Context is everything

A few years ago, in order to get my pilot’s license, I had to perform a cross-country solo flight which took me to Modesto, and to Rio Vista, which is in the Sacramento Delta.  I was nervous, as most student pilots would be, venturing far away from home in an airplane by myself.  Upon takeoff from Rio Vista, I looked at the flight plan clipped to my kneeboard, and read the compass heading:  83 degrees.  I banked the airplane until my heading was 83, and saw a terrifying sight.  Two massive (2000 ft.) radio towers were in my way, and I was only at a few hundred feet.  With the radio towers approaching I checked and cross-checked my instruments, which were correct, before looking again at the flight plan.  What on earth could be wrong?

It turns out that I had taken my compass heading from the airspeed column.  I was supposed to climb out at 83 knots, but take a 182 degree heading.  A number means nothing without context.  Fortunately, I was able to quickly correct my heading and completed my solo safely.

Context is constantly affecting our interpretation of language.  If I say that “he wound the bandage around the wound,” how do you distinguish between the noun “wound” and the verb?  The spelling of the word gives no clue, so you must rely on context.  Let’s take a more complex example.  “Jim said that the man is fat.”  Versus:  “Jim said that man is fat.”  In the first case we have an indirect statement, and the word “that” is functioning as an connecting word.  In the second case, the word “that” is functioning as a demonstrative adjective.  However, if you were expecting the first construction, and instead heard the second, you might get confused and think Jim is a caveman and said something like “Man is fat!” Nevertheless, just like the 2000 ft. towers, markers appear to point out your error, and you quickly correct and interpret the sentence the right way.

As I’ve gained experience with Greek, I’ve found that I can often predict the construction that is coming before I see it, and that when I do I am frequently right.  For example, when I see δῆλον at the beginning of a sentence in Plato, I automatically assume indirect speech with a ὅτι is coming next.  “It is clear that…”  But I could be surprised, and δῆλον could be modifying a noun somewhere.  In which case, it’s time to re-check the flight plan and find a new compass heading.

With inflected languages like Greek and Latin, the key to this process is to focus closely on the endings.  The beginner’s impulse is to ignore them, come up with a pre-determined meaning for the sentence, and to go with it without double-checking it.  If you use that method, you may find your wings sheared off during a quick ride to the ground.


10 thoughts on “Context is everything

  1. I doubt that’s real, but if it is it’s the best landing ever. Regardless, I like the metaphor. After losing a wing and going through hell, he still managed to walk away unscathed.

    1. I thought the video was of a real one-winged landing – I saw a different version of it elsewhere. Maybe the guy was just lucky? Or do you think that other factors were involved?

  2. Enjoyed the a propos story, sphendonetes. I’ve a friend, Mark Koch, whose father owned logging trucks and taught his son to drive them when he was in the 4th grade. Kock used to say he could drive any vehicle and today I thought of him as I came across the Bay Bridge on my Ninja. Mark introduced me to go carts in the 3rd grade and now flies his own 4-seat propeller-driven airplane. Many skills are transferable when the activites’ skills overlap.

    1. Indeed! My father was an avid sports fishing guy (I don’t know what the word is in English) and tried to teach me how to draw in big fish. He’d pull the fish in, then ease off, then pull in again, and just as the fish would get really angry and ready to fight back, he’d ease off again, and the game would continue until the fish decided to come ashore. I wish I’d paid more attention to those lessons – but then again, it’s not that you don’t learn such transferable skills on your own…

  3. Wow, context is everywhere right now. I just left a comment on christotechne’s headache post that’d probably be just as appropriate here.

    Great post. Context confusion often finds people flying in the path of obstacles.

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