Lake Chad.

I’m finally bracing myself to read Ben Taub’s New Yorker essay “Lake Chad: The World’s Most Complex Humanitarian Disaster” (that’s the online title — in the physical magazine it’s called “The Emergency”), but I was stopped cold and forced to post by the opening:

Chad was named for a mistake. In the eighteen-hundreds, European explorers arrived at the marshy banks of a vast body of freshwater in Central Africa. Because locals referred to the area as chad, the Europeans called the wetland Lake Chad, and drew it on maps. But chad simply meant “lake” in a local dialect.

Nothing surprising in that, of course, but I don’t trust etymologies from journalists, so I tried to find out more. Wikipedia says the same thing (“a local word meaning ‘large expanse of water’, in other words, a ‘lake'”), but its source is Adrian Room, whose books are lots of fun but not entirely reliable. I tried Google Books and found this in the CIA World Factbook 2017 (page 169):

etymology: named for Lake Chad, which lies along the country’s western border; the word “tsade” means “large body of water” or “lake” in several local native languages

So everyone’s agreed on the basic story, but I’d like to know where it came from — what languages are involved, who documented the word, and is the information reliable? All theories, references, and anecdotes are, as always, welcome.

Expresso, the Computational Sequel.

We discussed the espresso/expresso thing briefly in 2014 (though most of the thread is on weird pronunciations); now Vitaliy Kaurov (of Wolfram Science and Innovation Initiatives) has a much deeper dive that quickly gets too technical for me, Finding X in Espresso: Adventures in Computational Lexicology. But I’m sure some of my readers will happily go into the details; me, I just enjoy the pretty graphs, and I will share the largely comprehensible conclusion:

The following factors affirm why expresso should be allowed as a valid alternative spelling.

Espresso/expresso falls close to the median usage frequencies of 2,693 official alternative spellings with Levenshtein EditDistance equal to 1
• The frequency of espresso/expresso usage as whole pair is above the median, so it is more likely to be found in published corpora than half of the examined dataset
• Many nearest neighbors of espresso/expresso in the frequency space belong to a basic vocabulary of the most frequent everyday usage
• The history of espresso/expresso usage in English corpora shows simultaneous growth for both spellings, and by temporal pattern is reminiscent of many other official alternative spellings
• The uniqueness of the sx mutation in the espresso/expresso pair is typical, as numerous other rare and unique mutations are officially endorsed by dictionaries

So all in all, it is ultimately up to you how to interpret this analysis or spell the name of the delightful Italian drink. But if you are a wisenheimer type, you might consider being a tinge more open-minded. The origin of words, as with the origin of species, has its dark corners, and due to inevitable and unpredictable language evolution, one day your remote descendants might frown on the choice of s in espresso.

Thanks, Kobi!

The New Lesvos English.

Matt Broomfield of the New Statesman reports on the lingua franca developing at Moria prison camp on Lesvos:

But in the crucible of the overcrowded detention centre at Moria, English is undergoing an accelerated evolution, tentatively beginning to develop its own unique grammar and idiom. My six months working on the island were a crash course in “Lesvos English” – and in the remarkable ways people adapt and communicate as they attempt to survive a worsening humanitarian crisis.

One striking change is the systematic simplification of vocabulary. To commonly stands in for other prepositions such as at, in or on: not only I go to beach now, but also I stay to beach tonight. The phrase too much is similarly overburdened, doing the work of a lot, very, many, and entirely: the camp at Moria is too much full with too much people. Other examples heard many times every day include after in place of then or next, and finish in place of stop, go home and so on.

The simplified terms of Lesvos English are not random, but show how languages are learned. For example, one of the first verbs all students of a foreign language learn is “to speak” – I speak English, I don’t speak Farsi. Thus speak often does the work of say, tell and ask, as in I speak him why?, he speak me because I am hungry. The sense is clear – why complicate matters any further?

In general, English as spoken on Lesvos displays an “isolating morphology”, meaning nouns and words tend to be used in their simplest possible form: I am sleep to Moria, and not I am sleeping. This is a trait typical of many pidgin languages. […]

Some loan words, such as the universally-used German ausweis for ID papers, were brought to the island by Western activists. Other often-heard phrases are evidently transliterations from Arabic and Farsi, while one common tic is doubling-up pronouns and proper nouns in a sentence to avoid confusion, for example stating Aiwan he go Athens or asking you stay beach you? Reduplication, either for intensification or to create a plural, is a feature of many well-established pidgins.

