God-loving Linguists

Christian missionaries have become strangely vital to conserving endangered languages

In 1963 Barbara and Joseph Grimes sat down with their Huichol neighbours to discuss what to do about the bandits terrorising their remote community. It was clear to everyone that the Grimes themselves were the problem. Seeing Americans living there, at the southern tip of the Rocky Mountains, the bandits assumed the community was rich. The Grimes recognised that it would be best for everyone if they left.
So ended a productive decade for the couple. As young newlyweds in 1952, they had gone to live among the Huichol in the Mexican state of Nayarit, far from shops, roads, electricity and comforts of modern civilisation. Joseph had produced a dictionary of the Huichol language and started work on a translation of the New Testament, and Barbara had brought three children into the world.
But the Grimes soon found a new outlet for their energy. Back in America, Richard Pittman of the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL), the Protestant missionary organisation that had sent the couple to Mexico, recruited them to his pet project. The mission of SIL, now SIL International, is to research and document languages in order to translate the Bible into as many of them as possible. In 1951 Pittman had started interviewing missionaries and linguists about the languages that were spoken in the parts of the world where they worked. The result was a language catalogue called Ethnologue, the first mimeographed edition of which ran to ten pages. The Grimes threw themselves into the project, and Ethnologue grew and grew. By the time Barbara took over as editor in 1974, the next step seemed logical, if daunting. “I made the decision to try to include all the countries and languages of the world,” she told me over the phone from Hawaii, where she and Joseph live now that they are retired.
As is often the case, the true value of Pittman’s idea, and Barbara Grimes’s contribution to it, only became clear much later. In 1951 nobody anticipated the death of languages, explains Paul Lewis, Ethnologue’s current editor. Like old sailors, languages were just thought to live on and on. Now we know that’s not true. Optimistic estimates suggest that by 2100 at least half of the roughly 6,000 extant languages will be either dead or moribund, meaning that children will not be speaking them. Approximately two-thirds of those 6,000 languages have never been written down.
These days a global army of linguists (some missionaries, some not) feed Ethnologue and keep it up-to-date. Lewis coordinates their efforts with the help of a small editorial team based at SIL’s headquarters in Dallas, Texas. Academic linguists who contribute to the database aren’t paid for their efforts, though an Ethnologue citation embellishes their publication record. The catalogue includes roughly 7,000 languages and is updated roughly every five years, both in print and online; the latter version is freely accessible to anyone.
Many linguists are uncomfortable with Ethnologue’s missionary roots. Indeed, missionaries have long been blamed for linguicide for the way they impose “killer” languages such as English and Spanish on speakers of minority languages, says Tove Skutnabb-Kangas, a linguist who is now retired from the University of Roskilde in Denmark. In his 2009 book, “Dying Words”, Nicholas Evans, an Australian linguist, tells the tale of the Aboriginal language Kayardild, once spoken by inhabitants of Bentinck Island, Queensland. In the 1940s, missionaries evacuated Bentinck Islanders to the mission on Mornington Island, about 50 kilometres to the north-west, where children were not taught Kayardild. Today the language, which Ethnologue classifies as “nearly extinct”, has only six speakers left.
Yet Evans says there are also plenty of examples of missionaries helping to preserve minority languages. For example, the Spanish priests who followed the conquistadors into South America documented indigenous languages as they went. Evans describes his attitude to Ethnologue as pragmatic. “It is clearly biased by its missionary agenda,” he says, citing its information about Bible translations as an example. “On the other hand, they are the only people who have put the resources into assembling a worldwide database, and that counts for a lot in my eyes.”
Though academic linguists are suspicious of SIL’s religious goals, many concede that the Ethnologue is the best tool of its kind. This despite the fact that much of the information is dated, meaning that some languages classified as spoken are actually extinct, according to Lyle Campbell, a linguist at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Atsugewi, Clallam and Coos are just three of many examples of extinct languages he cites. A more serious problem, Campbell says, is how Ethnologue defines a language. “In most parts of the world, Ethnologue has a much higher number of languages than most linguists working there would recognise,” he says. This has led some to suspect that SIL International is attempting to justify having more missionaries in the field than the language work strictly warrants.
Lewis, the editor of Ethnologue, acknowledges these complaints. “People write to us saying, you say there are two varieties of our language, well we’re all one people,” he says. However, the criteria his team uses are the ones that Barbara and Joseph Grimes painstakingly developed half a century ago, which boil down to whether two speakers can understand each other or not. Defining a language is notoriously difficult. At which point in the divergence of two dialects does one  decide that they have become different languages? The Ethnologue definition isn’t perfect, says Lewis, but it’s one of the embarrassments of linguistics that the entire field of study hasn’t come up with a better one.
But if Ethnologue’s working method hasn’t changed in the last half-century, the image it projects to the outside world has. The Grimes had no objection to calling themselves missionaries, but Lewis’s generation is squeamish about the label. “The stereotype is not one we want to own,” he says. “We describe ourselves as linguists, translators, development workers, and we do it as a faith-based organisation and out of a Christian motivation.”
Modern missionaries are anthropologically aware, he says. They understand the importance of minority languages, not just for communication but also for a people’s identity, and they are generally more deferential than missionaries in centuries past. Moreover, in declaring their ideology at the outset, he believes that SIL International linguists are more intellectually honest than academic linguists who claim to have no ideological bias at all.
Would SIL International ever consider ceding Ethnologue, so that it could become a linguistic enterprise without a religious agenda? This has been discussed, says Lewis, but mostly outside the organisation. The problem is, Ethnologue was built and is maintained with the help of a large number of volunteers and with money provided by Christian organisations. “As I look at the academic world, I don’t see any other institution that could support something of this magnitude over this period of time,” he says. Languages evolve and die, but over long stretches of time, making the monitoring process a protracted one. Ethnologue is valuable because it has created a sort of surveillance network for languages that ensures continuity.
Since 1986 the Grimes have lived and worked in Hawaii. In 2000, aged 71, Joseph Grimes published a translation of the New Testament in Hawaii Creole English, called “Da Jesus Book”. The following is an extract: “God wen get so plenny love an aloha fo da peopo inside da world, dat he wen send me, his one an ony Boy, so dat everybody dat trus me no get cut off from God, but get da real kine life dat stay to da max foeva.” (John 3:16) The work of 12 years with the help of 26 indigenous speakers, it resulted in a grammar book and a dictionary as well.

SIL International missionaries continue to travel to far-flung parts of the world to document languages, much like academic linguists, but with the security of faith rather than of tenure, and with no official retirement age. With thousands of languages still undocumented, many of which are in danger of dying before they are written down, it looks as though these emissaries of faith will continue to find plenty of work to keep them busy.


Full article and photo: http://moreintelligentlife.com/content/ideas/laura-spinney/god-loving-linguists

Rare Find: a New Language

As Native Tongues Rapidly Become Extinct, Linguists Discover an Exotic Specimen

A Koro speaker talks to National Geographic Fellow Gregory Anderson in Arunachal Pradesh, India, as he makes a recording of the language.

In the foothills of the Himalayas, two field linguists have uncovered a find as rare as any endangered species—a language completely new to science.

The researchers encountered it for the first time along the western ridges of Arunachal Pradesh, India’s northeastern-most state, where more than 120 languages are spoken. There, isolated by craggy slopes and rushing rivers, the hunters and subsistence farmers who speak this rare tongue live in a dozen or so villages of bamboo houses built on stilts.

Koro for Beginners

Koro word
(phonetic )
English translation
jew-prah head 
ko-play four
soo-fee six
poh-lay bird
leh-leh pig
may-nay sun
may-pah night
keh-peh nose
moo-yoo rain
oh-foh older sister
kah-plah-yeh thank you/you’re welcome

The language—called Koro—was identified during a 2008 expedition conducted as part of National Geographic’s Enduring Voices project. The researchers announced their discovery Tuesday in Washington, D.C. So many languages have vanished world-wide in recent decades that the naming of a new one commanded scientific attention.

“Their language is quite distinct on every level—the sound, the words, the sentence structure,” said Gregory Anderson, director of the nonprofit Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, who directs the project’s research. Details of the language will be documented in an upcoming issue of the journal Indian Linguistics.

Prized for its rarity as an unstudied linguistic artifact, the Koro language also offers researchers a catalogue of unique cultural experience, encoded in its mental grammar of words and sentence structure that helps shape thought itself.

Languages like Koro “construe reality in very different ways,” Dr. Anderson said. “They uniquely code knowledge of the natural world in ways that cannot be translated into a major language.”

In an era of globalization, languages have been disappearing by the hundreds, edged out by English, Chinese and Spanish or suppressed by government practices. Of the 6,909 known languages, about half are expected to disappear in this century; every two weeks, the last fluent speaker of a language dies. This newest, with only 800 or so speakers, may be no exception.

“Even though this is new to science, this language is on the way out,” said linguist K. David Harrison at Swarthmore College outside Philadelphia. Many younger villagers, often educated at boarding schools where only Hindi or English are spoken, are abandoning their parents’ language. “Young people are not speaking it in the villages,” Dr. Harrison said. “If the process continues, Koro will almost certainly become extinct.”

Even as languages disappear, many of them have never been identified or named. In search of that hidden diversity, linguists have been pushing deeper into remote regions and analyzing known language groups more thoroughly.

In China last year, researchers identified 24 languages in a region where previously only one had been reported. Recently, the scholarly compendium of known languages, called Ethnologue, added 83 previously unidentified languages from 19 countries.

As a matter of formal classification, Koro belongs to the Tibeto-Burman language family, a group of some 400 languages that includes Tibetan and Burmese, the linguists said. Some 150 Tibeto-Burman languages are spoken in India alone.

The language has no written form. Its only permanent monuments are the voice recordings made by researchers during the expedition, which they hope to use in compiling an online dictionary. Since the villagers have no access to the Internet, however, the dictionary and other digital records of Koro may only be of academic interest.

This newest addition to the global catalogue of known languages eluded notice until now because travel in the region is restricted by government permit and few linguists have ever worked there.

Moreover, it was masked by the unusual language diversity of the area, where so many languages are spoken that they seem to intermingle effortlessly in streams of thought. Indeed, the local Koro speakers themselves didn’t consider theirs a separate language, even though it is as distinct from those spoken by other villagers as English is from Russian, the researchers said.

The researchers hope their work will aid efforts to preserve the endangered language. “If we care about the diversity of ideas and knowledge, then we should be concerned about losing these languages,” Dr. Harrison said. “We are losing an immense body of knowledge.”

Robert Lee Hotz, Wall Street Journal


Full article and photos: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703843804575534122591921594.html

The Foreign Devil’s Dictionary

The Oxford Chinese Dictionary is a fresh, modern bridge between two languages that can still seem a world apart.

Chinese were hardly enthusiastic about learning the language of the English barbarians when East India Company ships first turned up on the shores of the Celestial Kingdom. Only in the 18th century did traders begin to pick up a few words, using pamphlets like the one entitled “Those Words of the Devilish Language of Red-Bristled People Commonly Used in Buying and Selling.”

Today, practicing English is practically China’s national pastime, with the number of English students and speakers reckoned at between 200 million and 350 million. And with the release of the Oxford Chinese Dictionary last week, they have a better guide to the devilishly difficult language. Oxford University Press describes it as “the largest, the most up-to-date, the most accurate, and the most authoritative English-Chinese/Chinese-English dictionary ever published.”

But a bilingual dictionary in one volume can hardly be an exhaustive catalogue of every word in two languages. Instead it aims to be accessible to learners and users of both languages, presenting a broad sweep of modern English and Chinese. It’s especially useful for the student of Chinese struggling to keep up with the breakneck development of slang and allusion.

As such, it’s more a compendium of the cultural climate than an official standard-bearer for the language. There are entries for renzishi tuoxie (“flip-flops”), shua zuipizi (to “be all talk and no action”) and zhaguo (to “get excited and angry”). In the entry for san (“three”), one can peruse threes of all kinds: a three-pointer in basketball (sanfenqiu), Sun Yat-sen’s Three Principles of the People (sanminzhuyi) and an escort who provides three kinds of services (sanpei)—although exactly which three is left to the reader’s imagination.

There is breadth enough for the novice and depth enough for the specialist. Those who have breakfasted in China may already know that youtiao are deep-fried dough strips but may learn that the word is also used to refer to an untrustworthy person. Likewise with ku; those who know that it means “bitter” may not know the full span of hardship that it can describe: a thankless job (kuchai), mental vexation (kunao), lost appetite during summer (kuxia) and the feigning of injury to win others’ confidence (kurouji).

The new dictionary includes many words that are new not only to the world of Chinese-English dictionaries, but also to the language itself—the lexical footprints of a culture on the move. Fans—and in China there are many, of all sorts—will find the most current ways to call themselves: There is a straight transliteration from English (fensi, the same word for thin rice noodles) but also a more evocative rendering (fashaoyou, which literally means “fever friend”). Hangers-on will learn to keep an ear out for the word zhuixingzu to know when they have crossed the line and are officially groupies.

The Internet, predictably, contributes a jumbled heap of fresh idiom, but some of the new vocabulary represents social change along more established dimensions. China’s nouveaux riches may now be known among their jealous neighbors as “moneybags” (dakuan), “big shots” (dawan) or “bigwigs” (daheng). Graduates who have taken a little too long to leave the nest are said to be “gnawing” on their parents (kenlaozhu). Adulterers who might once have called their paramours concubines (qie) for lack of a lowlier term can now aspire to precision; an ernai is a kept woman of less-official standing.

The Oxford dictionary reaches back in the language’s history, too. China’s many chengyu, or idiomatic phrases derived from traditional fables and classical texts, present a high hurdle for learners. Often arcane and literary, they still pervade everyday conversation.

To convey in Chinese that a situation is paradoxical (zixiang maodun), for instance, is to invoke a story about an arms dealer who oversells his wares. Expressing the need for perseverance (tiechu mocheng zhen) means referring to the story of a man who made a needle by rolling a steel pole in his hands for weeks and weeks. The new dictionary does crackerjack work with these and others. Some experts put the number of chengyu expressions at 5,000, though others settle for no fewer than 20,000. Statistics on the Chinese language, like folk tales, change depending on who’s telling them.

Browsing the new dictionary reinforces a sense of the deep pools from which the Chinese language springs, even at its colloquial cutting-edge. Today’s Chinese, profoundly rooted yet full of novelty, reflects a people who revere tradition but also seek constantly to reinterpret that tradition. The Oxford dictionary is an apt monument to this ambivalence.

Nevertheless, monuments always decay. If it follows the example of the flagship Oxford English Dictionary, the Oxford Chinese Dictionary may in its next edition retreat from the printed page, living exclusively online. It would be a fitting development. The words and phrases of modern Chinese may have at last been captured and recorded. But in Shenzhen’s Internet cafés and Beijing’s rock clubs, the language is still being taken apart and rebuilt.

Mr. Zhong is a Princeton-in-Asia fellow at the Wall Street Journal Asia’s editorial page.


Full article and photo : http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703743504575494653640121096.html

Does Your Language Shape How You Think?

Seventy years ago, in 1940, a popular science magazine published a short article that set in motion one of the trendiest intellectual fads of the 20th century. At first glance, there seemed little about the article to augur its subsequent celebrity. Neither the title, “Science and Linguistics,” nor the magazine, M.I.T.’s Technology Review, was most people’s idea of glamour. And the author, a chemical engineer who worked for an insurance company and moonlighted as an anthropology lecturer at Yale University, was an unlikely candidate for international superstardom. And yet Benjamin Lee Whorf let loose an alluring idea about language’s power over the mind, and his stirring prose seduced a whole generation into believing that our mother tongue restricts what we are able to think.

In particular, Whorf announced, Native American languages impose on their speakers a picture of reality that is totally different from ours, so their speakers would simply not be able to understand some of our most basic concepts, like the flow of time or the distinction between objects (like “stone”) and actions (like “fall”). For decades, Whorf’s theory dazzled both academics and the general public alike. In his shadow, others made a whole range of imaginative claims about the supposed power of language, from the assertion that Native American languages instill in their speakers an intuitive understanding of Einstein’s concept of time as a fourth dimension to the theory that the nature of the Jewish religion was determined by the tense system of ancient Hebrew.

Eventually, Whorf’s theory crash-landed on hard facts and solid common sense, when it transpired that there had never actually been any evidence to support his fantastic claims. The reaction was so severe that for decades, any attempts to explore the influence of the mother tongue on our thoughts were relegated to the loony fringes of disrepute. But 70 years on, it is surely time to put the trauma of Whorf behind us. And in the last few years, new research has revealed that when we learn our mother tongue, we do after all acquire certain habits of thought that shape our experience in significant and often surprising ways.

Whorf, we now know, made many mistakes. The most serious one was to assume that our mother tongue constrains our minds and prevents us from being able to think certain thoughts. The general structure of his arguments was to claim that if a language has no word for a certain concept, then its speakers would not be able to understand this concept. If a language has no future tense, for instance, its speakers would simply not be able to grasp our notion of future time. It seems barely comprehensible that this line of argument could ever have achieved such success, given that so much contrary evidence confronts you wherever you look. When you ask, in perfectly normal English, and in the present tense, “Are you coming tomorrow?” do you feel your grip on the notion of futurity slipping away? Do English speakers who have never heard the German word Schadenfreude find it difficult to understand the concept of relishing someone else’s misfortune? Or think about it this way: If the inventory of ready-made words in your language determined which concepts you were able to understand, how would you ever learn anything new?

SINCE THERE IS NO EVIDENCE that any language forbids its speakers to think anything, we must look in an entirely different direction to discover how our mother tongue really does shape our experience of the world. Some 50 years ago, the renowned linguist Roman Jakobson pointed out a crucial fact about differences between languages in a pithy maxim: “Languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey.” This maxim offers us the key to unlocking the real force of the mother tongue: if different languages influence our minds in different ways, this is not because of what our language allows us to think but rather because of what it habitually obliges us to think about.

Consider this example. Suppose I say to you in English that “I spent yesterday evening with a neighbor.” You may well wonder whether my companion was male or female, but I have the right to tell you politely that it’s none of your business. But if we were speaking French or German, I wouldn’t have the privilege to equivocate in this way, because I would be obliged by the grammar of language to choose between voisin or voisine; Nachbar or Nachbarin. These languages compel me to inform you about the sex of my companion whether or not I feel it is remotely your concern. This does not mean, of course, that English speakers are unable to understand the differences between evenings spent with male or female neighbors, but it does mean that they do not have to consider the sexes of neighbors, friends, teachers and a host of other persons each time they come up in a conversation, whereas speakers of some languages are obliged to do so.

On the other hand, English does oblige you to specify certain types of information that can be left to the context in other languages. If I want to tell you in English about a dinner with my neighbor, I may not have to mention the neighbor’s sex, but I do have to tell you something about the timing of the event: I have to decide whether we dined, have been dining, are dining, will be dining and so on. Chinese, on the other hand, does not oblige its speakers to specify the exact time of the action in this way, because the same verb form can be used for past, present or future actions. Again, this does not mean that the Chinese are unable to understand the concept of time. But it does mean they are not obliged to think about timing whenever they describe an action.

When your language routinely obliges you to specify certain types of information, it forces you to be attentive to certain details in the world and to certain aspects of experience that speakers of other languages may not be required to think about all the time. And since such habits of speech are cultivated from the earliest age, it is only natural that they can settle into habits of mind that go beyond language itself, affecting your experiences, perceptions, associations, feelings, memories and orientation in the world.

BUT IS THERE any evidence for this happening in practice?

Let’s take genders again. Languages like Spanish, French, German and Russian not only oblige you to think about the sex of friends and neighbors, but they also assign a male or female gender to a whole range of inanimate objects quite at whim. What, for instance, is particularly feminine about a Frenchman’s beard (la barbe)? Why is Russian water a she, and why does she become a he once you have dipped a tea bag into her? Mark Twain famously lamented such erratic genders as female turnips and neuter maidens in his rant “The Awful German Language.” But whereas he claimed that there was something particularly perverse about the German gender system, it is in fact English that is unusual, at least among European languages, in not treating turnips and tea cups as masculine or feminine. Languages that treat an inanimate object as a he or a she force their speakers to talk about such an object as if it were a man or a woman. And as anyone whose mother tongue has a gender system will tell you, once the habit has taken hold, it is all but impossible to shake off. When I speak English, I may say about a bed that “it” is too soft, but as a native Hebrew speaker, I actually feel “she” is too soft. “She” stays feminine all the way from the lungs up to the glottis and is neutered only when she reaches the tip of the tongue.

