Oct. 22nd, 2015 11:54 am

Ich Idiot

muckefuck: (zhongkui)
I don't know what's wrong with me lately but I've been refusing opportunities to speak my languages. They say twice is a coincidence, three times is a pattern, right? About a month ago I was paired with a coworker from Spain. There was a quiet moment at a service point where this came out and it was a perfect chance to speak some Castilian, but I passed it up. Then of course iBAM, for which I'd been cramming Irish for weeks only to shy away from speaking it to the other Gaeilgeorí.

Yesterday, we had a prof talk about taking undergraduates to Hamburg to do original research. I ran into her at the refreshments table and in-between chatting about cheeses I mentioned studying abroad not too far from where she grew up. "Oh, so you must be fluent in German!" she said and it would've been so easy to respond with something like, "Würde gar nicht sagen, aber damals war das der Fall." But I didn't; I replied in English and that's all we spoke afterwards.

It would be easy to blame this reluctance on my worsening audio processing difficulties, which make me self-conscious even chatting in English in noisy environments. But there's more going on than just that. The observation from the Swiss woman made it clear that, at my age, I'm no longer expected to be learning languages, I'm expected to know them, and that adds a level of performance anxiety to my deep-seated needed to appear intelligent and interesting. And who needs that when I'm only really confident in my ability to charm when speaking my native tongue?
Aug. 27th, 2014 12:56 pm


muckefuck: (zhongkui)
It is odd to me that I've gone so long without making a language-themed post here, but it's odd for me to have gone so long without actively studying a language. My enthusiasm for Albanian barely lasted a week, and that was back in January. I can remember brief spells of Irish, French, and--most recently--Serbian since then, but nothing sustained or intensive.

I did pull out some of my Vietnamese books recently on account of reading some short stories from Đoàn Lê and one from Robert Olen Butler, but I've never really cared for Vietnamese and it's likely to remain little more than a curiosity for me. The most interesting thing I discovered about it this time around is that (a) initial clusters apparently survived long enough to make it into Rhodes' dictionary and (b) they explain some puzzling variations in the modern language. For instance, Middle Vietnamese *mlạt yields both nhạt and lạt in Hanoi dialect, where they are in free variation.

Of course, I don't have to be studying a specific language to come across interesting things to post about, but most of these feel too slight to merit an entry of their own. For instance, the other night another penny dropped for me and I realised that predecessor and decease were etymologically related. (The Latin root is decedo, "I go" (cedo) "away" (de-), "I depart".) Ancestor is part of the same family (Latin antecessor with syncope and epenthesis via Old French).

So any suggestions for linguistic subjects would be welcome. I like thinking about this stuff, but I miss the discipline of actually trying to explain it to someone else.
muckefuck: (zhongkui)
I'm feeling a conspicuous lack of language-themed posts, but I simply haven't been doing much on that front. Rather than throwing myself into the study of some exciting new language, I've simply been trying not to lose what I have. I continue to make slow progress on the Labro, gradually adding to my store of French vocabulary (Fave Word of the Now: chafouin "sly, weasly") and idiom and, very recently, there's been renewed interest for Irish on one of my fora so I feel obligated to refresh it out of season in order to provide grammatical advice.

No, this is thoroughly American weather we're having: still 29°C and 71% relative humidity. Normally, we'd expect at least a couple weeks of this. But climate weirdness continues as we look forward to a low of 17°C tonight and 15°C tomorrow. It's also been the driest week for nearly two months; Scooter actually had to plug in the sprinkler for once. But our flowers are loving it. The geraniums up front have never looked better (and will need to be seriously pruned to be brought back inside this fall). Neither have the azaleas, which a producing double and even treble blossoms. Perhaps egged on by them, the Martha Washington geranium, which did nothing all spring, has begun blossoming itself and the black-eyed susans are right on the cusp.

