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06/20/2000

Language and the Last Supper

Last night, at our gourmet club picnic, Betty said she had an idea
for one of my columns - language. Coincidentally, that was the
very subject I had chosen for this week! Betty is a teacher and
her concern was her feeling that her 7th grade students were not
saying the words corresponding to what they were actually trying
to tell her. Her real concern was finding that in general there was
no remorse when a student was caught in a falsehood. In fact,
when she brought up the subject of cheating, reportedly a
widespread problem today at both college and lower levels, the
7th graders actually opened up and shared with their teacher
various techniques of preparing for and codes for communicating
during exams!

Yesterday afternoon, we experienced an example of how
language can possibly get one into trouble with the authorities.
We went to Newark Airport to meet a Portuguese woman that we
hadn''t seen in 12 years. She was at the airport on her way back
to Lisbon and had brought with her from Portugal a very nice
silver letter opener as a gift to us. After sitting for a couple hours
waiting until she could check in her baggage, we wanted to get a
cold drink. This required going through security and I told my
wife we were going to have a problem with the letter opener.
Sure enough, the letter opener in my wife''s purse showed up on
the X-ray screen and, immediately, a number of airport personnel
arrived to discuss this lethal weapon. (I actually found this
comforting that they caught the item.) Our Portuguese friend,
not too fluent in English, casually informed the authorities that
the object was "just a knife" used to open letters. This remark
brought another, higher authority to the scene! Fortunately, this
higher authority was a young lady who asked if Maria was
Portuguese. It turned out the young lady was herself Portuguese.
A rapid-fire dialog ensued with the two women smiling and
laughing and we were allowed through without being arrested.

Last week I mentioned that my wife and I had stopped in Milan a
few weeks ago. Language and communication resulted in a
trying day for us in that city. Before going to Europe, I had read
that a controversial restoration of Leonardo Da Vinci''s fresco
"The Last Supper" was completed last year. It seems that
Leonardo was in an experimental mode when selecting his paints
and medium for the work and, though the fresco is a masterpiece,
his experiment was really a flop. The Last Supper began to
deteriorate shortly after he painted it and it has been the object of
continuing preservation/restoration efforts for 500 years. To
slow down further damage, moisture and carbon dioxide levels
are reduced by limiting visitors to 25 people every 15 minutes.

We were told at our hotel that we could go stand in line hoping
for cancellations and that we had a reasonable chance of getting
in. Arriving at the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie at 11
AM, we found a relatively short line with about 10 people ahead
of us. A sign proclaimed that all the tickets for the day were
sold. The line was monitored by a very pleasant gentleman who
patiently explained that there was no guarantee anyone would get
in. However, as time passed, he would get called to the ticket
area and come back with the news that one or two people had not
shown up and we were moving up, albeit slowly. Shortly after
we joined the line, a man took his place behind us and within
minutes had established himself as being from Finland and
invited us to visit his cottage on a lake in Finland. Although his
English was rather limited, within another 15 minutes he had
invited himself to our house in New Jersey! He then repeatedly
told our friendly monitor that we were a group of three,
obviously a ploy to gain him entry sooner.

Shortly before 2 PM, my wife and I had moved up to the 2nd and
3rd positions in line. Meanwhile, our monitor had said he would
be leaving at 2 PM and expressed regrets that we hadn''t gotten in
after almost 3 hours. At about 1:55 PM the lady ahead of us was
called and we were first in line. Promptly at 2 PM, our friendly
monitor disappeared, to be replaced by the Gestapo in the form
of a curt young lady who promptly stated in very clear English,
"Why are you standing here? The tickets are sold out. You will
not get in!" Several of us tried to convey to her that we knew the
tickets were sold out but what if someone didn''t show up? Her
answer to each inquiry was "That is not our problem!" Further
attempts to engage the lady in meaningful dialog resulted in
"Basta. Basta", lighting of a cigarette, folding of the arms and
complete, unapproachable silence.

