So what’s the big deal about “so”?

So it seems that some people take issue with the widespread usage of the word “so” to begin sentences. “If you speak English for work or pleasure, there is a fair chance that you’ve done it, too.” wrote Anand Giridharadas in the New York Times last year. “No longer content to lurk in the middle of sentences, it has jumped to the beginning, where it can portend many things: transition, certitude, logic, attentiveness, a major insight.”

This morning BBC Radio 4’s Today programme featured a mini rant on the subject. (Audio clip might be accessible in the UK-only, apologies if so.) John Rentoul, author of The Banned List: A Manifesto Against Jargon and Cliché explained why promoting this two-letter word to the beginning of a sentence has become a plague. As he said:

It’s the first on a three-part scale of offences against the English language, because you can start with “So”, then “And so”, and the worst of all is “And so it begins”.

According to Rentoul, this probably originates from posting comments on the Internet, which provides a handy device for grabbing other people’s attention instantly. Rentoul’s assertion might not be too far off the mark, as Giridharadas wrote in his New York Times article Silicon Valley might be the source of this plague:

The journalist Michael Lewis picked it up when researching his 1999 book ”The New New Thing”: ”When a computer programmer answers a question,” he wrote, ”he often begins with the word ‘so.”’ Microsoft employees have long argued that the ”so” boom began with them.

So, why bother mentioning this on Nobel Prize Watch? Well, in the literary world perhaps the best-known and most subversive use of “so” at the beginning of a sentence is by the Irish poet and Nobel Laureate, Seamus Heaney. His translation of the Anglo Saxon epic poem Beowulf doesn’t employ the word “so” to begin any old sentence, he uses the word to begin the first sentence of the first verse.

Previous translations of the original Old English sentence “Hwæt. We Gardena    in gear-dagum”, adhered to the poem’s complex style, resulting in somewhat archaic-looking sentences such as “What ho! We’ve heard the glory / of Spear-Danes, clansmen-kings.” In Heaney’s hands, the translation reads like a poem in its own right, and his first sentence becomes: “So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by.”

As Heaney himself explained, he wanted his version of Beowulf to sound like it could be spoken by descendants of the characters. He said:

I therefore tried to frame the famous opening lines in cadences that would have suited their voices, but that still echoed with the sound and sense of the Anglo-Saxon…

Conventional renderings of hwæt, the first word of the poem, tend towards the archaic literary, with ‘lo’, ‘hark’, ‘behold’, ‘attend’ and – more colloquially – ‘listen’ being some of the solutions offered previously. But in Hiberno-English Scullion-speak, the particle ‘so’ came naturally to the rescue, because in that idiom ‘so’ operates as an expression that obliterates all previous discourse and narrative, and at the same time functions as an exclamation calling for immediate attention. So, ‘so’ it was.

Or as the writer, editor and publisher Eric McMillan says, the first line of Heaney’s translation is the equivalent of beginning an anecdote like “So. A guy walks into a bar…”.

 

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China, Norway and the continuing Peace Prize row

So far, this blog has looked at coverage of his year’s Nobel Prizes, but there’s been a notable lack of coverage for one prize that is worth highlighting here.

While news spread far and wide of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkul Karman for “their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work”, full marks to The Atlantic for noticing that the Chinese state news agency, Xinhua, only ran a three-paragraph brief on the news. Other major Chinese sites didn’t cover the news at all (see here, here and here).

If you recall, last year’s Peace Prize went to imprisoned dissident Chinese writer and human rights advocate Liu Xiaobo. Neither Liu nor his wife, Liu Xia, were allowed to attend the prize ceremony last December in Oslo — the medal placed on an empty chair providing one of the most defining images of last year’s awards.

Any idea the Peace Prize Committee had in their Award Ceremony speech that highlighting the connection between human rights and peace would provide “a prerequisite for the “fraternity between nations, of which Alfred Nobel wrote in his will” has not come to fruition. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Chinese officials blasted the Nobel committee for awarding the prize to a convicted man who they say was trying to subvert the Chinese government. The Confucius Prize was set up as a domestic-based alternative but as I noted before its future already appears to be in doubt. Though the Norwegian Nobel Committee operates independently from the government, diplomatic ties between China and Norway, which were chilly even before the announcement in 2009 (according to the published cables from WikiLeaks), have become deep frozen – trade rules over salmon being the latest episode in this saga.