I only wish the garden were doing better. The dill is looking distinctly unhappy and basil risks being shaded out by the monster zucchini invading from the western edge of the plot unless I move it, trim some leaves, or both. The parsley never came up, and neither did the basil. Most disappointing of all are the nasturtiums, which have never exceeded the size they achieved in the first couple weeks and aren't showing any signs of flowering. So much for the idea of putting them in a window box rather than the full sun of the garden proper.
muckefuck: (zhongkui)
I've long been fascinated by the role of accents as cultural signifiers in popular music styles--you know, how if you want to sing honky-tonk you adopt a twang even if you were born in New Jersey or Kent. So this article on cultural appropriation in the work of flavour-of-the-week hip-hop diva Iggy Azalea from Mullumbimby, Oz was right up my alley. The author goes through a long laundry list of non-Black artists from Elvis to Winehouse who drew heavily from African-American influences when crafting their personal vocal styles and finally concludes:
But each one of these artists have made a voice that was their own, with their own soul. Even when they used the Afro-American Vernacular English and inflections running throughout soul music – the black accent, or blaccent. Iggy Azalea fails D[on't] F[ake] T[he] F[unk] for me because she's all blaccent, no soul. Yes, she cops to her influences any minute, but she has to because she made up a dead-center black voice. She didn't bend her Australian voice to incorporate some blaccent features. She went all the way. Or, too far.
I've never really seen anyone spell out the fine gradations of inauthenticity in quite this way. Personally, I've always found Mick's pseudo-Southern delivery exaggerated to point of parody as well, but here is where extralinguistic considerations apparently entre the calculus:
There's a difference between the whitewashed pre-Beatles American pop world, and the guys who appeared to be more open about their influences and giving credit to black musicians....I've seen Rod Stewart, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and The Rolling Stones pay alongside Buddy Guy, B.B. King and Muddy Waters.
Which makes me wonder: If Azalea had come to prominence the same way that, say, Nicky Minaj did--by guesting on tracks by big names in the genre--would Pittman and others be inclined to cut her some more slack? Interesting question, but ultimately unanswerable.
muckefuck: (zhongkui)
Despite the low participation of international bears at Bear Pride (we did meet a Belgian and a Frenchman in line at Sidetrack, a Berliner inside, and heard rumours of a Hamburger), I do have one linguistic anecdote to report. As I've complained to several people already, Sidetrack on Monday made me aware of just how uniform bear fashion has become. 90%+ of the men there had a full bear and a buzzed or shaved head and were wearing baggy shorts with a printed t-shirt of some sort or another--all in fairly muted colours. Some of the t-shirts were amusing, and at least one had katakana. The one that I stumbled into a discussion of, however, said this on the back:
кабачок одинокая
Сан Франциско
I've come across this a couple times before. It's merch from the Lone Star Saloon in San Francisco. So I knew immediately what it said. Now, normally, I'd jump right in and explain this to everyone. But as I told [livejournal.com profile] monshu, I'm trying hard these days not to be That Guy, so instead I just mentioned this knowledge in passing to the one guy I was actually trying to impress.

Apparently, the reason for the discussion was that someone had come by earlier and told the wearer of the shirt (the boyfriend of the guy I was talking to--rats!) that it meant "zucchini". "Sounds like he was pulling his leg," I joked. But he wasn't. The first word, кабачок, corresponds to "saloon" in the English and is, in origin, a diminutive of кабак "tavern, pub". (A bit ironic if you've ever seen the size of the Lone Star.) But there's another кабачок which translates as "marrow/squash" or "courgette/zucchini".

Near as I can tell, this is also a diminutive from another кабак, a borrowing of the Turkic kapak which in modern Anatolian Turkish means "bald" or "baldy" as well as "courgette/zucchini". Kap has many meanings in Turkic, among them "pot" or "vessel". So it's possible that the two meanings are ultimately related. The metonymic use of "drinking vessel" or "pouring vessel" for "wineshop" or "tavern" can also be found in dialectal German Krug (cf. Dutch kroeg "pub"). And the resemblance between certain marrows/squashes and pots or other vessels is motive enough to explain that semantic extension. Sadly, though, all the good etymological dictionaries here are inaccessible at the moment, so for now this remains a hunch.

In any case, it was a good reminder that, when it comes to most things, I really only know enough to know how little I really know.
muckefuck: (zhongkui)
Only fifty pages of Famine left, so soon I'll be in the position to post a final review. For the nonce, I'd like to comment on O'Flaherty's use of language. At the time the Famine, Irish-speakers were still the majority in Ireland. The percentage varied, but it was highest in Connacht, where the action of the novel is set. (Even though all local placenames in the story are invented, geographical references place it in Connemara. Ireland's central plain begins just to the east of the "Black Valley" inhabited by the protagonists while the shore is less than a day's walk away and County Mayo lies less than three day's walk to the north.)

The proportion of Irish-speaking monoglots in the rural West was still rather high, but curiously there's no reference to any communication difficulties between any of the characters and various English-speaking outsiders, such as the landlord's representative or the Quakers who seek to organise a relief effort. Language is never explicitly mentioned at all, which is particularly surprising given what an emotive issue it is in Ireland generally. Perhaps this in itself is reason to avoid it in order not to distract from the central tragedy, but the author doesn't shy away from addressing other volatile political issues in the text.

But even though English is used throughout, it's not the same sort of English, which leads me to believe that O'Flaherty may be signalling which conversations take place in Irish by rendering them in Hiberno-English (the form of Irish English historically used by those whose native language was Irish). O'Flaherty himself was a fluent native speaker of Irish and also produced prose in it, so it would've been possible for him to compose these dialogues in Irish and then translate them semi-literally into English.

Of course, forms of Hiberno-English continued to be spoken by the less-educated even after Irish ceased to be the language of daily life. O'Flaherty has his peasant characters say, "The hunger is upon us!" (i.e. "Tá an t-ocras orainn!") both in the presence of their neighbours and when appealing to the kindness of foreigners. And he writes asthore (a phonetic rendering of a stór "my treasure", a common term of endearment) in contexts where one would expect the vernacular to be Irish rather than English.

