Money matters: How to learn from History (Part 2)
MBMG International Ltd.
We saw in last week’s update that the potential power
of the stock market is enormous. We also saw that this power can equally
be used for good or for evil - wealth can be created or destroyed by both
short term and long term fluctuations.
It’s well known that the prices of stocks can go up
or down and yet most equity investors ignore this. They stake their
investment entirely on the principle that stocks will increase in value.
Ultimately, over time, that’s probable. However, as anyone who invested
from 1929 to 1983 can testify, the growth in the value of their portfolio
(less than 1% per year) was much less than the rate of inflation over that
Most folks say that they’re long term investors, but
when 54 years isn’t long enough, you can understand why we tend to
believe that long term investments are short term investments that people
made which went wrong.
This focus on just making money from stocks increasing
in value is ubiquitous. Recently, The Seattle Times recently carried an
article featuring the thoughts of Tom Muldowney, managing director of
Savant Capital Management in Rockford, Illinois who firmly believes that
you can reduce your portfolio expense ratio and also lower your portfolio
risk by holding no-frills index funds. Muldowney’s argument was that
index funds have a lower kurtosis (risk of total loss) than hedge funds
and, therefore, are lower risk.
This was a reaction to the recent rise in popularity of
hedge funds due to their perceived lower risk and more consistent returns
than investing in equities. Muldowney’s response is that index funds
(which replicate the performance of an index such as the Dow Jones
Industrial Average - less an annual management fee) are easier to
understand and more accessible than hedge funds.
We’ll evaluate the merits of hedge funds in the near
future, but this perception of index funds worries us. Index funds
represent a cheap and easy way to buy exposure to the growth of an index.
They are an ideal way to trade in and out of a market for short term gain.
For longer term investors they have the drawback that
they don’t benefit from the dividend yield. The dividend is a variable
annual discretionary payment to the shareholders as their share of the
distributed profits the company has made.
“What is a dividend but your payment as an owner of
the company?” said Joseph Lisanti, editor of S&P’s weekly
newsletter, The Outlook. “If you don’t get that, then the only way you
can profit from your investment is to sell all of it or part of it ...
Otherwise, what’s the return on your investment?”
Dividend payments do fluctuate over time:
The historical dividend yield for the Standard &
Poor’s 500 has been at times roughly 4 percent
The yield last month was just 1.70 percent, despite
companies in the index sitting on a near-record $621.7 billion cash pile
In the 1930s-1950s, when growth was around 3% per year,
dividends added a further 2% per year income.
In the 1970s, when growth was less than 0.5% per year,
dividends supplemented this by around 0.3% per year
Dividends waned in the 1990s with newer companies
unable to pay them and TMT (telcoms, media, technology) companies argued
that their money was better spent investing in the business or buying
Dividends became relegated to “old economy”
companies, or unfashionable industries, such as tobacco, which paid
investors a premium to hold on to their stocks. However, four of the nine
stocks in the Standard & Poor’s 500 that initiated dividends this
year are in the tech sector.
Legislative changes are helping to encourage dividend
payments in the US. The tax treatment of dividends changed in 2003 when a
15 percent tax on dividends replaced the tax structure, in which dividends
were taxed at the same rate as investors’ income.
In a 2002 paper titled “Why are dividends
disappearing? An empirical analysis” Malcolm Baker of Harvard Business
School and Jeffrey Wurgler of New York University’s Stern School of
Business found dividend payments grow when investors are willing to pay
more for stocks with strong dividends and shrink when investors aren’t
willing to pay more for stocks with strong dividends. So, investor
behaviour could change corporate behaviour.
However, the basic flaw of ETFs is that they do what
they say they do - they replicate the index. So, while they might offer a
convenient and speedy way to make short term tactical profits from the
market, they still present the same problem as traditional long equity
In a falling market they fall just like the market
does. They represent a mechanism for achieving cost-effective short term
long exposure to a market. They’re not a methodology, merely a
convenient cost-effective mechanism. They don’t reduce market risk or
allow you to achieve neutrality (the ability to make money in rising or
falling markets). They don’t allow investors to monitor or control risk
or have any expectation of what returns should be, positive, negative or
otherwise. Right now, we’d look to avoid them as we believe that the
markets are approaching their inflexion point (they’re about to crash
and burn horribly).
