Monday, September 30, 2002

WORDSEARCH, 2002. Sunday's New York Times Magazine contained a 66-page (!) insert entitled "wordsearch: a translinguistic sculpture by Karin Sander." It turns out to be an advertising supplement, and normally I wouldn't be promoting such things here, but I think you'll see why I couldn't resist when you read this description:
Her work of art, which she calls a "translinguistic sculpture," will be printed on October 4, 2002 in the New York Times. Wordsearch explores the hybrid surfaces of New York's linguistic landscape: on four double page spreads in the newspaper's business section, and thus in place of the daily share quotations and stock prices, words from 250 mother tongues spoken in New York are arranged into columns, each one having been donated by a native speaker living in the city and representative of the entire respective language, which has an opportunity to "get a word in" here in a literal sense. Each word, whether personally meaningful or particularly characteristic of the "donor's" culture, is in turn translated into every other language spoken in New York. The filigree web of text arising out of this and covering the pages of the newspaper may be read as a kind of dictionary – the result of a research project in linguistic anthropology. At the same time, however, it works as an abstract image: even at a short distance from the page, it resembles an information matrix difficult to comprehend and comprised of a pattern of lighter and darker grays.
That's taken from a website put up by Deutsche Bank to plug the project; unfortunately, the supplement itself doesn't seem to be online, but here's a news story about it, and here's a list of the languages -- click on any one and get a page where you can hear the chosen word spoken. The supplement itself includes not only six pages showing chosen words as written by the speakers ('help' in Burmese, 'guest' in Pakistani Punjabi, 'culture' in Icelandic, 'music' in Chickasaw, 'white' in Irish Gaelic, etc. etc.) but all sorts of essays, including one by Hilton Als on Marianne Moore. And everything's in both English and German. All in all, well worth trying to find (or digging through your Sunday paper for if you haven't thrown it out yet). I think it's an interesting idea, and I'll try to remember to buy the Times on Oct. 4.

Update. It's out today, and it's well worth checking out. English words across the top of the pages, other languages in columns below; under "butterfly," for example, are bilinwal, pillangó, papillon, farashah (in Arabic script), farfalla... The original chosen word of which the others are translations (in this case Turkish kelebek) are in bold and underlined, forming a diagonal pattern. It's pages C9-C16 of the New York edition.
FORGOTTEN ENGLISH. From a calendar of "vanishing vocabulary and folklore" given me last Christmas by a certain musical canine, for your delectation...
dateless: stupid; stupefied, dazed, without memory. From the analogy of a deed or letter which, without date, is legally useless.
smicker: to look amorously or wantonly.
gizzen: to grin audibly.
hempy: mischievous; having the qualities likely to suffer by cat o'nine tails, or the halter.
rotten logging: a term used when romantic couples sit on a log by moonlight to court.

Sunday, September 29, 2002

CONVERSATIONAL PROVERBS. I lived in Taiwan many years ago (teaching language and wearing hats), and one of the features of Chinese I remember fondly is the prevalence of proverbs and "four-character expressions" in everyday conversation. (I can remember it fondly because I wasn't seriously trying to learn Chinese; the woman I was living with was overwhelmed with the number of allusions she had to memorize in order to carry on a simple chat.) Here is a marvelous illustration of what it can be like (from Poagao's Journal), which gave me the first good laugh I've had this weekend (lovely weather, and I have such a wretched cold I can't even take advantage of it):


Just today after work I went to one place on Heping E. Road to let them know I wasn't interested in one of their places, but the lady was quite insistent. "So you'll take it?" she asked, nodding agreeably not two seconds after I had told her I wasn't overfond of the room.

"I don't particularly like the neighborhood."

"But one can only be a successful official when living in a peaceful residence," she countered, using a Chinese saying.

"I'd rather ride a donkey to look for my horse," I replied with another.

"I think you're painting legs on a snake here."

