Showing posts with label semantics. Show all posts
Showing posts with label semantics. Show all posts

Saturday, February 04, 2017

Why the sun really does rise

In response to someone comparing "alternative facts" to science fiction, the eminent science fiction writer Ursula LeGuin recently wrote:
The test of a fact is that it simply is so - it has no "alternative." The sun rises in the east. To pretend the sun can rise in the west is a fiction, to claim that it does so as fact (or "alternative fact") is a lie.
The comments (never read the comments!) include several people trying to be smart by pointing out that, actually, "the truth of the matter is that the sun does not rise, but rather that the Earth turns". This apparent conflict is worth unpacking from a descriptive linguistic perspective.

All fluent speakers of English use phrases like "The sun rises in the east". They also use phrases like "Hot air rises." The commenter quoted previously seems to be applying something like the following reasoning:

  • When something (eg hot air) rises, it moves upwards away from the earth.
  • When the sun "rises", it's not moving upwards away from the earth - rather, the earth is turning relative to it.
  • Therefore, the sun does not actually rise.
A lexicographer will immediately see at least one ironclad way to vitiate such an argument: identify two distinct senses for "rise". Rise1 means "to move upward away from the ground", while rise2 means "for a celestial body's apparent position to come closer to the zenith" (or something along those lines.) The sun rises2, but it doesn't rise1.

But not so fast! It's perfectly plausible that someone could believe the earth is stationary and the sun physically moves upwards when it rises. For someone holding that belief (or even just using that mental model without necessarily believing it), "rise" could easily have a single sense, not two different ones. Is there any language-internal evidence that "rise" has two senses?

As it happens, there is: look at antonyms. We say "The sun sets in the West", but "Hot air sinks" (and "Empires fall", but that's another story); you can't say "*Hot air sets". "Set" is the antonym of rise2, but not of rise1. That seems like a pretty good reason to assume that, even for flat-earther speakers of English, the two senses are lexically distinct. So it looks like Ursula LeGuin wins this one, as you might expect.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

When I say "I", I mean "you": public service hortatives in French

A lot of languages - Indonesian, for instance - make a rather useful distinction between two 1st person plural pronouns: "we (including you)" and "we (excluding you)". A few languages, such as Nivkh, extend this distinction to the singular, sort of, having a dual 1st person inclusive pronoun "I and you" alongside a singular 1st person exclusive pronoun "I" (and no other duals). But a 1st person singular inclusive pronoun, strictly speaking, is a contradiction in terms: it would have to be a pronoun referring to only one person which included both the speaker and the addressee.

Or is it? There are a couple of ways in which this apparent contradiction could be resolved. The most obvious would be if you had a special pronoun used only when the speaker was also the addressee; but, as such a form would be used only in talking to oneself, it would be unlikely to catch on enough to become part of the language. Less obviously, however, you could have a singular pronoun being used in a sufficiently vague way to refer to both the speaker and the addressee (but not to an uninvolved third person.)

Soon after moving to France, I realised that, in public announcements, this is in fact what French does with its 1st person singular pronoun je. The realisation was prompted by a poster in a medical insurance office saying, in big letters, something like:

Je choisis le générique, je ne fais pas d'avance de frais.
(I choose generic drugs, I pay no advance.)

This was clearly not a piece of self-observation someone had put up; rather, it was intended to tell us "Choose generic drugs, and pay no advance". Over the following days, I noticed that concealed exhortations of this form were everywhere: Oui je vote (Yes I vote), En car comme en voiture, je boucle ma ceinture (In a coach as in a car, I buckle my seatbelt), ... All easily understandable as conveying the message is "I do this, and so should you". But in English, you consistently cast such messages in the imperative, with no "I" at all: "Please take a moment to cast your vote in this important election" or "Buckle up, it's the law", and so on. One obvious side effect is that the slogan "Je suis Charlie" has at least one reading directly accessible to French speakers but not to English speakers who understand it word for word: namely, "I am Charlie, and you'd better be Charlie too".

The difference between the two languages in this respect is at the level of pragmatics, for now. But if such hortatives become sufficiently common in French, one could well imagine the construction grammaticalising further and even eventually becoming distinct from ordinary 1st person marking. In that case, we might end up with a true 1st person singular inclusive pronoun: a pronoun that simultaneously means "I" and "you", while taking strict singular agreement. Give it another 500 years...

Are you familiar with another language that does this?

Monday, December 21, 2015

Austin in Augusta: how is it that non-performative non-assertions can be problematic?

Recently, a geography teacher in Augusta County, Virginia named Cheryl LaPorte set her students the following homework assignment:
"Calligraphy - the art of writing - is sacred to Muslims [sic]. It was born from the Arabic script of the Koran. [...] Here is the shahada, the Islamic statement of faith, written in Arabic. In the space below, try copying it by hand. This should give you an idea of the artistic complexity of calligraphy."
The shahada is the statement that "There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the Prophet of God". Predictably, this made some parents very angry. Less predictably, it ended up making the national news, rather than remaining a question for Augusta County to worry about. Concerned editorials presented the situation as either an example of creeping Islamic indoctrination or a symptom of reactionary Christian ignorance, while concurring in any case that we should all be deeply concerned about it. So many emails poured in, threatening protests and violence, that the county was scared into closing the schools temporarily.

How could asking students to copy out a short phrase have this effect? Well, we know the objections of one parent at least, Kimberly Herndon (WHSV):

"I am preparing to confront the county on this issue of the Muslim indoctrination taking place here in an Augusta County school. This evil has been cloked in the form of multiculturism. My child was given the creed of the Islam faith to copy. This creed that is translated: There is no god but Allah. Mohammed was Allah's messenger. This is recited during their pledge to the Islamic faith. This creed is connected to Jihad in that it is the chant that is shouted while beheading those of Christian faith, or people of the cross as being called by ISIS. [...] Also unknowingly they [the children] were instructed to denounce our Lord by copying this creed of Islam."
Apart from the ridiculous ISIS connection, the keywords here are "indoctrination" - the idea that this assignment constitutes an attempt to make students Muslim, or at least to make them believe a particular ideology - and "to denounce our Lord by copying this", the idea that copying the shahadah amounts to declaring that Jesus is not God. Of these, it's the latter that is fundamental: the former makes little sense unless taken as a corollary of the latter.