Meanwhile, Liu is still in jail, serving out an 11-year sentence. Liu Xia, who had enjoyed relative freedom even after her husband was sentenced in December 2009, was placed under unofficial house arrest in Beijing shortly after the 2010 Peace Prize announcement, where she still remains.

“As far as I know, the way she is treated is unprecedented in the history of the Nobel Peace Prize,” Norwegian Nobel Committee secretary Geir Lundestad told Associated Press. “Her situation is extremely regrettable.”

The day of the 2011 Peace Prize announcement was described as an “awkward anniversary in China” by Evan Osnos on the New Yorker blog. As Osnos notes, the country’s obsession with the Nobel Prizes runs to the extent that the title of a science programme on Chinese state television a few years ago was entitled “How far are we from a Nobel Prize?

The term “China’s Nobel complex” was coined by Professor Julia Lovell to define the paradox that the country faces since re-entering the international community in the 1980s. China sees Nobel Prizes like Olympic gold medals, demonstrating global recognition as a modern world power, yet the authorities resent seeking validation from outsiders. This resentment grows to anger when the state perceives outsiders to be exploiting “Western” values to discredit their history and traditions, as was the case with the 2010 Peace Prize, and also with the 2000 Literature Prize to the dissident writer Gao Xingjian.

It’s an obsession I have experienced first-hand. As an editor at Nature Publishing Group who helped to organize a conference series in China and who visited several laboratories, the burning question almost all senior academics wanted me to answer was what would it take to have a “homegrown Nobel Prize?” (My answer, rather weak I admit, was to say that while there might be the talent, you have to create and nurture a culture and environment similar to what you would find in so-called “Nobel-worthy” institutions.) My first experience of Nobel Week in December 2007 coincided with a visiting delegation from China, with the question foremost in their minds. Nobel committee members have come under fire for accepting paid-for trips to China, though a probe by the Swedish government anti-corruption body found no evidence of bribery, concluding that the prize selection process is too complex for any individual to have a significant influence.

Despite last year’s Peace Prize, China’s Nobel obsession hasn’t dimmed, reports Osnos. Over the past few months the state press has feverishly covered anything that can be associated with the Nobel name — from headlining this year’s Lasker Award to the Chinese scientist Tu Youyou as ‘America’s Nobel’, to reporting the opening of the recent Lindau Nobel Laureate meeting on Economic Sciences. And as far as I can tell, science laureates visiting China are still treated like celebrities, with lectures packed to the rafters, unlike similar lectures in say, the US and UK.

But any thought that China might concede some ground on the Peace Prize in pursuit of their Nobel dreams in science has received a rude shock in the last few days. Last week, Norway’s foreign minister, Jonas Gahr Støre wrote some conciliatory words in a full-page commentary in Norway’s leading business newspaper Dagens Næringsliv, saying that the Norwegian government has taken China’s angry reaction seriously, understands that they are upset, but hopes that moves can be made to restore relations. This olive branch offering was rejected by China yesterday; a statement from the Chinese embassy in Oslo saying that the Norwegian government “supported this wrong decision”, and that “we expect that the Norwegian side will make tangible efforts to restore and develop the bilateral relations.”

What form these “tangible efforts” could take isn’t clear. As this article notes, it could require an apology from the Norwegian government for supporting the Peace Prize, which would be an unprecedented move, or perhaps a statement of regret from the Norwegian government regarding China’s offence at Norway’s support for the prize. Whatever the outcome, it looks like China’s response to “losing face” over the Peace Prize is to push the Norwegian government towards a similar outcome.

The 2011 Nobel Prizes in quotes

“The decision to award the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine to the late Ralph Steinman shall remain unchanged… The events that have occurred are unique and, to the best of our knowledge, are unprecedented in the history of the Nobel Prize… The decision to award the Nobel Prize to Ralph Steinman was made in good faith, based on the assumption that the Nobel Laureate was alive.”

