Pharyngula

An historical meme

Wilkins tagged me. It’s all his fault.

This is supposed to be a historical meme…why bother me with this? I think it’s because philosophers have a professional obligation to annoy people with weird questions, and Wilkins takes personal pleasure in poking me now and then, the brute. Here’s what I’m supposed to do.

  1. Link to the person who tagged you.
  2. List 7 random/weird things about your favorite historical figure.
  3. Tag seven more people at the end of your blog and link to theirs.
  4. Let the person know they have been tagged by leaving a note on their blog.

Favorite historical figure?? I don’t suppose I can name the progenote or urbilaterian, but because this was started by some historian somewhere, I have to restrict myself to some boring recent human being; and like Wilkins, I should avoid the obvious choices, although in his case Frederick II Hohenstaufen was a cool dude.

I guess I’ll name another cool dude…

Karl Ernst Ritter von Baer, Edler von Huthorn (1792-1876).

  1. He was an Estonian — and seriously, the Baltic states don’t get enough credit as a major seat of European civilization, one that has been walked over far too many times. Let’s all hear it for Estonia and the scientific tradition therein!

  2. As you might guess from the name, he was also a Prussian nobleman, a genuine, certified knight. Hereditary titles don’t mean squat as far as the value of his work goes, but still, there’s a cachet to being a member of the old European nobility, especially the cranky, distinguished branch rather than one of the numerous fluffy superficial branches of hereditary twithood.

  3. He volunteered for the Napoleonic Wars, another distinction not often bandied about in the pantheon of scientists. Better yet, he was on the right side, opposing Napoleon’s invasion in 1812. Best of all, he didn’t fight — he served as a doctor. You’ve got to respect that.

  4. He was a developmental biologist who discovered the blastula stage, the notochord, the mammalian ovum, and with others, defined the germ layer theory of development, which explained the configuration of the blastula and gastrula as layers of cells in sheets. This is all stuff that is so basic and so central to our knowledge of embryology that we simply take it for granted nowadays.

    He wasn’t just an embryologist, but also a taxonomist, entomologist, ichthyologist, anthropologist, geologist, ecologist (before the word was coined), geographer, and arctic explorer. Those were the days, when good scientists were expected to know something about just about everything.

  5. He was an opinionated curmudgeon who didn’t hesitate to argue with the scientific establishment of his day. He disagreed strongly with the Naturphilosophen who argued for a systematic hierarchy in the taxonomy of life with an attendant echo of that pattern in developmental recapitulation. He proposed his four laws of development to explain development as a divergence into diverse forms, rather than an adherence to a historical pattern. Here they are:

    1. General characters appear earlier in development than specialized characters.
    2. Less general character appear later (and build on) the general framework of earlier stages.
    3. The embryo of any organism, rather than passing through the stages of other forms, tends to progressively differentiate itself from them.
    4. The embryo of one animal form never resembles the adult of another, but only its embryo.

    Good rules, and still valid.

    Late in life, he argued equally strongly against Charles Darwin’s theory, even while accepting the evidence Darwin discussed. His last book, Studien auf dem Gebiete der Naturwissenschaften, contained a critique of evolutionary theory that said that “for a true understanding of nature, we cannot dispense with a governing intelligence,” and he also compared life to a machine which builds itself, and a chemical laboratory that assembles its own reagents — that’s right, he was a creationist, and one of the Intelligent Design variety. Except, of course, that he relied on the competent interpretation of the actual evidence of his day, rather than the New Creationist strategy of promulgating ignorance. His thinking was guided in part by his belief in an archetype for each species, an ideal pattern from which only limited deviation could occur.

  6. Despite his bona fides as a respected opponent of evolution, modern creationists ignore him for the most part. Why? I think because he also said this, upon examining some unlabeled embryo specimens:

    I am quite unable to say to what class they belong. They may be lizards, or small birds, or very young mammalia, so complete is the similarity in the mode of formation of the head and trunk in these animals. The extremities are still absent, but even if they had existed in the earliest stage of the development we should learn nothing, because all arise from the same fundamental form.

    The similarity of early embryos is something the creationists want to deny, so the fact that an unimpeachable anti-evolutionist was the first to describe the similarities in detail must make them rather uncomfortable. They try to pin the observation on Haeckel, instead, and call it a “forgery.”

    By the way, the other current creationist copout, that various embryos do differ substantially at the very earliest stages, doesn’t apply either. Karl Ernst von Baer discovered the blastula stage, and also described the earliest embryonic membranes. He was well aware of the early differences.

  7. i-3c59f94856b2e2803ee7c572a4ef7224-vonbaer.jpg

    The extant photos of the fellow reveal a singularly homely man who looks either dour or a bit snooty. By all accounts, however, he was witty and pleasant in social situations despite the strong opinions he expressed in print, with a good sense of humor. He married when he was 28 to Auguste von Medem, had 6 children, and was an all-around good human being.