If this is indeed Ms. Herndon's understanding of the situation, she would be well-advised to read John Austin's How To Do Things With Words. Austin, an Oxford philosopher, became famous in linguistics for pointing out that many sentences that superficially look like statements of fact are, in fact, actions in their own right: "When I say, before the registrar or altar, &c., 'I do', I am not reporting on a marriage: I am indulging in it." These sentences he termed performatives. The shahada is a classic example of a performative sentence: by uttering those words under the appropriate circumstances, one becomes a Muslim. Such an outcome is clearly not desired by Ms. Herndon, and for the teacher to seek it would violate the US constitution.

However, as Austin points out in great detail, performatives are effective ("felicitous") only when appropriate circumstances apply. These are determined by social consensus ("accepted procedure"), and, where relevant, by sincerity of intention. In this case, Muslim scholars have devoted a good deal of thought to the question of what count as the appropriate conditions for the shahadah to be felicitous from their perspective - for some English samples, try eg ConvertingToIslam.com or Dr. Fouad - and copying out an untranslated phrase in a language you don't understand in order to complete your homework fails at the first hurdles: the student neither has knowledge of what is being said, nor certainty as to its correctness, nor sincerity in its assertion... In short, this exercise does not satisfy the conditions for performativity, and as such does not commit the student to the claim made in the shahadah. So there's nothing to worry about!

But surely Ms. Herndon would already agree that the children who copied this didn't actually "denounce our Lord", since they copied it "unknowingly"? If so, then her issue must lie elsewhere. "Indoctrination" is perhaps a relevant lead; the teacher presumably knew the meaning of the words, so, in Ms. Herndon's view, that presumably means that she was attempting to make them repeat words they wouldn't have repeated if they had known what they meant, which would be an abuse of authority. But that just leads us back to the original question: why wouldn't/shouldn't they have been willing to copy these words if they had known what they meant?

I'm not sure I have a philosophically sound answer, yet on that question I share the same intuition: I wouldn't sing or want my children to sing a song about Jesus being God, even though songs don't commit their singer to the statements they contain. It seems that statements felt as blasphemous, rather than merely false, continue to be felt as such even in contexts where they clearly can't be interpreted as assertions by the speaker. In that respect, they resemble swearwords, although with swearwords it goes even further - if you give an accurate quote of someone swearing, then you're swearing yourself, quotation marks be damned. In a Christian context, one might explain this by the commandment not to take the name of the Lord in vain. However, the fact that she didn't appeal to it, and the fact that this intuition is shared by non-Christians, suggests that that would merely be rationalisation.

This is not a domain I've worked on much, so let me open up the floor to any reader who's made it this far: what's going on here? Does anyone have a coherent and empathetic explanation for why some types of statements should be felt as problematic even when clearly not asserted?

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Do Siwi people have bodies?

For English speakers, it is mysterious and highly debatable whether we have souls, but obvious except to the odd philosopher that we have bodies. In other languages, this intuition doesn't translate so well; quite apart from the question of the soul(s), many languages - reportedly including Homeric Greek - don't seem to have a word for "body" in the sense of "the ​whole ​physical ​structure that ​forms a ​person or ​animal", notwithstanding the protests of NSM-ists. In Wintu, a language of northern California, Lee (1950:134) was only able to elicit kot wintu "all person". (Wintu is not that well documented, but in this case Lee's account agrees with later work; Schlichter (1981:242) gives winthu:n thunis "person altogether".) For Korandje, my data suggest the same, although further checking is needed; when asked, the oldest of my Korandje consultants came up with a precise equivalent of this expression, bɑ kamla "person whole", while others gave Arabic loans like ṣṣəħħəts (literally "health") or žžhaməts (which so far seems rather to mean "corpse").

In Siwi, the situation is slightly different. Unlike the hesitations and disagreements of Korandje speakers asked about this subject, Siwi speakers asked to translate Arabic jism "body" confidently reply aglim, and early wordlists confirm that they have been doing so for over a century. However, if you ask them to translate aglim, they equally consistently reply with Arabic jild "skin". A person or animal has an aglim, but so does a potato, and its aglim can be peeled off. To further complicate the semantic field in question, ilem also translates as jild "skin", but refers to a piece of skin rather than to the whole: kteṛṭiyya aksum ɣair ilem "You have brought me meat that is nothing but skin"; ilem en ṭad yekkes "Some skin came off his finger". This renders the interpretation of aglim questionable. Does it have two distinct meanings, "body" and "(whole) skin"? Or does it just mean "(whole) skin", and refer to the body only as the volume encompassed by the skin?

Thinking out the question here makes it obvious what I should try to elicit next time the occasion arises: how to say "The human body is covered with skin" or "A snake sheds its skin many times, but always has the same body". Any other suggestions for contexts that clearly bring out the relevant differences in meaning?

(I should mention that this question was inspired by a recent talk by Mustapha El Adak of the University of Oujda, arguing that all non-borrowed Berber words for "body" either include non-physical aspects of the person or relate specifically to a particular aspect of the body rather than referring uniformly to the whole.)

Friday, November 06, 2015

The clouds that own us: how animate is the weather?

Animacy - human or animal or object - often makes a big difference in grammar. However, what counts as animate, and when, is not always straightforward. In English, an adult or a child can only be "he" or "she", but a baby can already be "it"; an animal is usually "it", but a pet is quite likely to be "he" or "she". (And that's without even discussing sailors and Australians).

Going through some Tuareg texts from Mali recently, I found a rather eloquent passage describing the nomads' relationship to their land:

exắy năkkắneḍ, húllăn ăgg ăjăma wăr ăddobăt ád ikrəš ắkall făll ắkall, năkkắneḍ tijắrăken a-hənăɣ ílăn əntănắteḍ á-dagg nəkká d ắšăkšo, wắr noleh d ə́ddinăt wí n ɣərman, dihá-hənăɣ əttə́mălăn súdar e rə́zzejăn ɣás á nəkká, ášăl wa əssinḍărắn-anăɣ dắɣ teje ta n ătắram, ášăl wa ta n ăfắlla ášăl wa ta n əjúss, mušám wăddén á ikkắsăn erhitt-nắnăɣ y ắkall wa s ə́nta, á nəzzáy isidáw-anăɣ năkkắneḍ dătén tərə́zzekk-nắnăɣ.
Yes, as for us, a son of the wilderness cannot hold to just one place. Us, it's the clouds that own us, it's they that we go under, and the vegetation, we aren't like the people of the towns. There where staple foods are excellent for our animals is where we go. One day they toss us to the west, one day to the north, one day to the south. But it doesn't prevent our desire for the land which is what we know, it keeps us together with our flocks. (Heath 2005:18-21)
Now, -la- "own, have" does not have quite the same semantics as English "own"; you use it not only in reference to your property, but also to your children, and one can easily say "God owns us (yl-ânaɣ)" (Prasse 2010:30). Nevertheless, its subject is ordinarily human, as in English. The most obvious comparison here is with ownership of livestock. The clouds control where we go (by determining where vegetation will grow), just as we control where our flocks go; therefore, the clouds own us. Throughout the world's languages, control is commonly associated with higher animacy.

