The Intermediate Class.

I can’t really say how good Sam Allingham’s story in last week’s New Yorker is, because my enjoyment of it was overdetermined: it’s about a Russian-American taking a German class with people of different backgrounds, with discussion of various languages, such as this:

“Where do you live?” Kiril asked. He had to force himself to use the casual du. Sometimes, when he searched for German, Russian came to him instead, and he reverted to the patterns of childhood.

And I like the way Allingham renders the effect of the effortful German of the students (the class is conducted in German), mimicked in English:

“I like very much the park,” he said. “It is dark and cool, and in the park there are dogs and people and flowers and trees.”

The girl who played the piano murmured wordlessly. Perhaps she had similar feelings.

Kiril began to relax. “And . . . the park . . . is not . . .” Finally the correct word came to him. “Crowded.”

If you enjoy the story, you’ll want to read the interview with the author (“Learning a language means learning the rules to a seemingly endless series of these games, from the correct procedure for ordering coffee to the delicate art of asking your boss for a raise, none of which are quite the same as they are in English”) and perhaps listen to the author read his story.

Comments

  1. The author says the “secret language” does not exist, but I assumed it was Sorbian.

  2. David Marjanović says:

    “Now we will have pair conversation.” The teacher cracked his knuckles.

    Perfect.

    However, komisch just means “strange” anymore, outside of komische Oper; and I’m not sure what Krankentag is even meant to mean.

  3. Why? Krankentag is a Krankheitstag. It may be substandard German but not uncommon, as a few minutes googling shows. Probably by analogy to Krankenstand.

  4. David Marjanović says:

    Regional, then.

  5. You of all people should know better than to generalize about German!

  6. marie-lucie says:

    JC: The author says the “secret language” does not exist, but I assumed it was Sorbian.

    Can you clarify?

  7. David L says:

    I haven’t read the story but I was struck by something else: your use of ‘overdetermined.’ It’s a word I started noticing in newspapers and elsewhere only fairly recently, and an ngram indicates a sharp rise since the 1980s.

    I’ve never been able to completely figure out what it means in a general context, because I think of it primarily as a mathematical term, which I’m sure you know too. A system of equations is underdetermined if (somewhat loosely speaking) there are more unknowns than the number of equations, meaning that you can’t find a unique solution. The system is overdetermined in the opposite situation, more equations than unknowns, which typically implies that no solution exists (if a solution does exist, then the equations are not independent).

    Anyway, I associate the intrusion of ‘overdetermined’ into popular vocabulary with policy-wonkspeak of the Rumsfeldian variety, with the aim of making qualitative decisions sound forbiddingly technocratic, but maybe that’s just because I read the Washington Post. I am curious about how this rather odd word came into public discourse.

    ETA: The thing is, overdetermined in this general sense seems to refer to something that’s inevitable, bound to happen, whereas in the mathematical sense an overdetermined problem is one that in general has no solution, as I said. So there’s a contradiction of sorts in there.

  8. David Marjanović says:

    I didn’t generalize. I only said I’m not sure what it’s meant to mean. 🙂

    …OK, I generalized about komisch. But I still think I’m right about that one.

  9. For whatever reason, I get a blank screen when I want to read that story. I’ve tried other articles and they show just fine…

  10. Strange! Will this Google cache version work?

  11. The thing is, overdetermined in this general sense seems to refer to something that’s inevitable, bound to happen, whereas in the mathematical sense an overdetermined problem is one that in general has no solution, as I said. So there’s a contradiction of sorts in there.

    A contradiction of the sort that occurs with many, many technical terms (ask a linguist about “grammar” or a physicist about “entropy,” for example). If I ever knew the mathematical sense I’d forgotten it; the general sense is the sense to anyone but a mathematician, and I’m afraid mathematicians will just have to get used to wincing.

  12. Oh, I’m not complaining. I just think it’s an odd word to have made it into the public sphere and, as I said, I’m curious how it came about. With ‘entropy,’ there’s a broad connection between the technical meaning and the general interpretation, whereas with ‘overdetermined’ it’s almost as if someone liked the look of the word and took it to have a meaning that isn’t related at all to the technical one.

  13. Wikipedia

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Overdetermination

    says that uses outside mathematics started with Freud and then were picked up by 20th century Marxists. I first heard it used in non-mathematical contexts from my father, who was a devout Freudian.

  14. @LH: Yep, that works, thanks!

  15. …OK, I generalized about komisch. But I still think I’m right about that one.
    I agree, it mostly means “strange, weird” nowadays; it means “comical, funny” mostly only when used in the negative (ich finde die Geschichte nicht komisch “I don’t think that story is funny”).

  16. Jim Doyle says:

    “A contradiction of the sort that occurs with many, many technical terms (ask a linguist about “grammar” or a physicist about “entropy,” for example). ”

    I took it to mean some kind of deterministic; bound to happen. And that made sense.