At about 3 PM (the place closed at 6 PM) I decided to pose the
question, "What if a whole tour group cancels?" Answer: "That
is not our problem." At this point, I suggested to my wife that
this gal was impossible and that we abandon our quest. My wife,
showing uncharacteristic patience, said we should wait a little
longer. Sure enough, at 3:15 PM, Gestapo was called to the
ticket area and returned with the message, delivered with a
straight face, "A tour group canceled. We have room for 15
people!" Mamma Mia! (Shortly before this, Finland had given
up and left without even saying goodbye!)

In contrast to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, also the subject of
a controversial cleaning/restoration, the colors of The Last
Supper were not bright, but very subdued. I have no idea just
how much of Da Vinci''s original paints remain. With the limited
amount of time available to us, an equally large fresco on the
opposite wall of the refectory depicting the crucifixion was given
short shrift by us. It was in much better shape with more vivid
colors and is also be over 500 years old. I''ve forgotten the artist
but assume he was not as experimental as Leonardo was in his
approach.

But back to Gestapo and language. One could of course consider
the possibility that, in spite of her command of negative English,
Gestapo could not understand the essence of our simple question
concerning cancellation. You may recall that a couple months
ago I was in Indiana giving lectures on such things as fuel cells.
Well, on that trip I met Bob, a linguistics professor at Indiana
University. At dinner that night, I was intrigued by his
experiments with the phrase "pick a pack of cards". So, I
decided to visit his Web site (www.cs.indiana.edu/~port) and see
what I might learn. I decided to print out one of his papers on
speech and rhythmic behavior and thought I would exhaust my
paper supply. Thankfully, the paper was only 28 pages long!

After reading only two paragraphs, I was sent scurrying to my
dictionary to find the definitions of the words prosody, meter and
foot. You might think "foot" was obvious but hear me out.
Prosody - the science or art of versification, including the study
of metrical structure, rhyme, stanza forms etc. Meter - rhythm
in verse; the specific rhythm as determined by the prevailing foot
and the number of feet in the line. Foot - a group of syllables
serving as a unit of meter in verse; esp., such a unit having a
specified placement of the stressed syllable or syllables. (I was
happy to see another, more familiar definition of foot - the end
part of the leg, on which a person or animal stands or moves.)

I may have mentioned previously that, due to some genetic
defect, I''m among the rhythmically challenged. Clapping in
unison, for example, is not for me nor is picking up the beat on
the dance floor. The latter has been a bone of contention with
my wife for almost 50 years. With my handicap, I probably
would not have been a good subject for the experiments
described in Bob''s paper. In particular, he and his colleagues
carried out experiments in which the subjects were asked to
repeat phrases such as "pick a pack of cards". The repetition of
the phrase was cued by the beats of a metronome, the interval
between the metronome beats being adjustable from slow to fast.

Now, the phrase "pick a pack of cards" is characterized in the
linguistics trade as SwSwS, the "pick", "pack" and "cards" being
strong (S), while the "a" and the "of" are considered to be weak
(w). You''ll note that this is a pretty symmetrical phrase, the
middle S being surrounded by wS on both sides. What Bob and
his colleagues found in these experiments is that, as the subjects
keep repeating the phrase, they fall into a pattern where the
stressed syllables fall into harmonic positions with regard to the
interval between metronome beats. In other words, there is a
rhythm to the speech that is stimulated by the beat of the
metronome and this rhythm is such that the strong syllables are
spoken at simple fractions of the time of the metronome interval.
For example, "pack" would be spoken at 1/2 or 1/3 of the time
into the interval between metronome beats.

The Indiana workers bring into the picture the concept of "self-
entrainment" and the idea that "meter" should be defined in terms
of the self-entrainment of oscillators. Whoa! This sounds like
pretty heady stuff to apply to "pick a pack of cards", especially to
one like myself who has always had trouble handling waves and
frequencies, features that go together with oscillators. I still can''t
understand how a tsunami or tidal wave in the ocean can hang
together for thousands of miles to wreak havoc on unsuspecting
shores. But back to self-entrainment. When two oscillators self-
entrain it essentially means that as time goes by the beat or
repetitions of the motions of the two become related to each
other in a simple way. For example, they may fall into sync with
each other in a 1:1 fashion or in a 1:2 relationship where one
oscillator beats twice while the other beats once.