Statement from the Nobel Foundation to confirm that Ralph Steinman would still be awarded the Medicine Prize, despite dying three days before the announcement was made.

 

“We got the first call from a reporter from Sweden, who asked me how I felt. And I said “How do I feel about what?” And he told me that we’d won the Prize and my wife, of course, rushed to the computer to check to see whether this was a hoax!”

Saul Perlmutter, 2011 Nobel Laureate in Physics, on not knowing he had been awarded the prize.

 

“The phone rang, it was 5:30, and it was Swedish-sounding people, and I knew they weren’t from Ikea.”

Adam Riess on being woken up by the call to tell him he had been awarded the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics.

 

“The biggest day of my life, I am trending on the Australia twitter… but I am still behind Happy National Taco Day? I have a lot to learn.”

Brian Schuldt, 2011 Nobel Laureate in Physics, on Twitter (aka @cosmicpinot)

 

“Danny Shechtman is talking nonsense. There is no such thing as quasicrystals, only quasi-scientists.”

Criticism Daniel Shechtman said he received from two-time Nobel Laureate Linus Pauling, who never accepted the findings that eventually led to the 2011 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

 

“2am in Haifa. What a day. If you’re a scientist and believe in your results, then fight for them. Even when Linus says you’re wrong. Danny”

Daniel Schechtman on Twitter (@danschechtman)

 

“Transtömer!”

Headline on the front page of the Culture section of Swedish daily newspaper Dagens Nyheter to celebrate the Stockholm-based poet’s Nobel Prize in Literature — the first Swedish Literature Prize since 1974.

 

“At first we had him down as a rank outsider but the committee have been known to spring a shock and punters the world over feel Dylan will be the beneficiary.”

Ladbrokes commenting on a rush of bets on Bob Dylan that brought his odds down from 100/1 to 5/1 favourite the day before the Literature Prize announcement.

 

“It sends out a message to the Arab world that you can’t ignore women if you want a democratic society.”

Thorbjørn Jagland, the chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee during the 2011 Peace Prize announcement.

 

“Truly women have a place, truly women have a face, and truly the world has not been functioning well without the input, in every sphere, of women.”

Leymah Gbowee, 2011 Nobel Peace Laureate on the message she hopes her award will bring to the world.

 

“I feel very happy and I want to be like my mum in the future.”

Tawakul Karman’s 14-year-old daughter in response to the celebrations for the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize.

 

“I’m not so sure it’s right to say we have worked together; it’s more that we have a series of continuing arguments many of which are still going on as I slowly persuade him of the error of his earlier positions.”

Christopher Sims on fellow Economics Laureate, Thomas Sargent, at a joint press conference.

 

 

“We are basically statistical historians”

Thomas Sargent, 2011 Economic Sciences Laureate with Sims, at the same press conference

Date for Literature Prize announced

AP has just reported that The Swedish Academy says it will announce the winner of the 2011 Nobel Prize in Literature this Thursday (October 6) at the usual time of 13:00 CET. As of now, the news hasn’t been posted on Nobelprize.org, though they have tweeted it. Also not known as of yet is why there was a delay in announcing the date, the committee normally announces this the Friday before the proposed date.

 

Two weeks to go!

I’ve only just realized there’s little point in telling you about this blog without telling you when this year’s Nobel Prizes will be announced. So here you go, and remember that this year marks the 110th anniversary of the Nobel Prizes. If you want more info, the official announcement is here.

Monday, October 3 (11:30 CET)
Physiology or Medicine

Tuesday, October 4 (11:45 CET)
Physics

Wednesday, October 5 (11:45 CET)
Chemistry

Friday, October 7 (11:00 CET)
Peace

Monday, October 10 (13:00 CET)
Economic Sciences

As usual, Literature provides an added tease. The Literature announcement will be on a Thursday, though which Thursday the Prize-Awarding Committee chooses, most likely the 6th or 13th, will only be revealed the Friday before the announcement date.