Tom Wolfe vs. Chomsky.

I will stipulate up front that Tom Wolfe’s mannerisms can be annoying (especially if you read more than one of his books) and that no matter how much research he’s done, his view of linguistics is inevitably an outsider’s and will contain errors. Still, I was delighted to read Victor Mair’s Log post about Wolfe’s cover article in the August Harper’s, “The Origins of Speech: In the beginning was Chomsky.” The title caused me to fear the worst, but it turns out he (rightly, in my view) sees Chomsky’s revolution as a Bad Thing; here are a couple of snippets Mair quotes:

Only wearily could Chomsky endure traditional linguists who thought fieldwork was essential and wound up in primitive places, emerging from the tall grass zipping their pants up. They were like the ordinary flycatchers in Darwin’s day coming back from the middle of nowhere with their sacks full of little facts and buzzing about with their beloved multi-language fluency. But what difference did it make, knowing all those native tongues? Chomsky made it clear he was elevating linguistics to the altitude of Plato’s transcendent eternal universals. They, not sacks of scattered facts, were the ultimate reality, the only true objects of knowledge. Besides, he didn’t enjoy the outdoors, where “the field” was. He was relocating the field to Olympus. Not only that, he was giving linguists permission to stay air-conditioned. They wouldn’t have to leave the building at all, ever again … no more trekking off to interview boneheads in stench-humid huts. And here on Olympus, you had plumbing.

… …

In August of 2014, Chomsky teamed up with three colleagues, Johan J. Bolhuis, Robert C. Berwick, and Ian Tattersall, to publish an article for the journal PLoS Biology with the title “How Could Language Have Evolved?” After an invocation of the Strong Minimalist Thesis and the Hierarchical Syntactic Structure, Chomsky and his new trio declare, “It is uncontroversial that language has evolved, just like any other trait of living organisms.” Nothing else in the article is anywhere nearly so set in concrete. Chomsky et alii note it was commonly assumed that language was created primarily for communication … but … in fact communication is an all but irrelevant, by-the-way use of language … language is deeper than that; it is a “particular computational cognitive system, implemented neurally” … there is the proposition that Neanderthals could speak … but … there is no proof … we know anatomically that the Neanderthals’ hyoid bone in the throat, essential for Homo sapiens‘s speech, was in the right place … but …”hyoid morphology, like most other lines of evidence, is evidently no silver bullet for determining when human language originated” … Chomsky and the trio go over aspect after aspect of language … but … there is something wrong with every hypothesis … they try to be all-encompassing … but … in the end any attentive soul reading it realizes that all 5,000 words were summed up in the very first eleven words of the piece, which read: “The evolution of the faculty of language largely remains an enigma.”

The article is a teaser for Wolfe’s forthcoming book, The Kingdom of Speech, which I hope sells like hotcakes. The Log comment thread has the inevitable quota of indignant responses from Chomskyists as well as one from Dan Everett, who says “I think that the main takeaway from Wolfe’s article and perhaps the book is that this is the opinion of someone who has looked carefully at the field for years. Some mistakes are likely his fault. Others are the fault of the field for having been unsuccessful in making itself understandable to the public.”

A Better Turing Test

Dave Wilton posts at

In 1950, computer pioneer Alan Turing formulated his famous test for determining whether or not a computer was true artificial intelligence (AI). It involved discourse between humans and a computer, and if the humans could not tell whether they were speaking to a another person or to a machine, then the machine was “intelligent.” A neat idea, but when put in to practice it’s been found to be too easy to fake.

Over the years various improvements to the Turing test have been suggested, and one recent AI challenge used a rather nifty linguistic approach, outlined by this article in the Neurologica blog [by Steven Novella]. At its core, the test, known as the Winograd schema, asks the AI to determine the referent of an pronoun in a sentence. The pronoun would be ambiguous except for one word that provides the necessary context. For example:

The trophy would not fit in the brown suitcase because it was too big.

