Archive for the 'Books' Category


What a linguist does

This past Friday I went with my fiancée to Mrs. Dalloway’s bookstore in Berkeley to see Deborah Tannen talk about her new book about communication between sisters. She told some great stories about the interviews she conducted while researching the book. I got the impression that the book is mostly about the relations between sisters, and how these are reflected in (and can be discerned by looking at) their conversations. But I’m still not sure how much of the analysis comes from author-sister interaction, or sister-sister interaction (I bought the book as a gift, so I haven’t looked inside).

The last several questions afterward had to do with how a linguist’s perspective on communication might differ from that of a psychologists (or a sociologist, etc; no one actually mentioned other fields, though Tannen mentioned psychology). That lead to wondering what the heck linguistics was anyway. After briefly explaining that, Tannen offered something that Robin Lakoff had once said (light paraphrasing on my part):

I know what I do is linguistics, because I’m a linguist, and I do it.

Envious, meet Spider

The epic fantasy series The Wheel of Time features a rich world of characters and history, including a language spoken approximately 3000 years prior to the action of the story, called by modern folk the old tongue (the OT). There is also a group of about a dozen evil villains from that same time period. After a war that ended 3000 years ago, they were imprisoned in a timeless sleep, but escaped (I think) a few decades or so prior to the main action. One could complain (nitpick) about the plausibility of a single world language, and the likelihood that an entire continent would still speak mutually-intelligible dialects descended from said language, even 3000 years later. But anyway, that’s not the point.

These old school villains (the “Forsaken”) have all adopted for themselves names given them (in scorn) by those they fought so many years ago. For instance, in the prologue of The Eye of the World, we learn that Elan Morin Tedronai is now called Betrayer of Hope. This works out to Ishamael in the old tongue. Based on other words in the OT, we know that mael is ‘hope’ and isha has something to do with ‘destroyer’, but it’s unclear if these are bound or free morphemes, whether this is more like a compound (hope destroyer?) or a name-ified phrase. Anyway, that’s how it goes. In the OT, these baddies have names like “Spider” or “the Envious” or “Daughter of the Night.”

Now, there are some scenes in which these Forsaken talk amongst each other, and one can surmise that they use the old tongue. For instance, in the prologue of Lord of Chaos (p57) we have the point of view of one of the Forsaken

She felt the first spinning of saidar a moment before the glowing line appeared and became a gateway.

Modern day people speak of weaving, not spinning, saidar. There are a couple other things like this, I think. of course it could be that they are actually speaking a modern language, but using lexical items from their own time period. But it’s not clear why they would do so. Maybe to keep up their language skills? But these Forsaken have in general such a poor opinion of modern people that it seems they’d relish any opportunity to abandon the parts of their language, culture, etc that they had to adopt in order to fit in.

Yet, in contrast to the Prologue of the very first book (where a good guy, speaking the OT, says “Betrayer of Hope”), the thought and language of the Forsaken, in every other part of the series, uses the OT names untranslated. The line after the one quoted above reads,

Graendal stepped out, …

where Graendal means something in the OT (though not known to mere mortal readers). This is to be contrasted with the italicized saidar, another OT word, probably complex but no gloss has ever been given. So, the generalization here is that, with the exception of the first prologue of the first book, chapters from the POV of an OT speaker look linguistically just like POVs from modern speakers, with some lexical items switched out to remind us we’re dealing with really old people here.

From a certain point of view this makes sense. It would probably be rather difficult and confusing to make the OT/modern differences more apparent. And while it might satisfy some geeks, it could well take away from the storytelling proper. And for another thing, it might be pretty darned hilarious to read

The Betrayer of Hope wondered what could be keeping Spider. She and the Envious always worked together, but surely they would not openly show their alliance…

Which brings up the next question: do these guys ever feel funny talking to each other with these names? I realize that analyzable names pretty quickly become opaque to casual thought (how often do I wonder about the creek in Walnut Creek? Almost never). They do, from time to time, mull over the suitability of their names, but I guess it’s mostly in the background of their thoughts. So, maybe the rendering of their names as non-italicized old tongue (amidst what we can imagine is translated OT) is a way of representing that.