I’ve admired von Baer for a long time; one of the most pleasant afternoons I’ve ever had was an opportunity to spend a day with the embryologist and historian of science, Jane Oppenheimer, and in addition to getting her perspective on how Philadelphia had changed since the 1920s, we talked a great deal about one of her favorite people, Karl Ernst von Baer. She deepened my interest, and I tend to find an excuse to bring up von Baer in most of my classes.

By the way, I’ve never found a consistent report of his birthday — the dates wobble from 17 February to 29 February. He’d be 216 years old sometime around now, so pick a date and raise a glass to the old man…or we could just declare two weeks of celebration to make sure we hit the right day. Prost!

Now I have to name seven people? OK, let’s pick some who might have an informed opinion about some interesting aspects of history: Amardeep, New Kid, Ed, Ancarett, Tristero, Sharon, and the Little Professor. Anyone else can go for it, too!

Comments

  1. #1 Tulse
    February 25, 2008

    But…but…you’re an evil Darwinian! You can’t like someone who wasn’t an evilutionist! That would be open-minded and thoughtful and cognizant of the historicity of scientific opinion!

  2. #2 zer0
    February 25, 2008

    Prost!

  3. #3 Laurie Soule
    February 25, 2008

    Estonia? It thought that country only existed in Dilbert. Oh, wait. That’s Elbonia.

  4. #4 Richard Harris
    February 25, 2008

    List 7 random/weird things about your favorite historical figure.

    Jumpin’ Jeezus! How could one choose between Beethoven & Darwin?

  5. #5 Sarcastro
    February 25, 2008

    Better yet, he was on the right side, opposing Napoleon’s invasion in 1812.

    There was a “right” side in this conflict between emperors?

    “Well, it’ll be the nineteenth century for me. One of Napoleon’s marshals. The chance to march across Europe with the greatest general of all time… and kill Belgians! Marvellous.” – A.J. Rimmer

  6. #6 TheElkMechanic
    February 25, 2008

    He kind of looks like Mr. Bentley from the Jeffersons.

  7. #7 Deepsix
    February 25, 2008

    Nice essay, PZ.

    I’d have to go with either Mark Twain or Nathan Bedford Forrest.

    NBF is certainly a controversial figure, but also one hell of an interesting character.

  8. #8 Stephen
    February 25, 2008

    Of course most people look rather dour in photos from that period, due to the necessity of remaining quite still during the very long exposure times. There were even pieces of apparatus with brackets for the neck and back which would hold you motionless for the required time.

  9. #9 Alan B.
    February 25, 2008

    By the way, I’ve never found a consistent report of his birthday — the dates wobble from 17 February to 29 February.

    Estonia evidently did not adopt the Gregorian calendar until the 20th century which probably accounts for the difference.

  10. #10 lannejhang
    February 25, 2008

    You can’t say he was Estonian as Estonia did not exist at the time. Just as Kant, who was not Russian although he was from the city of Könisgberg (now Kaliningrad, Russia), von Baer was German.

    Also his first rule is not valid anymore. It implies that the earliest stages are the most general ones, but even among vertebrates, the early cleaving stages are very specialized, while the embryos become more similar later.

  11. #11 amk
    February 25, 2008

    Actually I think you’ll find he tagged “PZ Miares”.

  12. #12 windy
    February 25, 2008

    You can’t say he was Estonian as Estonia did not exist at the time. … von Baer was German.

    Germany didn’t exist at the time either (until the last years of his life, but v.B. didn’t live in Germany then)

  13. #13 Tamar
    February 25, 2008

    It’ll be TH Huxley for me, no doubt.
    Darwin’s bulldog, the first agnostic, was also enthusiastic about science popularization. If he were alive today, he would probably have a science blog… not unlike pharyngula, I assume.
    How would you stand in this kind of competition. PZ?

    Here one of his many qouts:
    “After all, it is as respectable to be modified ape as to be modified dirt”

  14. #14 Gregory Kusnick
    February 25, 2008

    Peeve alert!

    What’s the deal with “an historical” in the thread title? Cockneys might be able to get away with saying “an ‘istory” and “an ‘istorical”, but for anybody who actually pronounces the h, “an historical” is pure affectation. (Would you say “an hysterical patient” or “an harmonica”?)

  15. #15 negentropyeater
    February 25, 2008

    “He was an Estonian”

    Gee, wonder what HE would have thought of that.

    He was a Baltendeutsche (Baltic German), not an Estonian. In the 19th century, a Baltendeutche wasn’t more of an Estonian than a Russian.

    Like always, when someone becomes famous, every nation tries to take credit.
    Estonian biologist ? German biologist ? Russian biologist ? All are partly true.

  16. #16 Brownian, OM
    February 25, 2008

    Gee, wonder what HE would have thought of that.

    Who cares? Even if he were one of those degenerate Finnic Estonians, he would not have been a real Balt.

    At least, not like us glorious Lithuanians.

  17. #17 negentropyeater
    February 25, 2008

    Brownian, gee, that makes two of us… My Grandfather was a Lithuanian.

  18. #18 Flex
    February 25, 2008

    Dour or snooty?