"The only snake is being reflected in my soup." This went on for awhile, but I knew when she started shifting to old Taiwanese sayings that I was fighting a losing battle. "I'm going to take a walk around the neighborbood," I said firmly, and as she tried to figure out what I was really trying to say with this apparently unknown ancient saying, I took advantage of the lull to beat a hasty retreat before I was drowned in irrelevant flowery rhetoric.
BASIL BUNTING. I am inspired by Moira Russell's A Constant Reader to quote some poetry here from time to time; after all, what could be more language-oriented? Today's portion is from Basil Bunting, the great and nearly forgotten Northumberland poet, of whom Allen Ginsberg said "I've taken his model syntactical swiftness as corrective for my own 'too many words'" and W.S. Merwin "There is no one like him among English poets of his time." Herewith the first of his two little gems dedicated to Anne de Silver:
Not to thank dogwood nor
the wind that sifts
petals are these words,
nor for a record,

but, as notes sung and received
still the air,
these are controlled by
yesterday evening,

a peal after
the bells have rested.

Friday, September 27, 2002

MENOMINEE. Another great link from the Merm: "Wisconsin tribal languages in danger of dying out" (from the University of Wisconsin's student newspaper -- how does she find this stuff?). The focus of the article is on Menominee, which apparently "has only 10 to 20 fluent speakers left, all of whom are elderly"; a group of linguists is helping the tribe with a language preservation project. What saddened me (besides the imminent extinction of the language, that is) was that the article didn't mention the linguist whose name used to be indissolubly linked with Menominee, the great Leonard Bloomfield, whose book The Menomini Language is a valued denizen of my linguistics shelf. (I see from bookfinder.com that it's going for $125 and up! Hmm... but no, that would be wrong. Unless I really need the money.) A natural place to include him would have been their statement, "Currently, there is a Lexicon, but it's extremely hard to use and only goes from Menominee to English." That lexicon is Bloomfield's (edited by Charles F. Hockett, another great). I guess this is one of the consequences of the Chomskyan takeover of the field: everyone before Chomsky is forgotten.

Wednesday, September 25, 2002

MEL GIBSON SPEAKS ARAMAIC! Well, not exactly. But he's planning to make a movie in Aramaic and Latin (Latin? how about Greek?) about the last twelve hours in the life of Jesus. I don't care how bad it is, I won't be able to pass up a movie in Aramaic.

Update: Naomi has a splendid list of reactions to the idea of this movie, and I'm definitely going to want to see what she has to say if it ever gets made!

Monday, September 23, 2002

NOW THIS IS WHAT MAPUDUNGUN NEEDS. Inuktitut is having a language workshop. (Courtesy of Enigmatic Mermaid.)

Sunday, September 22, 2002

WER NICHT MEHR DA IST. I just learned that Peter Kowald, the great German free-jazz bassist, died early Saturday morning, apparently of a heart attack. Peter was a big part of the New York jazz scene, especially the Vision Festival, and his bald head was a familiar sight. I'm going to shoehorn him into Languagehat by pointing out that the title of his amazing solo album, Was da ist, often provided with a spurious question mark in English-language publications, is not an interrogative; it could be translated as 'what's there,' but the liner notes correctly translate it in context (Kowald's "Was da ist, das ist ja sehr viel, eigentlich fast alles") as "What there is": "What there is is quite a lot, actually almost everything." Or you may prefer the version at the end of the quote: "...But there is so much there, so much is at my disposal for which I am grateful, and I try to comprehend, to grasp, to utilise and to leave out, simply take what is there [was da ist]." Fine words for any artist to live by.

Update: Tuesday's New York Times has a well-informed obituary by Ben Ratliff:
There was great power and concentration in his improvising: he had a broad, strong sound, impeccable intonation and could spend long periods investigating a single pitch and its overtones. At certain moments, he would bend his torso so that his bald head pointed toward the audience, aim his mouth at the resonating chamber within the bass and perform the low subharmonic growls of Mongolian throat-singing, which he had learned while staying a Buddhist monastery in Japan during the early 1980's.
Also, on Wednesday WKCR, in my opinion NYC's best jazz station, will devote the entire day, midnight to midnight (EDT), to broadcasting Kowald's music, so if you're curious, it's a great way to hear him (they broadcast over the internet).

Saturday, September 21, 2002

VERBS IN COLLISION. I have complained elsewhere about the loss of the "might have" form in English, which is now rare even in printed periodicals. Here, from an article about an FBI agent who tried to warn about one of the 9/11 hijackers, is the first instance I have seen of the older and newer forms in hand-to-hand combat:
Through hearings this week and some in the future, Hill is painting a picture of missed opportunities. Individually, none may have prevented the attacks. But collectively, they might have unraveled the plot.