Quite coincidentally, I came across a clearer example on the other side of the world shortly afterwards. Omaha is a Native American language of the Siouan family, still spoken by a few elders in Nebraska. It has one of the most complicated systems of classificatory definite articles that I've ever seen: in particular, there are four articles normally used for inanimates, and several normally used for animates, depending on number, position, and whether they're moving, described in detail in Eschenberg (2005). As part of their efforts to revive the language, the Omaha Nation commissioned an iPad/iPhone app, effectively a small phrasebook/lexicon with audio and pictures. This happily includes a few minimal pairs, of which the most interesting for this post is, under "Weather":

nãží-kʰ(e) ubðĩ́bðã xtáaðe. "I like the smell of rain." (-kʰe: inanimate horizontal article. Transcribed differently in the app, but listen to the audio.)
nãží-akʰa ðištã́. "The rain has stopped." (-akʰa: animate singular "proximal" article)
This is systematic in Omaha, as noted by Eschenberg (2005:71-73); nouns such as "winter", "sun", and "snow" can (but need not) occur with animate as well as inanimate articles, and Eschenberg explicitly ties this to the fact that these entities have great power over people's lives and are not themselves readily controllable.

So is there any English parallel? You certainly wouldn't say "The rain, s/he stopped" in standard English. One possibility comes to mind, however: the curious habit of giving human names to hurricanes. Within weather, hurricanes are about the most powerful recurrent objects we are capable of perceiving at a human scale. And - what do you know - it turns out that some people do accept animate pronouns for named storms, strange though it sounds to me:

"This makes Patricia a 'Category Five' hurricane as she has sustained winds of over 157 mph." (ITV, 23 October 2015)
"Sadly, Patricia is not expected to weaken by the time she reaches Mexico and will hit when she’s a Category 5 hurricane." (Hollywood Life)
Obvious follow-up question: should global warming be treated as animate?

Friday, October 30, 2015

The cross-cultural ambiguity of "nation" in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict

Advance warning: 1. I am no expert on Hebrew, nor for that matter on semantics. 2. Comments relating to word usage are welcome below; attempts to refight the conflict are not.

One thing that's always puzzled me about pro-Israel discourse is the enormous weight it tends to place on the concept of nationhood. Over and over again, you find Zionists insisting that Israel is a nation, that Palestine is not a nation, that Palestine must acknowledge that Israel is a nation - as if nationhood were the key issue at stake. In pro-Palestine discourse, on the other hand, the question of whether either party is a nation hardly arises except in responses; who cares? Recently it struck me that this difference in rhetoric could perhaps be understood in semantic terms. What is a nation? And just how badly does this rather polysemous word translate?

When Netanyahu defends proposals to define Israel as the "nation-state of the Jewish people" (מדינת הלאום של העם היהודי), or declares that "we do not want a bi-national state" (איננו רוצים מדינה דו-לאומית), the word he's using is le'om לאום. In the Hebrew Bible, this word (better transcribed lə'ōm) is fairly uncommon, occurring 26 times in the plural and 5 in the singular (26 of them in the singular), usually in poetry and paired with its far more frequent near-synonym ʕām עָם "people, nation". It occurs in the singular in Proverbs, with general reference, and in Genesis 25, in which Jacob and Esau are each presented as a le'om, implicitly representing the nation made up of his descendants: respectively, Israel and Edom. Elsewhere, it occurs in the plural, especially referring to other nations (eg Psalms 47:3). In a more modern context, le'om is the word used for "ethnic affiliation" on Israeli ID cards: an Israeli citizen's le'om can be Jewish, Arab, or Druze, but, curiously enough, never Israeli.

In Arabic, the "nation-state of the Jewish people" is rendered as "دولة قومية للشعب اليهودي", and "bi-national state" as "دولة ثنائية القومية", both using the word qawmiyy "national", from qawm "nation, people". The latter word is very frequent in the Qur'an, occurring 383 times. Its usage there, however, is rather different. It never occurs pluralised (though it takes plural agreement). Whereas the only le'oms defined by name in the Bible are defined by common patrilineal ancestry, a qawm is defined by name in the Qur'an only in terms of their prophet or (more rarely) leader: qawmu Mūsā "the people of Moses", qawmu Firʕawn "the people of Pharaoh", qawmi Nūḥ "the people of Noah", qawmi 'Ibrāhīm "the people of Abraham"... Otherwise, it is defined in terms of its characteristics: most often, believing (aware, realising, grateful, etc.) or unbelieving (wrong-doing, misguided, self-wronging, etc.)

As might be expected based on this, the noun qawm is hardly ever used to refer to something like a "Palestinian nation", nor to a "Jewish nation", nor even to an "Arab nation" (Google returns derisorily small numbers of hits, in the low thousands or below). If you search for dawlah qawmiyyah "nation-state", what you mostly get is discussion of Israel (along with a few fringe movements). Qawmiyyah, "nationalism", is a more prominent concept in the modern era - above all, al-qawmiyyah al-ʕarabiyyah "Arab nationalism", ie the dream of a single pan-Arab state - but one with a rather ambivalent ring to it at best; there are still Arab nationalists around, but the Arab unity project has had a musty 1960s smell to it for a while, criticised as much from the right as from the left. Even apart from its content, the common Israeli demand for recognition of a "nation-state of the Jewish people" thus translates rather poorly - not because the concepts don't exist, but because they don't have similar connotations. Palestinians aren't normally speaking in terms of a "dawlah qawmiyyah of the Palestinian people", nor for that matter of "the Arab people"; whether Palestine is a nation-state or some other kind of state is a secondary issue.