For a newspaper journalist, it’s an astonishingly good piece of linguistic description; my hat is off to Matt Broomfield. (Thanks, Lameen and JC!)

White Elephant.

Ross Bullen’s essay “Race and the White Elephant War of 1884” is, as you can tell by the title, not primarily about language, but this passage is linguistically interesting enough to excerpt:

Further complicating the relationship between human whiteness and white elephants is the fact that the English term “white elephant” is an inadequate and misleading translation of the Thai phrase for these animals. The Thai word for elephant is chang, and a white elephant is a chang pheuak. According to Rita Ringis, “chang pheuak . . . literally means ‘albino (or strange-coloured) elephant’, the usual word for the colour ‘white’ being different entirely.” Like virtually every other American or European who wrote about Siam and white elephants in the nineteenth century, Vincent was open about the fact that “white elephant” was a poor translation of chang pheuak. And yet he still describes these animals as “so-called ‘white’ elephant[s]”, glossing over what he admits is a semantic problem in order to cast creatures like Toung Taloung as racial imposters who — like a light-skinned African American — might try to pass as white in order to access the closely guarded privileges of white identity.

If the white elephant is viewed as an imposter because of its improper claim on whiteness, this conception of the animal as a kind of fraud is also supported by the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of “white elephant” as both “a rare albino variety of elephant which is highly venerated in some Asian countries”, and “A burdensome or costly possession (from the story that the kings of Siam (now Thailand) were accustomed to make a present of one of these animals to courtiers who had rendered themselves obnoxious, in order to ruin the recipient by the cost of its maintenance). Also, an object, scheme, etc., considered to be without use or value.”

Although this story of the Siamese king and his ruined courtier does provide a compelling explanation for why “white elephant” can mean “an object, scheme, etc., considered to be without use or value”, it is nevertheless a complete fabrication. Indeed, if read together, the OED’s two definitions for “white elephant” present a paradox: If white elephants are “rare” and “highly venerated”, why would the king of Siam give one away to punish a subordinate? Unsurprisingly, there is no recorded instance of this practice in Thai history. Nevertheless, this figurative definition of “white elephant” as a kind of fatal gift has had a lasting influence on the English language. It can be detected today in phenomena like “white elephant sales” or “white elephant gift exchanges”, but in the 1880s, “white elephant” was a common expression for any kind of useless or burdensome object.

There are some splendid illustrations (as well, of course, as a great deal of historico-cultural analysis).

A Year in Reading 2017.

Once again it’s time for the Year in Reading feature at The Millions, in which people write about books they’ve read and enjoyed during the previous year; my contribution is up, featuring my review of Yuri Slezkine’s The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution (see this post), as well as my other favorites of the year. And seriously, if you haven’t read Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, give it a try.

Greetings to the Universe.

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory of Caltech presents Greetings to the Universe in 55 Different Languages:

A golden phonograph record was attached to each of the Voyager spacecraft that were launched almost 25 years ago. One of the purposes was to send a message to extraterrestrials who might find the spacecraft as the spacecraft journeyed through interstellar space. In addition to pictures and music and sounds from earth, greetings in 55 languages were included.

NASA asked Dr Carl Sagan of Cornell University to assemble a greeting and gave him the freedom to choose the format and what would be included. Because of the launch schedule, Sagan (and those he got to help him) was not given a lot of time. Linda Salzman Sagan was given the task of assembling the greetings.

The story behind the creation of the “interstellar message” is chronicled in the book, “Murmurs of Earth”, by Carl Sagan, et al. Unfortunately, not much information is given about the individual speakers. Many of the speakers were from Cornell University and the surrounding communities. They were given no instructions on what to say other than that it was to be a greeting to possible extraterrestrials and that it must be brief.

There are excerpts from the book, and, most importantly, a selection of audio clips of the greetings, from Akkadian (“May all be very well”) to Wu (“Best wishes to you all”). I hope the study of Earth languages will distract our new insect overlords from their plans to enslave us.

Egypt in Italy.

