THE BOOKSHELF: THROUGH THE LANGUAGE GLASS.

There was much talk, a couple of months ago, about a NYT Times Magazine article called “Does Your Language Shape How You Think?” by Guy Deutscher (whose earlier book I discussed here and here). I didn’t read it, because I knew Metropolitan Books was sending me a copy of the book it was based on, Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages. The book arrived in due course, and now that I’ve finished reading it I’m filing my report.
As I expected, this is a very good book, and I hope a lot of people read it. Deutscher has a gift for explaining difficult issues in a way that most people should be able to follow not only with comprehension but with enjoyment; his robust sense of humor is certainly an asset here. Furthermore, the subject of his book, the ways in which languages may influence the thoughts of their speakers, is such a contentious one, and its history is so full of scholarly errors and downright nonsense, that it took a brave man to wade into it at all. I don’t think all the parts of the book are equally successful, but he certainly doesn’t fall into any of the obvious traps, and for that alone he is to be commended (and perhaps issued a Medal of Courage).
The thing is, this is not really a single book except in the sense that it is all crammed into one set of covers. It is two different books separated by a barely relevant rant. The first book, and the one that is of most interest to me, is his Part I: The Language Mirror. This is a fascinating investigation of the history of how the Western intellectual world has dealt with color and how people see it, and how they saw it long ago. He starts with William Gladstone and his 1858 Studies On Homer And The Homeric Age, a massive three-volume work that was savaged by reviewers (the Times regretted that “so much fertility should be fertility of weeds, and that so much eloquence should be as the tinkling cymbal and the sounding brass”). The bit that is of interest here is what Deutscher calls “one unassuming chapter, tucked away at the end of the last volume” (you can read it at Google Books) titled “Homer’s Perceptions and Use of Colour.” Deutscher says (and this will give you a sample of his style):

Gladstone’s scrutiny of the Iliad and the Odyssey revealed that there is something awry about Homer’s descriptions of color, and the conclusions Gladstone draws from his discovery are so radical and so bewildering that his contemporaries are entirely unable to digest them and largely dismiss them out of hand. But before long, Gladstone’s conundrum will launch a thousand ships of learning, have a profound effect on the development of at least three academic disciplines, and trigger a war over the control of language between nature and culture that after 150 years shows no sign of abating.

As he sums it up, “what Gladstone was proposing was nothing less than universal color blindness among the ancient Greeks.” He goes on to discuss Lazarus Geiger, who “reconstructed a complete chronological sequence for the emergence of sensitivity to different prismatic colors” and asked the crucial question “Can the difference between [the ancient Greeks] and us be only in the naming, or in the perception itself?” Then there was Hugo Magnus, who decided sensitivity to colors had been evolving since ancient times, and William Rivers (Siegfried Sassoon’s World War I psychiatrist), who studied the color sense of the Torres Strait Islanders. In the chapter “Those Who Said Our Things Before Us,” he brings the story up to the present, discussing the well-known findings of Berlin and Kay. Most of this is long-forgotten history, dug up and recounted with riveting enthusiasm, and I would happily recommend the book based on this part alone.


Part II: The Language Lens is basically an extended discussion of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, starting with a nice section on Wilhelm von Humboldt, moves on to Sapir (who formulated the principle of linguistic relativity) and Whorf (who “expounded the power of our mother tongue to influence not just our thoughts and perceptions but even the physics of the cosmos”), and describes current work on color terms, spatial relations, and grammatical gender that is relevant to the issue. All of this is interesting (and the excursus on the evidentiality system of the Amazonian language Matsés is astonishing—I read large chunks of it to my wife so she could be astonished too), but I didn’t find it as gripping on the whole because I’ve been keeping up with the debate and was aware of the research of people like Lera Boroditsky. Also, no matter how you slice it, the effects that our native language may have on how we think are too subtle to be sexy in the way Whorf’s vasty theories were; as linguist Derek Bickerton put it in his NYT review, those facets of language “do not involve ‘fundamental aspects of our thought,’ as he claims, but relatively minor ones.” But for anyone interested in Sapir-Whorf the book will provide a lively and useful survey.
The bit that irritated me was sandwiched in between (it’s the last chapter in Part I). It’s called “Plato and the Macedonian Swineherd” for no particular reason, and it focuses on linguistic complexity. My reaction is mine and may not be anyone else’s; Bickerton, for example, loved it: “He brings off a superb ‘emperor has no clothes’ moment by demonstrating that the ‘fact’ (attested in countless linguistic texts) that all languages are equally complex has no empirical basis whatsoever.” But to me he demonstrates a somewhat crazed obsession with that very minor “fact.” Yes, it’s an exaggeration, but it started for a good reason (because racists kept claiming primitive people spoke primitive languages), the fact that it’s an exaggeration is pretty obvious on the face of it, and to attack it with such force (given that it plays no part whatever in the actual work of linguistics) makes one look as picky as the people who insist on demolishing the statement that “all men are created equal.” When you find yourself saying things like “For decades, linguists have elevated the hollow slogan that ‘all languages are equally complex’ to a fundamental tenet of their discipline, zealously suppressing as heresy any suggestion that the complexity of any areas of grammar could reflect aspects of society,” you need to step back and reconsider. Frankly, this chapter annoyed me so much that I put the book down, delaying this review by a couple of weeks.
But that’s a quibble. The book is good, and I urge anyone interested in the topic to read it.

Comments

  1. rootlesscosmo says:

    as the tinkling cymbal and the sounding brass
    The Authorized Version of 1 Corinthians 13 has these in the opposite order. Did the Times edit St. Paul for euphony?

  2. I ordered the Dene-Yeniseian Issue, it arrived, and I’m working my way through it — lots and lots of great stuff. In one of the articles, though, I saw a mention of the fact that Northern Athabaskan languages have neither absolute directions nor egocentric ones, but riverine directions: the basic directions are upriver, downriver, and two directions opposed to those, roughly analogous to the shipboard directions fore, aft, port, and starboard. This seemed like the place to post that.

  3. marie-lucie says:

    LH: It’s called “Plato and the Macedonian Swineherd” for no particular reason
    There is indeed a particular reason: in discussing the potential ability of any language to deal with philosophical subjects, Sapir writes: When it comes to linguistic form, Plato walks with the Macedonian swineherd, Confucius with the headhunting savage of Assam.
    JC: directions in Northern Athabaskan languages: directions based on travelling by water are common in other languages of the North Pacific coast (at least on the American side), whether riverine only (inland) or estuarine (near the coast).

  4. I’ve occasionally wondered about the circumstance that many linguists study languages spoken by fishers and farmers, among whom there is not one linguist. There are considerable professional advantages for a linguist in such a situation: no backtalk. The farmers can’t contradict his theories, nor even understand them.
    A counter-argument to this might be that the market for linguists is saturated in the mother tongues spoken by linguists themselves, so there’s nothing peculiar about their moving into areas where there is less competition. But a monopoly is still a monopoly even when there is only one economic operator and no competition.
    I recalled these thoughts when reading what John just wrote about riverine directions. A linguist speaking a Northern Athabaskan language might think there was nothing remarkable about an English speaker inviting people to a party, and giving directions to their house as “up shit creek to starboard”.

  5. (I can’t resist linking the adjacent posts.)
    One of the many Paris Review period pieces is Robert Graves from the Summer of ’69 (Moon landing, Woodstock) saying that his friend Sassoon, like Owen, was more sensitive to the horrors of the Great War because he was gay. “To them, seeing men killed was as horrible as if you or I had to see fields of corpses of women.” Which I’d hope gets a WTF forty years on.

  6. Hee hee ! Rather twee, for sure. But a modified version of that idea is worth considering. I have always found it outrageous that reporters describing the effects of a terrorist attack, say, or a military encounter, will add for shock effect something like: “among the dead were many pregnant women, and three children aged 7, 9, 11″. In my world-view, any kind of killing is horrible, and no kind is worse than any other. But the general hetero view is: it’s OK in principle for men kill each other, because that’s what they have to do to protect women and children.
    I of course sympathize with “protect the women and children”, but I basically feel scorn for the Fight Club mentality that is usually at work here. When its members blow themselves away, I think: “good riddance”.

  7. Just to be clear: the Fight Club mentality I am ascribing to the reporters, and “when they blow themselves away” is wishful thinking.

  8. The one I particularly like is the Norwegian news’s There were no Norwegians among the dead (replace as appropriate the nationality of the country where you’re listening).
    As always, your review makes me want to buy the book, Language. From his clothing I might have expected that kind of insight from Disraeli, but the very idea that Gladstone had thoughts on colour is alone worth the purchase price.

