Thursday, January 29, 2009

“… a whole bunch of nations united by an uncommon language…”

permitidme que parafrasee a, supuestamente, Oscar Wilde, a quien se le atribuye la frase “Two nations separated by a common language” refiriéndose a Inglaterra y los Estados Unidos de América. Es una frase común y conocida entre los anglófonos, aunque la cita, de “El fantasma de Canterville”, no dice exactamente eso, si que pone de manifiesto las notables diferencias entre el inglés que se habla en el Reino Unido y el que se habla en Norteamérica. Las diferencias son generalmente objeto de jocosidad aunque de vez en cuando conducen a malentendidos, a veces ofensivos o, en cualquier caso, lamentables. La cancioncilla de los años cuarenta del siglo pasado “… you say tomato, I say tomeito…“ acaba diciendo que más vale que lo dejemos correr (“let’s call the whole thing off”). La versión de Ella Fitzgerald y Louis Armstrong, memorable.

Hace unos días participaba en una reunión de trabajo de un grupo de investigadores sobre salud internacional. Se trataba de un grupo europeo compuesto de franceses, suecos, portugueses y españoles de los bilingües (gallegos y catalanes) y, al menos, un investigador norteamericano de origen. La reunión que, naturalmente, se denominaba “Workshop”, tenía el inglés como lengua oficial. Siempre he creído que lo de Babel no fue una confusión de lenguas sino de ideas, metáforas incluidas, como casi todo en la Biblia. Lo común y corriente es que la gente tenga que hablar una par de lenguas o más. El monolingüismo me parece una forma de pobreza.
Lo mismo que fue el latín, sobre todo en la Edad Media pero incluso mucho después, la lengua común de la comunicación científica, es ahora el inglés: la lengua del imperio. Aún conserva el latín esos usos, cuando en los países anglosajones la nomenclatura anatómica, los nombres de huesos, músculos, vasos y nervios del cuerpo humano y sus posiciones se conocen en latín.
Es por tanto moneda corriente que los científicos conozcan y se expresen en inglés, sobre todo desde la segunda mitad del siglo pasado.

El Nobel Jose Saramago afirma que dentro de cien años todos hablaremos inglés con acentos propios; un poco como sucedió al final de la Edad Media que el latín evolucionó a las lenguas romances. Lo que pasa es que el proceso va a ser duro: en el “workshop” pudimos oír el inglés más torturado y zarrapastroso que pueda imaginarse mientras todo el mundo se sentía feliz y contento de poder entenderse. Todos menos el norteamericano de origen que, con cierto desespero confesaba tener que traducirse a si mismo lo que oía a otro idioma de su conocimiento para poder entender lo que se estaba diciendo. La construcción de las frases, la sintaxis y, aún más, la prosodia, sufren lo indecible en boca de quienes no tiene el idioma como original o no lo aprendieron de pequeños.

Hace unos años la revista The Economist citaba que, mientras 350 millones de personas tiene el inglés como su primera lengua, quizá hasta 1000 millones la usan o la pueden usar como segunda lengua: las antiguas colonias del Imperio Británico, las nuevas del Imperio Americano y todos los demás que sienten la mundialización como “globalización”. No será inglés de Inglaterra-the Queen’s English- pero inglés al fin y al cabo.
Como siempre, mejor es promocionar lo que nos une y tratar de olvidar lo que nos separa.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Primary colours

Once a month I have the opportunity to attend to a very interesting seminar at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya, a relatively new institution dedicated to higher education of increasing prestige in our country.

The seminar is dedicated to innovations on health and health care issues and is attended by top-notch health officials including our minister of health and a vast array of other big fish in the health world, both from the administrations and the academy.

The seminar usually starts with a main conference by a distinguish speaker and follow by a very open discussion panel and dialogs that extends over some hours, usually on Thursday evenings.

Last Thursday’s the invited professor was a very distinguish Neurosciences researcher and the topic was recent advances on brain physiology, particularly the time distances between stimuli and brain response, and some recent findings of the pre-emptive stimulation of the brain that takes place just a few milliseconds before the actual stimuli perceived by the sense reaches and is registered by the brain cell. The implication would be that we might only sense what we are ready to sense. And how all this may distort the perception of reality.

Neuroscientists get easily carried away and are certainly prone to jump into conclusions about sense, perception, reality, illusions, Being and Nothingness and what not. The talk kept spiralling upwards into Philosophy and even Theology and somewhere along the line came the statement: “… of course there are no colours. They are just a fiction of our perception. Things are colourless and what we perceive are just reflections of the light that stimuli different tips of the rod cells of our retina, and on and on and on….”

