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.

Graduate, promote, advance

Several months ago there was a sign outside a middle school near where I live which read,

Congratulations to the promoting class of 2009!

I was familiar with the use of promote as something a school does to a student advancing to the next grade, and the particular significance of being promoted from middle to high school. But the syntactic contexts for this were school promotes student or promotion of student, etc., roughly transitive uses. This contrasted in my usage with graduate, where a student may graduate or a school may graduate a student. So, for me, graduating class was perfectly normal, while promoting class was out. But it seems to be not all that rare, and after all, why not? If it’s to be used pretty much parallel to graduate, why not let it take syntactic positions more like the latter?

But still, would you expect to find it as a main rather than in the -ing form? From here:

6th grade students who have promoted in 2008 will attend a middle school campus and 8th grade students who have promoted will be assigned to a high school site.

So far I’ve found only one such thing.

Then, there’s also advance. Students and classes advance to the next grade, and there are advancement ceremonies. But would anyone congratulate the advancing class of 2009?

Do words say stuff about culture, again

Over at LL, Geoff Pullum started a discussion on what the existence of certain lexical items says, if anything, about the culture (let’s say “linguistic community”) in which that lexical item lives. His line (a reasonable one) is, as always, that it says zilch. Well, go over and read the comments. I have my own contribution, but it was getting long, so I’m dumping it here, with no refinements whatsoever.

Perhaps this has been said and I missed it, but here goes: simply finding a word in a dictionary that doesn’t explain modern usage and variation of usage probably means nothing for sociocultural analysis. But, if speakers of Scotts Gaelic went around talking about whiskey-tingling all the time, or if every mention of a person involved mentioning their hetero/homosexuality, that would no doubt tell you something about (some parts of) the culture. But that’s how a word is used, or even that a word is used, not that a word exists. They’re not unrelated (duh), but quite different things.

Now, might one not make a distinction between the motivations behind the coinage of a word (or compound word; and I dare say that such motivations exist) and the ramifications (if any) of the widespread recognition and use of that word? In any field of study there is a special terminology, but the existence of those words (so long as they remain “terminology”) tells you not much other than that such a field exist(s/ed), and that some phenomena exist(s/ed) to be so named. But it’s not nothing. Some linguists do find it useful to explore the technological vocabulary that can be reconstructed for PIE, after all.

I’d say that the same goes for words with “expressive content” (to use Chris Potts’ term). The fact that words like “(a) homo” or “stingy” (compare “thrifty”) have attached to them some (let’s say) affective meaning says something at least about the sorts of stances taken towards sorts of activities. It says nothing about the culture as a whole (assuming such a thing exists), but the existence (and, potentially, persistence in everyday use) of the word can’t be taken as a mere accident of word coinage. [PS: one can always debate about the linguistic status of such content, I suppose]

In other cases, some coherent subculture may take to using a new word, or an old word with a different meaning, and then this word becomes used widely in the larger linguistic community (or maybe there were several steps in between). At each step, the reasons for adopting the word are no doubt complex and unknowable without a lot of time and mindreading abilities, and once a word like “gay” or whatever becomes widespread it probably doesn’t tell you anything about the culture of the linguistic community as a whole. If lexical-semantic change and spread is anything like phonetic change and spread, then the reasons for the existence of a word probably has little to do with the meaning per se and more to do with how speakers dealt with a new word – what social contexts in which to use it, how often to use it, etc. (NB: IANAS[ociophonetician]). But I’m open to the idea that lexical-semantic change and spread is actually lexical-semantically influenced — but not necessarily consciously. People surely pay attention to the meanings of the words they use, but if lexical semanticists have a job to do, most of the fine distinctions in meaning are inaccessible.

British agree a different valence

This post will no doubt reveal to the world that I am not a frequent reader of British news sources. This morning I added a little BBC news widged to my customized google page, and found the headline Zimbabwe leaders agree talks pact. “That’s strange,” thought I. A search for “agree” on the BBC news site revealed several more transitive uses:

EU agrees radical farm reform

Bevan agrees a new dea

Santander agrees £1.2bn A&L deal

Then I decided to actually check a dictionary, and found that the Dictionary.com one (based on Random House Unabridged) lists as sense 10:

Chiefly British. to consent to or concur with: We agree the stipulations. I must agree your plans.

I wonder why Americans decided to do away with this particular valence. Default hypothesis: because it sounds snooty. But I’m willing to entertain other ideas.