Final note: in The Eye of the World, on pages 619-20, you can find another example of the whole worm/wyrm/Worm thing. I never noticed it the first time through, but after rereading the book a few weeks ago, I found it chuckle-worthy.

“They were scared off by worms?” Mat said incredulously. [...]

“A Worm” — there was a sharp difference in the way the Warder said it from the way Mat had — “can kill a Fade, if the Fade hasn’t the Dark One’s own luck with it.

What I wouldn’t give to know what that sharp difference was.

An adjective quantified-noun

Back on the best holiday of the year, Mark Liberman wrote on LL about some strange claims about the constituency and plurality of a million dollars. In a comment, I noted some perhaps genuinely-strange uses of “a,” leading to this follow-up. Having had the fear of Zwicky etched into my brain, I thought I would avoid a too-long comment and just talk about it here.

First, the sentences:

He was there for a good seven years.

An additional three people are required.

A mere four nations recognize that standard.

She collected an amazing and heretofore unprecedented forty million dollars.

What we have is “a” and then some adjective phrase, and then a quantified nominal. There are some interesting questions to be asked: first, what is the range of adjectives? It seems sort of limited: a grueling 100 miles, but ?an asphalt-paved 100 miles. All the examples given so far involve some sort of “evaluation” (shock, amazement, disappointment, unprecedentedness, etc.). Maybe someone nice will do a corpus study and report the findings (and of no one does it soon, I might just have to).

Next question: does the whole thing act as a singular or plural phrase, for the purposes of subject-verb agreement? The comments seem to show that, depending on the “context” (how the NP is construed semantically, let’s say – either as a divisible group of individuals or as a lump), you might get singular or plural agreement.

A good 100 people have/*has arrived.

A mere four nations recognize/*recognizes that standard.

A mere four nations is/are not enough

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Where did that dictionary come from?

On a recent trip to Barnes and Noble (I have a gift card) I happened upon a book in one of the bargain sections called (IIRC) Where’s that word from? I looked inside the front jacket and saw what I expected, namely things like “did you know [word x] actually came from the Old [English/Norse/etc] word [blah] that means [amusing thing]? Find out all about this and many other words in this collection of…” I figured that it would be a series of one- or two-page-long descriptions of maybe a hundred words, with some light commentary and anecdotes, or whatever. So I turned to a random page in the middle, and was slightly surprised to find that a more appropriate description of the book would have been English Etymological Dictionary, because that’s what it was: a list of words with a short definition (the sort helpful only to an already-literate user of English) and a line about the proximal source language (Middle French, Latin, etc.) and word. Then I looked at the front matter, and found a description of the history of the English language, not surprisingly. Only the author talked about “Indo-Germanic (or Indo-European).” Then I turned to the publication information: yep, 1974. And probably the really original publication date was rather earlier. Sweet repackaging, guys.

At the moment I’m trying to recover the exact publication information, including the editor and original title, but for some reason I can’t find it out. Might be another trip to B&N for me.

The polysemy of ancient and/or faerie languages

This is not what I promised in an earlier post, but the topic is basically the same.

Now, I’m not widely read in (epic) fantasy novels, though it is often my preferred genre. Nonetheless, I think I can make a tentative generalization, which is that in any fantasy world where some either exotic or ancient race speaks a language unintelligible to contemporary folk, then there is somehow an inordinate amount of polysemy, connotation, or complexity to the words and sentences involved. Or, alternatively, it is approximately the same amount as in the modern language (usually “English”), but it is highlighted in such a way as to make it seem rather different from anything that might be familiar.

Just to pick a couple examples from Tad William’s book Shadowmarch (which I’m currently in the middle of reading; no spoilers):

The lady’s high house was called Shehen, which meant “Weeping.” Because it was a s’a-Qar word, it meant other things, too–it carried the intimation of an unexpected ending, and a suggestion of the scent of the plant that in the sunlight lands was called myrtle–but more than anything else, it meant “Weeping.”