Friday, September 20, 2002

POETRY. I dropped by the Mid-Manhattan Library and visited their ongoing sale, coming away with a couple of poetry books for a buck each. One, Robert Kelly's 1973 The Mill of Particulars, is a signed limited edition (#190 of 200 hardcover), worthless, of course, because of the library stamps (I can't believe what libraries put in the sale bin, but that's a rant for another day), but irresistible at the price. It's worth mentioning here for the first poem, "prefix:) Against the Code," which begins:
Language is the only genetics.
Field
"in which a man is understood & understands"
& becomes
what he thinks,
becomes what he says
following the argument.

. . . .

So the hasty road
& path of arrow
must lead up
from language again

& in language the work be done,
work of light,
beyond.

The other is a very strange book called Gut Yuntif Gut Yohr, by Marie B. Jaffe; this 1966 "revised and enlarged edition" cost $3 at the time, and (amazingly) it's still in print for only $7.95, well below the rate of inflation (for books anyway). It contains Yiddish poetry in transliteration, some original but mostly translated; I'm not sure in what spirit Ms. Joffe intended the translations to be read, but they range from the respectable:
In der fertzarter Caravanserai,
Vu mir gefinen zich i tog und nacht,
Bemerk vie yeder Sultan in zein shtoltz
Voint zein besherteh shoh, und shtarbt avek.
--Der Rubaiyat
to the dissonant:
Ver is Sheyndeleh? Vos is zie,
Geloibt bei alleh mentshen?
Gut und frum und sheyn is zie,
Der oilim vil ihr bentshen.
(after Shakespeare's "Who Is Sylvia?")
to the just plain bizarre:
'Sis geven erev krismess, und shtill is in heizel,
Kein nefeshel rirt zich, afileh kein meizel...
(after "A Visit from St. Nicholas"!)
I'm still shaking my head in bewilderment, but I couldn't pass it up.

Wednesday, September 18, 2002

TARKOVSKY. OK, so you hip film-oriented folks already know about the amazing movies of Andrei Tarkovsky. (If you like them as much as I do, you may be interested in a couple of web sites that do a good job of presenting information and ideas about his work.) If you're in the New York area, you probably know about the retrospective going on at the Walter Reade (and I suggest getting a membership, so you can go as often as you like for half the price). You may even know that the director was the son of the poet Arsenii Tarkovsky (Russian link; I apologize to non-Russophones, but—shamefully—there does not appear to be an English-language site that discusses this peer of Akhmadulina and Voznesensky, if not of Brodsky, other than as the father of the director).

But I'll bet you didn't know (unless you're Avva, who knows all sorts of obscure things) that he was the direct descendant of the shamkhals of Tarki, feudal rulers of the Turkic Kumyk people who dominated a big chunk of the eastern Caucasus from the sixteenth century until the Russians conquered them in the early nineteenth. (Tarki, or Tarkou, was a fortress town near what is now Makhachkala in Dagestan; the adjectival form in Russian is tarkovskiy.) When Yo'av Karny, author of the delightful and informative book Highlanders (well reviewed here) asked a current Kumyk leader if Tarkovsky could have been the leader of a revived shamkhalate, he laughed and said "Sure, why not?"

Friday, September 13, 2002

NAN YUEH, NAM VIET, VIETNAM. I was visiting Nelson's blog and ran across the statement "For example, the Cantonese term for Vietnam is 'Yuet Naam,' and the pronunciation is such that they could conceivably be derived from similar sources." I was going to leave him a comment letting him know his guess was correct, but when I tried to compose it I realized I could either say "Yes" and leave it at that or tell a longer story than would suit a comment box, so I chose the latter, and here it is.

