Friday, 18 December 2009

Overstand the downpression of the kin-dread by outformers: On what to call "reverse eggcorns" in Dread Talk

The language of reggae music is filled with examples of linguistic creativity, including what we might call "puns". One example is Rastafari reanalysed as Rasta Far Eye. Tafari was Haile Selassie I's pre-king name, and since he was of Ethiopian nobility he had the title Ras, an Amharic word roughly translatable as "prince". One of the central tenets of the Rastafarian movement (which obviously takes its name from Ras Tafari) is that Haile Selassie I is an incarnation of God (Rastafarian Jah, cp. Yahweh). Rastafari is thus (intentionally/knowingly) reanalysed as "far-seeing Haile Selassie I/God/Jah".

Another interesting example of this sort is found in the lyrics and title of the song "Kin Dread" (Midnite[1]):

Here singer/lyricist Vaughn Benjamin intentionally reanalyses kindred as kin-dread, and, amusingly, he appears to overtly reference this linguistic remaking, as towards the end of the song (~5.00) he says:
Well, how come family mean "kin" and "dread"? Enough with them the vernacular etymological syntax.
Does vernacular etymological syntax = "folk etymology"?

Kindred historically derives from OE. cynn-rǣden: cynn "family, race, blood-relations" (OED[2]) and rǣden "condition, reckoning" (modern English read and riddle come from the same root); the -d- of kindred is epenthetic (cp. Modern English thunder from OE. þunor, ME. þoner).

Benjamin's reanalysis of kindred as kin-dread I assumed would mean something like "fellow Rastafarians" (dread can mean "Rastafarian"; from dreadlocks, "uncut, unwashed, uncombed hair worn 'in dread of the Lord' [cf. the Nazarite vow]"), but from the context of the song it seems to simply bear the standard sense of kindred, metaphorically extended as "fellow human beings", since it is obvious that usually the kin-dread he refers to are not necessarily fellow Rastafarians, as shown by:
Hear a small story, me a-tell you a sad story about a farmer. Planted the most italful garden, but [the youth them]i only want soft drinks in Babylon-flavour. But yeah, you know, themi are me kin-dread.... Full-fledgèd.
[Babylon is a standard Rastafarian term for "(corrupt) western society". Ital (cf. italful) is roughly "kosher (for Rastafarians)", excluding tobacco, alcohol, pork (and often meat altogether), and preservatives/artificial ingredients (and thus soft drinks....).]

Examples like Rasta-Far-Eye and kin-dread appear to be largely nonce-formations, akin to puns. However, Rastafarian English (or what Pollard[3] calls "Dread Talk", defined as an example of "lexical expansion within a creole system" [2:24]) is full of entrenched examples of remakings which are similar to (though not typically paronomastic in the same way as) kin-dread and rasta-far-eye.

Pollard[3:24,46] refers to such examples as "Category II: words which bear the weight of their phonological implications". I'm not sure that this is the clearest definition or the best analysis of the linguistic change involved in such remakings. Let's examine the some of the most common of these entrenched reanalyses:
Downpress(ion) = "oppress(ion)"
Overstand = "understand"
Outformer = "informer"
Livicate = "dedicate"
Blindgarette = "cigarette"
All of these involve remakings which seem add or remove a pejorative sense (as appropriate):
Oppress treated as if up-press (though really from Latin ob- "against" + premere "press"). Uppress would seem to mean "lift up"; thus reformed as down-press.

Understand is of somewhat obscure origins. Other Germanic languages use stand with other prefixes for the same sense (cp. German vorstehen, as if English forstand). The prefix perhaps reflects not PIE *ndher "under" (cp. Latin infrā), but rather PIE *nter "between, among" (cp. Latin inter), see further Liberman[4:210-5]. Whatever the etymology, other words in modern English with the prefix under- tend to indicate either "subordinate", e.g. underling, or "insufficient", e.g. underfunded; thus understand is reanalysed as "low comprehension, insufficient comprehension", and remade as overstand.

Informer: in often has positive connotations (e.g. in-group); out negative ones (e.g. outsider); thus remade as outformer (cp. perhaps to rat (s.o.) out).

Dedicate actually from Latin "out" + dicāre "say, proclaim", but analysed as if connected with English dead (with negative connotations); so remade as livicate (from live).