In recent years, various experiments have shown that grammatical genders can shape the feelings and associations of speakers toward objects around them. In the 1990s, for example, psychologists compared associations between speakers of German and Spanish. There are many inanimate nouns whose genders in the two languages are reversed. A German bridge is feminine (die Brücke), for instance, but el puente is masculine in Spanish; and the same goes for clocks, apartments, forks, newspapers, pockets, shoulders, stamps, tickets, violins, the sun, the world and love. On the other hand, an apple is masculine for Germans but feminine in Spanish, and so are chairs, brooms, butterflies, keys, mountains, stars, tables, wars, rain and garbage. When speakers were asked to grade various objects on a range of characteristics, Spanish speakers deemed bridges, clocks and violins to have more “manly properties” like strength, but Germans tended to think of them as more slender or elegant. With objects like mountains or chairs, which are “he” in German but “she” in Spanish, the effect was reversed.

In a different experiment, French and Spanish speakers were asked to assign human voices to various objects in a cartoon. When French speakers saw a picture of a fork (la fourchette), most of them wanted it to speak in a woman’s voice, but Spanish speakers, for whom el tenedor is masculine, preferred a gravelly male voice for it. More recently, psychologists have even shown that “gendered languages” imprint gender traits for objects so strongly in the mind that these associations obstruct speakers’ ability to commit information to memory.

Of course, all this does not mean that speakers of Spanish or French or German fail to understand that inanimate objects do not really have biological sex — a German woman rarely mistakes her husband for a hat, and Spanish men are not known to confuse a bed with what might be lying in it. Nonetheless, once gender connotations have been imposed on impressionable young minds, they lead those with a gendered mother tongue to see the inanimate world through lenses tinted with associations and emotional responses that English speakers — stuck in their monochrome desert of “its” — are entirely oblivious to. Did the opposite genders of “bridge” in German and Spanish, for example, have an effect on the design of bridges in Spain and Germany? Do the emotional maps imposed by a gender system have higher-level behavioral consequences for our everyday life? Do they shape tastes, fashions, habits and preferences in the societies concerned? At the current state of our knowledge about the brain, this is not something that can be easily measured in a psychology lab. But it would be surprising if they didn’t.

The area where the most striking evidence for the influence of language on thought has come to light is the language of space — how we describe the orientation of the world around us. Suppose you want to give someone directions for getting to your house. You might say: “After the traffic lights, take the first left, then the second right, and then you’ll see a white house in front of you. Our door is on the right.” But in theory, you could also say: “After the traffic lights, drive north, and then on the second crossing drive east, and you’ll see a white house directly to the east. Ours is the southern door.” These two sets of directions may describe the same route, but they rely on different systems of coordinates. The first uses egocentric coordinates, which depend on our own bodies: a left-right axis and a front-back axis orthogonal to it. The second system uses fixed geographic directions, which do not rotate with us wherever we turn.

We find it useful to use geographic directions when hiking in the open countryside, for example, but the egocentric coordinates completely dominate our speech when we describe small-scale spaces. We don’t say: “When you get out of the elevator, walk south, and then take the second door to the east.” The reason the egocentric system is so dominant in our language is that it feels so much easier and more natural. After all, we always know where “behind” or “in front of” us is. We don’t need a map or a compass to work it out, we just feel it, because the egocentric coordinates are based directly on our own bodies and our immediate visual fields.

But then a remote Australian aboriginal tongue, Guugu Yimithirr, from north Queensland, turned up, and with it came the astounding realization that not all languages conform to what we have always taken as simply “natural.” In fact, Guugu Yimithirr doesn’t make any use of egocentric coordinates at all. The anthropologist John Haviland and later the linguist Stephen Levinson have shown that Guugu Yimithirr does not use words like “left” or “right,” “in front of” or “behind,” to describe the position of objects. Whenever we would use the egocentric system, the Guugu Yimithirr rely on cardinal directions. If they want you to move over on the car seat to make room, they’ll say “move a bit to the east.” To tell you where exactly they left something in your house, they’ll say, “I left it on the southern edge of the western table.” Or they would warn you to “look out for that big ant just north of your foot.” Even when shown a film on television, they gave descriptions of it based on the orientation of the screen. If the television was facing north, and a man on the screen was approaching, they said that he was “coming northward.”

When these peculiarities of Guugu Yimithirr were uncovered, they inspired a large-scale research project into the language of space. And as it happens, Guugu Yimithirr is not a freak occurrence; languages that rely primarily on geographical coordinates are scattered around the world, from Polynesia to Mexico, from Namibia to Bali. For us, it might seem the height of absurdity for a dance teacher to say, “Now raise your north hand and move your south leg eastward.” But the joke would be lost on some: the Canadian-American musicologist Colin McPhee, who spent several years on Bali in the 1930s, recalls a young boy who showed great talent for dancing. As there was no instructor in the child’s village, McPhee arranged for him to stay with a teacher in a different village. But when he came to check on the boy’s progress after a few days, he found the boy dejected and the teacher exasperated. It was impossible to teach the boy anything, because he simply did not understand any of the instructions. When told to take “three steps east” or “bend southwest,” he didn’t know what to do. The boy would not have had the least trouble with these directions in his own village, but because the landscape in the new village was entirely unfamiliar, he became disoriented and confused. Why didn’t the teacher use different instructions? He would probably have replied that saying “take three steps forward” or “bend backward” would be the height of absurdity.

So different languages certainly make us speak about space in very different ways. But does this necessarily mean that we have to think about space differently? By now red lights should be flashing, because even if a language doesn’t have a word for “behind,” this doesn’t necessarily mean that its speakers wouldn’t be able to understand this concept. Instead, we should look for the possible consequences of what geographic languages oblige their speakers to convey. In particular, we should be on the lookout for what habits of mind might develop because of the necessity of specifying geographic directions all the time.

In order to speak a language like Guugu Yimithirr, you need to know where the cardinal directions are at each and every moment of your waking life. You need to have a compass in your mind that operates all the time, day and night, without lunch breaks or weekends off, since otherwise you would not be able to impart the most basic information or understand what people around you are saying. Indeed, speakers of geographic languages seem to have an almost-superhuman sense of orientation. Regardless of visibility conditions, regardless of whether they are in thick forest or on an open plain, whether outside or indoors or even in caves, whether stationary or moving, they have a spot-on sense of direction. They don’t look at the sun and pause for a moment of calculation before they say, “There’s an ant just north of your foot.” They simply feel where north, south, west and east are, just as people with perfect pitch feel what each note is without having to calculate intervals. There is a wealth of stories about what to us may seem like incredible feats of orientation but for speakers of geographic languages are just a matter of course. One report relates how a speaker of Tzeltal from southern Mexico was blindfolded and spun around more than 20 times in a darkened house. Still blindfolded and dizzy, he pointed without hesitation at the geographic directions.

How does this work? The convention of communicating with geographic coordinates compels speakers from the youngest age to pay attention to the clues from the physical environment (the position of the sun, wind and so on) every second of their lives, and to develop an accurate memory of their own changing orientations at any given moment. So everyday communication in a geographic language provides the most intense imaginable drilling in geographic orientation (it has been estimated that as much as 1 word in 10 in a normal Guugu Yimithirr conversation is “north,” “south,” “west” or “east,” often accompanied by precise hand gestures). This habit of constant awareness to the geographic direction is inculcated almost from infancy: studies have shown that children in such societies start using geographic directions as early as age 2 and fully master the system by 7 or 8. With such an early and intense drilling, the habit soon becomes second nature, effortless and unconscious. When Guugu Yimithirr speakers were asked how they knew where north is, they couldn’t explain it any more than you can explain how you know where “behind” is.

But there is more to the effects of a geographic language, for the sense of orientation has to extend further in time than the immediate present. If you speak a Guugu Yimithirr-style language, your memories of anything that you might ever want to report will have to be stored with cardinal directions as part of the picture. One Guugu Yimithirr speaker was filmed telling his friends the story of how in his youth, he capsized in shark-infested waters. He and an older person were caught in a storm, and their boat tipped over. They both jumped into the water and managed to swim nearly three miles to the shore, only to discover that the missionary for whom they worked was far more concerned at the loss of the boat than relieved at their miraculous escape. Apart from the dramatic content, the remarkable thing about the story was that it was remembered throughout in cardinal directions: the speaker jumped into the water on the western side of the boat, his companion to the east of the boat, they saw a giant shark swimming north and so on. Perhaps the cardinal directions were just made up for the occasion? Well, quite by chance, the same person was filmed some years later telling the same story. The cardinal directions matched exactly in the two tellings. Even more remarkable were the spontaneous hand gestures that accompanied the story. For instance, the direction in which the boat rolled over was gestured in the correct geographic orientation, regardless of the direction the speaker was facing in the two films.

Psychological experiments have also shown that under certain circumstances, speakers of Guugu Yimithirr-style languages even remember “the same reality” differently from us. There has been heated debate about the interpretation of some of these experiments, but one conclusion that seems compelling is that while we are trained to ignore directional rotations when we commit information to memory, speakers of geographic languages are trained not to do so. One way of understanding this is to imagine that you are traveling with a speaker of such a language and staying in a large chain-style hotel, with corridor upon corridor of identical-looking doors. Your friend is staying in the room opposite yours, and when you go into his room, you’ll see an exact replica of yours: the same bathroom door on the left, the same mirrored wardrobe on the right, the same main room with the same bed on the left, the same curtains drawn behind it, the same desk next to the wall on the right, the same television set on the left corner of the desk and the same telephone on the right. In short, you have seen the same room twice. But when your friend comes into your room, he will see something quite different from this, because everything is reversed north-side-south. In his room the bed was in the north, while in yours it is in the south; the telephone that in his room was in the west is now in the east, and so on. So while you will see and remember the same room twice, a speaker of a geographic language will see and remember two different rooms.

It is not easy for us to conceive how Guugu Yimithirr speakers experience the world, with a crisscrossing of cardinal directions imposed on any mental picture and any piece of graphic memory. Nor is it easy to speculate about how geographic languages affect areas of experience other than spatial orientation — whether they influence the speaker’s sense of identity, for instance, or bring about a less-egocentric outlook on life. But one piece of evidence is telling: if you saw a Guugu Yimithirr speaker pointing at himself, you would naturally assume he meant to draw attention to himself. In fact, he is pointing at a cardinal direction that happens to be behind his back. While we are always at the center of the world, and it would never occur to us that pointing in the direction of our chest could mean anything other than to draw attention to ourselves, a Guugu Yimithirr speaker points through himself, as if he were thin air and his own existence were irrelevant.

IN WHAT OTHER WAYS might the language we speak influence our experience of the world? Recently, it has been demonstrated in a series of ingenious experiments that we even perceive colors through the lens of our mother tongue. There are radical variations in the way languages carve up the spectrum of visible light; for example, green and blue are distinct colors in English but are considered shades of the same color in many languages. And it turns out that the colors that our language routinely obliges us to treat as distinct can refine our purely visual sensitivity to certain color differences in reality, so that our brains are trained to exaggerate the distance between shades of color if these have different names in our language. As strange as it may sound, our experience of a Chagall painting actually depends to some extent on whether our language has a word for blue.

In coming years, researchers may also be able to shed light on the impact of language on more subtle areas of perception. For instance, some languages, like Matses in Peru, oblige their speakers, like the finickiest of lawyers, to specify exactly how they came to know about the facts they are reporting. You cannot simply say, as in English, “An animal passed here.” You have to specify, using a different verbal form, whether this was directly experienced (you saw the animal passing), inferred (you saw footprints), conjectured (animals generally pass there that time of day), hearsay or such. If a statement is reported with the incorrect “evidentiality,” it is considered a lie. So if, for instance, you ask a Matses man how many wives he has, unless he can actually see his wives at that very moment, he would have to answer in the past tense and would say something like “There were two last time I checked.” After all, given that the wives are not present, he cannot be absolutely certain that one of them hasn’t died or run off with another man since he last saw them, even if this was only five minutes ago. So he cannot report it as a certain fact in the present tense. Does the need to think constantly about epistemology in such a careful and sophisticated manner inform the speakers’ outlook on life or their sense of truth and causation? When our experimental tools are less blunt, such questions will be amenable to empirical study.

For many years, our mother tongue was claimed to be a “prison house” that constrained our capacity to reason. Once it turned out that there was no evidence for such claims, this was taken as proof that people of all cultures think in fundamentally the same way. But surely it is a mistake to overestimate the importance of abstract reasoning in our lives. After all, how many daily decisions do we make on the basis of deductive logic compared with those guided by gut feeling, intuition, emotions, impulse or practical skills? The habits of mind that our culture has instilled in us from infancy shape our orientation to the world and our emotional responses to the objects we encounter, and their consequences probably go far beyond what has been experimentally demonstrated so far; they may also have a marked impact on our beliefs, values and ideologies. We may not know as yet how to measure these consequences directly or how to assess their contribution to cultural or political misunderstandings. But as a first step toward understanding one another, we can do better than pretending we all think the same.

Guy Deutscher is an honorary research fellow at the School of Languages, Linguistics and Cultures at the University of Manchester. His new book, from which this article is adapted, is “Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages,” to be published this month by Metropolitan Books.


Full article and photo: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/29/magazine/29language-t.html

Rain Men

The lost language of Italian parasols and the men who made them.

Last month, on a visit to Piedmont in northern Italy, I chanced upon a small museum in the hill town of Gignese that is devoted to the local craft of umbrella-making. At first, I wondered how this particular region along the west shore of Lago Maggiore became associated with the production—through the past few centuries—of quality umbrellas and parasols, but the reason is not hard to find. Every year more than thirty-three inches of rain falls over the neighborhood of Turin, and more than thirty-nine around Milan. That’s at least a third more than what London gets. Meanwhile the northern Italian summers are hot and sunny. The word umbrella descends from the Latin umbraculum, which means a convenient device for providing shade.

The ancient Romans were very fond of umbrellas, and regularly exchanged them as gifts. Yet umbrellas were virtually unknown in England and America before the 1780s, and the traveler Jonas Hanway, who acquired a Piedmontese umbrella in Leghorn (Livorno), was for many years held up to ridicule when, in about 1750, he returned to London with one. The problem before the mid-nineteenth century was that Regency umbrellas were oily, not necessarily reliably waterproof, and tended to run—and the harder it rained, the worse it was. Oil and dye in roughly equal measure dribbled and spattered onto silk or muslin dresses. Gloves, bonnets, and satin slippers were maculated by nasty black spots. So at first umbrellas were used in England much more as shelter from the sun than the rain, and exclusively by women. It took several early Victorian decades for the English umbrella to shed its reputation for effeminacy, and more than a century and a half for it to burrow its way into the national character, and take up its dignified position in the crook of Neville Chamberlain’s elbow.

In the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries the ombrellai of Piedmont were a relatively closed community of highly specialist craftsmen. They engaged child-apprentices from among the poorest families of the region. Upon signing up, the apprenticed ombrellaio received a pair of shoes, somewhere to sleep, two square meals a day, and, of course, an umbrella. He said goodbye to his family for at least a period of four or five years—effectively, for good—and as well as learning to make umbrellas, he hiked from town to town selling braces of them to wholesalers, agents, and traders for export, mostly through Genoa.

As with so many other northern Italian industries (most famously the glass factories of Venice) the relevant production techniques, recipes, and other trade secrets were jealously guarded and protected with much paranoia, even ruthlessness. To that end the ombrellai used an in-house language known as Tarùsc, which seems to have existed in one form or another among the hill-dwelling people of Piedmont and the southern cantons of Switzerland since at least pre-Roman times. And while it came to be associated almost exclusively with the ombrellai, it was also used for related purposes by smugglers, thieves, spies—indeed a comparatively large proportion of the population whose occupations were covert. Continue reading

What if ‘English Only’ Isn’t Wrong?

Foreigners learn our language; we don’t learn theirs.

On the campaign trail in 2008, Barack Obama was asked about foreign-language education. He responded emphatically, calling it “embarrassing” that most Americans are monolingual. Being able to speak a foreign language makes you “so much more employable,” he said. “We should be emphasizing foreign languages in our schools from an early age.”

I recently telephoned Dennis Baron, professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and read him that quote. He laughed, saying that Mr. Obama is not likely to sway many minds. Americans are still stubbornly—even proudly—monolingual, more concerned with protecting English than with learning another tongue.

This attitude is reflected in the classroom. Between 1997 and 2008, the percentage of elementary schools offering foreign-language instruction decreased to 25% from 31%; in middle schools, that figure dropped to 58% from 75%, according to the Center for Applied Linguistics.

Foreigners learn our language; we don’t learn theirs.

The number of high schools teaching foreign languages remained about the same. Yet students who begin studying a language in the 9th or 10th grade, significantly diminish the likelihood that they will ever achieve proficiency.

The picture is no less bleak on college campuses, where, according to the Modern Language Association in 2007, around 8% of students were enrolled in foreign-language courses. That’s about half of what it was in the mid-1960s. As the Chronicle of Higher Education put it, “This is not an easy time for foreign-language departments.”

This was not supposed to happen. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 focused attention on the nation’s language deficits. A report by the National Research Council put the matter starkly: “A pervasive lack of knowledge about foreign cultures and foreign languages threatens the security of the United States as well as its ability to compete in the global marketplace.”

In 2006, George W. Bush established the National Security Language Initiative, a $114 million program to encourage the study of high-priority languages, such as Arabic and Farsi.

Marty Abbott, director of education at the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, says, “We thought it was our Sputnik moment,” referring to the Soviet Union’s satellite launch in 1957 that led the federal government to pour resources into science, technology, and Russian-language education. Today, Ms. Abbott sounds dejected: “We have made no dramatic strides.” Rosemary G. Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Association, says morosely that too many Americans believe “that foreign language education is superfluous.”

Maybe it is. Advances in machine translation, coupled with the global dominance of English—by some estimates, about one-quarter of the world’s population can to a certain extent communicate in English—has led some observers to question the necessity of learning a language other than English.

In his book “The Great Brain Race,” Ben Wildavsky describes a global knowledge economy dominated by English. He notes that even in France—France!—English has triumphed. Richard Descoings, president of the Paris Institute of Political Studies, told Mr. Wildavsky, “We have to stop saying that English is one of the languages. It is the language of international exchange: commercial, military, and also intellectual and scientific. . . . It is no longer an object of debate.”

That perspective is not limited to Europe. A 2008 report by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs showed that 96%-100% of those questioned in China, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea and Vietnam think that it is important for their children to learn English. The online retailing giant Rakuten is one of a number of Japanese companies to embrace English. As The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this month, by 2012 Rakuten’s employees will be required to speak and communicate with each other in English.

In China, the celebrity English instructor Li Yang attracts 10,000 or more students to arena-size classrooms. His motto: “Conquer English to Make China Stronger!” It is a similar story in India, already the third-largest English-language book market in the world. D. Shyam Babu, a fellow at the Rajiv Gandhi Institute for Contemporary Studies in New Delhi, told me, “For Indians, English is an obsession.” In May this year, in a village in India’s Uttar Pradesh state, a foundation stone was laid for a temple dedicated to Goddess English.

Ultimately, some linguists and computer scientists argue, technology will collapse the world’s language barriers. Imagine walking down the street in Cairo, speaking English into your cell phone, and having your words come out in Arabic.

That future might not be far off. Reliable and ubiquitous translation technology “is really only a matter of time,” according to Nicholas Ostler, author of the forthcoming book, “The Last Lingua Franca: English until the Return of Babel.” Yorick Wilks, a professor of artificial intelligence at the University of Sheffield, is more specific, predicting in an email that adequate machine translations “will almost certainly be available as phone apps within a decade.”

That prospect is understandably alarming to many educators, who point to a mountain of persuasive studies showing that bilingualism bolsters creativity and cognitive development, as well as cultural awareness and sensitivity. “As humans, we will always use language in ways that are creative, culturally specific and idiosyncratic,” says Ms. Feal. “That’s the joy of language, and you can’t replace that with an iPhone app.”

But it won’t stop many people from trying.

Mr. Goldstein is a staff editor at The Chronicle of Higher Education.


Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704002104575290602423212366.html

In Alaska, a Frenchman Fights to Revive the Eyak’s Dead Tongue

Natives Take Dialect Lessons From Guillaume Leduey; Blurting Out ‘Keełtaak’

Mona Curry recently stared teary-eyed at a film of her late mother speaking in the native-Alaskan language of Eyak at a tribal ceremony. Then she turned to a 21-year-old Frenchman for translation.

“She said that it’s beautiful,” Guillaume Leduey explained without hesitation. “It’s a pleasure to be here. Thank you God.”

Mr. Leduey, a college student from Le Havre, France, has made it his mission to bring the Eyak tongue back from extinction. Eyak tribe membership once numbered in the hundreds in south central Alaska, then dwindled over the past two centuries as other tribes and Western settlement encroached.

Ms. Curry’s mother, Marie Smith Jones, was considered by Alaska historians the last native Eyak speaker when she died in 2008. Her descendants and others didn’t become fluent in the language because of a stigma around speaking anything other than English in Alaska’s native villages.

Lots of local dialects across the world face extinction, but few have attracted a preservationist as unlikely as Mr. Leduey, an aspiring sculptor who until June hadn’t left Europe. That month, he journeyed to Alaska to study under Michael Krauss, a 75-year-old University of Alaska linguistics professor who knows conversational Eyak. Mr. Leduey set out to traipse in the footsteps of the tribe that once inhabited this gritty fishing village on Prince William Sound.

Versed in French, English, German, Chinese and Georgian, and able to sing at least one song in Lithuanian, Mr. Leduey says he can’t fully explain why he took on the defunct tongue. “It’s like I have an inner voice that tells me I have to do that,” he says.

More than a thousand years ago, the Eyaks are believed to have settled in Alaska’s interior before migrating to the coast, hunting and fishing along the way, historians say. They passed down their language through storytelling. While as many as 20 native dialects remain in Alaska, Mr. Krauss says Eyak is considered extinct because there are no fluent, native speakers.

Guillaume Leduey (center) gives an Eyak lesson to Dune Lankard (left) and Mona Curry.

Mr. Leduey’s preservation quest is littered with linguistic stumbling blocks. Eyak bears little similarity to English or the Russian spoken by some Alaskan natives. Sounds for letters often are uttered from the back of the mouth, rather than the middle as with European languages. Eyak’s vowels followed by an “n” are nasalized, while the “m” sound rarely is used. It wasn’t until academics began studying it that the language was formally put in writing.

There are no obscenities. “If you want to insult someone, you call them a ‘nik’da’luw,'” Mr. Leduey says, using the Eyak expression for “big nose,” which means nosy. And there are a number of one-word sentences. “If you want to say, ‘I’ll kill you,” it is ‘ige’xsheh,'” he says.

To understand more about Eyaks, Mr. Leduey also learned to cook salmon in the ground, a native tradition. On an overcast day here last month, he dug a shallow pit in the front yard of Eyak descendant Pam Smith, a niece of Ms. Jones’s. He tended a crackling fire to roast two red salmon, each wrapped in giant skunk cabbage leaves. After 90 minutes, the fish were warm but still raw, so Ms. Smith threw them into an oven.

Mr. Leduey’s Eyak odyssey began at age 12, when he happened on the language while trolling through an online dictionary of languages in his hometown of Le Havre. By searching more online, he discovered Eyak appeared to have only one native speaker, Ms. Jones.

“I was like, ‘Wow, one speaker left. I must do something to learn the language’,” Mr. Leduey says. His parents were less than thrilled. “They don’t think it’s useful,” he says.

With little online material on Eyak, Mr. Leduey obtained one of Mr. Krauss’s texts on the subject, and turned to Laura Bliss Spaan, a filmmaker in Anchorage, Alaska, who directed a documentary about Ms. Jones. Ms. Spaan sent Mr. Leduey the film and some more of Mr. Krauss’s Eyak texts.


Guillaume Leduey

In April 2009, Mr. Leduey showed off his Eyak skills to Ms. Spaan while she was visiting France. “We were outside one of the most beautiful cathedrals in Paris and Guillaume showed me some graffiti of an octopus,” she says. “He instantly told me three different ways to say ‘octopus,'” which is “tsaaleexoquh” in Eyak.

Earlier this year, Ms. Spaan suggested Mr. Leduey visit Mr. Krauss in Fairbanks, Alaska, where he teaches. After Mr. Leduey’s June arrival, Mr. Krauss cloistered him in a room for up to five hours a day to pore over Eyak documents. To break the monotony, Mr. Leduey sang songs in Eyak to Scamper, the professor’s Norwich Terrier.

Mr. Leduey also traveled to Cordova, where the Eyaks made their last stand against being swallowed up by civilization. Cordova boasts Eyak Corp., a legal entity for native groups in Alaska, with about 400 members. Membership is dominated by rival Tlingits, who helped take over the Eyak territory, along with white settlers, says Dune Lankard, one of about 50 in the corporation with Eyak blood. Bits of the language remain alive even though its fluent, native speakers have died.

“There are people talking like they’re Eyaks but they’re not Eyaks,” says Mr. Lankard, a commercial fisherman.

In Cordova last month, some part-Eyaks showed Mr. Leduey a demolished village site and took him to a natural attraction called Child’s Glacier, where a harbor seal leapt out of the icy water. “Keełtaak,” Mr. Leduey blurted out, using the Eyak word for the animal.

Later stopping to inspect a roadside sign about Eyaks, Mr. Leduey caught a barely perceptible error. The sign uses the Eyak word “saqehl” for people who go by boat; Mr. Leduey said it should be “saqehł,” with a bar through the “l.”

About 10 to 15 people have shown interest in Eyak lessons, he says. Mr. Leduey recently huddled at a kitchen table with Mr. Lankard, 50, and Ms. Curry, 53, for a lesson. “Adate’ya,” Mr. Leduey said for “silver salmon.” Mr. Lankard struggled with the guttural sound. “I can’t even say that,” he says.

Despite the early stigma about their language, “it feels right to learn now,” Ms. Curry says. “This will help keep my mom’s memory and spirit alive.”

Jim Carlton, Wall Street Journal


Full article and photos: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704499604575407862950503190.html

Das Lied der Deutschen

The German Language

A new history of German shows how it came to be, and how it could have been

German: Biography of a Language. By Ruth H. Sanders. Oxford University Press

MOST people regard grammar books and dictionaries as a codified set of rules prescribing dos and don’ts. For professional scholars of language, though, they are more like history books. Languages are constantly in flux, but it takes a rather long view to show just what a contingent and transitory thing a language can be at any point in time. Ruth Sanders, a professor of German Studies at Miami University in Ohio, takes just such a view in her new book, telling the millennia-long story of German and how it got that way.

Ms Sanders neatens the history by choosing six turning points to trace the development of German or, more accurately, the Germanic languages. During the third millennium BC, speakers of Proto-Indo-European reached most of Europe. Ms Sanders’s biography ranges widely over not just linguistics, but also over archaeology and genetic history to tell the story of these prolific Indo-Europeans and their languages; an eighth of this slim book has passed before the reader first encounters the first Germanic-speakers (on the coasts of Denmark). No one knows what made the Germanic language branch off from the Indo-European family. Whether the pre-existing population in Scandinavia influenced it, or if it had already branched off when it arrived, is hard to say for certain at this distance. But Ms Sanders does usefully correct a common misconception. Languages do not usually spread because newcomers replace indigenous peoples. Rather, those already there often take up the new settlers’ tongue.

The next turning point was courtesy of Arminius, also known as “Hermann the German”, a Roman-trained soldier; in 9AD he stopped a Roman advance eastward across the Rhine. At the battle of Teutoburg forest, the troublesome locals ambushed three Roman legions. As a result, the Roman borders, known as “limes” (from which comes the word “limits”) stopped at the Rhine. Whereas the Germanics took up as many Roman ways of life as they could afford, they never took up their language as the conquered—primarily Celtic—people of France and Spain had. Germanic marauders would later devastate the empire itself, but in another twist, those who settled in Italy, Gaul and Spain did in fact begin speaking Late Latin. Arminius had saved a bit of the map for German.

At another of Ms Sanders’s turning points, the Germanic dialects had split into High (mountainous, southern) and Low (northern, flatland) varieties, giving modern (High) German ich, for example, while old Anglo-Saxon had ic and Dutch, ik. Perhaps the most celebrated turning point in the history of the German language is the work of another rebel against Rome, Martin Luther. His belief in salvation through personal faith alone, not the intermediation of the Church, led him to violate a longstanding prohibition on translating the Bible into vernacular languages. Luther had to compromise between the many different “Germans” that filled the German lands in those days, hundreds of years before there was a single German state (the creation of which is Ms Sanders’s fifth turning point). Luther borrowed an emerging standard used by the Holy Roman Empire, “chancellery German”, as a base with some currency in different regions.

Luther’s genius was to infuse his translation with the words he heard on the street in his bit of Saxony, in east-central Germany. He obsessively asked friends and fellow scholars which dialectal words would be most widely understood. The common touch was so successful that a Catholic opponent complained that “even tailors and shoemakers…read it with great eagerness.” It was the bestseller of the century and remains the most popular German translation. Rarely has a single man had such a mark on a language. The German of Luther’s Bible was nobody’s native language in his day. Today it is so universal that it threatens Germany’s once-vibrant dialects with death by standardisation.

Ms Sanders’s work contains some disappointments. Occasionally she reintroduces the same fact as if it were new. And with under 250 pages to tell her tale, there is little room to spare. There are no examples of the earthy Saxonisms that Luther made into today’s standard German. Ms Sanders reports that the Latin theodiscus is the first mention of German’s name for itself (Deutsch), but not where theodiscus comes from. (The answer is that theud was a Germanic root meaning “people”, so that Deutsch meant “Peoplish” to its speakers.) The chronological tables contain more errors than they should. The last turning point, German’s cultural revival after two crushing world wars, feels too brief.

Ms Sanders’s book is a biography, not of the modern German language proper, but of the Germanic languages and the people who speak them. She takes in the development of Yiddish, Dutch, Icelandic and of course English, as well as others. As such it is an ingenious telling of just how German emerged from the primordial Germanic soup, and how many other ways it could have been if, say, Luther had been born 100 miles farther north. For all its flaws, this is an enjoyable yet still-scholarly read for the historian, linguist and Germanophile alike. It would be a fine thing to have more such brief histories, made easily readable to the non-specialist, of the major world languages.


Full article and photo: http://www.economist.com/node/16740435

Beach-Blanket Lingo

When Jake Tapper of ABC’s “This Week” asked Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey last month for his opinion of the MTV reality series “Jersey Shore,” the contempt in the governor’s voice was obvious. “What it does is it takes a bunch of New Yorkers — most of the people on ‘Jersey Shore’ are New Yorkers — drops them at the Jersey Shore and tries to make America feel like this is New Jersey,” Christie said. In other words, in the parlance of the Jersey Shore, the show is about a bunch of bennies — disagreeable tourists from the metropolitan New York region who crowd the beaches every summer.

When it comes to the seasonal exodus of sun worshipers to the Jersey Shore and other beach spots around the country, language can get fiercely local. It starts with the fundamentals: how do you describe your prospective trip to the beach? In Oregon, you might say you’re going “to the coast.” In New Jersey, you invariably go “down the shore.” Baltimore natives, meanwhile, say they’re going “down the ocean” — but in Baltimorese (make that Bawlmerese), the phrase sounds more like “downy eaushin.” The down of “down the shore” and “down the ocean” doesn’t necessarily imply a southward journey. As in many dialects along the Eastern Seaboard, down can be used as a preposition indicating movement from the inland toward the shoreline.

Once you get to your destination, you might find that the locals have some colorful epithets for you. Old-time New Englanders have disdain for the summer people. On the Eastern Shore of Virginia and Maryland, the come-heres are pitted against the from-heres. Hawaiians call white visitors to the islands haoles. West Coast surfers, a territorial lot, have a plethora of terms for nonlocals: Trevor Cralle’s “Surfin’ary: A Dictionary Of Surfing Terms and Surfspeak” lists put-downs like hondo, inlander, flatlander, valley and casper. (The last one is reserved for tourists whose pallid complexion resembles that of Casper the Friendly Ghost.)

On the Jersey Shore, the two main terms for unpleasant outsiders are bennies and shoobies. Roughly speaking, bennies are those who descend from the New York area to the beach towns of Monmouth County and northern Ocean County (like Seaside Heights, where MTV shot the first season of “Jersey Shore”). Shoobies generally come from the Philadelphia region to towns farther south, with the southern tip of Long Beach Island marking the dividing line between the realms of bennies and shoobies.

Shoobies came first, historically, thanks to the convenient train lines that have run from Philadelphia to Atlantic City since the late 19th century. As John T. Cunningham explained in his 1958 book, “The New Jersey Shore,” day-trippers from Philly took advantage of the $1 round-trip fare to make excursions to the shore, especially on Sundays. “That day,” Cunningham wrote, “week in and week out, found swaying Atlantic City-bound coaches teeming with Philadelphia families, laden with their ‘shoe box lunches.’ ”

Those lunches packed in shoe boxes were so associated with the influx of Philadelphia visitors that they likely gave rise to the term shoobie. The word researcher Barry Popik has traced the localism back to a 1952 recollection of Edward Brown, then a lifeguard in Ocean City, about 10 miles south of Atlantic City. Brown recalled that certain beaches “attracted hordes of ‘shoobies,’ day-trippers or weekend visitors who didn’t have a clue as to what the ocean might do in a fit of whimsy.”

Bennie or benny, though a newer word, is shrouded in greater mystery. The first print appearance documented by the Dictionary of American Regional English is in an unpublished paper by Robert A. Foster, detailing a lexical survey of New Jersey undertaken in 1977 and 1978. Foster wrote that bennie refers to “tourists from New York City and North Jersey,” and speculated that it comes from the Jewish name Benny, used as a label for Jews in general, “well-known in working-class New York City.”

Since then, a raft of other theories has been proposed to explain the origins of bennies. Some say it’s an abbreviation for the “beneficial rays” soaked up by the beachgoers — or for the mutual benefits enjoyed by the visitors and the locals who profit from them. Others relate it to the “Benjamin Franklins” (100-dollar bills) that tourists would spend. Still others claim that it’s an acronym for the chief points of departure from the north, often given as Bayonne, Elizabeth, Newark and New York. The story goes that train riders’ luggage tags were stamped with BENNY, but the lack of evidence suggests this is as mythical as the canard that posh originally stood for “Port Out, Starboard Home” (supposedly referring to the most desirable cabins on passenger ships between Britain and India).

Paul Mulshine, a columnist for The Star-Ledger of Newark, witnessed the birth of the bennie brouhaha in the mid-1970s, when “Bennies Go Home” bumper stickers began showing up around Ocean County, where he worked as a newspaper reporter and editor. Mulshine doubts the acronym story, as well as Foster’s Jewish-name theory. “The ethnic variant I’ve instead heard is that it is derived from bene, the Italian term for ‘well,’ ” Mulshine told me. “Italian-Americans have traditionally had a somewhat loud and flashy approach to summering at the shore. And they are much more likely to have been the target of lampooning by the locals in the area where bennie sprung up.” Though that explanation might fit well with the stereotypical “Guidos” and “Guidettes” of MTV’s “Jersey Shore,” Mulshine concedes that the true etymology of the term “probably can never be known.”

Ben Zimmer will answer one reader question every other week.


Full article and photo: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/08/magazine/08FOB-onlanguage-t.html

When Did We First ‘Rock the Mic’?

Talk about a culture clash. Last month I found myself playing snippets of old-school hip-hop over tinny laptop speakers for a roomful of lexicographers at Oxford University. The occasion was the Fifth International Conference on Historical Lexicography and Lexicology, an erudite gathering of scholars interested in exploring the work of dictionaries structured on historical principles.

The granddaddy of historical dictionaries in the Anglophone world is, of course, the Oxford English Dictionary, and the conference was also an occasion to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the O.E.D.’s ambitious revision project, rolled out in quarterly online updates. As the O.E.D.’s chief editor, John Simpson, announced in his keynote address, at the end of the year the dictionary will open a new chapter in its history, with a far-ranging overhaul of its online home.

Being a historical lexicographer in the 21st century is a task worthy of Janus, with one eye on the language’s past and another on new information about language that is emerging from advances in the digital world. So it was only fitting that my conference paper focused on how the Web is opening up previously unexplored terrain in documenting the history of American slang.

As an informal consultant for the O.E.D., I’m always on the lookout for new sources to shine a light on the nooks and crannies of American English. You never know what you might find on the Net these days: Texas Tech University’s Virtual Vietnam Archive, for instance, catalogs the graffiti scribbled on bunk beds by Vietnam-era recruits making the lonely Pacific voyage on a troop transport ship. On YouTube and music blogs, meanwhile, fans of old-school rap are sharing ancient recordings from hip-hop’s cradle in the South Bronx and Upper Manhattan. And by “ancient,” I mean anything from before October 1979, when the Sugarhill Gang’s blockbuster single, “Rapper’s Delight,” unceremoniously made the musical genre an international phenomenon, no longer the insular concern of New York’s record-scratching D.J.’s and rapping M.C.’s.

In “Rapper’s Delight,” the M.C. Big Bank Hank raps, “I’m gonna rock the mic till you can’t resist,” using what was then a novel sense of rock, defined by the O.E.D. as “to handle effectively and impressively; to use or wield effectively, esp. with style or self-assurance.” To be sure, singers in the prerap era often used rock as a transitive verb, whether it was Bill Haley promising, “We’re gonna rock this joint tonight,” or the bluesman Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup more suggestively wailing, “Rock me, mama.” But the M.C.’s of early hip-hop took the verb in a new direction, transforming the microphone (abbreviated in rap circles as mic, not mike) into an emblem of stylish display. Later elaborations on the theme would allow clothes and other accessories to serve as the objects of rock, as when Kanye West boasted in a 2008 issue of Spin magazine, “I rock a bespoke suit and I go to Harold’s for fried chicken.”

When it came time for the O.E.D. to revise its entry for rock, the task of picking apart this thicket of related meanings fell to Jesse Sheidlower, the editor in charge of North American English. Sheidlower told me that he used to torture applicants in the O.E.D.’s New York office by having them draft coherent dictionary definitions out of disparate citations of the verb rock. Eventually he had to take on the actual revision himself.

To help in the revision of rock, I went hunting for examples of the signature phrase “rock the mic” that would predate “Rapper’s Delight,” a song widely viewed within the hip-hop community as a derivative pastiche of rhymes already in common use among the M.C.’s of the day, before any of them had recording contracts. I was happy to discover a few live recordings of rap performances dated to 1978 on YouTube (posted by Ali Sarkeshik, a football coach in San Diego) and the Web site Hip Hop on Wax (curated by a German rap enthusiast using the alias Spitfire).

Even though New York had many battling crews of D.J.’s and M.C.’s at the time, the musical scene “was not self-documenting,” as the rap historian Johan Kugelberg laments in his book “Born in the Bronx,” a loving compendium of hip-hop photos and fliers from local shows. The recordings that do remain from the early days are the audio descendants of mix tapes that circulated around New York, often bought by luxury gypsy-cab services that would use the cassettes as exclusive entertainment on their rides.

One such tape captures a December 1978 performance at the Audubon Ballroom in Washington Heights, starring Grandmaster Flash and the Four M.C.’s (soon to be known, with the addition of one more M.C., as Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five). Just as Flash innovated on the turntables, his M.C.’s pioneered much of what would become foundational in rap, earning them a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. One M.C., Melle Mel, can be heard on the tape rapping, “Like white on rice, I rock the mic.”

Would this example pass muster with O.E.D. editors? It helped that elsewhere on the tape, a voice, very likely Flash’s, raps, “Dec. 23, Audubon, rocks on,” providing indisputable internal evidence for the recording’s date and provenance. “We don’t reject important examples from nontraditional sources if they are trustworthy,” Sheidlower says, “and a first quotation from a bootleg recording where the date is clearly spoken during the performance would certainly fall into the categories of ‘important’ and ‘trustworthy.’ ”

And so, in the revised entry for rock included in the O.E.D.’s June 2010 update, Melle Mel trumps Big Bank Hank as the earliest known M.C. to “rock the mic.” Though fresh evidence could always push the usage back even further, there’s a certain justice to setting the record straight, more than three decades after the fact. Historical lexicography? It rocks.

Ben Zimmer will answer one reader question every other week.


