shetland terror horror shock

In a few months from now, passengers travelling on the ferry between Shetland, Orkney and Aberdeen will have to produce photo ID before embarking – as part of anti-terrorist security measures.

Islanders are justifiably concerned, and the local MP is quoted as saying, “I do not find the argument that the boat is a terrorist target a credible one.” Well said, Tavish Scott. The company spokesman says it’s increasingly important in today’s world to be sure that people “are who they say they are,” but alas, he misses the point that actual terrorists are who they say they are and the process of demonstrating it doesn’t stop them from committing atrocities. (More discussion from the islanders’ perspective here, google reveals.)

Meanwhile, in case you missed it a couple of days ago, a leaked memo of the government’s own has specifically singled out the issuing of passports and driving licences as opportunities to “coerce” people into having their details entered into the National Identity Register. As I already briefly mentioned, pensioners in Scotland who apply for their free bus passes (“Scottish National Entitlement Cards”) are being asked to waive their data protection rights in the process of applying – so the idea of sneaking people’s personal data onto unnecessary and intrusive databases is hardly new – but with talk of coercion on the government’s own lips it seems that the ‘dense but benevolent’ spin on their policy might no longer be excusable.


segments and segmentation

Particularly in the context of learning to become literate in an alphabetic script, people talk a lot about the principle that (spoken) words can be taken apart and decomposed into smaller pieces, which relate in some way to abstract units which you might call phonemes or segments. (Note that that relation is not that speech “consists of” phonemes/segments – an (important) separate issue.)

But saying that ‘words are decomposable into’ segments is not quite synonymous with saying that words ‘come apart into’ segments. There is a critical difference in what these two phrases imply. An orange comes apart into segments, because that’s what an orange is like once you unpeel it: the segments and the boundaries between them are immediately obvious – it’s decomposable into segments in a natural way. But an apple doesn’t ‘come apart’ into segments – you have to cut it into pieces yourself. It’s ‘decomposable’ in the sense that it’s certainly possible to divide it, and people obviously frequently do divide apples up into sensible pieces that suit them, say quarters length-ways, but considered in itself it’s an undivided whole.

Spoken words, if I may say so, are much more like apples than they are like oranges. Evidence comes from all directions to explode the idea that speech can consist of discrete, independent, atomic particles – whether from inspection of waveforms and spectrograms, listening to speech in an unfamiliar language, or the recognition that the entire vocal tract is in constant motion throughout an utterance, and that in the motor behaviour of speech producers there are as many different configurations of the vocal tract as there are moments of time in the duration of the utterance.

And David Abercrombie makes the same point:

“‘To segment,’ therefore, has two kinds of meaning. There is ‘artificial’ segmentation: it is possible to cut a bit off anything, however much of a continuum it might be, as with a circle; and there is ‘natural’ segmentation. In the first case, we make boundaries; in the second, we detect boundaries. The fundamental problem of linguistic segmentation is whether there can be a natural segmentation of continuous speech. If not, if speech is a continuum in which no natural segmentation is detectable, then any segmentation of it must be artificial.” (Abercrombie 1991: 28; see also chapter 16 of Ladefoged 2006)

Without a recognition of this property of the sounds of speech, any account of the literacy acquisition process – however popular – is bound to flounder into incoherence, and fail to be even descriptively adequate, never mind providing any realistic kind of explanation.

Abercrombie, D (1991), Fifty Years in Phonetics. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press
Ladefoged, P (2005), Vowels and Consonants. Oxford: Blackwell

erskine’s signs of a legal temper

Just a follow-up on one thought on my post ‘Both to will and to do‘ from the other day.

I said there that aiming for holiness would be legalistic, (i) if it was attempted on the strength of our own efforts, forgetting that sanctifying grace comes from the same source as justifying grace, and on the same terms, (ii) if it was undertaken as a means of consolidating or contributing to our salvation, and (iii) if we ended up feeling or acting as if our perceived successes or failures according to either self-imposed or scriptural benchmarks have any bearing on the safety or wellbeing of our souls.

