Teaching Nanai.

Dmitry Oparin interviews Vasily Kharitonov for the Russia Program:

Vasily Kharitonov is a linguist at the Institute of Linguistics of the Russian Academy of Sciences. In 2022, he went to the Nanai village of Dada in the Far East to teach children the Nanai language and study the local linguistic landscape. In a conversation with anthropologist Dmitry Oparin, the scholar talks about his methods of studying native speakers, the factors that influence the prestige of a language, and how the infrastructure in Russia works for those who communicate and read in more languages than just Russian. […]

You teach at a school in the village of Dada. Is this a Nanai village?

In Dada, all families are Nanai. That is, there are many non-Nanai here, but usually these are members of a Nanai family. There are almost no people like me who are not a part of some family.

How many Nanai are there in Dada and how many of them are native speakers?

For me, the question of being a native Nanai speaker isn’t binary — a simple “yes” or “no.” A person may have excellent comprehension, but may not speak a word. And there are those who both understand and speak, but usually understand better than they speak. This year, I came up with an entire language proficiency map. […]

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I’d almost be willing to post Claire Moses’ NY Times story (archived) just for the bare existence of the word Böögg, but I’ll use the proposed etymology in the last quoted paragraph as a hook:

Imagine if Punxsutawney Phil just didn’t show up one year. How would people know how much longer winter would last? People in Zurich found themselves in a similar state of limbo this week.

On Monday, high winds disrupted the city’s annual spring festival, a Swiss version of Groundhog Day that includes a parade and the ceremonial burning of a fake snowman — an effigy of winter — whose head is packed with fireworks.

The parades went off without a hitch. But when the time came for the festival’s grand finale, the burning and explosion of the snowman atop a pyre, high winds kicked up and the ceremony was scuttled for safety reasons.

The festival, Sechseläuten, takes place on the third Monday of April. Its name roughly translates to “the six o’clock ringing of the bells.” The snowman is called the Böögg, a term that likely has its roots in the English word boogeyman.

Böögg < boogeyman? Can that possibly be right?

Nabokov’s Feat.

I’ve finally finished Nabokov’s 1932 novel Подвиг [The feat], translated by Nabokov & Son as Glory; it took me a couple of weeks longer than it should have because I kept taking nibbles rather than making meals of it. I don’t really know why — it is, of course, well written — but the further I got the grumpier I became, and finally I had to force myself to gobble up the last 50 pages or so. And now I am going to grouse about it. Warning: there will be spoilers, especially because the ending is the only thing that makes it a novel rather than a series of biographical events (many of them taken from the author’s own life: exile from Russia, studies at Cambridge, life in Berlin, extreme estheticism); early reviews complained of its apparently pointless, meandering nature.

You can get a summary of the plot, such as it is, at the Wikipedia article I linked above; the executive summary is that Martin Edelweiss, a Russian émigré who falls in unrequited love with a fellow émigré named Sonya while studying at Cambridge, makes a secret plan to enter the Soviet Union from Latvia. Why does he do this? To impress her? To prove something to himself (as earlier he had forced himself to return to a narrow cliff ledge from which he had nearly fallen to his death)? Who knows? Such non-explanation as there is can be found in the last chapter, during a conversation with his old friend Darwin in Berlin in which he describes his plan before taking the train to Riga to carry it out:
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Toni Morrison’s Rejection Letters.

Melina Moe has a new LARB article “There Is No Point in My Being Other Than Honest with You: On Toni Morrison’s Rejection Letters” that makes me like Morrison a great deal:

“I found it extremely honest, forthright, and moving in ways I had not expected it to be,” Toni Morrison wrote to an aspiring novelist in 1977, “but it is a shuddering book and one that offers no escape for any reader whatsoever.” Still, Morrison, then a senior editor at Random House, liked the manuscript so much that, before responding, she passed it around the office to drum up support. The verdict was “intelligent,” but also “very ‘down,’ depressing, spiritually abrasive.” Whatever the merits of the writing, Morrison’s colleagues predicted, the potent mix of dissatisfaction, anger, and mournfulness would limit the book’s commercial appeal—and Morrison reluctantly agreed. “You don’t want to escape and I don’t want to escape,” her letter concludes, “but perhaps the public does and perhaps we are in the business of helping them do that.”

