Crime and Punishment.

I finished Преступление и наказание (Crime and Punishment) a few days ago, and I’ve been mulling it over since then. It’s the first of Dostoevsky’s Late Great Novels I’ve read in Russian, and it would be ridiculous to try to summarize it or make general points about it after all the commentary that’s already piled up. I will say that I had trouble with the melodramatic aspects (the drunken father, the daughter forced into prostitution, the mother who goes mad and drags her little children out into the street to dance and sing); I realize it’s something that comes with the author, as with Dickens (who Dostoevsky loved), and I just have to put up with it, but I can’t help rolling my eyes and thinking of Wilde’s “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing.” I’m not crazy about organ music either, but if the composer is great enough (Bach) or the performer brilliant enough (Larry Young) I can get past my first reaction. But I’d trade half the wallowing in the misery of the Marmeladovs for another chapter with Porfiry Petrovich.

Also, a word about Svidrigailov. Erik McDonald recently posted links to a longish interview with Michael Katz and Nicholas Pasternak Slater, both of whom translated the novel and both of whom (in Part 2) picked Svidrigailov as the most misunderstood character. I can’t quarrel with Katz’s “he remains something of a mystery,” but I don’t like NPS’s more extended response:

On one reading, he is so enigmatic as almost to make no sense – is he fundamentally good (clearly not), or fundamentally evil (also not), and how do the good and bad sides in his character coexist? On the bad side, he may (or may not) have caused his wife’s death, he is a self-confessed libertine, he tries (or threatens) to rape Raskolnikov’s sister Dunia, and he plans to marry a child for his sexual gratification. Yet he performs many good actions, including saving Katerina Ivanovna’s orphan children and giving Dunia a large sum of money. Perhaps the last of his moral actions is to commit suicide. I think his character actually hangs together quite well: though repugnant, he is an intelligent man with a philosophical bent and humane instincts of empathy and kindness, who is saddled with sexual appetites that he can barely control. This is a paradox we meet often enough in real life (in this day and age, might he have been a charity worker in a third-world disaster area?). Dostoevsky, of course, must condemn him because none of his humane motivations come from God or religion: he is an amoral freethinker.

Talk about false equivalence! His “good actions” boil down to giving lots of money away; in the first place, that’s the easiest way for bad people to try to salvage their reputations (you can read about such lavishness in the papers every day), and in the second place, he mostly gives it to women he wants to seduce, which makes it not a good action at all. He’s a thoroughly bad man, which is why Dostoevsky condemns him — not “because none of his humane motivations come from God or religion.” He doesn’t have humane motivations, for Pete’s sake.
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Teaching Raffi Russian.

Keith Gessen writes for the New Yorker about his dealings with fatherhood and his native language:

I no longer remember when I started speaking to Raffi in Russian. I didn’t speak to him in Russian when he was in his mother’s womb, though I’ve since learned that this is when babies first start recognizing sound patterns. And I didn’t speak to him in Russian in the first few weeks of his life; it felt ridiculous to do so. All he could do was sleep and scream and breast-feed, and really the person I was talking to when I talked to him was his mother, Emily, who was sleep-deprived and on edge and needed company. She does not know Russian.

But then, at some point, when things stabilized a little, I started. I liked the feeling, when I carried him through the neighborhood or pushed him in his stroller, of having our own private language. And I liked the number of endearments that Russian gave me access to. Mushkin, mazkin, glazkin, moy horoshy, moy lyubimy, moy malen’ky mal’chik. It is a language surprisingly rich in endearments, given its history. […]

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New Yorker Style Book.

Ben Yagoda writes for Lingua Franca about a remarkable find. He describes cleaning out his office because of his retirement from teaching at the University of Delaware and finding a 1996 copy of the New Yorker style manual, 87 pages long, that “appears to have been composed on an IBM Selectric typewriter”:

For one thing, it is a sort of sequential time capsule. That is, one has the sense that it was drafted shortly after the magazine’s founding (more on the next comma in a minute), in 1925, with new entries added over the years, with the effect that, even in 1996, many of them would have no longer been in use, but clearly belonged to particular past decades or periods. […]

Some of the style rules, too, are redolent of the past. The 1996 New Yorker would have its authors write catercornered (instead of the now much more common kitty-corner or catty-corner), legitimatize (instead of legitimize), and sidewise (though the guide notes that “sideways is permissible in fiction”). Others are puzzling. “John D. Rockefeller 3rd,” but “John D. Rockefeller IV.”

