Usenet World Map by the 90’s
Originally uploaded by Lulobyte

In the days before the World Wide Web, the best way to procrastinate on the Internet was probably Usenet.

(If you don’t know it, it’s basically hierarchical discussions ordered by topic. You can read Usenet newsgroups for instance by using Thunderbird and the Eternal September newsserver.)

At first, the advent of the WWW didn’t really threaten Usenet, but Wikipedia and the social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter caused a lot of people to leave Usenet. I was one of them — I didn’t post anything from 2007 until last month.

However, I then decided to go back and have a quick look at my favourite newsgroup, dk.kultur.sprog, and to be honest it was really nice to be back. It’s actually better than it used to be, because it appears the trolls have mainly disappeared off to pastures new.

However, I must admit using Usenet is a pain these days. Using Google Groups to access Usenet isn’t as good as using a dedicated reader, but using a specialised tool for one social media just feels wrong (and yes, these days Usenet would have been considered a social network). Also, the Usenet is just text, and it’s sometimes annoying you can’t easily attach images and sound files or use HTML tags.

I can’t help thinking somebody should reinvent Usenet, because the discussions you can have there are superior to what you can do on newspaper website comments sections, Wikipedia, Facebook, Twitter or Branch.

bookmark_borderТвердый с твердым и мягкий с мягким — swapping the orthographies for Gaelic and Russian

Originally uploaded by IrenicRhonda

Scottish Gaelic has a lot in common with Russian on a phonological level: Most consonants have two variants: a plain (or perhaps somewhat velarised) one and a palatalised one.

However, their orthographies handle this situation in different ways: In Gaelic, any consonant is palatalised (“slender”) if it is next to ‘e’ or ‘i’, and it’s plain (“broad”) otherwise (in Gaelic, this is expressed as “caol ri caol is leathann ri leathann”, which means “broad with broad and slender with slender”). In Russian, a consonant is palatalised (“soft”) if followed by ‘?’ (‘ye’), ‘?’ (‘i’), ‘?’ (‘ya’), ‘?’ (‘yu’), or ‘?’ (the “soft sign”).

This means that if we look at a word with consists of a slender/soft consonant, a back vowel and another slender/soft consonant, Gaelic will insert extra front vowels (e.g., ciùil /k?u?l?/ “of music”), while Russian will use one of the vowels listed above and a soft sign at the end (e.g., ???? /p?at?/ “five”).

Now, there’s nothing preventing Gaelic from using the Russian system, or Russian from using the Gaelic one (“??????? ? ??????? ? ?????? ? ??????”). That is, the Gaelic word above could in theory be written as ????, and the Russian one as piait.

I’m not sure there are many Gaelic speakers who would like to switch to Cyrillic, but in theory this Gaelic-style orthography for Russian could replace the current transliteration schemes — piait arguably looks neater that pjat’, which is how it’s normally handled at the moment.

bookmark_borderSkotsk for danskere 1: vokalerne

Skotsk udtale kan være vanskelig at mestre for danskere, men til dels skyldes det, at vi i skolen lærer engelsk engelsk, og det forvirrer os.

Her er en oversigt over vokalerne på skotsk engelsk (ikke scots, omend forskellene er små):

Fonem Eksempler Ligheder på dansk
i meet mild
e mate midt
? met mæt
? mid mat
a mad tak
? mud børn — bånd
y mood lut — lyt — blødt
o mode flod — ost
? mock sok — suk
?? ice glds. dejlig
ae eyes haj
?? boy tøj

Som det ses, svarer de urundede vokaler rimeligt til danske vokaler. Det mest overraskende er nok her, at den vokal, man som dansker skal bruge i ord som mid, er det danske flade ‘a’, men min datter Anna (der er tosproget) mente bestemt, at dansk ‘badge’ og skotsk ‘bits’ blev udtalt ens.

De rundede vokaler er lidt sværere at passe ind. Vokalen i ‘mood’ kan svinge fra en u-lyd til en ø-lyd, men hvis man bruger et dansk /y/, går man aldrig helt galt i byen. På samme måde har de andre vokaler en del variation, som de danske ikke har. Man skal som dansker passe på aldrig at forveksle vokalerne /?/ og /?/ — ‘dog’ og ‘duck’ indeholder slet ikke samme vokal!

Diftongerne er nemme nok. /??/ begyndet med et fladt dansk ‘a’, så det lyder lidt som en gammeldags udtale af ‘dejlig’.

Den opmærksomme læser vil have lagt mærke til, at både /??/ og /ae/ svarer til engelsk engelsk /a?/, hvor ‘ice’ or ‘eyes’ har samme vokal. Reglen er her, at /??/ normalt bruges, men /ae/ bruges i udlyd, og før /v/ og /ð/. Udlydsreglen gælder også, selvom en endelse tilføjes. Udlydsreglen giver altså ‘eye’ /ae/, og flertalsendelsen ændrer ikke noget, så vi får /ae#z/.

bookmark_borderThe GCSE results and the need for uncertainty

Most people in the UK will be aware of the recent GCSE results in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (but not in Scotland, where there is no such thing as the GCSE):

Results fell by a modest 0.4 percentage points across the board but there was intense consternation about a deeper drop in English results focused in particular schools. The share of entries graded at C or above fell by 1.5 percentage points in English year-on-year, from 65.4% to 63.9%. Results in maths and science have also fallen, against a backdrop of an explicit order from the exams regulator to curb grade inflation – and promises from politicians to increase rigour.