Despite the apparent inconsistencies, I still find this the most satisfying explanation. It's not without its problems, though, as it exoticises the speech of the peasants to a degree which can be comic. Perhaps I should blame John Synge, who made extensive use of Hiberno-English in his works, for that association. But it's there and plays right into common stereotypes which prevent the reader from perceiving the the full humanity of the characters.

It's also a barrier to comprehension for the non-Irish reader. With the knowledge of Irish that is at me, small it be, it's little the trouble I have with the unusual syntactic constructions in it. But even I would be lost at times if not for Dolan's trusty dictionary to explain such relics as "kish" (cis "wicker basket"), "pookaun" (púcán "small open boat"), and "sorra" (alteration of sorrow, apparently corresponding in usage to Irish tubaiste).
muckefuck: (zhongkui)
[livejournal.com profile] monshu drew my attention to an article in the most recent Economist about the adoption of English by foreign companies (a process it terms "Englishnisation"). He was particularly struck by this bit:
Still, Englishnisation is not easy, even if handled well: the most proficient speakers can still struggle to express nuance and emotion in a foreign tongue. For this reason, native English speakers often assume that the spread of their language in global corporate life confers an automatic advantage on them. In fact it can easily encourage them to rest on their laurels. Too many of them (especially Englishmen, your columnist keeps being told) risk mistaking their fluency in meetings for actual accomplishments.
Naturally, this got me thinking about the issue of linguistic privilege more generally. (That last line in particular is an almost perfect summation of the whole phenomenon of privilege.) I went looking for examinations of the concept online and found this excellent essay (with links to research findings! Those of you who aren't new to the privilege discussion--which should be everyone reading this--can safely skip the first half-dozen paragraphs.)

Of course, since the author has bigger fish to fry than I do, he leaves off mentioning some manifestations of native English-speaking privilege that are more salient to me because I encountre them on a daily basis. For instance, he talks about English as capital and how mere possession of a fluent command of it secures speakers good-paying jobs at home and abroad. In the language fora I frequent, one of the ways this plays out is that even the most unsophisticated speakers can present themselves as experts and receive a certain amount of deference. Time and again I've seen natives capture the benefit of the doubt in a disagreement with a much better-educated non-native speaker. American youngsters in particular are prone to consider their opinions authoritative when really they're hardly in a position to generalise about their own dialect of American English, much less the totality of varieties going under the name of "English". I've made this mistake many times myself and now am far more cautious about branding something "incorrect" as opposed to simply unidiomatic in the varieties most familiar to me.

Related to this is a certain lack of humility about the extent of one's own ignorance of anything not in English. Before it became fashionable to say "Everything's online nowadays" it was common to hear "If it's important, it'll be translated". Of course, anyone who's tried to do serious research in any field that isn't very limited in both time-depth and geographic scope knows this isn't true. But still an English-speaker can be dismissive about works which aren't available in his native language and receive a more sympathetic hearing than, say, a Finn or a Bengali would.

Another area of particular interest to me is that of borrowing. An English-speaker takes for granted that words from his native language have permeated every significant vernacular on the planet--often in large number. Moreover, if the usage in the foreign language doesn't match the usage in his own, it is somehow wrong. I've witnessed the embarrassment of Germans over the use of such words as Handy and Bodybag, which sound ludicrous to a German-speaker. Meanwhile, English-speakers freely and unapologetically create mock Germanicisms like "Freudenschade" and "Blinkenlights". (A similar double-standard involving Spanish has been criticised by Ana Celia Zentella in the book José, can you see?, who laments that English-speakers' disregard of all grammatical norms of Spanish "passes as multicultural 'with-it-ness.'")

Of course there's much more to be said in this vein, but it all adds up to "The English-speaker is right even when they're wrong". And that's on top of English-speakers hogging the space for discourse purely on account of not having to put as much thought into how to structure what they're saying. It will be interesting to see how this dynamic shifts if there comes a time when "native-speakers" become a minority and cease to wield such disproportionate economic power. (Not in my lifetime, I don't think, but the world is full of surprises.)
muckefuck: (zhongkui)
Speaking of names, a FB Friend (and RL friend) linked to this affecting first-person essay about growing up in the USA with an "ethnic" name. As someone with an extremely rare surname (less than ten bearers in the entire country), I can relate. There's not a sound in mine that isn't a part of any English-speaker's repertoire and the spelling is a close to "phonetic" as anything ever comes in English orthography, yet people mangle it constantly.

Of course, as a linguist, I simply couldn't overlook this part:
On the radio I hear a story about a tribe in some remote, rural place that has no name for the color blue. They do not know what the color blue is. It has no name so it does not exist. It does not exist because it has no name.
I presume here she's talking about the Himba of Namibia. The reason I presume this is that if you Google "tribe can't see blue" you get lots of hits for references to Debi Roberson's pioneering longitudinal study which not only subjected colour perception among the Himba to a series of the tests but repeated these tests regularly among a cohort of children as they grew up and some began attending school, comparing the results to those of a control group back home in England. As a result, we now have data which demonstrate not only that colour perception is language-dependent but that the two are learned in tandem.

