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In a tiny town by the name of Nuanquan, not too far from the sprawling metropolis of Beijing, a curious tradition of throwing molten iron pulls in a growing crowd of tourists every Lunar New Year. The tradition is called da shuhua (树花) which has the literal translation of ‘hitting tree-flower’ and is named after a forgotten technique of shaking trees to retrieve their blossom.

When the molten iron is thrown against an icy wall, it produces an incredible explosion. The sparks in the explosion are said to resemble falling blossom in the fashion of da shuhua.

Once being dubbed the “poor man’s fireworks”, this dangerously thrilling activity comes from the creativity of its residents from centuries before, who could not afford the luxurious fireworks made from gunpowder packed into hollow bamboo stems. Thanks to Nuanquan’s enterprising nature, the town resorted to its steel works and Blacksmithing heritage to find an alternative. Hence throwing molten iron for entertainment was born and helped to forge the town’s identity. Year upon year, town dwellers would donate their scraps of iron for a spectacular fireworks show during the Lunar New Year festival.

China’s firework obsession at the time of New Year has a dubious future due to the government’s recent crackdown in banning firework displays. Fireworks release the pollutant PM2.5 into the air which contributes to some of the worst cases of pollution on the planet.

However, da shuhua shows no signs of stopping as more and more tourists flock to Nuanquan in an act of re-discovering their Chinese traditions. The shows are becoming extravaganzas in their own right with a variety of acts and music around the staple event of throwing molten iron.

Students interested in reading AMES or Oriental Studies would do well to consider the act of da shuhua in its cultural and historical context. Geographers and Human Scientists may be interested in the conflict of tradition and environmental pressures in modern China.

Thanks to artificial intelligence, the extraordinary powers of Dr.Dolittle may soon be imaginable for the rest of the world – at least if speaking to mice and other rodents is your ultimate goal. Scientists have developed an app called ‘DeepSqueak’ which analyses the speech patterns of our cheese loving friends.

‘DeepSqueak’ analyses the sounds of mice in order to understand the association between the variety of ‘squeaks’ and different mousey emotions and behaviours. Mice communicate at a pitch that is beyond the average human sense of hearing and so the app converts these high frequency audio signals into visual sonograms that can be interpreted and studied.

Scientists are learning that mice produce happy squeaks just before being given a sugary treat and when they are playing with others. The romantics of you will rejoice to hear that male mice also know how to woo their female counterparts with special squeaks of courtship.

Other than the incredible novelty of understanding the language of mice, there are some very important advantages of being able to make sense of squeaky sonograms. Language or communication is a gateway to the internal mind of any organism, and  scientists will be able to understand more clearly the effects of drugs and medications being tested on mice.

For those who are eager to try this out on their gerbil at home, you will soon be able to get ‘DeepSqueak’ on Github to take your relationship with your beloved pet to the next level.

Computer Scientists, Linguists and Biologists should definitely explore this interesting field of AI-assisted animal communication to really individuate yourself in your personal statement and at your interview.

It’s time to squeak your way to an Oxbridge offer! 

Scientists have conducted an experiment to understand why people have such strong aversions to words like ‘moist’.

Linguistics applicants should be interested to know that there were three clear hypotheses as to why people have an aversion to words. The first was the sound of the word, the second, the word’s connotations and finally, social transmission of the idea that the word is disgusting. In the first point, scientists were trying to understand if it was the phonetics and rhythms of the word itself which had an internally structured element of ‘disgust’ – if words in and of themselves can cause repulsion.

Paul Thibodeau, a cognitive Psychologist from Oberlin College and researcher on this topic, asked people’s opinions on words like moist, as well as words linked to bodily function such as phlegm and puke. He then asked people’s opinions on words with a similar sound to moist, like foist, hoist and rejoiced. The study found that people averse to the word moist were much more averse to words related to bodily function than they were to similarly sounding words, suggesting the meaning behind moist is what gives rise to its unpopularity.

Additionally, the researchers found a social component, as was part of their initial hypotheses. Participants in the study watched two videos – one where people were saying the word moist without relation to a particular object, and the second of people using the word to describe cake. Overwhelmingly, people who watched the first video had much more disgust for the word. Modern Languages and English Literature applicants should consider how the social transmission of language throughout history has also transmitted the weight and context of those words; for example, why slang comes in and out of fashion.

