Thursday, March 31, 2011

China's twisted pearl necklace bridge

Photo: by Pistonheads

A bridge connecting Hong Kong and Macau with Zhuhai on the Chinese mainland is expected to be open by 2016.

Designed by NL, a Dutch architectural firm, the bridge must overcome a big challenge. China drives on the right, while ex-colonies Hong Kong and Macau still drive on the left.

The design comes with a literal twist that solves the problem by crossing one lane over the other and then rejoining them in the correct configuration before the traffic arrives on the opposite side.

It's been called a crossover, a switchover and a pearl necklace with a twist. The pearl necklace image comes from the proposed series of artificial islands that will form part of the 50-mile span.

However it's described, when it's completed it is bound to be a unique driving experience. Bild World News gives more details.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Montreal's Jacques Cartier Bridge 1930 and now

The bridge opened as pont du Havre. Courtesy of Collection Michel-Bazonet,

Connecting Ile Ste Helene and Montreal with Longueil on the south shore, pont Jacques-Cartier opened in 1930 as the Harbour Bridge.  In 1934, it was renamed to commemorate the four hundredth anniversary of Cartier's first journey up the St. Lawrence.

Current photo by Wally Gobetz on Flickr

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Mathematical Bridge at Cambridge

Photo by Kosturera: Punter poles beneath the Mathematical Bridge

According to the website of Queens' College, the Mathematical Bridge was designed by William Etheridge, and built by James Essex the Younger in 1749.

A note on the website denies rumours that Sir Isaac Newton designed it to illustrate mathematical principles and states that the bridge was never meant to stand without nails.

Also baseless, says Queens', are rumours that students and/or fellows disassembled it and then failed to put it back together.

The bridge was rebuilt in 1867 and 1902. The current version is held together by nuts and bolts, while earlier versions used pins or screws.

Cambridge has been home to many famous mathematicians. A small sampling might include computing pioneer Charles Babbage, Sir James Jeans, who applied math to thermodynamics, and Bertrand Russell, who was a mathematician as well as an essayist and philosopher.

Still, the reason for the name of this wooden bridge remains obscure.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Bridge of Sighs -- Cambridge

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The Bridge of Sighs in Cambridge belongs to St. John's College, but is now a public thoroughfare. Designed by Henry Hutchison, it was built in 1831 as a second river crossing and to connect Third Court and New Court.

Beyond the fact that both are covered bridges, the style is completely different from the Italian original. Still, this bridge definitely evokes Venice, as students pole punts full of fellow-students or visitors at a leisurely pace along the River Cam. No doubt some romantic couples kiss beneath the bridge here too, for luck, just as they do in Venice.

The Grand Tour, which used to be a very important part of an upper class education, always included Italy. The cultures of Rome and later of Renaissance Italy have had profound impact on the culture of the UK, and in particular, on its two most venerable universities.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Bridge of Sighs -- Oxford

Photo: Bridge of Sighs, Oxford. Wikimedia.

Also called the Hertford Bridge, this overhead walkway crosses New College Lane and connects the Old and New Quadrangles of Hertford College. No waterway flows beneath it.

This "bridge" was designed by Thomas Jackson, and completed in 1914, in spite of some opposition from New College to the plan.

Like its Cambridge counterpart, this structure bears only the most superficial resemblance to the original Bridge of Sighs in Venice. Indeed, some say it looks rather more like the Rialto Bridge in that Italian city of gorgeous architecture.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Bridge of Sighs -- original, Venice

Photo: Ponte dei sospiri, Venizia, Wikimedia

Designed by Antonio Contino, the Bridge of Sighs was built in the early seventeenth century and crossed the Rio Palazzio to connect two prisons, the old and the new.

Constructed of white limestone in the Italian Renaissance style, it is considered a fine example of bridge architecture. Two windows with stone bars stand at its summit.

Conflicting explanations have been given for the bridge's name. One says that it refers to the sighs of couples, who are traditionally believed to enjoy eternal love if they share a kiss while passing under the bridge in a gondola.