Tasbeeh Herwees' claim about them "not know[ing] what the color blue is" is, of course, bullshit. You don't need to have a specific word for "the colour of a cloudless daytime sky" to recognise that it is not the same colour as a fresh acacia leaf any more than you need to have a specific word for the taste of a young coconut to know that it isn't the same as the taste of a ripe mango. The Himba have two basic terms, zoozu and burou (both referring to cool dark colours), which encompass those shades which we would label "blue". But these are not the only words they have at their disposal when it comes to describing the colour of something, just as we're not limited to calling something only "blue", "green", or "purple".

When I pointed this out in the ensuing discussion, I was told it didn't have anything to do with her point. I disagree. I can't be the only one who sees some irony in illustrating a plaint about thoughtless people not getting your name right with a reference to "a tribe in some remote, rural place" and not mentioning their name. Yeah, she only heard it on the radio in passing. But I've just illustrated how trivial it would've been to look it up. But then other readers could've done what I have and looked up the reference to find how she'd badly misrepresented the situation to add punch to a poignant observation. Her emotional truth is more important than the lived experiences of actual people.
Dec. 13th, 2013 04:28 pm


muckefuck: (zhongkui)
For some reason (probably that I'm not really actively studying one or reading any untranslated lit at the moment) it's been a while since I posted anything linguisticky. But my eyes perked up at the sign language controversy swirling around Madiba's memorial service. Partly it's just such a bizarre story: The sign language interpreter hired for the event was apparently a complete incompetent. Seeking to deflect blame, the government announced an investigation of the agency they used--only to find that it apparently doesn't exist. For his part, the soi-disant interpreter has tried to explain away his flailing as the results of a schizophrenic episode (revealing in the process that he's had violent episodes in the past and was due to be evaluated for re-hospitalisation on the day he was tapped to stand on a podium within swinging distance of a sitting US President).

From a language geek point-of-view, probably the most interesting aspect is how quick other sign-language speakers were to spot the fraud despite the fact that many of them did not speak SASL or another language belonging to the same family. This is one of the more constructive explanations, who major points I think are worth reproducing in full:
  1. [H]e signed with relatively little facial expression. Brow raises and furrows, for example, are important visual correlates of rising and falling intonation in spoken languages, and such features are regularly used in sign languages to distinguish questions from statements, as well as group particular elements of a sentence together.
  2. [T]here was a lack of mouth actions. Many sign languages use mouthing of spoken language words alongside some signs and/or mouth gestures (such as a slightly protruding tongue or pouting lips) with other signs.
  3. [T]here were noticeably long pauses between his signed utterances, jerky transitions between signs, and too few signs to actually translate the full content of the memorial service speeches.
  4. [T]here appeared to be random repetition of certain gestures, and no detectable regularities or matches to recurring spoken language words that could be their equivalents.
  5. [T]he patterns of body and head movement as well as shifts in eye gaze did not appear to align, as would be expected, with elements of the sign language production.
  6. [T]here was no use of fingerspelling at all in his signed production, even though South African Sign Language has such as a system of manual letters for spelling out the names of people and places mentioned in the service.
  7. South African Sign Language has been influenced by a number of sign languages that I am familiar with, such as British Sign Language and Irish Sign Language (from which Auslan is derived), and yet I did not see any vocabulary items that I recognise from these languages.
It makes me wonder how easy it would be for the typical oral language-user to spot a similar fraud. Some of the points would seem to have clear analogues--for instance, the use of fingerspelling for proper names would correspond to the appearance of those names as phonetic loans in the translation. But names can undergo extensive deformation to fit the phonology of an unrelated language, making them indistinguishable from common words. ("George Bush", for instance, becomes in Mandarin "Qiáozhì Bùxī".)

At least having done some preliminary reading on SASL, I'm now better able to understand the Deputy Disability Minister's claim "There are as many as a hundred sign language dialects." Apparently, it's very much an emerging koiné at this stage. That is to say, schools for the Deaf there variously taught Irish Sign Language, American Sign Language (both ultimately derived from French Sign Language), or British Sign Language (which is not) depending on who founded them and when. So though SASL is now reckoned to the BSL family (which has itself come under increasing influence from ASL in recent years) it's not as closely tied to it as Auslan or NZSLm which are collectively referred to as "BANZSL". It's still a dismissive claim (implying as it does that the interpreter was using some legit dialect of sign language even if it wasn't one familiar to particular critics), but at least she wasn't characterising all signed languages as "dialects" in contrast to "real languages".