Full article and photo: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/11/magazine/11FOB-onlanguage-t.html


For the uninitiated, financial writing can sometimes sound like science fiction. Take this sentence from “The Quants,” a new book by the Wall Street Journal reporter Scott Patterson: “To the quants, beta is bad, alpha is good.” Out of context, that could easily be mistaken for dialogue from the “Star Trek” franchise.

In fact, the quants are the protagonists of Patterson’s gripping tale; experts in mathematics, physics and computer science who brought sophisticated quantitative approaches to the world of Wall Street. The number-crunching techniques of the quants promised something better than beta, which is “shorthand for plain-vanilla market returns anyone with half a brain can achieve,” in Patterson’s words. If you can deliver a return that surpasses the benchmark indexes, you’ve achieved alpha — and with it, the “ephemeral promise of vast riches.”

In the pursuit of alpha, the quants managed to reshape the financial markets by relying on computerized algorithms to generate huge gains for investors. But with the unfolding economic crisis of 2007 and beyond, the alpha dogs ended up in the doghouse.

Regardless of how much blame the quants deserve for the current economic mess, their impact has been undeniable. From the early ’70s, math-minded academics began moving to Wall Street, designing complex models to assess risk and predict market movements. On their arrival, they were often called “rocket scientists” by traditional traders, a term of derision that belittled their lack of down-in-the-trenches business know-how. (Think of folksy disclaimers like “I’m no rocket scientist, but . . .” or “It’s not rocket science!”)

Quants then emerged as the new word for Wall Street’s rocket scientists. It had long been a scholastic shortening for “quantitative,” defined as early as 1896 in a glossary of student slang as “quantitative analysis or quantitative chemistry.” In its financial application, the word could refer either to the analysis or to those who conducted it. In 1979, Forbes magazine characterized quants as “the young consultants who do much of their monitoring by questionnaire and most of their evaluating by quantitative analysis.” That same year, in “The Dow Jones-Irwin Guide to Modern Portfolio Theory,” Robert Hagin offered some “new words”: “quants (those who apply quantitative investment techniques), superquants, pseudoquants and even turncoat-quants.”

The big quant boom began in the mid-’80s, when investment firms started attracting venerable names like Emanuel Derman, a South African-born physicist described by Patterson as an “überquant,” who eventually became a managing director at Goldman Sachs. When I asked Derman recently about his early years in finance, he said that at first he felt that quant, like rocket scientist before it, was largely a derogatory put-down for the brainy newcomers, many of them foreign-born: “two-thirds pejorative, one-third grudging praise,” by his calculation. Another popular epithet from the era was quant jock, on the model of other eggheaded jock compounds like math jock or computer jock.

Quant was still new enough in 1986 that its origin stumped William Safire, who surmised that it was an abbreviation of “quantum jump.” But soon there were quant funds (investment funds with securities selected by quantitative analysis) and quant firms (firms specializing in quantitative investment). Wall Street recruiters scoured the top tech schools for all manner of quants. As described by Mark Joshi, a former quant at the Royal Bank of Scotland, in his paper “On Becoming a Quant,” subspecies include desk quants, a k a front-office quants, who work directly with traders, and statistical-arbitrage quants (stat-arb quants for short), who plow through mounds of data to find opportunities for automated trading.

As quantdom grew more glamorous in the ’90s — and as nerdhood in general became more firmly entrenched in the business world during the dot-com boom — any lingering ridicule behind quant faded away. Derman proudly identified with the Q-word in the title of his 2004 memoir, “My Life as a Quant,” and 25 financial analysts reminisced about their roots in the collection “How I Became a Quant,” published in 2007. Reviewing the latter book in The Wall Street Journal, Derman wrote that quant had become more all-encompassing, noting that several of the contributors were in his estimation “not true quants” steeped in advanced university research but instead were simply quantitative in their investment approaches.

The geeky glamour of the quant took a big hit with the financial downturn, beginning with the so-called quant crisis in the summer of 2007, when quant funds took a nosedive. “All I can say is, beware of geeks bearing formulas,” Warren Buffett memorably told Charlie Rose in October 2008. But The Times reported last year that student interest in the quant career track remains strong, as demonstrated by the standing-room-only attendance at a workshop at M.I.T. called “So You Want to Be a Quant.”

Despite hand-wringing over the failure of the quants, neither the term nor the type of financial analysis it designates is in danger of disappearing, according to David Leinweber, author of “Nerds on Wall Street” and the founding director of the Center for Innovative Financial Technology at the University of California, Berkeley. “As long as there’s data and money, there will be quants,” Leinweber recently told me. And as the markets move increasingly toward computer-driven, high-frequency trading, with exchanges made by the millisecond, the enduring influence of the quants will remain vast — maybe even unquantifiable.

Ben Zimmer will answer one reader question every other week.


Full article and photo: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/16/magazine/16FOB-OnLanguage-t.html

A Web Smaller Than a Divide

AT first glance, there’s a clear need for expanding the Web beyond the Latin alphabet, including in the Arabic-speaking world. According to the Madar Research Group, about 56 million Arabs, or 17 percent of the Arab world, use the Internet, and those numbers are expected to grow 50 percent over the next three years.

Many think that an Arabic-alphabet Web will bring millions online, helping to bridge the socio-economic divides that pervade the region.

But such hopes are overblown. Although there are still problems — encoding glitches and the lack of a standard Arabic keyboard — virtually any Arabic speaker who uses the Web has already adjusted to these challenges in his or her own way. And it’s no big deal: educated Arabs are exposed, in various degrees, to English and French in school.

The very idea of an “Arabic Web” is misleading. True, before the Icann announcement declared that Arabic characters could be used throughout domain names, U.R.L.’s had to be written at least in part in Latin script. But once one passes the Latin domain gate, the rest is all done in Arabic characters anyway.

Nowadays almost every computer can be made to write Arabic, or any other script, and there is plenty of Arabic software. Most late-model electronic devices are equipped with Arabic. I text with friends using Arabic on my iPhone. Many computer keyboards are now even made with Arabic letters printed on the keys.

And where there’s no readily available solution, Arabic Internet users have found a way to adjust. Many use the Latin script to transliterate messages in Arabic when there’s no conversion program or font set available. Phonetic spelling is common. For sounds that have no written equivalent in Latin script, they’ve gotten creative: for example, the number 3 is commonly used for the “ayn” sound and 7 stands in for the “ha,” because their shapes closely resemble the corresponding Arabic letters.

So what will happen? In the short term, of course, some additional users will move to the Web, especially as they take advantage of the new range of domain names. Over time, though, this will peter out, because, as in most of the world, the digital divide still tracks closely with the material and political divide. The haves are the ones using computers, and many of them are also the ones long accustomed to working with Latin script. The have-nots are unlikely to have the luxury of jumping online. Changing the alphabet used to form domain names won’t exactly attract millions of poor Arabs to the Internet.

We should all celebrate the diversity that comes with an Internet no longer tied to a single alphabet. But we should be realistic, too. The Web may be a revolutionary technology, but an Arabic Web is not about to spur an Internet revolution.

Sinan Antoon, an assistant professor of Arabic literature at New York University, is the author of the novel “I`jaam: An Iraqi Rhapsody.”


Full article: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/16/opinion/16Antoon.html

Search Engine of the Song Dynasty

BAIDU.COM, the popular search engine often called the Chinese Google, got its name from a poem written during the Song Dynasty (960-1279). The poem is about a man searching for a woman at a busy festival, about the search for clarity amid chaos. Together, the Chinese characters băi and dù mean “hundreds of ways,” and come out of the last lines of the poem: “Restlessly I searched for her thousands, hundreds of ways./ Suddenly I turned, and there she was in the receding light.”

Baidu, rendered in Chinese, is rich with linguistic, aesthetic and historical meaning. But written phonetically in Latin letters (as I must do here because of the constraints of the newspaper medium and so that more American readers can understand), it is barely anchored to the two original characters; along the way, it has lost its precision and its poetry.

As Web addresses increasingly transition to non-Latin characters as a result of the changing rules for domain names, that series of Latin letters Chinese people usually see at the top of the screen when they search for something on Baidu may finally turn into intelligible words: “a hundred ways.”

Of course, this expansion of languages for domain names could lead to confusion: users seeking to visit Web sites with names in a script they don’t read could have difficulty putting in the addresses, and Web browsers may need to be reconfigured to support non-Latin characters. The previous system, with domain names composed of numbers, punctuation marks and Latin letters without accents, promoted standardization, wrangling into consistency and simplicity one small part of the Internet. But something else, something important, has been lost.

Part of the beauty of the Chinese language comes from a kind of divisibility not possible in a Latin-based language. Chinese is composed of approximately 20,000 single-syllable characters, 10,000 of which are in common use. These characters each mean something on their own; they are also combined with other characters to form hundreds of thousands of multisyllabic words. Níhăo, for example, Chinese for “Hello,” is composed of ní — “you,” and hăo — “good.” Isn’t “You good” — both as a statement and a question — a marvelous and strangely precise breakdown of what we’re really saying when we greet someone?

The Romanization of Chinese into a phonetic system called Pinyin, using the Latin alphabet and diacritics (to indicate the four distinguishing tones in Mandarin), was developed by the Chinese government in the 1950s. Pinyin makes the language easier to learn and pronounce, and it has the added benefit of making Chinese characters easy to input into a computer. Yet Pinyin, invented for ease and standards, only represents sound. In Chinese, there are multiple characters with the exact same sound. The sound “băi,” for example, means 100, but it can also mean cypress, or arrange. And “Baidu,” without diacritics, can mean “a failed attempt to poison” or “making a religion of gambling.” In the case of Baidu.com, the word, in Latin letters, has slipped away from its original context and meaning, and been turned into a brand.

Language is such a basic part of our lives, it seems ordinary and transparent. But language is strange and magical, too: it dredges up history and memory; it simultaneously bestows and destabilizes meaning. Each of the thousands of languages spoken around the world has its own system and rules, its own subversions, its own quixotic beauty. Whenever you try to standardize those languages, whether on the Internet, in schools or in literature, you lose something. What we gain in consistency costs us in precision and beauty.

When Chinese speakers Baidu (like Google, it too is a verb), we look for information on the Internet using a branded search engine. But when we see the characters for băi dù, we might, for one moment, engage with the poetry of our language, remember that what we are really trying to do is find what we were seeking in the receding light. Those sets of meanings, layered like a palimpsest, might appear suddenly, where we least expect them, in the address bar at the top of our browsers. And in some small way, those words, in our own languages, might help us see with clarity, and help us to make sense of the world.

Ruiyan Xu is the author of the forthcoming novel “The Lost and Forgotten Languages of Shanghai.”


Full article: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/16/opinion/16xu.html

Goddess English of Uttar Pradesh

Mumbai, India

A FORTNIGHT ago, in a poor village in Uttar Pradesh, in northern India, work began on a temple dedicated to Goddess English. Standing on a wooden desk was the idol of English — a bronze figure in robes, wearing a wide-brimmed hat and holding aloft a pen. About 1,000 villagers had gathered for the groundbreaking, most of them Dalits, the untouchables at the bottom of India’s caste system. A social activist promoting the study of English, dressed in a Western suit despite the hot sun and speaking as if he were imparting religious wisdom, said, “Learn A, B, C, D.” The temple is a gesture of defiance from the Dalits to the nation’s elite as well as a message to the Dalit young — English can save you.

A few days later, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, a body that oversees domain names on the Web, announced a different kind of liberation: it has taken the first steps to free the online world from the Latin script, which English and most Web addresses are written in. In some parts of the world, Web addresses can already be written in non-Latin scripts, though until this change, all needed the Latin alphabet for country codes, like “.sa” for Saudi Arabia. But now that nation, along with Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, has been granted a country code in the Arabic alphabet, and Russia has gotten a Cyrillic one. Soon, others will follow.

Icann calls it a “historic” development, and that is true, but only because a great cliché has finally been defeated. The Internet as a unifier of humanity was always literary nonsense, on par with “truth will triumph.”

The universality of the Latin script online was an accident of its American invention, not a global intention. The world does not want to be unified. What is the value of belonging if you belong to all? It is a fragmented world by choice, and so it was always a fragmented Web. Now we can stop pretending — but that doesn’t mean this is a change worth celebrating.

Many have argued that the introduction of domain names and country codes in non-Latin scripts will help the Web finally reach the world’s poor. But it is really hard to believe that what separates an Egyptian or a Tamil peasant from the Internet is the requirement to type in a few foreign characters. There are far greater obstacles. It is even harder to believe that all the people who are demanding their freedom from the Latin script are doing it for humanitarian reasons. A big part of the issue here is nationalism, and the East’s imagination of the West as an adversary. This is just the latest episode in an ancient campaign.

A decade ago I met Mahatma Gandhi’s great-grandson, Tushar Gandhi, a jolly, endearing, meat-eating man. He was distraught that the Indians who were creating Web sites were choosing the dot-com domain over the more patriotic dot-in. He was trying to convince Indians to flaunt their nationality. He told me: “As long as we live in this world, there will be boundaries. And we need to be proud of what we call home.”

It is the same sentiment that is now inspiring small groups of Indians to demand top-level domain names (the suffix that follows the dot in a Web address) in their own native scripts, like Tamil. The Tamil language is spoken in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu, where I spent the first 20 years of my life, and where I have seen fierce protests against the colonizing power of Hindi. The International Forum for Information Technology in Tamil, a tech advocacy and networking group, has petitioned Icann for top-level domain names in the Tamil script. But if it cares about increasing the opportunities available to poor Tamils, it should be promoting English, not Tamil.

There’s no denying that at the heart of India’s new prosperity is a foreign language, and that the opportunistic acceptance of English has improved the lives of millions of Indians. There are huge benefits in exploiting a stronger cultural force instead of defying it. Imagine what would have happened if the 12th-century Europeans who first encountered Hindu-Arabic numerals (0, 1, 2, 3) had rejected them as a foreign oddity and persisted with the cumbersome Roman numerals (IV, V). The extraordinary advances in mathematics made by Europeans would probably have been impossible.

But then the world is what it is. There is an expression popularized by the spread of the Internet: the global village. Though intended as a celebration of the modern world’s inclusiveness, it is really an accurate condemnation of that world. After all, a village is a petty place — filled with old grudges, comical self-importance and imagined fears.

Manu Joseph, the deputy editor of the Indian newsweekly OPEN, is the author of the forthcoming novel “Serious Men.”


Full article: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/16/opinion/16joseph.html

The Plural of E-Mail

Ashley Mergen asks: “What is the proper plural of e-mail? When referring to snail mail, you would not say, ‘I received a hundred mails,’ but rather, ‘I received a hundred pieces of mail’ or ‘I received a hundred mailings.’ However, when referring to e-mail, one would say, ‘I received a hundred e-mails.’ Correct?”

The plural form of e-mail is, indeed, e-mails, even though there’s no corresponding plural of mail as mails. This mismatch has rankled seekers of grammatical consistency over the years, but it has nonetheless settled into standard usage.

First some terminology. Nouns that can form plurals are called “count nouns.” Mail, historically, is what is known as a “mass noun” — a noun that can’t be enumerated and thus resists pluralization, much like mud and milk, patience and poppycock. Some nouns can be either count or mass, depending on the context. General Sherman used war as a mass noun when he said, “War is hell,” while Benjamin Franklin used it as a count noun when he said, “All wars are follies, very expensive and very mischievous ones.”

Many mass nouns have spawned countable spinoffs over time. Coffee is usually an undifferentiated mass (“Get me some coffee”), but in modern use it can also be treated as a count noun denoting a cupful of the beverage (“Get me a coffee”) or a variety of the bean (“We serve the finest Arabica coffees”). The Stanford linguist Arnold Zwicky has dubbed this process “countification.”

When the word e-mail first made its appearance in the early 1980s (often capitalized as E-mail), it was simply a shortening of electronic mail, and so it worked grammatically much like the mass noun mail. To itemize mail into its constituent parts you need to find a workaround like pieces of mail or letters. Similarly, individual pieces of e-mail came to be called e-mail notes or more commonly, e-mail messages. (Single terms like e-notes or e-letters never caught on.)

By the late ’80s, e-mail message was slowly but surely shortened to e-mail. In the archives of the magazine InfoWorld, the earliest use of e-mail as a count noun that I can find is from July 20, 1987, in an advertisement for International Data Group (IDG). “Jane Lawrence, editor of IDG’s PC Business World, receives an E-mail from [Ann] Wujcik requesting information,” the ad reads. Though the magazine generally preferred e-mail message, by 1992 even InfoWorld’s publisher Robert Metcalfe was using the short form: “I have to admit I am now getting so many E-mails I can only read all and answer a few of them.”

The countable kind of e-mail(s) made further headway over the course of the ’90s, despite complaints that it strayed from the founding model of mail, and by the turn of the millennium it had become widely accepted in mainstream usage. (The mass-noun version never went away, of course.) What happened? My theory is that the e- prefix no longer felt like such a transparent abbreviation of electronic, allowing e-mail to cast off the bonds that kept it close to mail of the snail variety. The word’s new unitary feel was further strengthened by the trend of spelling it as email, without the hyphen. (The New York Times style guide continues to stick by hyphenated e-mail, and even advises using the older, longer form of the noun, e-mail message.)

The countification of e-mail mirrors some other recent developments in tech-talk. Unwanted e-mail, known as spam, is usually treated as a mass noun (just like the canned meat after which it is named), but individual spam messages now often get called spams. And the word blog, while always countable, has taken a new semantic turn: some use it to mean a single post to a Web site, rather than a whole site consisting of such posts. A recent survey by the Copyediting newsletter finds that most writers and editors reject this usage of blog as improper, but who knows? In a decade’s time, it could be as unremarkable as countable e-mails.

Ben Zimmer will answer one reader question every other week.


Full article: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/09/magazine/09FOB-onlanguage-t.html

The best books

The Economist‘s international correspondent on books about language

Robert Lane Greene is an international correspondent for The Economist, currently covering American politics and foreign policy online. His book on the politics of language around the world, “You Are What You Speak”, will be published by Bantam (Random House) in the spring of 2011.

Monitors of language-usage are often seen as either scolds or geeks. Which book do you recommend to convey what is fascinating about language?

After years of reading about language for pleasure and then researching for my own book, I’d still refer anyone who asks back to the book that lit a fire for me a decade or so ago: Steven Pinker’s “The Language Instinct” You can take or leave Mr Pinker’s case that all human languages share a few common features, and that those features are wired into our grey matter (rather than, say, an extension of our general intelligence). But whatever your views on this subject, it’s hard to read the book and then happily go back to seeing language as a set of iron-bound rules that are constantly being broken by the morons around you. Instead, you start seeing this human behaviour as something to be enjoyed in its fascinating variability.

Linguists study the way language works in the brain, and tend to leave condemnations of usage to grammarians. But is there a single English-language rulebook that you would prescribe?

Absolutely. It’s a bit of a myth that linguists don’t believe in rules (although “condemnation”, it’s true, isn’t really their style). But they believe in rules that are obeyed by the vast majority of speakers, writing or speaking naturally, not those invented by random rulebook writers in the 1700s. The best usage book in this spirit is Merriam-Webster’s “Dictionary of English Usage”. This book is not merely an array of editorial hunches, but an empirical study of a wide range of common (and even a few uncommon) usage questions. Where there is a controversy the book is at its best, as it talks readers through the history of these rules. One learns, for example, that John Dryden used Latin as a guide when he condemned ending sentences with prepositions. But often these rules don’t bear up under scrutiny; Merriam-Webster tends to cite great writers who break this or that “rule”. When ignoring the bans outlined by some cranky grammarians, it can be reassuring to be in the company of Shakespeare, the King James and George Bernard Shaw.

For a more traditional guide, try H.W. Fowler’s “Dictionary of Modern English Usage”. Fowler was convincing and entertaining rather than authoritarian and angry, and a lifetime’s lonely erudition (he was painfully shy) shows through on every page. Modern editions are more useful, having had some particularly grey-bearded entries removed and some additions made by subsequent editors. But older editions are fun; they show what raised the hackles a hundred years ago. For example Fowler condemned as “clichés” many phrases I’d never heard: “a curate’s egg”, “neither fish, flesh nor good red herring”, and so on. I like to imagine a world in which “neither fish, flesh nor good red herring” was irritatingly common.

Half of today’s languages may be gone in a century. Is there a book that explains why we should care?

