The Loss from the Fire.

I had heard about the recent fire at Brazil’s National Museum, but hadn’t realized its linguistic consequences; Diogo Almeida writes on Facebook:

Translating the news from Cinda Gonda, a Brazilian colleague, just breaks my heart even more:

“Folks, there’s nothing left from the Linguistics division. We lost all the indigenous languages collection: the recordings since 1958, the chants in all the languages for which there are no native speakers alive anymore, the Curt Niemuendaju archives: papers, photos, negatives, the original ethnic-historic-linguistic map localizing all the ethnic groups in Brazil, the only record that we had from 1945. The ethnological and archeological references of all ethnic groups in Brazil since the 16th century… An irreparable loss of our historic memory. It just hurts so much to see all in ashes.”

(Yes, of course that’s not the most tragic loss; I think we can take that as given.) Thanks, Trevor!

Teaching Classical Chinese Without Prerequisites.

Victor Mair had a Log post with a suggestion that I found surprising and immediately convincing:

I am strongly opposed to requiring Mandarin as a precondition for the study of LS/CC. I know of many schools that require two, three, or even four years of Mandarin for students who wish to enroll in an introductory LS/CC course. I think that is absolutely ridiculous. I don’t even think that we should require one year of Mandarin for students to take LS/CC. […] I have studied Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, Hindi, Italian, French, etc., and I’m certain that Mandarin is further removed from LS/CC than Italian is from Latin, than Modern Greek is from Classical Greek, or Hindi is from Sanskrit, yet we do not demand that students of Latin first become proficient in Italian, that students of Classical Greek first become proficient in Modern Greek, or that students of Sanskrit first become proficient in Hindi or Bengali, etc. […]

As for the language of instruction, Mandarin would not be a good choice, not only for the reasons outlined above, but also because students who learn LS/CC tend to mix up the two languages and become very sloppy in the precise parsing and explication of the literary / classical language. Furthermore, it means that students whose primary, or only, East Asian language is Japanese, Korean, etc. cannot participate. I welcome students in my Introduction to LS/CC course to recite the texts in Korean, Japanese, Cantonese, and so forth. I have even had students with a background in Sanskrit, Greek, and Sogdian (yes!) and do very well without vocalizing the hanzi / kanji / hanja at all.

At first it seems obvious that one should know the modern form first, but Classical Chinese is so different (I once lived with someone who studied it intensively, so I got some idea) that, as Mair says, acquaintance with it would tend to just muddle your understanding of the ancient language. I encourage others to follow his lead!

Vladimir’s Foreign Ties.

My new History of Russian Literature (see this post) sent me to the Instruction of Vladimir Monomakh (Поучение Владимира Мономаха: “Among the most anthologized works of the medieval period, prized now as a rare example of the personal voice”), where I found this LH-relevant statement:

Егоже умѣючи, того не забывайте доброго, а егоже не умѣючи, а тому ся учите, якоже бо отець мой, дома сѣдя, изумѣяше 5 языкъ, в томъ бо честь есть от инѣхъ земль.

Forget not what useful knowledge you possess, and acquire that with which you are not acquainted, even as my father, though he remained at home in his own country, still understood five languages. For by this means honor is acquired in other lands.

I take the translation from Serge A. Zenkovsky’s Medieval Russia’s Epics, Chronicles, and Tales (see this post for Zenkovsky on Afanasy Nikitin’s languages), where the introduction to the excerpt from the Instruction says:

The son of Prince Vsevolod and of a Byzantine princess of the house of Monomakh, Vladimir married Gita, the daughter of the last Anglo-Saxon king, Harold, who was defeated at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. After this defeat the surviving members of the Anglo-Saxon family lived as émigrés in Vladimir’s court at Kiev. Vladimir Monomakh, continuing the tradition of Yaroslav the Wise, maintained lively relations with Western Europe; his sister, Eupraxy, became the wife of the German Emperor, Henry IV; and his children married into various royal houses, including those of Hungary, Sweden, and Byzantium.

And the History of Russian Literature says (p. 104) that “Monomakh may have been influenced by an Anglo-Saxon example (possibly King Alfred’s spiritual testament known to Monomakh through his Anglo-Saxon wife, Gytha of Wessex).” The European world of the eleventh and twelfth centuries was a lot more interconnected than we tend to remember.

How Does Language Change Impact You?