Before the Han Dynasty, in the third century BC, Chinese civilization was centered in the Yellow River valley; further south, in the Yangtze region, were non-Chinese states that were coming more and more under Chinese influence, the easternmost of which, on the coast (approximately where Chekiang is now), was Yüeh. (That is the modern Mandarin version of the name, which at that period had a final -t preserved in Cantonese "Yuet" and Vietnamese "Viet.") As the Chinese of Ch'in (which unified the country) pushed south, the Yüeh ruling classes scattered further down the coast and founded a number of little kingdoms collectively known to the Chinese as the "hundred Yüeh," the largest of which, near modern Canton, was called Nan Yüeh or 'Southern Yüeh.' These kingdoms were briefly conquered by the Ch'in emperor, Ch'in Shih Huang Ti, but after his death Nan Yüeh became independent under a former Chinese general, Chao T'o (known in Vietnamese as Trieu Da), who not only resisted the new Han dynasty to the north but conquered the peoples to the south, including the ancestors of the modern Vietnamese. This is the vital moment in our story, because it gave the Vietnamese people the lasting memory of a state that had stood up against the colossus to the north, and the name of that state was Nan Yüeh.

During the second and first centuries BC Nan Yüeh came more and more under Chinese domination, and by AD 42 it was firmly incorporated into the Han empire. But although the other peoples of the region lost their languages and became Chinese (the strongly divergent southern forms of Chinese presumably reflecting the influence of those lost languages), the Vietnamese kept a sense of their own nationhood (and, crucially, preserved their own language) even as they assimilated all the trappings of Chinese culture: the characters, the art, the examination system, the chopsticks. When they briefly achieved independence in the sixth century, the rebel Ly Bi proclaimed himself the emperor of Nam Viet, the Vietnamese form of Nan Yüeh. When independence came for good in the tenth century, the new kingdom was called Annam, but centuries later the old name was revived in a new form; I'll let Keith Weller Taylor, the author of the excellent book The Birth of Vietnam, tell the story:
The modern name of Vietnam dates from 1803, when envoys from the new Nguyen dynasty went to Peking to establish diplomatic relations. They claimed the name Nam Viet (Nan Yüeh). But the Chinese objected to this invocation of Chao T'o's rebellious realm in antiquity and changed the name to Viet Nam. This Chinese adherence to the formalities of imperial theory was resented at the time, but in the twentieth century the name Vietnam has acquired general acceptance among the Vietnamese.
If this has piqued anyone's interest, the Tuvy Asian Resource Center has a useful account of early Vietnamese history, and I heartily recommend the Keith Weller Taylor book cited above.

Thursday, September 12, 2002

POLYGLOT CURRENCY. A nice collection of banknotes printed in more than one language, courtesy of Les coups de langue de la grande rousse. As La Rousse (hey, that's funny!) says, it's odd that there are no Canadian bills shown, since the collection is on the Québecois site Hapax; it's also odd that they label one bill "Protectorat de Bohème-Moravie" rather than "Tchécoslovakie sous occupation allemande" (compare their treatment of occupied Albania). But it's fun to browse, and some of the bills are quite remarkable.

Wednesday, September 11, 2002

WITTGENSTEIN. "Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muß man schweigen."
(Translation in first comment.)

Tuesday, September 10, 2002

SAVING MAPUDUNGUN. The bountiful and Enigmatic Mermaid points us to an article about an effort to save the Mapudungun language spoken by the Mapuche Indians of Chile by setting up a machine translation program between Mapudungun and Spanish, backed by a $5 million NSF grant. I'm all in favor of saving minority languages (assuming they're still alive), but it doesn't seem to me that machine translation is the way to do it. Wouldn't it make more sense to set up a program that would let them record (and print out as desired) texts in their language, allowing them to preserve chants, epics, recipes, ritual insults, and whatever other aspects of their culture they wanted to pass on to later generations? The ability to automatically translate into (inevitably bad) Spanish seems to me a distant second in terms of usefulness. But maybe I'm missing something.

Sunday, September 08, 2002

VERBAL CUISINE. Languagehat apologizes for persistent recent negativity; herewith a hymn of praise that should leave us all feeling better.

There are apparently people out there who don't care for Adam Gopnik, but I don't understand them. He's the main reason I keep subscribing to The New Yorker, and I think he's one of the best stylists and funniest writers around (thoughtful as well as funny, but being funny is harder than being thoughtful). I would like to bring to your attention his article "The Cooking Game," from the double Food Issue of Aug. 19 & 26; I wish I could provide a link, but the magazine has not chosen to put it online, so I'll have to type in my quotations (probably just as well, as it will keep me from quoting so much it takes up my entire blog).