I’m reading Peter Thonemann’s TLS review of what sounds like a delightful (if ridiculously expensive) book, Molly Swetnam-Burland’s Egypt in Italy: Visions of Egypt in Roman Imperial Culture, and I had to pass on this section for obvious reasons:

A nice example of creative Roman adaptation of Egyptian material culture comes from the south Italian city of Beneventum. Here, in the late 80s AD, a local civic benefactor called Rutilius Lupus commissioned two brand new obelisks of Egyptian granite, probably to adorn the city’s own lavish temple to Isis. In most respects, the dedicatory inscriptions on these obelisks are conventional enough: they record Lupus’s status as a legatus Augusti (“envoy of the Emperor”), and include a prayer to Isis for the health and happiness of the reigning Emperor Domitian. More startling is the fact that these inscriptions are written not in Latin, but in perfect Egyptian hieroglyphic script, complete with ingenious Egyptian paraphrases of technical Latin terms (legatus Augusti becomes “he who runs back and forth for the emperor”). Lupus had clearly gone to some trouble to produce a monument of the highest possible authenticity.

How many people in Rome (let alone Beneventum) could actually read hieroglyphs is another matter. The Romans were fascinated by the hieroglyphic script, and at least some Roman antiquarians made serious efforts to master it. The late Roman historian Ammianus quotes a complete Greek translation of the hieroglyphic inscription on the Circus Maximus obelisk, attributing it to an otherwise unknown figure called “Hermapion”. In a brilliant recent article, Amin Benaissa has shown that this mysterious Hermapion must in fact be the well-known scholar Apion of Alexandria, who lived in Rome during the early Julio-Claudian period and who wrote a monumental encyclopedia, the Aegyptiaca, on the history, geography, religion and customs of Egypt.

Apion’s translation of the Circus Maximus obelisk-inscription is an odd mixture of creative intelligence and outrageous muddle. The Egyptian titulature of Ramesses II, “Horus, powerful bull, son of Seth, golden Horus, chosen by Re”, is rendered by Apion as “powerful Apollo, son of Helios, bright-shining, chosen by Helios”. The Greco-Roman gods Apollo and Helios (“Sun”) are perfectly plausible equivalents for the Egyptian deities Horus and Re (the Egyptian sun god). Apion seems to have been baffled by the hieroglyphic sign for “Seth”, and so simply adds another reference to Helios. As Swetnam-Burland nicely puts it, “The act of translation here is twofold, both linguistic and cultural, translating the words of the Egyptian language while transforming their meaning into terms readers standing outside Egyptian culture could understand”.

It had never occurred to me that some Romans knew Egyptian, but of course they did. The whole review is worth reading; it starts with a point that had never occurred to me, that the Romans would have found it “very peculiar” that the British brought home so little from the Raj:

Two centuries of British rule in India ended up leaving virtually no mark on the architecture and material culture of the imperial mother country. Victorian London built no mosques or Hindu temples to cater for ardent English Indophiles; no looted statues of Shiva or Buddha were set up on The Mall to commemorate the capture of Lucknow or the Younghusband expedition.

An exception is the startling “Islamo-Palladian” Sezincote House in Gloucestershire.

Speech Recognition for Newly Documented Languages.

Alexis Michaud writes for HimalCo (Himalayan Corpora, which “proposes to build parallel corpora for three sub-groups of the Sino-Tibetan family, covering a total of 8 little-described oral languages”):

Automatic speech recognition tools have strong potential for facilitating language documentation. This blog note reports on highly encouraging tests using automatic transcription in the documentation of Yongning Na, a Sino-Tibetan language of Southwest China. After twenty months of fieldwork (spread over twelve years, from 2006 to 2017), 14 hours of speech had been recorded, of which 5.5 hours were transcribed (200 minutes of narratives and 130 minutes of morphotonology elicitation sessions). Oliver Adams, the author of mam, an open-source software tool for developing multilingual acoustic models, volunteered to experiment with these data. He trained a single-speaker automatic speech transcription tool over the transcribed materials and applied it to untranscribed audio files. The error rate is low: on the order of 11% of errors in phoneme identification. This makes the automatic transcriptions useful as a canvas for the linguist, who corrects mistakes and produces the translation in collaboration with language consultants.