When Mahmoud Abbas mentions "national institutions" or a "national unity government" in his UNGA speech - or meets with the Palestinian National Council - the word he's using, and the word any Arabic speaker would use, is waṭaniyy وطني, from waṭan وطن "nation, homeland". In the Palestinian declaration of independence of 1988, qawmiyy occurs once (in a token nod to Arab nationalism), whereas waṭaniyy occurs 13 times, in collocations like "national identity", "national independence", "national rights", "national personality", "national will"... The word waṭan doesn't occur in the Qur'an at all; the closest it comes is a single usage of mawāṭin "regions". It unambiguously refers to a land, not to a group of people. And, unlike qawm, it has a profound resonance in the context of Palestinian - and Arab - nationalism, and not just because it provides the adjective used in collocations like "national liberation" or "national anthem". It recurs nostalgically in the poems of Mahmoud Darwish ("What is the waṭan? It is the house, and the mulberry tree, and the chicken coop and the beehive, and the smell of bread and the sky") or Tawfiq Zayyad ("As you were, so you shall remain, my waṭan - present in the leaves of the oleander and the fragrance of jasmine"). Further afield, Nizar Qabbani's remarkable line comes to mind now more than ever: "O my waṭan, have they made you a serial of horror whose events we follow in the evening? Then how shall we see you if they cut the power?" And, of course, waṭaniyyah وطنية "patriotism" has far more positive connotations than qawmiyyah. All of this vocabulary places the emphasis away from notions of ethnic cohesion or common ancestry, focusing on a different common ground: the land itself.

The Hebrew translation of waṭan would appear to be moledet (מולדת) "homeland". This word does occur in the Bible, 22 times - but, like le'om, it carries there a sense much more closely tied to human kinship, referring to "kindred, family" as well as "birthplace, native country". Israel's declaration of independence refers to the land as the "national homeland (moledet)" of the Jews, and there seems to be a good deal of Hebrew poetry on the subject. However, collocations like "national anthem" or "National Council" or "national unity government" or "national liberation" all derive from le'om, not from moledet.

"Nation" in English usage is ambiguous: is a nation united primarily by its attachment to a given area, or by its common ancestry? Either language can express either idea. However, the best-established and most positively viewed terminology in Arabic focuses on the former, while in Hebrew it focuses on the latter. This difference is hardly the source of the conflict, but it does play some small part in impeding mutual understanding.

Saturday, April 04, 2015

Improving language?

In a natural segue from Ibn Khaldun, I've been reading Ernest Gellner - specifically, Words and Things, his attack on Linguistic Philosophy (that is, on Wittgenstein and his followers at Oxford). As he presents it, Linguistic Philosophy amounted to, essentially, the descriptive study of lexicography and semantics. Since meaning is defined by usage, any statement that would be accepted as true in ordinary language is ipso facto true, and any philosophical argument suggesting otherwise can only be the result of some semantic misunderstanding; a philosopher's only legitimate goal is to figure out how words are used in ordinary language to prevent such misunderstandings. The key weak point of this view, for Gellner, is its underlying assumption that ordinary language is unimprovable:
To "observe how we use words" is to make statements, in ordinary language, about the role, function, effects, and context of expressions. But in doing this, the concepts and presuppositions of that ordinary language are taken for granted and insinuated as the only possible view [...] It is true that certain things may be said in favour of ordinary language. It would not be in use, and it would not have survived were it not wholly without merit. But this argument, as in politics where it is often used to buttress conservatism, proves fairly little. Very silly and undesirable things often survive, and neither society nor language is such a tightly integrated whole as would disastrously suffer from alteration of some one part. (pp. 195-197)
For Gellner, contra Wittgenstein, ordinary language can be improved upon by the very activity of reflecting on it, leaving a positive role for philosophy after all:
[T]here are many language games which become unworkable when properly understood: where self-consciousness not merely does not "leave everything as it is" but simply necessitates change. Many "conceptual systems", in primitive societies and in advanced ones, contain confusions and absurdities which are essential for their functioning. To lay them bare is to make such a framework unworkable. (p. 206)
The notion of improving language (my paraphrase) would need a lot more working out than I see in this book, but presumably means something like "make the concepts and presuppositions underlying language use more internally coherent and in better accord with non-linguistic experience."

Such a standard would not necessarily imply that one language can be superior to another. For one thing, while such concepts and presuppositions certainly play a role in language use, they don't seem to be critical to the definition of a language; you can change them and leave the language sufficiently intact to be mostly understood by speakers who have retained the old ones. A single language has room for many different kinds of language use.

However, it would suggest a potentially interesting alternative to a purely descriptive approach to linguistics. If Linguistic Philosophy was the effort to identify ways in which attention to ordinary native speakers' usage might correct misunderstandings embedded in philosophical thought, would Philosophical Linguistics be the effort to identify ways in which attention to philosophical thought might correct misunderstandings embedded in ordinary native speakers' usage?

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Sapir-Whorf is no shortcut

Lately the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis - that the language you speak influences the way you think - has had a bit of a revival; investigators such as Boroditsky or Levinson have finally managed to demonstrate small Whorfian effects on colour perception and sense of direction. Unfortunately, these successes only underscore how difficult it would be to make a convincing case for the version of this idea that perennially fascinates the public: the idea that language determines aspects of our worldview. Well before Sapir or Whorf, Nietzsche summarises it in Beyond Good and Evil:
"The strange family resemblance of all Indian, Greek, and German philosophizing is explained easily enough. Where there is affinity of languages, it cannot fail, owing to the common philosophy of grammar - I mean, owing to the unconscious domination and guidance by similar grammatical functions - that everything is prepared at the outset for a similar development and sequence of philosophical systems; just as the way seems barred against certain other possibilities of world-interpretation. It is highly probable that philosophers within the domain of the Ural-Altaic languages (where the concept of the subject is least developed) look otherwise "into the world", and will be found on paths of thought different from those of the Indo-Germanic peoples and the Muslims [...]" (Walter Kaufman's translation)
If a community's grammar really does affect its worldview, two centuries of speculation have hardly brought us any nearer to proving it, much less figuring out how. The commonsense converse, that a community's worldview affects its grammar, is rather better supported. But this idea's attraction for intellectuals, I think, is basically technological: it holds out the promise of being able to change the way people think "just" by changing the way they talk, as envisioned for Newspeak and Láadan. Ironically, it's observably true that imposing a new language on a previously monolingual community usually implies major changes in the way they think - that's what happens when you introduce compulsory schooling - but that has less to do with the language than with the institutions diffusing it.

The technological question remains, then: can we redesign some aspects of our language to help us think more effectively?

For grammar, the answer is not obvious. For the lexicon, however, the answer is yes, and we do it all the time. If something seems to need a name, we give it one - "mouse" or "selfie". Sometimes we choose a name that transparently encodes an property of this item that's particularly important to remember - "henbane" or "fool's gold". Ask any taxonomist whether the existence and form of a name matters, or any mathematician whether all notations are equal.