Unlike, say, the Rob Ford story, which I've been following just for the yuks, this is one that represents a confluence of several important issues: official promotion of sign languages (where South African policy is actually quite progressive); perceptions of mental health and its relationship to security considerations; vetting of foreign-language interpreters; the ongoing lack of formal certification in South African employment; and so forth. The level of reporting could be better. (Why, when reporters spoke to the interpreter on film, didn't they bring along someone with a sound knowledge of SASL who could put the man's expertise to the test?) But it doesn't seem to have yielded all of its secrets yet.
muckefuck: (zhongkui)
So one of the more interesting observations during our post-reading criticism session yesterday (at least from a linguistic point of view) had to do with forms of address. Mazeppa made a serious effort to avoid anachronism, but something which struck one of the older women in the audience rather forcefully was that he had a child address an adult by her given name. I never watched much Bewitched, but according to those who had, even the child's mother and this woman (the show's Wacky Neighbour) never addressed each other by given names in its entire run. It was a deliberate choice on Mazeppa's part to show that the two characters were relating to each other as adults, but it was so jarring to those of a certain generation that they felt it needed to be addressed somehow in the script.

It gave me a bit of insight into just how radically bourgeois social codes have changed in a mere half a century. Back then, it was possible to be on quite cordial terms with someone without knowing their given name. Even spouses would refer to each other as "Mr" or "Mrs So-and-so" while addressing each other with terms of endearment. I wasn't alive while Dick York was still in the cast of Bewitched and I can't recall the given names of any of the adults at my first grade school, for instance (with the exception of the nuns, who we addressed by their names in religion); most likely, I never knew them. It was notable that my mother's friend Trish insisted we call her by her given name; at the time she was the only adult not related to me I can remember doing this with.

Today the situation is almost entirely reversed. There are dozens of guys in this city I know on sight and chat with in social situations. But I could only supply surnames for perhaps a third of them (generally the ones I know best, but not necessarily)--and that's only due to the constant reinforcement of Facebook. To disambiguate we end up having to resort to workarounds "You mean Big Tim or Longhaired Tim?" Because if you gave surnames, I'd simply shrug.
muckefuck: (zhongkui)
So I had some fun last night playing with this map. It's basically just another way to view the data collected here, the chief advantage being that counties where more than 10% of the population speaks a language other than English at home are colour-coded, so it's easier to spot some intriguing islands of multilingualism in a sea of English.

Take, for example, Jefferson County, Iowa. In the map it's coded blue for "Other" and mousing over will tell you that the most-spoken LOTE (Language Other Than English) there is Hindi. So far I can't find any explanation for this. I had better luck with a couple of anomalies from my home state. When I saw that Sullivan County, in North Central Missouri had the highest proportion of Spanish-speakers in the state, I reasoned, "Must be a meatpacking plant." Yup--Premium Standard in the county seat of Milan[*]. I was more confused by the prominence of an "Other West Germanic language" in nearby Scotland County until I saw a population breakdown by religion: 20% Old Order Mennonite.

Mostly, the distributions are what you'd expect (provided you know about, for instance, the Acadians in Maine or the Hmong in Minnesota), but there are some surprises. I wasn't surprised to find a high proportion of non-English-speakers in the eastern Aleutians, but I wasn't expecting to find that the most-spoken LOTE was not Aleut but Tagalog. And though I knew there were a lot of LOTE-speakers in Miami, I wouldn't've put the proportion above 72%.

[*] First syllable as in "mile", i.e. /ˈmaɪlən/.
muckefuck: (zhongkui)
I'm nearing the end of It's our turn to eat, Michela Wrong's account of anti-corruption crusader John Githongo's high-profile falling out with the staggeringly shameless regime of Mwai Kibaki. When I finish, I'll have more to say about the content, but for a moment I just want to talk briefly about how she handles the Swahili loanwords which pepper her account.

To review: Swahili, like all Bantu languages, has a robust system of noun classes expressed by means of prefixes. Count nouns tend to have distinct prefixes for singular and plural, e.g. mtu "person", pl. watu (the Swahili equivalent of bantu). This sort of alternation is naturally confusing for those accustomed to the suffixal pluralisation of European languages, so, when using Bantu nouns in an English context, an author has basically four options when it comes to the choice of plural form:
  1. No plural. [That is, Bantu singular form is treated as an invariable English plural, cf. deer.]
  2. English plural only.
  3. Bantu plural only.
  4. Double plural (both Bantu and English)
Here's what these four possibilities look like applied to the common Swahili equivalent of "elder": mzee, mzees, wazee, wazees.

Wrong, being a journalist, is frequently quoting local sources, which I assume is what accounts for the apparent inconsistencies in the text (although to be fair I should also point out that I'm reading an uncorrected proof). In her own usage, she seems to prefer using Bantu singular and plural forms, supplying glosses when necessary to make the connexion clear to the reader. This is similar to what I found in Ngũgĩ's writing (though he resorts to (4), e.g. ahois[*] "beggars") and is what feels most natural to me. Vassanji, on the other hand, frequently--though not uniformly--favoured option (1). To be more precise, he used it consistently with some words (notably mzungu "gringo") and not at all with others.

