Friday, 23 December 2011

Wasps and the Evolution of Language

Just like living things, language evolves - and sometimes in the same way. When a population splits into two isolated groups, both evolve differently. *

In the 11th century, the modern French word guerre was pronounced gwerra. When the word arrived in England (courtesy of the Norman invaders after 1066), it was effectively isolated from the original language 'population' among British speakers who learnt French. The word mutated and lost the G so we pronounced it, after a few more mutations, as war. Roughly: gwerra to werre to war. Dropping the E on the end of the word is a common mutation.

Mediaeval scribes often used signs as shortcuts. In the 11th century, the word for school was written and pronounced escole (compare with escuela in Spanish, also a Romance language - which means derived from Latin). Later, it was written with an accent at the start as a scribes' sign that there was an S after the E . It's now written école and the S has been dropped from pronunciation. But before that happened, it came over here as escole, from which we got school.

The circumflex was a scribes' sign with a similar purpose, for example hôpital and forêt were pronounced hospital and forest.

People in some parts of France, like Paris, sound the E on the ends of some words as a short UH as in uh-huh. More technically it's called a schwa. So école would be écol - uh.

In the 12th century, the modern French word guêpe was written guespe and pronounced gwesp. The English mutated it by dropping the G and pronounced it wesp and then wasp.

Sometimes words split into further separate speaker populations after the initial isolation to create a kind of sub-species. In some parts of England like the West Country where I'm from, the G of guespe didn't die off but the W did. As G is not hard when followed by E (as in gesture) and the final E of guespe was sounded as a schwa, pronunciation went gwesp - jesp- jespa and that's why we yokels call wasps jaspers.

What the connection is with the old song 'Oh Sir Jasper do not touch me' is not known.

*If you're a linguist, yes I know I'm simplifying and being a little elliptical.

Monday, 12 December 2011

A Christmas Ghost Story

It's traditional to tell stories about ghosts and spirits at Christmas. Let's imagine it's a still, icy, night. Small things die silently in the dark and the light of the full moon glints on sharp, merciless teeth.

In 1990, consultant psychiatrist and hypnotherapist Dr Alan Sanderson M.B., B.S. (London), M.R.C.P., D.P.M., M.R.C. Psych. returned to clinical practice after years of 'personality research'. He found psychiatry 'still stuck in the pharmacological morass' so he came up with the Spirit Release Foundation (SRF) 'to train medical practitioners and others to help people who are troubled by spirit attachment'. The SRF's members 'share a belief in the primacy of spirit and the soul’s development through reincarnation' (although they claim not to be religious).

What might spirit attachment be? According to the website:

'A minority of those who die fail to make their transition from this physical world successfully. They become what is known as ‘earthbound’, because they remain mentally attached to the earth plane and so cannot progress. Reasons for this include a traumatic death, concern over some unfinished business or anxiety for a loved one on Earth. Attached spirits may manifest in a variety of ways. They may attach to a person, or to a place with which they were associated in life, that place becoming haunted'.

Basically, it's ghosts haunting buildings and possessing the living. Even though the therapy is aimed at medical practitioners (among others), there is no attempt at scientific evidence on the website. One practitioner does explain the mechanism on their own website: 'Everything in the universe is made up of energy, spirit release simply deals with energies most of us cannot see and for the most part are unaware of... Spirit Release is really all about how external energies can, on occasion, affect our energy system in detrimental ways'.

'Energy' is the alternative medicine practitioner's friend, an undefined, unscientific term to explain pretty much anything. It is not the capacity of a physical system to perform work. This 'energy' is not measured in joules, kilowatt-hours or kilocalories.

Diagnosis is hardly more scientific:

'Some of the more common symptoms of spirit attachment can be: lack of energy, memory disturbance, behavioural change, mood change, addictive behaviour, relationship problems and hearing disturbing voices. There may be bodily pain and other physical symptoms. The degree of attachment also varies. Some individuals are scarcely affected, while in rare cases the individual's body and mind have been taken over completely. There may, of course, be other reasons for the presence of these symptoms, which a practitioner should investigate'.

The range of symptoms is so vague and general that almost any condition can be ascribed to attachment. The caveat that there may be other reasons for symptoms has the appearance of responsibility but how many practitioners are qualified to diagnose symptoms - and then hand the patient over to medical care (thereby losing their fee)?

Why aren't doctors spotting that their patients are troubled by earthbound spirits?

'Spirit attachment is not uncommon and is often misdiagnosed because many practitioners are not aware of it and because the symptoms might fit a number of possible diagnoses. In some instances attachments exacerbate an existing complaint with similar symptoms. They may be the reason that recovery from a complaint is very slow.'

The implication is that trained doctors are getting it wrong with their insistence on using their medical training. Even if a patient has been diagnosed with a genuine medical condition, it could be made worse by spirit attachment. They really have covered all the bases.

How do they cure this terrible problem that no-one had heard of until the SRF came along?

'Spirit Release is a two fold process. Firstly it involves releasing earthbound spirits from their condition of attachment in a compassionate, non-confrontational way, by contacting the spirits and communicating with them. Spirit helpers are then called upon to move the spirit on to its rightful place in the universe. The person who has been affected by the attachment is also offered healing, counselling or other therapeutic help, including advice about psychic protection'.

So basically, they give the spirit a hug and call it a taxi? Once they've dealt with the dead, they help the living too -possibly because the dead don't have credit cards.

Pretty much anyone can be affected:

Spirit Release is also about 'freeing the ‘stuck’ aspects within ourselves that invite spirit attachment, which may involve looking at past-life patterns, ancestral karma and any difficult influences that stem from childhood or later life'.

This is their version of preventive medicine (or maximizing your market share).

