Acquiring Igbo.

Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani writes affectingly about growing up in Nigeria speaking English:

None of us children spoke Igbo, our local language. Unlike the majority of their contemporaries in our hometown, my parents had chosen to speak only English to their children. Guests in our home adjusted to the fact that we were an English-speaking household, with varying degrees of success. Our helps were also encouraged to speak English. Many arrived from their remote villages unable to utter a single word of the foreign tongue, but as the weeks rolled by, they soon began to string complete sentences together with less contortion of their faces. My parents also spoke to each other in English – never mind that they had grown up speaking Igbo with their families. On the rare occasion my father and mother spoke Igbo to each other, it was a clear sign that they were conducting a conversation in which the children were not supposed to participate. […]

[Read more…]

The Prissy Posh-Yorkshire Accent.

Michael Hendry wrote me as follows:

‘Stephanus Coombs’ (@stephanuscoombs), whom I know from Twitter, posted this question in two tweets. It seems like the kind of thing Languagehat readers (“language freaks” all) could probably answer – I know nothing about British regional and class accents. Here are his tweets:

“Where can I learn more about the prissy posh-Yorkshire accent of
people like Alan Bennett, Alan Titchmarsh and the TV cook Brian
Turner? How did it develop? Has it got a handy label like
“Morningside” for posh-Edinburgh?

“I REALLY WANT TO KNOW! Surely there’s some language freak out there
who knows more than I do about POSH-YORKSHIRE? (Google is for once no
help at all.)”

Seems like an interesting question; anybody know?

Willcocks’ Egyptian New Testament.

Sameh Hanna writes for Biblia Arabica about a man with the right idea about translating into Arabic:

In an interview published in 1927 in the Cairo-based monthly al-Hilāl, Egyptian intellectual and reformist Salama Musa (1887-1958) asked a retired British civil engineer, among other things, about what made him happy at the end of his career. The then 74-year old Sir William Willcocks (1852-1932) replied: “obeying God and fulfilling Christ’s purpose by serving people… and by printing the gospel in the colloquial so that the common people would have access to Christ’s words and sermons. In this I find more happiness than I used to find in engineering” (Musa 1927:1165). […]

The first edition of Willcocks’ translation of the New Testament (entitled in Arabic Al-Khabar al-Ṭayyib bitāʿ Yasūʿ al-Masīḥ) was published in five serialised volumes that started with Matthew and Mark’s Gospels, published in one volume in 1921, followed by Luke and John’s Gospels (volume 2) and Book of Acts (volume 3) in 1926. The first edition of the translation was completed in 1927 with two more volumes, Selections from Early Epistles (volume 4) and Selections from the Later Epistles (volume 5). The translation went into a second edition in 1928 and Saʿīd (1964/1980, 61) indicates that she had access to a 1949 edition of it, after which time the translation seems to have gone out of print. In addition to his translation of the New Testament, it is claimed that Willcocks also translated the books of Genesis and Psalms into the Egyptian vernacular (ibid), but there is no evidence to support this claim.

This translation project was motivated by Willcocks’ firm belief in the expressive potential of Egyptian colloquial Arabic and its ability to communicate the loftiest ideas in literary as well as sacred texts. He took this belief to the public domain much earlier, when in 1893 he gave a public lecture entitled ‘Why does not the power of invention exist among Egyptians now?’ In answering the question, he mainly argued that thinking and writing in fuṣḥa (a language register that Egyptians learn at school) is the main reason why Egyptians lack in creativity and inventiveness. He emphasised the potentials for using ʿāmmiyya in literature, giving the example of the British people who rejected Latin and adopted English as their language of literary expression and hence achieved progress (al-Dusuqi, 1948/2000, 44-5). To make his point, he published extracts from Shakespeare’s Henry IV and Hamlet translated in the Egyptian colloquial. More than two decades later, he published his translation of the New Testament, co-authored by an Egyptian Christian by the name of Manṣūr Effendi Bakhīt. The translation was published with the Nile Mission Press, a Cairo-based publishing mission that was so active in publishing Christian literature in Arabic vernaculars, not only in Egypt but in other Arab countries. Founded by two British missionaries, Annie Van Sommer and Arthur T. Upson in 1905, Nile Mission Press (NMP) was operated from Tunbridge Wells, England, though based in Cairo. NMP was known for publishing translations in the colloquial and Menzie (1936: 169) reports that the “late Sir William Willcocks said that the Nile Mission Press was the only Press that he knew which took pains to print colloquial accurately.”

