Sunlit Water

February 4, 2011

Egypt Is Huge

Filed under: Culture,Language,Politics — by teofilo @ 2:49 pm

Egypt is not only the largest Arab country by far (and one of the largest in the world), it is also the center of Arabic-language radio, television, and movies.  Entertainment programs and films produced in Egypt are distributed widely throughout the Arab world, and as a result most Arabs can understand the Egyptian dialect as well as their own local dialect and, if they are educated, Modern Standard Arabic, which is a semi-artificial literary language used for writing and formal speeches but spoken as a native language by no one.  As a result, the upheaval going on in Egypt right now has enormous implications for the Arab world as a whole.  Tunisia was one thing, but Egypt is something else entirely.


January 17, 2011


Filed under: Language — by teofilo @ 10:24 pm

Josh Marshall for some reason recently brought up the issue of how to transliterate the name of the leader of Libya.  The basic problem here is that the name contains two phonemes that are pronounced very differently in different dialects of Arabic.  I’ll try to briefly illustrate the differences using the International Phonetic Alphabet (ignoring vowel and consonant length).  In Classical Arabic, and therefore in Modern Standard Arabic, the name is pronounced [qaðafi], which would typically be transliterated as “Qadhafi” or something similar.  In North African spoken dialects such as Libyan, however, Classical [q] becomes [g] and Classical [ð] becomes [d], so people in Libya would pronounce the name [gadafi], for which “Gaddafi” is a very easy transliteration, especially since all the phonemes are also present in English, which is not the case for the Classical/MSA version.  “Gathafi” seems like an odd and idiosyncratic mixture of the two versions.  It’s not really that surprising that it’s the version the guy himself would choose, of course, given how odd and idiosyncratic he is.

Just to show that this by no means captures the full range of variation among dialects, in Levantine Arabic (spoken by Arabs in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Israel/Palestine as well as by Palestinian refugee populations in North Africa and elsewhere) Classical [q] becomes [ʔ] (a glottal stop) and Classical [ð] becomes [z], so the very same name would be pronounced [ʔazafi].  I’ve never seen any attempt to transliterate this version, but “Azzafi” would be a plausible spelling.  Now that’s outside the box!

January 14, 2010


Filed under: Culture,Land,Language,Nature,Politics — by teofilo @ 5:31 pm

The news out of Haiti regarding the effects of the earthquake there is pretty dire and depressing.  I don’t know a whole lot about the political and cultural context, aside from the oft-repeated fact that Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, but this page (via apostropher at Unfogged) is very useful in providing background information.  The devastation reminds me of the Port Royal earthquake of 1692, which effectively destroyed what had been the capital of Jamaica and killed two-thirds of its population.  The epicenter of the Haitian earthquake seems to have been similarly close to Port-au-Prince, and as a result it sounds like the country’s governmental institutions have been crippled to a degree that makes them essentially useless.  Port Royal never recovered, although Jamaica eventually sort of did, and Haiti today is a much poorer country in relative terms than Jamaica was in 1692.  It’s all very sad.

December 15, 2008


Filed under: Language,Nature — by teofilo @ 8:25 pm

It’s snowing in the canyon.  This is the first really major snowstorm we’ve had this year, and it brings my mind inevitably to thoughts of dialectology.  The word for “snow” is one of the very few isoglosses distinguishing the eastern and western dialects of Navajo, and it’s the only one I know of that’s from the native vocabulary.  Most of the isoglosses are Spanish loanwords in the eastern dialect that are not present in the western, clearly the result of the much more intense contact eastern Navajos had with the Spanish in New Mexico in colonial times.  The geographical boundary between the dialects runs roughly along the modern border between New Mexico and Arizona, although the main physical boundary is probably the Chuska Mountains.  This boundary corresponds more or less to historical and cultural differences that are in many respects more meaningful than the linguistic ones.  Contact with the Spanish and the Rio Grande Pueblos took the eastern Navajos in one direction culturally, while the western Navajos were more in contact with the Paiutes, Hopis and Havasupais and went in a different direction.  The Canyon de Chelly area, just west of the Chuskas, is in some ways transitional between the two.  James Brooks’s Captives & Cousins has some information on the history here.

