Friday 15 March 2019

The Spiegelhalter Gap.

In 1923, after the success of Selfridge's and Harrod's department stores in central London, a Mr Wickham decided to build his own on the Mile End Road, in the East End. Accordingly, he engaged an architect to design him something suitably imposing, with neo-classical columns and a clock-tower and so on, and bought up all the shops in the location he had his eye on.

Except one. Mr Spiegelhalter, the jeweller at number 81, couldn't be persuaded to sell up. Mr Wickham couldn't force him to... but he also had no other location in mind, and had already bought many of the other shops. And so, when Wickham's Department Store finally opened, it looked like this:

Both buildings - or is it all three buildings? - are still standing today (Spiegelhalter's, by the way, outlasted Wickham's as a business by a good twenty years). However, they are currently being renovated into a swish new development complex called 'Dept W'. In an odd case of history repeating itself (and a less odd case of developers not understanding the value what they have) the developers intended to knock down Spiegelhalter's, and turn it into an entrance way. But after the sort of local protests and campaigning that would almost make me proud to be British, if anything could this month, they have been persuaded to keep it. The new building will now look like this:

Long live the Spiegelhalter Gap.

Tuesday 12 March 2019

"You have been in Afghanistan, nhi-ka"

Wonderfully, the Tariana language of the Amazon has different grammatical tenses that indicate where you got the evidence for what you are saying: Whether you saw it, detected it non-visually, were told about it, inferred it... or assumed it. 

So, according to the fieldwork of the linguist Alexandra Aikhenvald, here are five ways to report on the culinary activities of your father's younger brother:

Nu-nami karaka di-merita-naka
My younger uncle is frying chicken' (I (the speaker) see him)

Nu-nami karaka di-merita-mha
'My younger uncle is frying chicken' (I smell the fried chicken, but cannot see this)

Nu-nami karaka di-merita-pida-ka
'My younger uncle has fried chicken' (I was told recently)

Nu-nami karaka di-merita-nhi-ka
'My younger uncle has fried chicken' (I see bits of grease stuck on his hands and he smells of fried chicken)

And my favourite:

Nu-nami karaka di-merita-si-ka
'My younger uncle has fried chicken' (I assume so: he gets so much money he can afford it, and he looks like he has had a nice meal)

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My younger uncle.
Aikhenvald goes on to say that Tariana speakers use the second of these tenses when reporting their dreams, since they did not really 'see' them. Unless... they belong to the highest caste of shaman, known as yawi, whose dreams are taken to be true. (Yawi are also believed to be capable of turning themselves into jaguars. So I suppose I can see why you'd let them tell you their boring dreams.)

Wednesday 6 March 2019

Charles Darwin menaces an iguana.

Picture Charles Darwin conducting his research on his world-changing expedition to the Galapagos islands. Do you imagine him serious and scholarly, or youthful and enthusiastic? I bet what you do not picture him doing is spending an afternoon repeatedly throwing an iguana into the sea in the name of science. The same iguana.

A marine iguana, for once not being bullied by Charles Darwin.

He did, though. From his Journal of the Voyage of the Beagle:

It's an arresting mental image, isn't it? I would love to know how many times 'several' is. Surely at least six. Nor had Charlie finished playing tricks on lizards:

I hope these two iguanas were related. 'You'll never guess what happened to me today!' 'Wait, wait, me first...'