There’s more discussion of the translation, as well as images, at the link.

Dedicated to Wyatt.

I’ve just finished Alan Taylor’s American Revolutions: A Continental History (highly recommended), and I decided to take a look at the Acknowledgments section following the text; I’m glad I did, or I would have missed this delightful passage, which I hereby share with you all:

I have primarily dedicated the book to Wyatt, who is the very best of dogs although woefully underappreciated by his masters, the Kelmans, who considered roasting him when snowed in and unable to get to a supermarket during the infamous winter of 2014–2015. But it would not look good to exclude them from the dedication after they have been the very best and most generous of friends to me. Despite Ari Kelman’s phobias against adverbs and the word “the,” he greatly improved this book by his close and careful reading of every chapter. Unfortunately, very few of his keen and funny comments can be repeated in public. Any persisting flaws in the book must therefore be his fault, so please send all complaints and corrections to him.

In the book’s introduction, I wanted to invoke a clever observation by the historian Sarah M. S. Pearsall. When apprised of this sequel to American Colonies, she suggested that the title should pay homage to Bruce Willis’s Die Hard and Die Harder films to become American Revolutions: Colonize Harder. Pearsall’s wit is fitting, for American Revolutions interprets the revolutionary era as accelerating colonial processes of change. But Ari made me take that out, for as everyone knows, he has no sense of humor.

I should add that my wife and I have more than once threatened to turn our cat Pushkin into slippers, so I have no standing to criticize the Kelmans on those grounds.

The Invention of Hieroglyphics.

I’m reading Toby Wilkinson’s excellent The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt, and I was struck by this paragraph on the origin of Egyptian writing:

Among the great inventions of human history, writing has a special place. Its transformative power—in the transmission of knowledge, the exercise of power, and the recording of history itself—cannot be overstated. Today, it is virtually impossible to imagine a world without written communication. For ancient Egypt, it must have been a revelation. We are unlikely ever to know exactly how, when, and where hieroglyphics were first developed, but the evidence increasingly points toward a deliberate act of invention. The earliest Egyptian writing discovered to date is on bone labels from a predynastic tomb at Abdju, the burial of a ruler who lived around 150 years before Narmer. These short inscriptions already used fully formed signs, and the writing system itself showed the complexity that would characterize hieroglyphics for the next three and a half thousand years. Archaeologists dispute whether Egypt or Mesopotamia should take the credit for inventing the very idea of writing, but Mesopotamia, especially the southern city of Uruk (modern Warka), seems to have the better claim. It is likely that the idea of writing came to Egypt along with a raft of other Mesopotamian influences in the centuries before unification—the concept, but not the writing system itself. Hieroglyphics are so perfectly suited to the ancient Egyptian language, and the individual signs so obviously reflected the Egyptians’ particular environment, that they must represent an indigenous development. We may imagine an inspired genius at the court of one of Egypt’s predynastic rulers pondering the strange signs on imported objects from Mesopotamia—pondering them and their evident use as encoders of information, and devising a corresponding system for the Egyptian language. This may seem far-fetched, but the invention of the Korean script (by King Sejong and his advisers in A.D. 1443) provides a more recent parallel, and there are few other entirely convincing explanations for the sudden appearance of fully fledged hieroglyphic writing.

I like the image of the inspired genius “pondering the strange signs on imported objects”; does anybody know how widely accepted the sequence of events described here is?

Post-Neolithic Fricatives.

People keep pointing me to this story (thanks, Bonnie, John, Frank, and anyone I’m forgetting!), so I’m posting it, despite my inherent skepticism. There’s a new Science article, “Human sound systems are shaped by post-Neolithic changes in bite configuration” by D. E. Blasi, S. Moran, S. R. Moisik, P. Widmer, D. Dediu, and B. Bickel, that supports an old conjecture of Hockett’s; here’s the abstract, which begins:

Linguistic diversity, now and in the past, is widely regarded to be independent of biological changes that took place after the emergence of Homo sapiens. We show converging evidence from paleoanthropology, speech biomechanics, ethnography, and historical linguistics that labiodental sounds (such as “f” and “v”) were innovated after the Neolithic. Changes in diet attributable to food-processing technologies modified the human bite from an edge-to-edge configuration to one that preserves adolescent overbite and overjet into adulthood. This change favored the emergence and maintenance of labiodentals. Our findings suggest that language is shaped not only by the contingencies of its history, but also by culturally induced changes in human biology.

