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Language Items from 2009:                                               to enlarge a photo, click on it

Were it so   Speaking with elevation   A Swalhili joke    Grammar rant    Feeling terribly   Why pronouns?    The Plot   Blogging Standards   Oral tradition 2    Bullshit   Why genders in some languages?   Thoughts on the origin of language       

Were it so
I ran across a piece on the nature of grammar in Language Log. It was dealing with the verb in this sentence - should it be were or was?
Two comedians make cruel jokes on BBC radio: heads must roll! (They did-one of the comedians, plus two executives, were forced out.)
Should it be 'were' or 'was'? After many paragraphs filled with different ways to look at the grammar of the sentence and giving pros and cons for both verbs, it was somewhat of the toss up. And so the author (Geoffrey Pullum) finished with the following good sense.
"More specifically, I think there are situations in which the constraints set by the grammar of English leave things balanced in a state where nothing is fully satisfactory - there is no unimpeachable solution - so you just have to chance it, and go with one decision rather than another on a basis of… well, taste and educated discernment.
I'm suggesting that perhaps the psychogrammar in your head is not an automatically functioning module that strictly defines what's grammatical for you and what's not. It's a rather disorganized collection of conditions and prohibitions and desiderata, and it doesn't always provide a unique answer to every grammatical question. Sorry, but I think that might be the situation we face as linguists. And if so, then we can't make things otherwise by just stipulating or shouting - or by avoiding fine-detail description of subject-verb agreement altogether."

Speaking with elevation
There is a new emotion being studied. It is called elevation and is tied to the hormone oxytocin (as fear is tied to adrenatlin) and to the vagus nerve. What is it like? Activity of the vagus nerve causes a feeling of spreading liquid warmth in the chest and a lump in the throat.
Elevation does a 'reset' so that cynicism and megativity are replaced by hope, love, optimism and inspiration. Elevation prompts us to live better, more moral lives. Elevation releases oxytocin, the hormone of social connection, of caring and of transcending selfishness. Oxytocin is the hormone that facilitates breast feeding.
Elevation can be the emotional response to great oration. It can be fantastic with not a dry eye or a bad thought in the house. But if you are planning a speech - there is a fine line between creating elevation and looking ridiculous. If the magic does not work, you can end up with laughter or disgust. Be careful!

A Swahili joke
When we lived in Kenya, there were language problems. Expats spoke English, Africans spoke their various tribal languages and English if they had been educated in it, some on the coast spoke proper Swahili. But everyone spoke some 'Kitchen Swahili' or 'Up-country Swahili' which was a poor pidgin based on Swahili.
At the Vet College we mostly spoke English but there were a few staff that did not. One was an old man who ran the animal house. We had to communicate but neither of us was very good in even Kitchen Swahili. Never the less we had a little joke that made us chuckle every time we greeted each other.
I would say, “Jambo Mzee”. This literally means 'Hello old man'. In Swahili mzee is a term of respect but he was aware that calling someone old was not a term of respect in English.
He would answer, “Jambo Mama mkubwa”. This literally means 'Hello big mama'. In Swahili mama mkubwa is a term of respect but he was aware that calling a woman a big mama in English was not respectful.
This was not really a bi-lingual joke, more a semi-lingual joke. But we would have a good laugh and get on with trying to communicate.

Grammar Rant
Let me rant a little about grammar!
On my book shelf is a copy of 'The Elements of Style', by Strunk and White, given to me by an employer when I was sent on a little English course. I have looked a few things up in it but not many. Usually, what I wanted to know was not there or the advice was not to my liking and I ignored it.
G. Pullum who is a co-author of 'The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language' has written an article to mark the anniversary of the publication of 'Elements of Style'. There is no doubting Pullum's credentials because the Cambridge Grammar is to grammar what the Oxford Dictionary is to words, the ultimate reference. Pullum hates 'The Elements of Style'. He ends a long tirade with this summing up:
“It's sad. Several generations of college students learned their grammar from the uninformed bossiness of Strunk and White, and the result is a nation of educated people who know they feel vaguely anxious and insecure whenever they write 'however' or 'than me' or 'was' or 'which' but can't tell you why. The land of the free in the grip of 'The Elements of Style'.
“So I won't be spending the month of April toasting 50 years of the overopinionated and underinformed little book that put so many people in this unhappy state of grammatical angst. I've spent too much of my scholarly life studying English grammar in a serious way. English syntax is a deep and interesting subject. It is much too important to be reduced to a bunch of trivial don't-do-this prescriptions by a pair of idiosyncratic bumblers who can't even tell when they've broken their own misbegotten rules.”
When I read Pullum's rant, I thought it did not go far enough. What about all those people who use language as a weapon? Some people feel righteous pride at criticizing other's language in a rude way because they say protecting the language is more important then not hurting people. Often these self appointed language police are just a wrong as Strunk and White. They may even have received their ideas from that book or other books just as bad. Give me a break – it's my damn language and I'll use it as I please. You can do the same.