Rose Jacobs at Lingua Franca has an interesting idea:

And yet I accept that language changes. I like it, even. So why am I resistant to such a widely accepted if relatively novel usage? I’m reminded of a New Yorker piece by Robert Sapolsky in which the author, a neurobiologist, investigates the age at which a person’s appetite for novelty is likely to dwindle — and when our taste for the new vanishes completely. He finds that if you haven’t heard a certain style of music by the time you’re 35, you probably won’t become a fan. You’ve got a longer time window with culinary tastes, and a shorter one when it comes to body art (Sapolsky probed piercings). What about linguistic taste? He didn’t look into it, but we can.

I’ve chosen seven examples of novel language that have emerged in the past 75 years or so, tried to roughly pinpoint when each came into relatively common usage, and put them into a shared Google spreadsheet. My dates might be off, and I welcome your comments and corrections — but note that I’m not looking for Oxford English Dictionary-backed evidence of when a neologism began. Yes, impact was around as a verb in the early 1600s, and yes, there are scattered examples of its use ever since, but according to the Google N-Gram viewer at least, its boom time began in the 1970s.

Anyway, the point of the shared spreadsheet is data collection. If you’re up for taking part, fill in one row with your birthdate and a “Yes” or “No” in each subsequent column, according to whether the language at the top of that column bothers you. Once we have critical mass, we can start looking for patterns.

The examples involve reveal as a noun, Xerox and impact as verbs, the noun skillset, morph as a verb outside the context of computer animation, medal as a verb, and lowkey/low-key as an adverb; I’m mildly annoyed by the last, but not really, and I’m not taking part in the survey because my responses (as someone who has spent many years purging himself of peevery) would be so skewed. But I urge you to take part if it appeals to you, and I look forward to the results. (Sapolsky’s findings seem spot-on to me; the late 1980s, right after I turned 35, are precisely when I lost interest in new music.)

Why Before and Not After?

BBC News reports on a shocking suggestion:

The suggestion by a pair of Belgian teachers to drop a rule of grammar drilled into every French speaker at an early age has led to some amusement and consternation in France. The teachers say rules for past participles that follow the verb avoir (to have) should be simplified. The change would save some 80 hours of teaching time, they argue. It has been endorsed by the linguistic authorities of Belgium’s French-speaking Wallonia region and Brussels.

Currently, the rule is that the past participle of a verb does not agree with the direct object of a sentence if it comes after it, but it does when the object comes before the participle. So for instance, in the sentence j’ai mangé des frites (I ate chips), mangé remains the same. But in the sentence les frites que j’ai mangées (the chips that I have eaten), the participle agrees with the word chips, which is feminine and plural.

The two teachers, Arnaud Hoedt et Jérôme Piron, argue the rule is overly complicated and inconsistent, and that the participle should remain unchanged regardless of the position of the object in the sentence if used with the verb to have. “Schoolchildren ask, why before and not after?” they said in an opinion piece in Liberation (in French). The rule was imported from Italy by pedants in the 16th Century and is being dropped in everyday use, the pair argue. The suggestion led to anger and derision on social media, with some arguing the change would amount to ignoring the subtleties of the language. One teacher and grammar expert said the change was akin to “wanting to raze all the little streets in an old city”.

Quelle horreur! Actually, I think we’ve seen this before at LH, and I feel obliged to point out that les frites que j’ai mangées is not a sentence, but what the hell — this kind of thing is always fun. Thanks, Trevor!

Chandler’s Slang.

Fredric Jameson, in his little Verso book Raymond Chandler: The Detections of Totality, has an interesting passage on the English-born Chandler’s use of language (he was educated in England):

But seen another way the very superficiality of these meetings with the characters is artistically motivated: for the characters themselves are pretexts for their speech, and the specialized nature of this speech is that it is somehow external, indicative of types, formulaic remarks bounced across to strangers […]

In the art of the twenties and thirties, however, such dialogue had the value of social schematism. A set of fixed social types and categories underlay it, and the dialogue was itself a way of demonstrating the coherence and peculiar organization the society possessed, of apprehending it in miniature. Anyone who has watched New York movies of the thirties is aware of how linguistic characterization feeds into a picture of the city as a whole: the stock ethnic and professional types, the cabbie, the reporter, the flatfoot, the high society playboy, the flapper, and so forth. Needless to say, the decay of this kind of movie results from the disintegra­tion of such a picture of the city, such an organization of reality. But already the Los Angeles of Chandler was an unstructured city, and the social types are here nowhere near as pronounced. By the chance of a historical accident, Chandler was able to benefit from the survival of a purely linguistic, typological way of creating his characters after the system of types that had supported it was already disappearing. A last hold, before the dissolving contours of the society made these linguistic markers disappear also, leaving the novelist faced with the problem of the absence of any standard by which dialogue can be judged realistic or lifelike.