Cigarette: analysed as see-garette, where see has positive connotations (cp. above Rasta-Far-Eye), but tobacco is considered by Rastafarians as polluting/unclean; thus reformed as blind-garette.
These reanalyses are reminiscent of folk etymology or eggcorns (see also Liberman[5], Pullum[6], Zwicky[7]), but unlike eggcorns they appear to be intentional. That is, Rastafarians obviously recognise that in standard English people say oppress, understand, informer, dedicate, cigarette etc., and thus these aren't misunderstandings like elk for ilk. And they don't seem to be what Zwicky[8] calls "mock eggcorns". Rather the above remakings involve an intentional re-etymologising, as if the standard English forms were the eggcorns.

What do we call this sort of morphological/semantic change?

("Reverse eggcorn" is the best I have, but that doesn't seem quite right.)

[1]Midnite. 2006. Jah Grid. Christiansted, St.Croix (US Virgin Islands): I-Grade Records.
[2]The Oxford English Dictionary, September 2009 rev. ed.
[3]Pollard, Velma. 2000. Dread Talk: the language of Rastafari. Kingston, Jamaica & Montreal, Canada: Canoe Press & McGill-Queen's University Press, rev. ed.
[4]Liberman, Anatoly. 2008. An analytic dictionary of English etymology: an introduction. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
[5]Liberman, Mark. 2003. "Egg corns: folk etymology, malapropism, mondegreen, ???" Language Log. September 23, 2003.
[6]Pullum, Geoffrey K. 2003. "Phrases for lazy writers in kit form." Language Log. October 27, 2003.
[7]Zwicky, Arnold. 2003. "Lady Mondegreen says her peace about egg corns." Language Log. November 02, 2003.
[8]Zwicky, Arnold. 2009. "Mock eggcorns and their kin". Arnold Zwicky's blog. August 29, 2009.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Nepali, Nez Perce, and Na'vi: On alien-language in Cameron's Avatar, with remarks on etymology and "Universal Grammar"

In order to lend authenticity to his film Avatar, James Cameron had the language of the alien Na'vi people designed by linguist Paul Frommer, as reported by Benjamin Zimmer[1] in his 4 December article "Skxawng!" (in his New York Times column "On Language"). Cameron apparently choose Frommer partly on the basis of his co-authored textbook Looking at Languages[2], where one of the exercises involves deciphering Klingon word order [spoiler: it's object-verb-subject] (Klingon is another linguist-designed language).

An interview with Frommer is available at the Unidentified Sound Object blog, in which Frommer reports on some interesting features of the language he developed. The language of the Na'vi (who look sort of like blue cat-people, see above) involves some typologically-unusual linguistic features, including: the presence of ejectives in the phonological inventory, specifically [k'], [t'], and [p'] (click to hear what these sound like), and---more interesting to syntacticians and morphologists---a tripartite system of case marking.

Like ejectives, tripartite case-marking is present but rare in human languages, found in the Australian languages Wangkumara and Kala Lagaw Ya (though these two languages are apparently unrelated) as well as in the Amerindian language Nez Percé spoken in the northwest of the USA (on which see further Cash Cash[3]). The tripartite case-marking system involves differences in morphological case-marking on (a) agents of transitive verbs [agentive/ergative case], (b) objects of transitive verbs [objective/accusative case], and (c) agents of intransitive verbs [absolutive/nominative case].

However, there are languages which are much less exotic (at least to me) that could also be seen as employing tripartite case-marking, including many Indo-Aryan languages such as Hindi and Nepali:-- see examples below (where nom=nominative/absolutive case; acc=accusative/objective case; erg=ergative/agentive case).
(1) लड़का कल आया
laṛkā-[Ø] kal āyā
boy-nom yesterday came
"The boy came yesterday."

(2) लड़के ने लड़की को देखा
laṛke-ne laṛkī-ko dekhā
boy-erg girl-acc saw
"The boy saw the girl."

(3) केटा हिजो आयो
keṭā-[Ø] hijo āyo
boy-nom yesterday came
"The boy came yesterday."

(4) केटाले केटीलाई हेर्यो
keṭā-le keṭī-lāī heryo
boy-erg girl-acc saw
"The boy saw the girl."
[Though the "accusative" case-marker (Hindi ko, Nepali lāī) in Indo-Aryan is not straightforwardly a marker of objects of transitive verbs, rather it tends to occur particularly on objects which are animate and/or specific--see Bhatia[4].]

