Gather round, children; it’s time once again to hurl insults at that bastion of smug insularity, the New York Times. In today’s Metro section there’s a touching story by Corey Kilgannon about a NYC doctor, Ian Zlotolow (a gold star, incidentally, to anyone who can explain to me the morphology of that name, which is clearly based somehow on Slavic zlat-/z(o)lot- ‘gold’), who first treated and then adopted a boy from Sierra Leone. So far, so good, but in an attempt to dramatize the boy’s change of surroundings, the reporter produces the following:

Early last year, Lansana spoke only his tribal dialect, Mende, and hoarded food in the house. He had never been to a city, watched television, flushed a toilet or taken a shower. He had never had a real change of clothing.
But once in New York, the boy picked up English quickly, and, with his magnetic personality, made friends just by walking down the block…. When some West African cabdrivers and a college professor engaged him in dialect, he ignored them.

His “tribal dialect”? Excuse me? Mende is a language, just like English and French and all those sophisticated languages spoken by Times reporters and the people they sip aperitifs with. It is, in fact, one of the two major languages of Sierra Leone (along with Temne), with around 1.5 million speakers; it’s an offshoot of the great Mande family of West Africa, which was producing epics when the ancestors of most Times reporters were chomping on radishes and waiting for Chaucer to come along and give them a literature of their own. (Apologies to devotees of the Ancren Riwle and Layamon’s Brut.) Tell you what, next time you interview Nelson Mandela, why don’t you ask him to say a few words for you in his tribal dialect? I’ll bet a good time will be had by all.


  1. Gaaaaaah. I thought the AP stylebook had a section on this. I could be wrong, though, as the last time I did any heavy use of the AP stylebook was over a decade ago.

  2. (Screams, tears hair out). Oh dear. I do hope someone lets them know how unbelievably crap they are.

  3. Well said. The condescension that lurks in that word ‘dialect’, especially in such contexts, is amazing.

  4. I remember John Simon, the proscriptive grammarian, on the old Dick Cavet Show, telling the audience why Yiddish didn’t qualify as a language, because it didn’t have a literature. What? People have some mighty strange ideas about language.

  5. Did I type “proscriptive” rather than “prescriptive?” Well, color me red-in-the-face. I meant to type “normative.” Yeah, that’s it.

  6. he condescension that lurks in that word ‘dialect’, especially in such contexts, is amazing.
    Exactly. There’s a not-so-subtle implication of becoming civilized by dropping the old “dialect.”
    Yiddish didn’t qualify as a language, because it didn’t have a literature.
    Hence Uriel Weinreich’s much repeated quote:
    “A language is a dialect with an army and a navy.”

  7. The meaning of ‘dialect’ in linguistics (in itself only roughly defined) is different from its lay usage, where it seems to mean ‘not a national language’, probably with connotations (either bad or good) of provincial backwardness.
    I have more of a problem with the word ‘tribal’ here.

  8. Yiddish didn’t qualify as a language, because it didn’t have a literature.
    What the hell was he talking about???

  9. Well quite. “Tribal”. Sums it up entirely. Along with “never… flushed a toilet or taken a shower”. Prejudice so completely and deeply engrained, straight back to the Victorian anthropoligists who decided, on similar grounds, that various people they came across weren’t human. (Tears remainder of hair out)

  10. Personally, I find it bizarre that along with the toilet/shower/TV thing, it seems to be considered some kind of “progress” to ignore people who speak to you in your own tongue. The whole thing sounds rather tragic.

  11. It seems to me John Simon made a good argument but accepted an obviously wrong premise. However, in the late 19th century, when I.L. Peretz and Shalom Aleikhem had just begun to publish their work, it was much closer to being true; indeed, many Yiddish speakers referred to their language as “jargon”.
    But that’s not particularly important, since Mende does have at least an oral literature. What is striking, I agree, is the NYT’s condescending attitude. I wouldn’t mind that much if it were their overt stance, but it runs counter to their liberal-multicultural ideology. In any case, I strongly prefer open bigotry to hypocrisy.
    The bit about not speaking to your former compatriots in your shared mother tongue reminds me of George Mikes (the author of “How to Be an Alien”).

  12. Well (and setting aside the insulting sense of tribe for a moment), it seems to me we can speak of tribal languages like Finnish and Dutch, and cross-tribal languages like English and French, what the Ethnologue calls “languages of wider communication”.

    I think it was perfectly fair to call Simon a “proscriptive grammarian”, even if it was just a typo.

  13. I somehow doubt that the boy spoke only his native language, because according to other sources virtually everyone in Sierra Leone speaks Krio – English-based West African creole language.

    It’s pretty close to English.