Therapy takes two forms. 'The Interactive Approach involves putting a client into an altered state of consciousness, through a form of hypnosis, in order to allow any attached spirit to communicate safely through them. A dialogue ensues, in which the spirit is induced to leave'.

Hypnosis is a tricky process, it's very easy for an inexperienced or unethical therapist to plant ideas, deliberately or otherwise. There can also be issues with False Memory Syndrome. There is a huge amount of trust required - a patient is hypnotised and when they come round they're told that the spirit possessing them has been persuaded to move on. This treatment is open to considerable abuse, aided in part by the placebo effect.

Alternatively, the 'Intuitive Approach is made through the psychic awareness of the therapist who learns how to communicate directly with a spirit. This does not necessarily require the active involvement of the client. It may be practised directly or at a distance'.

There's no indication of what happens if the spirit doesn't want to leave. The process as described is very benign, very low-key and reassuring as if it's no more than having your ears syringed.

If you feel there's a spirit inside you, there's a list of practitioners in your area.

The SRF may be a small group but they shouldn't be too readily dismissed. For example, the SRF website also suggests that gender dysphoria could be caused by spirit attachment and that Spirit Release is an alternative treatment to gender realignment surgery. They are part of a larger movement ascribing a whole range of problems to spirit possession. The Christian Medical Fellowship (CMF) who are mostly GPs believe that mental illness among other problems can be caused by possession. There have been exorcists working with the NHS for forty years, as I wrote about here and you can read another piece I wrote on exorcism here.

The main problem with both the apparently cuddly SRF and the much less fluffy CMF is that practitioners' world view is predicated on unseen entities, some malevolent, some misguided. They are creating a problem and offering a solution to people who could well be in a vulnerable state and in need of proper medical attention. Even if the SRF are just treating people with more money than sense, they are dealing with people's mental and possibly physical well-being. Although the SRF claim that they are not a religious organisation, theirs is the same mentality as the churches that use violent - and sometimes fatal - methods to exorcise people, whether these are African evangelical churches or both the Catholic Church and the Church of England with their trained exorcists.

It would be interesting to know what church exorcists make of these rivals. As with religions, they can't all be right with their competing world-views of demons versus disincarnate humans.

Another problem is that anyone with a few hundred quid to spare can become a spirit release therapist. It costs £30 a year to be a member of the SRF and the Foundation Course costs £210. There's a leaflet about the upcoming London one here.

This way of thinking also leads people to blame outside agencies for problems in their lives rather than either taking responsibility or getting medical help. It can create a dependency on therapists. There's a kind of contamination theory at the root of the SRF; they are making people believe they have been 'infected' and need to be 'cured' except that they're not talking about bacteria or viruses, but the dead- truly alternative medicine.

This is a Christmas ghost story with no Tiny Tim happy ending.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Happy Families?

The Government is trying to rebuild society on the basis of a Victorian card game. But only a minority of people now live in a family like Mrs Bun the Baker's wife, Mr Plod the policeman or Miss Dose the Doctor's daughter

The Government's flagship free schools and academies have to sign up to strict rules introduced by Education Secretary Michael Gove to teach children the ‘nature of marriage’ and its ‘importance’ for family life and bringing up children.

Religious and political campaigners against gay marriage claim that marriage is only for a man and a woman and that allowing gay marriage would undermine the bedrock of society and destroy family life.

But now there is research by think-tank the Centre for the Modern Family (funded by Scottish Widows) which shows that eight out of 10 people describe their family set‐up as not the traditional two married parents and two or more children. Just 16% of people define themselves as part of this kind of family that the Government thinks is under threat.

Although the Government and religious campaigners might see it as their mission to repair society and restore their concept of family values, they are increasingly out of step with the people they claim to represent who are more likely to describe single‐parent, same‐sex, or unmarried couples as ‘proper’ families. 57% of people no longer believe that a couple with children needs to be married to be a family. 77% of people believe that single parents can be a 'proper' family and 59% believe that same sex couples can be a family.

The public doesn’t just disagree with the Government's image of a family. People feel alienated by the emphasis put on a ‘traditional’ model of family life. 22% don’t believe their family is valued by society and 18% feel judged because of their family set‐up while 52% claim the Government does not take their family set‐up into account. It should also be borne in mind that whatever high ideals are promoted, not everyone gets to choose their circumstances, especially when times are hard.

NSS President Terry Sanderson said in The Telegraph: "For children brought up by unmarried parents or single parents being told that marriage is the only valid family arrangement will be totally contradictory to everything they know about the world. It is telling our children that their own family structure is somehow inferior."

However, both the Government and ‘traditionalist’ religious groups are very good at ignoring data that don’t suit their agenda and carrying on regardless. No matter how many statistics are thrown at them, it's water off a self-righteous duck's back. Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith recently called on the Government to preserve the traditional family as 'the most vital part of society'. He made a clear distinction between marriage and cohabiting, claiming the 'relationships are not the same - and there are consequences for us all'.*

When did these ideal families exist apart from in a pack of Happy Families cards? Certainly not within living memory of many MPs, including David Cameron. According to the Office of National Statistics, in 1961 only 38% of families consisted of a married couple with two or more children.** That was before the swinging Sixties kicked in, before the Pill was widely available, before the Women's Movement gained momentum and before homosexuality was made legal. These are all things blamed for destroying the ideal family.

Just in passing - how many Tory MPs have had affairs or got divorced? The unscientific answer is - too many for them to be preaching at the rest of us. This is 'don't do as we do, do as we say' politics. Or maybe I just think that because I'm not married.

* Speech at the Janet Young Memorial Lecture 4 November 2011

** ONS Social Trends 40 (2010 edition) p 14.