Tuesday, October 28, 2008

How Do We Learn the Meaning of Words?

Erin McKean, lexicographer extrordinaire and myth buster about language, recently gave a talk at PopTech! to announce her new project, Wordnik!

Wordnik! is still in it's beta phase, but when it's released, it will help much more than any traditional dictionary.

What is a Dictionary For, Anyway?

As Erin has pointed out in many other talks, there is a misconception that a dictionary prescribes fixed and correct definitions for words. In fact, lexicographers scan both current electronic and paper sources for the ways in which words are used NOW. Rather than fixing language, editions of dictionaries demonstrate how English changes over time.

Why Wordnik?

Erin's point is this: We don't learn new words from dictionary definitions. We learn through context. One definition of genius -- a concept that is introduced for the first time that sounds absolutely obvious.

Erin is certainly that.

Wordnik, like Wikipedia, allows everyone to add sentences that offer enhancements or alternatives to those already recorded.

To that end, Wordnik is a living dictionary that will be more accurate at any moment than any printed work.

How useful is that?

If you feel, however, that talk is cheap, visit Erin's site A Dress a Day instead.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Pay Attention, Kids -- Romans Go Home

Anyone remember "Life of Brian"?

The Centaurian John Cleese forces a Latin graffiti politico to correct his case endings. In anti-Roman slogans on a stone wall. 100 times, I seem to remember, and then the dissident is dragged off to prison.

Put two familiar lessons together that are usually kept apart, and you might learn something. The trick is finding the right two lessons and deciding what is really worth learning.

Always Look on the Bright Side of Life

How important is it that kids learn Latin and about the culture that used it? Is the language really dead that reveals concepts applicable to every century?

The recent New York Times article asks us to revisit what we learn (and how we teach it) by likening the current financial crisis to the fall of Rome.

If only bankers had studied ancient culture differently (or at all, even), maybe none of this would never have happened. How much history do they teach in business school anyway?

Doomed to Repeat Ourselves?

Contemporary cultures too often treat the peoples who lived before them with a condescension that only comes from ignorance.

Progress is inevitable, right? We must have learned a tremendous amount in the centuries since the ancients invaded, stayed, and fell over themselves in England. How could we not?

The New York Times begs to differ. Understand cultural history -- yours, those around you, and the ways they are connected. Make it a priority in schools. It's as important as cutting bankers' bonuses if we want to move away from past mistakes. Big, big ones.