The darker version is associated with the lines of the poet Lord Byron in Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, "I stood in Venice on the Bridge of Sighs, a palace and a prison on each hand." For the prisoners who crossed from interrogation to imprisonment, the sighs may have represented their anticipated departure from freedom, or even from life itself.

Today the tourist to Venice can cross the bridge for a fee: it is part of the "secret itinerary" of the Doge's Palace tour.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Capilano Suspension Bridge, North Vancouver

Photo: Charles McEachen on flickr

The Capilano Suspension Bridge is a thrilling tourist attraction. Walking across the narrow span high above the Capilano River is not for the faint of heart.

It feels flimsy and sways with the movement of those crossing it, but leaves the millions who have crossed it with a feeling of accomplishment.

I first crossed in 1966, and had to endure the deliberate shaking by kids, in spite of the sign. Perhaps because it is so nearby, or perhaps because that was so scary, I've never crossed it since.

Built originally in 1889, the bridge is 230 feet or 70 metres above the river and 450 feet (137 metres) across.

Recently seven new suspension bridges have been added to create a Treetops Adventure , a "Squirrel's-eye view" of Vancouver's coastal rainforest.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Columbia River Bridge in Oregon

Photo by OCVA, posted on flickr

This bridge connects Port Ellice, Washington with Astoria, Oregon at the mouth of the Columbia River. It is four miles long and contains the longest continuous truss of any bridge in the USA. Built on a storm-prone coast, it is designed to withstand a lot of natural force, including gusts of wind of more than 150 mph and a flood season river current of 9 mph, enough to carry large trees downstream.

The Astoria Bridge was begun in 1962 and opened in 1966. It replaced ferry service that originally began in 1921. According to Visitor Information Astoria, far more traffic crossed than had been predicted. The tolls were paid off two years early and removed in 1993. A time-saving link in the Mexico to Canada highway system, the bridge is also a scenic showcase for motorists.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Low Level Bridge, Edmonton

Photo by Thad Roan

In 1902, the first train steamed across the Low Level Bridge into Edmonton. G. D. Clark was there to photograph the historic event. His picture, which he copyrighted in 1904, may be seen in the Glenbow Museum in Calgary. The engineer on that train was J.T. Entwistle. His name lives on as the name of a town on the scenic Yellowhead Highway, about halfway between Edmonton and Edson.

The northbound bridge was completed in 1900, and the southbound twin in 1948. The railroad was removed afterwards.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

High Level Bridge, Edmonton

Photo by Lucas Thompson

The High Level Bridge in Edmonton was built by the CPR and completed in 1913, the year of my mother's birth. This double decker span was designed to carry pedestrians, autos, streetcars, and trains. 

Regular streetcar service over the bridge stopped in 1951, but summer tourists can still enjoy a historic ride on the streetcar. Cycling across the lower span is also popular.

The High Level Bridge features in a story about my parents. Like so many others, they met and married during the war. Dad served with the RCNVR in the North Atlantic and Mom was living in Newfoundland. They were married in St. John's in April, just before VE Day.

After the war, they relocated to Edmonton, where Dad's immigrant Scandinavian parents had settled a generation before. Keen to show his bride the city, Dad suggested they walk across the High Level Bridge. My mother, however, declined the adventure. She was afraid of heights.

I've often wondered if Mom's early refusal of the call to adventure set the tone for their forty-one year marriage. Mom was always the stable and conservative half of the couple.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Lakelse River bridge 1958 - 2007

Photo: brother and sister, nearly 50 years later, sit on the now disused Lakelse River Bridge to nowhere.

On a hot summer day in 1959, Dad took us out to the Lakelse River to see the fish ladders. Before I saw them, I was confused by images of fish climbing up wooden ladders like Dad's. The reality was different. We followed Dad out onto the rickety structure and peered down into the dark water.

"Look for movement," he said, and suddenly I saw the migrating salmon thick in the river.

Above me, Dad's voice was changed by wonder. "So thick," he said, "there's millions of them. You feel you could almost walk across the river on their backs."