During her 16 years at Random House, Morrison wrote hundreds of rejection letters. Usually typed on pink, yellow, or white carbonless copy paper, and occasionally bearing Random House’s old logo and letterhead, these are now filed among her correspondence in the Random House archives at Columbia University’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library. While many of the letters were mailed to New York, Boston, and even Rome, others were sent to writers in more obscure places; some are addressed to “general delivery” in various small towns across the United States.

Regardless of destination, Morrison’s rejections tend to be long, generous in their suggestions, and direct in their criticism. The letters themselves—generally one, two at most, exchanged with a given writer—constitute an asymmetrical archive. On one end of each communiqué is the ghost of a submitted manuscript (absent from the archive after being returned to the sender, although in some cases survived by a cover letter). On the other is a rejection from Morrison, sometimes brusque yet typically offering something more than an expression of disinterest—notes on craft, character development, the need for more (or less) drama. But also: Autopsies of a changing, and in many ways diminishing, publishing industry; frustrations with the tastes of a reading public; and sympathies for poets, short story writers, and other authors drawn to commercially hopeless genres.

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The Pavlova Spectrum.

The Tumbrel Diaries of May 23, 2009 had a post The definitive Pavlova color spectrum that featured:

Complete chronological list of 31 references in the Argus newspaper (Melbourne) to “Pavlova” or “pavlova” as the name for a “new season” color, together with all accompanying named colors or shades, 1926–28

The entries are studded with impressively outré color names, e.g. (from April 26, 1926) “tangerine, amourette, nilesque, veronese, tan, Pavlova, oriflamme, rust, and burnt oak” and (from Sept. 20) “pervenche [periwinkle blue], bois de rose, plum, navy, white, brown, raisin, champagne, wine, mulberry, nattier, vieux rose saxe, rose, beige, chardron, parma, Pavlova, cocoa, and black.” The Conclusion begins:

Of the thirty-one wholly explicit uses in print of Pavlova or pavlova as the name for a color, all occur in advertisements placed by seven Melbourne department stores in the Argus newspaper between April 26, 1926, and October 20, 1928, whereupon the term utterly vanishes from sight.

And a good thing too — there were quite enough colors to keep track of as it was. Thanks, Trevor!
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First Languages of North America from Two Siberian Lineages?

John Emerson sent me a link to Bob Yirka’s Phys.org piece “First languages of North America traced back to two very different language groups from Siberia,” saying “Looks dodgy to me”; I responded “Well, Johanna Nichols is well respected, so I wouldn’t dismiss anything she says out of hand, but this is surprising. I’ll toss it over the fence at the Hattery and see if it gets torn to shreds.” Yirka’s executive summary:

Nichols’ techniques involve the use of linguistic typology, a field that involves comparing languages and organizing them based on shared criteria. To learn more about early North American languages, she compiled lists of language characteristics and applied them to all known languages. She then scored each of the languages based on the revealed qualities. This allowed her to compare the languages as a way to find resemblances among them and spot patterns.

Nichols found that she could trace the languages spoken in early North America back to just two lineages, both of which originated in Siberia. They came, she notes, with the people who made their way across land bridges during Ice Age glaciation events.

Those two main groups she found evolved into different languages as people moved to different regions—she focused most specifically on 60 of them. She found that many of those languages were also impacted by multiple waves of Siberians arriving in North America. She concludes that some of the characteristics of the original languages have been retained through the years and are now in the current linguistic population.

Nichols’ paper (open source) is here; back in 2012 marie-lucie wrote:
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Of Which It Was Unheard.

I’ve just run across perhaps the worst result of fear-of-ending-a-sentence-with-a-preposition (Präpositionbeendigungangst?) that I have ever seen. In a FB post about the movie Cleopatra, we find the following sentence:

When Twentieth Century Fox decided to salvage the production of this movie following the resignation of original director Rouben Mamoulian, the studio gave Elizabeth Taylor another demand in her contract which no other actor or actress had up until that time: director approval, of which it was unheard.

The normal phrasing would be something like “a demand unheard-of until then,” but whoever wrote that got into a syntactical tangle and found themself staring at the prospect of ending the sentence with “unheard of.” The result is what you see before you. Please, English teachers, think before you subject your helpless students to zombie rules!

Whales and Other Aliens.