Feeling terribly
There has been a discussion of adjectives following 'feel' as in 'I feel good.' Someone was quoted as saying, “We feel terribly”, to which some smart-ass columnist said, “No, you feel terrible; you merely speak terribly.” They just couldn't resist it – their chance to show their wit by belittling someone.
'Feel' is a copula verb and links a subject to an adjective complement. The usual copula verbs are: be, look, feel, taste, smell, sound, seem, appear, get, become, grow, stay, keep, turn, prove, go, remain, resemble, run, lie – although many of these can also be used as ordinary verbs. In any case, the verb 'feel' is followed by an adjective that modifies the subject and not an adverb that modifies the verb. 'I feel terribly' grates on some peoples ears and sounds perfectly normal to others. So the question becomes (1) is 'terribly' an adjective in this case, (2) is 'feel' not being used as a copula verb, (3) is this an one-off idiom that is in normal usage (4) or is this a grammar mistake that is made by people who are over-correcting a different mistake (using adjectives instead of adverbs with normal verbs)?The upshot of the discuss was that there were a small number of words, usually considered adverbs, that are adjectives when used with 'feel' in particular. 'Badly' is another one, also 'well'. There seems a pattern to do with feeling regretful or ill. These particular usages have a very long history.In going through various copula verb and adverbs in place of adjectives, 'poorly' was finally mentioned. It is a northern English dialect word for mildly ill. My dictionary lists 'poorly' as both an adjective and an adverb, but with the meaning of ill, it is only an adjective. 'Poorly' is somewhat dear to me because, when we moved to England, it was the first dialect word that naturally came out of my mouth and surprised my ears. What I said was, “T'wer me poorly toe.”, which I have written about before in terms of the 'me' instead of 'my'.It continues to intrigue me that the logic of copula verbs is taken straight from Latin and applied to English where it often conflicts with normal speech and no one cares about that. They care about 'I feel terribly' but not that the grammar of some dead language is being using to confuse English speakers. It also intrigues me that, despite the evidence of any dictionary, people still expect a word to be used as either an adjective or an adverb but not both (ditto noun-verb, adjective-noun). Still, I seem to be addicted to following the arguments.

Why pronouns?
Well it seems that when we hear a proper name (of a particular person, place etc.) our brain automatically assembles masses of information on that thing. The brain lights up with activity collecting the looks and sounds and smells and.... of that thing. That's how proper names differ from other words. So what happens when we hear the same proper name in the next sentence? The brain springs into action and assembles all this information again. Time, energy and precious working memory is used up creating two similar images of the proper-name-thing. And then more time and energy is used in combining the two images in order to recover the working memory space. During all this activity, the listener may miss some parts of the conversation.
But if pronouns are used for subsequent references to some proper-name-thing, no new image is created. The only time pronouns make work is when there is ambiguity – more than one image that the pronoun can refer to. Apparently, sign language has its own way of doing 'pronouns'. When a proper name is signed, it is placed in a particular place and then it can be referred to later by pointing at that place.

The plot
Want to write a story? A timeless epic tale? Joseph Campbell (and others independently) have a plot all ready for you. Your hero makes a journey in 12 steps:

Ordinary world—The reader is allowed to see the hero in his everyday world.
• Call to adventure—The incident that beckons the hero to start his journey.
• Refusal of the call—The hero's reluctance to leave the ordinary world.
• Meeting the mentor—The mentor can be anyone from a hooker with a heart of gold to an alien. As with Frodo, the mentor may appear numerous times and there is often more than one mentor.
• Crossing the first threshold—The action the hero takes from which there is no turning back.
• Tests, Allies, Enemies—The meat of the story where most of the action plays out.
• Approach to the inner-most cave—At this stage the hero prepares to cross another threshold, one after which he must confront the most frightening or most critical part of his journey.
• Supreme ordeal—This is the hero's greatest challenge. Here his character, intelligence, or strength are put to the maximum test. The hero often appears to die—metaphorically or otherwise—at this stage.
• The seizing of the sword—This is the point at which the hero accomplishes his task. His triumph may not last, or it may have unexpected consequences.
• The road back—Most hero's attempt to return to the ordinary world and experience further adventures or difficulties on the way back.
• Resurrection—The hero has been changed by his experiences. In one sense his old self has died and his new self born. To the reader, this transformation or growth is often the most satisfying part of the story.
• Return with the Elixir—After the hunt, the hero returns with his kill and shares it with those who stayed in the village. Often the hero, since he has changed, no longer fits in the ordinary world and must ride off into the sunset unable to stay and enjoy the fruits of his journey.

