence Six)

He gives it to John
Он даёт его Ивану

“On dayot yevo Ivanu”. He gives it to John.

  1. Third person singular verbs are normally with “-т”
  2. “т” can, now she tells me, be written either like a latin “m” or like it is printed. Whereas there are no exceptions to the handwritten “д” looking like a latin “g”
  3. The other non-phonetic spelling irregularity: “его”/“it” (accusative) is written with “г”/“g” but pronounced in modern Russian as “в”/“v”. My wife explained some rules for some other places where this crops up but I didn’t fully grasp them at the first attempt. Apparently in archaic Church Slavonic it’s still pronounced as it’s written.

related entries: Language

we give him the apple

28th December 2007 permanent link

Tim Ferriss’s keys to rapid language learning: Sentence Four in Russian. (Sentence One, Sentence Two, Sentence Three, Sentence Five, Sentence Six)

We give him the apple
Ми даём ему яаблоко

“Mi dayem yemu yablaka”. We give him [the] apple.

  1. First person plural verbs are normally with “-m”
  2. “ему”, “him”, has the same dative masculine ending as the noun in Sentence Three.

related entries: Language

i give john the apple

28th December 2007 permanent link

Tim Ferriss’s keys to rapid language learning: Sentence Three in Russian. (Sentence One, Sentence Two, Sentence Four, Sentence Five, Sentence Six)

I give John the apple
Я даю яаблоко Ивану

“Ya dayu yablaka Ivanu”. I give [the] apple to John.

  1. First person singular verbs are normally with “-ю” or “-у” (“-yu” or “-u”)
  2. The accusative (direct object) form of neuter nouns ending in “-о” is the same as the nominative.
  3. The “Ивану” (Ivanu) is dative masculine.
  4. A lowercase handwritten “д” looks nothing like a printed one either. It looks like a latin “g”.

related entries: Language

it is john’s apple

27th December 2007 permanent link

Tim Ferriss’s keys to rapid language learning: Sentence Two in Russian. (Sentence One, Sentence Three, Sentence Four, Sentence Five, Sentence Six)

It is John’s apple
Зто яаблоко Ивана

“Eta yablaka Ivana”. This apple [is] John’s.

  1. In this sentence, unlike Sentence One, it is necessary to specify which apple. “Зто”, “this”, takes the place that the definite article would in English, although it isn’t one.
  2. “Зто”, a preposition, agrees with the nominative neuter noun яаблоко. Once again, the stress isn’t on the final “о”, so it’s transliterated/pronounced more like “eta”
  3. (“Translating” personal names isn’t normally good practice. In this case, however, it helps us to spot that …) The cyrillic letter “в” looks like a latin “B” but is transliterated as “v” and sounds like a softer version of an English “v”, somewhere between English “v” and “w”.
  4. The genitive “-’s” on the end of “John’s” is the only surviving noun declension in English. In the only other language in which I’m fluent, German, it is normally the article/preposition/adjective/whatever, and not the noun itself, that changes to indicate case, gender etc. As in English, German’s one surviving historical relic of noun declensions is a genitive “-s” ending. In Russian, since there are no articles, nouns always have declensions. The “-а” on the end of “Ivana”, is the masculine genitive (possessive) form of the noun.
  5. The lowercase handwritten form of cyrillic “т” is completely unlike the printed form and looks like a latin “m”. Oh joy. I have no chance of ever being able to read handwritten notes from my wife.

Equally acceptable alternative form:

Зто Иваново яаблоко Ивану

“Eta Ivanava yablaka”. This [is] John’s apple.

  1. Here “Иваново”, “Ivanava” is an adjectival form instead of a genitive noun.

related entries: Language

the apple is red

26th December 2007 permanent link

Tim Ferriss has some smart hints on how to learn languages quickly. Since Step One of one of the more common methods – fall in love with, and subsequently marry, a native speaker of the language – doesn’t seem to have worked out for me, language-wise, I thought I’d give some of Tim’s hints a try.

He has six deceptively simple little sentences that, he says “expose much of the language, and quite a few potential deal killers.”

