How Interpreters Do It.

Geoff Watts reports on “the lives and minds of real-time translators”:

…As the delegate spoke, Pinkney had to make sense of a message composed in one language while simultaneously constructing and articulating the same message in another tongue. The process required an extraordinary blend of sensory, motor and cognitive skills, all of which had to operate in unison. She did so continuously and in real time, without asking the speaker to slow down or clarify anything. She didn’t stammer or pause. Nothing in our evolutionary history can have programmed Pinkney’s brain for a task so peculiar and demanding. Executing it required versatility and nuance beyond the reach of the most powerful computers. It is a wonder that her brain, indeed any human brain, can do it at all.

Neuroscientists have explored language for decades and produced scores of studies on multilingual speakers. Yet understanding this process – simultaneous interpretation – is a much bigger scientific challenge. So much goes on in an interpreter’s brain that it’s hard even to know where to start. Recently, however, a handful of enthusiasts have taken up the challenge, and one region of the brain – the caudate nucleus – has already caught their attention.

The caudate isn’t a specialist language area; neuroscientists know it for its role in processes like decision making and trust. It’s like an orchestral conductor, coordinating activity across many brain regions to produce stunningly complex behaviours. Which means the results of the interpretation studies appear to tie into one of the biggest ideas to emerge from neuroscience over the past decade or two. It’s now clear that many of our most sophisticated abilities are made possible not by specialist brain areas dedicated to specific tasks, but by lightning-fast coordination between areas that control more general tasks, such as movement and hearing. Simultaneous interpretation, it seems, is yet another feat made possible by our networked brains.

There’s lots of good stuff in there, and of course no such piece would be complete without the requisite funny translation stories:

Word order is a particular problem in fish meetings, which Miles said she dreads. In a long sentence about a particular variety of fish, and in a language where the noun – the name of the fish – comes towards the end, the interpreter is left guessing about the subject of the sentence until it’s completed.

There’s humour in these pitfalls, of course. Miles told me about an agricultural meeting at which delegates discussed frozen bull’s semen; a French interpreter translated this as “matelot congelés”, or ‘deep-frozen sailors’. And she shared an error of her own, produced when a delegate spoke of the need to settle something “avant Milan” – ‘before Milan’, the city being the venue for a forthcoming meeting. Miles didn’t know about the Milan summit, so said that the issue wasn’t going to be settled for “mille ans”, or ‘a thousand years’.

These people are amazing, and I take my hat off to them (and to the scientists who are figuring out how they do it).

Poljarnyj vestnik.

Erik’s latest post at XIX век alerted me to a journal I hadn’t been aware of:

Here’s another open access and (as of 2014) peer-reviewed journal: Полярный вестник (The Polar Herald), out of Norway. The 2014 volume has an article about Baratynskii by Elena Pedigo Clark, one about Gertsen by Kathleen Parthé (whose book on village prose I liked very much), and articles about language by Maria Nordrum and Olga Steriopolo. You can download pdfs of anything in their archive going back to 1998 for free without registering.

Aside from the articles Erik singles out, I was taken with “Four Ways to Get Tangled Up in Russian” by Maria Nordrum (“In this paper I will analyze the four Natural Perfectives of the simplex verb путать ‘tangle up’, namely впутать, спутать, перепутать and запутать. [...] My hypothesis is that the choice of prefix largely depends on the construction in which the verb appears and the semantics of its internal argument”); when I went to the archive, I tried Vol 1 (1998) and was immediately struck by “Оценка языка-пиджина руссенорск глазами современного лингвиста (Assessment of the pidgin Russenorsk (RN) seen with the eyes of a contemporary linguist),” by Ingvild Broch. I’m obviously going to be exploring this for a while.

And I was glad to learn about Parthé’s book, Russian Village Prose: The Radiant Past; it’s a topic I’m interested in, and I’ll have to add it to the to-read-someday list.

Austronesian and Taiwan.