    Funny, that particular picture reminds me of Peter Sellers’ role of Dr. Pratt in “The Wrong Box”.

    And that La Giaconda smile of his suggests a very wry sense of humor.

    Of course, appearances are proverbially a poor way to judge character.

  19. #19 Mrs Tilton
    February 25, 2008

    Sarcastro @5,

    There was a “right” side in this conflict between emperors?

    I see that somebody hasn’t read their Patrick O’Brian.

  20. #20 Bjørn Østman
    February 25, 2008

    I’d like to make a nomimation: Geronimo
    1. Last free American.
    2. Fought for his people.
    3. Never got hit by a bullet (which he remarked to his white captors).
    4. Went on with life even when his wife and children were slaughtered (by Mexicans).
    5. Was a brilliant military strategist.
    6. Was expelled from the Dutch Reformed Church for gambling.
    7. Loved children.

  21. #21 Bjørn Østman
    February 25, 2008

    I’d like to make a nomimation: Geronimo
    1. Last free American.
    2. Fought for his people.
    3. Never got hit by a bullet (which he remarked to his white captors).
    4. Went on with life even when his wife and children were slaughtered (by Mexicans).
    5. Was a brilliant military strategist.
    6. Was expelled from the Dutch Reformed Church for gambling.
    7. Loved children.

  22. #22 negentropyeater
    February 25, 2008

    Isn’t the one who “does the invading”, the “bad guy” ?

    After Iraq, I thought not only the French and Germans knew that !

  23. #23 windy
    February 25, 2008

    -He was a Baltendeutsche (Baltic German), not an Estonian.
    -Who cares? Even if he were one of those degenerate Finnic Estonians, he would not have been a real Balt.

    Actually he would have called himself a Balt, a Deutsch-Balt! Ha!

    Although the politically correct term would be “embryonic-Estonian”

  24. #24 PZ Myers
    February 25, 2008

    Yes, his patriotism was more complex than just one simple label can handle. He was of German descent, and all of his work was published in either German or Latin; he was also affiliated with St Petersburg and seemed to favor Russia. It’s hard to explain all that in a short post, though, so I just went with the current name of his place of residence.

    Calling him simply German or Russian would have done even more violence to his nationality.

  25. #25 Alan
    February 25, 2008

    The Indian emperor Ashoka the Great. Possibly the greatest ruler to ever have set foot on Earth. Built universities and irrigation systems. Promoted freedom, tolerance, equality and the principles of nonviolence. Citizens were treated equally regardless of their sect, caste or even politics. Here’s what the brilliant antireligious science fiction writer HG Wells said about him:

    “In the history of the world there have been thousands of kings and emperors who called themselves ‘their highnesses,’ ‘their majesties,’ and ‘their exalted majesties’ and so on. They shone for a brief moment, and as quickly disappeared. But Ashoka shines and shines brightly like a bright star, even unto this day.”

    From a personal perspective, Gauss was really cool as well but very few outside of math and science would care, so Ashoka it is.

  26. #26 Brownian, OM
    February 25, 2008

    Speaking of memes for PZ, there’s an article in Salon about us: http://www.salon.com/books/int/2008/02/25/evangelicals/?source=newsletter

  27. #27 negentropyeater
    February 25, 2008

    Windy,
    “Although the politically correct term would be “embryonic-Estonian”

    considering that after he died, there were still 42 years (1876-1918) gestation, I’m not sure how embryonic that could have been…

  28. #28 Brownian, OM
    February 25, 2008

    Once I’ve completed my Stochastic Brain Ray?, you’ll all be subject to my benevolent tyrannical rule.

    Thus, I consider you all to be embryonic Brownianians.

  29. #29 sublunary
    February 25, 2008

    “At least, not like us glorious Lithuanians.”

    Brownian! You made my day. And negentropyeater.

    Two of my grand parents are from Lithuania. I’m glad to see I’m in good company.

    I do wish, however, that when I tell people that, they’d stop looking at me like I made the country up!

  30. #30 MRL
    February 25, 2008

    I’m saddened. Why no love for Tesla?

  31. #31 dhawk
    February 25, 2008

    Definitely agree with Gregory Kusnick. “An historical” is an affectation, but in all fairness, I believe that it was meant to be a joke. “An historical” certainly gives it the flavor of antiquity.

  32. #32 Sarcastro
    February 25, 2008

    What’s the deal with “an historical” in the thread title? Cockneys might be able to get away with saying “an ‘istory” and “an ‘istorical”, but for anybody who actually pronounces the h, “an historical” is pure affectation.(Would you say “an hysterical patient” or “an harmonica”?)

    No, I would say “a harmonica” with a long-a but I would use “an” before I would use “a” pronounced as a schwa because the schwa slurs the leading “ha” in “harmonica”. All well and good for “harmonica” but this usage runs into a problem with the word “historical” since a long-a before that word makes it a different word.

    An “ahistorical meme” would have something to do with Patrick O’Brian.

  33. #33 Brownian, OM
    February 25, 2008

    I do wish, however, that when I tell people that, they’d stop looking at me like I made the country up!