But back to snow.  The eastern Navajo word for “snow” is zas, as in the title of this post, while the western Navajo term is yas.  This is a very interesting isogloss, because these terms seem to obviously be etymologically related, and yet there is not a general tendency for eastern z to correspond to western y.  Indeed, although there are a few other isolated examples of this correspondence, both dialects have both phonemes and overwhelmingly use them in the exact same way in the exact same words.  As I mentioned above, most of the other isoglosses distinguishing the two dialects consist of Spanish loanwords in the eastern dialect that don’t exist in the western, which uses native vocabulary for the same meanings.  I don’t know of any grammatical differences between the dialects, although there may be some.  In general, they are very similar, completely mutually intelligible, and they have clearly only been separated for a relatively short time.  There are even some Spanish loanwords, mostly having to do with money and other foreign concepts, that are common to both dialects.

So what explains the “snow” distinction?  I don’t really know, although I suspect it might be representative of an incipient sound change, probably phonetic in origin, that has not yet (and might never) spread through the eastern dialect as a whole.  Language changes constantly, and not all changes are predictable or completely regular.  John Ohala is the linguist most associated with this kind of thinking, and I’m a big fan of his work.  It’s also possible that this is just a fluke, the result of contingent historical circumstances without any particular relevance to broader questions.  Understanding what’s really going on here would require careful, detailed study of the differences between the dialects and whatever regularities and patterns are evident in them.  I don’t know if anyone has done or is doing that research, but I think it would be very interesting.

March 25, 2008


Filed under: Culture,Language,Politics — by teofilo @ 9:07 pm

I’ve been thoroughly enjoying both HBO’s John Adams and Matthew Yglesias’s posts on the strategic issues involved in the Revolution taking the miniseries as a starting point (though I think there are some serious problems with his understanding of the British perspective).  With regard to the show as a whole, I think Jill Lepore’s take is basically accurate: the production values and attention to historical detail are first-rate, while the portrayal of Adams himself is pretty far off.  Not only is Paul Giamatti not much like Adams in any way, his role in events does seem a bit overemphasized.

That said, I think Lepore’s interpretation of the way events are portrayed is a little off, or at least not necessarily the only way to see it.  She sees the series as showing Adams as the hero who is always right, and his adversaries (Dickinson in the second episode, Franklin in the third) as villainous rogues out to ruin Adams and his plans.  While this is certainly how Adams sees things, I think it’s a bit of a stretch to conclude that this is how we the viewers are intended to see them as well.  It basically requires the assumption that, because the makers of the show decided to make a miniseries about Adams, his perspective is the one they want people to take.  While Adams certainly does come across as something of a hero with this assumption in mind, if you take it away there are many other ways to interpret the portrayal of events, and I see no particular reason to adopt it.  The rich detail naturally supports many alternative readings of the complex events shown, and as Yglesias points out in the first post linked above, Dickinson actually comes across rather well in the second episode if you listen to him from a neutral rather than a pro-Adams perspective.  Similarly, in the third episode, it’s easy to see how Adams feels betrayed by Franklin and uncomfortable with the decadence of the French aristocracy, but it’s totally clear that Franklin is right that the support of that aristocracy is crucial for the American cause (and it’s also fairly clear that Adams understands this).  Basically, my interpretation of the show is that we are definitely meant to sympathize with Adams, but not necessarily to agree with him.

It remains true, however, that Giamatti’s Adams is considerably more likable than the historical Adams, and while this may be a result of basing the series on McCullough’s book (which I haven’t read), it also seems pretty necessary to make him a suitably sympathetic character.  As I said to Ari, however, I don’t think this is necessarily a fatal flaw.  You just have to suspend disbelief a bit and treat Adams as a mostly fictional character who just happens to do all the things the real John Adams did.  It’s the other characters who really make the show come to life.