  9. John: the fact that Northern Athabaskan languages have neither absolute directions nor egocentric ones
    Is this equivalent to a claim that these languages have no words for such directions ? Or does it mean that the peoples who speak these languages do not form ideas of the indicated kind, or do not communicate them, or not often, or not clearly ? Your statement seems to imply that peoples speaking these languages were unable to say or think something like “can you please check my hair to see whether any fleas have gotten into it ?”. I’m taking “gotten into my hair” to be an example of egocentric directional reference, but perhaps I don’t know what you mean by egocentric direction – although I read a bit about it in the internet.
    I can imagine that people might be unwilling to utter such a sentence although they were perfectly capable of doing so in principle, as might be attested by a formulation of the desiderated structure, willingly uttered with regard to a different topic in a different context. Such unwillingness could be due to a convention that one doesn’t talk about fleas – just as, in England in the late 19th century, supposedly one did not use the words “trousers” or “stomach”. But this would be a contingent fact about sociological aspects of the use of the languages at a certain point in time. It would not as such justify a sweeping claim that the languages and their speakers made do tout court without “egocentric directions”.

  10. I know nothing of what speakers of Northern
    Athabaskan languages do or do not say, but I assume egocentric directions would be ‘left’, ‘right’, ‘front’, and ‘back’, where the directions are defined with a person at the centre. Perhaps these speakers can express these ideas, but it is as unnatural for them as it would be in most circumstances for an English speaker to say ‘to the left as you face upstream’, which if I understand John Cowan correctly, is expressed in a simple way and is the most common way to give directions in these languages.

  11. Thank, rwmg. But again it’s not clear to me whether you mean words or ideas. I find it implausible that there are no locutions in these languages which have the same function as the English ones ‘left’, ‘right’, ‘front’, and ‘back’, as orienting terms. And what is “egocentric” about these ? The reason I find it implausible is that I can’t conceive what a group of cooperating humans could accomplish in the way of obtaining food, setting up the totem pole to face in the right direction etc., without communicating by means of such mutually orienting terms. Maybe such a thing has been observed to happen, though – perhaps in a intensive care unit, where all the speakers are immobilized in casts and the nurses bring the food and erect the totem pole every morning.
    I’m not sure what the import is of the notion of “egocentric direction” in the context of language. The English “to the left as you face upstream” is person-centric, whether Alter or Ego is at the center is irrelevant. “To the right of the bird that is now flying towards the sun” is also person-centric, because “now” and “where the sun appears to be” are understandable only with reference to the speaker. Husserl et al. call this sneakily present other stuff the Verweisungszusammenhang, which I will now translate here experimentally as “context of complicit reference”.
    There is no question of “the languages themselves” being weird. I submit that human societies don’t spend their lives deploying a weird language to communicate with each other. Only an outsider’s description of the languages can conjure an atmosphere of weirdness. What’s at issue here is not whether certain languages lack words/ideas of orientation, but whether a characterization of those languages as lacking those words/ideas is itself deficient.

  12. I can’t conceive what a group of cooperating humans could accomplish in the way of obtaining food, setting up the totem pole to face in the right direction etc., without communicating by means of such mutually orienting terms.
    Of course they use orienting terms; the point is that in English we use “left” and “right,” whereas in Guugu Yimithirr they use “east,” “west,” etc., in Tzeltal they use “upslope” and “downslope,” and in some languages of the North Pacific coast they use “riverine” and “estuarine.” And yes, a Guugu Yimithirr will say “There’s an ant on your north foot.” Of course they have words for “left” and “right,” but they use them only in restricted contexts (e.g., “His right arm is weaker than his left”).
    With respect, you are trying to discuss something of which you have not the beginning of a glimmer of an idea; you are making up straw phenomena right and left (or north and south) and attacking them vigorously. Which I know is fun, but if I were to do the same thing with regard to philosophy—take a technical term or two, make up definitions for myself, imagine how they might be used, and speechify about it—you would beat me about the head and shoulders, and quite rightly, too. At least read the NYT Magazine piece; it should give you some of the basics.

  13. There is indeed a particular reason: in discussing the potential ability of any language to deal with philosophical subjects, Sapir writes: When it comes to linguistic form, Plato walks with the Macedonian swineherd, Confucius with the headhunting savage of Assam.
    I know where the title comes from; the fact that the terms occur in the chapter is not a good and sufficient reason to make a title of them. He might just as well have called it “Mr. Iribum on the Field of Kuli”; it would make just as much, or as little, sense. (Yes, that’s in the chapter too.) What could a reader looking through the table of contents make of such a title? And what does it say that, having read the chapter, I still had no idea what the title meant and had to go through the chapter with a fine-tooth comb in order to find the phrase?

  14. With respect, you are trying to discuss something of which you have not the beginning of a glimmer of an idea
    Hat, of course I don’t. That’s why I was asking what it all means. My sarcastic presentation was merely intended to help those who understand these matters also understand how unnecessarily mind-boggling their formulations can sound. Of course philosophers can sound preposterous, too, and often are.
    I have another reason as well. I am fairly confident that the preposterousness and aliens-among-us character of many descriptions of these languages I don’t know, will turn out to be just like the ones whose burden is “In German you can’t say this or that, in English there is no word for Gemütlichkeit” etc. etc. I’m just plain tired of all that shock-and-thrill patter, all that Effekthascherei, as to how strange other languages are.

  15. “a somewhat crazed obsession”: well quite. Why on earth shold he choose to fash himself on that particular ‘emperor has no clothes’ aspect of linguistics?

  16. I’m just plain tired of all that shock-and-thrill patter, all that Effekthascherei, as to how strange other languages are.
    So are linguists. That’s what the book is about.

  17. And thanks for the exemplifying explanation. It’s now much clearer why the term “egocentric” is inappropriate and just asking for a bashing. It carries the psychologizing connotations of culture-imperialistic Whitey self-centeredness, while the Injuns live in harmony with nature etc. One can know that the standard term used in physics for this phenomenon is “frame of reference”, or “referential frame”.
    Do you like that expression “one can know that …” ? It sounds so irreproachably condescending in German [man kann wissen, daß ...]. Luhmann uses it from time to time when he wants to hint that the adepts of some discipline are culpably underread, and thus ignrent. It is absolutely amazing how much stuff he read.

  18. How about the term “soma-frame direction”, and similarly with “terrain-frame”, “quadrant-frame” ? They’re a bit clumsy, but at least not psychologizing.

  19. “one can know that …”
    In the part of mathematics concerned with the geometric objects called manifolds, some manifolds are orientable and others are non-orientable. At times it is important to distinguish between “orientable” and “oriented”.* Some people are lazy about this and say “orientable” when they mean “oriented”.
    A wiseguy once suggested that, similarly, when mathematicians call a result “well-known” it would usually be more accurate to say “well-knowable”.
    * A connected orientable manifold has two orientations.

  20. marie-lucie says:

    … in some languages of the North Pacific coast they use “riverine” and “estuarine.”
    I see that I was less than clear when I said earlier: directions based on travelling by water are common in other languages of the North Pacific coast (at least on the American side), whether riverine only (inland) or estuarine (near the coast).
    I meant that the languages (more precisely their speakers) might be located inland along rivers (without going all the way to the sea) or in estuaries (and therefore needing to take into account both the river and the sea). This means for instance having ways of indicating upstream and downstream (distinctly for location and direction), across (distinctly for “over to the other side” and “barring passage”), along, etc, as well as towards the shore (coming from the sea or from the land). English does have single words for the major orientations, even if its vocabulary on that topic is less precise or extensive.
    The lack of actual words for such orientations does not mean that a language does not have efficient means of referring to them: in the Romance languages, for instance,, many references to oriented motions are handled by unitary verbs, eg talking in French about a river: to go across = traverser, to go along = longer (similarly with other directions such as to go in = entrer, to go out = sortir).
    Directions such as East, West etc are not “abstract”, since they refer to the apparent motions of the sun, which are more easily observed in an open plain or from a boat than in a dense forest. If you live along a winding river, “keep paddling North” would not be a very precise way of indicating the direction you should follow. For instance, in France the Seine generally flows West, but from Paris to the sea its many meanders flow alternately from North to South and South to North, so that the right and left banks have always been the most practical way of indicating a location along its course.
    As for egocentric reference, English emphasizes this with phrases like on the righthand side or even on my/your right hand. Other languages might not use this type of reference for orientation, but still have distinct words for “right” and “left” (in most cases the “right” hand is the “good” or “correct” hand, and the oriented meaning is derivative).

  21. marie-lucie says:

    Grumbly: How about the term “soma-frame direction”, and similarly with “terrain-frame”, “quadrant-frame” ?
    Those words sound good! Actually I had not run into “egocentric” for “based on the human body”, and I am not too happy with it.

  22. marie-lucie says:

    Directions such as East, West etc are not “abstract”,
    I misremembered the term used earlier, which was “absolute”.