Wrong does have to resort to a version of (1), however, in a context where she wants to use mzungu as an adjective. In Swahili, the most common way to derive an adjective from a noun of nationality is to use the Class 7 prefix, i.e. kizungu. (This is also how language names are derived, e.g. Mdachi "a German", Kidachi "German language".) But the connexion between kizungu and mzungu is unintuitive to the uninitiated and explaining it isn't worth the trouble for a nonce usage.

[*] A Gikuyu word, thus the animate human plural prefix a- rather than wa-.
muckefuck: (zhongkui)
The book I feel into reading last weekend, even while I hadn't yet finished up Parrot and Olivier, was Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o's Petals of blood. As mentioned before, his Devil on the cross (Caitaani mutharaba-ini) is--like Sōseki's Kokoro--one of those books I read as an undergraduate which I retain positive feelings towards despite not being able to recall much of anything about the style or plot. Petals treats the same subject matter, i.e. what's wrong with Kenya, and has much the same trick to pull off, i.e. keeping us interested in the trajectory of its central characters when we know that the chances of a happy resolution are nonexistent.

Somewhat predictably, I suppose, it's gotten me interested in the author's native tongue, Gikuyu. Practically the first thing I discovered about it is that I've been mispronouncing "Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o" all these years. You'd think the tildes were there to indicate nasality (cf. Portuguese) or, barring that, pitch/tone (cf. Ancient Greek, bzw. Vietnamese). But you'd be wrong: they indicate vowel quality. Gikuyu isn't unusual in having a seven-vowel system, but more common methods for differentiating the two mid middle levels are representing the open vowels with the corresponding IPA symbols (i.e. ɛ, ɔ) or distinguishing the closed vowels with a dot below (i.e. , ). I'm not sure what the motivation is for having ĩ represent /e/ and ũ /o/ unless it's the fact that, in related languages with a five-vowel system (notably Swahili), they've been merged with /i/ and /u/, respectively.

Given the relatively rarity of dental fricatives, you'd also likely assume that th represents an aspirate. But, no, it's /ð/. Gikuyu actually has a full fricative series, but it's not obvious from the orthography where /β/ is written b and /ɣ/ g. So "Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o" has the pronunciation [ˈŋɡoɣe wa ðiˈɔŋɔ]. The only remaining curve ball is c which can represent [s] or [ʃ] depending on the speaker--unless, that is, you count the fact that prenasalised voiced stops often simplify to simple ones. That is, the [ŋɡ] or [ᵑɡ] at the beginning of Ngũgĩ often ends up as [g]. In general, though, the phonology is more conservative than that of Swahili, and this extends to morphology as well, with Gikuyu keeping distinct more of the noun classes inherited from Proto-Bantu.

Ngũgĩ seems to enjoy tossing in snatches of both Gikuyu and Swahili into the text, and I can't find much of a pattern to it, let alone to why he glosses some words and not others. He tells us, for instance that ugali is porridge but neglects to mention that mnazi is palm wine. And I can understand leaving words like mbari, ahoi, and ndugata in because these are roles in Kikuyu society without exact counterparts in English. But why words for "kettle" or "insects"? Not that I mind--you know I love looking this sort of thing up. Googling "shifta" led me to an article on a war I never knew had happened, giving me some valuable cultural background for understanding the larger context.
muckefuck: (zhongkui)
On one of my most frequently visited fora, someone is trying yet again to come up with an "objective" definition of "a language". I've seen this discussion so many times at this point I've got my canned arguments all ready to go: "languages" are just high-order abstractions; judgments of "similarity" are hopelessly subjective; lexical comparisons depend on a series of increasingly arbitrary definitions (e.g. which terms you choose to compare, how you measure vocabulary size, what definition of "word" you're using). But it never seems to matter: people seem to feel very strongly that "languages" are concrete things rather than convenient social fictions and, therefore, can be defined scientifically.

Of course, the real problem is that most people don't understand what that word means. Someone linked to this laundry list of intelligibility studies and asked if we thought it was "accurate". How could anybody tell? There's no methodology given at all, so we haven't the faintest idea what the researchers actually measured. It's like asking, "Is it true that when you're embarrassed you're also 27% angry?" Yeah, sure: choose the appropriate criteria for defining "embarrassment" and "anger" and the appropriate method for quantifying the data and you can get that percentage. Does that make it "scientific"? No.

But present your results in numerical form and most people will simply accept them. The first response to that blogpost begins, "I don’t dispute the scientific validity of those findings, but..." Well, then, you're a fool. Worse, you're a cargo cultist who believes the mere presence of numerical data is evidence of "science". For all you know, someone just banged out those percentages on a pub table over a beer or two. Or maybe they abstracted them from a single reading comprehension test. Who cares? One way or another, they don't tell you what you think they're telling you.
muckefuck: (zhongkui)
I was hardly back from breakfast with Scruffy and Graysong this morning before I set out for lunch with Nuphy and Blondie. We let Nuphy pick the place, so it was the Gage, of course, but the plus side was that he paid. ("I don't cook, so this is like having people over for me.") He had a concert to attend at 3 p.m., so I accompanied Blondie to the Art Institute and Millennium Park until he was free again. We timed it well, emerging right about the hour when the afternoon warm-up really kicked in and made it comfortable to go coatless.