It’s been written up in the Guardian and the NY Times (and doubtless elsewhere), and Mark Liberman has a sensible response at the Log:

I agree with Ray Jackendoff that the idea is “is interesting but not earthshaking” — the contribution is not so much a partial explanation for the distribution of labiodentals, because basically who cares, but rather some support for the general concept that physical population differences in principle might sometimes affect language structure. Which again is obviously true in principle, but it’s not clear how often it applies in practice. This result would move the needle from “maybe never” to “apparently once in a while”.

The usual line of reasoning is the opposite, that vocal tract anatomy has (co-)evolved over the eons to serve the needs of speech communication. (See e.g. the section on “Vocal tract changes in hominid evolution” in my lecture notes for ling001.) That seems pretty well supported, though as with functional-evolutionary explanations for anything, there are disagreements.

I have little interest in unprovable origin stories, but boy, people sure do like to speculate.

Dostoevsky’s Adolescent.

I’ve just finished one of the most annoying novels I’ve ever read, Подросток (The Adolescent, aka A Raw Youth). If it weren’t by Dostoevsky I’d have given up on it as soon as I realized what a mess it was, but the true Dostoevsky fan wants to read everything — there are always good tidbits hidden in even the mushiest mess. But I’m taken aback by how seriously the novel is treated by those who write about it (Prof. Thomas Beyer has a useful little summary of criticism here); it’s never called one of his greatest, but it’s discussed with far more gravitas than is generally granted to The Gambler, the last of his novels I trashed. In fact, my discussion of The Gambler gives a clue as to what has gone wrong here:

I can’t help but think that one of the problems with the novel is the choice of first-person narration; Dostoevsky originally planned to write Crime and Punishment that way, but eventually settled on the brilliant third-person approach that allowed him to open the story up and give it depth. But that was a lot of work, and he didn’t have time for it with The Gambler.

The problem here is even worse, because at least the gambler, though a young man, was not quite so callow; Arkady Dolgoruky, the narrator here, is barely 20 and understands nothing whatever about life or people, let alone how to tell a story — the narration is full of “but I will jump ahead here and explain something so the reader will understand” and “then I came to a realization, but I won’t tell the reader about it at this point.” And the effect is very much like reading the diary of an actual adolescent: “I have a brilliant idea that I’m organizing my whole life around, but I won’t tell anybody… OK, I’ll tell you: I’m going to become rich as a Rothschild! But I won’t use the money to live like a rich man, I just want to be strong and independent, I’ll live simply and maybe use the money to help humanity! I hate my father but I love him… I despise my mother but I love her… I hate women but I want to marry one but then I’ll keep her in line… I know I shouldn’t go see this guy but I’m doing it anyway… I know I shouldn’t have done that stupid, awful thing but I don’t regret it, I’m proud of it!” etc. etc. Every once in a while I would try to imagine what the book would be like if it were told in the third person; Arkady would still be a young idiot, but he’d be viewed from a distance, like Raskolnikov, and the story would have some perspective. As it is, Arkady is the quintessence of the unreliable narrator.

Now, the unreliable narrator can be used effectively; a classic example is the first chapter of The Sound and the Fury, told from the point of view of the mentally retarded Benjy (“Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting”). Faulkner makes you work hard to try to figure out what’s going on. But that takes up less than a quarter of the novel; the second chapter is told by Quentin, the third by Jason, and the final part is third person omniscient. That gives you a well-rounded picture of events. Here we get nothing but Arkady’s self-indulgent, self-lacerating, self-centered ramblings, and as a result we can’t believe anything he tells us, and there aren’t really any other characters. People talk about Versilov (his biological father) as a vivid character who takes over the novel, but to me he’s not a character, just the object of Arkady’s ever-changing emotional reactions. And the plot! I’ve complained about melodrama before, and accepted that I need to come to terms with it because it’s central to Dostoevsky — he’s simply not interested in “ordinary” life the way Tolstoy and Turgenev are, he only cares about moments of heightened intensity, and he’s not particular about how he gets them: endless coincidences, overhearings, surprise encounters, you name it. But it’s just too much for me. After a while (especially when a revolver started getting waved) I thought maybe he was deliberately hyping it for comic effect, but I’m pretty sure he just can’t help it. He was aware of it, too; Mochulsky says “The writer cautioned himself against misuse of the device of enigma and endeavored to free himself from his main failing: excessively complicating the intrigue and overloading the action.” But he couldn’t.

