Ultraconserved Words, Sweet Peltrichor, and Short-Sighted Leaders

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April 20, 2015 by libroshombre

Senegalese environmentalist Baba Dioum once said, “In the end we will conserve only what we love.” If so, we must really adore the words “bark,” “ashes,” “to flow,” “worm,” and “to spit.” They’re among the twenty-Featured imagethree “ultraconserved words” identified by University of Reading researchers several years ago. In a Washington Post article about this, David Brown said, “The traditional view is that words can’t survive for more than 8,000-to-9,000 years. Evolution, linguistic ‘weathering,’ and the adoptions of replacements from other languages eventually drive ancient words to extinction.”

Ultraconserved words have survived 150 centuries, which “suggests there was a ‘proto-Eurastic’ language that was the common ancestor to about 700 contemporary languages that are the native tongues of more than half the world’s people,” with Chinese, African languages, and American and Australian aboriginal languages not included.Featured imageThe Reading researchers compared the 200-word core vocabularies of the world’s languages looking for cognates, “words that have the same meaning and a similar sound in different languages. Father (English), padre (Italian), pere (French), pater (Latin), and pitar (Sanskrit) are cognates.”

On the other hand, spring always harbingers the flowering of new hopes, so let’s consider a fitting neologism: “peltrichor.” “Peltrichor,” according to TheConversation.com, is “the distinct scent of rain in the air. Or, to be mFeatured imageore precise, it’s the name of an oil released from the earth into the air before rain begins to fall … some scientists now suggest that humans inherited an affection for the smell from ancestors who relied on rainy weather for survival.”

“Peltrichor” is “derived from the Greek ‘petra’ (stone) and ‘ichor’ which, in Greek mythology, is the ethereal blood of the gods.” In 1964, researchers from Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific aFeatured imagend Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), Joy Bear and Richard Thomas, found that the humidity of approaching rain fills pores in dried-out rocks with tiny droplets of moisture. This flushes out a yellowish oil trapped in the dried rocks and releases it into the atmosphere, emitting the peltrichor aroma.

CSIRO was created by the Australian government in 1926 to focus on improving that nation’s agriculture and industries, and that’s been expanded to included digital production and bio-security. What’s come out of it besides peltrichor’s discovery? How about WiFi, extended wear contact lenses, BARLEYmax (a high-yield barley hybrid), self-twisting yarn (for speedier wool-spinning without breaking the fibers), “softly washing liquid” (allowFeatured images high-temperature washing of wool to kill bacteria without shrinking the wool), and plastic banknotes (thwarts forgeries), among many others.

The Australian government made a wise long-term investment in CSIRO that our elected officials should consider. One way to solve a financial crisis to cut back spending, but it’s pure foolishness to dismember a golden goose. However, that’s what’s happening to UAF, Alaska’s fount of local research. The willy-nilly budget antics in Juneau have caused critical programs must be lopped off or allowed to whither. How far will they go in that direction before there’s nothing left but a shell?

The same thinking applies to public libraries in spades. It’s been soundly proven that the public needs and uses their library more during economic downturns. That’s the time when access to unfettered information is in greatest demand. Many local nonprofit organizations that do great good in our community got their footholds on existence because the library provided a free place for them to meet and get organized. The Noel Wien auditorium and conference room is used by local groups and agencies around 600 times a year. Most of those uses come from government organizations and the library itself, which are exempt from the proposed $25 fee.

This will be merely a revenue trickle for the borough coffers, yet it will diminish our communiFeatured imagety’s level of discourse. The pubic library has always provided a place where citizens can gather individually and in groups, a community commons, if you will. Cutting tens of thousands of dollars to buy new books, as recommended by the Mayor’s budget, is bad enough, but times are admittedly tough. However, we’ll never know how many worthy organizations these new fees will cost us.

“Leadership,” as George will said, “is … the ability to inflict pain and get away with it – short-term pain for long term gain.” Not the other way around.

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