  23. Grumbly: I was going to start by denying that ego here had a psychological reference, but now I think that’s only a half-truth. The difference in directional type does not apply to what one can or cannot say, but to (as Hat says) the normal strategy of communication. A New Yorker has as good an idea of north as any American, though he calls it uptown and actually means something much closer to northeast in compass terms.
    Indeed, the matter goes deeper than words. In the article there’s an anecdote about a whitefella being told “It’s in the shop on this side”, accompanied by pointing to the right. The whitefella naturally goes into the shop in question and examines the right wall, but the object in question isn’t there. In fact, the gesture was one of pointing to the east, and the reference was to the east wall, where the object was indeed to be found. We carry our direction frame around with us and assume that it changes as our orientation changes; they do not.
    Even more significantly (and egocentrically), it is ingrained in us that pointing toward oneself is a reference to one’s self. Not so in absolute-direction cultures, where it is simply a reference to the direction that happens to be at one’s back presently.
    Empty: What can you expect from a subculture which calls any theorem trivial iff it has a proof?
    Hat: A bit grouchy of late, perhaps?

  24. Though it’s perhaps not the most striking or surprising part of this recent research – certainly not in the league of the spatial orientation thing – I’ve been particularly interested in the work on grammatical gender.
    One part of that, as described by Lera Boroditsky and others, concerns personification. Apparently people whose language has grammatical gender tend to personify things based on the gender of the words for those things in their language.
    This is interesting because it seems contrary to the warning many of us received when learning such languages. It’s a common mistake of anyone whose main language is English, for instance, to automatically think of French “elle” or Russian “ona” as “she,” when they can just as often mean “it.” So we were taught, maybe with too much emphasis, that grammatical gender had nothing to do with natural gender.
    It’s clear that personification in folklore is often affected by grammatical gender, however. The question that came up for me – and it was initially a practical translation question – was how strong is that tendency, and how easily can it be overridden?
    In the texts to Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death, for instance, death, a feminine noun in Russian, is personified in different ways in different songs. Most of the personifications are male (a captain, a man wooing a dying girl, etc). It seems then, that the femininity of death in Russian is easily overridden, even though it’s common in Russian folklore, and even though the figure in the songs is explicitly called smert’ and referred to as “ona.”
    I would be curious to hear how native Russian speakers, and speakers of other grammatically gendered languages perceive this. It seems to be quite a fluid thing, where conflicting linguistic cues are resolved in different ways, depending on what is judged to be the intended meaning.
    Another curious fact: though death is masculine in German (der Tod), there is also, in folk traditions, die Tödin, a specifically feminine personification.

  25. I have the rare pleasure of working with the speakers of a language that grammaticalizes at the same time riverine (upstream/downstream, metaphorically higher in slope/lower in slope) and solar (East/West) directions. As they are sedentary like any good old rural people, they have an elaborate way to refer to indoor directions. (elaborate = I can’t grasp it)

  26. The thing I wonder, as I’m sure others do too, about these languages with “absolute” directional reference, is what they do when they can’t determine cardinal directions? The accounts I’ve read seem to imply that they always just know. But surely there are ways of confusing them?
    I suppose it might be not be the best publicity for linguistic research to put speakers of Australian languages in a windowless room and spin it around at high rpm?

  27. Wouldn’t it suffice to set them down in Northumbria after a blindfolded flight ?

  28. marie-lucie says:

    Alan: personification in gendered languages:
    In French (and similar languages with “masculine” and “feminine” genders, without a “neuter”), although for most inanimates (and some animates) “gender” is largely arbitrary (at least in terms of meaning), when the referents of nouns are treated as human-like animates they will be personified according to their grammatical gender: a fantasy story or play where the pieces of furniture come alive will have “Monsieur le Fauteuil” and “Madame la Table”, for instance (the same type of thing happens in the ballets “The Nutcracker” and “La Boutique Fantasque”, among others). Similarly for stories or fables where animals represent human characteristics: in La Fontaine’s Le Renard et la Cigogne (the fox and the stork), the fox is male and the stork female, because of the gender of those French words. Although in that particular fable the behaviour of the characters is quite gender-neutral, in others the characters might behave in a stereotypically masculine or feminine manner, something which makes it hard to translate such stories into languages where the genders of the nouns are differently distributed.
    In Claude Lévi-Strauss’s book La Voie des masques (translated as “The Way of the Masks”), which deals with mythology and tales of a part of the Pacific Northwest, the author quotes a large number of tales and legends involving animals, usually personified as male (the local languages do not have grammatical gender, although some of them formally distinguish words for male and female humans). Because the animal characters are introduced as individuals (eg “Mountain Goat”, not “a” or “the” mountain goat), the French author can use the noun as a name, by itself (without an expliciting article or adjective) with the “wrong” gender, eg “Chèvre” as the name of a male character, and because of this the pronoun (and any adjective) referring to this particular character will be masculine (although the effect is odd), but for a herd of mountain goats (“les Chèvres”), the feminine gender of the noun itself cannot be “overridden”, so all the pronouns have to be feminine.
    In Alphonse Daudet’s autobiographical novel Le Petit Chose, the hero is a young orphaned boy sent to a boarding school where the teacher can never remember his last name and addresses him as Le Petit Chose (‘the Thingummy boy’) with a masculine article and adjective even though the normal word is the feminine la chose.
    the gender of “Death”
    I remember being very surprised when I saw Bergman’s The Seventh Seal years ago: I had been told that “Death” (la Mort) appeared as a character, and when Death did appear, Death was a man, not a woman! Even though the traditional European representation as a skeleton brandishing a scythe does not give any indication of sex, that figure is construed as feminine or masculine depending on the gender of the noun in the relevant language.
    According to the examples you give for German and Russian, there may be a remnant of a very old conflict and unresolved contradiction between different ancient peoples’ personification of “Death”. Given the cultural importance of this personification, it seems that there must have been different coexisting traditions, such as those reflected in the Moussorgsky pieces you mention. Many elements of “folklore” maintain (often in distorted or vestigial form) old traditional beliefs which were suppressed, pushed aside or underground by the dominant religion, but were too strong to be totally “overridden” or silenced.
    It is likely that dialectal German “die Tödin”, obviously a feminine derivative of Standard “der Tod”, arises from a survival of an ancient (probably pre-Germanic) local tradition in which “Death” was a female supernatural, the memory of which has been kept lexically distinct from the everyday, masculine word “der Tod” referring to the physical fact of death.

  29. marie-lucie says:

    Grumbly: linguists and competition:
    If the goal of linguistics is to understand the human faculty of language, linguists need to study (collectively) as many languages as possible. Some languages have risen to extraordinary prominence (geographical and cultural) because of accidents of geography and history which had nothing to do with the nature of the languages themselves. Many languages have disappeared in the course of human history, some without any documentation (eg the languages of many peoples mentioned in ancient records), although the process has accelerated in the modern period, again because of historical events.
    In order to get as comprehensive as possible a view of the entire spectrum of surviving human languages, linguists cannot limit themselves to studying the successful ones, they also need to study those still spoken in obscure corners of the globe, as well as the ones in danger of extinction because at some point new parents no longer saw fit to speak to their babies in their own languages (or even knew how to do so). Being the only linguist to study a given language may have some advantages, but it is not ideal, either for the linguist or for the profession as a whole.
    “No backtalk” from a speaker is not an advantage: as you try to say things, you want people to correct you if you are wrong (at least, you should!). And if the language seems “weird”, other linguists might not accept your description of it (see Dan Everett with Piraha~). etc, etc.

  30. marie-lucie says:

    Alan: The thing I wonder, as I’m sure others do too, about these languages with “absolute” directional reference, is what they do when they can’t determine cardinal directions?
    Languages are flexible: surely there are other, longer, less elegant ways of communicating the desired result. Compare communicating in the dark, or with a blind person: “Pass me that thing over there” is no longer enough, you will have to give more details, perhaps have a longish interchange instead of that one sentence on your part, normally followed by a non-verbal performance of the desired action by the other person (or just by “here!”).

  31. mollymooly says:

    “the fact that the terms occur in the chapter is not a good and sufficient reason to make a title of them.”
    But is a fairly common technique, isn’t it? Hackneyed, even: to have a title that is incongruous or of obscure relevance, that teases you with “Why this title? You’ll have to read me to find out!”