The fact that the Na'vi language shares this feature with Indo-Aryan perhaps makes all the more appropriate that the name of Cameron's film is also Indo-Aryan. Avatar, from Sanskrit अवतार (avatāra), is usually translated into English as "incarnation", used to refer to gods assuming human bodies (e.g. the god Vishnu becoming Krishna). It also has an extended use in the world of cyberspace, where it refers to the graphic representation of a user or his alter ego. The sense in Cameron's film, I take it, actually draws on both of these meanings, as some of the human characters control Na'vi-appearing bodies.

Interestingly, in the Mahabharata, one of the two major Indian epic poems, where avatars are a cental concept, the term avatāra is actually never employed (Sutton[5]:156-7); however the concept is frequently alluded to (Biardeau[6]:1621n2, Hiltebeitel[7]:109n56) by usages of the verb avatr̥̄-, which literally means something like "stepping down" (prefix ava- "down, off" + √tr̥̄ "to cross over"). In fact, the verb avatr̥̄- is conventionally used in the Mahabharata to refer to people "stepping down from their chariots" (Hiltebeitel[7]:232).

Returning to Na'vi, in his Unidentified Sound Object interview, Frommer remarks that:
As I mentioned, there’s nothing in Na’vi that couldn’t be found in some human language—and that’s important, since humans have learned to speak it.
I found this idea that the Na'vi language is learnable by humans rather intriguing, since part of the Chomskian notion of (natural human) language is that it relies on biocognitive structures which are unique (at least on Earth) to humans (i.e. not present in any other Terran creatures). Would/could language as developed in an extraterrestrial species rely on biocognitive structures which would be equivalent to those underlying human language?

This reminds me of a story that Prof. Peter Lasersohn told in one of his semantics courses; paraphrased (as well as I can remember it):
Logicians and philosophers had long treated human language not being expressable in terms of formal logic. Richard Montague famously developed a system of formal semantics for language (Montague[8,9,10]); in one of the earlier accounts he states: "There is in my opinion no important theoretical difference between natural languages and the artificial languages of logicians; indeed, I consider it possible to comprehend the syntax and semantics of both kinds of language within a single natural and mathematically precise theory. On this point I differ from a number of philosophers, but agree, I believe, with Chomsky and his associates" (Montague[8]).
However, the Chomskian notion of "Universal Grammar" involves an abstract (but biocognitively instantiated) system which underlies all human language but is unique to humans. Montague, on the other hand, used "Universal Grammar" in the sense of a formal syntax and semantics which would be truly "universal", that is, applicable to any language, human or otherwise.
When Barbara Partee (a semanticist who was instrumental in popularising Montague-Grammar among generative linguists) explained Chomsky's sense of "Universal Grammar" to Montague, he was perplexed, remarking that he did not understand why linguists would adopt a human-only conception of "Universal Grammar" which would thus automatically disqualify them from being the ones the world would to turn to---in the event of humans making contact with aliens---for the decryption of extraterrestrial language.
[1]Zimmer, Benjamin. 2009. "Skxawng!" On Language, New York Times, 4 December 2009.
[2]Frommer, Paul R. & Finegan, Edward. 2004. Looking at languages: A workbook in elementary linguistics. Boston: Wadsworth, 3rd edn.
[3]Cash Cash, Phillip. 2004. "Nez Perce verb morphology". Ms., University of Arizona, Tucson.
[4]Bhatia, Archna. 2008. "Animacy, specificity and overt object case marking in Hindi". Ms., University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
[5]Sutton, Nicholas. 2000. Religious doctrines in the Mahābhārata. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.
[6]Biardeau, Madeleine. 1999. Le Rāmāyaṇa de Vālmīki. Paris: Gallimard.
[7]Hiltebeitel, Alf. 2001. Rethinking the Mahābhārata: A reader’s guide to the education of the dharma king. New Delhi: Oxford University Press [Indian edition].
[8]Montague, Richard. 1970a. “Universal grammar”. Theoria 36: 373-398.
[9]Montague, Richard. 1970b. “English as a formal language”. In Bruno Visentini et al. (ed.), Linguaggi nella società e nella tecnica. Milan: Edizioni di Comunità, 188-221.
[10]Montague, Richard. 1973. “The proper treatment of quantification in ordinary English”. In K.J.J. Hintikka, J.M.E. Moravcsik, & P. Suppes (eds.), Approaches to natural language. Dordrecht: Reidel, 221-242.