I think Kafka got something essential from that aspect of Dostoevsky; think of “Das Urteil” (“The Judgment”), which starts off in normal bourgeois fashion and ends in wild, melodramatic tragedy. Dostoevsky would have loved it! But it’s very short (less than ten pages in my Sämtliche Erzählungen); if it were extended much longer, it would have become ridiculous, as does The Adolescent. I can’t help but wonder what Dostoevsky’s reputation would have been if he had died just after publishing this, never having written the Writer’s Diary or The Brothers Karamazov — I suspect he’d be remembered as a very fine writer like Turgenev rather than Tolstoy’s equal and rival. Fortunately, he survived and triumphed.

Let me end with one of those tidbits that made me keep reading. Versilov says he can’t stand sanctimonious people who insist on puncturing other people’s lies; they have no heart:

Друг мой, дай всегда немного соврать человеку — это невинно. Даже много дай соврать. Во-первых, это покажет твою деликатность, а во-вторых, за это тебе тоже дадут соврать — две огромных выгоды — разом. Que diable! надобно любить своего ближнего.

My dear boy, we must always let a man lie a little. It’s quite innocent. Indeed we may let him lie a great deal. In the first place it will show our delicacy, and secondly, people will let us lie in return — two immense advantages at once. Que diable! one must love one’s neighbour.

Dodson 2010.

Back when I was a grad student in linguistics, I dreamed… well, maybe “dreamed” is a bit much, but I certainly hoped I would see my name in Language, the journal of the Linguistics Society of America; one might have thought the dream was dead once I left grad school to become a bum minimum-wage bookstore worker, eventually graduating to proofreader and then editor, but lo, the March issue includes “Expressive updates, much?” by Daniel Gutzmann and Robert Henderson (free preprint version here), which includes this passage:

We dub this construction »expressive much« (henceforth x-much).³ While x-much is firmly colloquial, and so it is possible to find English-speakers who do not control the construction, it is not particularly new. The earliest documented example comes from 1978 episode of Saturday Night Live (Sullivan 2010), though OED citations and discussion online pick out the late 1980s and early 1990s as an important moment for the x-much, in particular, with its prominent place in the movie Heathers and on the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Adams 2003; Dodson 2010).

“Dodson 2010” represents the following entry in the References:

Dodson, Steve. Dec. 8, 2010. »Much?« Blog post. url:

I’m chuffed.

(Via MetaFilter.)

The Body Is Funny.

Lev Oborin posted a poem on Facebook that I liked so much I wanted to repost it here and make an attempt to translate it; he gave me the go-ahead and explained a couple of difficult bits, so without further ado:

смешно уму с телом
то течёт красным
то стреляет белым

то к делам опасным
само себя клонит
то курсом напрасным

само себя гонит;
то снова здорово;
то от боли стонет
то от иного

смешно, право слово

оно треугольник
и над ним кружочек:
мяч прыгнул на столик

сел на клиночек;
пухни, тело, пухни,
лезь из сорочек,

пульсируй на кухне,
выжимайся в сушке;
потом все рухнет —
шлам, хлам, кольца, дужки,

крючки, завитушки

смешно уму с телом
устарелой картой
хоть ножом как мелом

по доске шаркай
хоть наклонись над
исписанной партой

все одно виснет
ум, понять силясь:
как признаки жизни
спеклись помутились

во что превратились?

ум раскинул сети —
монашеским плачем,
бодрым междометьем,

воем собачьим,
внутри себя вечем,
счётом неудачам:

улов не замечен,
ожиданье зряшно,
рыбарь не вечен,
ворону брашно.

смешно уму, страшно.

My version:
[Read more…]

Uppercase Alif.

I recently discovered Uppercase Alif, “Andreas Hallberg’s notes on Arabic linguistics.” From the About page:

I am an Assistant Professor in Arabic at the University of Gothenburg. This blog is a space for me to write informally about Arabic linguistics, research and writing tools, and related things that interest me. Posts are written in English or Swedish depending on topic. Typos and poor grammar may occur. Typically, posts that get more views are more carefully edited post publication.

My dissertation, Case Endings in Spoken Standard Arabic (Lund University, 2016), can be downloaded here.

There’s plenty of interesting stuff, like Minimal pairs in Standard Arabic. Check it out!