  32. Thanks, m-l, for a very full response, with many interesting examples.
    The texts of those Mussorgsky songs are by Mussorgsky’s cousin, Arseny Golenishchev-Kutuzov. They’re late romantic, even a bit decadent. I doubt that the masculine personifications of death in them have anything to do with folklore traditions; the poet simply wanted death in those particular roles, grammar and folkore be damned. But what I was wondering, and would still like to hear from Russian speakers, is whether that seems at all odd, or whether the Russian ear immediately accepts the re-gendering, completely unbothered by grammatical gender, and without any of the sort of shock you registered when seeing Bergman’s Death appear as a man.
    I don’t know, but it seems to me the Russian feeling for gender personification in general might be a bit different from the French. Here’s another example – this was the one that started me thinking about the question. Pushkin’s great “Hymn to the Plague” from his playlet Feast During the Plague starts with two personifications. The first stanza is about winter (zima), the second about the plague (chuma). Both nouns are feminine. The plague is clearly personified as feminine. She is called “that awesome queen” (or czarina). But winter, well . . . he/she is called a “hearty captain” (bodry vozhd’), which is grammatically masculine. Not even called that, really, just compared to one. A simile, not a metaphor. And yet that seems quite sufficient to masculinize a figure who, in Russian folklore, was invariably feminine.
    Now, the fact that English translations of the song generally make winter a “he” may be attributed to the conventional masculine personification of winter in English (Old Man Winter). But I don’t think that’s the whole story. Which is why I’d like confirmation from Russians speakers: is winter being represented as a he or a she here?
    (For reference, here are the two stanzas in Russian:)
    Когда могущая Зима,
    Как бодрый вождь, ведет сама
    На нас косматые дружины
    Своих морозов и снегов, —
    Навстречу ей трещат камины,
    И весел зимний жар пиров.
    Царица грозная, Чума
    Теперь идет на нас сама
    И льстится жатвою богатой;
    И к нам в окошко день и ночь
    Стучит могильною лопатой….
    Что делать нам? и чем помочь?

  33. Stephen Mulraney says:

    minus237: Would that be some variety of rGyalrong or other Sino-Tibetan language?
    (IIRC, rGyalrong has both solar and riverine orientation prefixes, and I think the Qiangic languages have at least grammaticalized riverine directions)

  34. J.W. Brewer says:

    I find myself as time goes on more aggravated by the all-language-equally-complex claim (nor am I particularly comforted by being reassured that it is merely an exaggeration adopted for laudable political purposes). But that doesn’t mean that Deutcher’s attack isn’t over-the-top or counterproductive, of course. But stepping back a bit, it’s not even clear to me that “complexity” is a uniformly positive trait, even when trying to defend “primitive” peoples against charges, of, well, being primitive. For example, I can recall seeing it pointed out (as a defense against allegations of primitivism) that such and such language has an elaborate lexicon of kinship terms drawing all sorts of fine distinctions that are lost for us clumsy Anglophones who don’t even have different words for one’s father’s sister and one’s mother’s brother’s wife. But a language with an elaborate set of kinship terms probably correlates with a culture in which one is basically trapped by the circumstances of ones birth in terms of what ones life opportunities are and how ones rights and duties vis a vis other members of the society are determined. By contrast, a culture with a reasonable amount of individual freedom and social mobility can get by with a pretty sparse set of kinship terms, because it just doesn’t matter that much. So which of these cultures is the primitive one?

  35. I find myself as time goes on more aggravated by the all-language-equally-complex claim
    Well, you’ll probably enjoy his takedown as much as Bickerton did. It may not be counterproductive for anyone but me.

  36. – confirmation from Russians speakers: is winter being represented as a he or a she here
    Alan, in these stanzas winter is definitely described as “she”, as а Fierce Queen (Царица грозная).

  37. J.W. Brewer: But a language with an elaborate set of kinship terms probably correlates with a culture in which one is basically trapped by the circumstances of ones birth in terms of what ones life opportunities are and how ones rights and duties vis a vis other members of the society are determined. By contrast, a culture with a reasonable amount of individual freedom and social mobility can get by with a pretty sparse set of kinship terms, because it just doesn’t matter that much. So which of these cultures is the primitive one?
    J.W., that’s a good point. Your characterizations of the two cultures are familiar, and your conclusion is natural. It’s hard to imagine alternatives. And yet many people must be operating on a different understanding of these matters, since they still try to work the primitive/advanced distinction for all it’s worth.
    I don’t take you here to be urging after all, in an indirect way, the “all-languages-equally-complex” claim that aggravates you. It might seem that way, though, since what you are proposing resembles an adequation viewpoint: all-languages-equally-up-to-the-job-at-hand, namely to represent a more or less elaborate social reality. But this merely shifts the complexity out of the language into the “culture”, leaving us with a representational theory of language.
    Formulaically, the primitive/advanced distinction is a more-complex/less-complex distinction, plus “value judgement”. But what does complexity mean ? Is it an absolute term susceptible of scientific definition, or a subjective one that marks an early stage along the road from unfamiliar to familiar ? “The noun declensions in German are a ball-breaker”, as John Emerson complains, while I look down my nose in a superior way.
    Let’s look more closely at the trapped/free distinction you make, using the notion of complexity to turn upside-down the “value judgement” lurking in that distinction. When “the circumstances of one’s birth in terms of what one’s life opportunities are and how one’s rights and duties vis a vis other members of the society” are determined, then surely we can conclude that this should make life easier ? The members of this society are not frazzled by the decision pressure that results from “individual freedom and mobility” in the other society. In this one, you can choose to do anything, but you must choose something, without having a clue as to how it will all pan out.
    The notions of freedom and constraint do not make sense independently of the particular, historically shaped societies in which they may have been used, or to which we try to apply the current forms of these notions anachronistically. This is not “relativism”, by the way – it’s just non-absolutism with regard to concepts. I was a Platonic ideationist for much of my career without knowing it, before I had poked around in the history of ideas, and read such things as Luhmann’s Gesellschaftsstruktur und Semantik [Social Structure and Semantics]. (This is a collection of learnèd essays on everything under the sun, with zillions of footnotes quoting authors from A to Z and briefly commenting on them, so you know where to look next). One of Luhmann’s basic themes is how systems arrange to reduce complexity – essentially by cutting themselves off from everything else, and (improbably) entering into the risks and advantages of blind self-referentiality.
    Nowadays I don’t know what to think, and so am in tune with modern, advanced society – but, strangely enough (or not, as Luhmann would probably say), I have much more to say as a result. Of course I myself would probably not be at a loss for words in any historical situation, but that’s just me.

  38. I still haven’t totally got used to Mongolian, where баруун/зүүн (baruun/züün) is ‘west/east’ in an absolute context, ‘right/left’ in a relative context.
    The absolute context assumes that one is facing south, so the west is on one’s right and the east is on one’s left. But in a relative context, the two words just mean ‘right’ and ‘left’, so if you are heading north, turning in the баруун (‘right’) direction means turning to the east, not the west.

  39. To this day, I still have to resconstruct whether the sun comes up in the east or the west, by visualizing where we lived in El Paso when I was a kid. It was close to a more-or-less free-standing mountain/hill called Sugarloaf, right up against the Rockies that form the western boundary of that northern part of El Paso. I learned that Sugarloaf was north of us, and knew that the sun came up way out across the desert in the direction opposite to the mountains and Sugarloaf. That’s how I know where the sun comes up, and that east is on the right when I face north.
    I’d say this is not a soma frame, but a combination terrain-and-solar frame

  40. Alan: The thing I wonder, as I’m sure others do too, about these languages with “absolute” directional reference, is what they do when they can’t determine cardinal directions?
    m-l: Languages are flexible: surely there are other, longer, less elegant ways of communicating the desired result.
    Yes, I can imagine various ways of compensating. I’d just be curious to know if what they actually do in such situations corresponds to what I might imagine.
    Steven Lubman:
    …in these stanzas winter is definitely described as “she”, as а Fierce Queen (Царица грозная).
    That’s the Plague. Winter is compared to a бодрый вождь.

  41. But in a relative context, the two words just mean ‘right’ and ‘left’
    On German trains, just before they pull into the station, an announcement is given telling you which doors you should use to get off, for instance: “exit on the right in the direction of travel”. This English sounds a bit artificial to me, but I haven’t succeeded in figuring out the reason, or a better alternative. The German is problem-free, but maybe that’s just because I’ve gotten used to it: aussteigen in Fahrtrichtung rechts.
    Every attempt I make at finding a more “natural” English formulation turns into a long sentence: “standing in the aisle, and looking in the direction of travel, the exit doors are to your right”. Perhaps the trouble I have converting the announcement from a train frame into a soma frame is related to the convoluted “think back to when you were a kid” frame that I have to use for sunrise.

  42. Stu, I have the impression that two of these three facts (but I’m not sure which two) are available to you without having to go through the procedure you describe, and that the procedure then allows you to get the third
    sun rises on the right when you face north
    sun rises in the east
    east is on the right when you face north
    Which one

  43. You’re absolutely right, empty, I realized only after posting that I had expressed the matter badly. The two things I know without the procedure are
    sun rises on the right when you face north
    sun rises in the east

    The procedure helps me to remember where north is, so to speak, and so reconstruct that
    east is on the right when you face north
    That is deducible without the procedure, of course. But knowable is not known …

  44. In other words, to get oriented I have to imagine my absolute orientation concretely. A syllogism is not a satisfactory substitute.

