Phonology

Turns out that the word helicopter is made from the the classic Greek stems helico, meaning spiral, and pter, meaning winged, as in pterodactyl or pterosaur or pterpaulanmerisaur. Which means that helicopter should be pronounced helicoter, long o, silent p, which will make you even more irritating to your friends. Try it next time one is noisily circling the neighborhood while you are all trying to watch your favorite show. Fucking helicopters they shout. That’s pronounced heliCOter you shout back. They stare at you. The P is silent, you shout. Or scream, really, so they can understand the important phonological distinction in all that noise. But no one has ever screamed that a P is silent before, not ever. It’s not something one would ordinarily scream, not like screaming fire or watch out or Stella. So now everyone is staring at you, the helicopter is gone, and you wished you’d never read this post.

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Etymology

I suspect that most verbs began as nouns verbed and an ungodly number of nouns were once verbs nouned and not once but sometimes many times this renouning and reverbing takes place, leaving dictionaries a record of wanton anarchy and the decline of values over and over again.

Maybe someday we will speak as well as we can see

Yesterday I made the mistake of listening to the TED radio hour, and learned that because the Vietnamese language has no subjunctive, Vietnamese people can’t speculate about choices they didn’t make or the possible outcomes of decisions. The credulous host and the hooting audience offered no hint of having considered the idiotic implications of this claim.

In things like color, if you are from a culture that does not have, say, pink, you can stare at pink all day and not see it as pink but as just a shade of red. We just have blue, the Russians have three blues. Not shades of blue but different colors, just as we have a purple, a blue and a red. There are all sorts of things that you we will not be aware of even if looking right at them because the concept does not exist in our brain. This even extends to numbers. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has been revived somewhat, backed up by neurology, just not the absurd claims about it that were made before. But it is true that there are things we do not see because we do not know they are there. Making sweeping TED Talk pronouncements about the subjective are absurd, of course, but if you’ve ever seen the endless list of tenses, aspects, moods (and evidentiality and mirativity) found in human languages it begins to dawn on you that depending on which language you are raised in, you are going to experience things in slightly different ways, or at least describe them in different ways, so that when someone else is hearing your experience you will describe it in a way that fits into the grammar of the language you speak. That is where reality is changed by language, in the retelling and second hand experience of it. People around the world will see pretty much the same thing, but when they go to describe it to those who did not experience it first hand, it gets squeezed into the very limited capabilities of an individual language to describe it, and that is where you will not see a ship even though you are not looking at it, not first hand but second hand. That is not by direct observation but by indirect observation. Reality winds up being shaped by the language it is being described in, if there are literally hundreds of tenses, aspects and moods to express reality, each of us is only allowed a few each, because no language can contain all of them. So we wind to trying to describe something we saw in impossibly limited terms. Language can only adequately describe an infinitesimal amount of what our brain’s occipital lobe is capable of seeing (and even less able to describe the other senses), which means that inevitably we can describe something in a way that leaves out almost everything we saw (heard, smelled, felt), and depending on what that language is capable of conveying, that is what we will hear or read second hand. So even if a polyglot bunch all saw the same thing at the same time, we would be unable to convey equally what we had seen in our respective language, but only what our lexicon and grammar enable us to say. A second hand account in one language would differ slightly or more than slightly from one in another language. An account written in English would differ dramatically from one recited in Tok Pidgin. And yet it is those second hand accounts that become reality in a culture, whether in history or in tales told round the fire. Language doesn’t have much impact on direct experience (as little of what we experience goes anywhere near the language parts of our brain anyway), but it has a vast impact on the retelling of that experience. When a guy says that the Viet Namese people, with no subjunctive, can’t speculate about choices they didn’t make it seems ridiculous. But not having a subjunctive will affect how a story gets told in Viet Namese, because the facts will have to be written or told in such a way to make up for the fact that they have no subjunctive. It can be a subtle difference, though sometimes it can be a huge difference. Every language is affected this way. Language is this vast, extraordinary thing that, alas, each of us is allowed to use only a tiny bit of. Such a shame. Perhaps as we evolve as a species we’ll be able to use more and more of the wealth of languages, and instead of the handful of tenses and moods and aspects each grammar has, we’ll be able to use all of them, interchangeably, and be understood. Maybe someday we will speak as well as we can see.

You say potato, and I say peruna.