Last year, the Académie française (a council constituting the official authority on the French language) expressed disapproval at an emerging tendency to make French more gender-inclusive, claiming that this écriture inclusive is putting the language in “mortal danger”. The debate arose when the first primary school textbook featuring this gender-neutral language was published.

In the standard form of the language, the masculine trumps the feminine; hence an all-female group would be described in the feminine, but a mixed group—even if women are in the majority—would be described in the masculine. Moreover, some nouns for professions do not have a feminine form, even when the person in question is female; for example, until recently the current prime minister Edouard Philippe referred to women in his cabinet as “madame le minister”. Language reformers propose the inclusion of a “point médian” (middle dot) to indicate when a group is of mixed genders rather than using the masculine as default; for example a group of male and female musicians would be “musicien·ne·s”.

 They also advocate the feminisation of job titles for women in professions where the default is masculine—hence “une écrivaine”, “la présidente”. This is already more common in other francophone countries such as French-speaking Canada. Interestingly in English-speaking countries, the exact opposite trend can be noted also in the name of inclusivity and equality—take, for example, the trend of many actresses wishing to be referred to as “actors”. The Académie is not alone in opposing the change. The minister of education has accused it of complicating and degrading the language, and philosopher Raphaël Enthoven has compared it to the dystopian, brainwashing language of Orwell’s 1984.

However, supporters of l’écriture inclusive point out that feminine versions of professions which are now masculine as default were in fact common until they were removed from the dictionary in the 17th century. Professor of French Literature Elaine Viennot remarks that the grammatical rule of the masculine overriding the feminine was only solidified when it was argued that language ought to echo the social order; Nicholas Beauzée, for example, claimed that masculine noun forms were inherently “nobler” because of the superiority of men over women.

Applicants for Modern Languages or Linguistics should consider how language can change and evolve with a changing culture, and whether they think this should be encouraged or not. Students may also wish to think about the idea of Linguistic Determinism, a contested theory which argues that the language you speak shapes the way you think.

A French waiter who was fired for being rude and disrespectful has recently made headlines for filing a complaint against his former employer, claiming that he wasn’t rude at all—just French! Guillaume Rey, who worked at a restaurant in Vancouver, told British Columbia’s Human Rights Tribunal that the decision to dismiss him based on his behaviour constituted discrimination against his culture, adding that French culture simply “tends to be more direct and expressive”. According to the waiter, he in fact demonstrated a “direct, honest and professional personality”, which he owes to his training in the French hospitality industry. Although the restaurant attempted to dismiss the complaint, it was ruled that a hearing will have to take place. Tribunal member Devyn Cousineau  added that Mr Rey will be expected to explain what exactly it is about French culture that would result in this misunderstanding.

Writing for the guardian, Marine Le Conte expressed sympathy for the waiter. “Navigating the subtleties of the English language when you are foreign is a near full-time job”, she claims; “after almost a decade of doing it, I am yet to fully grasp all the complex vagaries”. Linguists and philosophers have long been discussing how culture and language interact. The linguistic relativity principle states that a particular language does not merely describe reality, but creates it; Edward Sapir, for example, argued in 1929 that  “the real world is, to a large extent, unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group […] the worlds in which different societies live are distinct, not merely the same with a different label attached”. 

Prospective applicants for Modern Languages or Linguistics might want to think about the nuances in tone and vocabulary that vary between languages and how language, behaviour, and culture are related. They should be prepared to talk in interviews about what gets “lost in translation” and how this affects communication across culture and language barriers. For those interested in learning more about linguistic relativism, two of the seminal texts on this topic are Edward Sapir, The Status of Linguistics as a Science and Benjamin Lee Whorf, Language, Thought, and Reality.

Esperanto, literally “one who hopes”, was first proposed by Ludwik L Zamenhof in 1887, and was intended to be the second language of the entire world. Built from only 16 basic rules, Esperanto was made deliberately easy to learn.