If you''re uncomfortable with oscillators, take the example of
walking and swinging your arms. As you walk, the swinging of
your arms will typically fall into a pattern which either matches
the swinging of your legs or will be in some simple ratio of that
leg pattern like 2:3, two swing of the arms to 3 swings of the
legs, etc. The old trick of trying to pat your head while rubbing
your tummy is another example of self -entrainment. Each has
its natural frequency but, in trying to do both together, one
constrains the other. Playing the piano is cited as a case where
the challenge is avoid the entrainment of the one hand by the
other. Scott Joplin tunes can be a formidable task, with their out-
of-sync rhythms, especially for us rhythmically challenged.

I have only skimmed the surface of Bob''s work and hope to
return to this field later. Other papers on his Web site deal with
such questions as telling the difference between word pairs such
as ladder-latter or bad-pad? In talking to Betty, I found her to be
skeptical of some of her college courses dealing with phonics,
phonetics and the like. This view seems consistent with Bob''s
opinion that earlier workers in the field tend to picture language
as a collection of symbols or terms, without taking into account
the fact that language is spoken in real time. I''m not sure I
understand exactly Bob''s criticism but it certainly relates to
speech having a rhythm to it and that this rhythm is important in
truly understanding language.

I don''t think Bob''s work explains our difficulties with Gestapo.
Were they caused by (a) her overwhelming need to assert her
authority, (b) a limitation of her English vocabulary restricting
her to only a consideration of her problem or (c) our inability to
convey the fact that we couldn''t give a hoot about her problem,
but had a profound interest in our own problem? Could it have
been self-entrainment that resulted in her concerns being 180
degrees out of phase with our own? I actually lean towards
explanation (a) but am always open to being proved wrong.

Allen F. Bortrum






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Dr. Bortrum

06/20/2000

Language and the Last Supper

Last night, at our gourmet club picnic, Betty said she had an idea
for one of my columns - language. Coincidentally, that was the
very subject I had chosen for this week! Betty is a teacher and
her concern was her feeling that her 7th grade students were not
saying the words corresponding to what they were actually trying
to tell her. Her real concern was finding that in general there was
no remorse when a student was caught in a falsehood. In fact,
when she brought up the subject of cheating, reportedly a
widespread problem today at both college and lower levels, the
7th graders actually opened up and shared with their teacher
various techniques of preparing for and codes for communicating
during exams!

Yesterday afternoon, we experienced an example of how
language can possibly get one into trouble with the authorities.
We went to Newark Airport to meet a Portuguese woman that we
hadn''t seen in 12 years. She was at the airport on her way back
to Lisbon and had brought with her from Portugal a very nice
silver letter opener as a gift to us. After sitting for a couple hours
waiting until she could check in her baggage, we wanted to get a
cold drink. This required going through security and I told my
wife we were going to have a problem with the letter opener.
Sure enough, the letter opener in my wife''s purse showed up on
the X-ray screen and, immediately, a number of airport personnel
arrived to discuss this lethal weapon. (I actually found this
comforting that they caught the item.) Our Portuguese friend,
not too fluent in English, casually informed the authorities that
the object was "just a knife" used to open letters. This remark
brought another, higher authority to the scene! Fortunately, this
higher authority was a young lady who asked if Maria was
Portuguese. It turned out the young lady was herself Portuguese.
A rapid-fire dialog ensued with the two women smiling and
laughing and we were allowed through without being arrested.

Last week I mentioned that my wife and I had stopped in Milan a
few weeks ago. Language and communication resulted in a
trying day for us in that city. Before going to Europe, I had read
that a controversial restoration of Leonardo Da Vinci''s fresco
"The Last Supper" was completed last year. It seems that
Leonardo was in an experimental mode when selecting his paints
and medium for the work and, though the fresco is a masterpiece,
his experiment was really a flop. The Last Supper began to
deteriorate shortly after he painted it and it has been the object of
continuing preservation/restoration efforts for 500 years. To
slow down further damage, moisture and carbon dioxide levels
are reduced by limiting visitors to 25 people every 15 minutes.