What does it refer to, the trophy or the suitcase?

In the sentence, big can be replaced with small, which alters the context and the identity of the referent. Humans have no difficulty getting the correct answer (it refers to the trophy when the adjective is big and the suitcase when the adjective is small), but in the challenge the AI performed dismally, with only the best scores equal to chance guessing.

While I suspect that there are probably as many issues with the Winograd schema as there are with the original Turing test, it’s a neat use of language to test reasoning ability.

Neat indeed!

Thow Meseld Faced Hore.

Jonathan Healey’s recent post at The Social Historian (“Adventures in the world of social, economic, and local history”) is well worth reading for its analysis of sixteenth-century thought (“All this, of course, speaks to one of the biggest fears of the age: the fear of disorder”), but the title will give an idea of why I was drawn to it and am posting it here: “‘The Foulest Place of Mine Arse is Fairer than thy Face.’” It opens with a scene (quoted in lurid detail in court records) of a set-to between Mistress Foster and Agnes Haycroft on Michaelmas Eve in 1544, full of delightfully vile insults:

Frideswide was incensed. ‘That brazenfaced hore’, she said. ‘That meseld faced and skaled hore Haycroft wiff, she will never be contended till she be dreven owt of towne with basons as hir mother was’.

‘Mother,’ she said, ‘if I had bene there I wold have knoked hir furryd cap & her hed together’.

By this time, Agnes Haycroft was back, and she challenged Frideswide. ‘Wold you have don it’, she scoffed, ‘yow pockye nosed howswife’.

To this, Frideswide exploded: ‘Agnes Haycroft nay thou pokey nosed hore, feiste thow, thow meseld faced hore, thow camest to towne with a lepers face & a skalled hed, And I defye the[e] utterly, for I wold thow knewist yt that the fowlest place of myn arse ys fayrer then thy face’.

Or, as another witness had it: ‘avaunte thou pockye hore and mesellfaced hore, the fowlest place of my arse is fayrer then thy face’.

It’s worth it just for the name Frideswide, but there’s so much more! (Via MetaFilter.)

New Phonetic Character.

As an inveterate lover of all things bereft of past, future, and use, I was thrilled to discover the “New Phonetic Character for writing Shanghai dialect” invented by Protestant missionaries in the 1850s; a few books were published in it, heroically catalogued by David Helliwell in this 2012 Serica post, and it was then consigned to the dustbin of history, so utterly forgotten that an inscription in it was posted at douban and no one could identify it. I learned about it from Victor Mair’s Log post, where in the first comment Jichang Lulu identifies the writing shown; I also highly recommend P’i-kou’s comment on the Helliwell post, going into fascinating detail about what the phonetic representation tells us about the history of Shanghainese.

Marrin Gamu.

Another promising initiative to help preserve languages, One Children’s Song, Translated Into Australia’s Many Local Languages:

Languages and cultures may differ, but the joyful sound of children singing is universal. A song called “Marrin Gamu,” created for primary school children and teachers to promote the diversity and beauty of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages, is proving just that.

The title of the song combines the word for “body” in two of the languages. Marrin is the word for “body” in the Wiradjuri language of New South Wales, and Gamu is the word for “body” in the Kalaw Kawaw Ya language from the Torres Strait.

The song is also the basis of a friendly contest organized by First Languages Australia and ABC Splash. […]

The project will run for the next two years so that all schools have time to develop the necessary relationships to participate in the project. Contest organizers hope to see “Marrin Gamu” sung in many of Australia’s hundreds of first languages.

“Marrin Gamu” fits into a broader strategy to prevent language loss by focusing on schools and students and working with local teachers. Many teachers do not have deep knowledge of these languages, so the website shares cross-curricular programs for use in the classroom. Incorporating an element of digital media and the internet may motivate students when they see their creativity and local language reflected online.

The first submission is a video created by a school in Queensland in which students sing “Marrin Gamu” in the Guarang language. As more videos of the song are submitted, we’ll be sharing them here.