Unfortunately, I’ve tried and failed to find a utilitarian argument for preserving tiny languages. Daniel Nettle and Suzanne Romaine failed to convince me with “Vanishing Voices”, which tied biodiversity to the preservation of endangered languages. They’re right in that small groups that speak threatened languages often know things about plant and animal species that are lost when their lands are “developed” and they are absorbed into the larger community. But that knowledge isn’t lost because the language is lost. It’s lost because the way of life is lost. If a modest tribe moved to the city and took urban jobs, their knowledge of rare plants and so on would disappear even if they kept their language. By contrast, if their traditional way of life were preserved, they could start speaking the bigger metropolitan language and keep their knowledge. (Contrary to a common belief, most things are perfectly translatable.)

So the reason to keep languages alive is really just because they are an irreplaceable part of our common human heritage. Mark Abley’s “Spoken Here” takes the reader on an enjoyable tour of threatened languages. It’s a bit wide-eyed at times, but it’s written by someone who just loves that there are so many ways to say things. The thought of a planet a thousand years from now where everyone speaks just a few languages, or just one, depresses me. It would be like replacing Angkor Wat with some new condos.

What’s next on your reading list?

I’ve just begun Nicholas Ostler’s “Empires of the Word”. It’s an omnivorous history of language and the rise and fall of civilisations. Rather than the traditional tour from Sumerian cuneiform to the Phoenician alphabet to the Greeks to the Romans to modern French and so on, it’s filled with the detours and great languages of the past, now barely remembered. It reminds us that Aramaic was once the official language of the Persian empire; that Spain was once Celtic; that Cleopatra was really a Greek (though she also learned Egyptian, which was unusual), and so on. The Goths and Vandals make a mess of the Roman Empire next, but the last laugh is on them—most of them will become Romanized, eventually speaking Spanish, Italian and so on. As with any well-written history, I almost wish I didn’t know how it turns out.


Full article and photo: http://www.economist.com/displayStory.cfm?story_id=16052199&source=hptextfeature

Shanghai Is Trying to Untangle the Mangled English of Chinglish

Shanghai has been trying to harness English translations that sometimes wander, like “cash recyling machine

For English speakers with subpar Chinese skills, daily life in China offers a confounding array of choices. At banks, there are machines for “cash withdrawing” and “cash recycling.” The menus of local restaurants might present such delectables as “fried enema,” “monolithic tree mushroom stem squid” and a mysterious thirst-quencher known as “The Jew’s Ear Juice.”

Those who have had a bit too much monolithic tree mushroom stem squid could find themselves requiring roomier attire: extra-large sizes sometimes come in “fatso” or “lard bucket” categories. These and other fashions can be had at the clothing chain known as Scat.

Go ahead and snicker, although by last Saturday’s opening of the Expo 2010 in Shanghai, drawing more than 70 million visitors over its six-month run, these and other uniquely Chinese maladaptations of the English language were supposed to have been largely excised.

Well, that at least is what the Shanghai Commission for the Management of Language Use has been trying to accomplish during the past two years.

Fortified by an army of 600 volunteers and a politburo of adroit English speakers, the commission has fixed more than 10,000 public signs (farewell “Teliot” and “urine district”), rewritten English-language historical placards and helped hundreds of restaurants recast offerings.

The campaign is partly modeled on Beijing’s herculean effort to clean up English signage for the 2008 Summer Olympics, which led to the replacement of 400,000 street signs, 1,300 restaurant menus and such exemplars of impropriety as the Dongda Anus Hospital — now known as the Dongda Proctology Hospital. Gone, too, is Racist Park, a cultural attraction that has since been rechristened Minorities Park.

“The purpose of signage is to be useful, not to be amusing,” said Zhao Huimin, the former Chinese ambassador to the United States who, as director general of the capital’s Foreign Affairs Office, has been leading the fight for linguistic standardization and sobriety.

But while the war on mangled English may be considered a signature achievement of government officials, aficionados of what is known as Chinglish are wringing their hands in despair.

Oliver Lutz Radtke, a former German radio reporter who may well be the world’s foremost authority on Chinglish, said he believed that China should embrace the fanciful melding of English and Chinese as the hallmark of a dynamic, living language. As he sees it, Chinglish is an endangered species that deserves preservation.

“If you standardize all these signs, you not only take away the little giggle you get while strolling in the park but you lose a window into the Chinese mind,” said Mr. Radtke, who is the author of a pair of picture books that feature giggle-worthy Chinglish signs in their natural habitat.

Lest anyone think it is all about laughs, Mr. Radtke is currently pursuing a doctoral degree in Chinglish at the University of Heidelberg.

Still, the enemies of Chinglish say the laughter it elicits is humiliating. Wang Xiaoming, an English scholar at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, painfully recalls the guffaws that erupted among her foreign-born colleagues as they flipped through a photographic collection of poorly written signs. “They didn’t mean to insult me but I couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable,” said Ms. Wang, who has since become one of Beijing’s leading Chinglish slayers.

Those who study the roots of Chinglish say many examples can be traced to laziness and a flawed but wildly popular translation software. Victor H. Mair, a professor of Chinese at the University of Pennsylvania, said the computerized dictionary, Jingshan Ciba, had led to sexually oriented vulgarities identifying dried produce in Chinese supermarkets and the regrettable “fried enema” menu selection that should have been rendered as “fried sausage.”

Although improved translation software and a growing zeal for grammatically unassailable English has slowed the output of new Chinglishisms, Mr. Mair said he still received about five new examples a day from people who knew he was good at deciphering what went wrong. “If someone would pay me to do it, I’d spend my life studying these things,” he said.

Among those getting paid to wrestle with Chinglish is Jeffrey Yao, an English translator and teacher at the Graduate Institute of Interpretation and Translation at Shanghai International Studies University who is leading the sign exorcism. But even as he eradicates the most egregious examples by government fiat — businesses dare not ignore the commission’s suggested fixes — he has mixed feelings, noting that although some Chinglish phrases sound awkward to Western ears, they can be refreshingly lyrical. “Some of it tends to be expressive, even elegant,” he said, shuffling through an online catalog of signs that were submitted by the volunteers who prowled Shanghai with digital cameras. “They provide a window into how we Chinese think about language.”

He offered the following example: While park signs in the West exhort people to “Keep Off the Grass,” Chinese versions tend to anthropomorphize nature as a way to gently engage the stomping masses. Hence, such admonishments as “The Little Grass Is Sleeping. Please Don’t Disturb It” or “Don’t Hurt Me. I Am Afraid of Pain.”

Mr. Yao read off the Chinese equivalents as if savoring a Shakespearean sonnet. “How lovely,” he said with a sigh.

He pointed out that this linguistic mentality helped create such expressions as “long time no see,” a word-for-word translation of a Chinese expression that became a mainstay of spoken English. But Mr. Yao, who spent nearly two decades working as a translator in Canada, has his limits. He showed a sign from a park designed to provide visitors with the rules for entry, which include prohibitions on washing, “scavenging,” clothes drying and public defecation, all of it rendered in unintelligible — and in the case of the last item — rather salty English. The sign ended with this humdinger: “Because if the tourist does not obey the staff to manage or contrary holds, Does, all consequences are proud.”

Even though he had had the sign corrected recently, Mr. Yao could not help but shake his head in disgust at the memory. And he was irritated to find that a raft of troublesome sign verbiage had slipped past the commission as the expo approached, including a cafeteria sign that read, “The tableware reclaims a place.” (Translation: drop off dirty dishes here.)

“Some Chinglish expressions are nice, but we are not translating literature here,” he said. “I want to see people nodding that they understand the message on these signs. I don’t want to see them laughing.”

Andrew Jacobs, New York Times


Full article and photo: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/03/world/asia/03chinglish.html

Google Delivers Foreign Tongues at the Press of a Button

The Best Translation Program Yet

A German scientist has developed one of the first translation programs suitable for everyday use. Sheer computing power gives the Google software surprisingly good results — perhaps the best yet seen created by a machine. 

Franz Och: The man behind Google Translate

It’s a good sign when the creator of a piece of software ends up using it. On a recent trip to Japan, Franz Och, who doesn’t speak Japanese, was able to decipher restaurant menus and even read local news — using his mobile phone, which provided him with the translations within seconds. 

Och spent the last six years developing Google Translate, a translation program, at Google headquarters in Mountain View, California, “and so far I’ve never really used it myself,” Och admits. But then the 38-year-old research scientist has a change of heart and adds, “I am very happy with what we have achieved.” 

Och, a German citizen, is the behind-the-scenes star of a segment of the software industry that has taken on a challenge no less daunting than tearing down global language barriers. In his job at Google, Och wrestles with multi-clause sentences, the subjunctive and auxiliary verbs, to produce a result that is an affront for any linguist. His machine translation program is based on sheer computing power, not linguistic know-how. 

The system already commands 52 languages, and the databases for 296 other languages are in development. They include such exotic tongues as Sardinian, West Frisian and Zulu. 

Google Translate translates entire websites, theses and even love letters in next to no time, often delivering surprisingly useable results. For Google, the benefits are obvious: With such a useful application, which also happens to be free, even more Web surfers can be lured to the company’s website. 

Exciting Times 

“Machine translation has reached a new quality level,” Och enthuses, “it is much more heavily used all over the place; the software now has an impact in the real world.” 

“What Google is doing here is very impressive,” says Alon Lavie of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. The computer scientist sees the entire industry in motion. The market for translation software is growing rapidly, says Lavie. “These are extremely exciting times.” 

The age of machine translation has begun. Programs like Google Translate are pointing the way to a future in which anyone will be able to speak in foreign tongues at the press of a button. The ultimate goal of scientists who develop translation programs is an electronic version of the Babel fish, the fictitious species British author Douglas Adams concocted in his science fiction classic “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” In the book, he describes a leech-like creature, which simultaneously translates any language when it is inserted into a person’s ear. Arthur Dent, the novel’s protagonist, can even understand the crude poetry of the Vogons. 

Developers haven’t come that far yet in real life. However, there are already iPhone apps like “Jibbigo,” which translates spoken English into Spanish at lightning speed. Alex Waibel, a computer scientist at the University of Karlsruhe in southwestern Germany, and also at Carnegie Mellon University, created the software. Waibel already uses computers to simultaneously translate many of his lectures, and he has also tested the technology with parliamentary debates. 

Nonsense Translations 

A translator straight out of a computer lab was long seen as an audacious dream. How was the machine to know that in English, for example, the expression “breaking records” doesn’t usually mean destroying vinyl LPs? Or that the German sentence “wir treffen uns im Schloss,” means “we meet in the castle,” and not, “we meet in the lock” (the German word “Schloss” means both castle and lock). 

For a long time, computer scientists tried to cram the necessary world knowledge into the programs using a complex system of rules. But even with straightforward texts, the software often produced complete nonsense. According to Swamy Viswanathan of the US company Language Weaver, the attempt to force the English language, with all of its nuances, into a set of rules is a “nightmare.” “Words often have several meanings, and the number of combinations is endless,” says Viswanathan. 

This prompted the experts at Language Weaver to pursue a different concept early on. They fed countless texts from the Internet that already existed in multiple languages into their systems. The specialists’ reasoning was that almost every sentence and every phrase has already been translated many times over, and that pure statistics would suffice to decipher a linguistic construct. 

For example, to figure out the German sentence “wir treffen uns im Schloss,” the program searches its database for texts in which the words “treffen” (“meet”) and “Schloss” (“castle” or “lock”) appear in close proximity to one another. Then it goes through the translations of these texts, where it frequently finds the word “castle.” As a result, the computer spits out the phrase “we meet in the castle” and not “we meet in the lock.” 

Rosetta Stone of the Digital Age 

Och has now perfected this statistical process for Google. During his doctoral work Och, who is from northern Bavaria, specialized in language recognition. Then he went to the University of Southern California. The Pentagon soon began to show an interest in his work. After 9/11, the US intelligence services wanted to be able to monitor Arab newspapers, chat rooms and websites more closely. 

But in 2004, Google convinced the language tamer to come to Mountain View, where Och could have the Internet giant’s massive computing power at his disposal. Och isn’t willing to mention any numbers. However, the Google databases contain billions of entries for many language pairs. Important resources for the word archive include, for example, the Bible, which has been translated into many languages, United Nations transcripts and European Union documents, which are available in 23 languages. 

Such “parallel texts” are something of a Rosetta stone of the digital age. The ancient prototype bears the same inscription in Greek, Demotic and hieroglyphs. 

And now Och’s software is doing exactly the same thing. One of the strengths of the system is that one and the same source code works for all languages. The only catch is that enough translated text has to exist. 

A letter-cruncher as a universal interpreter? Many linguists say that such statistical tricks are rubbish. “Statistical translation will quickly reach its limits,” says linguist Martin Kay of Stanford University. “The approach ignores the complex structure of language.” For example, the technology fails when it comes to the positioning of the main verb and auxiliary verb commonly used in German. According to Kay, it also has trouble distinguishing between subject and object. 

“For really good results we have to look somewhat deeper in the language,” says Hassan Sawaf, chief developer with the US software maker Apptek, which uses a hybrid approach. In addition to statistical algorithms, Sawaf also applies classic rules of grammar. “This makes the system so much better and considerably improves sentence structure and clarity.” 

Comprehending Chinese 

Sawaf is also critical of the fact that Och’s system only works online. “Anyone who works offline can forget about Google Translate.” German computer scientist Alex Waibel is also skeptical. “Imagine you’re in a foreign country and you want to converse with a salesperson. First you have to find a network, and on top of that, you’ll also be paying high roaming fees. It isn’t practical.” 

The fact that Google Translate only works on the Internet is one of its greatest weaknesses. Nevertheless, the California-based company remains undeterred. Its scientists are already developing a special version of the program with integrated voice recognition for Google’s Android mobile phone operating system. The ability to have text on photos translated in no time is also just around the corner. It would enable someone traveling in China, for example, to take a picture of a sign written in Chinese characters, and promptly learn that he is on his way to Beijing. 

Another moneymaker for the Internet giant seems to be in the works. But Och demurs. Like many Google employees, he prefers to see himself as part of a campaign for freedom and equality on the Internet. “Someone who doesn’t speak English can only use a fraction of the Internet,” he says. His goal, he claims, is to make the richness of the Internet available to everyone. 

There is at least one indication of the programmer’s noble intentions. Och and his team have developed a special program that allows interpreters to feed translations into the system on their own, including the translations of extremely exotic idioms in the Bantu language Xhosa, the language spoken by members of the Ainu ethnic group in Japan and the Inuit language, Inuktitut. The software developers hope that the program will give a voice to languages that are in danger of being forgotten. Te Taka Keegan, a computer engineer at the University of Waikato in New Zealand, has already tested the program with the language spoken by the Maori people. Keegan recently spent six months at Google to figure out whether the digital language miracle from Mountain View could protect the idiomatic expressions of New Zealand’s indigenous people from extinction. His experiences have been consistently positive. 

“The quantity and quality of Maori translations is growing constantly with the help of this tool,” Keegan reports. According to Keegan, a digital archive is being developed that will give the language a significant boost. 

“The digital world is our children’s future,” says Keegan. “The language will only survive if we manage to make Maori part of this world.” 


Full article and photo: http://www.spiegel.de/international/business/0,1518,692001,00.html

Listening to (and Saving) the World’s Languages

Valnea Smilovic, 59, left, with her mother, 92, in Queens. They still speak Vlashki, a language spoken by the Istrians.

The chances of overhearing a conversation in Vlashki, a variant of Istro-Romanian, are greater in Queens than in the remote mountain villages in Croatia that immigrants now living in New York left years ago.

At a Roman Catholic church in the Morrisania section of the Bronx, Mass is said once a month in Garifuna, an Arawakan language that originated with descendants of African slaves shipwrecked near St. Vincent in the Caribbean and later exiled to Central America. Today, Garifuna is virtually as common in the Bronx and in Brooklyn as in Honduras and Belize.

And Rego Park, Queens, is home to Husni Husain, who, as far as he knows, is the only person in New York who speaks Mamuju, the Austronesian language he learned growing up in the Indonesian province of West Sulawesi. Mr. Husain, 67, has nobody to talk to, not even his wife or children.

“My wife is from Java, and my children were born in Jakarta — they don’t associate with the Mamuju,” he said. “I don’t read books in Mamuju. They don’t publish any. I only speak Mamuju when I go back or when I talk to my brother on the telephone.”

These are not just some of the languages that make New York the most linguistically diverse city in the world. They are part of a remarkable trove of endangered tongues that have taken root in New York — languages born in every corner of the globe and now more commonly heard in various corners of New York than anywhere else.

While there is no precise count, some experts believe New York is home to as many as 800 languages — far more than the 176 spoken by students in the city’s public schools or the 138 that residents of Queens, New York’s most diverse borough, listed on their 2000 census forms.

“It is the capital of language density in the world,” said Daniel Kaufman, an adjunct professor of linguistics at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. “We’re sitting in an endangerment hot spot where we are surrounded by languages that are not going to be around even in 20 or 30 years.”

In an effort to keep those voices alive, Professor Kaufman has helped start a project, the Endangered Language Alliance, to identify and record dying languages, many of which have no written alphabet, and encourage native speakers to teach them to compatriots.

“It’s hard to use a word like preserve with a language,” said Robert Holman, who teaches at Columbia and New York Universities and is working with Professor Kaufman on the alliance. “It’s not like putting jelly in a jar. A language is used. Language is consciousness. Everybody wants to speak English, but those lullabies that allow you to go to sleep at night and dream — that’s what we’re talking about.”

With national languages and English encroaching on the linguistic isolation of remote islands and villages, New York has become a Babel in reverse — a magnet for immigrants and their languages.

New York is such a rich laboratory for languages on the decline that the City University Graduate Center is organizing an endangered-languages program. “The quickening pace of language endangerment and extinction is viewed by many linguists as a direct consequence of globalization,” said Juliette Blevins, a linguist hired by City University to start the program.

In addition to dozens of Native American languages, vulnerable foreign languages that researchers say are spoken in New York include Aramaic, Chaldic and Mandaic from the Semitic family; Bukhari (a Bukharian Jewish language, which has more speakers in Queens than in Uzbekistan or Tajikistan); Chamorro (from the Mariana Islands); Irish Gaelic; Kashubian (from Poland); indigenous Mexican languages; Pennsylvania Dutch; Rhaeto-Romanic (spoken in Switzerland); Romany (from the Balkans); and Yiddish.

Researchers plan to canvass a tiny Afghan neighborhood in Flushing, Queens, for Ormuri, which is believed to be spoken by a small number of people in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The Endangered Language Alliance will apply field techniques usually employed in exotic and remote foreign locales as it starts its research in the city’s vibrant ethnic enclaves.

“Nobody had gone from area to area looking for endangered languages in New York City spoken by immigrant populations,” Professor Kaufman said.

The United Nations keeps an atlas of languages facing extinction, and experts there as well as linguists generally agree that a language will probably disappear in a generation or two when the population of native speakers is both too small and in decline. Language attrition has also been hastened by war, ethnic cleansing and compulsory schooling in a national tongue.

Over the decades in the secluded northeastern Istrian Peninsula along the Adriatic Sea, Croatian began to replace Vlashki, spoken by the Istrians, what is described as Europe’s smallest surviving ethnic group. But after Istrians began immigrating to Queens, many to escape grinding poverty, they largely abandoned Croatian and returned to speaking Vlashki.

“Whole villages were emptied,” said Valnea Smilovic, 59, who came to the United States in the 1960s with her parents and her brother and sister. “Most of us are here now in this country.”

Mrs. Smilovic still speaks in Vlashki with her mother, 92, who knows little English, as well as her siblings. “Not too much, though,” Mrs. Smilovic said, because her husband speaks only Croatian and her son, who was born in the United States, speaks English and a smattering of Croatian.

“Do I worry that our culture is getting lost?” Mrs. Smilovic asked. “As I get older, I’m thinking more about stuff like that. Most of the older people die away and the language dies with them.”

Several years ago, one of her cousins, Zvjezdana Vrzic, an Istrian-born adjunct professor of linguistics at New York University, organized a meeting in Queens about preserving Vlashki. She was stunned by the turnout of about 100 people.

“A language reflects a singular nature of a people speaking it,” said Professor Vrzic, who recently published an audio Vlashki phrasebook and is working on an online Vlashki-Croatian-English dictionary.