Back in the old black Mercury, we bumped over the gravel road. Every time a car passed us, I smelt the fine volcanic dust and the fuel oil that was spread on the roads to lay it. I thought about the fish, and knew I'd never forget what I'd just seen.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Mystery under the same sky

Photo: What the night sky really looks like:
NASA image of Orion

Yesterday was a full moon. The view of the sky from our planet has changed little since ancient times. We still have similar eclipses; we still have the same constellations. Unfortunately, the more light we produce, the more feebly we see the stars.

Surrounded by so much man-made light, those of us who live in cities see only a very few of the brightest stars; many have never seen an unlit night sky with its myriad stars.

In fact, the pale shadow "night" sky we see is as different from the true night sky seen from darkness as -- well, day and night. In fact, the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada has established Dark Sky Preserves across the country to encourage viewing the night sky.

From my suburban doorway I can still glance up at the belt of Orion, half-hidden behind a tree that screens our garden from that of our neighbours. It's a reminder of the black and starry skies I've been fortunate to see, as well as the ultimate mystery of our galactic home amid the stars.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

A waxing gibbous moon

Image from

A few days I asked my daughter to set up igoogle on my desktop.

"What do you want on it?" she asked, and I looked at her, momentarily confused.

The conversation went something like this.

Weather? -- yes.
Daily quotations? -- yes.
Humorous daily quotations? -- Yes!!!
Calendar? -- yes.
Moon phases? -- Sure, why not?

The first thing I noticed when I opened the new page was the waxing gibbous moon. Don't think I'd seen the word gibbous since I read it in The English Patient, by Michael Ondaatje.

Back then, I didn't know what it meant. Didn't look it up, either. My mind was too busy responding to the marvelous pictures created by this poet-turned-novelist.

Now I've learned that a waxing gibbous moon occurs between the first quarter and the full moon, when the sun illuminates more than half the moon's surface.

During the course of this research I also found out that from the southern hemisphere, the opposite side of the moon is visible. Along with seeing the Southern Cross, this is further justification for my desire to travel to South America and Australia.

Bathtub water is said to swirl down the drain the opposite way south of the equator. I'd like to see that too.

Inner bridge complete but not yet crossed

Confederation Bridge photo by Stephen Desroches.

This is the world's longest bridge over ice-covered water. It crosses Northumberland Strait to join Prince Edward Island with the neighbouring Canadian province of New Brunswick. Opened in 1997, it is 13 kilometres long.

Last night in a dream I saw the now-completed bridge in a series of dreams I've been having over the last while. In the dream, however, I didn't cross it. Seems I have to await one more dream to find out where crossing this inner bridge is going to take me.

I hope the view is as good as it is from the Confederation Bridge.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Naas River footbridge between lava banks

Photo: Nass Bridge, by Dave Johnson

The current Nass Canyon was formed in the 1700s when a volcano erupted. The ensuing flow of magma moved the Nass river bed over about a mile and blanketed the whole valley in a layer of lava up to 12 metres thick.

Today this wooden footbridge spans banks of lava in the Nisga'a village of Canyon City, or Gitwinksihlkw, near the Lava Beds Park.

From New Aiyansh, the seat of the Nisga'a government, the view of the lava fields is spectacular. In the summer season, guided walks allow tourists to look down into the ashy hollow cone.

It has been said that explorer James Cook witnessed this phenomenon from his ship off the coast and mistook it for a huge forest fire.

Visiting the Naas Valley with my brother in 2007, I was suffused with such peace as I have rarely felt. The magic of the place penetrated every cell and reached to the bottom of my bones.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Hagwilget Bridges then and now

Photo: Canada Good, Gregory Melle

Hagwilget Bridge was in use long before the current bridge was completed in 1931.

Sixteen feet wide with a grated metal deck, this single lane span soars 262' (80m) above the canyon of the Bulkley River, connects Hazelton to New Hazelton, and preserves ancient trading links in the area.

The Hagwilget first nation made their early foot bridges mostly of wood. Later versions incorporated rope and still later, cable left behind by the builders of the recently completed telegraph.