Once again, Blondie was full of stories about his niblings. At this point, all three of his siblings have reproduced at least twice, so it's quite a gaggle. He makes a point of always speaking to them in Arabic because he doesn't want them to end up like his brother-in-law, who's barely conversational in it despite having grown up in Bahrain. That led to this exchange with his elders niece:

"Uncle Blondie, you should learn English!"

"I know English."

"The why don't you use it?"

"I do use it in America. But we're in Bahrain. What are the official languages here?"

"Arabic and English."

"And in America?"

[pause] "Arabic and American?"
muckefuck: (zhongkui)
  • [livejournal.com profile] monshu is cruising through the Brunetti mysteries of Donna Leon and every now and then he'll ask me about a bit of non-English. Most recently, it was a dish called turbanti di soglie, which Google Translate will tell you is "turbans of thresholds" but soglia is apparently a historically valid equivalent of sogliola, the standard contemporary term for "sole" (the fish).

    He wondered if this might be a Venetian term, but if it is, it's a regionalism rather than a dialect world, if that makes any sense. That is, the usual word for "sole" in the traditional dialect of Venice is apparently soja, but it may be the case that soglia has persisted in the variety of Standard Italian spoken there either because it's closer to the dialect word or because the Venetians disregarded the memo that the rest of Italy was switching to sogliola.
  • In doing the research on this, I stumbled across this:

    Yes, you got that right: White guys in dreads performing reggae music in Venetian dialect. La vita la xe bea!
  • I mentioned Aabenraa in my post about Frygtelig lykkelig, but I wasn't able to mention the convoluted history of its name. IN short (for those who can't read German), the name was originally Opnøraa "open breakwater stream" but Low Saxon merchants (who dominated the town during the days of the Hanse) misheard this as Apenrade ("open clearing"), which Danish-speakers later misinterpreted as Aabenrad "open row [of houses]". So here we have a Danish folk etymology of a German folk etymology of an originally Danish name.

    But the fun doesn't end there. In contemporary Danish orthography, å replaces aa. But the Nordic convention is for å to come at the end of the alphabet, whereas Aabenraa tops most alphabetical lists. The locals protested and eventually the traditional spelling was allowed as a local variant. Of course, going with the pronunciation current in the local South Jutish dialect (Affenrå) would've avoided the whole issue.
muckefuck: (zhongkui)
Finally finished a more involved post than I had been planning about the development of continuative aspect in Salishan on a site for language enthusiasts. (I may see what feedback I get on it before I attempt to port it over here--it is tough to write about non-European linguistic concepts for a general audience!) It was fun to do--I got to do some research on a language family I've always admired from a distance--but it wore me out.

Overall, the day could only get better after this morning's webinar. At about 80 minutes, it was almost half the length of last weeks, but twice as deadly. They took the most irritating of the three presenters we had before and paired her with a new guy who sounded like he was deliberately trying to speak with as little affect as possible. Honestly, listening to him just sucked the soul out of me; my boss asked what we should do with the ten minutes left on our room reservation and I asked, "Could we work on giving me back the will to live?" (One of my colleagues responded, "You're on your own!")

I actually made it through the previous session pretty easily simply by concentrating on the presenters' accents. The most effective of the bunch had an educated Mid-Atlantic accent--think a New Yorker trying not to sound too New Yawk--and he plowed through the material with urban efficiency. Then there was a guy with a mild Southern Midland dialect and the laid-back attitude to match. And at the bottom was a woman with a pronounced Chinese accent. But it wasn't so much her pronunciation that was the problem but her slow and laboured manner of speaking. Simply deadly. It literally made me squirm in my seat if I had to listen to it for more than a few minutes.

She did have some notable peculiarities, perhaps the most unusual of which was that she systematically distinguished for from four by pronouncing the first non-rhotically. Like most Mandarin-speakers, she could do a perfectly good r (one of my colleagues opined, "She has better r's than me") so at first I thought she was dropping it only in particular contexts. (Words like world and hardly and--let's face it--even word are ballbusters no matter how great an r you have.) But, no, she was perfectly consistent: for was always [ˈfoʊ̯] and four was always [ˈfoʊ̯ɻ], regardless of what followed. I can't think of any reason why somebody would do this.

At times, her syntax went straight to hell and you had to strain to unpack some of her sentences. I don't know if my knowledge of Chinese made this any easier for me, since I could tell at times that she was suffering syntactical interference. Particularly noticeable was her difficulty with verbs like note and point out, which she treated like straightforward ditransitives (just like their counterparts in Chinese). That is, she said, "I want to note you this example" and "I want to point you chapter 7" instead of "I want you to note this example" and "I want to point out chapter 7 to you" (or perhaps "point you to chapter 7").