John Cowan sent me a link to Roger Blench’s paper (draft circulated for comment) “Suppose we are wrong about the Austronesian settlement of Taiwan?,” a fascinating attempt to upend the usual narrative. Here’s the abstract:

The current model of the prehistory of Taiwan assumes that it was first settled some 25,000 years ago by a population of unknown affinities, who reached what is now an island via a landbridge, at a time of much lower sea-levels. Some 5500 years ago, the Ta Pen Keng (TPK) culture, attested on the Peng Hu islands in the Taiwan Strait, apparently represents an incoming Neolithic population. Similar TPK sites are recorded around the shores of Taiwan in the centuries immediately following this. The pervasive assumption has been that these early settlers were the bearers of the Austronesian languages, which then diversified. If so, related Austronesian languages were formerly spoken on the Chinese mainland and these subsequently disappeared as a consequence of the Sinitic expansions. The indigenous Austronesian languages of Taiwan are claimed to reconstruct to a single proto-language, PAN, and from these reconstructions we can derive hypotheses about the lifestyle and subsistence of the earliest settlers.

This paper will argue that the single migration model is mistaken, and that it is not consistent with either the archaeology or the lexicon. If Formosan languages appear to reconstruct to a proto-language it is because they have been interacting over a long period, but they actually represent a continuing flow of pre-Austronesian languages from the mainland. Part of the evidence for this is the exceptional diversity of lexical items which are supposedly part of basic subsistence vocabulary.

Three phases of migration are distinguished, the TPK, the Longshan type culture and the Yuanshan, all of which originate on different places on the Chinese mainland. A further back migration from the Philippines may be responsible for the primary settlement of Green island and parts of the east coast, resulting in the present-day Amis population.

From the conclusion:

From this it follows that a single PAN cannot be reconstructed, in the sense of an apical ancestor, merely a Common Formosan (CF). The Formosanisms identified by Dyen and Blust are not PAN but rather local innovations. This explains why reconstructions of PAN phonology and grammar have always tended to be inconclusive. The flat arrays proposed by Blust and Ross would thus be a reflection of prehistory, although not in the sense originally intended.

It’s clearly written, and there are very useful maps, tables, and illustrations; I’ll be interested to see if the theory becomes accepted.

Ingressive Speech.

A correspondent writes: “I use an ingressive sound when I say ja in Norwegian. I don’t have a sense of how common this is across the spectrum of languages, but it is absent in the other ones I speak.” He included a link to this The Local piece about the phenomenon in Swedish:

Northern Swedes have the unique ability to give their assent with a simple inhalation – a sharp sound of apparent shock, often mistaken by foreigners as a gasp of surprise. Perhaps not strong enough to suck up dust, but strong enough to shock a foreigner.

In fact, many a visitor to Sweden can remember the first time they came across the “northern vacuum”, a short, sharp noise pronounced like “shhh” but while breathing inwards. Let’s spell it “Shoop”. [...]

According to [Linköping University's Professor of Phonetics Robert] Eklund, the phenomenon is called “ingressive speech” or “phonation”.

“Ingressive speech is when people produce language – sounds, single words, or even entire phrases – while breathing in,” he explains.

For Swedes, “shoop” is reserved exclusively for “yes”, and Eklund estimates that Swedes make the sound once for every ten yesses they say.

Eklund has collected data on the phenomena from around the world, concluding that the sound is not so unique, and is even found among donkeys and purring cheetahs.

In the human race, ingressive speech is often cited by proud Swedes as unique to Sweden, especially to northern Sweden, but Eklund’s research suggests otherwise.

“In Norway they say it only happens in Norway,” Eklund laughs.

In fact, ingressive speech takes place in every continent, in as many as fifty languages. In Canada and the US, some people even use it in the same way as the Swedes.

“But in the Philippines and Greece boys used it when flirting with girls to disguise it from their fathers,” says Eklund.

Interesting stuff, and I agreed that it was worth a post (thanks, Jeff!).

Bonus: Betty Everett sings the Shoop Shoop Song, a classic of my youth.

Living on the Hyphen.

Sarah Menkedick has a nice piece on Spanglish in the Oxford American; an excerpt:

The term “Espanglish” was first coined in 1948 by a grumpy Puerto Rican humorist named Salvador Tió in a newspaper column entitled “Teoría del Espanglish,” or “Theory of Spanglish.” Tió lamented the encroachment of English into Puerto Rican Spanish, to the degradation of his native tongue. [...]

