February 14th, 2009


Reading Level

I found this post today, which describes a couple of simple methods for determining the reading level of a book.

And I was just ... bewildered. It would never have occurred to me, growing up, that not knowing the words in a book might be considered a reason to stop reading the book. If the subject interested me, and I had to trot to the dictionary a second or third time, I simply lugged the dictionary back and plunked it next to the book, and alternated between the two. I have some early memories of doing that, but probably not past 8 or so. I was reading at the adult level at least by the time I was 6, possibly earlier. My vocabulary got so big, so fast, that it quickly became rare for me to find new words unless I went entirely outside my knowledge sphere. That was actually part of the reason for me bookworming my way through a substantial portion of the Danville public library in junior high and early high school, new-word-hunger. (I can understand that it wouldn't be prudent to force someone to read a book that they couldn't understand, but frankly, I never saw concern about that; if a book was assigned, you had better handle it, and if you couldn't, tough. The only books anyone ever tried to take away from me were ones I'd picked out myself.) The books that fascinate me the most are the ones that take me into new territory.

Neither would it have occurred to me to abandon a book just because it was hard to understand. If the topic was interesting, I would reread challenging sections, or look for other references and then come back to see if the hard one made more sense, or ask my parents for an explanation, or find some adult who knew about that topic and pester them (not excepting total strangers, at times).

I can even remember that kind of persistence with a few fiction books, that I just couldn't get into but for some reason seemed like they ought to be interesting. Some became interesting later; others never did. But really, there are only two things that have a high likelihood of bouncing me out of a book: it's badly written and/or it bores me. It's possible for a book to be so far over my head that I have no interest in it, but the percentage of recognized words and concepts has to be minute and far from anything I might find useful. I have puzzled my way through a page or few of writing in languages I'm not even fluent in just for the fun of hunting for English borrowings or words that are close enough to some other language or root-word for me to recognize them.

This illuminates for me some of the reasons why I'm so different from most people, if those leveling techniques are at all common as they are described to be. There is my innate fascination with words, which causes unfamiliar words to be attractive rather than off-putting. There is the looping effect of seeking books to explain things I've encountered elsewhere, and seeking people to explain books. There is the context that my parents let me read whatever I wanted, whether it was at an "appropriate" level or not; and my disgust and outrage at other adults who occasionally tried to part me from books they considered inappropriate. I think anyone with an indelible attraction to words will tend to develop a larger vocabulary, even in the absence of outside encouragement; that anyone in a supportive environment will tend to develop a larger vocabulary than they would on their own, even if they aren't especially interested in words; and that combining the two probably accounts for many of the people with the largest vocabularies. There's logic to that, when you look for it.

But still, it seems utterly alien to me that not knowing the words in a book, or not immediately understanding its content, would be reasons to put it down.

Vocabulary: Dangerous and Unpopular Words

I found these two interesting articles, one about perceiving the danger of words, another about reviving obscure words.

I was most intrigued by the former, because of this section:

If you’re like most people with an English speaking background then you rated Hnegripitrom as more dangerous than Magnalroxate.

But if you are like most people then you don’t have an advanced degree in organic chemistry, so what are you basing your judgment on?

The researchers had a clue and designed this experiment to test one simple thing: The link between ease of pronunciation and how our brain judges risk.

They demonstrated that we tend to rate things that are hard to pronounce as more risky than things that are easy to pronounce.

That's not the answer I came up with, and not how I came up with it. First, I suspected the words were made up, because I read food labels. Seeing two unfamiliar words in that context made me suspicious. Furthermore, one of them begins with "Hn," an initial blend not allowed in English. That made me pretty sure at least that word was bogus, because people generally won't put something on the market that violates English word-formation rules. The next thing I did was dissect the words looking for root and affix clues to their meaning. "Hnegripitron" contains the "-on" ending found in plenty of chemicals, and "-itron" isn't rare; "grip" is recognizable but rather out of place; and "hne" is nonsense in English and its relatives. The word just doesn't hang together. "Magnalroxate" has the common "-ate" chemical ending; "ox" could reasonably refer to oxygen or oxide or such; and "magna-" means "large." So I'd guess the effect to be increasing something; since it's a preservative, I'd suspect it of ridiculously expanding the shelf life of something that ought in all good sense to be eaten sooner. Given a choice between a gibberish word and a somewhat plausible one, I suspected that the plausible one was more likely to be real and therefore dangerous.

But I wouldn't have settled on a guess: if the article hadn't promptly revealed both as fake, I would've gone out and researched both terms. I have done that fairly often. I usually do it when I hit a new process or ingredient, because my standards tend to be a lot higher than American safety standards. Most of the time I'm stuck eating what I can afford, or find; but when I can, I eat what conforms to my standards. So familiarity plays a role in my decision making process, but it's not based on pure familiarity but rather on the information I can derive from words I recognize. I think the biggest difference is simply that I don't place much weight on a guesswork decision; I go hunting for facts. That's a crucial distinction.

Yes, I know, it makes me weird. Not all my decisions are based on logic, but I use it far more than ordinary people seem to, and I'm far more inclined to slam on the brakes and refuse to continue under certain circumstances if facts are not forthcoming. I am frequently frustrated by how little most people are influenced by facts.

Let me count the ways...

Say "I Love You" in 14 languages.

... more or less. I can't resist quibbling with the Russian. That verb, "liubliu," can mean "to like" or "to love." But the pronoun is the formal "you" not the familiar "you." If you're using the formal pronoun, you're not talking to someone you'd say "I love you" to, unless it's an older relative. So that version is more likely to come across as "I like you" (which you might say to a friend or a newish romantic partner). For the "I love you" connotation, the informal/intimate pronoun would more plausibly be used: "Ya liubliu tebya" it was in my textbooks, though the positioning of the pronoun is flexible and "Ya vas liubliu" as in the example is fine too.

Not only is the like/love ambiguity famous for causing embarrassment in Russia, I actually saw it happen to a friend in college who'd received a letter and interpreted it rather differently than was intended. And it wasn't until I saw the example in this list that I realized there are some contextual clues that can tip the meaning one way or the other.

Poem: "Starblossom"

This poem came out of the February 2009 Poetry Fishbowl, sponsored by general donations. It was inspired by a prompt from ellenmillion. I don't know if the structural spacing will survive blog posting, but I'll do my best.


The dayshift my lover came to me crying
   because the last of the flowering plants
      down in hydroponics had died, leaving only
         the vat-grown leaves and proteins to feed us,

         she said to me,
         “What shall we do
         for love-tokens now?”

I pressed her to my chest,
   and turned her face to the forward screen
      where the nebula blossomed in a dozen shades
         of purple and pink, green and yellow, blue and gold,

         and I said to her,
         “Look, my dearest,
         the stars are making love.”

Poem: "The Key to My Heart Is Upside Down"

This poem came out of the February 2009 Poetry Fishbowl, inspired by this painting by flutterbychild. It was sponsored by an extra general donation.

The Key to My Heart Is Upside Down
– a quatern

The key to my heart is upside down.
Each candle stands for a love or friend.
They are not large, and have no renown.
I burn my candles at just one end.

This candle is red, and these ones blue.
The key to my heart is upside down.
Our lives are colored by me and you.
My soul is pink and my skin is brown.

My mind is a village, not a town.
I live for the faces that I know.
The key to my heart is upside down.
It shines like a flame through winter snow.

The world don’t know what to make of me.
What do I care for gold, or a crown?
I love without locks, and I am free.
The key to my heart is upside down.