I’ve now just discovered a note I had of Ralph Erskine saying the same sort of thing, under the heading ‘signs of a legal temper in believers.’ (Again, a legal temper is a tendency to resort to keeping the law as a basis of our hope of acceptance with God, and Erskine is exposing this harmful tendency in believers – people who have learned by experience that it is indeed harmful, but who still keep slipping back into that way of thinking and living.)

1. It is a legal temper, when the believer is under excessive discouragements, on whatever ground: it is an evidence he is too much under the law; for the law can give no encouragement, no settlement to the conscience; it is only Christ can give rest. ‘Come unto me all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.’

What is it that discourages a believer when he is under a legal temper? Sometimes he is discouraged when he performs duty, and cannot find that presence, that sensible help he would have; why then he is dispirited indeed. It is true he then hath ground of mourning, when the Lord is absent; he should be deeply humbled for the causes of it: but when he is so dispirited that he loses his confidence, and is beaten quite away from his faith and hope, questions his state and gives way to slavish fear that weakens his hands in duties and draws his heart from duty, it is a token, he is secretly hankering after the law; for the language of his heart is, O if I could pray with as much life, and hear with as much attention, and perform duty with as much vigour as I would be at! O then I would have good hope. And so it is not Christ so much as the law … that you desire to place your hope in, while you are under that legal frame. …

Sometimes their discouragements arise from this, that they dare not apply the promises, and why so? Because they think the promises are not for such as they are; but only for such as are more holy. What is this but a legal temper, apprehending that if you had such and such a legal rightousness then God would be some way induced to give you the promise. But O, is not grace to be glorified in this new and gospel way! And therefore the more of a gospel spirit you have, the more cheerfully will you embrace the promises for this end, that, having these promises, you may cleanse yourself, but [drawing virtue from] this promise.

2. It is a sign of a legal temper, when a person is more taken up with the gifts of Christ, than with Christ himself. When they get any sensible grace, and sensible good affections, melting of heart, melting of spirit, any inclination to what is good, any gifts or graces, whether common or special, they admire these, and are not so much taken up with Chrsit himself. But the person that is evangelical in his actings, by what he gets, he is led to the giver; if this be sweet, O he is infinitely sweeter that sent it. I embrace the token, and it draws out my heart the more after him from whom it came.

(It was the second paragraph under number (1) that made me think of that earlier post, but the rest is useful too.)

pencil corrections

Occasionally, it is the case that misprints are annoying enough that you forgive the person who has taken the trouble to point out the correction in spite of it being fairly obvious in the first place.

Other times, that person has not only defaced the book but got it wrong. Or at least not improved it. My recent examples:


“The situation, however, is even worse than Saussure describes it.”


“The situation, however, is even worse than what Saussure describes.”


“Once upon a most early time was a Neolithic man.”


“Once upon a most early time there was a Neolithic man.”

Do these people just not get it?

both to will and to do

Somewhere recently I came across a question about whether or not the resolutions that Jonathan Edwards made could have been a sign of legalism.

17. Resolved, that I will live so as I shall wish I had done when I come to die.

47. Resolved, to endeavor to my utmost to deny whatever is not most agreeable to a good, and universally sweet and benevolent, quiet, peaceable, contented, easy, compassionate, generous, humble, meek, modest, submissive, obliging, diligent and industrious, charitable, even, patient, moderate, forgiving, sincere temper; and to do at all times what such a temper would lead me to. Examine strictly every week, whether I have done so.

(Etc; see the rest of the list here.)

Legalism in this context was referring to attempts to obey the law of God in a way that would make the attempted obedience contribute to the reason for God favouring you – something to be avoided, because the spirit of the gospel is, in contrast, that the only reason for God to treat anyone favourably is on the basis of the person and work of Christ, representing them.