In Chandler the presentation of social reality is thus immedi­ately and directly problematized by language itself. There can be no doubt that he invented a distinctive style, with its own humor and imagery, its own special movement. But the most striking feature of that language [is] its use of slang, and here Chandler’s own remarks are instructive:

I had to learn American just like a foreign language. To use it I had to study it and analyze it. As a result, when I use slang, colloquialisms, snide talk or any kind of off-beat language I do it deliberately. The literary use of slang is a study in itself. I’ve found that there are only two kinds that are any good: slang that has established itself in the language, and slang that you make up yourself. Everything else is apt to be passe before it gets into print….

Sorry about the “problematized,” but theorists gotta do theory. Anyway, the final Chandler quote is great.

Belarusian Is Like a Clump of Soil.

Helen Brown writes about endangered languages; there are the usual laments, but I thought this section was interesting:

As part of the Endangered Poetry Project and to raise awareness of the European languages that are falling between the cracks, [librarian Chris] McCabe has commissioned the artist Mary Kuper to illustrate a series of poems in languages that include Irish Gaelic, Alsatian, Sardinian, Shetlandic, Belarusian and Duval’s beloved Breton for an exhibition called Language Shift.

The daughter of two anthropologists, born in South Africa, educated in Los Angeles and based in London, Kuper has worked for publishers such as The Folio Society and has always been fascinated by words and culture.

“My mother – a white, Jewish Zimbabwean – spoke Swazi,” she says. “As a child I listened to her switch between languages and realised how important language is to identity. I understood what a loss there would be if we lived in an entirely Anglophone world.”

After studying linguistics at university, Kuper worked for a typesetter in LA in the Seventies. “My Jewish boss had learned his trade at 13, when the Nazis had begun excluding Jews from school,” she says. “He fled Poland with his typesetting equipment before the war… he had the Hebrew alphabet in his bag.”

Her haunting illustrations are displayed alongside the poems in the original and in translation. “But I became obsessed with the texture and the integrity of the originals,” points out Kuper. “Each language has its own visual identity. There’s Duval’s spiky Breton, which mirrors her isolation and anger. And then I became fixated on the colours. Each language has different ideas of colour and how it relates to emotion. In Gaelic there’s one word for blue/grey/green so that what we think of as the Emerald Isle is really the blue/grey/green isle, which makes more sense, doesn’t it?” […]

Some of the poets are living and others are dead. Kuper used a vintage German Adler typewriter – “a real Cold War artefact” – to punch the poems over her images “because I felt they deserved something crunchy, definite and organic…”

Valzhyna Mort, an American-based poet whose Belarusian poem has been illustrated for the exhibition, says her language is “like feeling a clump of soil in your hand: there are rocks of different sizes there, a few worms and bugs, soft earth, hard clay. The English of Seamus Heaney has that kind of texture to it.” But she refuses to summarise its complexities for me.

I realize this kind of thing is not actually going to preserve the languages, but not everything in life is about maximum utility. Thanks, Trevor!

A History of Russian Literature.

I don’t usually buy new hardcovers, especially new hardcovers that cost almost a hundred bucks, but a generous aunt had given me a birthday check I hadn’t figured out how to spend yet, and I was so excited by the brand new A History of Russian Literature, by Andrew Kahn, Mark Lipovetsky, Irina Reyfman, and Stephanie Sandler (that “Send a free sample” on the Amazon Kindle page did its seductive work!), that I decided to blow the check on it. The book came today, and I’m excited enough to post about it even though I’ve barely begun reading it. One of the first things I did was look at the bibliography, and I was pleased to see that at least half the items are in Russian — no catering to monoglots here! I then looked up my man Veltman, and was thrilled to see him given his due at last:

Aleksandr Vel′tman (1800–70), one of the most popular writers of his time (although forgotten soon after his death), published historical novels of striking originality, such as Koshchei the Immortal (Koshchei bessmertnyi, 1833) and Sviatoslavich, the Enemy’s Fosterling (Sviatoslavich vrazhii pitomets, 1835). Rather than trying to reconstruct the historical past, Vel′tman’s historical novels freely combine the worlds of the chronicle, folk epic, fairy tale, and Bova and Eruslan Lazarevich, chivalric romances that had come to medieval Russia from the West and eventually converged with original Russian magical tales. The effect of his technique was not to produce any sense of historical authenticity, but rather that of a runaway—and clearly ironic—fantasy. It seems that Vel′tman in fact mocked and parodied the very genre of historical fiction in existence in contemporaneous Russia.