    Yeah, I got that a lot when I was little. Hello, we were the largest state in Europe in the 15th century!

  34. #34 negentropyeater
    February 25, 2008

    “Brownianian”

    isn’t that something that is named after something that is named after Robert Brown. 2 generations !

  35. #35 lytefoot
    February 25, 2008

    Damn, #31 beat me to the defense of “an historical”–ahistorical has its own meaning, so we say “an historical” to distinguish it. That’s the point of all these maneuvers, after all, to make what we’re saying comfortable in a human mouth and clear in meaning.

    So, certainly, when we speak, we should say “an historical”, and when we pronounce the phrase the ‘h’ phenome becomes a slight aspiration on the vowel sound instead of a proper consonant in its own right. But should we *write* “an historical”? Or should we write “a historical” and say ‘an historical,” in the same way that we write “Charles’s” but sometimes say “Charles’”? It seems that the trend in modern American English usage is to make written usage mirror spoken–to the point where some style references don’t entirely proscribe “Charles’”–we should probably write “an historical.”

  36. #36 Kseniya
    February 25, 2008

    I’ve always been fond of Tycho Brahe’s buddy Jepp, but I don’t think Jepp qualifies as “an” historical figure. ~_o

  37. #37 krish
    February 25, 2008

    Very appropriate choice, PZ, given that yesterday was Estonia’s Independence Day – 90th birthday of the republic. Must admit that we Estonians are very apt to claim people as our own as soon as they achieve something, Baltendeutsche or not…

  38. #38 Brownian, OM
    February 25, 2008

    How dead do they have to be to be historical? I read “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman” when I was thirteen, and have engaged in unabashed hero worship of the man ever since.

  39. #39 Gregory Kusnick
    February 25, 2008

    Sarcastro and lytefoot (#31 and #34):

    I hear what you’re saying, but I’m not quite buying it. Real people, in my experience, do not pronounce “a historical” (or “a harmonica”) with a long a; they pronounce it with a schwa. So while the argument about avoiding confusion with “ahistorical” may look good on paper, it doesn’t seem to reflect the way people actually speak.

    My feeling is that “an historical” is just a meme (in the original Dawkinsian sense) that subconsciously appeals to people beause it sounds high-falutin, and so they emulate it without analyzing it, not because they think it’s phonetically correct or less ambiguous.

  40. #40 pedlar
    February 25, 2008

    For Brownian et al.,

    While I am only Lithuanian by proxy (sister-in-law, nephew and neices) I am at this very moment – 23.30 local time – posting this from the port city of Klaipeda where it is a cold, windy night after a cold, sunny day.

    Just thought I’d offer a (very tenuous) link to the old country.

  41. #41 Sarcastro
    February 25, 2008

    The issue is where the stress is in the word. If the stress is on the leading, or only, syllable a schwa works (a ham or a home). But if the stress is not on the leading syllable then using a schwa slurs out the leading H which takes us back to Cockney sounding talk; a (schwa) harmonica is pronounced “uh ‘armonica” if you’re not very careful.

    It’s not a big deal and all three usages are perfectly acceptable in common parlance, but there is a reason behind the “an” usage and it is hardly just a meme (yea, talk about a misused word) as it predates modern English, although its continued usage may well be an affectation.

  42. #42 chriss
    February 25, 2008

    Auguste von Medem?…a baroness?…now That’s a trophy wife!

  43. #43 Emmet Caulfield
    February 25, 2008

    I’m amused by the peeve about “an historical figure”. I was always taught to use “an” before an “h”, but I would always say what rolls off the tongue easiest (for me that’s “a horse” and “an historical”). I never suspected that reverse language snobs were labeling me “pretentious” or “high-falutin” for writing the way that comes most naturally to me. I’m definitely a Lynn Truss fan, a valiant defender of the apostrophe, and one who writes SMS messages in proper sentences and seethes about crappy grammar and punctuation, but even I don’t get my knickers in a twist about “a” vs. “an” before “h”. With the general decline in writing skills, it’s the least of my worries. I’m somewhat reassured that there are people whose irrational language neurosis is worse than my own :o)

  44. #44 Trent Eady
    February 25, 2008

    By all accounts, however, he was witty and pleasant in social situations despite the strong opinions he expressed in print, with a good sense of humor.

    Sounds like PZ!

  45. #45 Stephen Wells
    February 25, 2008

    “a historical” is one space away from being “ahistorical”, so the n is a valuable aid to precision. Compare to French, where -t- can be inserted for euphony and to clarify a flow of vowels.

  46. #46 pedlar
    February 25, 2008

    Emmet at #42:

    Well thanks, you just wrote my post for me.

    Wow, that was easy.

  47. #47 Brownian, OM
    February 25, 2008

    Wow! Balts (and krish, begrudgingly, ;-) ) of Pharyngula unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains!

    If it makes you feel better, Pedlar, I’m half Croat and have never been to either of the old countries, so actually being in Klaip?da (that’s ???????? to Kseniya) gives you more street cred than I.