So I tried boiling the potatoes until soft and then dunking them in a bowl of ice water for ten seconds and then peeling off the skins. It worked. Life just got a little bit easier. The skillet already had the diced onion, bell pepper, sweet pepper and collard greens. Dropped in the spuds and let them, brown and make an unholy mess out of the bottom of the pan and hot damn, Irish-German heaven. Spuds, baby, Kartoffels, pomme de terre, papas in a brand new bag. Well, brand new recipe. Well, old recipe, new technique. Thank god for the Incas. Without them we might still be eating gruel. Though I don’t know who the lazy bum was who brainstormed on this boiling and dunking thing. A Finn maybe, leaping from the sauna into a ice cold lake. Peruna the Finns call a potato. Comes from Swedish, something to do with pears. Probably Swedes messing with Finnish minds. Here, Aarni, have a pear. Though the Germans used to call then earth pears. At some point they became kartoffels, from the Italian. The French called them earth apples. The Swiss still call them earth apples. A little too close to road apples. I wonder about Europeans sometimes.

The Finns eventually Finnicized the Swedish word for pear into peruna and left it at that. Or would have had Finnish been English where a noun nearly always remains the same no matter what you’re doing with it. Whether you’re eating or mashing or throwing or thinking about or discussing a potato from last year, it’s potato. Same word. Stick an es on the end if it’s more than one. The e is the irregular bit. As with tomatoes. That’s all you have to memorize about more than one potato. That penultimate e.

But the crazy Finnish language has fifteen cases that can alter peruna into fourteen other words depending on specific things you are doing with the potato. Well, thirteen different words because one of the different words is used by two different cases. Each case changes peruna into something else, and same for plurals. So by itself a potato is a peruna. More than one is perunat. A baked peruna, but mashed perunat. But as they were my potatoes they were perunoiden. When I dropped them into the pot they were perunoihin. Once in the pot they were perunoissa. As they boiled they were perunoita. When they were finally softened they were perunoiksi. As I took them out of the pot they were perunoista. When I removed the skins they were perunoitta. In the skillet with onions and peppers they were perunoineen. When I took them off the fire they were perunoilta. As I put them on the plate they were perunoille. As they sat there on the plate they were perunoilla. And when I gave them to my wife they were perunat again. For those of you taking notes, those were the plural declensions for the nominative, genitive, illative, inessive, partitive, translative, elative, abessive, comitative, ablative, allative, adessive, and accusative cases.

You’ve probably heard of the nominative and accusative cases. Maybe the genitive if you learned German. The other ten cases defy non-technical explanation. Ten ways of describing potatoes in specific potato circumstances that you’ve never imagined were so profoundly different that entirely different words are required to say potato. Each of which follows rather intricate rules. Alter the potato’s situation slightly and a new case applies with its own specific rules for altering the ending or adding syllables that turn peruna into perunoissa or perunoita or perunoiksi.

Luckily we ate them in English.

Beneath the Planet of the Ralphs

That Ralphs on Glendale in Glendale, the underground one, our pal calls it the Morlock Ralphs. I’d been calling it Beneath the Planet of the Ralphs, but English not being an agglutinating language like Sioux or Turkish or even long dead Sumerian (those poor things), one of those languages that can pile entire sentences into single words with all kinds of grammatical magic and trickery, an appellation like Battle Beneath the Planet of the Ralphs is just too cumbersome. Oddly, you could agglutinate it into a single noun (the-beneath-the-planet-of-the-Ralphs Ralphs), which is a throwback to the compounding possibilities in our Germanic past, like how the German Donaudampfschiffahrtsgesellschaftskapitän (Danube steamship company boat captain, once a real gig in Vienna apparently, unlike Donaudampfschiffahrtselektrizitätenhauptbetriebswerkbauunterbeamtengesellschaft, which was just some smart assed German messing with our minds), could be rendered in English, given a handful of hyphens, into that Danube-steamship-company-boat-captain guy, all nouned together in one big noun, morphologically. But we prefer to keep them hyphenless as a series of separate nouns, having no problem with nouns following one another like a line of ducklings behind their mother, something that seems to drive Germans batty, es ist so unordlich. However, once we verb Danube steamship company boat captain guy (and I worked with a very attractive woman once who vociferously loathed verbing anything, it made her so mad, but that’s another story, and it is, actually, though I don’t think I ever finished it), we are forced to agglutinate those nouns supercalifragilisticexpialidociously into danubesteamshipcompanyboatcaptaining, which could mean, say, verbing a series of nouns just to annoy an attractive lady you work with. The problem with that in regards to the beneath-the-planet-of-the-ralphs Ralphs (aka Morlock Ralphs) is that saying we are beneaththeplanetoftheralphing (that is, shopping at the beneath-the-planet-of-the-ralphs Ralphs) would be interpreted as beneaththeplanetofthepuking which makes no sense at all, except in strictly morphological terms. An agglutinative colorless green ideas sleep furiously, colorlessgreenideassleepfuriouslifying something just to be irritating. Not that I mind being irritating. But saying Morlock Ralphs is easier.

