Peevers in Paradise.

Matt of No-sword has a (cleverly titled) post about some linguistic descriptions he noticed in Margaret Mead’s Coming of age in Samoa; first he points out that when she says the “immaturity” in use of language of a group of girls between ten and twenty years old “was chiefly evidenced by a lack of familiarity with the courtesy language, and by much confusion in the use of the dual and of the inclusive and exclusive pronouns,” what she observed may have been “just conflict between actual spoken Samoan versus some idealized form of the language that she had been taught was correct” — a very acute point. Then he quotes this footnote:

The children of this age already show a very curious example of a phonetic self-consciousness in which they are almost as acute and discriminating as their elders. When the missionaries reduced the language to writing, there was no k in the language, the k positions in other Polynesian dialects being filled in Samoan either with a t or a glottal stop. Soon after the printing of the Bible, and the standardisation of Samoan spelling, greater contact with Tonga introduced the k into the spoken language of Savai’i and Upolu, displacing the t but not replacing the glottal stop. Slowly this intrusive usage spread eastward over Samoa, the missionaries who controlled the schools and the printing press fighting a dogged and losing battle with the less musical k. To-day the t is the sound used in the speech of the educated and in the church, still conventionally retained in all spelling and used in speeches and on occasions demanding formality. The Manu’a children who had never been to the missionary boarding schools, used the k entirely. But they had heard the t in church and at school and were sufficiently conscious of the difference to rebuke me immediately if I slipped into the colloquial k which was their only speech habit, uttering the t sound for perhaps the first time in their lives to illustrate the correct pronunciation from which I, who was ostensibly learning to speak correctly, must not deviate. Such an ability to disassociate the sound used from the sound heard is remarkable in such very young children and indeed remarkable in any person who is not linguistically sophisticated.

Matt says, “I love this. Even in Mead’s tropical idyll, there are peevers.” I would also point out the absurdity of Mead’s “less musical k,” which she seems to take as a self-evident description.

Comments

  1. I also doubt if t > k has anything to do with Tongan; it has happened at least 20 separate times in Austronesian languages. The link there is bad; I’ll try to get another copy of the paper, or someone with direct access to JSTOR or Project Muse might send me one (hint, hint).

  2. There’s a very interesting dissertation about this, by John F. Mayer (Code-Switching in Samoan. t-style and k-style, U. of Hawaii, 2001). What Mayer calls t-style and k-style are two speech styles, distinguished not only by t/k but also by other phonological and grammatical differences.

    Mayer notes that the t-style is typically used for “conversations with and by non-Samoans”, whereas the k-style is used for conversations between Samoans. This appears to be what Mead had experienced seventy years earlier, in her encounters with the children of Manu’a.

    Mead’s historical account is reasonably accurate, except for the bit about the source of the k, which likely has nothing to do with Tongan. The missionaries were even more strident about the [k] (quoted from Mayer, pp. 86–87):

    “It is surprising what a difference the change of these two letters make in the beauty of the language—from being the most musical and pretty it becomes as rough and dissonant as any dialect of the South Seas” (Rev. Aaron Buzzcott, 1837).

    “In Hawaii they have changed the t into k and ng into n. Thus tangata has become kanaka. Samoans are doing the same thing at the present time, to the great injury of the language” (Rev. George Pratt, 1884).

    “I sincerely hope that the fact the ‘k’ is not recognized in any of the literature of the group, nor used by the official spekers and chiefs, will preserve the beautiful Samoan language from the threatened deterioration” (Rev. George Brown, 1916).

    “…of late years an odious practice of using the letter t as k has sprung up, but this is not used by high-class men” (William Churchward, 1887).

  3. George Grady says:

    John Cowan,

    Here’s a link from Project Muse:
    https://muse.jhu.edu/journals/oceanic_linguistics/v043/43.2blust01.pdf

  4. Thanks, I have that link but can’t download the paper from it, as NYPL has screwed up my online account somehow. Heading off to the library to try to fix it….

  5. By the way, Pratt is wrong about colloquial Samoan changing /ŋ/ > /n/; it is the other way around, making both changes part of a general backing trend. He’s right about Hawai’ian, though.

  6. I sent you the paper.

  7. I acknowledge with thanks the contribution of Y, as well as someone else whose nom de chapeau I do not know, if indeed he has one, to the same effect. I now also know who Y is (haha!) and am reading one of his papers. I wonder whether he is the artist of the same name?

  8. The artist is someone else.

  9. It’s hard to find examples of the k-style on YouTube, but Here‘s wrestler Cocoa Samoa, speaking k-Sāmoan. You can hear the [k] as well as the [ŋ].
    The t-style is all over YouTube., under ‘Gagana Samoa’ or ‘Fa’a Samoa’.

  10. David Marjanović says:

    Such an ability to disassociate the sound used from the sound heard is remarkable in such very young children and indeed remarkable in any person who is not linguistically sophisticated.

    Really?

  11. So Rev. George Brown (2nd-to-last quotation in 2nd comment) thinks the loss of a T sound is a de-TE-rioration of language? Nice pun, though probably inadvertent.