…all the way down to the thrice-blessed fence that the mortals called Shadowline, and that the Qar themselves called A’shish-Yarrit Sa, which meant “Storm of Silence,” or, with a slightly different intonation of voice or gesture of the hand, “White Thoughts.”

I suppose that the second example is supposed to be significantly different from, say, tonal languages like those found in China and Africa. In this case, we are supposed to understand that the two meanings for A’shish-Yarrit Sa are somehow semantically related (in some deep way incomprehensible to mere humans). Either that, or somehow we’re dealing with a pun, or maybe just some philosophically interesting near-homophony which, perhaps, native speakers of Qar don’t even care about.

Now, this sort of thing is not in and of itself completely horrible. But for me, without an actual system apparent behind the words and their meanings, which could, with time, be discerned by the reader (and yes, this requires many more tokens in the books), it just seems…well, laughable.

Languages in fantasy

Something about language in fantasy novels is bothering me again, though I can’t quite formulate it yet. This is coming from a recent purchase, Shadowmarch, by Tad Williams. It’s sort of an interesting book, publishing-wise. Much (some?) of it was originally published as an online serial (on shadowmarch.com) back in 2002, along with a user forum and other interactive tools. It was a nice experiment, while it lasted.

More on counting people

Just over a year ago I wrote about Anderson Cooper’s description of America’s growing population. Seems it’s about time for me to do sort of the same thing, only with an ad I saw while over in Chicago for the annual meeting of my professional organization. On one of the L trains there was an advertisement for a new book, The Chicago “L”. The ad read something like,

Make a connection to the over 10 billion riders of the Chicago “L”

That was surprising. I thought the current population of the earth was around 6 billion! Anyway, it’s quite clear what is meant, namely that over 10 billion rides have been taken since the opening of the L in 1892, no doubt many involving repeat customers. Fair enough – but do different rides by the same individual require making a new connection with them for each new ride? Sure, some days the trip is special, but whatever connection this book lets me create with, say, Janice Smith going to work on June 3rd, 1985, will probably also work for her going to work on June 4th. Just a guess, of course.

Similarly strange is what is apparently on the blurb (from Amazon):

More than 10 billion people have ridden the “L,” which now carries half a million people a day over 222 miles of track.

Now, I’d like to claim that more than one thousand people read this blog, but somehow I think I would get called on it…

One interesting thing that came out of this was a little research I did into estimations not of the world’s current population, but of the sum total of humans who’ve ever lived. One estimate puts it at just over 100 billion. More than I would have guessed. And according to the same source, about 11 billion people were alive between 1900 and 2002. So hey, theoretically (maybe?) it’s possible that 10 billion individuals have ridden on the L.

There are meters and then there are meetorus

Someone asked me the other day which was the normal way to talk about meters in Japanese, as in “the plant is over two meters tall.” He wondered if it was meetaa or meetoru. I knew I’d heard (and possibly used) both before, but I wasn’t sure which was more common, so I guessed meetaa. Should have checked the dictionary first.

Consulting with the Daijirin, a large American Heritage-style dictionary (as opposed to the Koujien, which is sort of OED-ish), I found an interesting difference between the two. Both meetoru and meetaa have two senses. Meetoru’s first sense is the unit of measurement, and all related things: meetoru-hoo is the metric system ‘meter law/rule’. Meetaa’s first sense is “measurement device,” as in gasu meetaa ‘gas meter’ and paakingu meetaa ‘parking meter’. Did this bring me back to an earlier post? Yes it did. But this is rather minor, parallel to the pair sutoraiki ‘labor strike’ and sutoraiku ’strike (baseball/bowling)’.

(In fact, the “strike” pair is rather interesting because the final vowel is devoiced; if the two words had meanings similar enough that appeared in the same contexts, people might have some serious issues telling them apart.)

But remember that each of these words had two senses? Well, the second senses of each meetaa and meetoru says, basically, “see [the other word], sense 1.” Great, I thought. But it’s actually not that, uh, “simple,” because while meetaa indeed has both meanings, meetoru is always the unit of length: there is no gasu meetoru, at least according to one person I spoke with.

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