Thanks, Trevor!

The World in Words: Ainu.

The World in Words podcast recently featured Patrick Cox investigating the Ainu language, with the help of Russian linguist Anna Bugaeva and others. At this link you can click on the audio and read a description of the various sections (“2:37 Anna Bugaeva knew from an early age she’d be a linguist”). If you like listening to knowledgeable linguists talking about language, as well as snippets of an interesting isolate, you’ll enjoy it.

The Linguistics of My Next Band Name.

Chi Luu has another interesting JSTOR Daily post which starts off from the always enjoyable topic of band names, real and fake:

“My next band name” has become a meme for a kind of tangential joyfulness in identifying the weird and wonderful phrasings in language… that can also double as your next band name. Consider such gems as “French Toast Emergency,” “The Thanksgiving Uncles,” “Librarians in Uproar,” or “Giraffe Aristocracy,” next band name submissions found on Reddit or the obligatory tumblr hosted by sci-fi author John Scalzi. Whether you like them as effective band names or not (some of them seem like they were actually generated by artificial intelligence), most people will get the joke—there’s something unusual, compelling or eye-catching about each of these expressions. They’re unexpected words to find together, they make you sit up and take notice.

There’s something else apart from this—a native speaker’s understanding of this subculture comes with a kind of social sixth sense about why phrases like these might make good band names. Compare the diverse mix of (real) band names like Godspeed You! Black Emperor, The Apples in Stereo, …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, Suburban Kids With Biblical Names, The The, and the almost unpronounceable !!! (Chk Chk Chk). The question is, with such a wide range of styles, how do we even know what makes a good band name?

She proceeds to an even more interesting related topic:

The answer to the question of why certain combinations of words make good band names, surprisingly, is related to the fact that people don’t really know what words mean, according to linguist Mark Aronoff. Rather, we connect words and names—even names that we may never have come across before—that exist in the same semantic space, absorbing their recurring patterns. It tells us a lot about how we might form new members of that class.

The Aronoff citation is “Automobile Semantics,” Linguistic Inquiry, Vol. 12, No. 3 (Summer, 1981), pp. 329-347, and it looks like you can read the whole thing from her link, even if you don’t regularly have JSTOR access. Thanks, Trevor!

La Pisana.

I’m now almost finished with the second volume of Ferrante (see this post; my wife has almost finished the third), and I’ve come across a passage that might have been written for Languagehat, so without further ado, here it is. The speaker has been studying in Pisa and has returned to Naples:

Language itself, in fact, had become a mark of alienation. I expressed myself in a way that was too complex for her, although I made an effort to speak in dialect, and when I realized that and simplified the sentences, the simplification made them unnatural and therefore confusing. Besides, the effort I had made to get rid of my Neapolitan accent hadn’t convinced the Pisans but was convincing to her, my father, my siblings, the whole neighborhood. On the street, in the stores, on the landing of our building, people treated me with a mixture of respect and mockery. Behind my back they began to call me the Pisan.

La lingua stessa, infatti, era diventata un segno di estraneità. Mi esprimevo in modo troppo complesso per lei, anche se mi sforzavo di parlare in dialetto, e quando me ne accorgevo e semplificavo le frasi, la semplificazione le rendeva innaturali e perciò confuse. Per di più lo sforzo che avevo fatto per cancellarmi dalla voce l’accento napoletano non aveva convinto i pisani ma stava convincendo lei, mio padre, i miei fratelli, tutto il rione. Per strada, nei negozi, sul pianerottolo di casa, la gente mi trattava con un misto di rispetto e sfottò. Cominciarono a chiamarmi alle spalle la pisana.

I have to say, by the way, that while Ann Goldstein, the translator, seems to do a good job, she has a tic that annoys me: she can’t seem to resist translating invece as “instead.” Obviously she knows as well as I do that it’s used more widely than the English word and that sometimes it’s better to use “but” or “on the other hand” or just not translate it, but habit gets the better of us all. It’s not a big deal, but I have a blog so I’m venting about it. Or, as Canine Cicero would have said: blogeo, ergo ventilo.