    Wetin na yu nem? – “What is your name?”
    Mi nem Jemz. – “My name is James.”
    Usai yu kɔmɔt? – “Where do you come from?”
    Ar kɔmɔt Estinz. – “I come from Hastings.”
    Us wok yu de du? – “What work do you do?”
    Mi na ticha. – “I am a teacher.”
    Na us skul yu de tich? – “At what school do you teach?”
    Ar de tich na Prins ɔf Welz. – “I teach at Prince of Wales.”
    Ar gladi fɔ mit yu. – “I am happy to meet you.”
    Misɛf gladi fɔ mit yu. – “I myself am happy to meet you.”

    I suspect it was Krio, not Mende which was meant by “dialect”, especially in that last sentence:

    When some West African cabdrivers and a college professor engaged him in dialect, he ignored them.

    And he was right to forget it – it’s very difficult to speak fluently two similar languages, continuing to speak in Creole would’ve hindered his progress in English.

  14. You’re probably right — a convincing analysis.

  15. John Emerson says

    One of my brothers in law came from back country Hawaii, and his native language was Hawaiian creole (aka. “pineapple English”.) he went to college in Kansas and had a hard time at first.

  16. John Emerson says

    I had a Persian friend who spoke English perfectly. The final step of his education was to spend a summer in Alaska, where no on spoke Persian.

  17. David Eddyshaw says

    It’s pretty close to English

    Not really. Just the lexicon, and even that is full of “false friends”, especially the function words:

    Papa Gɔd we de na ɛvin,
    Na yu wan gren na Gɔd, mek ɔlman pre to yu ɛn ɔna yu;
    Wi de pre mek yu rul wi;
    mek wetin yu want, bi na dis wɔl, lɛkɛ aw i de bi na ɛvin.
    Gi wi wetin wi fɔ it tide.
    Padin wi fɔ di bad tin dɛn we wi dɔn du, lɛkɛ aw wisɛf de padin dɛn pipul we de du wi bad.
    Mek wi nɔ lɛf fɔ biliv pan yu ɛnitɛm we Setan tray wi; nɔ mek Setan ebul wi.
    Na yu de rul di wɔl, na yu gɛt pawa, ɛn na yu gɛt prɛz ɛn ɔna, fɔ ɛva ɛn ɛva.

    Krio is no more an “English dialect” than Mende is, of course. Moreover, TFA does claim that the kid spoke only Mende, which is perfectly possible, especially for a village boy who’d never visited a city. The article also says directly “his tribal dialect, Mende”, so there are no excuses for them.

    continuing to speak in Creole would’ve hindered his progress in English

    No. It wouldn’t. Nigeria abounds in people perfectly fluent in both Nigerian Pigdin and in English.

  18. David Marjanović says

    It’s pretty close to English.

    The function words seem pretty random; it took me a while to guess some of them, and some I still haven’t figured out. How did “what” become wetin? How did “do” become de?

    And “I come out Hastings” is German, not English. :-þ

    it’s very difficult to speak fluently two similar languages

    It’s very difficult to learn two similar foreign languages at the same time. (It’s a challenge to learn any two foreign languages at the same time, even Russian and Chinese, because they block each other.) But to merely speak two similar languages or dialects? Especially if you speak one (or more) of them natively? No.

  19. David Eddyshaw says

    De is not “do”; it’s “be, exist”, or (more often) precedes a verb to mark it as imperfective aspect. We de du wi bad = “who do (ipfv) us harm.”

    It’s from English “there” (I think.)

    Wetin incorporates “thing” (I think.)

    A fair bit of the semantics is pan-West African: for example ebul “overcome”, which is from English “able”, has pretty much the semantic range of (you guessed it) Kusaal nyaŋ “overcome”, which is used for “be able” before a catenated clause.

  20. Where does na come from?
    I know it’s a topicalizer or something but it’s really hard for me to get my head wrapped around how to use na. I think we talked about it here once.

    Ed.: here, in 7/2019.

  21. Trond Engen says

    Now? That’s arguably a topicalizer in English, and the extension seems straightforward. (Maybe I have that from the previous discussion, or maybe I suggested that and was gently shot down by our resident west-africanist.)

    Edit: I wrote recident. If that had been intended, it would have been a nice little subtle insult. I’ll save that for more deserving insultees.

  22. David Eddyshaw says

    A kɔmɔt Estinz is also pretty West-African-Sprachbund-y too, cf Kusaal

    M yi nɛ Bɔk.
    I emerge FOCUS Bawku
    “I’m from Bawku.”

    [The focus particle is homophonous with the preposition “with”, but it’s fairly easy to show that it’s actually not the preposition in this construction; there are different distribution rules for the two words in subordinate clauses, for example.]