According to the Kitimat-Stikine Regional District, Chief Charles of the Hagwilget "owned" the bridge in the late 1800s. Engineer Alexander Carruthers designed the one seen above. He later served as B.C.'s Inspector of Bridges and Deputy Minister of Highways.

The bridge below was photographed in the 1890's and is housed in the B. C. archives. Courtesy of Cindy Bo, Wikimedia Commons.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Kalum railroad bridge

The railroad bridge over the Kalum River on Hwy 16 was built during WW I. It was riveted together by artisans -- a work of a bygone age.

Many years ago, while Dad and his friend fished for steelhead in the Kalum, we kids decided to cross the rail bridge. It was sweet terror to make the short steps from one creosoted tie to the next, mesmerized by the roiling green water directly beneath us, and wondering what we'd do if a train came. At the other side, we breathed sighs of relief, then ran over to the highway to cross the road bridge back.

My brother and I played around the creek and river a lot, even though we couldn't swim. One spring flood at the Kalum, I thought I'd lost him. We'd been walking along the muddy bank during when I heard a slipping sound behind me, and a single dismayed cry, "Rats!"

I turned and looked down to where his voice had come from. My brother was up to his chest in water, hanging onto some willows on the bank. Fortunately, he remained calm and managed to crawl out of the cold and roiling river.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Old Skeena bridge at Terrace

Photo courtesy of Canada's Historic Places

When we moved to Terrace in 1958, the wooden bridge over the Skeena River was two-way. Once, in our old black Mercury, we met a loaded logging truck in mid-span, right where the bridge curved, and I was absolutely sure there wasn't room to pass. Somehow, we managed it.

Back then there was little traffic. Drivers would sometimes wait for other vehicles to cross before starting out. The deck of the bridge was worn and bumpy, the planks as smooth as satin and the nail heads rearing up where the wood had been worn away around them.

By the time I left for university, the bridge was officially one-way, with a traffic light on each side. Shortly after that, a second bridge was built across the river. It was wide, modern and efficient. Yet somehow, each time I visit the old hometown I feel compelled to cross the old wooden bridge.

That bridge contains the elixir of evocation. Watching the roiling river from that long-ago familiar perspective takes my mind back to memories I thought were forever locked away.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Penn Club Breakfast

Photo: view into Bedford Place opposite Penn Club
In London, I stay at the Penn Club, a Quaker hotel open to non-Quakers, conveniently located round the corner from the British Museum.

When I miss London, I make myself an English breakfast, Penn Club style. Scrambled eggs, beans in tomato sauce, sauteed mushrooms, toast, and of course, a nice pot of tea with milk.

Here at home, instead of looking beyond floral drapes through old windows with 0ft-painted sashes to mirror image houses of similar bricks, I look onto the back deck.

In neglected pots, new bulbs are venturing through last year's dead foliage. Beyond the wide back lawn, natural trees screen us from view by the people in the houses hidden a few hundred yards away on the other side of the creek, a protected salmon habitat.

We're so lucky here in Surrey: we can enjoy a quiet country life in the middle of the city. In London, this is what I miss.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Wise words from the Writers' Union workshop

Thursday the travelling workshop presented annually by the Writers' Union of Canada took place in Vancouver at Harbour Centre. Betsy Warland, head of the Writer's Studio at Simon Fraser University, spoke about how to sustain oneself as a writer, and TWUC Executive Director Kelly Duffin gave updates on copyright and contracts.

Creativity specialist Ross Laird was entertaining, enthusiastic and encouraging to his fellow writers. He referred to our current milieu as "Extremistan," a place populated by whales and minnows. While whales are large, minnows are quicker. They enjoy the creative freedom to move in small spaces and change direction at will.

"The gatekeeper is dead," Laird announced, referring to the former role of publishing companies as arbiters of taste and disseminators of written work. The gatekeeper function will be reinvented, but just how is not yet clear.

Meanwhile we are free as artists to create and disseminate our work as we choose; our choices are limited mostly by our own imagination.