  48. #48 Brownian, OM
    February 25, 2008

    Oh shit, shit, shit! ‘Gives you more street cred than me‘! I meant to write ‘me’! I’m sorry, so sorry! Please don’t eviscerate me, high-falutin’ language snobs!

  49. #49 Charon
    February 25, 2008

    People: ahistorical v. a historical is typically clear from context even if you pronounce the a’s the same way. “This is ahistorical paper” lacks an article.

    Also, calling the “uh harmonica” pronounciation Cockney displays a lack of understaning of the actual speech in any part of the US I’ve lived (the Midwest and all over the West Coast). That’s the way real people pronounce it.

  50. #50 Charon
    February 25, 2008

    And yes, I can’t spell. Understanding.

    For the record, “an historical” sounds pretentious to me (at least when an American uses it). Upon analysis, I’m fine with it, and understand some of the motivation to use it. But my gut reaction is, “Wow, that’s pretentious.”

  51. #51 Gregory Kusnick
    February 25, 2008

    Please don’t eviscerate me, high-falutin’ language snobs!

    Well, as long as we’re being snobbish, falutin takes no apostrophe. (There’s no such verb as to falute.)

    Although now that I look up, I see that the preferred spelling is hifalutin or highfalutin, with no hyphen either. My bad.

    OK, I’ll shut up now.

  52. #52 Brownian, OM
    February 25, 2008

    There’s no such verb as to falute.

    Sez you. Back in high school I knew this girl who was positively renowned for her skill in fal–oops, wrong verb.

  53. #53 Rey Fox
    February 25, 2008

    I just hate it when people pronounce a leading “h” as “y”. As in “That’s a yuge dog you got there!”

  54. #54 Rey Fox
    February 25, 2008

    “At least, not like us glorious Lithuanians.”

    Hey, at least he wasn’t from *snort* LATVIA.

    Or Kaliningrad. Hey dudes, Russia is over there! Dorks.

  55. #55 Emmet Caulfield
    February 25, 2008

    For the record, “an historical” sounds pretentious to me (at least when an American uses it).

    OK, but if we were to catalogue the things that mildly irritate us about dialects of English other than our own, we’d be here a long time. My own totally irrational minor peeve has to be the American use of normalcy instead of normality: it grates on my ears like forks in my eyes.

  56. #56 Monado, FCD
    February 25, 2008

    Emmet, me too! That’s because it’s from two different languages. But you knew that.

  57. #57 Azkyroth
    February 25, 2008

    My feeling is that “an historical” is just a meme (in the original Dawkinsian sense) that subconsciously appeals to people beause it sounds high-falutin, and so they emulate it without analyzing it, not because they think it’s phonetically correct or less ambiguous.

    I’m inclined to agree, to the extent that from now on when quoting people using it, I’m going to pronounce it as “anustorical.” :P

  58. #58 The Disgruntled Chemist
    February 25, 2008

    My choice of historical figure was Buckminster Fuller. That was a fascinating, weird dude right there.

  59. #59 MikeM
    February 25, 2008

    The problem with Karl Ernst Ritter von Baer birthdates may come from the fact that Estonia was part of the Russian Empire when he was born – thus under the old Julian Calendar which would have been about 12 days off from the Gregorian in 1792. So both dates are right!

  60. #60 Russell Seitz
    February 26, 2008

    So exemplary a Prussian liberal deserves to be more widely celebrated . So I have. availing myself of PZ’s BaerBio to contrast it with a less exemplary latter-day UK science lord over at Taki’s blog

  61. #61 bernarda
    February 26, 2008

    I agree with sarcastro in 5, in what way was supporting the Tsar being on the “right” side? Napoleon had plenty of faults, but he did permanently upset the centuries old status quo where countries and regions were traded off among a few aristocratic families who ruled by divine right.

    What if Napoleon had succeeded in overthrowing the tsar and replacing the government with a secular one? Russia might have emerged from feudalism a hundred years earlier.

  62. #62 soikins
    February 26, 2008

    “Wow! Balts (and krish, begrudgingly, ;-) ) of Pharyngula unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains!”

    Just to diversify this Baltic party – hello from Latvia!

    “Hey, at least he wasn’t from *snort* LATVIA.”

    Hey, what was that supposed to mean!?

  63. #63 Stephen Wells
    February 26, 2008

    @54: surely forks in your eyes wouldn’t grate on your ears at all? Clearly you meant “Grates on my ears like a grater, on my ears.”

  64. #64 boggsy
    February 26, 2008

    Not only are the commenters on these boards smarter than most people, they’re a damn bit funnier. I was up early this morning auto-falutin myself when I came across this thread. Made my day.

  65. #65 October Mermaid
    February 26, 2008

    You should’ve picked Paracelsus just for his name alone.

    Philippus Theophrastus Aureolus Bombastus von Hohenheim. Ha! Doesn’t even matter what he did or how he lived. You’ve got six fun things about him, right there. Seven, if you count the Paracelsus nickname.