Hold it, there! There we go again. I’m fed up with all those half truths concocted out of fragmental pieces of knowledge just to induce the audiences to understand that nothing is true, nothing is real and we are all living in a dream of disbelieve and unreality. Meanwhile the very same bad guys carry out all their very real misdeeds and horrible crimes and get away with it. Ask Bernard Madoff.

What really pisses me off is that all this is said as something startlingly new. I first heard that there were no colours from my Natural Sciences teacher in Junior High somewhere in the mid fifties, last century. Professor Antonio Arnal, a very knowledgeable botanist, was a nice teacher. We loved his classes held in the auditory of a little Natural Sciences museum in the upper floor of our old high school “Instituto de Enseñanza Media”, the walls lined with display cabinets full of all sort of stuffed animals: birds, lizards, exotic monkeys, boar and even a leopard whose green glass eyes stared at you ferociously. By the way, professor Arnal is still alive and kicking, pushing one hundred years and still walking the old streets of town, sporting his ever-present black broad-brimmed Basque beret. He said that there were no colours but did not elaborate much, so I tucked away that nice piece of useless information and went on with my youthful life.

Few years later, in Medical school, I heard the same from our Physiology professor, Dr. Vidal-Sivilla, a sour and circumspect balding man who gave very boring 08.00 a.m. lectures, most of the class half sleep in the cavernous old Facultad de Medicina of Barcelona. Being in Spain, the tirade usually went on over the fact that bulls were colour blind, and that they only reacted to movement, and therefore there were no reason for the “toreros”, the bullfighters, to use a red rag to entice the bull in the ring.

OK, so bull and cows are colour blind. So was I, as I had recently found out when taking my driver’s license test. I had a partial dischromatopsia. No enough to keep me from getting the driver’s license, but surely enough to prevent me from ever obtaining an air flight pilot license. Not that I had any expectations in that regard. Those days hardly any airplanes crossed the skies of Spain and airplanes were something you only saw in the movies.

But, what about other animals? Many sported bright colours to attract sexual partners. Especially birds do. Those fantastic feathers of a peacock must have some meaning. And butterflies? Are they also “imaging” their coloured wings?

And, what about chameleons? Not only they sport colours in their skin, but also they change them for camouflage. They may melt in their surroundings for safety, so they “sense” their colours and their changes. So do many fishes. But even more primitive organisms, such as the plants react to colour changes and may even be colour conscious, as they change colours to attract insects to stop by and pollinate. They depend on that to survive and reproduce.

Of course that colours are just different wave lengths of energy reflected as we perceive them and that different central nervous systems may perceive them differently, but they definitely exist as such wavelengths reflections. Whatever they are, we gave them the name “colour”. We may perceive only a fraction of the spectrum: what goes from violet to red. Seven colours that, as my computer printer claims, may be broken down to 16 million “shades”.

I’ve heard that some blind people may sense colour as things red fell warmer than green ones. And people feel also differences wearing colours, particularly in extreme temperatures. So is not just only our sight; other senses like tact and thermal perception attest the reality of colour.

That does not mean that our sense may be misled in their perceptions. All the “trompe l’oeil” phenomena play on that. As does camouflage. But we humans have giving colours even a social meaning. Banners, national flags and sports colours raise emotions to their limits.

It affects even the language. In Catalan, the red colour is commonly named “vermell”, as vermilion. No one uses “roig”, red, as that is reserved to the “political” colour of leftists, or the supporters of the Spanish republic in the Spanish Civil War years. Forty years of extreme right dictatorship had made “roig” a “bad” colour. In the U.S. they used to call Communists “pinko”, a notch paler shade of red, while “yellow” and “coward” were synonymous.

“Primary colours”, the movie, played with the idea of the primary colours of the spectrum and the heated colours of the primary elections of the Democratic Party.

Bullfighters sport different colours of silk in theirs suits in a combination of two: one major for the silk base, and a secondary colour for the “caireles y alamares”, the adornments of the jackets. Usually they are described in shades of physical things: “tabaco y oro” for brown and yellow, “azabache y grana” for black and purple, and the like. No colour, no bullfight.

Colours do exist, so, please do not take the colours of life away from me. Those black-(grey)-and white movies of old make me sad and depressed, “Casablanca” notwithstanding.