Though Tió was right in identifying Spanglish as an emerging hybrid language, he was wrong about its aesthetic, epistemological, and political implications. Like the stiff-collared linguists at the Real Academia Española who would later echo his sentiments of a deformed and bastardized dialect, he failed to grasp that Spanglish is as much a manifestation of multicultural identity as a mash-up of languages; that its seemingly mangled grammar follows a logic both interior, intuitive, and morphological, mappable; that it allows its speakers to belong to multiple worlds, cultures, identities, and languages at once, while forming a third sense of belonging. Spanglish is not one language seeping into and diluting another. It is not the product of a straightforward hierarchy, an oppressive and simplifying domination. Spanglish is more complex, the result of a speaker’s mutable identity—Spanish sometimes trumping English, English sometimes supplanting Spanish, depending on the speaker’s interior map of cultural associations. Rather than colorful peons unknowingly co-opted by imperialism, Spanglish speakers are cunning and empowered linguistic craftsmen.

But this is not what a certain well-born, well-bred, highly educated class of Spanish and Latin American academic would like one to think. There is a barbarians-at-the-gates feel to critiques of Spanglish, which tend almost invariably to come from severe-looking men posing before bookshelves and stately desks. In their critiques, one can feel a grave, gravelly respect for the language of Cervantes, for the language of all the august men of letters with their admiration for the bound rules of high culture. Here is Roberto González Echevarría, Yale’s Sterling Professor of Hispanic and Comparative Literature, in the New York Times in 1997: “Spanglish treats Spanish as if the language of Cervantes, Lorca, García Márquez, Borges and Paz does not have an essence and dignity of its own.” Octavio Paz himself put it more succinctly in 1985: “No es ni bueno ni malo, sino abominable.” It’s neither good nor bad, but abominable. Here again Spanglish appears as a mongrel, corrupting an essential purity—an indictment that ignores the fact that Latin America is a landscape of hybrid identities, cultures, and tongues shaped by the brutal centuries-long domination of the Spanish empire. There are ironic imperialist and racist overtones in these arguments, with Spanish as the language of “dignity” contrasted with the implied savagery of Spanglish; we could be in Mexico in 1600, when the Spaniards referred to themselves in colonial documents as “men of reason” contrasted with the indigenous peoples of Latin America. Perhaps, since Spanish succeeded in thoroughly crushing so many indigenous languages, its “essence” must now be preserved from a potential resurgence of indigenous expression. [...]

What Echevarría misses is that most Spanglish speakers are neither poor nor illiterate but rather aspiring middle-class and second-generation Latinos; artists, scholars, and writers; educated Mexican-American immigrants; Mexican immigrants who’ve returned to Mexico from the U.S.; and gringos who’ve somehow wound up straddling the border. They are expert jugglers of contrasting cultures and identities, code-switchers extraordinaire, fluently bilingual and bicultural. They have not been robbed of an essential static identity but rather gained new layers of ipseity, albeit layers often fraught with moral and personal conflicts: where and to whom do I belong, when, how, and why? They—and my husband and I count ourselves among this group—use their fluid understanding of diverse languages and cultures to craft creative new responses to “the changing culture that surrounds them.”

Needless to say, I like her take on it. There’s lots more good stuff there, for instance on code-switching (“Linguist Richard Skiba breaks down the average usage of Spanglish into percentages: 84 percent of the time, Spanglish speakers employ single word switches; 10 percent of the time, phrase switches; and 6 percent of the time, clause switches”); check it out. And if somebody sent me the link, let me know so I can thank you; sometimes a tab will sit there so long I forget where it came from.

Getting One’s Goat.

Ben Zimmer discusses the expression “get one’s goat,” which he’s been investigating:

All of the sources start with a 1904 book called Life in Sing Sing, a prison memoir by the anonymous convict “Number 1500.” In the chapter on “Slang Among Convicts,” the word goat is glossed as “anger; to exasperate,” but that doesn’t get us very far in figuring out the full phrase “get one’s goat,” which the slang dictionaries record from 1908 onwards. [...]

Stephen Goranson discovered what is currently the earliest known example, from an article in the Oct. 21, 1905 edition of the New York journal Public Opinion. It was part of a series by Elizabeth Howard Westwood called “Experience of a Shop Girl,” and in the installment “In the Working Girl’s Home,” a girl named Alice Bailey reacts testily to a fellow boarder’s complaint about her table manners: “‘Well, that gets my goat,’ gasped Alice when we recovered speech. ‘The nerve of her.’”