    Usually it doesn’t count if you give yourself a wacky name like that, but man, he was batting for the stars.

  66. #66 David Marjanovi?, OM
    February 26, 2008

    Yep, Frederick II was a very interesting figure, far too wise for his epoch.

    Although the politically correct term would be “embryonic-Estonian”

    LOL!

    Damn, #31 beat me to the defense of “an historical”–ahistorical has its own meaning, so we say “an historical” to distinguish it.

    Why not just stress the first syllable of “ahistorical”? ~:-|

    I’ve noticed that the King James Bible has “an”/”mine”/”thine” in front of every h. Must have been an attempt to make English look even more like French than it already does.

    But if the stress is not on the leading syllable then using a schwa slurs out the leading H which takes us back to Cockney sounding talk;

    Oh, so you’re one of those people who don’t actually say [h] but use the breathy-voiced version instead.

    that’s ???????? to Kseniya

    No, ????????.

    I just hate it when people pronounce a leading “h” as “y”. As in “That’s a yuge dog you got there!”

    I’ve always been surprised that so many native English speakers go to the trouble of actually pronouncing “hy”. I can’t think of another language where this is done when “h” and “y” collide. (Even though dropping the “h” is not the only option in that case.)

  67. #67 David Marjanovi?, OM
    February 26, 2008

    Yep, Frederick II was a very interesting figure, far too wise for his epoch.

    Although the politically correct term would be “embryonic-Estonian”

    LOL!

    Damn, #31 beat me to the defense of “an historical”–ahistorical has its own meaning, so we say “an historical” to distinguish it.

    Why not just stress the first syllable of “ahistorical”? ~:-|

    I’ve noticed that the King James Bible has “an”/”mine”/”thine” in front of every h. Must have been an attempt to make English look even more like French than it already does.

    But if the stress is not on the leading syllable then using a schwa slurs out the leading H which takes us back to Cockney sounding talk;

    Oh, so you’re one of those people who don’t actually say [h] but use the breathy-voiced version instead.

    that’s ???????? to Kseniya

    No, ????????.

    I just hate it when people pronounce a leading “h” as “y”. As in “That’s a yuge dog you got there!”

    I’ve always been surprised that so many native English speakers go to the trouble of actually pronouncing “hy”. I can’t think of another language where this is done when “h” and “y” collide. (Even though dropping the “h” is not the only option in that case.)

  68. #68 Kseniya
    February 26, 2008
    that’s ???????? to Kseniya

    No, ????????.

    David’s transliteration a better phonetic match, but there are 30% more googlehits for “????????”. Bah!

    (Am I really the only Ukrainian nationalist here, surrounded as I am by Prussians, Lithuanians, Latvians, and other barbarians?)

  69. #69 Rey Fox
    February 26, 2008

    “Hey, what was that supposed to mean!?”

    Ah come on, I was just funnin’! Some of my best friends are Latvians!

  70. #70 David Marjanovi?, OM
    February 26, 2008

    Well, if you want it in Ukrainian rather than Russian, then probably ???????? would come closest… though, my knowledge of Ukrainian and Lithuanian only goes so far…

  71. #71 David Marjanovi?, OM
    February 26, 2008

    Well, if you want it in Ukrainian rather than Russian, then probably ???????? would come closest… though, my knowledge of Ukrainian and Lithuanian only goes so far…

  72. #72 Wilson Fowlie
    February 26, 2008

    I’ve always been surprised that so many native English speakers go to the trouble of actually pronouncing “hy”. I can’t think of another language where this is done when “h” and “y” collide. (Even though dropping the “h” is not the only option in that case.)

    What would you say? “Hooj”? That’s horrible.

    Besides, it’s not like ‘huge’ is the only example of that particular combination of sounds. If your name were ‘Hugh’ (maybe it is, I don’t know), you wouldn’t want people pronouncing it ‘You’ (You Grant?) or ‘Hoo’, you yooman being, you.

    Hyoo wouldn’t think it very hoomorous.

  73. #73 Colugo
    February 26, 2008

    Dawkins wrote that only beginning in 1859 could one be an intellectually fulfilled atheist. Karl von Baer was a creationist of the intelligent design variety, and he lived past the publication of the Origin for 17 years. A question arises: when was the last time that anyone could be an intellectually fulfilled creationist? Clearly the Origin was not sufficient, at least for some. Candidates: the rediscovery of Mendel’s laws, the accumulation of confirmatory fossil and other evidence, the Modern Synthesis.

  74. #74 Kseniya
    February 26, 2008

    Well, if you want it in Ukrainian rather than Russian, then probably ???????? would come closest… though, my knowledge of Ukrainian and Lithuanian only goes so far…

    Eh. I dunno. I’d go for ???????? (or the more ubiquitous ????????) in Ukie. Geez, I wish my grandfather was still alive… I’ll have to consult my Ukie sources on this one.

    Seems the best solution is to use Latin characters. ;-)

  75. #75 Rey Fox
    February 26, 2008

    “I’m a yuman being!”

    “Really? Isn’t it awfully hot down there?”