But this isn't actually the shortcut that some science fiction would have us believe. Many readers probably know that "henbane" is some kind of plant, but couldn't identify it if it was sitting in front of them, much less take advantage of knowing the name to prevent some unfortunate fowl's death. Understanding a given domain requires you to have words for the items signified by its technical vocabulary, but the most important part of that is learning to identify and think about the referents. Hundreds of New Age texts attest to the fact that you can use the vocabulary of quantum mechanics without understanding the first thing about it.

This points the way towards a solution, but not a very linguistic one: If you want to make your language better for thinking with, then first learn to perceive and think about the world more clearly yourself, and then share what you learn (and the labels you've given to it) with other interested speakers. Make a point of spotting and labelling relevant differences between things or situations, and involve yourself in a wider range of situations than you're used to. A sign is a link between word and world - between the set of all possible combinations of phonemes, meaningless in themselves, and the set of everything the speaker has some idea how to recognise. Expanding the former is meaningless unless you're expanding the latter.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Prescriptivism and scientists

Back in high school, my physics teacher once told us that people who touched an ordinary strip of metal and called it "cold", as almost everyone would, were making a big mistake. In reality, that strip was at room temperature; it only feels cold because, since metal is a good heat conductor, it conducts heat away from our fingers when we touch it. I was already enough of a linguist (or pedant) to retort that this was fallacious: if everyone except physicists uses the word "cold" in reference to things that feel cold when you touch them, then that's what "cold" means. Undaunted, he responded that such people would also expect a thermometer to show a lower temperature when placed on the metal than when placed on, say, an adjacent piece of wood – which it would not.

The latter mistake has nothing to do with language. In general, things that feel cold have lower temperatures, and things that feel hot have higher ones; unless you carry a thermometer around everywhere, it's easy to assume that the correlation is perfect, and anything that feels colder has a lower temperature. But in the former, prescriptivist fallacy, language plays a crucial role. This fallacy consists of redefining a well-known popular term for scientific purposes and then declaring its original meaning wrong, forgetting that its original meaning was based on quite different principles. A similar example which I came across recently is the notion that the Bible was mistaken in listing the bat as a bird, or rather the ʕǎṭallēp as a ʕôp (via); it should be obvious that if everyone was calling bats birds, then "bird" (or rather ʕôp) did not mean "member of the clade Avialae" at the time! In this case, however, the new meaning has gained enough popular acceptance in English to have driven out the old one almost entirely, thereby making Bible translators' lives harder but biology teachers' lives easier. (I covered a similar Qur'ānic misunderstanding involving "atom" a while back.)

Usually, prescriptivism involves declaring that a new (or allegedly new) meaning or usage is wrong. Scientists' prescriptivism is rather the inverse, in that it consists of declaring an old, previously generally accepted meaning or usage wrong. At its best, this can be an effort to popularise knowledge: everyone ought to know that bats are more closely related to humans than to sparrows, and if we can just persuade them to stop calling bats birds, they'll remember. But, fundamentally, this is also a power grab: we're the experts on this field, so we're the ones who get to say what the word means, not you. Giving old terms new definitions can be useful, but we should never forget that that's what we're doing.

Have you come across any examples of the scientists' prescriptivist fallacy lately?

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Why having "no word for X" can matter

The nice thing about French, from an English speaker's perspective, is that its lexical structure is so much like that of English that you can often translate a sentence without having to think much about what it means. Let's try this sentence, for example:

"Process and Reality presents a system of speculative philosophy which is based on a categorical scheme of investigation designed to explain how concrete aspects of human experience can provide a foundation for our understanding of reality."

Without seriously contemplating whatever it is that the author of this sentence is trying to say, I can render this in French as:

"Procès et Réalité présente un système de philosophie spéculative qui est fondé s'appuie sur un plan catégorique d'investigation destiné qui vise à expliquer comment des aspects concrets de l'expérience humaine peuvent fournir une base pour notre compréhension de la réalité."

No doubt there are some issues with this translation – my French has a long way to go. (fixed) But producing it was a relatively easy, almost mechanical task. Translating it into Standard Arabic I have to think a good deal more about the sense of each word (and also have less confidence in the results since I don't own a philosophy-focused dictionary) but I can still readily make it nearly word-for-word:

"كتاب السيْر والواقع يقدم نظام فلسفة نظرية مبني على مشروع فحص تصنيفي معمول ليفسر كيف يمكن لبعض الجوانب الملموسة لتجربة الإنسان أن تعطينا أساسا لفهم الواقع.
("kitābu s-sayri wa-l-wāqiʕ yuqaddimu niđ̣āma falsafatin nađ̣ariyyatin mabniyyun ʕalā mašrūʕi faħṣin taṣnīfiyyin li-yufassira kayfa yumkinu li-baʕđ̣i l-jawānibi l-malmūsati li-tajribati l-'insāni 'an taʕṭiyanā 'asāsan li-fahmi l-wāqiʕi.")

Now suppose I want to translate this into Algerian Arabic. What am I going to do about words like "process", "reality", "speculative", "concrete"? Plenty of Algerians have studied such notions, but they've done so in French or in Standard Arabic. What I would normally do in such cases is simply substitute a Standard Arabic word wherever I can't think of one that would count as Algerian Arabic, yielding something like this:

"كتاب السير والواقع يقدّم واحد النظام تاع الفلسفة النظرية اللي مبنية على مشروع تصنيفي تاع الفحص، خدمُه باش يفسّر كيفاش الجوانب الملموسة نتاع تجربة الإنسان تقدر تعطيلنا أساس باش نفّهمو الواقع."
("ktab əs-sayr w-əl-wāqiʕ yqəddəm waħəd ən-niđ̣am taʕ əl-fəlsafa n-nađ̣aṛiyya lli məbniyya ʕla məšṛuʕ təṣnifi taʕ əl-fəḥṣ, xədmu baš yfəssər kifaš əl-jawanib əl-məlmusa ntaʕ təjribt-əl-'insan təqdər təʕṭi-lna 'asas baš nəffəhmu əl-wāqiʕ.")

On the other hand, what a lot of other educated Algerians would do is something more like this, filling in all the gaps from French:

"كتاب بروسي إي رياليتي يقدّم واحد السيستام تاع لا فيلوزوفي تيوريك اللي مبنية على أن پلان كاتيڤوريك دانفيستيڤاسيون خدمُه باش يفسّر كيفاش ليزاسپي كونكري نتاع ليكسبيريانس إيمان يقدرو يعطولنا إين باز باش نفّهمو لا رياليتي."
("ktab pRose e Reạlite yqəddəm waħəd əs-sistam taʕ lạ-filozofi teoRik əlli məbniyya ʕla ãn plõ kạtegoRik d-ãvestigasyõ xədmu baš yfəssər kifaš lizạspe konkRe ntaʕ l-ekspeRyõs üman yəqqədru yəʕṭu-lna ün bạz baš nəffəhmu lạ-Reạlite.")