Word soon spread, and the language became popular among Parisian intellectuals who saw in it a reflection of their own modernist ideals of improving society through rationality. From the beginning, Esperanto was not merely a linguistic experiment but reflected a greater idealism; the official flag was designed to include the colours of hope and peace, and Zamenhof argued that if everyone in the world shared a common language, “education, ideals, convictions, aims, would be the same too, and all nations would be united in a common brotherhood”. His vision spread throughout Europe, and he himself was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize 14 times. After WW1, Esperanto was even proposed as the official language of the League of Nations.

But WW2 dealt a crushing blow to the thriving language, with both Hitler and Stalin outlawing it. Since then, it may seem that Zamenhof’s project has been a failure—only about 2 million people currently speak the language. But more people than ever are now trying to learn it, aided by modern technology. Today’s speakers can connect across the globe via the internet, practising the language every day. In fact, Esperanto has a surprising internet presence with around 240,000 Wikipedia articles written in the language, almost as many as Turkish and Korean. When the language-learning app Duolingo was released, Esperanto speakers pushed for the language to be included and convinced the creators that there was sufficient demand; since the release of the first Duolingo Esperanto course in 2014, the language has continued to thrive and gain new advocates.

Applicants for Linguistics or PPL would do well to familiarise themselves with the history and structure of Esperanto, as the most notable example of an artificial language, and to consider what makes a language effective and easy to learn. Students wishing to study History or Politics may wish to think about the links between the Esperanto project and pre-war idealism, and why the dictators of the Second World War felt it necessary to punish its speakers.

For the first time in 950 years, the Bayeux Tapestry will be leaving its home in France.  President Emmanuel Macron has agreed to loan the artefact to Britain, a decision announced at an Anglo-French summit last week.  The tapestry, depicting the Norman conquest of English in 1066 will be relocated from Normandy to the UK. 

Using this to her advantage, UK Prime Minister Theresa May emphasised the strength of the relationship between these two nations post Brexit, as the decision involved lengthy discussions between each country’s respective departments of culture. 

Although agreed in principle, the relocation will not take place for a few years due to work needed on the tapestry.  The Bayeux Museum has estimated five years before the move will occur, to ensure no damage will take place.  It is yet to be decided where the tapestry will be displayed once in the UK.

Extremely symbolic for both countries, the Bayeux Tapestry is believed to have been made shortly after the Battle of Hastings in the latter part of the 11th century, commissioned by William the Conqueror’s half-brother Odo.  Measuring 70m long and 50cm high, some claim it was produced in Kent, England.  The series of vibrant scenes depicts the Norman conquest of England, complete with Latin inscriptions, detailing how William crossed the English Channel to take the English crown.  The tapestry vividly shows the death of King Harold, who was shot through the eye with an arrow.

It is a prime example of how history was recorded by the victors, with the two sides differentiated by their polarised aesthetics – the English feature shoulder length hair coupled with moustaches, whilst the Normans are clean-shaven with short hair. 

This successful outcome marks the third in a string of failed attempts to negotiate a loan of the tapestry to the UK – it has only been moved twice within France.  It will no doubt have had a positive impacts on the subjects discussed between May and Macron at Sandhurst military academy last week, namely the migration crisis at Calais and prospective military aid from Britain for the French campaign against Islamist extremists in North Africa.

Those interested in History, Classics or Modern & Medieval Languages might want to consider how culture and important historical events are recorded and preserved.  Those considering Politics should think about the impact that important artefacts and art can have on international relations.  The agreement to move the Tapestry to England is particularly noteworthy due to the fact that this is the first time a successful outcome has been reached in almost a millennium.

The University of Cambridge has recently been embroiled in controversy surrounding the syllabus of the English Literature Course. A group of undergraduates have called for a ‘decolonisation’ of the curriculum, which currently takes a ‘traditional’ and ‘canonical’ approach. For the first two years, the broad scope of ‘English’ Literature is covered, and it is only in third year that students are given the option to study Postcolonial Literature. Therefore, these students believe that there is a distinct lack of Black and Minority Ethnic writers, and that these writers should be included, alongside bringing postcolonial interpetation in across the board, for example, looking at Shakespeare plays such as Othello and Tempest through a postcolonial lense.