Apparently, if you know better than the ancient poets, bards and tellers of tales or modern screen writers and novelists, you can leave out a few steps and change the order a bit. But be careful about leaving steps out or you may miss the magic.

Blogging standards
A year ago this month (things are even bigger now), there were more than 50 million blogs, 175,000 new blogs created per day, and 1.6 million postings to blogs per day. Of course, some blogs died each day too, but the total 'blogoshpere' doubled in size every 200 days.
A blog can be any thing from a personal diary to a piece of citizen journalism to niche interest e-clubs. There is the impression that this is just a big amorphous mess without structure or rules, but it isn't. Apparently, according to New Media Society, bloggers agree on what is important in standards.
“The researchers identified four underlying ethical principles important to bloggers: truth telling, accountability, minimizing harm and attribution. Truth telling involves honesty, fairness and completeness in reporting. Accountability involves being answerable to the public, bearing the consequences of one's actions and revealing conflicts of interest; and, minimizing harm underlies issues involving privacy, confidentiality, reputational harm, consideration of others' feelings, and respecting diversity and underprivileged groups. Attribution covers issues such as avoiding plagiarism, honouring intellectual property rights and giving sources proper credit.” I think that there is also a commitment to good communication and good writing.
Or put the other way: don't lie, don't hide, don't steal and don't hurt. And how are these standards enforced? If a blogger is not being reasonable, his readers will comment on it and other bloggers will point out the problem. A blogger's credibility and therefore readership can be blown away by unethical behaviour. Blogs list and give links to other blogs that they themselves follows and there are reviews of blogs that share a subject area called carnivals. Comments on postings often include a link to the commentor's own blog. These interactions mean that good blogs grow in readership and bad ones fade away.
The principles should not be a surprise. The typical blogger is a young, well-educated, American male who is in or aspires to journalism, science, technology, politics, literature and the like. That description may account for about half of all bloggers. (Some are retired women living in France maybe.) These fields have ethical standards and the bloggers steeped in those communities bring their ethics with them.