    Just like Kusaal yi, kɔmɔt means equally “go out” and “come out”, and can be used with or without a locative complement. It’s not a phrase and contains no preposition.

  23. David Eddyshaw says

    The origin of na is unclear:

    (Bulbul agrees in the immediately following comment, which is reassuring to me, as he’s pretty expert in this.)

    Its usage is a bit different in different West African English-lexifier pidgins, as Bulbul explains a bit earlier in that thread.

  24. Trond Engen says

    Ah, that’s what I dimly recalled.

    Every time I’m caught repeating myself, I think I was better the first time. This is not boding well..

  25. Google what you just typed in quotes with appended.

  26. David Eddyshaw says

    The Guardian, alas, is no better than the New York Times:

    In her latest single, Can’t Let You Go, Don slips between patois and the Nigerian dialect, Yoruba.

    At least it wasn’t a tribal dialect. Progress!

  27. A tribal dialect would be a bit more respectable if it were an Ancient Tribal Dialect. No one speaks an ancient patois, though.

  28. David Eddyshaw says

    Rattray is actually pretty good for his time. He preserves a lot of valuable information and was highly industrious, genuinely curious and open-minded. Tribes of the Ashanti Hinterland (i.e. where I actually used to live) is still worth looking at (though it might be advisable to keep it in a plain brown wrapper.)

  29. Malinowski’s The Sexual Life of Savages in North-Western Melanesia will never be topped.

  30. An inquiry concerning the primitive inhabitants of Ireland

  31. Remember that book titles are determined by the publisher, not the author. The Lord of the Rings was divided by the author into six books, whose titles were never firmly established, like most things in the Legendarium until they were officially published:

    Book I might have been “The First Journey”, “The Ring Sets Out”, or “The Return of the Shadow”; Book II “The “Journey of the Ring-Bearers”, “The Ring Goes South”, or “The Fellowship of the Ring”. Book III was always going to be “The Treason of Isengard”. Book IV might have been “The Journey To Mordor” or “The Ring Goes East”; Book V’s title was going to be “The War of the Ring”; Book VI’s either “The Return of the King” or “The End of the Third Age”.

    When postwar paper restrictions made it necessary that the novel be released in three physical volumes published consecutively, Tolkien was not very happy with either the idea or the publisher’s titles, particularly The Two Towers: there are plenty of towers, but which ones are meant? His own proposal, since the three-volume decision was firm, was for The Shadow Grows, The Ring in the Shadow, The War of the Ring. But no luck.

  32. David Eddyshaw says

    Thanks for the link to Machin’s biography of Rattray, Hat. It’s fascinating. A lost world. It was all new to me: I’d only come across Rattray through his work.

    It seems that Rattray in fact much transcended the colonialist assumptions of his time. His main fault from a modern viewpoint seems to have been somewhat romanticising what he took to be traditional African culture while being irrationally irked by Africans who acquired European ways (something he shares with Joyce Cary, though Rattray knew much more about Africa than Cary.) Still, he moved on from this to a position that what was needed was not for Africans to stay the same, but to acquire European culture and knowledge on their own terms and mediated through their own culture and categories of thought. No prizes for guessing whether I approve of that … Ghana actually seems to have done a pretty good job of that on the whole; Machin reckons that Rattray deserves some of the credit.

    He was no Malinowski and uninterested in anthropological theory, but he was a tireless fieldworker and a great observer.
    He seems to have been a thorn in the flesh of the colonial authorities much of the time, for all that they found him useful. Good for him!

    I was amused by the contemporary insinuations that his excellent command of Twi had been helped along by [quote] “sleeping with his dictionaries.”

  33. 寝字引 ne-jibiki ‘sleeping dictionary’: Japanese for a girlfriend/sex partner from whom you learn a language.

  34. David Eddyshaw says

    Alas, these terms perpetuate the vulgar error that a language is a “bag of words.” Real field linguists sleep with their grammars, of course.

  35. But not (horribile dictu) their grandmas.

  36. David Eddyshaw says

    All together now …

    I’m my own grandpa!
    I’m my own grandpa …

  37. For those who want to sing along (with family tree diagram).

  38. Feynman in Brazil, 1949:

    When I got to Rio I met Cesar Lattes. The national TV network wanted to make some pictures of our meeting, so they started filming, but without any sound. The cameramen said, “Act as if you’re talking. Say something–anything.”

    So Lattes asked me, “Have you found a sleeping dictionary yet?”

    That night, Brazilian TV audiences saw the director of the Center for Physical Research welcome the Visiting Professor from the United States, but little did they know that the subject of their conversation was finding a girl to spend the night with!

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