The Book of Tongues

This is definitely the end of popular science books for me, I’m three for three in disappointment with Languages Are Good For Us by Sophie Hardach. It’s about, uh, it’s actually kind of hard to explain because it goes all over the place. I guess it’s an overview of how humans use language and writing, but not in any systematic sense. It basically covers interesting language stuff from the author’s research interests.

And don’t get me wrong, there actually is interesting stuff here that I didn’t know about before or never looked into too deeply. It covers the development and use of cuneiform writing as well as the story of its decipherment, it examines the story of Hernan Cortes’ translator Malinche and her role in the conquest of the Aztecs, it covers the creation of the secret language Unserdeutsch by children who spoke Tok Pisin but were forced to speak only German at missionary boarding school, and maybe some other stuff I’m forgetting.

But there’s also stuff in there that I don’t really care about and I can’t even justify as forming necessary connective tissue in the book since the book doesn’t really have an intellectual framework. There’s a chapter about how the word “kamunun” in Akkadian over the millennia became “cumin” in English and the networks of trade by which the spice was spread around the world, there’s a part about how multilingual London’s children are which contains a lament from the German immigrant author about Brexit, there’s another chapter about the Eskimo-Aleut language family which mentions the author’s fears over COVID-19 and her wish that she could make a research trip to Canada instead of just reading about these languages, there’s a whole thing about Japanese sensitivity to the seasons and their relationship to seasonal foods which comes across to me as too Orientalist.

So if I take the stuff that I liked and balance it against stuff that I was lukewarm on then my final opinion on this book is that I wish I’d read something more technical about languages. Anyway, this really is it, no more popular science books for me.

The language of Narcissus

Two warriors cleaving a goblin in two in Dragon's Dogma

So I wasn’t kidding when I mentioned I’m into Dragon’s Dogma. I’m at that particular stage of video game obsession where when I’m not playing it, I’m thinking of playing it.

A related obsession has sprung up for me, though, and that’s the obsession of posting screenshots. You can take and upload screenshots directly from the game. This is not such a big thing for computer players, but trust me when I say this feature is fairly novel for this generation of video game consoles.

See for yourself how much I’m uploading to the official video game website (the answer is several pics everyday). It’s fun to document your fictional adventures and put them up for strangers to view. It’s fun even when no one sees your pics, but it’s even better when random people on the Internet actually compliment you on them.

I did notice, however, that the majority of the screenshots posted are from Japanese players. Not only that, but the uploaders often write a short blurb to which other players respond. I can’t read Japanese but it’s obvious that there’s a community of Japanese players carrying on conversations and connecting with each other through their enjoyment of the game.

However, there is no similar community of English speaking players on the game website. There are anglophone players, but compared to the number and visibility of the Japanese players they’re a drop in the bucket.

It’s not as if the narcissism of the screenshot is unknown outside of Japan. Do I even need to mention that the word “selfie” exists?

I would theorize that the dominance of Japanese players is due to a couple of reasons. The first is that the Japanese Internet is more centralized than that of other linguistic communities. A gigantic amount of Internet traffic in Japan goes through one website, 2ch. It’s my understanding that it’s basically an old school BBS with a few modifications and apparently still has that terrible web design from the 1990s that oldsters might remember. Even if they’re not on it, a Japanese Internet user will at least have heard of the site.

No equivalent website exists for the English Internet. Players would be on several different message boards, blogs, and gaming sites, so one single service would not dominate.

Of course, the Dragon’s Dogma site is integrated directly into the game, so players should at least be discovering it that way. Thus, the second reason I would say that so few English speakers can be found on the game site is due to is popularity – namely, its popularity with Japanese players. An English-speaking player might share a few screenshots and go to the game site hoping for some discussion, then discover that most of the existing conversation is in another language. They might make a few attempts at connecting with other English-speaking players, and a few die hards might stick around, but the majority will retreat to their own gaming forums or even just give up on connecting at all.

There might be all this rhetoric about the Internet allowing one to connect with a yak herder in Nepal, but in truth the Internet is a very segregated place. Users talk mostly to people in their own country. This does make sense, after all – how many Korean TV shows are shown in the USA, for example? Who else would Korean fans talk about their favourite TV show with but with other Koreans? Of course, there are languages with international reach and emigrant diasporas, so there’s still a bit of internationalism online. But not as much as all the ads back in the 90’s would make you think.

Forgiveness, please

Language Log discusses an article about the president of the Philippines’ refusal to apologize to Hong Kong over the death of a group of Hong Kong tourists when they were holidaying in the Philippines. The post is about a particular claim that part of the problem is that Tagalog has no word for “sorry”. The claim is of course complete crap.

