THE NECESSARY TONE OF AUTHORITY.

Lameen at Jabal al-Lughat has come across a language textbook that sounds like a satirist’s invention, but it’s apparently all too real:

I’m researching Chadic imperatives at the moment, so I opened Angass Manual – written by H. D. Foulkes, Captain (late R. F. A.), Political Officer, Nigeria in 1915) to the appropriate section, and found it to consist solely of the following advice:
The Imperative is of the same form as the rest of the verbal forms, only uttered with the necessary tone of authority.

[...]I particularly like how he explains that Angass grammar is really simple:

“The language is so simple in construction that I am hoping a study of it may help in elucidating the groundwork of more elaborated Negro languages.”

This is the best bit:

“The only difficulty – but it is a very real one – in the colloquial is the apparently capricious employment of a large number of particles, the use of which, though immaterial from a grammatical point of view, is, however, necessary in practice, for without them the sentence certainly loses its flavour, and seemingly some of its sense, in that an ordinary man cannot understand a phrase unless it is enunciated exactly in the way he is accustomed to hearing it, and the omission or transposition of a word bothers him considerably.”

Truly, the mind boggles. We’ve come a long way, baby! (I presume “Angass” is the language Ethnologue calls Ngas.)

Comments

  1. You wouldn’t need to edit that last quotation very much to make it a good fit as a description of such modern dialects as Corporate Gobbledygook and PC Campus Babble.

  2. “The Imperative is of the same form as the rest of the verbal forms, only uttered with the necessary tone of authority.”
    Ahh. Kinda like, uhm, ehm… English.

  3. Yes, one suspects that the good Capt. Foulkes really would have preferred all languages to be as much like English as possible, and did the best he could to cram them into the mold.

  4. and did the best he could to cram them into the mold.
    We’re still talking about Captain Foulkes? ‘Cause it sure reminds me of a certain other linguist who shall remain unnamed…

  5. One British colonel in China said that the Chinese was such an inadequate language that the Chinese seldom talked, and since Chinese needs to supplemented with hand gesutures, the Chinese are entirely silent after dark.
    And he wasn’t even a trained linguist!

  6. “I haven’t figured out what all these particles — or whatever they maybe be — mean, so I’ll just assume that their role is purely decorative. Stupid, really, of those savages, to use them.”

  7. I have known Chinese who stripped English of its useless particles, so this isn’t a one-way street.

  8. Eh, I can’t join in in the ridicule. The man was a professional soldier, apparently and not surprisingly without any linguistic training, and yet Lameen is looking to his book as a resource most of a century later. If he hadn’t written the thing at all, there would be even less documentation of the language out there—and I don’t admit that a grammar of an unfamiliar language written by a professional soldier months of travel away from scholarly resources would be any better today.

  9. Always sticking up for the Brits, eh, Kehoe?

  10. John, yes, that’s me! I have to admit that my flatmate has started complaining about my commencing every day with a loud chorus of Rule, Britannia!, but he had jolly well better get used to it.

  11. David Marjanović says:

    I have known Chinese who stripped English of its useless particles, so this isn’t a one-way street.
    Such as articles, plural markers, and tense markers?
    most of a century later.
    That’s an interesting expression. I had no idea it existed. :-o

  12. John Emerson says:

    David — exactly. I am convinced that they just had no time for all that nonsense. One had been living in the US for 20+ years and had excellent functional English. She was a college graduate in China, too.

  13. michael farris says:

    Making fun of the linguistic … shortcomings of an apparently intellectually curious cog in the vast machinery of impersonal colonialism seems to me a little like making fun of the disabled.
    His biggest sin after all is not presenting his ignorance with the appropriate terminology. Had he written:
    “The primary difficulty – and it is a very real one – in the colloquial is the frequent use of a large number of particles, which appear to be immaterial from a grammatical point of view. They do, however, seem to be necessary, mostly for expressive purposes or for reasons of euphony. Further research into these particles is clearly called for.”
    No one would bat an eye. “Euphony” I learned through grammar reading is a way for linguists to say “damned if I know” without losing face, as are calls for further research. And, let’s remember, that describing an unfamiliar language in situ is just about the hardest task linguists face and most linguists aren’t very good at it.
    I certainly didn’t set the world on fire with my attempts at figuring out Polish Sign Language (though the fact that field methods that work for spoken language are usually worse than useless when applied to signed languages gives me comfort).

  14. David Marjanović says:

    *lightbulb above head*
    Don’t the Cushitic languages have phonemic tone that functions in grammar?
    Lameen’s comment would suddenly make sense that way:
    I suppose it’s too much to expect an Edwardian captain to be able to transcribe tones, but I couldn’t read that without bursting out laughing.
    After all, it doesn’t make sense to transcribe tone in English, or for that matter (in this context) in Mandarin where tone is purely lexical (and where you can probably debate whether a separate imperative exists, but I digress, as usual).

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