    Ask a botanist about “fruit.”

  17. I think the connection between the mathematical and general senses of “overdetermined” is that in the case in math where there is a solution, there is more than one way to arrive at that solution (by using more than one subset of the equations). In the general sense, “overdetermined” means that there are multiple compatible ways to get to the outcome.

  18. Makes sense, and that’s certainly the way I think of it.

  19. I think that “overdetermined” in the sense that MattF links to (and that Hat is using) fits rather well with the mathematical sense: in both cases, there are more constraints than things constrained. In pure mathematics there is “almost surely” no way to satisfy all the constraints (if they are randomly selected), but that’s not a defining characteristic.

    But if you’re looking for a more on-point alternative where the existence of a solution is presupposed, “statically indeterminate” is ripe for the borrowing!

  20. January First-of-May says:

    For whatever reason, I get a blank screen when I want to read that story.

    Same (though I hadn’t tried other articles), so thanks for the Google cache!

  21. David Marjanović says:

    I interpreted “overdetermined” as “overparameterized”…

    Hans is of course right about nicht komisch. I barely seem to think of that as the same lexeme.

  22. Fair enough. For me, the main sense of ‘overdetermined’ refers to the case where there is no solution, but maybe that’s a quirk of how I learned about it. (Sort of like ‘trying too hard’ as an explanation of why you’re not succeeding).

  23. m-l: The speaker in the story refers to a language that is not German but is being spoken in Germany, and is not understood by Germans (in general). Sorbian, which is spoken only in Germany but is a Slavic language, was the first thing that came to my mind. On further consideration I might say Turkish. But it seems that some sort of language-of-the-soul is intended.

    David L.: I too agree that “overdetermined” in the general sense means “too many reasons to come to the same conclusion”. I remember telling my friends who were arguing against the war on Iraq that Bush’s launch of it was overdetermined: no matter how many reasons to go to war were exposed as fallacies, the Bushites always had plenty more to put forward. (None of which I found convincing, but that’s another matter.)

  24. David Marjanović says:

    is a Slavic language

    Two: Upper, which is more similar to the neighboring Czech, and Lower, which is more similar to the neighboring Polish.

  25. Upper, which is more similar to the neighboring Czech, and Lower, which is more similar to the neighboring Polish.

    The Upper one doing relatively well through the historical support of the predominant Catholic church; the Lutheran Lower one in severe decline.

  26. I have seen materials from the former GDR (among other, the national railway time table) that were bilingual in German and Sorbian. They always used Upper Sorbian; I can’t say whether the authorities picked that variety because it was more widely spoken or whether the support of the authorities contributed to Upper Sorbian doing better.

  27. Trond Engen says:

    But if you’re looking for a more on-point alternative where the existence of a solution is presupposed, “statically indeterminate” is ripe for the borrowing!

    Careful. Keep us structural engineers out of it.

    But you’re right. The term is counter-intuitive and thus immediately misunderstood. A statically indeterminate system is supported or held in more ways than needed for the equilibrium of forces, i.e. more stable than a statically terminate one. Conversely, a statically overdetermined system* is supported in fewer ways than needed — i.e. unstable.

    *) At least this goes for statisk overbestemt in No. terminology. I’m assuming the usage is parallel in English.

  28. But it seems that some sort of language-of-the-soul is intended.

    That is how I interpreted it. Arthur is trying to find a way back to the connection he had when he first fell in love with a woman that would have seemed mysterious and exotic to a young US soldier. She is specifically East German, implying she couldn’t speak English well.

  29. @Trond Engen: It’s not my field, by my understanding is that in English, statically overdetermined is a subcategory of statically indeterminate. A statically overdetermined systems has more supports than is necessary to fix its position. There are thus not enough static equations to determine the contact forces present at each support. The way the force is distributed among the supports therefore depends on the deformation properties of the body.

  30. marie-lucie says:

    But it seems that some sort of language-of-the-soul is intended.

    Yes, that’s the way it seemed to me too. Apparently the man feels that they used to communicate much better before he learned German! Now he can communicate at a functional level but has never felt at home in the language, so speaking German with his wife is an obstacle to more meaningful, intimate communication.

  31. David Eddyshaw says:

    I have to mention H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N.
    I just have to. It would be Wrong not to. I hope everyone will understand.
    Kaplan is the antiKiril.

  32. Homonymy: “In som houses is even the pitchers beauriful.”

    Politics: “How can you comparink a Judge Vashington mit a Gary Baldy? Ha!”

    Apologies: “I big de pottment.”

    Verb conjugation: “Die, dead, funeral.”

    Noun declension: “Libary, Public libary.”

    Music: “Heppy Dace Is Here Vunce More.”

    Sarcasm: “Piddy? You esk piddy for de man who sad ‘Feh!’ to de cless?”

    Clarification: “Mine oncle has a gless eye.”

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