We were told at our hotel that we could go stand in line hoping
for cancellations and that we had a reasonable chance of getting
in. Arriving at the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie at 11
AM, we found a relatively short line with about 10 people ahead
of us. A sign proclaimed that all the tickets for the day were
sold. The line was monitored by a very pleasant gentleman who
patiently explained that there was no guarantee anyone would get
in. However, as time passed, he would get called to the ticket
area and come back with the news that one or two people had not
shown up and we were moving up, albeit slowly. Shortly after
we joined the line, a man took his place behind us and within
minutes had established himself as being from Finland and
invited us to visit his cottage on a lake in Finland. Although his
English was rather limited, within another 15 minutes he had
invited himself to our house in New Jersey! He then repeatedly
told our friendly monitor that we were a group of three,
obviously a ploy to gain him entry sooner.

Shortly before 2 PM, my wife and I had moved up to the 2nd and
3rd positions in line. Meanwhile, our monitor had said he would
be leaving at 2 PM and expressed regrets that we hadn''t gotten in
after almost 3 hours. At about 1:55 PM the lady ahead of us was
called and we were first in line. Promptly at 2 PM, our friendly
monitor disappeared, to be replaced by the Gestapo in the form
of a curt young lady who promptly stated in very clear English,
"Why are you standing here? The tickets are sold out. You will
not get in!" Several of us tried to convey to her that we knew the
tickets were sold out but what if someone didn''t show up? Her
answer to each inquiry was "That is not our problem!" Further
attempts to engage the lady in meaningful dialog resulted in
"Basta. Basta", lighting of a cigarette, folding of the arms and
complete, unapproachable silence.

At about 3 PM (the place closed at 6 PM) I decided to pose the
question, "What if a whole tour group cancels?" Answer: "That
is not our problem." At this point, I suggested to my wife that
this gal was impossible and that we abandon our quest. My wife,
showing uncharacteristic patience, said we should wait a little
longer. Sure enough, at 3:15 PM, Gestapo was called to the
ticket area and returned with the message, delivered with a
straight face, "A tour group canceled. We have room for 15
people!" Mamma Mia! (Shortly before this, Finland had given
up and left without even saying goodbye!)

In contrast to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, also the subject of
a controversial cleaning/restoration, the colors of The Last
Supper were not bright, but very subdued. I have no idea just
how much of Da Vinci''s original paints remain. With the limited
amount of time available to us, an equally large fresco on the
opposite wall of the refectory depicting the crucifixion was given
short shrift by us. It was in much better shape with more vivid
colors and is also be over 500 years old. I''ve forgotten the artist
but assume he was not as experimental as Leonardo was in his
approach.

But back to Gestapo and language. One could of course consider
the possibility that, in spite of her command of negative English,
Gestapo could not understand the essence of our simple question
concerning cancellation. You may recall that a couple months
ago I was in Indiana giving lectures on such things as fuel cells.
Well, on that trip I met Bob, a linguistics professor at Indiana
University. At dinner that night, I was intrigued by his
experiments with the phrase "pick a pack of cards". So, I
decided to visit his Web site (www.cs.indiana.edu/~port) and see
what I might learn. I decided to print out one of his papers on
speech and rhythmic behavior and thought I would exhaust my
paper supply. Thankfully, the paper was only 28 pages long!

After reading only two paragraphs, I was sent scurrying to my
dictionary to find the definitions of the words prosody, meter and
foot. You might think "foot" was obvious but hear me out.
Prosody - the science or art of versification, including the study
of metrical structure, rhyme, stanza forms etc. Meter - rhythm
in verse; the specific rhythm as determined by the prevailing foot
and the number of feet in the line. Foot - a group of syllables
serving as a unit of meter in verse; esp., such a unit having a
specified placement of the stressed syllable or syllables. (I was
happy to see another, more familiar definition of foot - the end
part of the leg, on which a person or animal stands or moves.)