Istro-Romanian is classified by Unesco as severely endangered, and Professor Vrzic said she believed that the several hundred native speakers who live in Queens outnumbered those in Istria. “Nobody tried to teach it to me,” she said. “It was not thought of as something valuable, something you wanted to carry on to another generation.”

A few fading foreign languages have also found niches in New York and the country. In northern New Jersey, Neo-Aramaic, rooted in the language of Jesus and the Talmud, is still spoken by Syrian immigrants and is taught at Syriac Orthodox churches in Paramus and Teaneck.

The Rev. Eli Shabo speaks Neo-Aramaic at home, and his children do, too, but only “because I’m their teacher,” he said.

Will their children carry on the language? “If they marry another person of Syriac background, they may,” Father Shabo said. “If they marry an American, I’d say no.”

And on Long Island, researchers have found several people fluent in Mandaic, a Persian variation of Aramaic spoken by a few hundred people around the world. One of them, Dakhil Shooshtary, 76, a retired jeweler who settled on Long Island from Iran 45 years ago, is compiling a Mandaic dictionary.

For Professor Kaufman, the quest for speakers of disappearing languages has sometimes involved serendipity. After making a fruitless trip in 2006 to Indonesia to find speakers of Mamuju, he attended a family wedding two years ago in Queens. Mr. Husain happened to be sitting next to him. Wasting no time, he has videotaped Mr. Husain speaking in his native tongue.

“This is maybe the first time that anyone has recorded a video of the language being spoken,” said Professor Kaufman, who founded a Manhattan research center, the Urban Field Station for Linguistic Research, two years ago.

He has also recruited Daowd I. Salih, 45, a refugee from Darfur who lives in New Jersey and is a personal care assistant at a home for the elderly, to teach Massalit, a tribal language, to a linguistic class at New York University. They are meticulously creating a Massalit lexicography to codify grammar, definitions and pronunciations.

“Language is identity,” said Mr. Salih, who has been in the United States for a decade. “So many African tribes in Darfur lost their languages. This is the land of opportunity, so these students can help us write this language instead of losing it.”

Speakers of Garifuna, which is being displaced in Central America by Spanish and English, are striving to keep it alive in their New York neighborhoods. Regular classes have sprouted at the Yurumein House Cultural Center in the Bronx, and also in Brooklyn, where James Lovell, a public school music teacher, leads a small Garifuna class at the Biko Transformation Center in East Bushwick.

Mr. Lovell, who came to New York from Belize in 1990, said his oldest children, 21-year-old twin boys, do not speak Garifuna. “They can get along speaking Spanish or English, so there’s no need to as far as they’re concerned,” he said, adding that many compatriots feel “they will get nowhere with their Garifuna culture, so they decide to assimilate.”

But as he witnessed his language fading among his friends and his family, Mr. Lovell decided to expose his younger children to their native culture. Mostly through simple bilingual songs that he accompanies with gusto on his guitar, he is teaching his two younger daughters, Jamie, 11, and Jazelle, 7, and their friends.

“Whenever they leave the house or go to school, they’re speaking English,” Mr. Lovell said. “Here, I teach them their history, Garifuna history. I teach them the songs, and through the songs, I explain to them what it’s saying. It’s going to give them a sense of self, to know themselves. The fact that they’re speaking the language is empowerment in itself.”

Sam Roberts, New York Times


Full article and photo: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/29/nyregion/29lost.html

A God-given way to communicate

Fears about the demise of Arabic are misplaced

THE Arabic language is dying. Its disloyal children are ditching their mother tongue for English and French. It is stagnating in classrooms, mosques and the dusty corridors of government. Even such leaders as the Lebanese prime minister, Saad Hariri, and Jordan’s foreign-educated King Abdullah struggle with its complicated grammar. Worse still, no one cares. Arabic no longer has any cachet. Among supposedly sophisticated Arabs, being bad at Arabic has become fashionable.

That, at least, is an opinion prominently aired in the National, an English-language newspaper in Abu Dhabi. It reflects a perennial worry in the Arab world about the state of the language. Classical Arabic, the language of the Koran, and its modern version, Modern Standard Arabic, known in academia as MSA, are a world apart from the dialects that people use every day. Spoken and written in the media and on stuffy occasions, this kind of Arabic is no one’s mother tongue. It is painfully acquired through hours of poring over grammar textbooks and memorising the Koran. Could it one day become obsolete?

Arabic certainly faces competition. Clive Holes, a professor of Arabic at Oxford University, concedes that learning formal Arabic tends to be undervalued by students in the Middle East, many of whom increasingly see it as divorced from success in the real world, especially in the international sphere, where English prevails. A lack of investment in education by Arab governments means it is often badly taught. In the Gulf countries Westerners and Asians, neither with much Arabic, far outnumber native speakers.

But that hardly means the language is dying. Arabic is the essence of Arab identity. Arabs are inordinately proud of their linguistic heritage. Handed down by Allah, many believe the Koran must be read only in the classical mode in which it was written. Even non-Arabic speaking Muslims force themselves to learn enough of it to read it. Stumble though they may, Arabs from different countries are enabled by MSA to communicate.

The popularity of a recent television programme beamed from Abu Dhabi in which people competed to see who could best recite traditional Bedouin poetry suggests there is plenty of appetite for Arabic in all its forms. In the absence of an authentic Arabic word, people may instead use an English word like “zip”, as the writer in the National laments. But such changes and borrowings are inevitable and may be quite healthy. Arabic will evolve from the prescriptions of the grammar book, taking in new words and discarding obsolete ones. But as Mr Holes points out, this is a sign of dynamism rather than demise.


Full article and photo: http://www.economist.com/world/middle-east/displaystory.cfm?story_id=15955462&source=hptextfeature

Pardon My French

Along Boulevard Barbès in the 18th Arrondissement of Paris, an area mostly populated by Africans.

ÉRIC ZEMMOUR, slight, dark, a live wire, fell over his own words, they were tumbling out so fast. He was fidgeting at the back of a half-empty cafe one recent evening near the offices of Le Figaro, the newspaper where he works, notwithstanding that detractors have lately tried to get him fired for his most recent inflammatory remarks about French blacks and Arabs on a television show. Mr. Zemmour, roughly speaking, is the Bill O’Reilly of French letters. He was describing his latest book, “French Melancholy,” which has shot up the best-seller list here.

“The end of French political power has brought the end of French,” Mr. Zemmour said. “Now even the French elite have given up. They don’t care anymore. They all speak English. And the working class, I’m not talking just about immigrants, they don’t care about preserving the integrity of the language either.”

Mr. Zemmour is a notorious rabble-rouser. In his view France, because of immigration and other outside influences, has lost touch with its heroic ancient Roman roots, its national “gloire,” its historic culture, at the heart of which is the French language. Plenty of people think he’s an extremist, but he’s not alone. The other day Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, sounded a bit like Mr. Zemmour, complaining about the “snobisme” of French diplomats who “are happy to speak English,” rather than French, which is “under siege.”

“Defending our language, defending the values it represents — that is a battle for cultural diversity in the world,” Mr. Sarkozy argued. The occasion for his speech was the 40th anniversary of the International Organization of the Francophonie, which celebrates French around the world. Mr. Sarkozy said the problem is not English itself but “ready-to-wear culture, uniformity, monolingualism,” by which of course he meant English. The larger argument about a decline of traditional values has struck a chord with conservative French voters perennially worried about the loss of French mojo.

The issue is somewhat akin to Americans complaining about the rise of Spanish in classrooms and elsewhere, but more acute here because of France’s special, proprietary, albeit no longer entirely realistic relationship to French. French is now spoken mostly by people who aren’t French. More than 50 percent of them are African. French speakers are more likely to be Haitians and Canadians, Algerians and Senegalese, immigrants from Africa and Southeast Asia and the Caribbean who have settled in France, bringing their native cultures with them.

Which raises the question: So what does French culture signify these days when there are some 200 million French speakers in the world but only 65 million are actually French? Culture in general — and not just French culture — has become increasingly unfixed, unstable, fragmentary and elective. Globalization has hastened the desire of more people, both groups and individuals, to differentiate themselves from one another to claim a distinct place in the world, and language has long been an obvious means to do so. In Canada the Quebecers tried outlawing signs and other public expressions in anything but French. Basque separatists have been murdering Spaniards in the name of political, linguistic and cultural independence, just as Franco imprisoned anyone who spoke Basque or Catalan. In Belgium the split between French and Dutch speakers has divided the country for ages.

And in France some years ago Jacques Toubon, a former culture minister, proposed curbing the use of English words like “weekend,” although nobody paid much attention. The fact is, French isn’t declining. It’s thriving as never before if you ask Abdou Diouf, former president of Senegal, who is the secretary general of the francophone organization. Mr. Diouf’s organization has evolved since 1970 from a postcolonial conglomerate of mostly African states preserving the linguistic vestiges of French imperialism into a global entity whose shibboleth is cultural diversity. With dozens of member states and affiliates, the group reflects a polyglot reality in which French is today concentrated outside France, and to a large extent, flourishes despite it.

“The truth,” Mr. Diouf said the other morning, “is that the future of the French language is now in Africa.” There and elsewhere, from Belgium to Benin, Lebanon to St. Lucia, the Seychelles to Switzerland, Togo to Tunisia, French is just one among several languages, sometimes, as in Cameroon, one among hundreds of them. This means that for writers from these places French is a choice, not necessarily signifying fealty, political, cultural or otherwise, to France. Or as Mr. Diouf put it: “The more we have financial, military and economic globalization, the more we find common cultural references and common values, which include diversity. And diversity, not uniformity, is the real result of globalization.”

Didier Billion is a political scientist with an interest in francophone culture. He agreed. “A multipolar world has emerged,” he said when we met in his office recently. “It’s the major trend of our time, which for the first time is allowing every person on the planet to become, in a cultural sense, an actor on the world stage.

“I was in Iran two months ago. Young Iranians are very proud of their own culture, which is rich and profound. But at the same time they want a window onto the world through the Internet, to have some identity outside Iran, and the important point is that for them there is no contradiction between these two positions. I am very proud of being French, but 40 years ago the French language was a way to maintain influence in the former colonies, and now French people are going to have to learn to think about francophone culture differently, because having a common language doesn’t assure you a common political or cultural point of view.”

This may sound perfectly obvious to Americans, but it’s not necessarily so to France’s growing tea party contingent. The populist National Front party won some 20 percent of the vote in the south last month (less nationwide), despite Mr. Sarkozy’s monthslong campaign to seduce right-wing voters by stressing the preservation of French national identity. Part of that campaign has been affirming a policy of cultural exceptionalism.

A phrase born years ago, “l’exception culturelle,” refers to the legal exclusion of French cultural products, like movies, from international free trade agreements, so they won’t be treated as equivalent to Coca-Cola or the Gap. But if you ask French people, the term also implies something more philosophical. In a country where pop radio stations broadcast a percentage of songs in French, and a socialist mayor in the northern, largely Muslim town of Roubaix lately won kudos for protesting that outlets of the fast-food chain Quick turned halal, cultural exceptionalism reflects fears of the multicultural sort that Mr. Zemmour’s book touches on.

It happens that Mr. Zemmour traces his own roots to Sephardic Jews from Spain who became French citizens while living in Algeria in the 19th century, then moved the France before the Algerian war. He belongs to the melting pot, in other words, which for centuries, he said, absorbed immigrants into its republican culture.

“In America or Britain it is O.K. that people live in separate communities, black with black, white with white,” he said, reflecting a certain antique perspective. “But this is not French. France used to be about assimilation. But since the 1970s the French intelligentsia has called this neocolonialism. In fact it is globalization, and globalization in this respect really means Americanization.”

But of course colorblind French Jacobin republicanism has always been a fiction if you were black or Muslim, and what’s really happened lately, it seems, is that different racial and ethnic groups have begun to argue more loudly for their rights and assert their culture. The election of Barack Obama hastened the process, by pointing out how few blacks and Arabs here have gained political authority.

The French language is a small but emblematic indicator of this change. So to a contemporary writer like the Soviet-born Andreï Makine, who found political asylum here in 1987, French promises assimilation and a link to the great literary tradition of Zola and Proust. He recounted the story of how, 20-odd years ago, his first manuscripts, which he wrote in French, were rejected by French publishers because it was presumed that he couldn’t write French well enough as a foreigner.

Then he invented the name of a translator, resubmitted the same works as if they were translations from Russian, and they won awards. He added that when his novel “Dreams of My Russian Summers” became a runaway best seller and received the Prix Goncourt, publishing houses in Germany and Serbia wanted to translate the book from its “original” Russian manuscript, so Mr. Makine spent two “sleepless weeks,” he said, belatedly producing one.

“Why do I write in French?” he repeated the question I had posed. “It is the possibility to belong to a culture that is not mine, not my mother tongue.”

Nancy Huston, a Canadian-born novelist here, put it another way: “The world has changed.” She moved to Paris during the 1970s. “The French literary establishment, which still thinks of itself as more important than it is, complains about the decline of its prestige but treats francophone literature as second class,” she said, while “laying claim to the likes of Kundera, Beckett and Ionesco, who were all born outside France. That is because, like Makine, they made the necessary declaration of love for France. But if the French bothered actually to read what came out of Martinique or North Africa, they would see that their language is in fact not suffering.

“After the war French writers rejected the idea of narrative because Hitler and Stalin were storytellers, and it seemed naïve to believe in stories. So instead they turned more and more to theory, to the absurd. The French declined even to tell stories about their own history, including the war in Algeria, which like all history can’t really be digested until it is turned into great literature. Francophone literature doesn’t come out of that background. It still tells stories.”

Which may partly account for the popularity of francophone writers like Yasmina Khadra, the best-selling Algerian novelist, whose real name is Mohammed Moulessehoul. We sipped tea one gray day in the offices of the Algerian Cultural Center. A 55-year-old former Algerian Army officer who fought against the French and now lives in Paris, heading the center, Mr. Moulessehoul writes novels critical of the Algerian government under his wife’s name, which he first borrowed while in Algeria because the military there had banned his literary work.

“I was born into a poet tribe in the Sahara desert, which ruled for 800 years,” he said, sitting erect and alert, still a soldier at heart. “I read poetry in Arabic. I read kids’ books in Arabic. But at 15, after I read Camus in French, I decided to become a novelist in French partly because I wanted to respond to Camus, who had written about an Algeria in which there were no Arabs. I wanted to write in his language to say, I am here, I exist, and also because I love French, although I remain Arab. Linguistically it is as if I have married a French woman, but my mother is still Arabic.”

He quoted Kateb Yacine, the Algerian writer, who chose to write in French “to tell the French that I am not French.” Yacine called French the treasure left behind in the ruins of colonialism.

“Paris is still fearful of a French writer who becomes known around the world without its blessing,” Mr. Moulessehoul said. “And at the same time in certain Arab-speaking circles I am considered a traitor because I write in French. I am caught between two cultures, two worlds.

“Culture is always about politics in the end. I am a French writer and an Algerian writer. But the larger truth is that I am both.”

Michael Kimmelman, New York Times


Full article and photo: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/25/arts/25abroad.html

I, Translator

EVERYBODY has his own tale of terrible translation to tell — an incomprehensible restaurant menu in Croatia, a comically illiterate warning sign on a French beach. “Human-engineered” translation is just as inadequate in more important domains. In our courts and hospitals, in the military and security services, underpaid and overworked translators make muddles out of millions of vital interactions. Machine translation can certainly help in these cases. Its legendary bloopers are often no worse than the errors made by hard-pressed humans.

Machine translation has proved helpful in more urgent situations as well. When Haiti was devastated by an earthquake in January, aid teams poured in to the shattered island, speaking dozens of languages — but not Haitian Creole. How could a trapped survivor with a cellphone get usable information to rescuers? If he had to wait for a Chinese or Turkish or an English interpreter to turn up he might be dead before being understood. Carnegie Mellon University instantly released its Haitian Creole spoken and text data, and a network of volunteer developers produced a rough-and-ready machine translation system for Haitian Creole in little more than a long weekend. It didn’t produce prose of great beauty. But it worked.

The advantages and disadvantages of machine translation have been the subject of increasing debate among human translators lately because of the growing strides made in the last year by the newest major entrant in the field, Google Translate. But this debate actually began with the birth of machine translation itself.

The need for crude machine translation goes back to the start of the cold war. The United States decided it had to scan every scrap of Russian coming out of the Soviet Union, and there just weren’t enough translators to keep up (just as there aren’t enough now to translate all the languages that the United States wants to monitor). The cold war coincided with the invention of computers, and “cracking Russian” was one of the first tasks these machines were set.

The father of machine translation, William Weaver, chose to regard Russian as a “code” obscuring the real meaning of the text. His team and its successors here and in Europe proceeded in a commonsensical way: a natural language, they reckoned, is made of a lexicon (a set of words) and a grammar (a set of rules). If you could get the lexicons of two languages inside the machine (fairly easy) and also give it the whole set of rules by which humans construct meaningful combinations of words in the two languages (a more dubious proposition), then the machine would be able translate from one “code” into another.

Academic linguists of the era, Noam Chomsky chief among them, also viewed a language as a lexicon and a grammar, able to generate infinitely many different sentences out of a finite set of rules. But as the anti-Chomsky linguists at Oxford commented at the time, there are also infinitely many motor cars that can come out of a British auto plant, each one having something different wrong with it. Over the next four decades, machine translation achieved many useful results, but, like the British auto industry, it fell far short of the hopes of the 1950s.

Now we have a beast of a different kind. Google Translate is a statistical machine translation system, which means that it doesn’t try to unpick or understand anything. Instead of taking a sentence to pieces and then rebuilding it in the “target” tongue as the older machine translators do, Google Translate looks for similar sentences in already translated texts somewhere out there on the Web. Having found the most likely existing match through an incredibly clever and speedy statistical reckoning device, Google Translate coughs it up, raw or, if necessary, lightly cooked. That’s how it simulates — but only simulates — what we suppose goes on in a translator’s head.

Google Translate, which can so far handle 52 languages, sidesteps the linguists’ theoretical question of what language is and how it works in the human brain. In practice, languages are used to say the same things over and over again. For maybe 95 percent of all utterances, Google’s electronic magpie is a fabulous tool. But there are two important limitations that users of this or any other statistical machine translation system need to understand.

The target sentence supplied by Google Translate is not and must never be mistaken for the “correct translation.” That’s not just because no such thing as a “correct translation” really exists. It’s also because Google Translate gives only an expression consisting of the most probable equivalent phrases as computed by its analysis of an astronomically large set of paired sentences trawled from the Web.

The data comes in large part from the documentation of international organizations. Thousands of human translators working for the United Nations and the European Union and so forth have spent millions of hours producing precisely those pairings that Google Translate is now able to cherry-pick. The human translations have to come first for Google Translate to have anything to work with.

The variable quality of Google Translate in the different language pairings available is due in large part to the disparity in the quantities of human-engineered translations between those languages on the Web.

But what of real writing? Google Translate can work apparent miracles because it has access to the world library of Google Books. That’s presumably why, when asked to translate a famous phrase about love from “Les Misérables” — “On n’a pas d’autre perle à trouver dans les plis ténébreux de la vie” — Google Translate comes up with a very creditable “There is no other pearl to be found in the dark folds of life,” which just happens to be identical to one of the many published translations of that great novel. It’s an impressive trick for a computer, but for a human? All you need to do is get the old paperback from your basement.

And the program is very patchy. The opening sentence of Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time” comes out as an ungrammatical “Long time I went to bed early,” and the results for most other modern classics are just as unusable.

Can Google Translate ever be of any use for the creation of new literary translations into English or another language? The first thing to say is that there really is no need for it to do that: would-be translators of foreign literature are not in short supply — they are screaming for more opportunities to publish their work.

But even if the need were there, Google Translate could not do anything useful in this domain. It is not conceived or programmed to take into account the purpose, real-world context or style of any utterance. (Any system able to do that would be a truly epochal achievement, but such a miracle is not on the agenda of even the most advanced machine translation developers.)

However, to play devil’s advocate for a moment, if you were to take a decidedly jaundiced view of some genre of contemporary foreign fiction (say, French novels of adultery and inheritance), you could surmise that since such works have nothing new to say and employ only repeated formulas, then after a sufficient number of translated novels of that kind and their originals had been scanned and put up on the Web, Google Translate should be able to do a pretty good simulation of translating other regurgitations of the same ilk.