Why do we think that? That’s getting us back to our favourite topic
of whinging about the economy and we’ll slip that in under the pretext
of equity investing next week.
The above data and research was compiled from sources believed to be
reliable. However, neither MBMG International Ltd nor its officers can accept
any liability for any errors or omissions in the above article nor bear any
responsibility for any losses achieved as a result of any actions taken or not
taken as a consequence of reading the above article. For more information please
contact Graham Macdonald on firstname.lastname@example.org
Snap Shots: Is this the ultimate digital?
by Harry Flashman
Hasselblad company’s range of 6x6 cm cameras has been one of the
mainstays of professional photography. For many (and me included), they
were the ultimate work-horse in the professional photographer’s
armamentarium. Now Hasselblad has produced the Hasselblad 22 megapixel
fully digital H2D which would have to be considered as having come close
to the ultimate in digital photography. 22 megapixels!
By the way, just in case you think that digital
photography is something recent, October 7, 2005 marked the 30th
anniversary of the digital camera. In 1975, the world’s first digital
photograph was taken at a Kodak lab in Rochester, NY, USA, in an event
that preceded the compact disc, the personal computer and the internet. It
was designed and built by Steven Sasson, an engineer at Kodak’s Applied
Electronics Research Centre, and it weighed around four kilograms, and
needed 16 AA batteries! And we have the gall to complain about the
lithium-ion batteries of today!
But back to the present. A year after the launch of the
Hasselblad H1, the Swedish company has developed the H2 cross platform
camera and the H2D fully-integrated digital camera. Both the cameras
include a series of brand new features, and are fully compatible with
Hasselblad’s existing H system lenses.
The H2 and H2D cameras deliver improved mobility,
quality, and workflow, say the manufacturers. This new camera features
include a highly advanced image approval and selection tool, called
Instant Approval Architecture providing a swift and easy way to select and
Additionally, Hasselblad has built into the H2
cross-platform camera a new single-battery operation of the camera with
the new Ixpress CFH digital back, offering one on/off switch and one
operating system, facilitating streamlined, integrated operation. With
existing digital backs already in the market, the H2 delivers the exact
functionality of the H1.
The digital Hasselblad results in much from the
association with Imacon.
Christian Poulsen, CEO of Hasselblad said, “In the
year since Hasselblad and Imacon joined forces, we have been inundated
with constructive feedback from professional photographers worldwide,
eager to see Hasselblad’s legendary quality evolve with developments in
digital technology. When we reviewed their wishes, we were able to distil
them into five key areas - format, storage, open standards, image approval
and selection, and image color refinement. This gave us a clear blueprint
for the next phase of our product development.”
Today’s professional photographers demand higher
resolution, less noise, and improved composition, all of which are
addressed with Hasselblad’s new camera platform. The H2 and H2D use an
optical format much larger than 35mm, with a large format, high quality 22
Megapixel CCD sensor measuring 37mm x 49mm. Coupled with an ultra bright,
extra large ‘H-size’ viewfinder enabling better image composition, the
final result is an image quality that exceeds normal expectations of
medium format photography, which was already very high, hence the use of
medium format professionally.
Hasselblad has also worked closely with Adobe to make
its new cameras fully compatible with Adobe’s raw image format called
DNG (‘Digital NeGative’), bringing this new technology standard to the
professional photographer for the first time. The DNG file format enables
raw, compressed image files to be opened directly in Adobe Photoshop CS.
This allows photographers to operate quickly and efficiently, reducing the
“downtime” taken to process image data and enabling final images to
reach the customer more quickly. Hasselblad image files now carry a full
set of metadata, including capture conditions, keywords and copyright,
facilitating work with image asset management solutions. For specialist
commercial photographers the full productivity and creative freedom
offered by Hasselblad’s FlexColor workflow software is also available
via importing the DNG file. The new FlexColor now allows the photographer
to manipulate colour temperature and compare image details across multiple
images for precise image selection.