  12. I hadn’t seen it, but I certainly agree with the subhed: “It seems fair enough that some licence is granted when rendering poems in a different language, but dropping entire cantos is surely taking things too far.”

  13. Y sent along a squib by Donohue and some corrections by Grant, which I have now read. The effect of the squib is that t > k is actually somewhat natural in languages that have lost /k/, because /k/ is a highly favored consonant.

    Donohue surveyed a bunch of languages, not just Austronesian ones, with only plain voiceless stops. Essentially all of them have /k/, whatever other stops they have: a k-less language is apparently typologically unnatural, and when k is lost, a shift will occur to restore it. T-Samoan (and t-Hawai’ian, which Donohue doesn’t talk about) are exceptions, doubtless because they were frozen in a state between losing /k/ (to /ʔ/) and gaining it back, as k-Samoan and standard Hawai’ian have.

    When it comes to marked stops, however (voiced or prenasalized or implosive — Donohue does not discuss aspirated voiceless stops), the story is reversed, with the labial stop most likely to be present and the velar stop least likely.

    (Klingon, unsurprisingly, is very unnatural: it has no plain voiceless stops except /ʔ/, and its aspirated stops are /p/, /t/, and /q/ – the “kl” in Klingon is properly /tl/. It is sufficiently natural to have /b/ and retroflex /d/ but not /g/, however.)

    I’ll post links to this trio of papers shortly.

  14. marie-lucie says:

    Such an ability to disassociate the sound used from the sound heard is remarkable in such very young children and indeed remarkable in any person who is not linguistically sophisticated.

    The children in question are said to have heard t in school and at church, so they were not so very young. Even much younger children still unable to produce all the sounds of their language can tell if an older speaker (perhaps imitating a child) appears to be confusing two sounds, for instance saying s for sh. The Samoan children could produce t in imitation of adults (it is unlikely that demonstrating it to Mead meant they were pronouncing it for the first time), but they associated the sound with formal, adult speech which they themselves would never have used, while Mead using k would make her sound childish, especially since, as a learner, she spoke more slowly than a fluent speaker.

    I think that Mead’s statement would apply to awareness of allophones, while the t/k alternation was not allophonic but stylistic.

  15. Not, I think, “make her sound childish”, but rather make her sound like a native, which Mead obviously was not. Similarly, she was given the status of a taupou, or ritual virgin, even though she was not a virgin and in fact married (though her husband did not come to Samoa), in order to give her a high place in Samoan society.

    The Chinese translators of Douglas Hofstadter’s Goedel, Escher Bach, entitled 集异璧 Jí Yì Bì, resisted the idiomatic translation of Hofstadter’s “speak of the devil” as shuō Cáo Cāo, Cáo Cāo dào ‘Speak of Cao Cao, and Cao Cao arrives’ as follows: “The author is obviously an American. What would an American know of Cao Cao?”

  16. That was an excellent and informative thread; thanks for linking to it.

  17. David Marjanović says:

    Cáo Cāo on Wikipedia. Quite the allrounder; probably he even came when he wasn’t mentioned.

    When it comes to marked stops, however (voiced or prenasalized or implosive — Donohue does not discuss aspirated voiceless stops), the story is reversed, with the labial stop most likely to be present and the velar stop least likely.

    With aspirated stops it’s complicated. Frequently /p/ is the first to be lost, but in the High German consonant shift the shifts of /t/ are the most widespread ones geographically, and judging from the scant Longobardic evidence (like this fellow) /t/ was apparently the first to shift, too. In Vietnamese, it’s the only one that remains consistently unshifted…

  18. Eli Nelson says:

    I don’t know if it’s absurd; it makes sense as a statement of Mead’s personal preference. I might agree with her on purely esthetic terms, actually. Of course, it’s clearly stupid to worry about the “deterioration” of Samoan from the sound change t > k. And we might say it is unwise for an anthropologist to voice her opinions about the esthetic appeal of features of real languages, since the general topic is usually impossible to separate entirely from unsavory sociolinguistic issues (as well as inherently subjective).

  19. I don’t know if it’s absurd; it makes sense as a statement of Mead’s personal preference.

    Well, sure, there’s no arguing about taste, but to say “I personally don’t think k is very musical” is one thing, to make an offhand reference to “the less musical k” as if it were on a par with “the voiceless consonant k” is quite another.

  20. J. W. Brewer says:

    When I ask google to inform me of the identity of the most musical consonant, I come up with “The natives of the Sandwich Islands cannot pronounce what is called the canine consonant r ; they substitute l in its place. But on the other hand the Negroes have a difficulty pronouncing this liquid and most musical consonant ; they say ‘bress you’ for bless you.” This is from the Apr. 17, 1869 issue of an Irish periodical titled The Shamrock. Alas, google yields no hits for “least musical consonant.” This somehow reminds me of the famous Tolkien thing re the allegedly objective loveliness (musicality?) of “cellar door,” which one must admit lacks a /k/, although if you chase the etymology of “cellar” far enough back you may note that it ancestrally had an initial /k/ but lost it.

  21. It’s important to remember that in 1928 Mead’s grasp of linguistics etiquette was pretty shaky: she was only 24.

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