However, one of the comments on the post gives a very old-fashioned way to apologize in Tagalog: “Ipagpaumanhin po ninyo ang aking pagkakamali.” This sounds seriously formal to me. If I were to translate this into English with approximately the same connotations I would render it as “I humbly beseech you for your forgiveness for the grievous wrong I have committed”. Somehow I can’t imagine saying it in any other position besides kneeling in abject supplication on the ground, clothes perhaps rent in anguish.

My admittedly poor translation sounds kind of hokey, or it can if not intoned with the proper gravitas. However, saying the Tagalog sentence with anything less than utter sincerity somehow seems wrong and even faintly immoral. I honestly can’t think of any situation where I would need to deploy this linguistic equivalent of the nuclear option. Perhaps if I’d accidentally killed my neighbour’s child or something like that.

Anyway, now you know how to apologize in Tagalog if you ever commit manslaughter.

Alien Nation

I’ve recently installed this Spanish-language trivia game on my phone out of guilt at the deterioration of my fluency en castellano. However, I’ve discovered that I know very little of Spanish pop culture and don’t possess the general bits of knowledge that someone immersed in the Hispanosphere would pick up over the course of their lives. The questions consist of examples such as, “So-and-so is married to this famous actor” and neither the clue nor any of the potential answers are people I’ve ever heard of. That or I get something like, “Such-and-such island is part of this grouping: A)The Balearics, B)The Azores, or C)The Canary Isles”. Oh yes, did I mention that the game is mostly geared toward Spaniards?

The best I’ve gotten is 50% correct and you can bet I earned the hell out of that D- rating. I suppose it’s not the game’s fault it’s not aimed for a Canadian English audience. I am somewhat surprised to discover that Family Matters and Urkel’s catch phrase are considered a common reference point in Spain. Oh well, at least I can feel like I’m doing something with my Spanish skills.

And in case you were wondering, Steve Urkel’s signature phrase is rendered as ¿He sido yo? in the language of Cervantes.

Say what?

From linguaphiles:

Usage examples you wouldn’t expect to find in a dictionary
"They threw the newly born baby into the river." (for "river".)
"Suffocate the child so he will die." (for "suffocate").

I love the additional examples that the commenters provided.

"you will stick one end of it up your arse"
"it is better if I kill you and hide you[r body] where no-one will see it"
"do you want me to take my clothes off?" (for "clothes")
"This is the place where I always hide the bodies." (an example of an adverbial relative clause)

Some of the examples have to be deliberate attempts at surrealism, they’re too bizarre to be produced by a normal person writing in a formal context. But good lord, check out the novella written as an example of the phrase “a woman” for a Russian-English dictionary:

She became a woman at fifteen, when she fell in love with a good-for-nothing who used her feelings and deprived her of her innocence without thinking about the psychological consequences of this event for a girl who had grown up in a Puritanical family.

Let me guess, the writer of the entry is a failed novelist making ends meet by writing dictionary entries. I’m actually reminded of my French class in high school, where I fulfilled my dialogue-writing assignments by putting the speakers in bizarre situations (my favourite was a conversation between a junky and the dealer he is trying to score crack from).

A Filipino blog, for once

Yes, this post is dangerously on-topic for me.  Rather, it would be if I still maintained the fiction that Sarapen is about my research on Filipino bloggers.

But back to the main plot.  Manuel Viloria at gives Tagalog lessons on the requisite formulas one needs to know to get by in various social situations in the Philippines: “Happy Birthday,” “it’s raining hard,” “I’ll avoid pork rinds for now.”  You know, the essential things.  The lessons are also being podcast, so you can listen to how things are supposed to be pronounced.

I’m not sure who the audience of these podcasts are supposed to be, though.  “Learn to speak Tagalog now (for free!) to give you the advantage when you travel to the Philippines.  So it’s for people outside the Philippines, then.  But which people?  Business travellers wouldn’t need this much Tagalog since English can take them almost anywhere in the Philippines, so I must assume these lessons are for second generation Filipinos and non-Filipinos with personal reasons for learning Tagalog (i.e., married to a Filipino).  Which makes sense given the range of social situations covered in the lessons.

Tangentially, I confess that I still haven’t got into podcasting.  I’d rather have a text to quickly skim through than a meandering recording that I’d have to listen to in its entirety just to find out if there’s anything interesting in it.  When considering blog post vs. podcast, I’d have to go with blog post just for that very reason.  For me, their unskimmability kills most podcasts for me.  Of course, in the case of this particular blog, podcasting is certainly helpful, but in general, I just can’t get into them.