Tribunals of Erudition and Taste.

I can go for years without posting about Chinese poetry, and then boom, twice in a few days. I don’t even know which bits to quote from Lucas Klein’s long and thoughtful LARB essay “Tribunals of Erudition and Taste: or, Why Translations of Premodern Chinese Poetry Are Having a Moment Right Now”; he covers so much ground, and provides so many enlightening and entertaining examples, I’m tempted to just say “Go read it.” But here’s a paragraph about a longstanding academic argument:

Today, around the globe, even the general public now agrees with Arnold: translation, like the understanding of other cultures, should aspire to scholarship, and scholarly judgment is the best judgment for translation. Of course, scholars are often as misled by their own cross-cultural fantasies as they are devoted to hard science. Nor do they necessarily agree about how to represent their erudition in translation, a trait illustrated by an argument between two academic specialists in medieval Chinese poetry almost 40 years ago: when Paul Kroll criticized Stephen Owen’s “imprecision in translation,” including his “tendency to translate hendiadys by a single word,” Owen replied that Kroll’s sense of poetry was “a bizarre and erroneous one in which all Chinese poetry sounds like early Wallace Stevens.” More objectively, Owen continued, “Kroll feels that I am insensitive to Chinese poetic language; I feel that he is; we simply have different views of what Chinese poetry is.” And since “American sinology seems roughly divided” between convictions that “at times seem to approach the religious, and are not susceptible to rational persuasion,” this conflict may never be brokered. (The dispute kept the two most respected scholars of Tang poetry in North America from cooperating or even speaking with each other for decades.) There is much room for disagreement inside the agreement that translation should satisfy scholars.

(And I will take this opportunity to express my gratitude to Stephen Owen for being the only member of the Yale faculty to behave decently to a budding Sinologist I cared a lot about, forty years ago.) And here’s a passage about a change I hadn’t been consciously aware of (although seeing it spelled out, I realize it makes sense based on things I’ve read):

And then something shifted. In the late 1970s, Snyder wrote a poem describing his translation and continuation of a Chinese poetic tradition as shaping the handle of an axe “By checking the handle / Of the axe we cut with […] shaping again, model / And tool, craft of culture, / How we go on.” By the early 1980s, this was replaced with another vision of “China,” such as Bob Perelman’s, which gets no closer to believing in the possibility of representing China than saying, “We live on the third world from the sun. Number three. Nobody tells us what to do.” China in the vanguard of American poetry no longer meant classical poetry, if it even meant anything that could be represented in poetry at all.

Avant-gardists’ turn away from classical China meant a turn toward premodern China by American poets of more conservative aesthetics. Academics continued to translate — most notably Burton Watson — as did poet translators with scholarly training in classical Chinese, such as David Hinton and Red Pine. But after Rexroth and Snyder, premodern Chinese influence dissipated through the work of American poets less interested in creating an avant-garde. Some holdovers continued, with François Cheng’s Chinese Poetic Writing translated from French in 1982 (with translations of Tang dynasty poetry by J. P. Seaton), and Eliot Weinberger’s 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei appearing in 1987, but even there we can sense the sea change: Weinberger’s narrative stops in 1978, and despite its popularity, it has never been reprinted. As of the 1980s, classical China stopped making it new.

On the axe handles, see this LH post from 2009. And thanks for the link, Trevor!

London Place Names.

The page is pretty self-explanatory: “The origin of London’s place names (districts and boroughs).” Some are less exciting than others (St Pancras: “named after a saint”; Shepherds Bush: “Shepherd’s bushes”), but it’s fun to peruse: who knew that Cockfosters meant “estate of the chief forester”? (If anyone sent me this link, let me know; I’m afraid the provenance of the tab is long forgotten.)