I may have mentioned previously that, due to some genetic
defect, I''m among the rhythmically challenged. Clapping in
unison, for example, is not for me nor is picking up the beat on
the dance floor. The latter has been a bone of contention with
my wife for almost 50 years. With my handicap, I probably
would not have been a good subject for the experiments
described in Bob''s paper. In particular, he and his colleagues
carried out experiments in which the subjects were asked to
repeat phrases such as "pick a pack of cards". The repetition of
the phrase was cued by the beats of a metronome, the interval
between the metronome beats being adjustable from slow to fast.

Now, the phrase "pick a pack of cards" is characterized in the
linguistics trade as SwSwS, the "pick", "pack" and "cards" being
strong (S), while the "a" and the "of" are considered to be weak
(w). You''ll note that this is a pretty symmetrical phrase, the
middle S being surrounded by wS on both sides. What Bob and
his colleagues found in these experiments is that, as the subjects
keep repeating the phrase, they fall into a pattern where the
stressed syllables fall into harmonic positions with regard to the
interval between metronome beats. In other words, there is a
rhythm to the speech that is stimulated by the beat of the
metronome and this rhythm is such that the strong syllables are
spoken at simple fractions of the time of the metronome interval.
For example, "pack" would be spoken at 1/2 or 1/3 of the time
into the interval between metronome beats.

The Indiana workers bring into the picture the concept of "self-
entrainment" and the idea that "meter" should be defined in terms
of the self-entrainment of oscillators. Whoa! This sounds like
pretty heady stuff to apply to "pick a pack of cards", especially to
one like myself who has always had trouble handling waves and
frequencies, features that go together with oscillators. I still can''t
understand how a tsunami or tidal wave in the ocean can hang
together for thousands of miles to wreak havoc on unsuspecting
shores. But back to self-entrainment. When two oscillators self-
entrain it essentially means that as time goes by the beat or
repetitions of the motions of the two become related to each
other in a simple way. For example, they may fall into sync with
each other in a 1:1 fashion or in a 1:2 relationship where one
oscillator beats twice while the other beats once.

If you''re uncomfortable with oscillators, take the example of
walking and swinging your arms. As you walk, the swinging of
your arms will typically fall into a pattern which either matches
the swinging of your legs or will be in some simple ratio of that
leg pattern like 2:3, two swing of the arms to 3 swings of the
legs, etc. The old trick of trying to pat your head while rubbing
your tummy is another example of self -entrainment. Each has
its natural frequency but, in trying to do both together, one
constrains the other. Playing the piano is cited as a case where
the challenge is avoid the entrainment of the one hand by the
other. Scott Joplin tunes can be a formidable task, with their out-
of-sync rhythms, especially for us rhythmically challenged.

I have only skimmed the surface of Bob''s work and hope to
return to this field later. Other papers on his Web site deal with
such questions as telling the difference between word pairs such
as ladder-latter or bad-pad? In talking to Betty, I found her to be
skeptical of some of her college courses dealing with phonics,
phonetics and the like. This view seems consistent with Bob''s
opinion that earlier workers in the field tend to picture language
as a collection of symbols or terms, without taking into account
the fact that language is spoken in real time. I''m not sure I
understand exactly Bob''s criticism but it certainly relates to
speech having a rhythm to it and that this rhythm is important in
truly understanding language.

I don''t think Bob''s work explains our difficulties with Gestapo.
Were they caused by (a) her overwhelming need to assert her
authority, (b) a limitation of her English vocabulary restricting
her to only a consideration of her problem or (c) our inability to
convey the fact that we couldn''t give a hoot about her problem,
but had a profound interest in our own problem? Could it have
been self-entrainment that resulted in her concerns being 180
degrees out of phase with our own? I actually lean towards
explanation (a) but am always open to being proved wrong.

Allen F. Bortrum