Others have worried that introducing more of these writers would cause the elimination of the white writers who currently dominate the syllabus, but Churchill fellow Priyamvada Gopal has iterated that white writers would not be affected by any of the proposed changes, rather that a more diverse range of writers and text would be considered ‘in coversation’ with one another. Both the students and academics considering the changes believe that it isn’t just about adding texts, but about rethinking the nature of what we consider to be British and English in a post-imperial world, including issues of race, gender and sexuality. The students campaigning also believe that such a development in the curriculum would encourage more students of a BME background to apply, which is another area of concern for both Cambridge and Oxford. 

This discussion follows a recent move by Oxford to include a compulsory non-European paper in their History curriculum, following campaigns such as Rhodes Must Fall.

English Literature students, especially those interested in literature outside of the British Isles, should consider their stance on this argument and be prepared to discuss the nuances of it at interview. They could also further explore the literature written by authors in the postcolonial era and the themes this change in society give rise to. The same argument could also apply across Arts and Humanities subjects, including History of Art, Music and Languages.

Education students should consider how this may be relevant to education at younger ages, and whether the incorporation of more BME writers at an earlier stage may also be necessary. Similarly, History students can explore how the study of history, both in and out of education, might incorporate a variety of perspectives and how this changes our understanding of history. Politics applicants could consider whether politicians should get involved in such discussions.

By 2120, British English will be dead, or at least it will be if we are to believe Matthew Engel. In his latest book ‘That’s the Way it Crumbles: The American Conquest of English’ Engel claims that by 2120, Americanisms will have completely absorbed the English language.

In 1935, Alistair Cooke estimated that the average Englishman used thirty or forty Americanisms a day. Fast forward to 2017 and that number has risen to over three hundred. We bemoan the arrival of ‘junk email’ as we move it into the ‘trash’ folder. University applicants visit campuses and discuss the different modules they will study each semester. The word ‘awesome’ is now used in conversation 72 times per million words, whereas ‘marvellous’ is used only twice per million.

But what drives this shift in the words we use? On one level, some American words are simply more glamorous than their British counterparts. We would rather say we live in an apartments than a flat. The word ‘movie’ embodies the glitz and the glamour associated with Hollywood and show business far more so than the word ‘film.’ Others have pointed out that some of these Americanisms were originally British English – they were exported, then imported back by us.

Modern Languages and English Literature applicants should consider how language differs between cultures and countries and can shift over time. They could further analyse whether this trend is evident in modern literature, and the impact this infiltration of Americanisms may have on future literary works.

The link between language and thought, and how one may shape the other, has been consistently investigated in Psychology. Thus Psychology students may consider how the words we use may alter our concept of an object. For example does the word apartment give us more positive images, than that of a flat?

A new algorithm developed by professor Iyad Rahwan and graduate student Bjarke Felbo called ‘Deepmoji’ has employed the use of Emojis to analyse the use of sarcasm online. The team used 1.2 billion tweets containing one of the 64 most widely-used emojis in their research.

Through their research, the algorithm has learnt how to predict the most likely emoji to be used, and then furthermore, and rather more impressively, whether the tweet is genuine, or if it has sarcasm laced into it. Although this may seem purely humorous at first, this does have security implications, as it will allow the program to spot hate speech much faster than a human would.

Kerstin Dautenhahn from the University of Hertfordshire thinks that “Using emojis as labels for training neural networks is a great idea… Applying it to tweets seems also a smart choice, since communication via tweets is much more impoverished than actual face-to-face conversation”

The United Kingdom is famed for its sarcastic sense of humour, and therefore it must be a shock to know that something as technical and non-personal as a computer algorithm can correctly predict sarcasm by a small face expressing basic emotions.

Emojis were developed in Japan in the late 1990’s; the last decade has seen these little yellow faces spawn into one of the most commonly used phenomena in the digital age. The simple smiley faces have turned into a whole host of expressive pictures, from an astronaut to an octopus, each with both obvious and sometimes underlying meanings (we’re looking at you, aubergine!)

Modern language students may want to look at the way that communication is changing, and the different languages that come about from the digital age. Computer Science students may want to look at the way in which algorithms are being developed to suit popular culture. Psychology students may want to think about how complex human emotions can be condensed into a few brightly coloured pixels.

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