So what? That’s not what literary translation is about. For works that are truly original — and therefore worth translating — statistical machine translation hasn’t got a hope. Google Translate can provide stupendous services in many domains, but it is not set up to interpret or make readable work that is not routine — and it is unfair to ask it to try. After all, when it comes to the real challenges of literary translation, human beings have a hard time of it, too.

David Bellos is the director of the Program in Translation and Intercultural Communication at Princeton.


Full article and photo: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/21/opinion/21bellos.html

The Trouble With Precision

A little vagueness helps us to live with differences of opinion and debate each other without too much savagery.

‘If I seem unduly clear to you,” former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan once remarked, “you must have misunderstood what I said.”

As Kees van Deemter tells it in “Not Exactly,” Mr. Greenspan’s famous imprecision is simply the most advanced form of a syndrome that besets all of us. Our language is befogged with vagueness, by which Mr. van Deemter means that almost all words have “fuzzy” boundaries. Think of “short” and “tall.” We cannot say definitively where one ends and the other begins. Even words that seem models of precision are vague: Mr. van Deemter notes that “meter” is an inexact measurement term—the platinum bar regarded as the definitive meter turns out to have been mismeasured by about 0.00005 millimeters.

Vagueness, then, may be unavoidable. But is it a problem? Not according to Mr. van Deemter. He explores vagueness in everything from notions of personal identity (“the average age of all the cells in an adult person’s body is only around ten years”) to artificial intelligence: Chess-playing computers can be powerful, but having a general policy or “rule of thumb” is meaningless to them—chess, to these computers, “is all tactics and no strategy.”

But Mr. van Deemter reserves his most piquant observations for politics. Think of a typical political disagreement: say, the wrangling over fat bonuses for bankers. Some people will describe such sums as “well-deserved,” others as wholly “undeserved.” Such disagreement is possible, Mr. van Deemter argues, only because the line between “well-deserved” and “undeserved” is a fuzzy no-man’s land. The vague boundaries of political terms—others include “equal” and “free”—are what allows for the differences in opinion that lend democracy its vibrancy. Vagueness, in Mr. van Deemter’s view, is language’s gift to civic culture.

Yet surely some kinds of political vagueness are worse than others. Compare “victory,” President George W. Bush’s stated goal for America in Iraq, with “withdrawal,” President Barack Obama’s in Afghanistan. What victory borders on, however fuzzily, is its opposite, defeat. Any attempt to define victory too far down—say, to cover an Iraq that, though democratic, becomes a base for terrorist operations—would eventually become implausible. “Defeat” lays a better claim to that scenario. The fuzzy boundaries of “withdrawal,” by contrast, stretch out endlessly without ever reaching a point where we can say with certainty: “OK, obviously there’s never going to be any withdrawal.” Hillary Clinton believes that “withdrawal” is compatible with our not having “locked ourselves into leaving” at all. As political vagueness goes, Mr. Obama’s is of a distinctly less clear variety.

Mr. van Deemter may be able to take a sanguine attitude toward political vagueness because “Not Exactly” doesn’t address totalitarianism. Stalinists teased out the boundaries of language so far that a word’s original meaning and its opposite could be embraced. Terms such as “democracy,” as George Orwell wrote, came to bear “two irreconcilable meanings,” on which “mass deportations [were] right and wrong simultaneously.” If they were Soviet deportations then they were democratic, otherwise not—and woe to anyone who didn’t gasp the elasticity of the word “democracy.”

If Mr. van Deemter seems overly forgiving about the political implications of vagueness, he comes across as too alarmist when he considers another kind of mushy political language: ambiguity. While vagueness refers to the imprecision with which language captures states of the world, ambiguity occurs when language conveys imprecision in our states of mind. Consider former Virginia Gov. Doug Wilder’s remark: “I’m not the kind of politician who says one thing to one audience and a different thing to a different audience; I say the same thing to all audiences and let them fight about what I meant.” For Mr. van Deemter, ambiguity offers a discreditable way for politicians to lead the electorate on, hoarding political capital, until forced to take a stand.

But here Mr. van Deemter paints with too broad a brush. Not all ambiguities are created equal. At times President Bush was ambiguous about whether his goals in Iraq were to get rid of weapons of mass destruction or to effect regime change, but at least those two intentions are compatible. The same cannot be said for Mr. Obama, whose ambiguity about Afghanistan straddles opposing intentions: America must bear any burden in the fight for “freedom and justice . . . for all peoples,” but we must also focus our energies inward, since the nation we should be “most interested in building” is, he says, “our own.” As ambiguity goes, Mr. Bush’s has the virtue of being coherent.

Mr. van Deemter’s disparagement of ambiguity again neglects totalitarian systems, where ambiguity has been a valuable protective shield for citizens. Think of a joke told by Soviet dissidents: “During Stalin’s time our economy stood at the precipice of disaster. Since then we have made great strides forward.” The teller of the joke, far from conveying opposite meanings neither of which he fully means, intends only one meaning—the caustic one—presented under a cloak of ambiguity. The Viennese aphorist Karl Kraus paid tribute to the indispensable role that ambiguity plays for citizens in totalitarian states: “Satire that the censor understands is rightly censored.”

In democracies, as Mr. van Deemter suggests, vagueness may help along a spirited debate between citizens while ambiguity affords an irritatingly evasive tactic for leaders. In totalitarian systems, by contrast, vagueness hands a treacherous weapon to leaders while ambiguity helps citizens express their discontent. However fuzzy the boundaries between words may be, the lines between political systems could not be clearer.

Mr. Stark’s latest book is “Drawing the Line: Public and Private in America” (Brookings).


Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703808904575025382998649088.html


Bigger languages are also simpler ones

WHY do some languages drip with verb endings, declensions that show how a noun is used, and other grammatical bits and pieces, while others rely on word order and context? The former category tends to include languages spoken by small groups in isolated settings like the Amazon or New Guinea. The latter include such languages as English and Mandarin.

This fact has made scholars wonder if languages simplify as they spread. Researchers have wondered if second-language learning of such conquering languages as English have led them to shed grammatical baggage. Many features of grammar are, in linguistic terms, “overspecified”—meaning redundant. The “s” on the end of “the two boys” is overspecified, since “two” shows that more than one boy is concerned. So, the theory goes, as adults learn languages, with abilities that have withered compared to children’s native acquisition, the dispensable bits are dispensed with. But some linguists have simply assumed that all languages get simpler over time, or that few social factors correlate with complexity.

As they describe in the Public Library of Science, Gary Lupyan of the University of Pennsylvania and Rick Dale of the University of Memphis set out to find some more solid evidence that expansion simplifies language. They took the 2,236 languages in the World Atlas of Language Structures and looked for correlations with the number of speakers of each language, the size of the area in which it is spoken, and the number of neighbouring languages. They looked for correlations with the languages’ inflectional morphology, meaning the mostly obligatory prefixes, suffixes and other parts packed into individual words that carry specific meanings.

They found clear evidence that big, spreading languages have fewer of these features. They have fewer case-markings on nouns. Verbs are less likely to vary with person, place, time and so forth. Mandarin, for example, has no obligatory past tense at all; an extra word can come after the verb to indicate it happened in the past, or this can be left to context. By contrast, Yagua, spoken in Peru, has an obligatory five-way distinction. Past-tense verbs must show whether the event happened a few hours ago, a day before, a week to a month ago, and so on.

The number of speakers of each language correlated best with morphological complexity, better than the area the language is spread over or the number of neighbours. This makes sense because a language with a large population of speakers has probably already been learned by many non-natives in the past. A language with many neighbours today would be, by this rationale, more likely to become simpler in the future, if the language spreads. Of course, languages in families share certain features, but Dr Lupyan and Dr Dale found that their results were significant even when language family and region were factored out.

This leaves the question of why languages would become complex at all. Dr Lupyan and Dr Dale offer several hypotheses. One involves the different needs of child and adult learners. Complex morphology is especially hard for adults to learn, but it may help children, as the redundancy reduces the need for non-linguistic factors for understanding. (Las casas blancas tells a Spanish-speaking child three times that there are multiple white houses.) An alternative hypothesis is that complex morphology improves economy and clarity of expression, something that is desirable so long as it is not too difficult to learn. A final possibility is simply that smaller language groups more faithfully transmit the grammar to their children, overspecification and all, even if it has no use.

One thing is clear. Linguists have long known, despite the prejudices of those in rich societies, that “simple” people with primitive technologies do not speak simple languages. By the definitions used here, the native languages of North America and South America are the most complicated in the world, while Europe’s are the simplest.


Full article and photo: http://www.economist.com/sciencetechnology/displayStory.cfm?story_id=15384310&source=hptextfeature

Definin’ the Blues

What were they singing about?

When I was 12 years old, I found a Count Basie album in my father’s record collection that contained a 1941 performance of “Goin’ to Chicago Blues” by Jimmy Rushing and the Basie band. That was the record that made me fall in love with the blues—though it goes without saying that I couldn’t understand all of the lyrics, especially when they touched on what for me was the still-unexplored land of adult relationships. I found the first stanza in particular to be impenetrably puzzling: Goin’ to Chicago, sorry that I can’t take you / There’s nothin’ in Chicago that a monkey woman can do. What on earth, I wondered, was a “monkey woman”? Teetering as I was on the edge of puberty, I boggled at the exotic possibilities.

In time I was to discover that every field of artistic endeavor has its own unique argot, and that many artists get a kick out of mystifying “civilians” by trotting it out in public. Sometimes it’s satisfyingly pithy (ballet dancers always refer to George Balanchine’s “The Four Temperaments” as “The Four Ts”), sometimes downright gnomic (“Macbeth” is customarily known among actors as “the Scottish play”). But few of these specialized vocabularies are as inaccessible to a middle-class kid as the language of the blues, which abounds with words and phrases that you aren’t likely to hear at the dinner table—at least not when your mother is around.

Enter Stephen Calt, a blues historian and amateur linguist whose new book, “Barrelhouse Words: A Blues Dialect Dictionary,” published by the University of Illinois Press, is an impeccably scholarly, irresistibly readable guide to the language heard on the recordings of the great blues singers who were active in the first half of the 20th century. If there was ever a time when you found yourself wondering what it means to get a “stone pony” or “make a panther squall,” Mr. Calt is your man. As far back as the late ’60s, he was interviewing aging blues singers and sifting through arcane printed sources in the hopes of untangling the verbal mysteries of the music he loved.

On one notable occasion described in the preface, the author of “Barrelhouse Words” actually dared to accost a fellow customer of a bus-terminal diner who got mad at the counterman and called him a “jambooger.” Having heard the word on Barbecue Bob’s 1930 recording of “Jambooger Blues,” Mr. Calt took decisive action: “The belligerent customer (whom I anxiously followed outside) was willing to indulge my curiosity about the term, though he obviously regarded me as something of a lunatic.”

Mr. Calt may well be a lunatic, but he’s my kind of lunatic, a fellow obsessive who demands the straight dope and is prepared to get it by any means necessary. Thanks solely to his lunacy—and determination—future generations will know that a “jambooger” is “a derogatory black slang term for a black male.” His most significant discovery is that “the most striking expressions found in blues songs were not, as usually depicted, poetic or metaphorical turns of phrase, but rather were slang terms . . . that seemed to belong to the ordinary vocabulary of the singers and their peers.” Hence the blues recordings of the ’20s and ’30s are not only works of popular art but also repositories of vernacular black speech, time capsules whose contents shed light on the way ordinary folks used to talk:

• What does the phrase “dry long so” mean? Answer: For no good reason.

• What was Alcorub, and who drank it? Answer: A brand of rubbing alcohol “imbibed by some derelict alcoholics of the blues era.”

• How do you “jump a rattler”? Answer: You board a train without buying a ticket.

All this and much, much more is made manifest in the pages of “Barrelhouse Words,” perhaps the only dictionary on my bulging bookshelf that can be read for pure pleasure from cover to cover.

Part of the pleasure arises from Mr. Calt’s donnish sense of humor. He must have been smiling quietly to himself when he defined “crying shame” as “an exceedingly lamentable occurrence.” No less enjoyable, though, are the examples of contemporary usage that accompany his definitions, all of them drawn from classic blues records. A few are genuinely poetic, while others are drop-dead funny. Look up “business, pork-grindin’,” for instance, and you’ll be confronted with this stanza from Kokomo Arnold’s 1935 recording of “Sissy Man Blues”: Lord, I woke up this mornin’ with my pork-grindin’ business in my hand / Now if you can’t send me no woman, please send me a sissy man. This is a family newspaper, so if you can’t figure the rest out for yourself, turn to page 42 of “Barrelhouse Words.” I haven’t laughed so hard while reading a reference book since the last time I consulted H.L. Mencken’s “New Dictionary of Quotations.”

On top of everything else, Mr. Calt’s book answers a question that has vexed me at odd moments for the past four decades. No sooner did I open “Barrelhouse Words” for the first time than I turned to page 164, where I found this admirably concise definition of “monkey woman”: “An overly obliging or compliant female.” Now I can die happy.

Mr. Teachout, the Journal’s drama critic, wries “Sightings,” every other Saturday. He is the author of “Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong,” just out from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.


Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703523504574604284273616214.html


See also:

‘Barrelhouse Words: A Blues Dialect Dictionary’


This idiosyncratic, discursive dictionary was assembled to unravel the most unusual, obscure, and curious words, expressions, and proper or place names found on race records, the music industry trade term for recordings intended for blacks. As a special category, such records were promoted between 1923 and 1949, when the term was replaced in Billboard by its own clumsy confection, “rhythm and blues,” put forth in the interests of appearing less racist, and to retire a term that was associated with musical smut.


Most race recordings consisted of blues songs, which served as the popular music of black Americans from around the turn of the twentieth century until (roughly) the outset of the Second World War, a span I have designated as the blues era. These songs attracted virtually no attention beyond the record industry when they were current; to the extent they were even noticed, they aroused contempt or indignation: “[h]undreds of ‘race’ singers have flooded the market with what is generally regarded as the worst contribution to the cause of good music ever inflicted on the public. The lyrics of a great many of these ‘blues’ are worse than the lowest sort of doggerel . . .” (Talking Machine Journal, February 1924).

Blues songs did not operate along the lines of conventional song composition, as it existed from the 1890s through the 1950s in what has become known as the Tin Pan Alley era of popular music. As much as a method of music making, blues were a medium of language. Blues songs were not written compositions in the customary Tin Pan Alley manner, involving literary or poetic diction on at least a rudimentary level. As declaimed by the singer-guitarists and singerpianists whose lyrics are the crux of this dictionary, the blues lyric was a snippet of vernacular speech set to song, ostensibly referring to events and sentiments of the moment or recent past. The casual, often crude, colloquial style of blues expression became an essential building block of rock and roll, which to this day is rooted in informal spoken English.

At the turn of the twentieth century, when guitar blues were becoming fashionable among black entertainers in the South, blues stanzas apparently consisted of thrice-repeated conversational statements:

I’m goin’ where the Southern cross the Dog. (3)
I got arrested, no money to buy my fine. (3)

The real subject of such songs was the singer himself, who was always at the forefront of his lyrics. The peculiar scaffolding of blues (generally employing lengthy ten-beat vocal phrases) enabled blues songs to exist as a series of complete sentences set to a meager melody. As blues evolved into stanzas of rhymed lyrics, dispensed in couplet form with the first line repeated, they retained their initial relationship to unadorned speech. A blues song would typically involve disconnected, discursive statements in the form of verse held together by rhyme rather than by an express theme or topic.

Throughout the 1920s, when blues were at their peak popularity, the blues lyric that was its prime selling point was a form of rhymed speech, conveyed in the style of English that was otherwise employed by the performers. These largely male individuals were African American, usually Southern (or from a Southern background), and denizens of what could be termed “barrelhouse culture.” Indeed, one Mississippian (Willie Moore) characterized the blues expressions he was asked to elucidate in the 1960s as “barrelhouse words”—the slangy speech one typically heard in bygone night spots known as barrelhouses, where revelers congregated to drink, dance, gamble, or consort with prostitutes. The patrons of such illegal establishments were not respectable figures in the eyes of society (black or white), and blues singers themselves had an almost Victorian sense of their own disreputable identities:

I like low-down music, I like to barrelhouse and get drunk, too
I’m just a low-down man, always feelin’ low-down and blue.
—Freddie Spruell, “Low Down Mississippi Bottom Man,” 1928.

“In the beginning, anybody who sang blues was regarded as low-down,” reported J. Mayo Williams, the first black person to gain employment as a recording executive. To W. C. Handy, who encountered blues in 1903 while working in a Mississippi Delta brass band and became the first person to exploit the music commercially, blues songs were the product and province of “small-town rounders and their running mates”—the kind of ne’er-do-wells or riffraff that patronized barrelhouses or loitered around nearby railroad depots. Blues reflected both their consuming interests and their style of language.

Partly because one did not pay money to listen to them, whether on the street, at a barrelhouse, or at a plantation house frolic, musicians who trafficked in early blues were not hailed as notable entertainers. Notwithstanding Handy’s ambitious efforts to put blues on a pop music footing by offering them as Tin Pan Alley compositions, blues enjoyed only a brief early 1920s vogue as a pop commodity in the hands of white performers and black theater singers. The failure of blues songs to appeal to white record buyers caused record executives to begin promoting these works to blacks as “race” records.

Barrelhouse language and the jaded outlook of “small-town rounders” would permeate the genre in the mid- and late 1920s, when the recording industry began replacing female blues singers from the black theater circuit with relatively unvarnished self-accompanied Southern singers in an effort to duplicate the astounding sales of Blind Lemon Jefferson, an itinerant Texas street singer-guitarist with a flair for devising lyrics. Recorded blues of the period are so saturated in slang and assorted colloquialisms as to create a peculiar dialect that is only half-intelligible to present-day listeners. Apart from barrelhouse culture, the language of blues songs was rooted in everyday African American speech as it then existed, some six decades after slavery ended. Indeed, these songs constitute the earliest direct, authentic record of black English dialect on an appreciable scale.

In the 1930s, blues recordings became increasingly mannered, and tended to feature a particular theme, usually conveyed in unremarkable language. At the same time, the emphasis of blues remained fixed on the formulaic tribulations of the blues singer. Familiarity, and the vinegary quality of the blues sensibility, ultimately made it a fringe music, confined to small, insignificant pockets of the black community or to venues established and subsidized by white blues enthusiasts, whose patronage would eventually make blues the prestigious commodity it has since become. Songs from this declining post-blues period have been excluded from this volume, if only because they are unrepresentative of any group other than blues performers.

As the aim of this dictionary is to illuminate spoken language, the author has excluded seeming nonce words (unless they are of special interest), as well as metaphoric words and phrases that appear to have been the product of a blues songwriter’s pen or poetic imagination (however feeble).1 Most of these artificial blues terms were double entendres that rested on forced or nonvernacular comparisons between sex and some ordinary object, activity, product, and the like:

Don’t a man feel bad when he can’t yo yo no more?
Broke my yo yo strings, an’ I can’t go home no more.
—Blind Lemon Jefferson, “Yo Yo Blues,” 1929

Bumble bee, bumble bee, please come back to me
He made the best ol’ honey, any bumble bee I ever seen.
—Memphis Minnie, “Bumble Bee,” 1930

These often ludicrous excursions were concocted with an eye toward generating hit records; some of them became so popular that their operative figures of speech (“yo yo,” “bumble bee”) became part of the clichéd blues vocabulary. Generally, the records drawn upon for this dictionary were not the products of such commercial calculation, which resulted in full-blown themes; rather, they were produced by itinerant singers who did not anticipate their own discoveries and were given little or no direction by record executives.

From “Barrelhouse Words: A Blues Dialect Dictionary” by Stephen Calt.


Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704039704574616110289183436.html

To Salahi or Not to Salahi . . .

The White House gate-crashers have unwittingly bestowed a gift to the language in the form of a richly functional verb.

If, as I do, you live within John Nance Garner “spitting” distance of Washington and you read its fast-disappearing newspapers, then for the last week or two you have been drowned in a Salahi marinade. For those who may have been on vacation on another planet, or are reading this after it has been extracted from a time capsule—what with the American attention span being what it is, time capsules are now retrieved 45 minutes after they are buried—the Salahis are two strange pinheads, one of whom looks like Barbie and the other Fat Ken, who harbor the noble ambition of appearing on a “reality show.”