"We're on the terror and wonder journey," he added, just like in the Epic of Gilgamesh, a five- thousand year old story, and "one of the founding myths of Western culture." Living at the cusp of astonishing change, Laird focuses on the wonder rather than the terror.

Why are we called to write? We want to "give voice to our imagination and share it with others." And for that, we could hardly have been living in a better time.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

A comforting ritual of farewell

Joanne, a retired colleague, always seemed happy and cheerful. When we met and chatted in the Art Gallery during a recent exhibition, I never dreamed it would be the last time.

Memorial services draw people together, remind us to appreciate our families and friends. After Joanne's grandson spoke about how much he'd cherished his Grandma, another grandmother told me she was inspired to spend more quality time with her own grandkids.

Like others at the ceremony, I learned a lot about formerly unknown aspects of Joanne's life. I knew her mainly as a well-loved ESL teacher. I didn't know she was active in an international women's organization to promote peace. I knew she loved poetry, but I didn't know she was a teen when she met her husband of 57 years.

Astonishingly, I also discovered that because I said yes to a favour Joanne once asked of me, a young man ended up going to a certain college where he might not otherwise have attended. But he did go, and met his girlfriend; I was introduced to her at the memorial.

I'm glad I participated in the celebration of Joanne's life. It was right and good to spend the afternoon in the company of others who appreciated and remembered the many wonderful things she brought to those around her.

Farewell gatherings can console all who knew the one being celebrated. Tears and laughter, reminiscences and sweet foods knit together, however temporarily, those left behind. At such events we may glimpse the mysterious and invisible ties that bind us all.

Friday, March 11, 2011

20/20/20/20 for healthy computer use

These days we spend a lot of time in front of our computer screens.

If we want to retain our 20/20 vision, we need to follow some healthy practices to help our eyes.

The practice of 20/20/20/20 can keep the rest of the body relaxed as well. Here's how it works.

First, it's important to keep our screens at about 20" from the eyes, which should be focused just above the centre.

Then, every 20 minutes, we should spend 20 seconds with the eyes re-focused away from the screen. The object observed should be a minimum of 20 feet away.

Like many fellow writers, I like to look out the window at trees and sky. For anyone whose computer is near a window, that view is very soothing on the eyes.

Let's avoid eye strain and keep our 20/20 computer vision.

There's a lot to see out there. We wouldn't want to miss it.

20 20 20 20

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Romance of the phone

Sometimes I don't know why I bother to keep a land line. Almost none of the calls I get on it are from people I know any more.

It is useful if I oversleep, though. I was up late last night, and was still sleeping peacefully at 9:30 this morning. No problem. Florida called, right on cue. When I fumbled for the phone I still didn't have my glasses on, so at first I didn't know it was her.

She played coy. Never said a word. But she got me up all right. Ringing phone, you pick it up. Just like in a hotel. Of course you can program all that sort of thing into a cell phone, but that can be labour intensive. Over time, it might even lead to Blackberry Thumb.

It's better to leave it to Ontario or Connecticut, and be surprised. Last week I got a call from New Jersey. She didn't have much to say, but it was still nice to hear from her. Even if her voice did sound a bit like a recording.

When Quebec calls, he speaks in French, a lovely mellifluous voice. To borrow a phrase from a play at the Arts Club a few years ago, "I love it when a man speaks to me in a language I can't understand."

This week, North Carolina and Arizona both rang, but I missed their calls. California checked in too. She's another regular. When North Dakota called, I felt really popular. Hadn't heard from her before.

But the real coup was Washington. I'm one of a privileged few now. How many people can say that Washington called them at home?

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Braun's Island Bridge

Before the Skeena River nearly washed the wooden bridge away during the biggest flood of my childhood, Braun's Island Bridge was an all-wooden structure, with a pointed arch at the top.

The bridge led to a small island with only a few houses and farms, and there was little traffic. My brother and I used to play a game we called Pooh Sticks, after a scene in Winnie the Pooh.

This friendly competition was played like this. Each of us dropped an identifiable stick off one side of the bridge at the exact same moment. Then we ran across to the other to see whose stick would emerge first. That person was the winner.