  45. Yes, And if you remember the etymology of the word “orientation” you will know that East goes at the top of the map. But don’t say “orientate” when prescriptivists are listening.

  46. Trond Engen says:

    Yes, And if you remember the etymology of the word “orientation” you will know that East goes at the top of the map.
    I’ve always assumed that orientation used to denote the process of deciding the direction of prayer, i.e. the direction of the church. Maybe its the same thing.

  47. Gosh, I’ve never clearly recognized that aspect of “orientation” – and I’d better not think about it much, lest it confuse me.
    Actually I scorn the word “orientate”, never use it, and keep a little moue of disapproval in my old kit bag for deployment when others use it.

  48. Or you could try an audible inhalation instead of the moue.

  49. I’d like confirmation from Russians speakers: is winter being represented as a he or a she here?
    Steven Lubman:
    …in these stanzas winter is definitely described as “she”, as а Fierce Queen (Царица грозная).
    That’s the Plague. Winter is compared to a бодрый вождь.
    winter is compared to a bodryi vojd’, but Zima is she b/c
    Когда могущая Зима,
    Как бодрый вождь, ведет сама
    На нас косматые дружины …etc

  50. Mongolian, where баруун/зүүн (baruun/züün) is ‘west/east’ in an absolute context, ‘right/left’ in a relative context.
    east is dorno, west is örnö in my language, in their absolute meanings, but baruun züün are also used as B describes them
    urd(umard)- south, khoid – north, so if for directions then we use baruun züün, like in SE – züün urd, NW – baruun khoid

  51. Thanks, Hat, for the review. I had spotted the book and wondered if it was worth reading; now I can’t wait to get it.
    Warning! Warning! This is not research! But I do have a Russian friend who is moderately obsessed with the absence of gender in English nouns. For her the gender of Russian nouns produces, in varying degrees of intensity, a set of associations, and she can’t imagine inhabiting a world in which tables and forks and picture frames and chairs and beds are neuter.
    I think I’ve written about this before. Sorry.

  52. winter is compared to a bodryi vojd’, but Zima is she b/c
    Когда могущая Зима,
    Как бодрый вождь, ведет сама
    На нас косматые дружины …etc

    OK, so clearly a she. That’s how I initially took it. You have not only the noun’s gender, but also могущая and сама, both words more often applied to people than to things. So we’re clearly getting a personification, and it’s clearly feminine. The бодрый вождь just comes then as a fleeting image of winter in a captain’s guise, leading her troops.
    Let me go back to the Mussorgsky songs. I re-read the texts, and it seems clear to me now that the appearance of Death as a male, or in male roles, does add to the strangeness of the poems, and that this is something that an English translation can’t convey, because the “natural” gender of Death (feminine) is never really lost sight of in the Russian, though it gets varying degrees of emphasis.
    In “Серенада” Death appears as a рыцарь неведомый (mysterious knight), and in that guise he (she) woos the dying girl:
    Сон не смыкает блестящие очи,
    Жизнь к наслажденью зовет,
    А под окошком в молчанье полночи
    Смерть серенаду поет:
    “Знаю: в неволе суровой и тесной
    Молодость вянет твоя.
    Рыцарь неведомый, силой чудесной
    Освобожу я тебя.”
    Now, interestingly, nowhere in this song, that I can find, is Death referred to by a pronoun or adjective, which would grammatically have to be feminine, and when she refers to herself in a past tense verb, which in Russian has to show gender, she doesn’t say “I” but refers to herself in the third person as рыцарь неведомый again, so that the verb is masculine. So here it seems, rather than a momentary cross-dressing, Death gets more of a real sex change.
    In “Полководец,” on the other hand, Death is a commander of troops, but with no downplaying of her grammatical gender:
    Тогда, озарена луною,
    На боевом своём коне,
    Очей сияя белизною,
    Явилась Смерть и в тишине,
    Внимая воплям и молитвам,
    Довольства гордого полна,
    Как полководец поле битвы,
    Кругом объехала она.
    На холм поднявшись, оглянулась,
    Остановилась, улыбнулась.
    И над равниной боевой
    Раздался голос роковой:
    “Кончена битва – я всех победила.
    Передо мной все смирились бойцы.
    Жизнь вас поссорила – я ж померила.
    Дружно вставайте на смотр мертвецы.”
    Plenty of feminine adjectives and verbs here, and in later stanzas whole strings of feminine pronouns. A sort of Joan of Arc of the underworld.

  53. I am one of those people whose grasp on left and right is very weak; I frequently get them wrong even in very concrete situations. I express it as “I have the right direction in my head, but the wrong word comes out of my mouth.” (Oddly, left-right confusion is called dyslexia, the same word applied to reading difficulties — which I do not have in the slightest, on the contrary.)
    The fact that I have exactly the same issues with west and east suggests to me that my comprehension of these terms is built on top of my understanding of left and right. I have no such problems with north and south, which are mapped onto either forward and back or up and down.
    Grumbly: It would never have occurred to me to bother specifying that train doors are called left and right in the perspective of someone facing the front of the train; I take that for granted, and I think train conductors do too. (Although in the NYC subways, you are just supposed to know or quickly discover which side is in use, as no such announcements are made.) But did it become an issue, I would confidently speak of the port and starboard sides instead.
    I seem to remember hearing of a novel translated as My Sister Death in English, where the original title was simply Death, a feminine word in the original language. Apparently the translator felt that the femininity of death was important enough to the author to employ the title to put the anglophone reader on notice about it. Google doesn’t find it, being swamped by “my sister’s death”.

  54. marie-lucie says:

    Alan, I know very little Russian, but I think that the way gender works is the same as in French: the noun has a gender, and it happens that one has to refer to a person of one sex by a noun of the opposite gender: an example is la sentinelle “sentinel”, a word of feminine gender for a role that is usually filled by a male person: the gender of the noun, not the sex of the person, is what determines the pronoun and the proper form of the adjective associated with the noun. (There are occasionally semantic clashes, but the language is finding ways of adapting).

  55. Stephen Mulraney: Yes! (And wow! to your well-redity) Most rGyalrong speakers have this pair of directions. As you probably have read already, the riverine direction is used if there’s a river by the side, the solar if there isn’t, and the other type of direction (solar if the direction used is riverine and vice versa) is canceled to be perpendicular to the type of direction used. (This replies in part to Alan’s question)
    In the most simple indoor situation (an office with a door on one side and a window on the opposite side), a “river” can be said to flow from the door to the window. In other situations it’s still a mystery to me.

  56. marie-lucie says:

    ml: it happens that one has to refer
    I mean that it sometimes happens …

  57. m-l:…an example is la sentinelle “sentinel”, a word of feminine gender for a role that is usually filled by a male person: the gender of the noun, not the sex of the person, is what determines the pronoun and the proper form of the adjective associated with the noun.>
    But that’s a little different. My examples were not of nouns for a function that could be filled by either sex, but of abstract nouns for things (death, winter, plague) that can only have a sex if they are personified. And personification in gendered languages, we agreed, normally follows grammatrical gender, or at least tries to.
    In poetry, of course “semantic clashes” are not necessarily taken as something to be avoided, or even resolved.
    Cases like la sentinelle are difficult for English speakers to get right (offhand, I can’t think of a parallel case in Russian, though there are plenty of masculine nouns for functions that can be filled by either sex). We would be apt to construe “la sentinelle” as an actual female if no information to the contrary were given. Even in French, if the person qui fait la sentinelle is male, you would be likely to find an excuse for switching over to the masculine pronoun before long, wouldn’t you?

  58. “Кончена битва – я всех победила.
    i found this morning browsing youtube a digital artist’s page and there in the comments read someone’s quote –
    War does not determine who is right – only who is left.
    nanka everything seemed so like interconnected, that it feels like amazing..
    about smert’s gender if to use other masculine or neutral word endings it would sound just ungrammatical, Russian is very rigid in that sense or i mean that’s just how the language works as M-l explained French does too
    in my language or Japanese, for example, verbs, pronouns, adjectives do not have genders, as in English too i guess
    and they don’t change whether singular or plural, just tenses, bt the tensese could be pretty complicated like in English
    so our verbs are pretty feminist and democratic :), i mean, convenient
    but Japanese separate their language usage, male/ female, so that’s like a step backward.. i mean very traditional, but it’s changing i guess, young people talk not that all keigo though if to abandon all that complex grammar rules reflecting the society’s rules the language will become just poorer, perhaps

  59. marie-lucie: I’m not sure how general this is, but ‘мой папа’ (‘my daddy’) seems to contradict your belief. It may be an exceptional idiomatic expression, but normally all nouns ending with ‘а’ or ‘я’ are grammatically feminine, while ‘мой’ is definitely masculine.