Let’s see what we can do in Russian with Sentence One:

the apple is red
Яаблоко красное

Approximately phonetically transliterated: “Yablaka krasnaya”. [The] apple [is] red.

It turns out we can derive rather a lot from looking at these two to four words. Such as:

  1. Nouns in Russian, as in most Indo-European languages except English, have genders. “Яаблоко” (yablaka) is neuter, as are (reliably enough for students of Russian For Foreigners) all nouns ending in “о”
  2. The cyrillic letter “о” is pronounced is only pronounced like an English “o” when it’s the stressed vowel in a word. When it’s not stressed it sounds something like an un-stressed English “a”, or like the generic/indeterminate vowel sound that linguists call a “schwa” – the “e” in “mother”. This rule is universal enough to be one of the first things mentioned in all Russian For Foreigners learning materials, but the exact pronunciation does vary somewhat. My wife pronounces it very much like an “a”, her aunt almost but not quite like a normal “o”. A generational thing? Regional accent? Random variation between individuals? Don’t know. Un-stressed “о” is often transliterated as “a”, as I have done here and my wife learned in school, but not always.
  3. With this and one other fairly common exception, which crops up conveniently in Sentence Five, Russian is written pretty much phonetically. Unlike, say, English.
  4. There doesn’t seem to be much by way of reliable universal rules for the language learner as to where the stress might fall in a Russian word. But never on a final “о”, I’m pretty sure.
  5. There isn’t a universal, standard, accurate cyrillic-to-latin transliteration system.
  6. No verb “is”. The verb “to be” is rarely necessary/used in a Russian sentence.
  7. No article “the”. Articles don’t exist in Russian language.
  8. Adjectives agree with the nouns they describe. “-ое” is the nominative neuter adjective ending. My wife – among her many other talents a former professional Russian-German translator – recommends transliterating it, too, phonetically as “-aya” because it is unstressed, although more literally it would be “-oye”.
  9. I can’t show it here because I don’t have a flatbed scanner or a pen tablet, but all the letters in these two words look pretty much the same handwritten as they do printed. There are (oh joy!) letters that don’t. And you can’t save yourself in those cases by writing the printed forms of the cyrillic letters. Print-style letters in handwriting aren’t merely eccentric or childish, they are outright incorrect.
  10. Word order in Russian, as in many other languages where conjugations and declensions carry much of the meaning, and unlike in English, is generally very flexible/interchangeable. In this particular case, however, “Яаблоко красное” is a complete grammatical sentence whereas “красное яаблоко” – [a/the] red apple – isn’t.

Not bad for one harmless little sentence, Tim. Having a native speaker and former professional translator sitting next to us on the sofa does admittedly help quite a bit with deriving this sort of information, but I’m sure a smart and motivated student would quickly pick up at least (1), (2), (6), (7) & (8) from any half-decent textbook.

Sentence Two. Sentence Three. Sentence Four. Sentence Five. Sentence Six.

related entries: Language

the rest is noise

26th December 2007 permanent link

What was the favorite thing you gave this year? asks Steven Barnes.

That would be Alex Ross’s The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century. Tyler Cowen recommends it highly.

Personally I’m struggling with it. I don’t have enough grasp of technical musical terminology to make any sense of Alex Ross’s descriptions of pieces of music I’m not familiar with – and that, sadly, would seem be most of them. But the very dear friend I gave it to as a Christmas present, a jazz player and erstwhile classical composer, says he’s finding it “unputdownable” and “will definitely have to read it more than once to get the most out of it.”


related entries: Music

christmas thank you

24th December 2007 permanent link

A Christmas thank you to Peter Horst, who dug out for me a current link to Donna Farhi’s excellent article on how to do lotus safely, to which my previous link was broken.

related entries: Yoga

but maybe not

23rd December 2007 permanent link

I used to think I was pretty intelligent, until it took me four days to figure out that the reason I suddenly & mysteriously couldn’t unlock my bike might have something to do with the lock being frozen.

The fact that temperatures in Bavaria haven’t been above freezing since November – we have no snow in Munich just now, but the heaviest hoar frost I’ve ever seen – might have been something of a clue.

cody on lotus

9th December 2007 permanent link

Cody, author of quite possibly the most helpful English-language version of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (Part One), also has a useful discussion of knee safety in lotus.

