AN EMBARRASSMENT OF LINGUISTS.

A while back Mark Liberman had a series of Language Log posts quoting excerpts from J. Milton Cowan’s “American Linguistics in Peace and at War” about how linguists were mobilized for language instruction in World War II (1, 2); the third post, The Burmese story, had a highly amusing description of how William S. Cornyn, Leonard Bloomfield, and Cowan scoured New York City looking for possible Burmese speakers and found one called Alamon who was willing to come to Yale but needed a higher salary than envisioned because “he had been running a little numbers racket in lower Manhattan,” ending with this tantalizing zinger: “Alamon’s successor, the other Burmese-sounding name on the Roster, gave rise to an embarrassment of the Yale linguists and the University which was as funny to outsiders as it was painful for those involved. But enough for Burmese.” As Mark says, “No, I’m sorry, that’s NOT enough for Burmese — we need to know more about the ‘embarrassment of the Yale linguists and the University’ than that it ‘was as funny to outsiders as it was painful for those involved’! I mean, like, what happened?” I suppose it may be too much to hope that anyone will have the answer after 65 years, but hope springs eternal. Maybe a telltale bit of graffiti still lingers in the dusty back rooms of Sterling Memorial Library?

Comments

  1. According to this article by Cornyn (which gives a bit more background also, but you need a JSTOR account to get past the first page), there were three Burmans involved in the project, “Mg. [Monsignor?] Thein Tin of Amyin, U Po Thoung Allamon of Moulmein, and, for a few hours, U Hpu of Mogok”.
    Given that he last only a few hours, perhaps it was U Hpu that embarrassed them.

  2. “U Hpu of Mogok” will be iconic for me forever, regardless of whether I ever learn the whole story.

  3. Mogok is a major ruby mining center, so it’s easy enough to imagine an international intrigue, with U Hpu played by the Fu Manchu guy or the Charlie Chan guy.

  4. “U Hpu of Mogok” — is that not the greatest name ever? I hope he wore a cape and a goatee.

  5. How would one pronounce”U Hpu of Mogok”? Other than “very carefully,” of course!

  6. michael farris says:

    IIRC the convention in romanising Burmese is to write the aspiration before the stop, maybe because it has both an aspirated t (ht) and an interdental (th). So hp is an aspirated p. The vowels u and o are (I think) more or less as in Spanish (though there might be lip-rounding issues).
    The final k is probably unreleased (or a glottal stop?)

  7. U Pu of Mogo? Less fun. Ignorance was bliss.

  8. I am a Burmese speaker and I want to confirm that Michael Farris is right. The H is silent and just signals the aspiration of “p”.
    I am not sure what the last line means, mostly bec I don’t know much phonetics, but I want to say that the 2nd syllable in Mo-gok is very similar to the English “goat”. (of course, with the “oa” collapsed into “o”)
    p.s> “Mg Thein Tin” is not a catholic clergy man. The “mg” in his name is the short form of “Maung”, an honorific used for young burmese males.

  9. Thanks, devlin!

  10. Alas, we have everything now but the scandalous anecdote.
    Someone more scandalous than a numbers runner who worked for the government “for a few hours” — we need to know more. Does anyone here go to linguistics conferences? This story cannot have been forgotten.

  11. Does the Yale linguistics department have regular staff meetings? If so, are there minutes for these meetings? And if minutes are taken, are they archived?

  12. ThePedanticPrick says:

    I thought for a second that “embarassment” was a herd term being proposed for linguists, a la “murder of crows”, “pride of lions”, etc.

  13. michael farris says:

    “I am not sure what the last line means, mostly bec I don’t know much phonetics”
    It has to do with how a final ‘k’ is pronounced. In most SE Asian languages, final p, t and k are ‘unreleased’ (the mouth gets in position to say them and then stops without fulling pronouncing them). This kind of pronunciation is also common in American English.
    For speakers of languages with released final consonants (when the mouth opens again after pronouncing the consonant) the unreleased consonants are very difficult to hear.
    Alternately, In Indonesian, a final k is usually a glottal stop (the throat closes, cutting off the sound of the vowel before it). It’s something like ‘t’ in the traditional Cockney pronunciation of ‘water’ ‘wa’er’

  14. I thought for a second that “embarassment” was a herd term being proposed for linguists, a la “murder of crows”, “pride of lions”, etc.
    That was intentional.

  15. marie-lucie says:

    The thought occurred to me too – I often find myself among such a group but the members don’t seem particularly embarrassed – perhaps they cause other people to be embarrassed?
    But I find the original phrase “an embarrassment of the Yale linguists” a little strange in its wording, and of borderline grammaticality: perhaps it is the “of” (its presence is what caused the “herd” interpretation)? Does the phrase seem OK to you native English speakers? Shouldn’t it be something like “gave rise to a great deal of embarrassment for the Yale linguists” or “caused a great deal of embarrassment to the Yale linguists”?

  16. michael farris says:

    “an embarrassment of the Yale linguists” definitely seems off to me (native NAmerican English speaker). It seems like poor phrasing rather than a grammatical error as such. Most importantly, ‘of’ seems like a poor choice of preposition.
    The easiest way to bring it back in line is, I think “an embarrassment for the Yale linguists” though ‘gave rise to an embarrassment’ is still not great phrasing. “Caused a great deal” is better for me, or maybe “became a source of embarrassment for …”

  17. marie-lucie says:

    I agree, but I was trying to keep close to the original, which has “gave rise”.

  18. marie-lucie says:

    p.s. possibly the sentence was copied incorrectly (by Liberman, but he is usually very picky) and had “for” not “of”? still, “an embarrassment” is odd.

  19. michael farris says:

    An embarrassment didn’t bother me. To me, the weirdest thing in the phrase is the use of a human subject for ‘give rise to’. Some (possibly too) quick googling seems to support my idea that ‘give rise to’ usually has a non-personal subject, an abstract quality or situation (among other possibilities).
    “the drying desert gave rise to the Egyptian pharaohs”
    “Migraine aura symptoms gave rise to “Adventures in Wonderland””
    “Start up projects that gave rise to the appearance of CEMOP” etc etc etc

  20. marie-lucie says:

    Good point – I had focused on the phrase “an embarrassment of linguists” and forgotten to look back to the beginning of the sentence. Linguists are not always good writers!

  21. I agree about the awkwardness of the phrasing; I was glad of it because it gave me a cute post title, but I certainly would have written it another way (maybe “caused embarrassment for Yale linguists”).

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