And some of the entries are informative or thought-provoking. One reads, “airplane engines (airplanes do not have motors).” Another: “‘Thought to himself’ is redundant. Avoid.” And: “Do not write, ‘He had his throat cut.’ ‘He had his skull fractured.’ This implies nonexistent volition.” […]

The insistence on using of got instead of gotten is one of the eccentricities for which The New Yorker is famous, or should I say notorious. I have long led a lonely campaign to pressure it to accept gotten, as every other American would, in sentences like this one from a recent issue: “… the loving kindness of Petfinder had got in my head.” At this point I have pretty much given up.

In other editorial news, the New York Times with pardonable pride reports on a minor but pleasing triumph by an editor at their Spanish edition:
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Word Aversion.

Surprisingly, LH doesn’t appear to have covered word aversion. Perhaps I was just afraid of provoking a comment thread full of people nattering on about how they hate the word moist, one of the more tiresome fads of the early 21st century. At any rate, Matthew J.X. Malady has written about it for Slate, and I guess I’ll risk posting it:

The phenomenon of word aversion—seemingly pedestrian, inoffensive words driving some people up the wall—has garnered increasing attention over the past decade or so. In a recent post on Language Log, University of Pennsylvania linguistics professor Mark Liberman defined the concept as “a feeling of intense, irrational distaste for the sound or sight of a particular word or phrase, not because its use is regarded as etymologically or logically or grammatically wrong, nor because it’s felt to be over-used or redundant or trendy or non-standard, but simply because the word itself somehow feels unpleasant or even disgusting.” […]

Participants on various message boards and online forums have noted serious aversions to, for instance, squab, cornucopia, panties, navel, brainchild, crud, slacks, crevice, and fudge, among numerous others. […] Jason Riggle, a professor in the department of linguistics at the University of Chicago, says word aversions are similar to phobias. “If there is a single central hallmark to this, it’s probably that it’s a more visceral response,” he says. […]

Riggle thinks the phenomenon may be dependent on social interactions and media coverage. “Given that, as far back as the aughts, there were comedians making jokes about hating [moist], people who were maybe prone to have that kind of reaction to one of these words, surely have had it pointed out to them that it’s an icky word,” he says. “So, to what extent is it really some sort of innate expression that is independently arrived at, and to what extent is it sort of socially transmitted? Disgust is really a very social emotion.”

I’m voting for socially transmitted; it’s the modern equivalent of tulipmania or hula hoops. At any rate, Malady (appropriate name!) gives a number of examples of over-the-top word avoidance, and ends with an interesting hypothesis; after pointing out that Kurt Andersen “maintains no word aversions of the creep-out variety,” he continues:
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On Italicizing Words.

There’s a lot of interesting stuff in this interview with Isabel Yap, but the part of LH relevance concerns italics:

And it’s sort of like — in my first fiction workshop, I wrote a story using Tagalog words, and I italicized them, because that’s what I was used to even back home, because I write in English. And it became a huge discussion for the class. Like, “why is she italicizing her words? Is that othering? Is that intentional? Is she writing for a white audience?”

And I was like, “oh my god.” [laughs] I never thought about these things. I used to be like, I write what I write. […]

[…] The main takeaway I got from that conversation was that I probably shouldn’t italicize my words anymore. And you know, because of where I’m coming from, even in the Philippines, that’s what we do, I don’t mind if an editor asks me to change it, but I won’t do it to start with. And that’s sort of like a response to people saying, “who are you writing for?”

‘cos the point of my teacher, who was really amazing, was when you italicize, it draws attention to the text. This is a word that’s not in English, and therefore it’s sort of like you’re catering to a white audience. Whereas if you just leave it in there, it’s more like whatever your background is, you can just read this and take the text as it is, and you may recognize this word or not. It’s a small adjustment for me, because I don’t have a super strong opinion on it, but now that’s what I adhere to in my story.

I must confess that it seemed natural to me, almost inevitable, to italicize foreign words, because, well, that’s what we do. But I found that pretty convincing, and this Daniel José Older video finished the job. “And then I got back, and I realized I needed some books, so I went to… [Panama hat, cigar]… la biblioteca. And I was hungry, so I ate some… [guitar chord] comida típica de la cultura latina.” Yup, use itals for emphasis (in fiction, not linguistics, obviously) and let the reader decide what’s “English” and what’s not (a debate we’ve had here more than once).

Quantitative Methods in Historical Linguistics.