Christian Poulsen, CEO of Hasselblad says, “The
result is a new range of technologically advanced products that will
change the working habits of general and specialist professional
photographers, providing them with the tools they need to capture magical
images, while growing a profitable, customer-focused business.”
With this capability to have 22 megapixels in medium format, the
Hasselblad is also joined by Mamiya and Pentax. With the advent of these,
the film camera is now (unfortunately) dead and buried.
Modern Medicine: Happy, healthy 2006 is within reach
by Dr. Iain Corness, Consultant
week’s column is practically a rewrite of last year’s column at this
time. This is that time of year when we make all those resolutions that we
have absolutely no intention of keeping, but it all sounded good at New Year
parties! Well, that’s the truth, isn’t it?
However, there are a few resolutions that if you follow
or abide by them you will get even more New Years to celebrate. Interested?
You should be – I am offering you up to 10 more years, but like all great
offers, there are some conditions that apply!
The first resolution, for all cigarette smokers out
there, is to give up the weed in 2006. It is no use trying to deny it. We
have shown, more than adequately, that cigarettes are the greatest killers
of mankind, even including Osama bin Laden. All smokers are on borrowed
time. End of story. And I don’t care if your grandfather smoked 60 a day
and lived to be 123. The big numbers that have been examined in studies all
over the world say it all – smokers do not live as long as non-smokers.
Smokers get all kinds of cancers much more than non-smokers, and that’s
all kinds – not just lung cancers. Smokers get more heart attacks than
non-smokers. Do you want me to go on? In the face of all the evidence,
continuing smoking in 2006 is just plain dumb. So how do you give up? The
best method remains your positive desire to give up and then go Cold Turkey.
Forget the rest.
The next resolution is very easy. Take 100 milligrams of
aspirin every day. Once again, the big numbers prove the hypothesis. Your
chances of having a heart attack are very much less by that simple expedient
of 100 milligrams of aspirin a day. You can either buy 100 milligram
tablets, such as Cardiprin, or take quarter of an ordinary 500 milligram
aspirin tablet, which is 125 mgm. Close enough.
Another easy resolution is to get more exercise –
daily. This is a resolution that will tone up your cardiovascular system and
reduce your chances of having that final coronary occlusion (or as it is
often called, a coronary conclusion!). You don’t need to go to a
gymnasium, pump iron, take steroids or wear those silly strappy singlets
either. Half an hour of brisk walking, or fifteen minutes of exercising each
day will do. (I use the Canadian 5BX system and spend 11 minutes a day
because I do it quickly!)
Since you are what you eat, or so it is said, your next
resolution should be to look at exactly what you do eat. Cut down on animal
fats (where you get your cholesterol from) and increase your intake of fish
is a good start. Eat ‘Asian’ twice a week, fish twice a week, and
sensibly for the other three days.
How’s the alcohol intake these days? Fuzzy heads in the
morning? Then perhaps you should include alcohol reduction in your
resolutions too. Four ‘standard’ drinks a day for men and two for women
(sorry girls, but you don’t handle alcohol as well as we do!). Plus at
least one AFD (alcohol free day) per week.
What is a ‘standard’ drink? That is taken as 10 grams
of alcohol - equal to one glass of full strength beer (285 mls), one small
(100ml) glass of wine, or one measure (30ml) of spirits. One can of regular
beer contains about one and half standard drinks, while a bottle of wine
contains about seven.
Happy New Year, and stay well in 2006.
Heart to Heart with Hillary
Another year has passed where I have not been able to get back to the Land
of Smiles and that’s sad. One compensating factor though is that I can
read your column each week which always provides a smile from Thailand even
if I’m not there in person. Thank you for another wonderful year of advice
to the lovelorn and other foolish falangs, who seem to be asking the same
questions as others were 25 years ago. Please express my gratitude to all
the writers and staff of Pattaya Mail and assure them that their
efforts are appreciated across the globe by anyone who has fond memories of
what the city of fun has to offer. A Merry Christmas and Prosperous New Year
to you all. Sawatdee Pi mai,
Thank you, on behalf of all the elves that work in the Editorial Office, for
best wishes. Christmas was certainly merry, but I am baulking at this big
word called “prosperous”. Does this mean I am going to have a change of
occupation? The reason I ask is because I have yet to meet an Agony Aunt who
owns a Mercedes or a designer home. For me, it is a life of hammering away
on the keys and dreaming of knights in shining armor, weighed down with
bottles of bubbly and boxes of chocolates. Perhaps I should be asking for
donations of share certificates? Sawasdee Bee Mai to you too.