But the focus of teachers’ anger is on the shifting of the grade boundary for English, between candidates who took exams in winter and those who took papers in summer.

Robert Robson, principal of the Samuel Whitbread academy in Shefford, Bedfordshire, said: “According to our calculations if you did the foundation paper in English in January and got 43 marks you would have received a C grade, while this summer you would have to get 53 marks to get a C grade. The most significant effect is on the C/D borderline. We have 50 students who would usually have got a C that have got a D.”

Although it’s of course terribly unfair and upsetting to the students who feel they’ve been deprived of the results they thought were rightfully theirs, and although I do have some sympathy for the view that Gove should create a new exam (with a new name) rather than making the exams harder every year, I must say I can see the need for some uncertainty in the system.

The thing is that if the schools know exactly how many marks you need to get a C grade, and if the papers don’t change much from one year to another, then it becomes very tempting to teach to the exam rather than actually teaching things that are useful to know. This effect is exacerbated by the fact that schools are rated by the proportion of pupils achieving at least a C, so they’ll redirect a large part of the resources on pupils that fluctuate between a C and a D — or, to express it in marks, the pupils who are are expected to get between 35 and 43 marks and can be pulled up over the 43 threshold.

This is why it’s useful not to have a specific number of marks needed to get a specific grade. If the schools know that the number of marks needed to get a C can be anything between 35 and 50, depending on the actual paper, they cannot concentrate all their resources on coaching a small number of students.

As I’ve argued before, I think grades should be awarded based on percentages: Once all papers have been graded in the country, a computer should work out the A/B borderline so that 10% of the students get an A, the B/C borderline so that 25% of the students get a B, and so on. This would remove grade inflation overnight.

bookmark_borderThe SQA are pretending all languages are equally hard

Originally uploaded by albertogp123

My dear wife recently pointed out to me that you can download past papers from the Scottish Qualifications Authority’s website.

I have in the past only seen the French Intermediate 2, and I wasn’t very impressed. I therefore decided to have a look at the various language exams available.

Much to my surprise, it appears to me that all the language papers seem to be designed to be equally hard to a native speaker. In other words, I think a French native speaker would rate the French paper (PDF) the same as a Chinese speaker would rate the Chinese paper (PDF). For comparison, here are the Spanish, German, Russian and Urdu papers.

Now, many linguists would agree that all languages are equally hard to learn as a first language (i.e., children take more or less the same time to reach perfection no matter what their native language happens to be).

However, there’s no doubt whatsoever that the difficulty of learning a foreign language depends strongly on its similarity to your native language (and any other language(s) you might have learnt).

This means to an English speaker, the foreign language that is easiest to learn is probably Dutch, but choosing from the list of languages offered by the SQA, it’s entirely rational to start with French and then do Spanish as the second foreign language.

Doing Russian or Chinese would be crazy, because one would have to reach the same level in a much harder language in the same amount of time.

The way I see it, the exams should be based on the amount of language one can be expected to learn during the amount of lessons offered in a typical school. This would mean that the Chinese exam to a native speaker would look infinitely easier than the French exam, but there’s no real alternative — the language exam I had to sit after one year of full-time Japanese studies at university would have appeared incredibly easy to a native speaker, but otherwise nobody would have passed it.

The way the SQA are doing it, pupils get punished for wanting to learn a difficult language, which surely isn’t right.

I can’t help thinking that the Chinese and Urdu exams are mainly offered for the benefit of the Chinese and Pakistani communities in Scotland. I don’t have anything against this per se, but surely it’s a bit unfair that Léon can’t sit a Danish Higher to get an easy A the same way as Marcel has benefited from having grown up speaking both English and French. How large does a ethnic minority need to be before it can get a Higher in its language, I wonder?

bookmark_borderFar til en skolepige

Anna’s first day at school
Originally uploaded by PhylB

I dag var det første skoledag i East Renfrewshire Kommune, og da Anna blev født i december 2007, skulle hun begynde i P1 (1. klasse).

Hun har glædet sig meget, og det var en meget stolt og glad pige, der pilede ind i skolegården. Vi måtte ikke komme med ind og måtte vinke farvel til hende fra lågen.

I dag mødte hun kl. 9.30, men fra i morgen skal hun i skole hver dag fra 9 til 15, ligesom Léon, der nu er begyndt i 3. klasse.

Anna skal nu gå i “primary school” i de næste syv år, og så i gymnasiet (“high school”) i seks år, så hun bliver efter planen student, når hun er 17½.

Aldersmæssigt er P1-eleverne ca. to år yngre end danske 1. klasses-elever, så naturligvis er P1 ikke en kopi af en dansk førsteklasse, men inddrager elementer af en dansk børnehavneklasse (0. klasse). Eleverne har lært alfabetet og tallene i børnehaven (“preschool”), så de skal nu lære at læse, skrive og regne ordentligt, men naturligvis skal de også tegne og spille skuespil og den slags.

bookmark_borderShifting borders

Last year I blogged about a program I had written to calculate the nearest capital.

It just occurred to me that once the area being the closest to a given capital has been established, the capital can then be moved to the centre of this area, and the process can be repeated.

In this way, the countries shift gradually until they have reached an equilibrium:

In general, the resulting “countries” are more or less the same size, but obviously the shape of the coastline has interesting consequences.