One of the most interesting aspects of the show is the language component, and I was interested to see that the “mixed” accents of most of the characters were deliberate, to portray the actual mix of dialects and the similarities between those of the British and American characters.  I had noticed that many of the Americans sound somewhat “British,” which I had assumed was partly due to most of them being played by British actors, but it seems that this is actually to obscure the usual sharp linguistic division between the British and the Americans in dramatizations of the Revolution.  This is certainly an admirable attitude to take, and I think they pull it off pretty well.  My only quibble is that it seems the attempt to create “mixed” accents has resulted primarily in making the Americans sound more British, while in my understanding of the English of this period (and I’m hardly an expert) is that it was actually more like modern American dialects.  That is, while the various dialects of England and America were more similar then than they are now, it’s actually the British dialects that have changed more in the intervening 200 years, so it’s more likely that the British would have sounded more like modern Americans than (as the show has it) that the Americans would sound more like modern Britons.  Like I say, though, I’m no expert on this, and there are of course limits to how much can be known about it anyway, so it’s really a very small point that doesn’t detract from a very good show.

January 23, 2008

Constant Flux

Filed under: Language — by teofilo @ 10:55 pm

I came home from work today to find taped to my door a piece of paper containing the following message:



“Maintenance” as a verb is an innovative usage that I’d never seen before, but it actually makes a great deal of sense. The intended meaning is standardly expressed with the phrase “perform maintenance on,” but that’s a mouthful and wouldn’t fit on this sign without decreasing the font size (which would be suboptimal for a notification like this). The closest existing verb is “maintain,” but it has connotations of continuing action that make its use infelicitous in a context like this describing a single, discrete action. However, since English nouns can be made into verbs without changing their form at all, a process called “zero-derivation,” taking the noun “maintenance” from the phrase and using it as a verb is a simple, elegant and unambiguous solution.

This kind of zero-derivation of verbs from nouns is popularly associated with “management-speak” and other purported attempts to confuse and complicate language by using unnecessarily elaborate vocabulary to express simple concepts, and it is thus one of the types of language change that people complain about the most. It is, however, a longstanding means of developing new forms of expression to deal with communicative challenges, and this situation is a good example. Personally I don’t particularly mind language change in general, but many people do, so it’s worthwhile to point out from time to time that such changes are often perfectly reasonable responses to problems in communication.

January 6, 2008

The Oldest South

Filed under: Culture,Language — by teofilo @ 4:25 pm

My lack of internet access in DC left me with a lot of extra time, so I finished King Leopold’s Ghost sooner than I expected to and decided that I needed to buy something to read on the plane home, so I went to Second Story Books and looked around for something interesting and, importantly for several reasons, short.  I rather quickly found a book that was amazingly ideal for my purposes, started it on the plane on Friday and finished it last night.

Perspectives on the Southeast: Linguistics, Archaeology, and Ethnohistory is a collection of papers originally presented at a conference of the Southern Anthropological Society in 1992 on the subject of the Southeast at the time of Columbus.  It’s interesting how many of the books I’ve read recently have been connected, directly or indirectly, with the Columbian Quincentennial; in addition to this one, O Brave New People was published around the same time and for the same reason, and 1491 was inspired in a more roundabout way by the scholarly response to the anniversary as well.

The eleven papers from the conference that were included as chapters in the book (two others “were unable to be sufficiently condensed for inclusion in this volume” according to a note by the editor) cover a wide temporal and geographical spectrum, and while they mostly address the state of the Southeast in 1492 in some fashion, the primary focus is generally on later periods for which there is more documentation.  I found the linguistic chapters particularly interesting, of course, particularly Jack Martin‘s on prehistoric language contact.  Some of the chapters attempt to answer questions by combining archaeological and historical (and to some degree linguistic) methods; Michael Hoffman‘s investigation of the identity of the precolumbian inhabitants of eastern Arkansas is a notably convincing example, as is Geoffrey Kimball’s attempt to tie the Koasati to a prehistoric archaeological complex.

