Morse code mnemonics

Morse code just got 10 times cooler – or maybe just 10 times easier to learn!

A few years ago, I stumbled on the mind-blowing binary tree version of Morse code. I was so excited about this that I downloaded a “learn Morse code” app on my phone and started practicing it, gradually working up to faster comprehension speeds. But then I got distracted by some other shiny thing and stopped practicing and Morse code went dormant in my brain.

Two days ago I re-encountered it in this amazing video by the always impressive Nelson Dellis:

Nelson gives us mnemonics for learning Morse code. This is absolutely BRILLIANT since Morse code is already audible. :) After watching his video exactly *once*, I already know Morse code for my name and can recall it with negligible effort:

-.- .. .-. ..

(mnemonic: KAN-ga-ROO i-bid ro-TA-tion i-bid)

*and* I discovered a beautiful symmetry in my Morse name!

I’m truly impressed by how quickly and easily this mnemonic sunk in. Nelson, you rock!

Hand signs that convey sound

Sign language is a way to communicate with symbols: each gesture has a particular meaning.

But don’t be misled by these simple examples; sign language isn’t simply a signed form of English. Its grammar and usage are quite different. People who grow up Deaf and learn, say, American Sign Language (ASL) as their first language must learn English as a second language.

One strategy to help bridge this gap is “cued speech”, in which the speaker communicates with both voice and signs simultaneously, but the signs are used to convey sound (phonemes), not meaning. As Wikipedia says, “It adds information about the phonology of the word that is not visible on the lips” and can therefore help improve lip reading skills as well (a similar mouth shape could make more than one sound, like “b” and “p”, so the listener can distinguish “bear” and “pear”).

Here’s a short video:

This got me thinking about the ways that we communicate in writing. For example, in Japanese, kanji is a symbolic language like ASL (characters indicate meaning). Hiragana and katakana are phonetic (spelled the way they sound). It can be difficult to remember how to pronounce all of the kanji, even for native speakers (and younger folk may not have encountered a particular kanji yet). So it is common (e.g., in newspapers) to annotate a kanji with its pronunciation using tiny hiragana letters above it (called furigana), to help you pronounce it. Rather like cued speech, but for text!

From this perspective, an alphabet is a curious thing. It’s not (quite) phonetic (at least in English), and it’s not symbolic; letters have no independent meaning. Yet it is very versatile, and just 26 letters suffice to allow us to represent all of English. Learning correct pronunciations for otherwise identical spellings, however (words ending in “ough” such as through, tough, though, etc. being the canonical example), is left up to the reader.

Grammar police

Recently I came across this article: “Stop shaming people on the Internet for grammar mistakes. Its not there fault.” The author urges more compassion for the oh-so-common grammar mistakes that we are all prone to and provides an interesting dissection of the cognitive reasons for those errors.

“Mocking another person for making one of them is like mocking a heart for skipping a beat. Errors are a routine part of our cognitive systems,” the author, Andrew Heisel, claims.

While “mocking” isn’t productive, I think “awareness” is. Some grammar rules do seem needlessly arcane, but others have evolved to reduce ambiguity and increase communication. And so I find the Twitter bot called Grammar Police, which automatically detects and tactfully points out grammar errors in tweets, to be both fascinating and useful.

Mr. Heisel introduced me to this bot by way of criticizing it. But the bot has 19,500 followers, and I don’t think that they all subscribe merely “to pretend, 25 times a day, that you’re perfect and other people’s foibles are not your own.” In fact, I observed that some of those whom Grammar Police called out in an automated post actually thanked the bot. The bot’s postings might even inspire some readers to look up “nominative case.”

Now I’m thinking that a statistical analysis of the bot’s 85,400 tweets (and counting) would be quite interesting. What are the most common types of errors? And how many of them inspired a thank you?

The under-used locative adverbs

A locative adverb tells you where something took place. Examples we all know and use commonly are ‘where’, ‘here’, and ‘there.’ Other such words can be constructed, like ‘homeward.’

But there are other locative adverbs that are so handy that it’s amazing that they aren’t used more often. ‘Where,’ ‘here’, and ‘there’ indicate the location at which something happens. What about actions moving toward or away from a location, like ‘homeward,’ but more general? In fact, there’s an equivalent for each of those three in each of these directions of motion:

At To From
Where Whither Whence
Here Hither Hence
There Thither Thence


Now, using these words may make you sound like you just stepped out of Shakespeare or Chaucer, but in fact they are nice, compact ways to express motion. The words in the second and third columns already have a preposition built in!

“Whither do they wander?” sounds better and is technically more correct than “Where do they wander?” since “where” has no “to” sense to it. “Whence did you come?” is more compact than “From where did you come?” or “Where did you come from?”

From this table we can see that “from whence” makes no sense, despite its rather common use.

So, next time you need to talk about where, here, or there something went to or from, consider using these nicely compact, already invented ways to express that notion!

Learning Latin with children’s books

A desire has been growing in me for some time now to pick up a little Latin. And now with the spring semester at a close, I jumped at the chance to browse some beginning Latin books at the library.

The one I took home with me is “Teach Yourself Beginner’s Latin.” It starts out very basic and has you reading simple Latin from the first chapter. (By “simple” I mean “Dick and Jane” level, but far more interesting, as it discusses the antics of a monk and his mule in the woods.) Despite its simplicity, the feeling of accomplishment is satisfying. Mulus equos non amat. “The mule does not like the horses.” The book jumps right in with declensions (nominative, accusative, and ablative) but, curiously, reserves introducing gender for a few chapters later. So far, it feels comfortingly similar, yet intriguingly different, from my previous studies of French, Spanish, and Italian.

Once I gain some basic reading ability, I will want something to read. That is, something within a beginner’s reach, which probably rules out Tacitus.

My local library contains, to my surprise, two children’s books that have been translated into Latin: Tela Charlottae (Charlotte’s Web) and Winnie Ills Pu (Winnie the Pooh). The former is in juvenile non-fiction, while the latter is in adult non-fiction, due either to inconsistency or some guideline I have not yet grasped. The Library School won’t let me take Cataloguing to find out, until I take some required database class this fall! The non-fiction designation alone puzzled me, until I realized that these books are next to annotated or scholarly versions of various children’s (fiction) literature, so I guess a translation is similar in spirit.

There are also some good pointers to online materials for beginning Latin readers. This list led me to a delightful 1933 text called Cornelia, which is designed with a progressive vocabulary that makes a point of encouraging you to learn words by context as they are encountered. From the Author’s “Foreward to Pupils”:

Salvete, discipuli. This is the story of a little American girl named Cornelia. Her life was different from yours, but not very different. You will readily understand the things that she did. I hope that you will like her and that you will enjoy the adventure of finding out about her in a language that is not your own. Valete, discipuli.

Benigne, magistra!

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