When you consider that a continuously impeccable life is only what’s expected from us, as accountable moral beings, in the first place, it’s clear that it is only right and proper that we should make a personal commitment to pursuing holiness and sinlessness both across the board and in all the areas where we are most conscious of failures and shortcomings of our own.

Although this could easily degenerate into (or I suppose equally spring from) a spirit of legalism, it needn’t be at all legalistic to resolve and purpose to live a holy life – a life in keeping with the most comprehensive and searching demands of the ten commandments – and I don’t think it was legalism in Edwards’s case.

It would be legalistic, for one thing, if a person tried to live up to these standards by their own efforts, forgetting that sanctifying grace comes from the same source as justifying grace, and on the same terms. Or, if adhering to the resolutions and fulfilling them was becoming a means of consolidating or contributing to your salvation, that would be inconsistent with the spirit of the gospel too. As would, I think, feeling or acting as if our perceived successes or failures according to either self-imposed or scriptural benchmarks have any bearing on the safety or wellbeing of our souls.

Any of these things are damaging to the health of the Christian’s soul – and followed through, they would make it impossible for anyone to be converted to start with, never mind grow in grace. But purposing holiness while avoiding and repudiating these tendencies is not legalistic. A firmer grasp of the completeness of Christ’s work for his people and its implications as the sole basis of hope for sinners would, as they say, make us much less prone to put our hopes and comfort in the work of God in us, while at the same time providing a much happier motivation for fervently pressing towards the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.

As God has said, … I will be their God, and they shall be my people. … Having therefore these promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.

For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world, looking for that blessed hope and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works.

user knows best

Turns out I should interact with non-linguists more. Maybe many linguists my peers have argued themselves silly on the principle that all language varieties can be analysed on an equal footing – me, I was unprepared and somewhat flummoxed to discover so recently that this was a live issue and that such a principle required defending.

I’ll try and be more sensitive in the future.

“Many people hold strong beliefs on various issues having to do with language and are quite wiling to offer their judgments on issues (see Bauer and Trudgill 1998, Niedzielski and Preston 1999, and Wardhaugh 1999). They believe such things as certain languages lack grammar, that you can speak English without an accent, that French is more logical than English, that parents teach their children to speak, that primitive languages exist, that English is degenerating and language standards are slipping, that pronunciation should be based on spelling, and so on and so on. Much discussion of language matters in the media concerns such ‘issues’ and there are periodic attempts to ‘clean up’ various bits and pieces, attempts that Cameron (1995) calls ‘verbal hygiene’. Most linguists studiously avoid getting involved in such issues [alas, if only I’d known there was precedent], having witnessed the failure of various attempts to influence received opinions on such matters. As I have written elsewhere (1999, p viii), ‘Linguists … know that many popular beliefs about language are false and much that we are taught about language is misdirected. They also know how difficult it is to effect change.’ Language beliefs are well entrenched, as are language attitudes and language behaviours. Sociolinguists should strive for an understanding of all three because all affect how people behave toward others.” (Wardhaugh 2002: 52-53)

Application: so should phonologists.

church service

Went home last night and listened to The World Tonight With Robin Lustig, who introduced a report about a mystery worshipper in some evangelical church somewhere in England by pointing out that the ‘mystery worshipper’ concept was borrowed from mystery shoppers in the business world.

Whether intentionally or not, that comment encapsulates an enormous set of mistakes in current thinking about what church is for.

It might, of course, on some level, be interesting to know what people think when they visit a new congregation for the first time. (It would admittedly be very useful for many deacons courts to be more sensitive to how comfy the seats are and whether the microphone is working properly.)

But the church doesn’t provide a service, like supermarkets do. What’s on offer is not at all primarily determined by what people want or perceive themselves to need. Success in a church isn’t measured by profits or numbers of attendees or visitor satisfaction. Last night’s mystery worshipper didn’t feel comfortable with the message that you’re a bad person for not keeping the ten commandments, for example – which is unfortunate, because it’s exactly one half of the message which the church only exists in order to proclaim.