There’s a detailed description of the results, as well as a link to the submitted version of the paper. Boy, a useful automatic transcription tool would be a godsend — think how much effort goes into doing it manually. (Thanks, Trevor!)

Language and the “Arts of Resistance”.

I have long revered James C. Scott for his fierce focus on (to quote Wikipedia) strategies of resistance to various forms of domination, but I have also suspected that (like many scholars with an ideological focus) he was oversimplifying and ignoring facts that didn’t fit his theory, so I was glad to read Susan Gal‘s sympathetic but critical “Language and the ‘Arts of Resistance’” (Cultural Anthropology 10.3 [Aug. 1995]: 407-424), a review of Scott’s book Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts (I’m afraid it’s behind a paywall unless you, like me, have access to JSTOR). Much of it is not of LH relevance, but Gal says that in a central chapter Scott’s “goal is to detail the linguistic mechanisms of resistance,” and I’ll excerpt some of the sections dealing with language:

More important, Scott’s equation of power with lack of expressive constraint flies in the face of cross-cultural evidence. Extensive ethnographic case studies have demonstrated that in some societies it is the holders of greatest power who must restrain themselves physically, linguistically, and often in the expression of emotion exactly because it is superior restraint that culturally and ideologically defines and justifies their power, enabling them to properly exercise it. In this sense, the link between linguistic forms and their functions is constructed and mediated by local ideologies of self, language, and power. The indirectness and allusive quality of Malagasy men’s speech (Ochs 1974 [Norm-Makers and Norm-Breakers: Uses of Speech by Men and Women in a Malagasy Community. In Explorations in the Ethnography of Speaking. Richard Bauman and Joel Sherzer, eds. Pp. 125-143. New York: Cambridge University Press]), the linguistic inarticulateness, even ungrammaticality, of Wolof nobles (Irvine 1990 [Registering Affect: Heteroglossia in the Linguistic Expression of Emotion. In Language and the Politics of Emotion. Catherine A. Lutz and Lila Abu-Lughod, eds. Pp. 126-161. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press]), the strenuous restraint in performance required of monarchs in the Balinese theater state (Geertz 1980 [Negara: The Theatre State in Nineteenth-Century Bali. Princeton: Princeton University Press]), and the muting of interactional gestures among educated, high-status Javanese (Errington 1988 [Structure and Style in Javanese: A Semiotic View of Linguistic Etiquette. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press]) are only the best known of such examples. In short, there is no simple, universal relation between social power and the form in which emotion is expressed, exactly because the construction and expression of affective states is mediated by linguistic ideology.

What is odd about this part of Scott’s argument is that he himself provides counterevidence to his major claims in the course of making other points. Indeed, it is a general and irritating characteristic of the book that Scott often denies in one place a point he has demonstrably asserted in another.

[Read more…]

Real-Time Translation via Headphone?

Hayley Tsukayama reviews “Google’s translating headphones” for the Washington Post:

Google has set out to make its mark on the headphone world with Pixel Buds — wireless headphones that can control your phone and that claim to translate conversations in real time. But how do they stack up? Google sent us a pair to review to find out. […]

To be honest, it’s not exactly real-time. You call up the feature by tapping on your right earbud and asking Google Assistant to “help me speak” one of 40 languages. The phone will then open the Google Translate app. From there, the phone will translate what it hears into the language of your choice, and you’ll hear it in your ear. So, if you’re speaking to someone and they say “Où est la bibliothèque?” you will then hear “Where is the library?” in your ear. Then, when it’s your turn to speak, tap and hold the right earbud to have what you say translated and broadcast out of your phone.

The translation feature is promising but not perfect. Translation doesn’t happen at conversational speed — this is not Star Trek’s universal translator or Douglas Adams’s Babel fish. Still, it is much better than a phrase book. While human translators need not fear that they may be without a job, it could be good for travelers or others who want to have a simple, if somewhat halting, chat in another language.

It’s an interesting idea and I’m glad to have read about it (thanks, Eric!), but I might not have posted it except that it gives me a hook on which to hang this anecdote from Anatoly Vorobey (quoting Liza Rozovsky): “When I asked him why he had left, he talked for a long time in German, and finally the telephone answered me [i.e., translated his answer] in a female voice: ‘Because I was stupid.'”