  60. I just found a handbook of Russian grammar from my bookshelf and it clearly states that the grammatical gender of words for people is determined by the sex of the person, listing a bunch of examples, among them both common words (like the ‘папа’ above) and shortened/diminutive forms of proper names (like ‘Саша’ and ‘Шура’, which could stand for either the male ‘Александр’ of the female ‘Александра’).
    For many words, though, there are separate male and female forms (like ‘певец’ and ‘певица’ for ‘singer’) and then the appropriate one would be used (defaulting to masculine if not known) and in this case the adjective will simultaneously agree with the noun and the person, of course.

  61. marie-lucie says:

    Alan: Even in French, if the person “qui fait la sentinelle” is male, you would be likely to find an excuse for switching over to the masculine pronoun before long, wouldn’t you?
    In practice, since there are many ways of referring to the same person, it would be strange to have a string of grammatically feminine nouns all referring to a male person (or vice-versa). Switching occurs naturally once a new noun of the other gender is introduced: for instance, the name of the individual occupying the position, or a noun in a description applying just to that person: La sentinelle était un petit brun … Il (the sentinel was a short dark-haired guy … he …): the pronoun is masculine because it refers to the masculine noun (here brun) identifying the person. But if the actual person is less important than the role being filled one could go on with pronouns agreeing with the gender of sentinelle, until the occurrence of a masculine noun referring to the actual person: for instance:
    elle est, la sentinelle? Elle devait être à son poste il y a dix minutes … Montrez-moi le registre: ça dit Untel: bon, où il est passé, Untel?
    (Where is the sentinel? They should have been on duty ten minutes ago. … Show me the list: it says SoandSo: OK, where did he go?)
    (I used “they” at first because “the sentinel” refers to a role, which could have been filled by any one of many individuals – the main thing was having a sentinel in place, not a particular soldier; once the man who should have been on duty is identified, “they” is no longer suitable, “he” is used to refer to the actual man).
    ahto: papa, menshschina, etc: such nouns (part of a short list) are morphologically unusual in that they take the -a ending like many feminines, but they are grammatically masculine, not simply because they refer to males, but because they behave like other nouns of grammatically masculine gender, triggering masculine agreement in possessives and adjectives.
    Similarly, in Spanish and Italian mano ‘hand’ is grammatically feminine in spite of ending in -o which is stereotypically associated with masculine gender: phrases such as Sp. la mano izquierda ‘the left hand’, which agrees with the feminine article and a feminine adjective, show that mano is grammatically feminine in spite of its unusual morphology.

  62. marie-lucie @ “In Alphonse Daudet’s autobiographical novel Le Petit Chose, the hero is a young orphaned boy sent to a boarding school where the teacher can never remember his last name and addresses him as Le Petit Chose (‘the Thingummy boy’)”
    A curious and, c’est bien le cas de le dire, largely overwrought translation.

  63. I have heard trolley (LRV) drivers here say, “doors open on my right.” (For the standard, “the right.” Enough of Boston’s cars are old / broken that announcements are not fully automated, allowing for a creative outlet.)

  64. (Where is the sentinel? They should have been on duty ten minutes ago. … Show me the list: it says SoandSo: OK, where did he go?)
    An ingenious bit of translation and a demonstration of the virtues of the English singular they.

  65. marie-lucie says:

    Alan: examples of abstract nouns for things (death, winter, plague) that can only have a sex if they are personified. And personification in gendered languages, … normally follows grammatrical gender
    There are two different things going on in your examples: agreement of adjectives (etc) with the gender of the noun itself, and alternative metaphorical descriptions of a noun with another noun, which may be of the opposite “gender” of the original noun. So for instance, replacing “plague” by “queen” or “winter” by “conqueror” both involve replacement of a noun referring to a natural phenomenon by one normally referring to a person, but this new noun does not have to be of the same gender as the original noun. The replacing noun, like the original noun, does not switch genders, since it still triggers agreement of its associated adjective with its own gender.
    A similar example of metaphorical equivalence in French is la Mort, ce spectre affreux, cette figure hideuse … (to use stereotypical imagery): “Death [f.], that horrible spectre [m.], that hideous image [f] …”: in none of these cases does any noun lose its own gender, which is confirmed by the agreement of the article and adjective.
    Because in English “gender” is so strongly associated with biological sex, it may seem strange to English speakers that nouns of one grammatical gender may be considered equivalent, or at least usable in the same context as, nouns of another gender, but in languages with grammatical gender that link is generally very weak unless some other factor intervenes (as in la sentinelle discussed above). Synonyms of different genders are commonplace (eg French le visage/la figure ‘the face’, l’être/la personne ‘the person’, le potiron/la citrouille ‘the pumpkin’, etc), without conjuring male or female images in the mind of the speaker.
    It helps to consider grammatical “gender” as a category defining noun-classes, not persons or other definable entities represented by nouns. Noun-classes exist in many languages, notably in the Bantu languages (eg Swahili), usually associated with specific morphology indicating each particular class (so that words associated with nouns agree with them as to class, just like French or Russian adjectives about gender). Such classes are usually loosely based on concrete divisions (eg round objects, long objects, people, vegetables, etc) which are sometimes objectively valid (eg “egg” among round objects) and sometimes seem arbitrary if the particular object does not quite fit in a specific category. Similar principles apply to “grammatical gender”.

  66. marie-lucie says:

    Hozo: Le Petit Chose (‘the Thingummy boy’)”
    A curious and, c’est bien le cas de le dire, largely overwrought translation.
    Hozo, I am not trying to publish a polished translation, only to illustrate a grammatical point. What would you suggest?

  67. I recall that whereas elles normally refers only to groups of females, and both male and mixed groups are ils, this is not so in legal French, where elles is used for groups of persons of any sex, short for elles personnes. However, this doesn’t stick, and the group quickly becomes ils in further references. This is analogous to the use of one as a pronoun in English: it quickly becomes he or they in further discourse.
    I just read a very interesting article (PDF) on how Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) assimilated its large number of Hebrew and Turkish borrowings onto the Spanish substrate. In all cases, words for persons have natural gender in Ladino. What’s more, is the usual ending for Hebrew feminines, although there are others, and this is assimilated to Spanish -a, so that (with the usual lexical exceptions) all Hebrew borrowings in became feminine in Ladino. However, Hebrew feminines with other endings, like ivrít ‘the Hebrew language’, became masculine in Ladino.
    Turkish words have no grammatical gender, so a Ladino gender had to be assigned from scratch. Turkish words in -a became feminine; words in -e changed to -a and became feminine; words for females added -a and became feminine. All other borrowings from either Hebrew or Turkish became masculine.
    Castilian borrowed some words from Hebrew too, though not nearly so many; oddly, was not treated as a feminine ending, hence el maná ‘manna’.

  68. left-right confusion is called dyslexia
    Seems like “dysrectia” would be a more suitable term for that. Or “desinistration”, which can cause someone to fall out of a window due to leaning in the wrong direction.

  69. Marie-Lucie:
    There are two different things going on in your examples: agreement of adjectives (etc) with the gender of the noun itself, and alternative metaphorical descriptions of a noun with another noun, which may be of the opposite “gender” of the original noun. So for instance, replacing “plague” by “queen” or “winter” by “conqueror” both involve replacement of a noun referring to a natural phenomenon by one normally referring to a person, but this new noun does not have to be of the same gender as the original noun. The replacing noun, like the original noun, does not switch genders, since it still triggers agreement of its associated adjective with its own gender.
    I’m not saying that the noun changes (grammatical) gender, I’m saying that a personification based on it may change, or partly change (biological) gender.
    I managed to find this French version of the lines from “Полководец” I quoted earlier:
    Alors, dans la clarté lunaire,
    Sur son coursier, le sabre au poing,
    Enflant au vent son blanc suaire,
    Paraît la Mort . . . Et de très loin,
    D’abord distraite elle évalue
    La masse inerte des mourants.
    Puis, pour passer là leur revue,
    Longeant sans se hâter les rangs,
    Elle s’avance, elle s’étire,
    Elle promène son sourire.
    Et sur la plaine, claironnant
    Et déchirant son chant s’épand :
    “La bataille est à moi ! Victoire je crie !
    Vous êtes miens, les vaincus et les forts !
    Vous vous battiez vivants, je pacifie.
    Frères, debout ! pour la montre des morts !”
    Indeed, the effect in terms of personification and gender seems to me exactly the same as in the Russian. We get Death in her traditional (in French) feminine guise, but playing a role traditionally male (commander of an army). Isn’t that how you read it? Unless you want to say that Death is not necessarily represented as female here, any more than a sentinelle is necessarily female.
    But look at any English translation of the poem, and you’ll find a Death who is simply “he.” We lose the whole bizarre image of a sort of Jeanne d’Arc des enfers.

  70. marie-lucie: You’re right in putting the difference as morphological vs grammatical gender. For example, the partitive of ‘мой папа’ would be ‘моего папу’. The adjective is declined as masculine, the noun as feminine, so morphologically ‘папа’ behaves as if it were a feminine word.