My thoughts on the matter here. (I also have helpful advice on what not to do)

As Cody Rightly Says: be wary about taking advice from strangers on the internet!

related entries: Yoga

vande gurunam

5th December 2007 permanent link

वन्दे गुरूणां चरणारविन्दे
सन्दर्शित स्वात्म सुखवबोधे
निःश्रेयसे जाङ्गलिकायमने
संसार हाला हल मोह शान्त्यै

Since we’re on the subject of understanding Sanskrit chants in yoga class, here’s something that will be of no help at all to 99% of my readers. I though I might as well post it anyway.’s first page in German and Sanskrit is some notes on the opening mantra in honour of Patanjali that is normally chanted at the start of an ashtanga vinyasa yoga practice(*). I put them together last year for a beginners class I was covering for my teacher while she was away for a few weeks. And they might be of more use to somebody on the web than they are sitting on my laptop’s hard disk, so, waste not, want not.

English translation, and Sri K. Pattabhi Jois chanting with correct Sanskrit pronunciation, here.

(*) As an internet yoga cynic once put it, “like having to sing a song about Babe Ruth before you start a game of baseball”(**)

(**) By which I can only assume he meant “like having to sing a song about W.G. Grace before you start a game of cricket”

related entries: Yoga

pat robertson not wrong

4th December 2007 permanent link

Spiros at souljerky is generally a smart and perceptive guy, but I’m not sure what point he thinks he’s making by quoting [right wing TV evangelist] Pat Robertson:

Well the truth is that yoga is a form of meditation in the Hindu religion. And [in] some of the mantras they give you, you’re actually saying prayers to Vishnu and Krishna and you’re not even aware of it.

The idea of stretching is great. I think stretching before you exercise is fine. And they have some stretches that are part of the yoga regime which are very good for you. But when you get into that other stuff, and you’re into a higher consciousness, and you’re supposed to merge with your spirit in with the ever-present god, and gods everywhere, it’s a form of pantheism. It gets really spooky and I just don’t think you ought to be engaged with yoga. But in terms of stretching, by all means stretch.

I doubt – from what little I’ve read about him – that I would agree with many of Mr. Robertson’s opinions, but this doesn’t seem to me to be self-evidently wrong or even particularly controversial.

Yoga originated and developed in a predominantly Hindu culture, with Buddhist and Jain influences, and is suddenly enormously popular in the United States of America, a quite strongly Christian country. Surely it is a perfectly valid question for a Christian to ask, whether the concepts and purposes of yoga are compatible with the Christian concept of God. I’m not suggesting the answer is necessarily no – I know intelligent and thoughtful Christian yogis, whose opinions I respect far more highly than Mr. Robertson’s, who clearly have answered yes to their own satisfaction. But to suggest there is no question to answer strikes me as intellectually dishonest.

you’re actually saying prayers to Vishnu and Krishna …

Indeed you are. Or Ganesha, or Patanjali …

… and you’re not even aware of it.

If you’re not aware of what you’re chanting, whose fault might that be? If you care, then you can find out quite easily by asking your teacher or doing a bit of reading. If you don’t ask, you have no right to complain. If you do ask, and you don’t like the answer, then it’s your decision what you want to do about it.

I enjoy a good chant. My sanskrit is sub-rudimentary but enough that I do usually have at least a rough grasp of what I’m chanting about. I am not a Christian and so don’t personally care whether or not yogic philosophy is reconcilable with Christian doctrine. I’m not a Hindu either, but I have no problem with expressing respect for the aspects of the human condition that the Hindu deities seem to me to represent. (I’d love to believe in reincarnation but haven’t managed to do so yet; and on the off-chance Ganesha really is listening to the prayers and assisting the efforts of sincere students, well, I need all the help I can get)

(Where Mr Robertson is actually wrong is about stretching before exercise. Static stretching as an athletic warmup is thoroughly discredited – it actually temporarily weakens the stretched muscles. You should do it some other time.)

related entries: Yoga

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