I posted some Belgian chocolates to you today as promised, unlike that
stingy Mr. Singha, I did keep my word. I hope they arrive safe and sound,
the boxes are wrapped in foil so I hope they will be okay. Thanks for
printing my letters to you. I’m Derrick, an Australian made in England,
but whose heart is 100 percent Thai. Thanks for your great column Hillary
and I wish you and all at Pattaya Mail a very Happy and Healthy
Farrang New Year. Lotsaluv.
I did thank you last week crossing my fingers that they would arrive, but I
have now reprinted your letter to let you know the two boxes were delivered,
in great shape, and were delightful. Thank you again. It is someone like you
that gives everyone renewed hope in human nature! And in chocolates!
I work in an office with ten Thai girls. Some people would think that is the
greatest thing that could ever happen, but let me tell you it isn’t. I sit
there at my desk while they chat and gossip and laugh at people. I reckon I
would do twice as much work as all ten of them put together. Sometimes it is
hard for me to get my work done too as they are so noisy, but their male
supervisor, who is Thai too, just joins in the overall noise and never tells
them to get back to their desks and do some work, but is very quick to tell
me I’ve done something wrong. They also keep taking my pens and rulers and
never put them back. What do you suggest, Hillary?
Cheesed off Charlie
Dear Cheesed off Charlie,
You really have got a problem. You are totally outnumbered and it sounds as
if your male buddy isn’t too worried about your worries either.
Complaining isn’t going to get you anywhere. You have a couple of options.
Move to another office, or if that isn’t possible, move to another
employer. I can’t see any compromise situation that would work for you,
I’m afraid. Best of luck, Charlie!
I have been to Thailand a few times, so I know the ropes, or at least I
think I do. I have never been one for the bar girls, and while I enjoy a
drink and some company, I have never felt the need to take one home, if you
know what I mean. Well, I went to a disco and met a young woman there and we
clicked straight away. From there we went to a couple of bars and by the end
of the evening we were a pair. I didn’t have much of my holiday left, but
we managed to find accommodation in Koh Chang and we spent a wonderful week
together. I’m back in the UK now and we have stayed in touch with emails
and she is saying she wants me to come back over as soon as possible. I can
see I am falling for this girl big time, but when I read all the problems
guys have had in your column, I wonder if I should just give up now before I
get too deep. She hasn’t asked for money, but it’s only been a couple of
months. What’s my chances, Hillary?
What’s your chances of what? Of being asked for money? Very high! What you
have to remember is just how long have you known this wonderful girl.
Wondering? It sounds like one week, at the end of a holiday, living on a
tropical island. How close to reality is that? Not very is the answer. Would
you do all this with a girl you met in a disco in Blackpool after one week?
I don’t think so. Sure, keep in touch, but go slowly, Petal. Go slowly.
Psychological Perspectives: Men are also victims
of domestic abuse
by Michael Catalanello,
In my column appearing in the Pattaya
Mail on December 9, 2005, I reported on two recently published studies
of domestic violence in Thailand, one by the World Health Organization
(WHO), and another by the Ministry of Public Health. The WHO
study interviewed 24,000 women from both rural and urban settings in 10
countries: Bangladesh, Brazil, Ethiopia, Japan, Namibia, Peru, Samoa,
Serbia and Montenegro, Thailand, and the United Republic of Tanzania. The Ministry
of Public Health study, likewise, focused upon violence against women
and children. Both studies concluded that domestic violence is on the
increase in Thailand.