Emanuel Drechsel‘s chapter on Mobilian Jargon, rehearsing arguments later used in his book on the subject, is interesting but I’m not sure I quite buy his interpretation.  He puts forth some fairly convincing evidence of the pidgin’s precontact origin, but his further arguments that it was the lingua franca of the Mississippian culture are less convincing.  They seem to be based largely on the close correspondence between the geographical range of the two phenomena and the assumption that a material culture as widespread and yet broadly similar as the Mississippian must have needed a common language, for which a pidgin is an obvious choice.  The geographical argument seems a bit dubious to me, since the attestations of the range of use of Mobilian Jargon are of course from a much later period and there’s no reason to assume it had been used within that exact area for hundreds of years, and while the other argument does make a certain amount of sense, the most it can establish is that the Mississippians used a pidgin, and it does nothing to show why that pidgin was likely to have been the ancestor to the Mobilian Jargon of historical times.  Indeed, as Drechsel even admits at one point, it’s more likely that the Mississippians used several regional pidgins, of which the one most likely to be connected to Mobilian Jargon would be the one used in the southern area focused on Moundville in present-day Alabama.  This rephrasing of Drechsel’s hypothesis is more plausible than the idea that Mobilian Jargon was used throughout the Mississippian area, but it implicitly rejects his other argument, based on geographic range.  He may present more convincing evidence in his book, which I haven’t read, but based on this article I see no reason to conclude that Mobilian Jargon is likely to date from Mississippian times.

Drechsel’s more convincing argument, that Mobilian Jargon dates from precontact times rather than being a creation of the French colonization of Louisiana, may be indirectly supported by another chapter in this book.  In his discussion of leadership titles among natives of Spanish Florida, John H. Hann mentions that the Spanish considered the language of the Guale, apparently identical or closely related to the languages of the Tama, Yamasee, and Apalachicola, to be the most widely understood among the tribes of the area.  Since the Apalachicola spoke a Muskogean language related to Hitchiti, the Guale language described by the Spanish was probably Muskogean as well (though the language of the Guale themselves may well not have been), and may well have been the eastern dialect of an early form of Mobilian Jargon, which was of primarily Muskogean origin.  If this was indeed the case, it would explain why the language was so widely understood among peoples who may not have actually spoken related languages (many of the languages of this area are extremely poorly attested).  Use of a pidgin would have enabled easy communication among speakers of different languages, and if it really is behind these early Spanish reports that would be strong evidence for Drechsel’s contention that Mobilian Jargon was already established at the time of contact, since Spanish colonization was never nearly intense enough to produce the social upheavals likely to create a new lingua franca and the reports are close enough in time to the first clear attestations of Mobilian Jargon that it is the obvious candidate for an intercommunal pidgin in this area.

There’s a lot more in this short volume, most of which is likely to be interesting largely to those who already have some background in these subjects and incomprehensible to others.  For those who are interested, though, this is a nice little compendium of fairly recent scholarship on a fascinating topic.

August 10, 2007


Filed under: Culture,Food,Language,Personal — by teofilo @ 11:04 pm

My sister, holding up the bag she’s putting the leftover challah in: You know why I need this?

Me: No, why?

My sister: Because I’m a challah bag girl.

August 8, 2007

Those Crazy Norwegians

Filed under: Language — by teofilo @ 9:32 pm

Jonathan Edelstein has an interesting post about the (very unusual) language situation in Norway, where there are two standard languages based on different dialects of Norwegian for complicated historical reasons.  I like his use of the term “demi-diglossia” in the post title; this isn’t really true diglossia of the type found in the Arab world, because the different varieties aren’t distinguished by sphere of use, but it’s a similar kind of situation.

July 25, 2007


Filed under: Language — by teofilo @ 4:17 pm

I don’t want to pick on Tim Burke specifically because I see this mistake a lot, but I would like to point out that Alberto Gonzales’s last name, in contrast to most other common Hispanic surnames, does not end in z.  I don’t know the reason for this, but I suspect it has something to do with the other z in there.

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