Churches (and individual Christians) need to perpetually resist the inclination to feel that they need popular approval for survival, and to think that if people aren’t comfortable with the gospel and its implications that we need to change things in order to remove that discomfort. It’s basically just a lack of confidence in the scriptures and the methods that the God of the Church has set out for us to follow. ‘Woe to the wicked, for it shall be ill with him,’ is never an appealing message – but of course it never needs to be proclaimed as a stand-alone message: ‘Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord; though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.’

The how of making sinners into saints isn’t for the church to perform, but the church needs to retain the full conviction that this is what God does through its preaching of the gospel. This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.

It’s too bad if people’s disinclination to hear about sin and sinnership makes them fail to realise the significance of the salvation that’s available for sinners. Comfy seats and warm welcomes and a decent cup of tea need to be practiced all round, but if the complete gospel message isn’t there for people to listen to, they aren’t really ultimately worth the effort.


(Scottish) Free Presbyterians seem to be known to outsiders mostly, if often in caricature, as not much more than a bastion of staunch sabbatarianism and unwavering opposition to Roman Catholicism, among all the other things that traditional calvinistic presbyterianism is generally reviled and resented for.*

Skipping lightly over the apostles and the reformation, the immediate story began with the Disruption of 1843, when, after a decade of strife in the Church of Scotland over the question of the relations between church and state (manifested in practical questions such as who should have the final say in appointing a minister for a congregation, whether the congregation itself or some church-external authority) – and after a series of lengthy court cases where the decision went against the independence of the Church from the State in ecclesiastical matters, several hundred ministers left the Established church under the leadership of Thomas Chalmers and colleagues, and so the Free Church was formed.

The 1843 Free Church viewed itself as in a way the Church of Scotland – the Church of Scotland, Free – carrying on intact the original position of that church and everything it stood for, and leaving behind those who had abandoned the original witness.

But just fifty years later, there were new controversies within the Free Church itself, one of which revolved around the status of the church’s confession of faith, and what it meant for ministers and elders to subscribe to it. When it came to the stage that the church passed legislation which effectively allowed people to become office-bearers without making any meaningful commitment to the confession, Revs Donald Macfarlane and Donald Macdonald separated from the Free Church and formed the Free Presbyterian Church. (This was 1893.)

The FP split was tiny compared to the FC split, involving only two ministers and a handful of elders and trainee ministers, compared to the couple of hundreds in the FC case, and it attracted none of the positive publicity that the Disruption did. (It also very nearly never happened, because a substantial number of ministers who were deeply unhappy with the situation decided against leaving in the end.)

While the original FP distinctive was uncompromised (uncompromising?) commitment to the Westminster Confession, over time, various other differences have emerged between this denomination and even its closest sisters. Some of these, such as sabbath-observance and the use of psalms in worship rather than hymns, are things which would have been characteristic of all the reformation churches in Scotland in the past – abandoned for what FPs are not prepared to recognise as valid reasons. The FP version of implementing church discipline, in addition, can often take a different form from how things are done in other contemporary denominations, even the closely related ones (with several expectations about the behaviour of communicant members, for example, often not being shared by many other fellowships – in terms of what counts as ‘worldliness’ perhaps particularly, although again I think it’s fair to say that this difference has been increasing even in the past couple of decades).

Differences between denominations, as you might or might not have picked up from me before, I’m not at my happiest discussing. I don’t like barriers between Christians and I don’t like bolstering them up, even when I think they’re necessary. So I’ve tried not to say anything with the intention of offending anyone – apologising now in case I failed – and trying to keep in mind that the things that divide are often much smaller than the things that unite, in the grand scheme of things.

For while one saith, I am of Paul, and another, I am of Apollos, are ye not carnal? Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers by whom ye believed, even as the Lord gave to every man? I have planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase.