I pointed out that experts in the field often point to
gender inequality as an important factor in perpetuating and protecting the
crime of domestic violence. For example, women in this society are often
taught that it is a virtue to be submissive and accepting of male
domination. Further, women who seek legal remedies for domestic abuse often
encounter attitudes among public officials implying that domestic abuse is
a private matter between the husband and wife.
A reader responding to my piece correctly pointed out
that men, too, are often victims of domestic abuse. In fact, according to
the reader, some studies have shown that men are victims of domestic abuse
at the hands of women as frequently as are women at the hands of men. The
reader evidently felt that I was being unfair by focusing exclusively on
men’s abuse of women. He/she then reasoned that because domestic violence
is found equally among heterosexual couples, lesbian couples and gay male
couples, it could not be related to gender inequality.
A few points bear mentioning in this regard. First,
domestic violence is not exclusively a problem of men abusing women.
According to the research, women also abuse men, men abuse men, and women
abuse women. Suffering produced as a result of domestic violence is
suffering, regardless of the respective genders of the victim and
As for the relative frequency of episodes of man to
woman violence versus woman to man violence, I am not aware of any studies
addressing the question within Thai society, and I would be cautious in
generalizing findings from the United States, New Zealand, and Canada to a
society as different as that of Thailand.
I am not prepared to comment here on the methods and
findings of the studies cited by the reader; however, there are some
important distinctions to keep in mind in interpreting studies like these.
For example, are those researchers adequately distinguishing between the
initiation of violence, and violence performed in self-defense? Are they
lumping together discrete episodes of violence with long-term patterns of
abuse? Are they distinguishing between physical abuse and
My colleague, psychologist Sombat Tapanya at Chiang Mai
University has cited anecdotal reports that Thai females have become
somewhat more “aggressive” in recent years, as compared to the past.
He, likewise, observes that Thai women seem to favor using tactics
involving psychological, rather than physical abuse against men. Obviously,
questions like these could form the basis for further research on local
domestic abuse which Dr. Sombat and I intend to pursue.
Finally, I fail to see the logic of concluding that if
gay males and lesbians abuse their partners with equal frequency as
heterosexual couples, gender inequality can not be a factor in promoting
domestic abuse. That’s because even within gay male and lesbian
partnerships, there is usually a partner who adopts a dominant “male”
role, while the other partner adopts a submissive “female” role.
Unequal gender expectations inherent in these culturally defined roles can
often be observed, even within such partnerships.
As I pointed out, domestic abuse is a complex issue. Questions of what
“causes” this unfortunate phenomenon are complicated. Furthermore,
ethics and other practical limitations prevent us from carrying out the
kind of research that would be needed to provide a definitive answer to the
question of what causes domestic violence. Nevertheless, the evidence for
gender inequality, particularly within Thai society, seems to me
compelling. Certainly, not all individuals holding attitudes reflecting
gender inequality end up in abusive relationships. It would be quite
surprising, however, if the inferior status of women in Thai society was
not somehow implicated in domestic abuse, whether perpetrated by men upon
women, or by women upon men.
Dr. Catalanello is a licensed psychologist in his home State of Louisiana, USA, and a member of the Faculty of Liberal Arts at Asian University,
Chonburi. You may address questions and comments to him at email@example.com, or post on his weblog at
A Female Perspective: Oh no! The World Cup!
with Sharona Watson
not that I don’t understand football. It’s just that I don’t like it.
And I have seen quite enough to make me realise that I really don’t
like it. It’s not just the utter pointlessness of a group of overgrown
children running after a ball, trying to put this ball through a
construction with a net. It’s also the incredible amount of time and
energy that men want to give to this sport, which seems so ridiculous to me.
Actually, it says a lot about men that they can become so
agitated about something so meaningless. I suppose it keeps them away from
bugging us women for a while. I was going to say it keeps them quiet but it
does the opposite. I remember with some kind of regret, allowing my
husband’s friends to come and watch football matches on television at our
house. It was so noisy. Shouting, screaming, like complete idiots.
And if their team lost, they acted as if they were really upset by it, as if
there was something they could do about it in the first place!