Monday, 7 December 2009

Hot for Words: On titillating etymologies and pop philology (with some remarks on Beowulf movies and sex thrown in for good measure)

I came across an article by Marc Bousquet, "Teaching for Lust" on Brainstorm, the blog of The Chronicle of Higher Education, discussing Marina Orlova (Марина Орлова), a self-employed philologist who produces a YouTube series "Hot for Words".

Apparently Marina started her YouTube channel back in 2007, but I'd never heard of her until this week. I haven't seen her discussed in any of the usual places (Language Log, languagehat, etc. [update: "Hot for Words" was actually discussed a couple of times at the blog bradshaw of the future{sweostorword}; I overlooked these posts obviously.]). I'm usually on the lookout for video clips having to do with language but somehow I missed this series.

Here's the first video she posted (the more recent videos are much more polished):

And a blurb from her website:
Marina Orlova, known to millions of fans around the world as a sexy master of language, HotForWords, is a 28 year old Internet “sensation”. Hailing from Moscow, Marina has two degrees in philology which is the study of linguistics and origins of words. Back in Russia Marina taught English and World Literature to high-schoolers. She came to the United States six years ago to improve her English skills and prepare for her Ph.D., but she ended up staying in the U.S. simply because of the warmer weather. Two and a half years ago, Marina burst onto the YouTube scene. Her initial goal was to reach more people with her language knowledge...In each video she takes word requests from YouTube users and discusses their meanings and origins. Something that might, at first, seem boring, but when a buxom blonde with a Russian accent teaches you anything, it can be quite educational, thus proving, as her tag-line states, that “Intelligence is Sexy.”
Obviously part of her popularity is simply because sex(iness) sells. But is this a bad thing?

I had some concerns about whether her philology would be sound, especially as she's apparently a recurrent guest on Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor---and I don't associate Fox News with "truthiness".

The few "Hot for Words" videos I watched, however, seemed largely accurate. I mean, they weren't deep, and I'm guessing Orlova takes a lot of etymologies straight from the OED, but I didn't notice any serious misinformation. Etymologies seem to be her main trade, though she does have a video which touches on sound change, dealing with the pronunciation of kn-initial words (where knife is illustrated by a khukuri!), and a bit on neologism.

Turning back to the "Teaching for Lust" article, Bousquet's comments on Orlova are rather perplexing:
Youtube phenom “Hotforwords” raises the ante on the “teaching for love” canard. In the process, she schools us on how teaching really can realize the administration’s dream in the form of the ultimate “quality” process.
The 27-year-old Russian philologist is a former Ph.D. aspirant and high-school literature teacher with nearly 30 million views of her videos explaining various linguistic puzzles, such as — in the featured clip — how “dope” can mean both stupid and excellent.
One might ask the same about the term “quality,” which for administrators means, well, this.
Seriously, there’s no disputing her metrics. It’s teaching as “vaudeville,” as The New York Times’s Virginia Heffernan points out, but her curriculum is customer-defined and market-oriented. She is a self-funding responsibility center. She gets great student evaluations. Her teaching methods are susceptible to straightforward assessment instruments. There isn’t a “quality” complaint to make about her.
Oh yeah, and it’s totally exploitative, which makes a nice fit with all the outsourcing and permatemping.
Marina’s teaching for love (of fame) is not entirely divorced from the phenomenon that Michelle Masse analyzes as the feminization of the humanities — the reduction of whole fields of faculty work to second-class status by way of the gender economy: part of the cheapening and degradation of the work is the tacit recognition of it as women’s work, as a service, compensated by something other than wages. In connection with her forthcoming SUNY collection Ten Million Served with Katie Hogan, she observes how the call to “service” is one of the most compelling vectors of exploitation in academic life.
Masse points out that “secretary” and “nurse” used to name well-remunerated, well-respected positions for men. Kinda like “professor of language.” Now that it’s women’s work, it’s best done as a kind of lightly-paid volunteerism — for love, or, as in Marina’s, case, something closely allied to it.
Now, Masse's remarks (see link above) seem to be on target, but I'm not sure how this relates to sexed-up YouTube mini-philology, as Bousquet suggests. [Update: Orlova actually replied to Bousquet's commentary: see here.]