It was a seasonal game for the time of spring flood in June. When the creek was low, the movement of the water was too sluggish, and too far down for us to easily see and identify our individual sticks.

By June, school was feeling pretty constrictive and flood season provided a welcome distraction. Each day we'd rush home, grab a peanut butter sandwich and run down to the creek to check the height of the muddy floodwater and what it was carrying.

High water was brief but exciting. From the bridge, we participated in this marvel of nature by watching the water carry our sticks.

The spring the flood weakened the footings and washed over the deck, the old bridge was taken down and replaced by a bailey bridge without a rail. We were older too; Pooh sticks was no more.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Tennis elbow and Blackberry thumb

Both are repetitive stress injuries, a growing problem in our time, even for children.

Given the choice, I think I prefer the label tennis elbow. It sounds more active, and it has more class.

"I was playing tennis," you can say, "and I bunged up my elbow."

On closer examination, it appears to be unrelated to playing too much tennis, or using your elbow incorrectly during the game.

But Blackberry thumb. What kind of romantic appeal does the appropriate explanation have here?

It gets worse. Blackberry thumbers, the Globe and Mail reports, are also at risk of hunching and through poor posture, causing themselves pain in the back, arms and neck.

"I was hunched for too long over my Blackberry," you'd explain. "Too much texting."

Now if I had blackberry thumb, it would definitely have a different cause. Shall I give you a clue? My fingers would be black with fragrant juice and would probably have a few thorns in them.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Riding Stable Horses III

The stable's pony, Zipper, was anything but good-natured. When I spoke to her, she never responded with an answering whicker, as the other horses did. She took my services: shovelling hay, delivering oats, cleaning her stall, as a matter of course, and showed no interest or appreciation.

She didn't appreciate being groomed either. Zipper was a wide plump little pony whose shoulder rose no higher than my waist. After I'd curried one side of her, and combed her mane, she would deliberately wedge herself against the stall or fence to prevent me from getting to her other side.

The customary signals used to get horses to move over, clicks of the tongue and taps on the rump, had absolutely no effect on Zipper, except to get her to dig in her heels. Once, when I did manage to wedge myself in place and began to brush her back, she retaliated by planting her hoof, with her considerable weight behind it, firmly on my foot.

Strangely, this ornery creature was the animal that children were expected to ride. I never worked on the kids' rides, so I don't know how Zipper behaved with them.

Maybe she used her limited patience with the kids and then took out her ire on me.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Riding Stable Horses II

Though Bingo was a tall gentle mare, I had no ambitions to ride her. To my fifteen-year-old heart, she seemed was without intrigue. Cheyenne was a small Pinto with strong markings. On the trail rides to the lake, she'd hang her head, then lift it on the return journey and trot happily toward the barn.

The Palomino mare, in her cream puff colours, was pretty to look at, but otherwise without glory. Though I no longer recall her name, I can feel now what it was like to be on her back, the horsy smell and the repetitive squeak of leather from the saddle.

Looking back at my days as a girl groom, the horse I remember best is Freckles. A nag of no special breeding, he was dismissed as a plug by the stable owner's husband. Freckles was a gray roan, much taller than his stable mates, and much more ornery.

Saddling and bridling him was a challenge. Once the weight of the saddle was hoisted up and positioned across his broad back, the girth had to be tightened. This was when Freckles would fill his lungs full of air and hold it in. The moment I stepped away from my labours, he'd casually exhale, leaving the cinch hanging loose below his belly. He also liked to raise his head out of reach when I lifted the bridle.

Freckles was a pugilist, and he had scars to prove it. His left ear had a bite out of it where another horse had taken a chomp. I got the idea of taking a photo from his back, featuring that bitten ear in the foreground. I'm sure I still have that picture somewhere.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Riding-Stable Horses I

As a teen, I was in love with horses. I drew them, I read about them and I dreamed about them. One summer holiday, I got a job as a groom in our neighbour's riding stable. Working for Mrs. Beck opened up a new world -- that of individual horses seen up close.