Unfortunately, it’s not as if it even keeps them busy for just a few
hours. They have to bring it to us afterwards! But I’m just not
interested! Please, don’t bore me!
Whoever is in charge of football on television must
really be laughing! I bet it’s a woman. Only a woman could con men into
thinking that they have some power to change a game by watching it on
television! Or that the team and the players they pretend to support so
much, care about them at all! It is so clear to me that it is all about
money. How else could football clubs afford to pay their players so much?
Just imagine how the game would fall apart if men suddenly realised that
they were only wanted for their cash!
I have to say that since we stopped having cable TV, our
house it a lot more peaceful. Before, when football was on, or I should say
when Manchester United was on, my husband would want to watch them. But in
our house, we’re a democracy and the fact that there are three women in
the house and just one man isn’t exactly my fault. In fact, it’s
definitely not my fault, seeing as how the sex of your children is
decided by the man. So, if the majority decided that they wanted to watch
“Pride & Prejudice” or “Balamory” then sorry, my husband would
be out-voted. You should have seen his face! I tried not to laugh at him at
times like this.
He always says he’s a believer in social justice, equal
rights for everyone and all that, so here was an example, in his own house!
I have to say that he accepted that very much, so much so, that this all
ended up with us getting rid of cable TV! Now, instead of watching TV
(unless we put on a DVD or something) we spend most of our time reading, or
writing, or painting, or playing the piano, or chess, or something creative.
So you could say that football has been good for us!
Of course, the funny thing is that we don’t even get to
see Andy’s own show, “Perspectives” unless we go to someone else’s
house, which I have to admit, we sometimes do. Andy came back really late
the other night from filming a guy who is apparently quite a famous singer
in Thailand, a guy called Kelvin Patrick. You know I was saying the other
week, that sometimes it’s nice to meet the people who are guests on
“Perspectives”? Well, Kelvin came round to our house before they went
off to his club and he was such a nice guy. I have to tell you
though, that it didn’t seem like he was a singer. I mean, he was really
quiet and well, not small, but not tall either and quite tubby. Very sweet
though. And Andy said he had an amazing voice. So I’m definitely
going to watch that show and make an effort to go and see Kelvin sing one
day soon. He regularly performs in Pattaya as well as Rayong.
Back to football. My husband used to play seriously.
Thankfully, he’d kind of given up by the time we started living together.
Unfortunately, he kept getting asked to play in games and one day, two days
before we were going to move house in London, when we had one child who was
only 10 months old, he broke his leg in a game he said was a “friendly”.
Didn’t sound very friendly to me! I was furious and I’m sure it didn’t
hurt as much as he made out. Sometimes, I’d give him a bit of a kick on
the plaster, just in case he was trying it on. And of course he couldn’t
help move house either. Just lay there like an invalid. Sometimes he’d try
and be cheeky and give me orders. He paid for that. I was suffering myself,
having to move house and look after the little girl at the same time.
The only time I enjoyed watching a game of football is
when Andy played for Cambridge against Oxford. There were lots of people
there and we had a great party afterwards. But it was only fun because all
our friends were there, shouting really funny stuff at him during the game.
You could see he heard them, because he kept laughing.
Andy came to me the other day with bad news. The World
Cup is happening again. “Oh, no!” I cried. He told me just to warn me.
Give him credit; he always tries to convince me to watch the games,
especially when Brazil is playing. And I have tried, but I can’t really
get excited by it. The last thing I’m going to do is pretend to like it,
just to please him. And if he wants to watch it, then fine. But there’ll
be pay back afterwards…
Next week, I’ll be talking about what Christmas and New
Year means to me as a woman and a non-Christian. Until then, I wish all
readers a Happy and Prosperous New Year!
Next week: Christmas & New Year
by Ian Smith
When I first arrived in the Kingdom, some twelve and a
half years ago, I remember a raging debate being conducted in the letters
pages of the Bangkok Post between British and American exponents of the
English language. I imagine it is a debate that has been going on, in a
general sense, from the time the first American colonists began to pay
visits “back home”, displaying their dreadfully un-British dialects.