  76. #76 Kseniya
    February 26, 2008

    Rey :-)

  77. #77 Sven DiMilo
    February 26, 2008

    the American use of normalcy instead of normality

    But if you use “normality” you confuse chemists.

  78. #78 Brownian, OM
    February 26, 2008

    Kseniya and David:

    I don’t know anything about Russian or other Cyrillic orthographies, but the ‘e’ in Klaip?da is actually an ‘?’ and is pronounced as in ‘hey’ without the y. In IPA the sound is [e?]. For what it’s worth, every Cyrillic spelling of Klaip?da I can track down online uses an ‘e’ and not an ‘?’.

    Of course, you could just skip the issue altogether and refer to the city as Memel, its old East Prussian name, but you won’t make any Lugan friends that way.

  79. #79 Sven DiMilo
    February 26, 2008

    I’m as pedantic as the next guy–OK, more pedantic than most guys who might be next–about written English (have even gotten in trouble more than once with descriptivists on the web by publically deeming some usage or other as “wrong”), but I think it’s a waste of time to try to standardize verbal pronunciation. Regional dialects will always differ in what is locally “correct.”
    The exception I make is “long-lived.” It’s correctly pronounced with a long ‘i’ and anyone who says it the same way as “I lived in Jersey once” is wrong, Wrong, WRONG!!!

  80. #80 Brownian, OM
    February 26, 2008

    The exception I make is “long-lived.” It’s correctly pronounced with a long ‘i’ and anyone who says it the same way as “I lived in Jersey once” is wrong, Wrong, WRONG!!!

    I beg to differ. Since I’ve never even been to Jersey, if I said “long-lived” the same way as I say “I lived in Jersey once”, I would say I was lying, not wrong.

    But potato-uh,-potato and all that.

  81. #81 Dave Godfrey
    February 26, 2008

    Two historical people I find fascinating:

    Hugh Miller (1802-1856): Stonemason, religious newspaper editor, bitter opponent of evolution (though he died before Darwin & Wallace brought out their model), and more importantly one of Scotland’s premier geologists working on fishes and other organisms from Devonian rocks (or the “Old Red Sandstone” as it was then known).

    Books include : My Schools and Schoolmasters (an autobiography with insights into why he found geology so fascinating), Footprints of the Creator, The Old Red Sandstone, and Testimony of the Rocks.

    Even as a creationist he’d have had no truck with the YECs. In 1856 he shot himself having suffered hallucinations and severe mood swings, perhaps caused by a brain tumour.

    Baron Nopcsa von Felsö-Szilvás (1877-1933) : Hungarian Aristocrat, spy during WWI, tried to become king of Albania (“Once a reigning European monarch, I would have no difficulty coming up with the further funds needed by marrying a wealthy American heiress aspiring to royalty, a step which under other circumstances I would have been loath to take.”)
    -and that’s before you get to his promotion of hot-blooded, sexually dimorphic dinosaurs, and the “ground-up” theory of bird evolution. In the end he went on a motorcycle tour of Europe and when the money ran out shot his lover and himself.

  82. #82 Kseniya
    February 26, 2008

    Klaip?da

    Oh, dear. What’s your source? Mine is Wiki (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Klaip?da). The .ogg file sure made the “e” sound short. The IPA supports this by specifying that the “?” is pronounced like the “e” in “bed” or “pet”.

    (The IPA won’t paste correctly here… but the vowel symbol is a capital “E” but rounded, somewhat like a backwards “3″. You can see it on the Wiki page.)

    The fact that the “?” is more commonly used than the “?” in the transliteration may reflect a tendency towards systematic character-to-character translits rather than fastidiously accurate phonetic equivalents. :-)

  83. #83 Brownian, OM
    February 26, 2008

    Kseniya, I was using Wiki as well. You are right about the IPA symbol they gave for the ‘?’ on the page for the city. However, the Wiki page for the language, as well as the page on Omniglot gives the IPA for ‘?’ as [e?] a close-mid front unrounded vowel, not the open-mid front unrounded vowel represented by the backwards ? in IPA.

    These differences may be slight however, and I wouldn’t know what they would mean when trying to represent them in Russian or Ukrainian.

    I also used the languages box from the Klaip?da page in Wiki to see how it was spelled on its page in each language that uses a Cyrillic alphabet and noted that each spelled the name with an ‘e’ and not an ‘?’.

    So, that’s what I’ve got.

  84. #84 windy
    February 26, 2008

    I’ve always been surprised that so many native English speakers go to the trouble of actually pronouncing “hy”. I can’t think of another language where this is done when “h” and “y” collide.

    Trouble? There’s no trouble as long as you use the proper /y/, unless you count the blank stares you get from everyone else. Hyvä Hyvä!

  85. #85 Kseniya
    February 26, 2008

    Brownian,

    I’ve been looking at this more closely, too. Sites dedicated to Lithuanian are consistent about this: The “?” is clearly supposed to be pronounced as you originally suggested (like a “long ? in English, but said quickly”) which IMO is best represented by the Cyrillic “?” in both Russian and Ukrainian.