Barbara McGillivray and Gard B. Jenset, authors of Quantitative Historical Linguistics: A Corpus Framework, summarize some of their ideas for OUPblog:

Linguistics generally has seen an increase in the use of corpora and quantitative methods over the recent years. Yet journal publications in historical linguistics are less likely to use such methods. Part of the explanation is no doubt the advantage that linguistics for extant languages holds regarding greater availability of annotated text corpora and people who can answer questionnaires or take part in experiments. Yet this can only be part of the explanation. […]

It is reasonable to look to cultural explanations for this. After all, the technical barriers keep getting lower and the availability of resources keep increasing. So what is special about historical linguistics? For one thing, historical linguistics (at least if we consider the historical-comparative method) has a very long, very stable, and very successful history. The methodological core of the historical-comparative method has proved remarkably stable over time.

Furthermore, there is a history of failed attempts at using quantitative methods in historical linguistics. In some cases, such techniques have been tested and simply failed to work, as one would expect in any scientific endeavour. In other cases, the lack of extensive quantitative modelling by historical linguists have enticed scholars from other fields, with experience in statistical models, to step in and fill that gap. These endeavours have met with mixed reactions from mainstream historical linguistics.

What seems to be missing is a positive case for using quantitative methods in historical linguistics, on the premises of historical linguistics. That, in our view, is the only way that quantitative techniques can properly cross the chasm into adoption in mainstream historical linguistics. Such a positive case must go well beyond training manuals or statistics classes. Instead, the intellectual footwork for integrating numbers with the core questions that historical linguistics faces must be done.

It’s certainly true about the failed attempts; I’d love to see the positive case they suggest. If well done, quantitative techniques could surely help.

Words Where You Are.

The OED has an appeal I want to help spread:

How we speak can reveal where we are from: not just our accent, but the language we use. Words and phrases particular to a city, region, or country are a distinctive part of English, and we at the OED are asking you to help us identify and record them.

Most of us have experience of using a familiar term in unfamiliar circumstances and being met with a blank stare. Many of us can recall a moment when a word we’ve known and used for years at home turns out to be baffling to people from other parts of our own country, or from another English-speaking region. If a picture is hanging askew, would you say that it is agley, catawampous, antigodlin, or ahoo? At the beach, do you wear flip-flops – or would you refer to them as zoris, jandals, or slipslops? Would you call a loved one your doy, pet, dou-dou, bubele, alanna, or your babber? Many such words are common in speech, but some are rarely written down, so they can easily escape the attention of dictionary editors.

Whether you’re in Manchester, Mumbai, Manila, or Massachusetts, the OED would like to hear from you. Please use the form below to tell us about the words and expressions which are distinctive to where you live or where you are from. We’re looking forward to reading your suggestions. You can also join the conversation on Twitter with the hashtag #wordswhereyouare

My wife and I have used ahoo ever since reading the Aubrey/Maturin novels. I got the link from Vesihiisi’s MetaFilter post, where one commenter correctly points out that “The challenge is knowing what perfectly ordinary words you use in your everyday life are actually ‘regionally distinctive words'” and another praises the Southern US word “tump” (“When something tumps, it doesn’t just dump over. There’s a moment of precariousness, in which you hope desperately that the object in mid-tump might right itself and settle back down, but nope, nope, over it goes. Also, there’s a really weird unspoken context that matters. Boats capsize; canoes tump. Tricycles can tump, but bicycles cannot”). So send ’em your own!

Google Translate Flunks in Court.

Devin Coldewey reports for Techcrunch on an interesting legal ruling in the case of Omar Cruz-Zamora, who was pulled over by cops in Kansas and found to be in possession of drugs:

Cruz-Zamora doesn’t speak English well, so the consent to search the car was obtained via an exchange facilitated by Google Translate — an exchange that the court found was insufficiently accurate to constitute consent given “freely and intelligently.” […]

For example, the officer asked “¿Puedo buscar el auto?” — the literal meaning of which is closer to “can I find the car,” not “can I search the car.” (Note: these translations were what were put forth in the case, not my own — I don’t speak Spanish. As commenters below note, it’s more like “can I search for the car,” which is very different.) There’s no evidence that Cruz-Zamora made the connection between this “literal but nonsensical” translation and the real question of whether he consented to a search, let alone whether he understood that he had a choice at all.

With consent invalidated, the search of the car is rendered unconstitutional, and the charges against Cruz-Zamora are suppressed. […]

Providers of machine translation services would have us all believe that those translations are accurate enough to use in most cases, and that in a few years they will replace human translators in all but the most demanding situations. This case suggests that machine translation can fail even the most basic tests, and as long as that possibility remains, we have to maintain a healthy skepticism.

