Friday, May 16, 2008

Foundation books

When I was in high school, our philosophy teacher gave us parts of the Bible as a reading assignment. His opinion was that, regardless of one's opinion about the contents, it was a worthwhile read because of its huge influence on occidental thought and writing. At that point, I had largely parted ways with catholicism, but I actually really enjoyed the experience. I had attended catechism as a kid, but there the book was studied as a source of guidance, and I had largely missed (or forgotten) that it was also the origin of numerous popular expressions.
I had a similar experience much later as I attended a class in graduate school in California. The professor made a reference to a road of yellow bricks, which was absolutely unintelligible to me. Looking around in the classroom, I could observe a divide: while most foreign students looked utterly puzzled, it seemed to make sense for Americans. Later on, it was explained to me that it referred to "The Wizard of Oz" - and I discovered that, while maybe less influential on western thought overall, Oz permeates the American language, with its set of references, covering topics from Kansas to what's to be found over the rainbow.
I haven't had the opportunity yet to watch Oz, but this will finally change, as tomorrow, the movie will be played in open air in Dolores Park. I have great hope this will help me figure out some of the missing keys in understanding America!

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Sunday, November 11, 2007

Local inference

Last week L and I were sitting at a cafe; as I finished my drink, I stood up to leave - and noticed that L was not done yet. I sat back, and as a matter of an apology, said "It is not because I am done, that everyone has to leave".
A little later, she came back to that sentence, pointing that it probably did not convey the meaning I intended. As often, I had liberally transposed a French structure into English, hoping for the best. It usually fails, most of the time because of idiomatic reasons, but in this situation I was fairly surprised: there is no such ambiguity taking place here, and in both languages, the logical relationship expressed by the sentence is identical.
The structure "It is not because [Condition], that [Consequence]" signifies that there is no causal link between the Condition and the Consequence. And yet, the meaning conveyed in each language is very different, because of what should be inferred. In English, it would be interpreted as "As this condition does not cause that consequence, it must be another condition that caused it", emphasizing the existence of another explanation for a phenomenon. This form exists also in French, but is not typical. Generally, it is meant as a challenge: "As this condition does not cause that consequence, a different reason will need to be produced in order for the consequence to be accepted as valid".
So when I tell you that "It is not because the point of this post is intricate, that you should give up reading it", when the Englishman in you may be looking for other reasons to give up (style, maybe?), your French side should remind you that really, one should not give up on something only because it is intricate.

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