Journey to the Center of the Ralphs is good, too–my wife came up with that one–but I am exhausted from all this wanton agglutinating and just want to lie here smoking and staring at the ceiling.

Last sentence

I didn’t start working as a print journalist until 2004. I quit in 2011. Watching print journalism’s disintegration from ringside seats was incredible. Writing for one of the nation’s leading alternative weeklies as alternative weeklies found their raison d’etre disappearing was almost surreal, the medium seemed to go from important to unimportant in months. At the same time I had a front row seat to watching radio begin to disappear, as jazz radio seemed to suffer the worst first. I saw first hand in a particularly brutal way how online journalism is disintegrating–I can’t write about that under fear of being sued, however. I have watched the recording industry fall apart for years. I’ve seen live paid performances disappear. I’ve seen photography destroyed. And now, since I’ve been blogging (just because I write incessantly, not as a professional move) I am watching blogging itself drowning in its own words. There are so many words, they’ve suffocated readers, turned the blogosphere anoxic. The Internet undermines everything. When everything is free and instantly accessible, no one will pay for anything. Pay to read, pay to listen, pay to view, or pay to run ads. Even if it not everything is free or accessible, something else just as good (or good enough, anyway) is free and instantly accessible so there’s no point. And there is really nothing that can be done about this. There is no working revenue model, as they say. Nobody gets paid. Words especially are rendered cheap as air.

The only revenue model anymore seems to be page hits. Every time a viewer clicks a link, a couple pennies change hands. So the only thing of any genuine financial significance on a website are links. Writing becomes nothing but content, stuff to fill the pages around the ads. Whether that writing is good or not is not of any significance at all. As long as it drives people to those ads, as long as it gets people to click the link. Music is no longer of particular importance in western civilization. It’s nice, but it’s not essential. And writing is quickly following. It’s nice to see good writing, but it’s no longer anything people really care about. It’s rather irrelevant. It’s time consuming. It certainly has no way to pay for itself. Writers made a dollar a word once because people once read all the words. If you wrote a five hundred word piece, they read all five hundred words. If you were a really good writer they demanded more. Now people read the first couple lines. Maybe the first paragraph. Sometimes the second paragraph. Sometimes they’d skip to the last paragraph to read how it comes out. They don’t with that bother anymore. Whatever they need to know has to be in the first paragraph or they will never know. And if no ones reads more than a few dozen words of a five hundred word piece, it is no longer worth a dollar a word. In fact, you’ll be lucky to get a dime a word.

It’s a weird time. There are few famous writers anymore, and almost no famous journalists. Everybody is a writer today, and the bar has been set so low by blogs and sponsored content that the very concept of good writing is becoming obsolete. Perhaps it is obsolete already, as people do not read enough of any single piece for the quality to matter. Writers have been trained by centuries of tradition to build up to the big finish, that memorable final line. But no one reads that far now. Everything past the first couple lines is probably wasted. It’s weird to think that of all the writing there is on the internet, only a tiny fraction of percent ever gets read. That is trillions of word wasted. Interesting prospect, that, in evolutionary terms. Our brains have, over the past five thousand years, developed this extraordinary talent for writing language. This is a really new thing. Mass literacy is only two centuries old (beginning in the United States and spreading globally since) and has had a profound impact on humans as a society and humans as a species. Cultures that can read and write thrive, those that can’t disappear. Languages without a written form will disappear quickly once a language with a written form moves in. Literacy has in a very brief time transformed the human world in many ways as profoundly as the evolution of spoken language itself. Yet suddenly almost nothing we use written language for is ever read. I suspect that much of the prose that has been written in this past decade has never seen by a pair of eyes. It is written, posted online in some form or another, and ignored. Texts, of course, are almost invariably read, but texting is more like speech than written language. But of all the writing on all those billions of websites? How much of that is ever read by anybody? Even individual page views mean in almost every case that only a couple sentences were read, nearly always at the top of the page. Most everything else on the page is little read and quite likely unread. Imagine if nearly all the words ever uttered were never heard. That’s what is happening with written language now, with nearly all the words being written never being read. Yet human beings are probably writing more now than we ever will again. This is the absolute apogee of the written word. There is writing everywhere, incredible amounts of it. But if no one is reading it, why is it being written? Language evolved as an ability to communicate. We talk to pass on information, basically. Written language evolved for the same reason. Yet now, in I would guess is most of the time, no information is being transmitted by written language because no one is reading what someone wrote. Semiotically written language is failing most of the time. You need to have a reader. Without readers, writing doesn’t have much of a useful function. Evolution, whether genetic or memetic, does not abide the unused for long. Frills fall by the wayside, forgotten. Nearly all writing is in that category now, useless and forgotten. There is simply no reason for it to exist at all.