The ADS-L discussion ended up inspiring Peter Reitan, who writes under the nom de blog Peter Jensen Brown. As it turns out, he had been collecting his own evidence for the origins of “get one’s goat.” On his Early Sports and Pop Culture History Blog, Peter lays out a compelling case, based on his extensive research, that we owe the expression to boxers in the U.S. Navy. He ties this to the Navy tradition of keeping goats aboard ships as mascots, and the historical evidence seems to support his theory.

But other theories have flourished [...]

Ben says “research is still ongoing,” and invites readers to help: “If you do turn up any early appearances of ‘get one’s goat,’ let us know in the comments below or email” (I have to say, if you’re going to use a nom de blog, why pick one as boring as Peter Jensen Brown?)

Chipotle Mayan.

Slate’s language blog, Lexicon Valley, recently featured a funny and even sort of educational post by Taylor Jones (“the author of and a jazz musician and composer”) called “What Do the Glyphs at Chipotle Mean? They’re Mayan—Sort of.” Jones “went to a Chipotle in Philadelphia, looked at the wall, and realized their design was more than just decoration”; having an interest in Mayan, he “did some research and found that the wood and metal sculptures at many (or maybe all) Chipotle locations were provided by a company named Mayatek Inc.”

In order to get more information, I wrote an email to Dr. Marc Zender, one of the leading scholars on Maya glyphs and author of The Book on the subject, asking if he could tell me whether the bas relief decoration at this Chipotle was imitating some known work or complete gibberish (email title: “a frivolous question”). To my surprise, he responded, and the answer is that it’s a little of both. He told me that the artist for Chipotle intended to copy a well-known collection of stucco glyphs from Palenque’s Temple 18.

He explained: “The text was commissioned by the early 8th-century king K’inich Ahkal Mo’ Nahb, and had fallen from the rear wall of a temple in antiquity. The stuccos were then recovered piecemeal by several different archaeological projects between the 1920s and 1950s. Primarily because their original order couldn’t be determined, but also because most of them couldn’t be read at that time, the curators at Palenque’s archaeological site museum unfortunately ended up mounting them in (unreversible) cement, placing similar signs next to one another and creating a nonsensical text. ”

He went on to explain that “the Chipotle artist has also picked glyphs at random from this collection and has made his best attempt to copy them. It’s not a bad effort in some places, but note the ‘bird with wings’ the artist has created in the bottom rightmost glyph, as well as some missing or invented details in a few other places.” [...]

Then, Dr. Zender made my day. “Just for the fun of it,” He translated the glyph blocks from Chipotle[...]

What fun! And you’ll find Zender’s translations at the link.

Hats and Lexicography.

I’m reading Catherine Evtuhov’s Portrait of a Russian Province: Economy, Society, and Civilization in Nineteenth-Century Nizhnii Novgorod, which, while frequently dry, has all sorts of interesting tidbits and creates a convincing portrait of both the city and province of Nizhnii Novgorod. Here’s a paragraph I can’t resist posting, for obvious reasons; it’s pretty representative and should give you an idea of whether the book is for you:

Hats were another matter. Their transcendence of local boundaries rested on fame and fashion. Seventy artisans and 250 workers crafted hats each year from September to February, and caps from February to July. Vladimir Dal’, whose most productive years of work on the dictionary were spent in this particular region (he wrote up to the letter “O” while there), adduces as the example for the word kartuz (cap): “V Kniaginine sh’iut kartuzy na ves’ krai” (Caps for the whole region are made in Kniaginin). Hat and cap makers worked at home; they bought materials and instruments at the Nizhnii Novgorod fair. Unlike some of the technically more primitive handicrafts, the hat business required a serious investment: sewing machines by Popov, Singer, or Blok could cost between forty and eighty rubles; blocks (bolvany), an iron, scissors, thimbles, measures, and needles, as well as a variety of materials and fabrics—sheepskin, wool (drap), broadcloth (sukno), velveteen (plis), corduroy, and so forth—added up to a total initial expenditure of eighty-five rubles. Hats and caps could be considered partial products, because essential parts—crowns for hats and also for caps—were bought at the Nizhnii Novgorod fair or in Moscow; this was for reasons of prestige as well as difficulty of manufacture: the crucial segments bore a much-coveted stamp of the city factories, making the final product that much more valuable. The types of hats also reflected fashion rather than practicality. There were nine types: Moscow, buttoned, Polish, round, semiround, boyar, Tatar, Slavic, and Persian.29 True to the example given by Dal’, the most prosperous artisans traveled as far as the Krestovskaia fair in Siberia, while others frequented the southern provinces and of course the Nizhnii Novgorod fair; only fifteen to twenty of them stayed home, though sales at Kniaginin and neighboring rural and urban markets flourished. Thirty families lived entirely elsewhere, maintaining their connection to Kniaginin only through their official papers.