Neither of these rather macaronic passages would be comprehensible to any monolingual speaker of Algerian Arabic; they're essentially parasitic on the speaker's knowledge of Standard Arabic or French. Granted, probably most Algerian Arabic speakers are not really monolingual; but even then, there is no guarantee that a speaker who understands one version will understand the other. If you really wanted to produce a consensus-friendly Algerian Arabic version, that a monolingual speaker would understand – then, basically, you need to completely rephrase the whole sentence to explain these notions in advance. And before I can do that, I need a clearer notion of what the writer means by things like "concrete aspects of human experience". My job has morphed into something that's not so much translation as totally rewriting, and frankly, for a sentence like this I'm not even willing to try it.

Now suppose you're dealing with a language none of whose speakers have ever studied academic philosophy, or for that matter gotten into high school. You can no longer expect to get away with the dodge of code-switching at appropriate moments. How much effort do you think it would take to translate this sentence, compared with the amount of effort it takes to translate it into French? What effect do you think this would have in practice on the cross-cultural transmission of such ideas?

That's one reason why having "no word for X" can matter. The absence of the word – or more precisely, of a fixed expression for it – impedes translation, and hence impedes the transmission of foreign ideas to monolingual speakers. And fixing the problem isn't just a matter of inventing or borrowing a word; to be able to do either, you need to have formulated the corresponding concept, and, in the case of abstract words like these, that presupposes putting a lot of speakers into an originally foreign system of education, with a lot of associated time and expense and all-round hassle.


(Chain of thought prompted by How would you say that in Derja?).

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Reconstructing metaphors?

One of the most exciting – and riskiest – applications of historical linguistics is for reconstructing aspects of the culture of a proto-language's speakers, and using that to figure out where they lived and identify their archeological remains. The usual way to do this is to reconstruct a word and its meaning, and take it from there (for example, if they had a word for "plough" they were probably farmers.) A while ago, I came across a different technique that I hadn't previously seen described, outlined in this paper: Using cognitive semantics to relate Mesa Verde archaeology to modern Pueblo languages.

Basically, the idea is that the favourite metaphors of a given culture will be reflected both in its language (notably by compounds, but also in semantic shifts) and in its arts. Thus, to quote one of his examples, in Tewa "roof" is literally "wooden coil-basket", although modern Tewa roofs do not look much like that, while the roofs of Mesa Grande kivas were built to resemble coil baskets. He takes both to exemplify a metaphor BUILDINGS ARE CONTAINERS, which he takes to be supported not only by this case but by a number of other features, such as the use of pottery design motifs on walls and the polysemy of a word meaning "lake", "ceremonial bowl", and "kiva".

I'm not sure how often this is likely to work in practice. For it to work, your metaphors have to be reflected in the kind of material culture that archeologists can dig up – buildings, pottery, baskets if you're lucky. It would seem to require, minimally, a strong tradition of more or less representational art. I would be hard-pressed to think of such cases in, say, North Africa, unless you go further back than we can reconstruct the languages. But where those preconditions are fulfilled, it does strike me as an interesting approach to try, because it targets the kinds of meaning that the speakers themselves would have considered important.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Siwi semantics

I recently arrived in Siwa – a pleasant experience as always, quite unaffected by the political turbulence of Cairo – and since getting here, I've repeatedly been learning the meanings of words I thought I already knew. Siwi has turart and adrar, whose cognates throughout Berber mean “hill” and “mountain” respectively. But a turart can hardly be called a hill – some are rock outcrops not much taller than a man – and the flat-topped layered “mountains” of Siwa that they call adrar would in English usually be considered hills, though the term can be used for larger ones too. ləbħaṛ can obviously mean “sea”, as in Arabic; but in fact, in a Siwi context it primarily refers not to the sea but to the two large lakes of the oasis. lašqəṛ is familiar from Arabic – Ibn Hazm notes, for example, that the Umayyad dynasty of al-Andalus were all blond ('ašqar), thanks to their seemingly heritable marital preferences – but it doesn't actually mean “blond” in Siwi, though that's an associated symptom; it means “albino” (albinism is fairly common in Siwa for some reason; it must be hard having no melanin in a place which hardly ever sees a cloud, but they seem to manage.) iləm is “skin”, as elsewhere in Berber; but the thick skin or hide of a sheep, which Siwis cook on special occasions, is not iləm, it's the Arabic loan əjjəld. Semantic elicitation is trickier than it might seem! Another etymologically interesting item of vocabulary I've learned is agbez “cowrie shell”, used in decoration. The word must be related somehow to Kwarandzyey (Korandje) tsyagmʷəš, but the correspondences are fairly funky. I wonder what it's called in Libyan Berber...

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

From hatred to singing in two easy steps

In Kabyle, the word for "sing" is šnu. No other Berber language is known to have a similar word for sing (see Nait-Zerrad, s.v. CN), and both the verbal noun and its plural are formed on an Arabic pattern (ššna, pl. ššnawi); so one is almost forced to look to Arabic for its origins. But ask the average Arabic-speaker in modern-day Algeria, and they'll tell you they've never heard any such word.

In Classical Arabic, there is a fairly rare verb šani'a شنئ, meaning "to hate", probably best-known from the third verse of Surat al-Kawthar: 'inna šāni'aka huwa l-'abtar "For he who hateth thee, he will be cut off (from Future Hope)". (Cognate words are found elsewhere in Semitic, for example Hebrew śānē', Syriac snā "hate".) This has barely survived in spoken Arabic, but (according to de Prémare) the causative šənnā is still used in Tangier (Morocco), meaning "to taunt someone by showing him something he wants that you won't give him."

Phonetically, šani'a is a perfect match for šnu (the glottal stop/hamza becomes y in colloquials, and Arabic final-y verbs normally end up in Kabyle as final-u, for reasons I won't go into) - but semantically, surely this is absurd?

So I would have thought, until, idly browsing through a glossary of the rather conservative Bedouin Arabic dialect of the Nefzaoua area in southern Tunisia (Boris 1951), I found the following entry:
شنى šnệ... inacc. yẹ́šni...; noms d'act. šänyân et šạ́ni: 1) "critiquer en vers, faire la satire"... 2) "détester".