Take that, Mirsky! Then I went to the section on Old Church Slavonic, muttering to myself “They’d better cite Simon Franklin,” and of course they did:
[Read more…]

Rabbi Voice.

Rich Cohen discusses a mystery in today’s NY Times, “Where Does Rabbi Voice Come From?“:

The characteristic Rabbi Voice is a comforting singsong that’s wound like a river through my life. It’s the tone you hear during sermons and in consultations; if you’re an observant Jew, there’s a good chance you’ll hear it in the next several days, at High Holy Day services. It was parodied on “Seinfeld” and is all over Woody Allen, full of rhetorical questions, sentences that meander and end on a rise. It’s my esteemed childhood rabbi beginning a high holiday sermon with a description of his own breakfast: “While eating a cherry Danish this morning, I was reminded of King David. …”

Where does that voice come from? Last spring, while sitting through my son’s bar mitzvah, I suddenly wanted to know. […] So I made phone calls, spoke to rabbis, scholars, linguists. One of them asked me to imitate the voice. When I did — “While eating a cherry Danish this morning. … ” — she laughed and said: “Yeah, I know what you’re talking about. And yeah, it’s absolutely a real thing.” (The voice is without gender, by the way; you hear it from women and men.)

Each expert offered a slightly different explanation, but there was overlap, agreement. A pattern emerged. As far as I can tell, there are three basic explanations. The voice is the intricate product of a multipronged historical process.

The three explanations are Torah and Talmud (“the voice is a side effect of a life of intense religious study”), Yiddish (“The cadence comes from the dialect of the shtetl and the Pale of Settlement”), and Influence (“The voice originated from the Talmud and Yiddish, but spread via imitation […] Why do even Reform rabbis talk like that? Because it makes them seem Jewish and because it’s what their congregants want”). It’s a good discussion, but what drove me to post is one of the greatest sentences I have ever read: “I thought Izzy dropped a dish, but, when I came out, I saw that what Izzy had dropped was dead.”

Documenting Ende.

Alex Kekauoha reports for Stanford News on the kind of thing linguists should, in my opinion, be doing instead of sitting around their offices theorizing:

Three years ago, linguistics PhD student Kate Lindsey was looking for new research projects when an advisor told her about a small tribe in Papua New Guinea that was seeking help preserving their language, called Ende. The tribe invited Lindsey to stay with them and create a dictionary and grammar, as well as translate various texts from English. Deciding that this field research could be developed for her dissertation, Lindsey set out a year ago for the tiny village, called Limol, 7,000 miles away. […]

Ende (pronounced EN-day) is a Papuan language spoken by about 800 people living in Limol and a neighboring village. Although endangerment is often a concern for speakers of such indigenous languages, Lindsey said Ende is thriving among the small tribe, including its children. Still, English remains the primary language taught in Limol’s two schools, so the villagers enlisted Lindsey to create children’s schoolbooks in Ende. She was also tasked with creating a dictionary and grammar so that the Bible could eventually be translated to Ende.

As a phonologist, Lindsey studies the sound structures of language, and her primary interest is how sound patterns are used to share information. Her process for translating Ende was meticulous.

“One of the first things we did when I arrived was to write down words and count all the different sounds that occurred,” Lindsey said. “Once we had an inventory of the different sounds, we made an orthography and picked one letter for each sound.” […]

Lindsey’s dissertation comprises three chapters, each focused on a different sound pattern in Ende not found in other languages. Each chapter describes the pattern, and then outlines how linguistic theory must change in order to accommodate this new data.

In addition to translating Ende, Lindsey taught an eight-week technology class for villagers so they could learn to use cameras and computers and to type. The villagers were particularly enthusiastic about movies and had the idea of making one of their own. Lindsey chose to let the community direct, narrate and film the resulting movie themselves without her outside bias.

At the link you can watch a video clip (5:47) of Wagiba Geser, speaking in Ende, talking about language and life in her village of Limol. (Wikipedia and Ethnologue seem to consider Ende a dialect of Agob.) Thanks, Trevor!