Thursday, December 19, 2013

Breathing Bangalore

In the suburbs of Bangalore, in one of the numerous buildings that house research and support facilities for nearly every major tech company in the world, scientists are working on understanding how you spread your attention when you navigate a web page.  A few of them had gathered in a conference room, listening as I described some of our work on how the brain controls movements of the eye.  

Gazing at the teak conference table, high back leather chairs, and sophisticated teleconferencing equipment, I considered the contrast: just a few streets away from this modern world where I was giving my talk, there were goats munching on a pile of refuse, and a small band of cows roaming happily against traffic.  A little farther, in the center of the city, there were scientists and engineers working on fundamental questions in the Indian Institute of Science, a major university on a beautiful wooded campus that housed, in addition to world class laboratories, large families of monkeys, bands of wild dogs, and bats the size of crows, all living freely, and from all indications, contently, alongside humans.

I think the most striking difference with anywhere else that I have visited is that people here seem to have an exceptional respect for life --- life of any form. Like most university campuses, this one also has large, impressive trees that dot the landscape.  But here, the human roads do not prevail.  Indeed, in many places the road has a large tree in the middle of it, with a trunk marked with a few reflectors, and the cars simply go around it.  At our university guest house, a sprawling hotel-like structure, there are a few places where the hallway turns at a strange angle.  Looking closer, I see that the building is bending around an old tree, and not the other way around.  This co-existence is on display with the wildlife that lives alongside us.  The faculty housing is in a wooded area, where monkeys also raise their families.  One morning, as we ate breakfast at the guest house, with the window open to let in the cool breeze, a family of macaque monkeys came to visit.  The mama-monkey took a piece of papaya from a table, and went over and fed her babies.

The weather is mild and pleasant; a pleasure to step outside and feel the sun and smell the trees.  But the university is an oasis.  The peace and quiet of the grounds are in stark contrast to the outside world.  As we step beyond the gates, we leave "jungle book" and enter the human world; with its crushing traffic of cars, motorized three-wheel rickshaws, and scooters, all communicating in the machine-made language of horns.

The human languages are myriad in India, but the main language, at least here in the south, is English.  The students tell me that they rely on English to talk to each other because each comes from a different part of India, with its own languages, and English is the only common tongue.  

The diversity of languages is complemented with the diversity of faiths.  In the mornings, I hear the Muslim call to prayer before sunrise, and then a few hours later, I see the Hindu temple as I walk to the university conference center.  On the steps of the center there is a familiar scene, one of the wild dogs napping in the sun.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Ask vs. Axe

A few months back, my administrative assistant was offered a wonderful new job and as a consequence, the department hired a replacement.  The new assistant is a capable, hardworking young lady.  A few days ago I noticed that she tends to use the word /axe/, instead of /ask/.  

I had heard this usage a number of times in Baltimore, particularly among African-Americans.  I wondered, is this a mispronunciation?  Perhaps something like /nuclear/ vs. /nucular/?  A bit of research made me understand that /axe/ has a long history in the English language, and is not a mispronunciation.

Oxford dictionary notes that /ask/ is the descendant of /ascian/, which in Old English means to demand, to seek from.  The alternative form of /ascian/ is /axian/, or in short form, /axe/.  Oxford notes its use in Chaucer: "I axe, why the fyfte man Was nought housband to the Samaritan?" (Wife's Prologue 1386), and "a man that ... cometh for to axe him of mercy." (The Parson's Tale 1386)  The book The Complete Works of Goeffrey Chaucer includes 5 passages where the word /axing/ is used.  The word /axe/ appeared in the first complete English translation of the Bible in 1535 by Miles Coverdale, who wrote: "Axe and it shal be giuen you," and "he axed for wrytinge tables."

According to Random House, “In American English, the /axe/ pronunciation was originally dominant in New England. The popularity of this pronunciation faded in the North early in the 19th century as it became more common in the South. Today the pronunciation is perceived in the US as either Southern or African-American. /axe/ is still found frequently in the South, and is a characteristic of some speech communities as far north as New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Illinois and Iowa.”

So /axe/ is a regional pronunciation, somewhat similar to the regional pronunciation variation of the word /idea/ and /idear/.