شنى šnē... impf. yašnī...; verbal nouns šanyān and šany: 1) to criticise in verse, to satirise... 2) to hate
"Hate" to "criticise in verse" is a credible change, and so is "criticise in verse" to "sing". Suddenly, a connection that looked impossible becomes almost obvious.

In this case, as in many others, Kabyle has preserved an Arabic word that almost every Arabic dialect in North Africa has lost - but to make sense of the connection you have to look at a wide range of Arabic dialects, not just checking Classical Arabic and stopping there. The converse also applies: when looking into Berber loans into an Arabic dialect, it's not enough to look just at the Berber spoken next door. People move around, and words that were familiar in one generation may be forgotten in the next one.

Of course, if the Nefzaoua data weren't available, there's no way you could accept a comparison like this - and, if several thousand years had passed since the word was borrowed, instead of less than 1500, that intermediate step probably would not have survived. In other words, semantic change can rather easily erase connections beyond any reasonable hope of retrieval. This is one of the main difficulties in long-range historical linguistics - the further back you go, the more cases like this.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

No word for heLLo?

It's no great surprise to find words in another language that have no English equivalent, if what they refer to is an object that's unfamiliar to most English speakers. For example, it's scarcely surprising if English has no word for "dates that aren't quite ripe yet, but that already ooze honey if you bruise them" (Kwarandzyey azMamweg); only a very small number of English speakers are familiar with date maturation stages, whereas practically all Belbalis are. It's a bit more interesting when you find that a phenomenon equally common in both cultures can be described by a fixed word or phrase only in one of them. Here's a case in point that came up in my latest fieldwork.

One of the basic states of mind in Kwarandzyey (and among the few to be retained from Songhay) is being heLLo. Songhay cognates (from *hollo) mean "crazy, possessed", which in Kwarandzyey is bA; the Kwarandzyey meaning of heLLo is quite different. This word is used (usually with a smirk) of people acting happy (leaping around, singing, dancing, etc.) or showing inordinate confidence, with no thought for consequences or respectability - Har ndza ghar ana hell-a bA ddzunets ka, "as if he was the only person in the world". Being full, or intoxicated, helps make people heLLo, but isn't essential. A heLLo person is generally said not to praise his Lord (asbayHemd an mulana si), ie not to appreciate that the causes of his happiness are contingent. Arabic translations suggested include colloquial SameT (literally "bad-tasting", but as a mental state more like "inconsiderate" or "silly") and classical Taaghii (as in "Nay, but verily man is rebellious (yaTghaa) That he thinketh himself independent!"). Here's a nice example of people acting heLLo (apologies to football fans - the example I was looking for was South Africans celebrating in the streets after Mandela's release, video of which was described to me as showing people being heLLo, but I couldn't find it):



Obviously, the mental state is at least as present in English speaking cultures as in Tabelbala - in fact, it might be reasonable to say that regularly achieving heLLo-ness is an important and widely socially accepted goal for British youth. But is there a word or fixed phrase corresponding to the concept in English? If you can think of one, feel free to suggest it!

(PS: Pardon the transcription - my computer is broken, and I can't be bothered to do all the cut-and-pasting it would take to fix the diacritics.)

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Piraha discussion continues

Via Language Log/John Cowan: Dan Everett's finally gotten around to publishing a few more examples of his claims about Piraha - notably, that they have no recursion, and in particular no subordinate clauses Even quoted speech and conditionals, he claims, are not embedded. Here it is: Pirahã culture and grammar: A response to some criticisms.

Now, recursion means being able to embed a given kind of phrase within another example of the same kind of phrase, as many times as you want. In "the door of the house", one noun phrase ("the door") is embedded within another one ("the door of the house"); in "I will visit you when it stops raining", a clause "it stops raining" is embedded within a larger one ("I will visit you when it stops raining"). You can also keep doing this ("the edge of the handle of the door of the house", "I will visit you when I know whether Khaled said that James is right about the forecast that it will rain tomorrow.") In Piraha, Everett reports that for noun phrases you can only do this once (no more than one possessor), and for clauses that you can't do it at all (he insists that all the examples that look like subordinate or adverbial clauses are actually separate sentences whose linkage is left for the listener to interpret, and in this paper presents some arguments for this.)

The thing is, a language with such properties has obvious potential to be expanded into a language like English or Arabic. For possessors, all it would take is a little analogical expansion - that's what allows us to interpret a phrase like "my brother's wife's cousin's friend's cat's teeth" as grammatical, even though you may well never have heard a noun phrase with six possessors before. For subordinate clauses, all it would take is grammaticalising some kind of erstwhile adverb or intonation pattern or quotative marker into a signal that these two clauses are more closely bound than others; such changes occur all the time in languages that already have subordinate clauses (eg "with what" > "in order to" in Algerian Arabic.) If the Piraha haven't done this, then why not? If they used to speak a language with multiple possessors and subordinate clauses in the past, why and how did they abandon these features - and if they never have, then why have most languages gained these features? In short, what motivates the expansion of grammar, and how does it happen?

One place (doubtless not the only one) where I think you can see expansion of grammar in action is technical terminology; consider mathematics. "The set of all p/q such that q!=0 and p, q are integers" is perfectly clear mathematical English, but is rather unlikely to be heard in everyday English (? "the set of all couples such that the husband is not an accountant and both the husband and wife are from Belgium"). The needs of mathematical communication have motivated the use of a kind of relative clause, with a complementiser and neither a gap nor a resumptive pronoun nor a relative pronoun, which is at best marginal in normal English; if enough people were trained as mathematicians, it might get used more widely. Maybe multiple possessors and subordinate clauses are technical features to cope with the demands of socialising with large numbers of people. Or maybe Piraha has a little more embedding than Everett reports. Speculation is fun, but a nice big, searchable, publicly available corpus would be a lot more convincing.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Open to interpretation

Songhay's lexical economy - the way it keeps its lexicon rather smaller than its neighbours' by using a single word to fulfill the functions of what in most languages would be several different words - has attracted the attention of several of those who have written about the language from the 1850s onwards. While Kwarandzyey (Korandje) is so full of Berber and Arabic loanwords that the size issue probably no longer applies, it still has many striking examples of polysemy. Take "open", for example.

fya (from Songhay *feeri) is best translated as "open" (its commonest sense). Of course, to open one's mouth can be to start eating - hence the frozen compound fya-mmi "open-mouth" means "breakfast". But opening is also what you do to release something from an enclosed space; hence to "open water (for something)" (fya iri), or just "open", is to irrigate, and to "open for an animal or person" is to release them. Likewise, to "open a rope (for something)" is to untie it. To release something from your grasp is to let it fall - hence to "open for something" is also to drop it. And for a man to release his wife from her obligations towards him is to end the marriage - hence to "open for a woman" is to divorce her.