Footnote 29 gives the Russian terms for the types of hats: “The types were described as moskovskaia, pod pugovku, po[l]‘skaia, sharik, polusharik, boiarochka, tatarskaia, slavianskaia, and persiianka.” I love that kind of detail.

Not worth a separate post, but I have to record for posterity this quote from p. 162 (she is discussing a meeting of the Arzamas district zemstvo in September 1881): “…the Poltava zemstvo’s fund-raising effort for a school named after Nikolai Gogol was rejected on the grounds that too few constituents would have heard of the accomplishments or even the name of this writer.” (Footnoted to pp. 8-9 of the Журналы XVII очередного Арзамасского уездного земского собрания 1881 года с приложениями, which, unsurprisingly, is not online.)

The Story of Dinkum.

Everybody knows the Australian expression (fair) dinkum, but where does it come from? Bruce Moore, who is currently editing the second edition of the Australian National Dictionary, has the answer in an Ozwords post (excerpted from his book What’s Their Story? A History of Australian Words); after laying out a couple of folk etymologies (from “fair drinking”; from Cantonese “‘ting kum’ meaning genuine gold”), he gets down to brass tacks:

A major argument against the purported Chinese origin of dinkum is the fact that the word is attested in British dialects, and that even fair dinkum appears in one of those dialects. A large number of Australian words derive from British dialects, and dinkum is one of them. In the dialects of Lincolnshire and Derbyshire there is a word dinkum that means ‘work; a fair share of work’. There is an 1891 record from a coal-miner who says ‘I can stand plenty o’ dincum’, that is, ‘I can put up with any amount of fair work’; and from north Lincolnshire there is the record of a person who says ‘You have gotten to do your dinkum’. The first record of the word in Australia has this meaning. It occurs in Rolf Boldrewood’s Robbery Under Arms (1888): ‘It took us an hour’s hard dinkum to get near the peak’, that is, ‘an hour’s hard work’. A more recent Lincolnshire dictionary defines dinkum: ‘It means to give fair or deserved punishment to; the correct punishment, justice; to do what is fair and right.’ The Essex dialect has dinkum meaning ‘above-board, honest’. More importantly, in the north Lincolnshire dialect there occurs the idiom fair dinkum meaning ‘fair play’, ‘fair dealing’, ‘that which is just and equitable’. In fact, the notion of ‘fairness’ has always been associated with dinkum. It is from this connotation of ‘fairness’ that the particularly Australian meaning ‘reliable, genuine, honest, true’ developed in the first decade of the twentieth century. This dialect evidence is so dinkum that we do not need to look elsewhere, and certainly not to Chinese miners.

He goes on to tell a great WWI spy story and concludes, “Dinkum was one of those words that served to articulate Australian values during the First World War—it belongs, especially, with Anzac, digger, and Aussie, and is the opposite of furphy.”

Bête de Somme.

At the start of 1830, the Pushkin-Delvig camp began a new periodical, «Литературная газета» [The Literary Gazette], to counteract the malign influence of Bulgarin and Grech (the editors of the reactionary Northern Bee); Delvig was editor-in-chief, with Orest Somov as the main critic and assistant. It was not expected to last long (such ventures have always tended to be ephemeral), and in fact was shut down after a year and a half; on April 26 Vyazemsky wrote to Pushkin: “Дельвиг — ленив и ничего не пишет, а выезжает только sur sa bête de somme ou de Somoff” [Delvig is lazy and writes nothing, and he relies exclusively sur sa bête de somme ou de Somoff]. That little pun makes use of the French idiom bête de somme ‘beast of burden,’ which is an interesting relic.

In French, un somme is a nap and une somme is a sum, but this is neither; it’s used only in this phrase, which goes back to the 12th century, and it’s from Late Latin sauma/salma/soma ‘packsaddle,’ derived from Latin sagma, a straight borrowing of Greek σάγμα. It’s allegedly a feminine noun, but how can you tell when it’s only used in this phrase? My question to French speakers is: do you have any sense of this somme as a word in its own right, or is it just an unanalyzable (and presumably mysterious) part of the phrase bête de somme?