Oral tradition 2
For all the ages until writing was invented, knowledge was transferred from one generation to the next by being recited. Some cultures are just now entering the age of writing and we can see their oral traditions clearly. Other cultures have lost the oral tradition but still have the fossils. The oral traditions required professionals who learned and recited the knowledge. They were apprenticed to their elders for long periods. Accuracy also depended on forms and formats that assisted memorization, such as poetry, cycles, mental maps, ritual movements, singing, illustrations etc. Many of these professionals were also highly skilled entertainers who could hold an audience. Other knowledge, that was not shared with everyone, traditional medicine or metal working skills for example, also were handed down orally to apprentices. Traces of these traditions are much harder to find. It is often surprising how accurate oral traditions are. For example, Troy was thought to be entirely mythic until Schliemann followed the Iliad to the ruined city. The Iliad was transmitted orally for many centuries before being written down. A skeleton was identified by an extremely accurate description of a particular man in one of the sagas. The Iranian poetic recitals of Alexander the Great’s conquest of the Persian Empire are highly accurate. Of course, much of our inherited folklore is no longer accurate, but still great story-telling material. It takes an act of imagination to realize how important oral traditions were. All of the knowledge that the culture possessed had to be handed to the next generations or be lost. The accurate recitation of the oral tradition was extremely important. Here are some examples of the 'professional' speaker. Griot In West Africa there are learned storytellers, historians and entertainers called griot. They are professional, official historians who memorize poems, praise-songs and accounts of events. Often they have memorized the genealogy of everyone in a village going back centuries. Alex Haley in Roots describes his meeting with a griot. “The old griot had talked for nearly two hours up to then . . . ‘the oldest of these fours sons, Kunta, went away from his village and he was never seen again’ . . . I sat as if I were carved of stone. My blood seemed to have congealed. This man whose lifetime had been in this back-country African village had no way in the world to know that he had just echoed what I had heard all though my boyhood years on my grandma’s front porch in Henning, Tennessee.” The Griots had special training for years in order to master the complex verbal, musical and memory skills. They can speak from memory for days. Of course, in each generation a small part of the material is lost and some new history is added. Ghanaian linguist Every chief has a linguist who puts the chief's whispers into poetic and eloquent language. He is not only a month-piece but also an ambassador and prominent courtier. The reputation of the chief depends on the wisdom and eloquence of his linguist. He used to be an authority on proper behaviour. Logsogumadr or Law-speaker The law-speaker was the person who kept order at ‘things’ or early Germanic/Nordic parliaments. In Iceland he was called Logsogumadr. He provided advice to the 'things', local rulers and courts. His duties included the memorization of laws, the provision of advice on legislative issues, and the recitation of all legislative acts at least once while in office. Bards In Celtic cultures there were bards (Wales)/ filidh (Ireland)/ ollave (Scotland) who were the keepers of the oral knowledge. They were inviolate and could travel anywhere, say anything, and perform where they pleased. They were the bearers of the news and the carriers of messages. They had memorized the Customs and were consulted in matters of Law. The training was extensive: music, poetry and song (original and from tradition), knowledge of history, law and custom, folklore, and heraldry. In the places where the Celtic culture was disrupted, the bards became just entertainers (trouveres, troubadors, jongleurs, travelling players). Skald Skald were courtly poets of the Nordic cultures of in the Viking period. There were equivalents in other Germanic groups. Like Old English poetry, for example Beowulf, they used alliterative verse in a panegyric style (formal public speech delivered to assemblies to praise a person, give a eulogy, give testimonials to battles and those who were slain in them, elegies). They gave us the sagas. Songlines The aboriginal Australian culture is unique in having been undisturbed for 40,000 years. Its history goes back to the ‘Dream Time’ and is maintained by singers going walkabout singing the songlines. Every single rock and feature of the land has a song associated with it, and the traveler knows exactly their location by their place along the songline. The knowledge allows the traveller to survive, find food, water and shelter in the unrelenting outback as well as making a continuous history available. Hudhud The Ifugao of the Philippines used to chant hudhuds in unison as they harvested rice by hand. Their elaborate rice terraces have been in continuous use for over 2000 years. The hudhuds contain epic tales, beliefs and histories. Some take three days to complete. Currently they are being collected by scholars before the older generation dies and the songs disappear.


Bullshit

Well, someone called Frankfurt has written a book on bullshit, a whole philosophical exploration of bullshit. I have not read it, but I love the idea and I have read people who have read the book, so I am entitled to bullshit about it.
Frankfurt (I understand) has several important things to say:
Why genders in some languages?
I recently started to wonder why some languages have gender classes for their nouns. So I tried to find out and, what do you think? There is no consensus, no really convincing hypothesis on the matter.
Some things are clear. Noun classes are not necessary because they do not appear in all languages. But they must be of some use because they persist in the language groups that have them, notably Indo-European, Semitic and Bantu. English is really quite unusual in having lost its grammatic gender. Most languages that have it are stuck with it.
In grammatical terms there are a number of possible advantages:
And there are some non-grammatical advantages: Some languages have many classes, like 8 or 10, and it seems that languages can merge classes to decrease the number and can split classes to increase them. Some languages have a firm relationship between their noun classes and the physical nature of the noun, for example a male class including all biological males, their traditional belongings and activities. Some languages have a firm relationship between their noun classes and the sound of the noun, for example the noun's final vowel. Some languages are arbitrary in their classes and have only mild traces of some sort of rhyme or reason.
The theory goes that those language families with noun classes started out in their photo-language with a pair: animate or inanimate. The animate class was divided into human and animal. The human into male and female. The inanimate into various classes like vegetation, tools, abstractions, large things, verbal nouns and the like. Classes divided and merged over time to give the current groups in each language.
It may be that one among many reasons that English is a popular second language throughout the world is that it lacks noun classes and therefore does not set that particular trap for adult learners.


Thoughts on the origin of language

Sometime, long ago, humans acquired language. Without language, we would be just another great ape, similar to chimps, gorillas and orangs. I assume (quite a few experts would agree but not all of them) that we have had a modern-type spoken language that for about 50,000 years, that we have had some sort of language, primitive or modern, since about 150,000 years ago, that a very simple language has being used for at least 400,000 years and the roots go back much, much earlier. Of course the experts disagree on what actually is the definition of language as well as most other aspects of the problem and this affects how they would characterize the history.