We can map the connections between these easily enough, making it clear that they form a coherent network of meaning:

breakfast untie
\ / \
open - release
\ / \
irrigate divorce

But not only will any single English translation applied literally and consistently yield ludicrous results for at least some of these cases - translating it differently in different circumstances will force you to choose a single meaning in cases where the text is ambiguous. "He opened for the woman" probably means he divorced her, but in principle it could mean he released her (eg from prison), or untied her, or (literally) dropped her; in fact, since Songhay has no gender distinctions in pronouns, it should even be able to mean "It (eg an automatic door) opened for her". And of course, this kind of ambiguity can be deliberately exploited for effect, as in puns.

In Kwarandzyey, this is never likely to cause serious ambiguity - the language is almost never written down, and it's a small enough community that the context is usually known to everyone anyway. But imagine worrying about this kind of thing in a millennia-old text in a language that no one today speaks natively, and you can really see why even the most literal translation of such a text is unavoidably an act of interpretation.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Why dead snakes are like clothes

What would you say if, in some science-fiction novel, you read of a language where the situations that in English would be described as "The clothes blew down from the clothesline", "Push that dead snake away with a stick", and "I see where he's carrying the rabbits he killed hung from his belt" were all naturally expressed with the same root, plus nothing more than different affixes? What about "I slammed together the hunks of clay I held in either hand", "I slung away the rotten tomatoes, sluicing them off the pan they were in", and "I picked up in my mouth the already chewed gum from where it was stuck on the table"? My inclination would have been to dismiss it as a neat but implausible idea, placing some strain on the reader's suspension of disbelief. But - until no more than thirty years ago - such a language existed right in California. Go to Part III of Leonard Talmy's dissertation Semantic Structures in English and Atsugewi to get the data; here's a slightly less surprising example as a taster:


s-'-w-cu-lup-hiy-ik:-a
Subject=I, Object=3rd personfrom a linear object moving axially [with one end] non-obliquely against the FIGUREfor a small shiny spherical object to moveout of a snug enclosure/a socketfactual
I poked his eye out (with a stick.)
s-'-w-pri-lup-nik-iy-a
Subject=I, Object=3rd personfrom the mouth/interior of a person, working ingressively, acting on the FIGUREfor a small shiny spherical object to moveall about, here and there, back and forthfactual
I rolled the round candy around in my mouth.


Of course, people are people; after explanation, the similarities are easy enough to make out, and presumably given enough time anyone can learn to look at a situation and decompose it into elements like these, rather than the elements that "leap out" at an English speaker. In fact, I suspect that having to learn to see things the way the people you talk to do is one of the subtler drivers behind contact-induced language change. But cases like this provoke thought: just how much can the attributes of a situation most relevant to formulating a sentence vary from language to language?

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Flora of the Central Sahara and elsewhere

Ever found yourself trying to sort out a plant name you've elicited, not knowing any botany worth mentioning? Well, it turns out the botanists are a step ahead of the linguists on the digital libraries game, at least in Spain: the Digital Library del Real Jardín Botánico CSIC has a pretty remarkable array of books to browse online. The one that just saved my etymology of the Kwarandzyey plant name tsifəṛfəẓ is Etudes sur la flore et la végétation de la Sahara centrale. Vol. III: Hoggar, which gives both Tamasheq and binomial names for each plant mentioned. Unfortunately it's clear that not all the works give translations of the names, but it's still worth a look.

On a similar note, I've found Sahara-Nature handy sometimes.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Colour vision and language shift

In a brief Edge article (see LH), Lera Boroditsky makes the thought-provoking remark - regarding perception of colours - that “It turns out that languages meddle in very low-level aspects of perception, and without our knowledge or consent shape the very nuts and bolts of how we see the world.” If this is so, what happens when pretty much every speaker of a given language is also fluently bilingual in another one which divides up the spectrum (or indeed the world) differently - as has been the case here in Tabelbala for at least two generations? As it happens, some of my recent work here points to an answer.

I've recently been examining the colour system of Kwarandjie, trying out the second half of the Berlin and Kay tests (focus identification) with a number of speakers (well, 13 so far.) Of course, like all speakers of Kwarandjie, they are bilingual in Algerian Arabic; in fact, many of the speakers tested speak Arabic better than Kwarandjie. The colours they see turn out to be remarkably consistent, with more or less the same foci from speaker to speaker: black, white, red, yellow, green, and blue (as well as some secondary colours, most commonly pink (Arabic wəṛdi or, in reference to a darker shade, ħənnawi), that are less widely agreed on.) However, the words used to refer to “green” and “blue” show significant variation. For some speakers, zəgzəg means “blue” and “green” is (Arabic) xḍəṛ; for others, zəgzəg means “green”, and “blue” is (Arabic) ẓərrig!

It doesn't require too much speculation to think up a scenario to explain this. A few generations back, Kwarandjie must have had a five-colour system, featuring (like Japanese aoi, for example) a colour zəgzəg which covered both green and blue, whose focus was somewhere between the two. As speakers grew more fluent in Arabic, this focus split; they came to see both green and blue. Depending on whether they more frequently heard older speakers refer to, for example, plants or the sky as zəgzəg, they decided it meant one colour or the other, and gave the other colour an Arabic name; but different choices were made in different families. In the coming weeks I hope to gather more evidence on the issue - in particular, to learn whether even older speakers than those examined see a single colour grue or not.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

(Non-)universal quantifiers

Many readers will recall Everett's argument that Pirahã had no universal quantifier because statements featuring what he had originally translated as "all" would generally be considered true even if a small part of the original had to be excepted. I'm not sure the conclusion follows (universal quantification could still be its prototypical meaning, for example), but if it does, then it could equally well be argued to be true of Darja; a lot of statements about "all" that I hear made here are ones which the speaker is perfectly aware (and accepting) of the existence of exceptions to, and it took me a while to go against my mathematical training and realise that when they said "all", they didn't mean it in the logicians' sense. Actually, I suspect the same is true of many idiolects of English. This was brought to mind by a little example I heard yesterday: hađa ybi` kŭll ħaja, bəṣṣəħħ əlfṭayəs ma ybi`š هذا يبيع كُلّ حاجة، بصّح الفطايس ما يبيعش "This guy sells everything, but hammers he doesn't sell."