The article is about a cookoff among five chefs in Manhattan restaurants, all of whom agreed to create meals based on farmer's-market ingredients chosen by Gopnik. Who cares, you say (unless you are a serious foodie), and you would be right, except that Gopnik can write about anything and keep you turning the pages with delight and anticipation. He begins with a paragraph saying that cooks are "the last artists among us who still live in the daily presence of patronage"; unlike artists, writers, and the rest, they have not been "Byronized.... there to instruct and puzzle an audience, not to please it." He goes on:
But although cooks are a source of romance, they are not themselves Romantic. They practice their art the way all art was practiced until the nineteenth century, as a job done to order for rich people who treat you as something between the court jester and the butler. Cooks can be temperamental--cooks are supposed to be temperamental--but temperament is the Byronism of the dependent; children, courtesans, and cooks all have it. What cooks have in place of freedom is what all artists had back before they were released from the condition of flunkydom: a weary, careful dignity, a secretive sense of craft, and the comforting knowledge of belonging to a guild.
Isn't that well said? I don't care if it's "true" in the judgment of historians; it gives me a new way of looking at the world and making connections I hadn't made before, and reading the words gives me intense pleasure. Let me finish up with another quote that provides the sort of illustration of perverse human nature I can't resist. He tells a story one of the chefs, Dan Barber of Blue Hill, told him, about a time when everyone in the restaurant was sure a customer who'd been coming and ordering different things was actually William Grimes, the main food critic of the NY Times.
"So the very next day, Grimes actually calls from the Times and asks for a wine list. Now, this guy, let's call him Mr. Hudsucker, had taken a menu with him--but not a wine list! So, I mean, now we're getting obvious." He went on, "That Friday, a 'Diner's Journal' article comes out that lists all the dishes Mr. Hudsucker ate at the bar! So, O.K., the next week H.M. Hudsucker makes another reservation, and we flip over backward for him, creating all these tasting menus, and the servers going through hula hoops. You have to be careful with that stuff, of course, because it's like the Enigma secret--you want to use it, but you don't want it to be obvious you've broken the code. Anyway, finally someone comes into the kitchen and I say, 'That's Grimes,' and he says, 'No, it isn't. I know Grimes, and that's not Grimes.' And I say, 'That's not Grimes? Then who the hell is that?' Later, a waiter went over without my knowing it and said, 'You seem so, uh, passionate abut food, Mr. Hudsucker, are you in the business?' And he said, 'What business?' And the server said the food business. And Mr. Hudsucker said, 'The food business? I'm in the insurance business. I just like it here.

"And the really terrible part of the story is that he came back and we didn't do anything for him--not because we're malicious. It's just, just that at this point we're sort of disillusioned with H.M. Hudsucker, no fault of his own. And he walked out upset. It's ironic because... he was the ideal diner! He ate like a food critic without being one! The ideal guest."

Friday, September 06, 2002

GET ME REWRITE. OK, you're all as sick of my complaining about the NY Times as I am. But. What can I do when they keep violating the English language? Once more into the breach...

I didn't go to J school. But. I strongly suspect they drum into their students the vital importance of maintaining a lively and engaging style by means of using contrast whenever possible, and even when not. I picture reporters waking up in the morning muttering "Although I will be going to work today, I will be taking the subway..." and going to bed with "I am currently lying on my right side; however, I will soon turn to the left." Normally the incessant parade of "however, although, nevertheless, on the other hand" doesn't especially bother me; I accept it as a professional tic. But. Read the following quote from Joyce Wadler's article in today's paper:
The wall behind Billy's bed is a mural of Billy and his girlfriend, Mary Fragapane, who is also a painter, kissing, with the names Billy and Mary written into it. There are photos and paintings of Mary, a pretty woman with long dark hair, throughout the apartment. Billy says he did not have to white-out anyone else's name when he and Mary started dating, two years ago, although, coincidentally, his last girlfriend's name was Mary.
Didn't it occur to anyone that the word "because" would be more appropriate than "although"?