  71. marie-lucie says:

    JC: Castilian borrowed some words from Hebrew too, though not nearly so many; oddly, -á was not treated as a feminine ending, hence el maná ‘manna’.
    It’s because the feminine ending is unstressed -a, and those Hebrew words have stressed -á. But there are some other feminine-looking masculine borrowed words in Spanish, for instance el profeta, el planeta, el problema, el mapa (‘prophet, planet, problem, map’).
    … in legal French, where “elles” is used for groups of persons of any sex, short for “elles personnes”. However, this doesn’t stick, and the group quickly becomes ils in further references.
    You mean les personnes: personne is a feminine gender word, as in les droits de la personne ‘human rights’. This is not just legal French, but regular French. I doubt that in a legal text, elles would change to ils without a corresponding change of noun.
    In current French (from what I gather from the press), les gens ‘people’ is being replaced by les personnes (previously a word of a higher register), most likely under the influence of English. It could be that les personnes quickly becomes ils because underlyingly it means les gens, a more colloquial word.
    In my own speech (which is now very old-fashioned), I would say les gens for people in general (the word is uncountable), and les personnes to refer to a specific group of individuals, for instance Quand je suis entrée, il y avait déjà plusieurs personnes qui attendaient (when I went in, there were already several persons waiting). If I had to talk about those people in their presence, i would say for instance Ces personnes attendent depuis des heures (These persons/people have been waiting for hours), rather than Ces gens which would be less respectful of them as individuals.

  72. marie-lucie says:

    Alan: We get Death in her traditional (in French) feminine guise, but playing a role traditionally male (commander of an army). Isn’t that how you read it?
    Yes, absolutely. The fact that “she” is commanding an army does not detract from her being personified as female, according to her grammatical gender.
    Unless you want to say that Death is not necessarily represented as female here, any more than a sentinelle is necessarily female.
    “Sentinelle” is a role, which is filled by a person, and that’s why the grammatical gender of the noun may clash with the “natural” gender of the person). On the other hand, “Death” (as a personification) is a human-like figure, and the grammatical gender of the word in its concrete meaning determines the natural gender of the figure. Similarly, “Eros” or “Amour” is represented as a male child, because of the grammatical gender of the word.

  73. “Death” (as a personification) is a human-like figure, and the grammatical gender of the word in its concrete meaning determines the natural gender of the figure.
    Unless, as in “Serenade,” Death decides to change her sex, which she does by the simple expedient of referring to herself as Рыцарь неведомый and attaching all other gendered self-referents to that masculine noun.
    The loss in English is even greater here (I was unable to find a French version). Death seducing a young girl is bad enough, but doing it after a sex change is positively goulish.

  74. marie-lucie says:

    Alan: Death’s “sex change”
    In “Серенада” Death appears as a рыцарь неведомый (mysterious knight), and in that guise he (she) woos the dying girl (snip the quote, see above)
    … nowhere in this song, … is Death referred to by a pronoun or adjective, which would grammatically have to be feminine, and when she refers to herself in a past tense verb, which in Russian has to show gender, she doesn’t say “I” but refers to herself in the third person as рыцарь неведомый again, so that the verb is masculine.
    I don’t know enough Russian to refer directly to the text, but from what you say it looks like “Death” is personified as definitely male in the context of this poem. Even the title agrees with this: the word “Serenade” refers to a young man singing his love under a girl’s balcony.
    I think that it is likely that the poet who wrote the lines knew of a tradition of a masculine Death, either in some areas of Russia, or in Germany: Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden”* is well-known. I don’t see this as a “sex change”, but as the reflex of a different tradition of personifying Death.
    *The WP article under “Death and the Maiden quartet” includes a reproduction of a 1517 German painting “Der Tod und das Mädchen”, which shows that the motif must be based on an old tradition (not a Christian one). The motif was not Schubert’s invention, and most probably not the Russian poet’s invention either, but his attempt as imagining Death as a male figure (as it is in German), instead of a female one as in Russian or French.

  75. The Little One – ni plus ni moins
    The Small Wonder
    The Minor Mene
    The Napoleon Complex
    The French Exception
    The Sarkozy Syndrome
    The Simplest One
    The Ambitiously Overlooked
    The Scholastic Solution
    The Academicians of Invention
    The Translator’s (Linguist’s) Scourge!

  76. marie-lucie says:

    Hozo:
    The Little One – ni plus ni moins
    The Small Wonder
    The Minor Mene

    If these are your proposed translations of Le petit Chose, you have totally misunderstood the meaning. It is not “la petite chose” ‘the little/small thing/matter, etc’, but ‘the boy [addressed as] “Chose”‘.

  77. marie-lucie says:

    From WP: Le Petit Chose (1868; Translated into English as Little Good-For-Nothing (1878, Mary Neal Sherwood) and Little What’s-His-Name (1898, Jane Minot Sedgwick)) is an autobiographical memoir by French author Alphonse Daudet.
    The second translation “Little What’s-His-Name” is closest to the meaning, but not quite right, because it comes from how the schoolmaster addresses the boy, whose name he can never remember: “Vous, le petit Chose!”

  78. marie-lucie says:

    I mean that the French title (not the translation) comes from the way the teacher addresses the boy.

  79. I think that it is likely that the poet who wrote the lines knew of a tradition of a masculine Death, either in some areas of Russia, or in Germany: Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” is well-known. I don’t see this as a “sex change”, but as the reflex of a different tradition of personifying Death.
    Yes, I was being hyperbolic, and a little (though not completely) facetious. Soberly considered, it is as you say: simply a masculine personification that could have come from any number of other traditions, other poems, other songs, (and “Death and the Maiden” would indeed be one very plausible source).
    The cycle as a whole could likewise be seen as a collection of different ideas of death from various sources. That’s certainly a valid way of looking at it. But somewhat unsatisfactory from my standpoint. To me real poetry is never just a product of “reflex.” Artistic choice and design are always in the picture. Golenishchev-Kutuzov is no Pushkin, but he is a poet of some sophistication. And what I get from his cycle (with the aid of Mussorgsky’s music) is not just a random assortment of various “Deaths” but a picture of a single, sinister figure who is everywhere and can change shape, role, gender, age, whatever, at will.
    To me it’s a question of poetics as much as linguistics, or one that falls at the boundary between the two. Not many linguists have been comfortable negotiating that boundary (Jakobson was one of the few).

  80. marie-lucie says:

    Alan, of course it is a question of poetics, but all poetry is composed in a language, and draws first of all on the possibilities inherent in that language – sometimes “pushing the boundaries”, especially if it is influenced formally by the poetry of another language. As for the content, it too reflects (and usually transforms) all sorts of influences that have acted on the poet, linguistic and otherwise.
    From what you said about the poetic cycle, I agree that it seems to provide “a picture of a single, sinister figure who is everywhere and can change shape, role, gender, age, whatever, at will”, but I think that the poet knew that this figure, feminine in his own language, is masculine in others, and that knowledge influenced his experimentation (for lack of a better term) with describing Death under those two aspects.
    Not many linguists have been comfortable negotiating that boundary (Jakobson was one of the few).
    Very few linguists are also poets. I know I am not (to my loss, I agree). Linguistics and poetry require very different gifts as well as mindsets, which are rarely found in a single individual.

  81. Stephen Mulraney says:

    minus237: I’d prefer to read well than to read wide, but I think that’s a project for another decade.
    rGyalrong always stands out because nobody seems to quite know where to put it on the family tree of Tibeto-Burman lanaguages. I didn’t know the conditions under which the speakers choose riverine or solar directions, which is very interesting. Talking of complex indoor situations, somewhere in Thurgood & LaPolla’s “The Sino-Tibetan languages” it says that in some rGyalrong dialect, one of the possible grammaticalized horizontal contrasts is ‘chair of honour’ position versus ‘lower seat’ position… with the chair of honour typically being located in the eastern part of the room. I imagine it all gets very complicated.