But just one more thing, on a personal level – whatever can be said about (what might be seen as) the peculiarities of FP practice, the preaching of the gospel is really what should hold us together and give meaning or validity to our separate existence. For as long as we have the free offer of the gospel preached from FP pulpits, for that long it makes sense to continue listening to it within the context of FP-style worship and discipline. That is, I’m not saying that the free offer of the gospel isn’t or can’t be preached in churches that don’t share exactly our position on hymns and things, but even if the FP line on worship and discipline was outwardly impeccable, in the absence of convicting and edifying preaching of the doctrines of grace and the free offer, these things wouldn’t mean much. Meantime, eccentricities and inconsistencies and outright flaws can be put up with, if the congregations who gather in simplicity of worship and whatever scruples of lifestyle are ultimately gathering to have fellowship around the gospel. ‘This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.’

* On the sabbath question remember this, and on the Catholic question, the opposition is thoroughly doctrinal, rather than personal, if somewhat tenaciously resolute.

endemic and deeply frustrating

Just a quick rant.

It is extremely misguided to think that the names of letters are in any way useful in discussing phonology, or the relations between phonology and orthography.

I’ve just noticed in the methodology of an article which I don’t think I’m going to bother citing that one of a battery of tasks involved the participants in the experiment being asked to “judge whether “V” and “T” rhyme”.

Even in the complete absence of any other information about the experiment and its aims, it’s going to be difficult to understand the significance of any results of this rhyme judgment task – obviously, the letter shapes don’t and can’t rhyme, so they must mean the letter names, [vi] and [ti], but what’s the use of knowing how people judge that?

Contrary to what the authors state, this is not an orthographically simple task, and nor does the process of accessing the names of the letters correspond to “transcoding” the letters into phonemes. The need for a decision on whether the two words (words, yes, not letters) rhyme can be called a phonological processing task in line with the loose usage that sees any operation carried out on the auditory form of words as phonological regardless of its nature if you want – but it’s only analogous to deciding whether “5” and “9” rhyme, or whether “£” has the same number of syllables as “#”.

In 1996, a whole decade ago, David Poeppel wrote an article critiquing the use of phonological concepts in neuroimaging studies making this exact point – which has clearly not been absorbed by the relevant academic community yet:

“visual letters are among the most abstract and artificial linguistic stimuli; they have an arbitrary relationship to the speech sounds of a language. Single letter names do not signify the sound of a letter because they are acquired words. So, ell is not the phonological representation of the liquid /l/, but merely its name or designation in an alphabetical arrangement.” (Poeppel 1996: 330)

Confusion (as I’ve just written in a note to self which will not survive into any official draft, partly on grounds of relevance but mainly in a renewed effort not to sound perpetually apoplectic) on what’s meant by phonology, and on the relation of even this vaguely understood kind of phonology to things like orthography, is endemic in far too many pockets of the literature and deeply frustrating.

That’ll do for now.

a linguistic being?

Just towards the end of my holiday there was an interesting series of posts on Language Log about the possible religious significance of linguistic diversity. One was this, which gives details of an argument presented by Mark Baker in the concluding pages of a 1996 book, The Polysynthesis Parameter.

The book itself consists mainly of a description and analysis of Mohawk, with the theoretical aim of seeing how polysynthetic and nonpolysynthetic languages can both be accommodated under Universal Grammar, but in the very last couple of sections there is a very brief discussion of not only biological and sociological but also theological attempts at explanations of language and linguistic features, with a nod to origins and diversity.

The whole discussion is a refreshing and intriguing break from the norm, and it seems to me sensitively handled and presented (see in addition to the excerpts quoted on Language Log the parts available from Google Books). But, pedantic as it might be, I’m not entirely convinced.