Wednesday, September 04, 2002

BABBLING BABES. An article in the Observer provides a useful summary of what's been learned recently about the abilities of the infant brain (surprising scientists but not mothers). The following passage is of particular interest to linguists:
Scientists used to think that babies couldn't pick up the subtleties of speech sounds, and so took a long time to distinguish between, say, the r's and l's in English. But a landmark 1997 study by Patricia Kuhl showed that one-month-old American babies could distinguish 'every English sound contrast we threw at them'. Then they found out that one-month-old babies exposed to Spanish and Kikuyu had the same facility, and that one-month-olds everywhere were good at distinguishing sounds, even if they were from languages they'd never heard. But they went on to discover that they lose this general capacity as their first year progresses and they become more attentive to the rhythms and patterns of their mother tongue.

This is a good and necessary thing. It is only by picking up on familiar cadences and sound combinations of their mother tongue that they begin to pick words out of the flow of other people's speech.

The words they pick out go on to influence how they think. This is well illustrated in a 1995 study by Berkeley psychologists Alison Gopnik and Soonja Choi. Noting that the Korean language puts a greater emphasis on verbs while a sentence in English was not complete without a noun, they found the same patterns evident in the way Korean and American mothers talked to their infants and the way the babies developed their own vocabularies. And they also found that Korean-speaking children learnt 'how to solve problems like using the rake to get the out-of-reach toy well before the English-speaking children', while English-speakers started categorising objects earlier than the Korean speakers.
Sounds like it might provide support for a moderate version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. I also like this bit, which reinforces a lesson about the limitations of the male-scientist mindset:
[Cognitive scientists] also credit much of the new thinking to the entry of large numbers of women into the field over the past few decades. Until their arrival, the profession was dominated by men who did not think it necessary to test their theories on real children. Now it is a field in which much of the imaginative thinking comes from men and women who spend time with children, both in and outside the laboratory.
(A tip of the hat to Billy Blogs.)
SPANGLISH DON. Inspired by "un académico purista" who said on Spanish radio that he wouldn't take seriously the hybrid of Spanish and English spoken widely in the Americas until it had its own Quixote, Ilan Stavans has translated the first chapter of Don Quixote into Spanglish! It's available here. It's not clear to me from the article in Reforma.com whether he's translated any more than the excerpt they present (or whether he even intends to), and I'm not sure if there's a market for it (even if you can make sense of it, you'll probably prefer to read it in the original or in English, whichever comes easier to you), but I'm glad he's done this much. Take that, purists! (A tip of the hat to the Enigmatic Mermaid.)

Tuesday, September 03, 2002

FRABJOUS. Thanks to an excellent blog called scribble, scribble, scribble... (the work of the writer Dale Keiger) I have learned of the possible resurrection of the late and much-lamented magazine Lingua Franca; you can read about it at the NY Times article Where the Talk Is Rarefied, Signs of Life.

Monday, September 02, 2002

LITERALLY. In an otherwise sensible piece on the threatened baseball strike and the childish belief on many fans' part that "players ought to play simply for the love of the game," Ira Berkow says the following:
The fact is, they are professionals, and from the time professional baseball began, in 1869, with the Red Stockings of Cincinnati, the most accomplished baseball players played for money. That is literally the name of the game.

Now, like most lovers of language, I hate the use of "literally" to mean its opposite ('metaphorically'), but I've grown resigned to hearing it in conversation and reading it in e-mails and the like. But to read it in the New York Times, allegedly a great newspaper, from the pen of Berkow, who's been paid for his writing for many years now, is depressing in the extreme. No, Ira, the name of the game is literally baseball. You could look it up. (Furthermore, the first professional player was probably the great pitcher Jim Creighton, who died at 21 in 1862, but that's not really Languagehat material.)

Having gotten that off my chest, I will quote a delightful exchange that, whether real or invented (sorry, Ira, you get no benefit of the doubt today), perfectly sums up a basic feature of human nature:
I got into a conversation the other day with a guy who sold stationery for a living. He resented the players. Why?

"They make too much money," he said.

"What's too much?" I asked.

"They make more in one time at bat than I do in a week."

"Would you trade places with them?"

"Absolutely."

"And if someone told you you were making too much money, what would you tell them?"

"I'd tell 'em it was none of their damn business."