The letters pages of the Bangkok Post in late 1993 were,
for some reason I never fully understood, dominated almost entirely by a
very silly argument about the relative merits of “fully-fledged” verses
“full-fledged”. The main thing I remember about this inane debate was
one British wit noting that Americans these days favoured “full-blown”
rather than “full-fledged”, which reflected the American propensity for
“blowing things up rather than nurturing them.” Frankly, the whole
nonsense reminded me of nothing more than a pair of dinosaurs squabbling
over a pterodactyl bone – but then of course, I am an Australian!
More importantly, I am a linguist. By linguist, I mean
here a student of linguistics – not someone has can speak a lot of
languages, who is also, rather confusingly, called a linguist. Now, it will
probably surprise many readers to know that most modern linguists have no
opinion at all on the relative merits of “full” or “fully”
“fledged” and/or “blown”, or any other grammatical nicety for that
If we trace the history of linguistics back to late Roman
times, we see that through the centuries there have been two broad camps of
linguists – the Prescriptivists who like to tell everybody how they should
and should not speak, and the Descriptivists, who get our jollies by
observing how people actually do speak, while trying to analyse and describe
For more than a century now, we Descriptivists have been
in the ascendency amongst linguistic scholars – except, of course, for
those who get to write columns for newspapers, who, by and large, are cranky
old Prescriptivists. Going against this tradition, the Pattaya Mail,
being a publication of enlightenment, modernity and impeccable discernment,
has given me a chance to redress the imbalance.
Something that tends to go along with prescriptivism is a
pessimism about the future of a favourite language or languages. People
bewail the seemingly inane banter of teenagers. They fret about the way
words keep changing meanings, and mourn the passing of “proper” English,
French or Thai.
At its most extreme, this pessimism resulted in the
theory of Language Decay, popular in the 19th Century. According to this
theory, modern languages are only a pale shadow of classical languages such
as Latin and Sanskrit. It is yet another piece of evidence that the human
race is going to hell in a hand-basket!
On the surface, there does seem to be ample evidence to
support Language Decay. For example, Latin, Old English and Old German had
much more sophisticated case systems than their modern descendents. Case
markings show the grammatical or semantic functions of words and phrases.
The only traces left of the wonderfully rich Old English case system are
subject/object pronoun pairs such as “I” and “me”.
But do not fret; there is a simple, positive explanation
for this. Languages have evolved to become more efficient. The advantage of
case marking was to allow flexible sentence structure. For example, in
modern English, it is the word order in the sentence “Australians eat
pies,” that shows that Australians do the eating (semantic function:
“actor”) and pies are the meal (semantic function: “patient”).
If English still had case markings (e.g.
“Australianactors eat piepatients”), we could put the words in any
order, while who eats and what gets eaten would remain clear: e.g.
“Australianactors piepatients eat,” “Eat piepatients
Australianactors,” or even “Piepatients eat Australianactors.” Those
of you who have studied Latin or Sanskrit should recognise the basic
principles; for those of you who have not, think of a little flag attached
to each word telling you where it would normally go in a sentence. This
allows words to wander off a bit without getting totally lost.
The weakness of such a system is the unnecessary overhead
– the language suffocates with suffixes. Even in so-called
free-phrase-order languages such as Latin, one phrase-order tends to be the
norm. However, each word or phrase must be explicitly case-marked whether or
not the normal phrase-order is adhered to.
By comparison, in modern English, if we keep to the
standard phrase order, we can simply say: “Australians eat pies,” with
no overhead of unnecessary grammatical complexity. Yet we retain flexibility
with word order by using devices other than case marking: “Pies are eaten
by Australians,” “It is pies that Australians eat,” or “Eating pies
is what Australians do.”
Is this less complex? I can’t see it. What we have done
is trade-in an admittedly rich, but unwieldy system for one which retains
flexibility while dispensing with the excess baggage.
Well that was the inaugural Language Works column. I
imagine that more than a few of you will take exception to much of what you
have read here. If so, please do not sit there fuming in silence. Get to
your word-processors and vent your collective spleens. I will be more than
happy to respond to feedback – constructive or otherwise. My email address