Here’s the section at issue:

“… humanity is given a spiritual nature that is specifically said to be parallel in many respects to God’s. Among other things, this means that since God is a linguistic being, so are humans. (The Scriptures do not explicitly state that language is part of the divine nature, but this seems clear from context, and as far as I know has always been understood to be so by the Christian church; see, for example, Bavinck (1977: ch XII especially p200).” (Baker 2006: 512)

Basically I’m not sure whether it’s entirely accurate to say that “God is a linguistic being,” or that “language is part of the divine nature.” I accept of course that the three persons of the Trinity have communion and fellowship with each other, and they are represented in scripture as taking counsel together and making agreements with each other. It is also the case that God uses human language as a way of communicating with human beings – the scriptures themselves being an obvious example. But is this sufficient ‘context’ to make this claim tenable? (I haven’t read the Bavinck (1977) reference, which happens to be Our Reasonable Faith, but it’s not something I recall ever coming across in other similar books.)

But I have to say I’m not entirely comfortable with the idea that the persons of the Godhead use anything like human language in their internal relationships. Obviously there are differences between the language that Adam and Eve would have known and used prior to the Fall, and the language that we know now, in an imperfect and fallen environment. Obviously too, there is some scope for discussion about what we mean by language, but, for me, language is just a bit too human to be attributed to the divine nature.

Whether you think of language as a tool for communicating information (either propositional or non-propositional (indexical/pragmatic/etc)), it is clear that God who is omniscient doesn’t need to be told anything for information. Or if you think of it as however it’s meant to be understood within the framework of Universal Grammar, it’s clear that the mind of God is nothing like our human minds, and whatever cognitive structures and properties our minds might be possessed of must necessarily be vastly different from the infinite, eternal, unchangeable mind and purposes and thoughts of God himself. And that’s language considered at its least flawed – ie without mentioning the other factors that we deal with in everyday communication – the inadequacy of words for some situations, the underdeterminacy of spoken/written language and its need for being supplemented by context, the potential for unhelpful-through-to-misleading ambiguity, and the general messiness of human socio and psycholinguistic interaction.

What seems to be the source of the claim that ‘language is part of the divine nature’ is some sort of conjunction of two separate arguments – (i) that there is a uniquely human capacity for language, which was the gift of God given at creation, and (ii) that Adam was made in the image of God.* But not everything that’s human is part of the image of God (if that makes sense) – so although it’s true to say that “humanity is given a spiritual nature that is specifically said to be parallel in many respects to God’s,” it’s important not to find parallels where none exist, making God in the image of man.

That’s not to undermine the fact that God uses human language to communicate truths about himself (and about us, and about how sinners can be reconciled to him) – truths which can be understood by humans and then further communicated between humans. And I agree with what Prof Baker says on the Judeo-Christian view of the origin of linguistic diversity at Babel (foot of p513), and his comments on God’s goodness shown at that time (p514). It’s just, as I say, a slight discomfort about whether language, even granting that it is the gift of God, can really be viewed as something belonging to the being or nature of God himself, without adopting an anthropocentric perspective which goes beyond what scripture would license us to believe.

* On only just a slight tangent, and if it’s not too (academically-)heretical to say so, I have sometimes thought that a Chomskyan Universal Grammar coupled with claims about innateness can sit very comfortably and appealingly beside accounts which take the scriptures for fact and believe that language is a gift from God. The kinds of generative theories which conceptualise language as sufficiently complex and mysterious to necessitate invoking an innate language acquisition device seem equally ripe, you could envisage someone saying, for being counted as the kind of complex and mysterious thing which could only have come from some kind of deity. But that kind of superficial affinity is insufficient to make the case – ie, there’s nothing theological to oblige us to accept this particular kind of complexity as preached by any particular school of linguistics, especially if it seems more scientifically responsible (descriptively or analytically) to adopt an alternative theory. There is, additionally, no way that scripture can be used to arbitrate between competing academic theories of the nature of language. Believing or disbelieving Universal Grammar, and believing or disbelieving that ‘language is a gift of God’ are entirely independent, I think.