    My confusion stemmed from the following factors:

    1. The IPA version on Wiki isn’t consistent with that pronunciation.

    2. The sound clips I’ve heard (two of them) leave a distinct impression that the unstressed vowel is indeed a lot closer to either a short “e” or a schwa than the standard pronunciation of “?” suggests. On the plus side, this is consistent with Ru/Uk unstressed “?”, which is a bit more “yeah” than the stressed sound “y?”.

    3. At least one non-Wiki site (Webster’s, I think) offers a pronunciation in which the vowel is indeed represented by a schwa.

    So, as usual, transliteration proves to be an inexact science. David’s “?” spelling was a good match for what my (Lithuanian-deaf) ears were telling me. :-)

    Google note: when I google for the Ukie spelling “????????” most of the results come back with the word spelled “????????” anyways. Google is just too damned smart sometimes! :-D

  86. #86 Brownian, OM
    February 26, 2008

    Well, thanks for all your research. I hope I don’t come across as a troll when I say I wouldn’t have a clue how the word is best pronounced since I don’t speak the language, other than ‘labas’ (Hi/Good), and, erm, that’s it.

    I like languages like Swahili, where the letters all make sense and the only confusion is remembering in which class a noun belongs.

    In all the Wiki reading I’ve been doing for this thread, Steven Pinker’s name keeps coming up. It’s a sign I’ve got to pick up one of his books, I tell ya.

  87. #87 soikins
    February 27, 2008

    “Some of my best friends are Latvians!”

    And I have nothing against people who say that some of their best friends are Latvians. Some of may best friends say that their best friends are Latvians, but…

    P.S.
    It’s obviosly Klaip?da. We Latvians know better. We even change the spelling of peoples names in official documents, ha, ha! All Lithuanians get Latvian names around here.

  88. #88 Rey Fox
    February 27, 2008

    “And I have nothing against people who say that some of their best friends are Latvians.”

    Well played. ;)

  89. #89 Rey Fox
    February 27, 2008

    I beg to differ. Since I’ve never even been to Jersey, if I said “long-lived” the same way as I say “I lived in Jersey once”, I would say I was lying, not wrong.

    It’s spelled “long-lived”, but it’s pronounced Throat-Wobbler Mangrove!

  90. #90 Ed Darrell
    March 1, 2008
  91. #91 David Marjanovi?, OM
    October 11, 2008

    So, as usual, transliteration proves to be an inexact science. David’s “?” spelling was a good match for what my (Lithuanian-deaf) ears were telling me. :-)

    Hardly anyone is going to read this anymore, but Wikipedia actually says I was wrong in what concerns the vowel itself (and Brownian is right), and doesn’t make clear if I was wrong in what concerns the vowel’s influence on the preceding consonant (in Ru/Uk terms, I thought it’s ? rather than ??, both of which exist in Lithuanian, but I could have been wrong).

    “Once a reigning European monarch, I would have no difficulty coming up with the further funds needed by marrying a wealthy American heiress aspiring to royalty, a step which under other circumstances I would have been loath to take.”

    Because he was gay. The lover you mention (an Albanian after whom he named a very strange fossil turtle) was male.

  92. #92 marie-lucie
    October 11, 2008

    How “homely” was von Baer:

    In addition to the length of time required to sit for pictures, there are two things which cause a difference in how we perceive people from earlier centuries from their photographs: modern dentistry and modern hygiene. The picture shown is undated and we don’t know how old he was at the time, but notice von Baer’s mouth: a dentist would probably have something to say about what is wrong with it – either some crooked or missing teeth or poorly fitting dentures. As for hygiene: before the advent of frequent bathing and shampooing (especially the latter – note that “shampoo” is a word from India), people did not wash their hair very often, so most old photographs show them with stringy, oily-looking hair. In my opinion, nothing improves a person’s looks faster and more cheaply than clean, freshly-washed hair. Practically all old photographs show the sitters with dirty hair. Most of us would be homely too, and look older than our age, if we did not have access to good dentists and good shampoo.

  93. #93 marie-lucie
    October 11, 2008

    How “homely” was von Baer:

    In addition to the length of time required to sit for pictures, there are two things which cause a difference in how we perceive people from earlier centuries from their photographs: modern dentistry and modern hygiene. The picture shown is undated and we don’t know how old he was at the time, but notice von Baer’s mouth: a dentist would probably have something to say about what is wrong with it – either some crooked or missing teeth or poorly fitting dentures. As for hygiene: before the advent of frequent bathing and shampooing (especially the latter – note that “shampoo” is a word from India), people did not wash their hair very often, so most old photographs show them with stringy, oily-looking hair. In my opinion, nothing improves a person’s looks faster and more cheaply than clean, freshly-washed hair. Practically all old photographs show the sitters with dirty hair. Most of us would be homely too, and look older than our age, if we did not have access to good dentists and good shampoo.

  94. #94 marie-lucie
    October 11, 2008

    (sorry, the system’s response made me think that my comment did not go through)

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