A few years ago I posted about the CETI project; now Matteo Wong at the Atlantic interviews Ross Andersen about the current situation (archived):

Ross Andersen: Before attempting to translate the sperm whales’ clicks, Project CETI wants to use a model that is analogous to ChatGPT to generate sequences of them that are hopefully like those that the whales use. Putting aside the fraught and contested question as to whether ChatGPT understands human language, we know that it is quite good at predicting how our words unfold into sentences. Presumably a language model for sperm whales could do the same with the clicks.

It’s possible that these generated sequences alone would tell us something about the structure of sperm whale language. But to translate between languages, models currently need some preexisting translation samples to get going. Project CETI is hoping that they might be able to patch together the first of these required translation samples the old-fashioned way. They have been landing drones on the whales to gently suction-cup sensors onto their skin. The time-matched data that they send back helps the team attribute clicks to individual animals. It also tells them important information about what they’re doing.

The hope is that, with enough observation, they might be able to figure out what a few of the click sequences mean. They could then turn over a crude and spotty Rosetta Stone to a language model and have it fill out at least a little bit of the rest. The scientists would then check whatever it came up with against their observations, and repeat the process, iteratively, until they’ve translated the whales’ entire language.

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To quote Wikipedia: “Seediq, also known as Sediq, Taroko, is an Atayalic language spoken in the mountains of Northern Taiwan by the Seediq and Taroko people.” That article is impressively detailed for such a minor language, and the Phonology section hints (“The stressed syllable is usually the penultimate one, and is pronounced with a high pitch. In the Truku dialect stress is on the final syllable resulting in loss of first vowel…”) at why there are such varying pronunciations here ([seˈʔediq], [səˈdiq], [səˈʔəɟiq]). But the reason I bring it up is that I discovered it via a link to Indigenous Cultural Translation: A Thick Description of Seediq Bale:

Indigenous Cultural Translation is about the process that made it possible to film the 2011 Taiwanese blockbuster Seediq Bale in Seediq, an endangered indigenous language. Seediq Bale celebrates the headhunters who rebelled against or collaborated with the Japanese colonizers at or around a hill station called Musha starting on October 27, 1930, while this book celebrates the grandchildren of headhunters, rebels, and collaborators who translated the Mandarin-language screenplay into Seediq in central Taiwan nearly eighty years later.

As a “thick description” of Seediq Bale, this book describes the translation process in detail, showing how the screenwriter included Mandarin translations of Seediq texts recorded during the Japanese era in his screenplay, and then how the Seediq translators backtranslated these texts into Seediq, changing them significantly. It argues that the translators made significant changes to these texts according to the consensus about traditional Seediq culture they have been building in modern Taiwan, and that this same consensus informs the interpretation of the Musha Incident and of Seediq culture that they articulated in their Mandarin-Seediq translation of the screenplay as a whole. The argument more generally is that in building cultural consensus, indigenous peoples like the Seediq are “translating” their traditions into alternative modernities in settler states around the world.

Wow, does that sound interesting! Had I but world enough and time…

Learning Clause-Chain Languages.

Hannah Sarvasy reported back in 2020 on some suggestive research:

Languages like Japanese, Korean, Turkish and the indigenous languages of the Amazon, East Africa, and New Guinea build sentences in a way that lets them grow to enormous length. Our research shows learning one of these languages may help children create complex sentences that express multiple ideas at a younger age.

Try recounting what you did this morning, or telling a story, and chances are you’ll use a series of several sentences: “This morning, I woke early. I dressed and ate breakfast. I gathered my things, said goodbye to my family, and they waved goodbye to me. Then I drove to work.” In English, the simplest sentence, or “clause,” is just a subject plus a verb (“I dressed”). You can also join two clauses into a sentence using words like “and” or “while,” but it’s unnatural to join more than about three clauses into one English sentence.

But in many languages across Central Asia (from Turkish to Tibetan, Mongolian, Japanese, and Korean), and in many indigenous languages of the Amazon, East Africa, and New Guinea, stories can take the form of one long sentence. These sentences look more like this: “Waking up early this morning, dressing, making breakfast, eating, washing the dishes, gathering my things, saying goodbye to my family, they waving goodbye to me, I drove to work.”

These long sentences are known as “clause chains.” Unlike in English, where most of the clauses in a story would make sense if you spoke them outside the story (“I dressed”), all but the very last clause in a “clause chain” are abbreviated—they can only function in a clause chain. “Dressing” or “making breakfast” sounds unfinished on its own, and only the final verb of the clause chain tells you whether the events are happening in the past, present, or future.

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