When it came time to invent a drinking game to keep us awake, I steered away from naming any of her frequent errors. Not only did it seem too meanspirited, but the last think I wanted to do was make the two native Chinese-speakers in the room self-conscious. Instead I singled out her habit of asking fake questions of the other presenters, along with Mr Mid-Atlantic's use of "'kay?" as a discourse particle and the frequent awkward pauses as one or the other fumbled with their notes or missed their cue.
muckefuck: (Default)
  • Dad told me on the phone last week that he'd settled on a personal motto--"Stubbornness to the point of stupidity"--and idly asked what it might be in Latin. I did a little research and consulted with a scholar of Latin to come up with "Contumacia usque ad stultitiam". Now to get it engraved on something for his birthday, but what?
  • My brother has named an RPG character "Donna Wyrdwyl" and asked me for the "Gaelic spelling" of 'Donna', which ironically is 'Donna'. I say "ironically" because 'Wyrdwyl' is just about the least-Gaelic spelling I can imagine. He asked me what I would suggest and the best I could do was 'Ghaordael'. I can't even figure what he's going for.
muckefuck: (Default)
  • Saturday at Café Selmarie, I had this exchange with a server:
    "I'll have the [ˌtʰʁopʰeˈʦiːɐ] (Tropezier)."
    *blank look* "I'm sorry but the kitchen is closed. We're not serving anything from the brunch menu right now."
    *exchanges glances with companions* "It's in the display case. Do you need me to take you there and point it out to you?"[*]
    "What was it you wanted again?"
    "The [ˌtʰɹɵʊpʰəˈziːɚ]."
    "I'm sorry, I thought you said 'croque monsieur'. Okay, the [tʰɹoʊˌpʰiːziːˈeɪ̯]."
    "It's a German thing[**] so I was giving it the German pronounciation."
    On the one hand, I've got sympathy for waitstaff who are not also polyglots. For all I know, this woman was working at a Turkish place last week; she almost certainly has never studied German. But you should know your menu--and if some of your items are named in a foreign language, that means knowing both the original pronunciation and common bastardisations.

    Really, it's as much a failure of training as anything else. Still better than that time at Turkish Bakery where I had to write out the name of my order and tell the server to hand it to the chef. But annoying all the same.
  • Yesterday on the 36 bus, we were seated in front of an older Hispanic couple. It took me a while to figure out that the man was actually speaking heavily-accented English with a bit of Spanish mixed in, while the woman was doing the opposite. Judging from her rr, she may have been Carribean, but her diction was pretty clear over all and her English pronunciation of terms like "e-mail" sounded native or nearly so. I wondered later if it might be one of those very rare instances of two people each conversing in their non-dominant language.
  • Today I brought to work my copy of Alexander Lipson's A Russian course. I may have already mentioned here that this text has been near-legendary in my mind ever since I copy-cataloged it for UofC nearly two decades ago. The first dialogue explains the difference between "shock-workers" (ударники), who think about life in factories even when relaxing in parks, and "loafers", who steal pencils and smoke in trolleybuses.

    Unfortunately, I'd forgotten the author's name and wasn't able to locate a copy again until one literally fell into my hands at [livejournal.com profile] keyne's back in June. Today I finally remembered to bring it in to show my Belarusian coworker. I had expected a mingled reaction of delight and horror, but what greeted me was almost pure joy at finally having a translation for ударник. Apparently she'd asked many people over the years and none of them knew had to render the word in English. "We didn't have a word because we didn't have the concept!" I explained to her.

    [*] I know this sounds pissy, but keep in mind that at this point we had been completely ignored for a full fifteen minutes, and when she did show up, it was with an explanation (shift change) but no apology.
    [**] Technially, it's a German name for a French thing, the tropézienne, a specialty of the French Riviera. Essentially, it's a custard-filled brioche. There version is very tasty and so big and filling that I forgot to eat dinner. Of course, the liter-and-a-half of beer I drank soon afterward may have had something to do with that as well.
muckefuck: (zhongkui)
Here's an interesting tidbit from a presentation I attended to day on a 14th-century register of toll charges from the South of France. The manuscript is prefaced with a couple paragraphs from the beginning of the gospel of John in Latin. My first thought was, "Did someone start an illuminated gospel before realising they needed some place to record the bridge tolls?" But a scholar from the religion department pointed out that this passage was very common in the Middle Ages as a talisman, particularly to ensure auspicious beginnings. Then a penny dropped: This is the passage which my mom read out at the baptism of my newest nephew. She explained that her father read it at every baptism in her family, but no one really understood why. Now this has me wondering just how far back in the family this tradition might go.

Another completely unexpected connexion: The manuscript contains a section on currency, indicating that the local standard is the denier tournois and giving equivalents in other common currencies, such as the florin. There's also apparently a mention of a local coin called the patac, which shares a name with the Iberian pataca or patacón. Does that last word look familiar? If so, it's because it's Crazy Jungle Spanish for tostón--a twice-fried plantain slice which is roughly the size and shape of an old-fashioned coin.


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