In twenty years, perhaps in a decade, there will be less writers and less words. The trillions of words on the internet now will slow to a relative trickle. Everyone writes now because there used to be a profession called writing. There isn’t much of one now. Kids will not grow up to be writers when there are no readers. We will still read, and still write. But writing like we do it now, in books and stories and articles, that is probably ending. Perhaps the only ones of you who would adamantly disagree with that prediction are the handful who have gotten to this last sentence.

last line great gatsby

Language death

Comment to a Facebook post and yes, I know it’s dull.

The head of the Assembly of First Nations is calling for the nearly 60 indigenous languages spoken in Canada to be declared official along with English and French, an expensive proposition but one that he says is becoming more urgent as the mother tongues of aboriginal peoples disappear.

Perry Bellegarde, who was elected National Chief of the AFN last fall, agrees it would not be easy to require translations of all indigenous languages to be printed on the sides of cereal boxes and milk cartons.

“That would be the ultimate goal,” Mr. Bellegarde said in an interview on Wednesday at the three-day annual general meeting of the AFN, Canada’s largest indigenous organization. “But let’s do small steps to get there.”

The problem is, if course, that perhaps ten of those languages are spoken in the home by more than a thousand people, and it’s in the home that a language survives. Some of those languages might be down to single digits of users. I know, by the way, that there are already official aboriginal languages in parts of Canada, as here in the United States.

And as in the US, there are dozens of immigrant languages that have more speakers than nearly all the aboriginal languages except Cree, I think, and Inuit. You can see the problem. If language rights are defined as a First Nation right only then you can declare aboriginal languages official without doing the same for immigrant tongues. However, as the call for official status for aboriginal languages is based on the UNESCO declaration of language rights, the same protections apply to immigrant languages as well….

Language death (one of linguistics’ more dramatic terms) is a worldwide problem, and one that has existed since the origin of language itself. Each extinction is a bitter loss, as every language has ways of viewing the world that are distinctive. About half of the world’s 6000 languages will be gone by 2100. Social media, though, might keep some around a bit longer. This is not a first world nations versus third and fourth world nations either, though it tends to be presented that way. Europe has at least thirty languages on the verge of extinction, some by the century’s end, including some with just one remaining speaker. And a couple European languages disappeared in the last few years (one in Latvia, another, a variant of Scots Gaelic, in Scotland). Throughout the world small languages die out as much larger ones spread. This is a world wide phenomenon, and across all kinds of language families.

One of the problems is that as a rule the smaller the language, the more complex the grammar tends to be*. Languages simplify as they expand. Brazilian Portuguese has shed many of the rules of Portuguese in Portugal, for example. And Portuguese has obliterated aboriginal languages throughout Brazil. Spanish has done the same. And French. Russian. Hindi. Han Chinese. Swahili. Tagalog. Latin. Quechua. Aramaic. Sumerian. And of course English, which like all the others I just mentioned, is typically easier to learn to get by in than the aboriginal languages it replaces, though much of the specificity of other tongues is lost**. (It is now–Old English would not have been so easy.) And English has a vastly larger vocabulary, a richness that seeps into other languages with fewer words. English nouns (or any language’s nouns) can be adopted without altering the language the word is being adopted into. Le hot dog. La hamburguesa. But adopted verbs too often turn into verb phrases and into sentences. You can hear this with bilingual people all the time. English nouns dropped into the middle of Spanish sentences, retaining Spanish grammar, but switching to English when they use English verbs. I think once people begin using another language’s verbs is when the problem really starts. That is how so many languages begin to disappear. (This is based on personal observation, I haven’t read this, so it’s not authoritative.)

Obviously the immersion in media spoken in a larger language is a leading cause, but keep in mind that it will not always cause a language to lose speakers. Languages died long before the invention of mass media. Languages have been disappearing since language began.

One of my favorite books ever is Empires of the Word by Nicholas Ostler. A brilliant work, I’ve read it a couple times. A history of the comings and goings of the great languages. English is having its day now. It too shall pass.

.Notes: Continue reading