Orlova doesn't seem to be teaching just for "love": she's a revenue-sharing YouTube partner, she's signed an endorsement deal with "coComment", and she's published a book with HarperCollins. If she started out teaching for "love (of fame)" as Bousquet argues, I assume it was because she figured she could parlay that fame into money.

But how does this affect academics? Bousquet seems to imply that university administrations are going to outsource philology/historical linguistics to "Hot for Words". Now, admittedly university administrators often make stupid decisions, and many linguistics departments aren't refilling their historical linguistics posts---but I don't think it's because they believe they can outsource philology to Orlova.

I think, rather, such things can act to spark people's interest in a topic, and thus have a positive effect for academics: if even a small percentage of young people who watch Orlova's series become interested in etymology, some of them may decide to enrol in an historical linguistics course that they wouldn't have otherwise. Higher enrolment in historical linguistics courses = less possibility of departments deciding not to refill their historical linguistics positions.

I won't deny the vaudeville-angle of "Hot for Words", but that's why it works of course. I play YouTube clips for my students, like "A Bit of Fry and Laurie (on Language)" during my discussion of generative vs. formulaic language; and this clip from an old Fawlty Towers episode when discussing language contact. The clips don't substitute for course material, but rather supplement it by serving to maintain students' attention and get them interested in the topic we're discussing.

It seems to me that "Hot for Words" does something similar: the scantily-clad buxom blonde draws the audience in, but at least they get taught a bit of etymology. For example, in one video, Orlova answers a viewer's question about whether titillating has anything to do with tits (tits can be titillating is the logic behind the question). Now, obviously in part the viewer's question was motivated by a desire to hear a busty Russian woman talk about tits, but Orlova does answer the question, explaining that titillate derives from Latin titillāre "to tickle", and (briefly) discusses the semantic changes leading to the predominant modern sense. (Her discussion of tits was, I think, a little off, as she derived the word ultimately from Old French tete, tette, taite, but the development appears to be more complicated than that, since Old English has tit(t) and the modern form seems likely to derive from some mixture of both of the Old English and the Old French.)

A parallel that comes to mind is the effect on Anglo-Saxon studies of Beowulf movies--which have also tended to use sex to draw viewers in:
While none of the recent Beowulf-based films are particularly faithful to the original poem, they increase awareness of Beowulf and thus have the potential to raise enrolment in Old English courses.

"Hot for Words" would seem to have a similar potential effect: to arouse interest in philology, and thus perhaps get a few more bodies into historical linguistics classrooms.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

So, this maximal projection walks into a V-bar, and says...

So, this Maximal Projection walks into a V-bar, and says: “Give me a little vP!”

The bartender asks: “Really? That’s not your usual order.”

And the Maximal Projection replies: “I know ... maybe it’s just a phase.”

Now illustrated:

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Riding the gallows, nor fending off ravens: Another nother from Old English

Perhaps an even better example than the Beowulf example of an early instance of noþer/nother (~ nor) used in an equivalent manner to "The snow fell, nor did it cease to fall" appears in the Old English poem The Fortunes of Men (ll.33-42):
Sum sceal on geapum galgan ridan,
seomian æt swylte, oþþæt sawlhord,
bancofa blodig, abrocen weorþeð.
þær him hrefn nimeþ heafodsyne,
sliteð salwigpad sawelleasne;
noþer he þy facne mæg folmum biwergan,
laþum lyftsceaþan, biþ his lif scæcen,
ond he feleleas, feores orwena,
blac on beame bideð wyrde,
bewegen wælmiste. Bið him werig noma!

"One (man) must ride the gaping gallows,
hang to death, until his soul-hoard,
his bloody bone-coffer, becomes broken.
There (on the gallows) the raven takes his eye,
the dark-cloaked one tears at the soulless;
nor is he able to ward off that evil,
that loathsome thief of the air,
with his hands-- his life is fled,
and he, senseless, without hope of living,
pale on the tree, awaits his fate,
covered by the mists of slaughter. His name is cursed!"
Here it is clear that noþer cannot be read in the sense "neither (...nor)".

Incidentally, the scene, combining gallows and ravens, recalls Odin (as "the hanged god", with his ravens Huginn and Muninn).