I’m not qualified to comment on the legal issues, but as Languagehat I thoroughly approve of the decision from a linguistic point of view, and of Coldewey’s insistence on the need for “a healthy skepticism.” Thanks, Kobi!

Slovene Dialects.

Joel of Far Outliers has posted another excerpt from Lingo: Around Europe in Sixty Languages, by Gaston Dorren (see this LH post), this time about Slavic dialects, or rather the lack of significant dialects in all languages but one:

Whether they’re from the Baltic port of Kaliningrad or from Vladivostok on the Sea of Japan, there’s little difference in the way Russians speak. In Poland, the same holds true: North Poles and South Poles can chat away effortlessly to each other, as can West and East Poles. Even people speaking different Slavic languages can often communicate without much trouble. Bulgarians can converse with Macedonians, Czechs with Slovaks, and Russians with Belarusians and Ukrainians. And, for all their political differences, there is no great language barrier between Croats, Bosnians, Serbs and Montenegrins. In fact, as the eminent nineteenth-century Slovak scholar Ján Kollár suggested, the Slavic world could, with no great effort on the part of its citizens, adopt just four standard languages: Russian, Polish, Czechoslovak and, lastly, what you might call Yugoslav or South Slavic.

There is one language, however, that wouldn’t so easily be absorbed into Kollár’s scheme: Slovene, also known as Slovenian. Admittedly, this is the language of a very small nation. Its entire territory fits no fewer than twelve times into the area of the UK (which is itself not large) and the population, at just over two million, is just a quarter of that of London. And yet, when Slovenes speak their local dialects, many of their compatriots can make neither head nor tail of what they are saying. So just imagine how these dialects would bewilder the members of some of the other nations that Kollár lumped together as ‘South Slavic’, such as the Bulgarians.

How come? Why does Russian span more than four thousand miles from west to east with next to nothing in the way of dialect diversity, whereas the Slovene language area, measuring just two hundred miles from end to end, is a veritable smorgasbord of regional varieties?

A good question!

How to Ask for a Drink in Subanun.

I was looking for something else (as I usually am) when I found my old copy of The Pleasures of Anthropology, edited by Morris Freilich; I opened it curiously and realized it’s one of the many books I bought because it looked interesting and never got around to reading. Naturally I turned to the section Human Communication, and was immediately drawn to “How to Ask for a Drink in Subanun,” by Charles O. Frake (American Anthropologist 66.6, Part 2 [Dec. 1964]: 127-132); the first couple of paragraphs are thought-provoking enough I thought I’d reproduce them here:

WARD GOODENOUGH (1957) has proposed that a description of a culture — an ethnography — should properly specify what it is that a stranger to a society would have to know in order appropriately to perform any role in any scene staged by the society. If an ethnographer of Subanun culture were to take this notion seriously, one of the most crucial sets of instructions to provide would be that specifying how to ask for a drink. Anyone who cannot perform this operation successfully will be automatically excluded from the stage upon which some of the most dramatic scenes of Subanun life are performed.

To ask appropriately for a drink among the Subanun it is not enough to know how to construct a grammatical utterance in Subanun translatable in English as a request for a drink. Rendering such an utterance might elicit praise for one’s fluency in Subanun, but it probably would not get one a drink. To speak appropriately it is not enough to speak grammatically or even sensibly (in fact some speech settings may require the uttering of nonsense as is the case with the semantic-reversal type of speech play common in the Philippines. See Conklin 1959). Our stranger requires more than a grammar and a lexicon; he needs what Hymes (1962) has called an ethnography of speaking: a specification of what kinds of things to say in what message forms to what kinds of people in what kinds of situations. Of course an ethnography of speaking cannot provide rules specifying exactly what message to select in a given situation. If messages were perfectly predictable from a knowledge of the culture, there would be little point in saying anything. But when a person selects a message, he does so from a set of appropriate alternatives. The task of an ethnographer of speaking is to specify what the appropriate alternatives are in a given situation and what the consequences are of selecting one alternative over another.

Ward Goodenough was an important anthropologist; I note with bemusement that that Wikipedia article gives one pronunciation in IPA and a different one in the respelling of his (superb) surname, and someone who knows which is correct should fix it. The Subanon (Wikipedia’s preferred spelling) live in the Zamboanga peninsula area of Mindanao Island, Philippines; they speak, obviously, the Subanon language. And Stan Carey’s recent post The Speech Community seems relevant.