I knew of Redwing before she bought him. I used to watch the Auckland brothers, who lived on the nearby island in the river, as they rode him bareback on the roads, his mane streaming. Red had the heavy curved neck and proud gait of a stallion. At the stable, I learned he'd been gelded, a bit of a shock. I took pride in grooming Redwing's coat until it glowed like a polished chestnut.

The high-spirited Arabian colt was called Sahara. When she arrived, I had a book out of the library about horse breeds. I could see right away that she had the classic Arabian features: small stature, dish-shaped face, delicate muzzle. One of my books said an Arabian horse's lips were so delicate that it could drink from a teacup.

Watching her small lips as she picked up and ate individual oats, I didn't doubt it.

Friday, March 4, 2011

The Demented Inclusiveness of English

After a recent Editors' Association meeting, we were talking about language. Sometimes called the Killer Language, English has been accused of knocking minor languages out of existence. It has gathered enormous power as an international lingua franca. Air traffic control, the entertainment industries of film and music. And now, of course, there's the internet, and all that web technology entails.

How has English gained such wide influence? Most of its grammatical, spelling and pronunciation rules are irrational; many have huge numbers of exceptions. Its vocabulary is vast. On the surface, it seems an illogical choice as an L2.

Undoubtedly there are complex historic reasons for the global spread of English. But I think there's an important attitudinal factor as well.

As I said to my editor friend, its success as an international language is due in part to "the demented inclusiveness of English." Willing to bend itself around multifarious influences from every corner of the globe, the language absorbs and adapts words, expressions and concepts with lightning speed.

Although it remains an important language internationally, French has not shown the same tendency to adapt and adopt. That, we agreed, is probably why it is no longer the language of international diplomacy.

It's hard to picture an English equivalent of the Academie Francaise. Even if such an unlikely institution were created, I doubt it would stand a chance of damping down the irrepressible friskiness of English.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Old Sun Tower

Located at the corner of Pender and Beattie Streets, this delightful17-storey building was the tallest in the British Empire when it was built in 1912.

It had been commissioned by former newspaperman and then-mayor L.D. Taylor to house his newspaper, The Vancouver World.

The building was purchased in 1937 by the Vancouver Sun and given the name of the Sun Tower. The Sun operated from the building until it moved to Granville Street in 1965, and the Sun Tower stood empty for a couple of years.

In current parlance, its location is referred to as Crosstown: it lies at the confluence of Yaletown, Chinatown, Gastown and Downtown.

Recently refurbished, the space is now being marketed, as its website says, for use by "the needs of its creative class." Many of the most beautiful features of this 99-year-old building can be seen here.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Irish homonyms

Image of Seamus Heaney from the Guardian

Irish English, the language of Yeats and Joyce, Behan and Heaney, is known and loved for its sensuous sound and its poetic sense.

A feature that differentiates it from British, American, and Canadian English is the missing /th/ consonant blend. Irish people normally drop or elide this, or substitute a /d/ sound.

Recently I've been listening to my favourite Irish folk songs, as well as live native Dublin speech. Here a few of the homonyms I've noticed: tank and thank; tings and things; pint and point; other and udder; den and then; true and through; tree and three.

These sounds remind me of my mother. Born of long-established Newfoundland descendants of Wales and Devon, she also had a lot of Irish speech patterns. Of course many Irish also settled early on "the old rock." Their speech patterns remain audible in St. John's.

"Mompy" carried these speech patterns of her native city for life. With her siblings, who lived out their lives on the island, they were accentuated, and included pronoun variations not heard in the rest of Canada: "He haves to go to work early."

For a visitor to Newfy, a stroll along Duckworth Street on the St. John's waterfront or a Sunday drive along the Irish Loop to see the puffins at Cape St. Mary's provides a great opportunity for the linguophile to hear the homonyms mentioned above.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Roofless BC Place

Photo: BC Place shivers among leafless February trees
This building was created for Expo 86 with a balloon-style roof, held up by the air blown from fans. Now, 25 years later, it must be re-roofed. Meanwhile, it looks rather like a round ship with many masts.