For those who do not know what a reality show is, it is a chance to achieve utterly transient fame by acting like an idiot and embarrassing oneself in front of a charge-coupled device that communicates your indiscretions to the less intelligent population of an entire nation. The Salahis are themselves a charged couple, and perhaps a device, in more ways than one: She looks like she’s part neon, and they have begun their encounters with the system of what used to be called justice. To get on the reality show, which, appropriately, does not even exist, they faked their way into the White House, Tareq Salahi, it is presumed, wearing his fake Patek Philippe.

The president and Mrs. Obama are reportedly outraged. Strangely enough, Theodore Roosevelt, who was shot while making a speech, and finished it, was not reported to have been outraged. When Puerto Rican nationalist terrorists attacked Blair House, with three wounded, two dead, and at one point only a machine-gun on the stairs between Harry Truman and assassination, the president was not reported to have been outraged. And when Ronald Reagan, bullet near his heart, was wheeled into the emergency room at George Washington University, he was most likely not outraged—because had he been he likely would not have had the wit to say to his surgeons before he was put under, “I hope you’re all Republicans.” Apparently, outrage, like attention span and a good deal else, has devolved with American history.

Michaele and Tareq Salahi at the White House.

There may, however, be a Salahi lining in all this pitiable behavior; i.e. a gift to the language in the form of a richly functional verb—to Salahi. We have the Ponzi Scheme, named after the first known originator; Hobson’s Choice, named after a livery stable owner who is reported to have said “You can take any horse you want as long as it’s the one by the door;” and Melba Toast and Peach Melba, in honor of late 19th- and early 20th-century diet-averse opera star Nellie Melba, who all by herself could have equaled at least three or four of our early 21st-century fashion models (if she could have been convinced to adopt the facial expression of a heroin-addicted captive in a Russian Mafia bordello). Why not to Salahi?

I would like to offer the following to the Oxford English Dictionary, free of charge:

To Salahi: v. U.S. [after 21st century reality-show aspirants Michaele and Tareq Salahi] 1. intrans. to gain entrance to an event or gathering to which one is not invited. “They Salahied into the Bar-Mitzvah even though they didn’t know the Goldblatt boy, and ate most of the chopped-liver sculpture of Elvis.” Shakespeare, Sonnet MMIX. 2. in a general sense to appear where one is not welcome. “Michael Moore Salahied into George and Laura Bush’s second honeymoon to lecture the former president about justice for the undocumented immigrants held at Guantanamo.” Chomsky, Profiles in Courage. 3. to forge, fake or pretend, especially in hope of achieving a contemptible or pathetic objective that is simultaneously a comment upon the corruption and distastefulness of a particular individual and society itself. trans. “To elevate his chances of becoming a Chippendales dancer, Arnold Toynbee Salahied a letter of recommendation from Rosa Luxemburg. Al Franken, An Intellectual History of the United States.

If, for example, you sneak into the circus, you cannot be said to have Salahied, because the action is too honorable and direct. It must be accompanied by convoluted and narcissistic scheming that is bound to unravel because of its elemental stupidity. Another use of the expression would be simply to turn it into a noun: “She looks like a Salahi,” “They’re just Salahis,” “It was one of the greatest Salahis ever,” or “It takes a Salahi to know a Salahi.” And, although not finally, as the speakers of English are a creative lot and may find many fascinating variations, the very notion of Salahi-ing could be lifted to an eye-crossing level were one to speak of “ersatz Salahis,” a true puzzle for philosophers, or at least a double negative.

Meanwhile, the Salahis themselves are to be thanked for enriching the language, even if unwittingly (and that’s an understatement).

Mr. Helprin, a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute, is the author of, among other works, “Winter’s Tale” (Harcourt), “A Soldier of the Great War” (Harcourt) and, most recently, “Digital Barbarism” (HarperCollins).


Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704398304574598093966626628.html?mod=WSJ_newsreel_opinion

Noughtyisms: the best words of the decade

Here’s a selection of my favourite neologisms of the last 10 years.

A man walks past a tree covered with witches’ knickers (see below) near the open dump of Entressen, near Istres, southern France.

As a collector of words, here’s my list of the best the decade had to offer, taken from my book, The Wonder of Whiffling. These words and expressions were all coined in particular parts of the world in specific years: they’re principally slang and jargon; catching on, but still waiting to be formalised into our dictionaries.

witches’ knickers (Ireland) shopping bags caught in trees, flapping in the wind
get corrugated ankles (UK campus) to get drunk
glomp (US campus) to jump and hug someone from behind
drink-link (UK campus) a cash dispenser

goat heaven (Caribbean) a state of unfettered freedom, enjoyment, indulgence evoking both bliss and excess

cuddle puddle (New York) a heap of exhausted ravers
trout pout (UK) the effects of collagen injections that produce prominent, comically oversized lips resembling those of a dead fish
urbeach (US) an urban beach (a trend that began with the Paris Plage 2002)
barbecue stopper (Australia) an issue of major public importance, which will excite the interest of voters

smirting (New York) flirting between people who are smoking cigarettes outside a no-smoking building.
meh (US, from “The Simpsons”) boring, apathetic or unimpressive
pumping party (Miami) illegal gatherings where plastic surgeons give back-street injections of silicone, botox etc
croggie (UK schools) a ride of the crossbar or handlebars of another rider’s bicycle 

flairing (Sydney) the action of bartenders balancing, catching, flipping, spinning or throwing (bottles, glasses, napkins, straws) with finesse and style
glass ball environment (US intelligence) of the weather in Iraq being often conducive to collecting images from above
sandwich generation (Canada) those caring for young children and elderly parents at the same time (usually “baby boomers” in their 40s or 50s)
huburb (US) its own little city within another city
zhing-zhong (Zimbabwe) merchandise made in Asia; cheaply made, inexpensive or substandard goods
wardrobing (US) buying an item and then returning it after wearing it
spange (street talk) for “Spare change?”
pudding ring (Florida) facial hair made up of a moustache and a goatee
J.Lo (Wall Street) the rounding bottom in a stock’s price chart

cougar (Canada) an older woman on the prowl, preferably for a younger man
elevens the creases between one’s eyebrows from squinting or frowning
California licence plate (US) a tattoo on the lower back
milkshaking (Kentucky) bicarbonate loading which slows fatigue in a horse
Picasso porn (US) the scrambled signal of a pornographic cable channel as seen by a nonsubscriber
Faye (UK) a bright light placed at eye level, in front of the performer, which helps to hide wrinkles (in honour of Faye Dunaway, who is said to always insist on one)
fogging (UK) children showing minimal reaction to or agreeing with the taunts of a bully
slippage (US) the percentage of people who get a cheque and forget to cash it
set-jetter (UK) someone who goes on a holiday to a particular place simply because he’s read about it or seen it in a film or on television
swoop and squat (Washington) to drive and pull in front of another vehicle and slam on the brakes, deliberately causing an accident to collect the insurance money
helicopter mom (US) a mother who micro-manages her children’s lives and is perceived to be hovering over every stage of their development
ghost ridin (US) jumping out of a moving vehicle – usually stolen – and letting it smash into another car, home or business
roider (US) someone who injects illegal steroids to enhance his body
open the kimono (US) to expose or reveal secrets or proprietary information
nom de womb (US) a name used by an expectant parent to refer to their unborn child
sequencing (US) delaying your career until your children are in school
goose father a father who lives alone having sent his spouse and children to a foreign country to learn English or do some other form of advanced study
twixters (US) fully-grown men and women who still live with their parents
dog-whistle politics (Australia) to present your message so that only your supporters hear it properly
doughnuting (UK) a carefully created seating plan which places an ideal group of MPs (women, photogenic, ethnic minority etc) around a leader for the ideal television shot

ant hill family (UK) the trend whereby children move back in with their parents so that all work together towards group financial goals
New York rain (Hong Kong) water that drips annoyingly from air-conditioners onto passers-by
chair plug (2006) someone who sits in a meeting but contributes nothing
banana fold (North Carolina) fat below the buttocks
chubb (North Carolina) fat around the kneecaps
hail damage (Minnesota) cellulite (from its pitted appearance being similar to the effects of hail)
throw a series of notes (Illinois) to perform a back handspring with no hands
black spider memo (UK) notes, mostly hand-written, in which Prince Charles enthusiastically details his beliefs on particular political topics
rubber arms (California) surfers who turn to catch a wave, making all the paddling movements, but never really go anywhere
push present (US) an expensive gift given to a woman by her husband in appreciation for having recently given birth
Harry Potter a poker hand containing a Jack and a King (after JK Rowling)
Anna Kournikova when an Ace and King are held (allegedly so called because it looks a good hand but in fact rarely wins anything)
flashpackers (Australia) intrepid, but comfortably-off travellers
glamping (UK) glamorous camping (prompted in part by celebrity-studded festivals like Glastonbury)
menoporsche (UK) the phenomenon of middle-aged men attempting to recapture their lost youth by buying an expensive sports car
gate fever (UK) terror at the prospect of release from prison
hippo’s tooth (US) a cement bollard
fox hole (UK) the area beneath desk where telephone calls can take place peacefully
puddle (US) a heap of clothing an actor steps into and is quickly zipped inside during one of those split-second costume changes that dazzle audiences

goldfishing (UK) one politician talking inaudibly in an interview (you can see his lips move but only hear the reporter’s words)
twuncing (UK) when walkers drive two cars to the end point of their walk, and then ride together in one car to the starting point; after the walk they drive together to the starting point to collect the other vehicle
shock and hee-haw (US) explosive devices under satchels on donkeys
ham (UK) legitimate email messages (as opposed to “spam”)
mattressing (UK) the term used by other traders and bank managers to hide their results
flusher (US) a volunteer who rounds up non-voters on Election Day

generica (US) features of the American landscape (strip malls, motel chains, prefab housing) that are exactly the same no matter where one is
catch a falling knife to buy a stock as its price is going down, in hopes that it will go back up, only to have it continue to fall


Full article and photos: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2009/dec/15/best-words-of-the-decade

The governing principles of naming centres of power

From the US Senate to Germany’s Diet of Worms, state legislatures past and present take their titles from a wide range of linguistic sources.


Roman handle… The US Senate.

This week’s midterm elections in the US led me, naturally, to consider what the founding fathers gave away about their world view when naming their revolutionary institutions. The influence of Rome is obvious in naming the ground on which the government meets the Capitol, and in naming the upper chamber the Senate (a name derived from a Latin word meaning “the meeting of the old men”). But the influence of Britain should not be underestimated. It is apparent of course in the bicameral organisation of Congress, but also in the common metaphors – chambers, houses, floors.

The words for parliaments (from French parler “to talk”) and congresses (from a Latin word meaning “to come together”) are full of historical interest in many languages. The Athenian ekklesia or assembly gave its name to the churches of Spanish, French and Italian – iglesia, église and chiesa. (The Germanic words, it seems, are from κυριaκον – [house] “of the Lord”).

The German word for parliament, and its English translations, are also of great interest. Who has not sniggered with me at Luther’s disgust when up against the Diet of Worms? But when did a German “diet” become a “tag”? I discovered the answer to this only last week, when reading Mary Fulbrook’s Concise History of Germany. When describing the institutions of 15th century Germany, Fulbrooks refers to “the Imperial Diet” – the same body before which Luther appeared. But when discussing those of the 19th and 20th centuries, she refers to “the Reichstag”.

The thing is, the German word is the same in both cases. Fulbrook can’t be blamed, obviously, for using the most common English terms for the two – quite different – things, but I think it reveals something about the Anglophone conception of Germany that we make Charles V more approachable for ourselves than we do the Germans of 60 years ago.

But perhaps the stranger thing is not that English should have different words, but that German should have the same. I looked up the German wikipedia page for reichstag, only to find it’s a “disambiguation page” – did I want “Reichstag des Heiligen Römischen Reiches”, the Imperial Diet of the Holy Roman Empire, or “Reichstag der Weimarer Republik, the Imperial Diet of the Weimar Republic? It seems the Germans can’t conceive of the two reichstags being related either.


Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2006/nov/10/seanclarke

Does everything have to be shortened?

Last week the New Oxford American Dictionary named “unfriend” as word of the year.

“Unfriend” is a verb that means to remove someone as a friend on a social networking site. Reading the shortlist for word of the year was depressing. There was “funemployed” — referring to those who take advantage of being out of work to have fun — and “sexting” — when someone sends sexy messages by phone. Perhaps even more disturbing: “Tramp stamp” — a tattoo on a woman’s lower back.

I knew someone once who had a “tramp stamp”. By coincidence, it was the same person who “unfriended” me.

I’m not a fan of hybrid words. I remember when I first heard the term, “metrosexual” I thought: no way this will ever catch on. Turns out there’s a word for what I was. Wrong.

Maybe it all started with the labradoodle. A crossbreed of a labrador retriever and a poodle, these adorable (and hypoallergenic) dogs introduced a whole new area of possibilities for cute word combinations. In my building in New York, there’s a cockerpoo, a shnoodle, a spoodle, a doodle and an eskimoodle. Those are fine but then there’s also a bug. This is a boston terrier and a pug.

And therein lies the problem. No one will ever know what a bug is. It’s far too obtuse. As soon as you start saying you’re dog is a bug, you’re asking for trouble.

Which is why I’ve never understood why someone would use the word: ‘frenemy.’ It just seems so lazy. How much extra time does it really take to explain the situation. Does everything have to be shortened?

Then the other day, I was telling someone about a friendship that had developed very quickly and this person said, “I know what you mean – it’s a ‘friendmance’.” A what? A friendmance. It is, she explained, a friendship that’s like a romance.

Even worse than a frenemy is a friendmance. Because at least “frenemy” has some lyricism to it. A “friendmance” is just two words cut-and-pasted together.

I was at dinner with my friend, Laura, talking about this and she agreed that she too, can’t stand the current trend towards the conflation of two words. “I have a word for it,” she said. “Combocabulary.”

I love that she has made up a word to describe how much she hates made up words.

When it comes to technological terms, I don’t mind the blending as much. Possibly because there’s a functional definition behind it and the terminology used is specific to the medium. For instance a “webcast” or a “webisode” Even a “vlog” — a form of blogging with video — seems appropriate. Anything that’s web-based is acceptable because it makes me sound tech-savvy. And I need all the help I can get.

It seems like every other week, there’s a new word that’s come up. I took an informal poll and the one that everyone currently hates the most is: staycation. I can see why. A staycation became a popular neologism during the recent financial crisis — when in the UK, the weak pound made going overseas prohibitively expensive.

Staycationers stay at home, check e-mail, do chores and try not to spend money. In other words, they are writers.

The Urban Dictionary is filled with all sorts of these made-up words. From shopaholic to mantrum (when a grown man throws a tantrum). I’m not sure how authoritative it is though. The word “bromance” has 42 definitions.

I asked a straight male friend if he would ever use the word “bromance”.

“No,” he said. “It makes me cringe, probably because I hate the word ‘bro’ I have never, even in jest, called anyone ‘bro.’ Guys who call each other ‘bro’, I imagine are frat brothers or investment bankers (same thing) and I don’t relate.”

The only thing that bothers me more than when people use fake words is when someone adds “gate” on to the end of a situation.

The other night I was having dinner with a friend who asked if I’d heard about “waxing-gate”. This was a conspiratorial incident that involved a Russian eyebrow-waxer, and two frenemies. It was at that point that I decided I’m not made for this world.

When I told her this, you know what she said?

“Oh my god, that’s sarcasmic.”

Ariel Leve, London Times


Full article: http://women.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/women/ariel_leve/article6936529.ece


Full article: http://women.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/women/ariel_leve/article6936529.ece

Fifty Years of Simplicity as Style

Strunk and White taught us that clear thinking and clear writing go together.

A reader of “The Elements of Style” once sent E. B. White a clipping of a book review that misquoted William Strunk as having advised writers to “Use less words!” White wrote back: “I often wish Strunk could come alive so that I might hear the gnashing of his teeth.”

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style,” and lately I’ve been thinking it would be fun if both authors could come back to life, at least long enough to mark the occasion and to give us their thoughts on the proliferating varieties of written communication we’ve crammed into our lives in recent years. A friend of mine suggests that as soon as they got a close look at the current situation—the flurry of texting, tweeting, IMing and Facebook chatting, much of it speed-thumbed while steering with the forearms—Strunk and White’s next move would be to form a suicide pact.

Maybe. I think it’s more likely that they might just shrug, resolve to stay off the roads, and settle back over chilled martinis to reminisce about their Cornell days. Strunk and White, both reasonable, good-humored men, would recognize that texting, tweeting, emailing and the rest are simply conversation: the “rules-free, lower-case flow that keeps us cheerfully in touch these days,” as White’s stepson, the well-known New Yorker writer Roger Angell, writes in the foreword to the current edition of “The Elements of Style.”

The young, and those who wish to appear so, have always roped off sections of the language for their own use, speaking and writing in ways that can seem runic and needlessly opaque to outsiders. That kind of dialogue is one of the great pleasures and purposes of friendship, and only a tin-eared egghead would wish to strip this happy new dialect of its ubiquitous acronyms, its winking semicolons, its shrieking caps, and its ecstatic picket rows of exclamation points.

No, “The Elements of Style” is after bigger game. And, these 50 years on, for any kind of writing more formal than an email, the book’s central tenets are as pertinent as they’ve ever been. Strunk and White would no doubt be happy, as most writers and readers are, that the Internet is such a text-heavy medium. But with the new habits of speed, compression and informality the Web and its technological kin encourage, it’s more important than ever for writers to develop an ear for levels of usage, a sensitivity to the needs of the linguistic moment, and the ability, when necessary, to jump the ruts of habitual informality and apply the tools and techniques of more careful writing.

Pity, for example, the freshly minted job applicant whose thumbs are more nimble than his judgment (“i cn work a spreadsheet gr8!!!”). In business, in education, in the arts, in any writing that takes place outside the linguistic cul-de-sac of our close friends and relatives, writers are expected to reach for certain standards of clarity, concision and care. And those core standards of careful writing are still illuminated, memorably and wittily, by “The Elements of Style.”

Strunk and White perennially remind writers to observe common rules of punctuation and syntax; to be mindful of structure and prefer succinctness to flabbiness; to aim for prose that is concrete, active and clear; and to be sensitive to current word usage. The last chapter of Elements, “An Approach to Style,” caps the book’s argument beautifully by offering a handful of sensible truths about how writers might achieve a style and voice all their own.

Earlier this year there was a bit of a dustup in the blogosphere (I’m sorry, but that seems to be the word we’ve settled on) occasioned by the anniversary of the “Elements.” Into the midst of mostly laudatory, if sometimes tongue-in-cheek, essays and reviews celebrating the venerable style guide, critics have lobbed a few stink bombs.

Some fault “Elements” for the doctrinal, vaguely medicinal air they claim clings to it. Some point out imperfections and inconsistencies in the authors’ understanding of grammar and syntax. Some sputter—out of ignorance, I can only assume—about the pair’s supposed lack of credentials (Strunk was trained in grammar and philology at Cornell and the Sorbonne and was at home in at least four languages; White was one of the most celebrated American writers of the 20th century).

For all its popularity, its plain common sense, and its decades of success in the classroom, it is surprising the extent to which the book gets up the noses of some academics and critics. Funny thing is, in their own writing, particularly in those portions of it that work best, those same critics faithfully observe the main tenets of the Strunk and White doctrine even while cursing it.

“The Elements of Style” is not perfect. It’s a bit of a hodgepodge, and some sections have aged more gracefully than others. But it offers clear advice for dealing with writing’s most important and fundamental challenges, and it has helped many writers to think and write more effectively.

Those attributes alone might have been enough to fuel the book’s 50-year run, but believers have always felt there is something more here, an extra dimension that has likely been a fundamental source of the book’s long success. As practical as it is for helping writers over common hurdles, “The Elements of Style” also embodies a worldview that, for some, is as appealing as anything either author ever managed to get down on paper.


“Elements” is a credo. It is also a book of promises—the promise that creative freedom is enabled, not hindered, by putting your faith in a few helpful rules; the promise that careful, clear thinking and writing can occasionally touch truth; the promise of depth in simplicity and beauty in plainness; and the promise that by turning away from artifice and ornamentation you will find your true voice.

Mr. Garvey is the author of “Stylized: A Slightly Obsessive History of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style,” published this month by Simon & Schuster.


Full article: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203946904574300342789419418.html