  82. Marie-Lucie:
    I can’t take exception to anything you said in your last, and please don’t consider my comment about linguists to be directed at you. You seem, from all your commentary here, to be exceptionally cognizant of the creative side of language. I think the line between linguistics and poetics is just inherently hard to get a handle on, from both sides.
    In fact when I started this subthread I think I was suffering from a bit of confusion in this regard. I had been bothered for some time by those examples I gave (particularly the Pushkin, which I was trying to translate) of a sort of dual sex personification. In English translation, they just came out as one sex, and understandably so. Otherwise, to take the Pushkin example, you would have to start out personifying Winter as female, for no apparent reason, only to switch in the next line to identifying her with a “hearty captain” (or maybe a virile guerilla chieftain). No problem in Russian, where Winter is automatically female at the outset. But then I began wondering if native Russian speakers would actually see it more like the single-sex translated version, automatically simplifying it to one sex or the other. In doing that, I think I was trying to get a simple linguistic answer to what is essentially a matter of poetic interpretation.
    In the Mussorgsky song where Death is the field commander, I think most Russian readers would probably agree that Death is still female, though playing a male role. But what makes this interpretation plausible? Probably the sorts of things I mentioned: repetition of feminine pronouns and adjectival and past tense verb endings. But from a purely “linguistic” standpoint, the repetition shouldn’t matter to the meaning, just as it doesn’t (or shouldn’t) matter to the question of a sentinelle‘s sex how many times you refer to him/her as “elle.” But that’s how poetic effects operate. They are generally sub rosa, so to speak, not an “official” part of the linguistic code of the language. Personification itself is a poetic phenomenon; there are no purely linguistic criteria for deciding when it is occuring and when it is not.
    To relate all this back to the topic of the thread (though I know LH doesn’t enforce keeping threads on topic), I guess what struck me with regard to the recent work on grammatical gender, which I’ve only read summaries of, is how unremarkable the conclusions seem. Why should it be necessary to conduct studies to determine that speakers of grammatically gendered languages tend to think of inanimate things as masculine or feminine depending on the gender of the nouns for them? Wouldn’t folklore have suggested as much? How would all those gender-matched personifications ever have come about otherwise?
    But maybe this is just to say that in linguistics, where the focus is on the “settled” code of a language, the less settled codes of art, or imagination generally, tend to take a back seat. So it takes researchers a while to get around to them.

  83. If there is such a boundary between poetry and linguistics, Language himself seems to negotiate it all the time with some ease. Of course we don’t all have his gifts, but many people just don’t try very hard with poetry. It’s not like watching television; you have to practise, practise, practise.

  84. John Cowan, you and I have the same problem: north and south are easy (north is in front of me, south behind) but east/west and left/right I confuse all the time, to the extent that if I am giving directions sitting in the passenger seat of the car my wife is driving and I say “turn left” she will always have to ask: “You do mean left?” Navigating the London Underground is a big strain if I’m not travelling north/south: I can never remember right away if I want the eastbound or westbound line to get where I am going. I have to picture the sun rising over a map of London and, knowing that the sun rises in the east, and on which side of London the sun rises, work out that way whether I want to be travelling towards the rising sun or away from it to get where I am going.

  85. marie-lucie says:

    linguistics and literature
    Some time ago (maybe a couple of years?) there was a similar discussion here. I remember writing something like: if a language is a tower, the linguists are structural engineers, inspecting the foundation and testing the soundness of the walls, while the literature people have taken the elevator to the top and are admiring the landscape from there.
    Not quite the right metaphor about the literaturists, but in my experience writers or literary critics are not terribly interested in how a language (usually their own) is put together, only in how it can be used for calculated effect. Linguists find how languages are put together (and how they are related to other languages, etc) fascinating and challenging enough in their own right. These are two different mindsets, with different preoccupations and habits of thought.

  86. Well, even writers and poets can sometimes be interested in the view from, or inside of, the lower stories of the language tower.
    And poetics as a discipline came from a philosopher, not a poet. Like many such relics, it’s something of an orphan now. Maybe it would be better off as part of linguistics.

  87. marie-lucie says:

    AS: Well, even writers and poets can sometimes be interested in the view from, or inside of, the lower stories of the language tower.
    Of course! it is just that those who do are in the minority, as you yourself mentioned by quoting the multi-talented Jakobson. Or they are not equally interested in the various potential views.

  88. marie-lucie says:

    AJP: That shows that Poetics is not considered to be a part of Linguistics, even though they can meet.

  89. Well I never presumed to think it was. I know absolutely nothing about this, I’m just trying to be helpful. But as far as I can see, Poetics doesn’t have much to do with poetry either unless you want it to. Poetics one of those things, like building ships in bottles, that I know I’m never going to be interested in.

  90. AJP: Thanks for the link. I didn’t know about that group.
    At the risk of beating a dead horse, let me try to say what I think Poetics as a quasi-subdiscipline of linguistics might be good for.
    Poetics needn’t even concern poetry per se, you’re right. What it does concern are elements of language that are not yet fixed, where conventions are coming into being but not yet universal enough to be considered part of the code. The creative edge, in other words.
    Poetics studies how the imagination operates linguistically, and though it can’t claim to have gotten very far with this, historically it has come up with a few interesting ideas.
    Take prosody. It started as a part of literary study, with people like Dionysius of Halicarnassus (to whom we owe the first description of a pitch accent). At some point linguists got the idea that some such ideas could be applied to speech as a whole, not just to “poetically hightened” language. There was considerable resistance to this; to many it seemed too nebulous an area for science, plus prosody seemed to have no clear relation to signification, the central concern of linguistics then (and now).
    Now, as I’m sure Marie-Lucie will tell you, literary and linguistic prosody remain quite distinct fields. Yet it’s not unusual to find people interested in both. There’s even some feeling that people studying one ought to know something about developments in the other.

  91. marie-lucie says:

    Alan: What [poetics] does concern are elements of language that are not yet fixed, where conventions are coming into being but not yet universal enough to be considered part of the code. The creative edge, in other words.
    I am not sure what you refer to by “conventions that are coming into being”. Language is constantly changing, but the change rarely comes from creative writers: sociolinguists have discovered to their surprise that (at least in Western society) linguistic change tends to be in the hands of lower middle class young women, the future mothers of the next generation, who will pass on their own speech to their children (men tend to be more conservative, as well as not so involved in the care of pre-schoolers). Those young women are not consciously trying to have an impact on the language or to push its boundaries, unlike some creative writers, especially poets, but an individual writer rarely affects the future direction of a language.
    When people say “Shakespeare contributed so much to the development of the English language”, they rely on a number of memorable words or phrases, not on his word or sentence structure, which is in conformity with that of other writers of the same period (data from that period, and from the previous century or two, include not only plays, poems and other literary works composed by writers of varying degrees of talent, but also documents from everyday life such as family letters, as well as translations, most famously that of the Bible). (Important changes in sound must be deduced from variations in spelling and a few other criteria).
    It is true that literary studies of typical features of poetry (prosody, metaphor) have contributed to the creation and growth of some aspects of linguistics. This happened when some linguists realized that those features were not limited to poetry but pervaded the structure and the use of unself-conscious, everyday language (although in less systematic or artistic ways).

  92. I take my ships in bottles remark back, the way you describe it makes it sound more interesting than I’d thought.

  93. m-l:
    “The creative edge” was clumsy shorthand, and if it led you to think I was referring only to great writers and poets, that’s not what I meant to convey. I agree absolutely that the bulk of change, innovation, creativity even, in language comes from ordinary speakers. Or, better to say, the mass of speakers, both ordinary and extraordinary. I think there will always be some who contribute more than others, whether they be lower middle class young women or great (or not-so-great) poets, folksingers, storytellers, preachers, jingle writers, what have you.
    An individual writer “rarely affects the future direction of a language” only to the extent that no individual writer can do it alone. I don’t know about Shakespeare, but Dante and Luther certainly did have a big influence on the future direction of their languages. Claims like “Luther single-handedly created the modern German language” are of course hyperbole, but if you leave out the “single-handedly” there’s still some truth to them.
    How much poetics could really still contribute to linguistics, I don’t know. Trying to see it as a branch of linguistics was idle speculation on my part, not really thought out, and in the end I’m inclined to think it’s better off as the vaguely defined, quasi-philosophical discipline it’s always been. Linguists can continue to raid it for ideas from time to time, and maybe, if they feel generous enough, even acknowledge the debt.

  94. Now I’ve read the first part of this book, the colour part, I can say that I found it interesting especially his contention that Gladstone had pretty much said it right originally but was unlikely to get any credit from the linguists of today. However, I wish he (Deutscher) could have tied up the ends or discussed the outstanding questions with the intention of proposing a resolution. As a civilian in this topic, I’m not likely to keep up with what happens — say, in academic magazines. I also had the feeling that the linguistics researchers like Berlin & Kat could have used some help from painters, colour theorists in art (e.g. Robert Slutsky) know an awful lot that the linguists aren’t even aware of.
    Deutscher himself, an Englishman, has the wrong idea sometimes: he maintains all the way through that a blue sky is a pale sky. Well, it is in England. When I was in my twenties, I painted landscapes in the Australian bush; I had difficulty finding a way of rendering such a dark toned, deep-blue sky since I’d only encountered pale skies (ones that have a very thin veil of cloud even on the clearest of days) previously. I’ve also seen highly-saturated dark blue in the sea around Greece. The languages that use black to talk about blue are used in places like New Guinea, so far from the English experience that I think he ought to take a trip.

  95. Kay, not Kat.

  96. Trond Engen says:

    What about languages that use blue to talk about black? Black Africans were called blámenn in Old Norse, and this place isn’t anything like New Guinea.

  97. Come on. A little bit.

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