And on another tangent, I used to to regularly write about anarchism on my old blog.  Mostly my posts revolved around David Graeber, an anarchist anthropologist.  Some month back, I discovered this video of him being interviewed on Youtube and I thought I might as well put it up now.  It’s all interesting stuff, I just wish the whole interview was on.

Question on “The Problem of Speech Genres”

What exactly does Bakhtin mean when he refers to “style,” and how is style different from genre in his thinking?  I’m not entirely clear on it and it’s bugging me more and more.  I’m going to have to do some more digging on the topic and maybe read the other essays in Speech Genres and Other Late Essays.  Still, Bakhtin’s got such an interesting-sounding name: Mikhail Mikhailovich BAAHK-TEEEHN.  Or M.M. Bakhtin for short, also great-sounding.

And speaking of linguistics, I’ve discovered an unexpected benefit from having to ride the bus all the time — namely, that I get to eavesdrop on the conversations of the other riders, and consequently I get to listen to a lot more French-English codeswitching than I usually do.  I just heard some intrasentential codeswitching, so I I guess I have to reject my original contention that such codeswitching doesn’t happen around here.  I wish I could read on a moving vehicle without feeling like I need to vomit, otherwise I’d do more on the bus than daydreaming and surreptitiously scoping out the other people there.

Happy Feast of the Epiphany

The twelve days of Christmas officially end tomorrow, so take down those holiday decorations, people.  I didn’t get what I really wanted for Christmas, but hardly anyone ever does.

Anyway, during Christmastide I watched the latest round of the Ultimate Fighting tournament at some dude’s house.  I’m back in northern Ontario now and it’s interesting seeing how stuff is different here than in Halifax, especially the casual codeswitching.  There are quite a few francophones here and even a dialect of French peculiar to the region, so bilingualism in French and English is common among locals.  Many people from here switch back and forth between English and French quite easily, although I noticed that they do it intersententially instead of intrasententially (meaning that they switch the language of their sentences, but not within the sentence itself, i.e., no “Do you wanna coucher avec moi?”).  Still, this intersentential codeswitching happened at a gathering where the speakers couldn’t be sure that everyone spoke French, although they knew everyone spoke English, so the codeswitching would probably be different if the audience was entirely bilingual.

Still, one of the more peculiar parts of the evening (I guess besides the part where people gathered to watch savage beatings on tv) was in the waiting period before the fighting started, when one of the guys there invited everyone to watch Saddam Hussein’s hanging on his laptop.  From the excitement in the way he talked about it, the video sounded rather graphic.  I declined to see it, but most everyone else saw the recording.  Apparently the video quality was rather poor, especially with the shakiness of the cellphone camera.  “That was it?” seemed to be the prevailing sentiment among the viewers.  Still, I wonder what exactly they expected.  Perhaps an execution like on film, with a dramatic speech and bloody climax?  Maybe with the prisoner shouting “Freedom!” until his voice fades away?

The banal nature of the execution seems to be the kicker, added to by the very method used to capture the proceedings.  Surely the execution of the greatest monster of contemporary times (or so we have been told), surely that execution couldn’t have been so ordinary?  Shouldn’t there have been more of a spectacle befitting this most extraordinary death?  Shouldn’t a tumbril have at least been involved, or maybe a bulletproof Popemobile?  But a secret hanging recorded on a cameraphone?  Where’s the drama, the blood?  I can imagine it was a disappointing video to see.  I suppose the videos of various beheadings floating around will have to do until the next important execution.

Languages I wish I spoke better

It’s pretty much all languages besides English.  By order of my level of fluency:

  1. Tagalog (a.k.a. Filipino).  This one I have native fluency in, but my vocabulary is for crap.  Even in the Philippines, I mostly spoke in the dialect known as Taglish (Tagalog-English), and I’ve been losing little-used words.  Don’t get me wrong, I am perfectly comfortable in it, but it can be hard for me to avoid codeswitching in my speech (codeswitching is the technical term in linguistics for switching between languages inter- or intrasententially).
  2. Spanish.  This one I almost achieved fluency in after five weeks in Peru for an ethnographic field school.  I was so close I could feel it, and had I stayed just a bit longer in South America I think I could have gotten it.  Funny story,  I actually only took a year of Spanish back in undergrad (I think I got a B) and that was three years before the field school.  I’d half-assedly been reviewing my Spanish in preparation, but I was hoping to be able to get the help of other people in my group who were better speakers.  When I arrived at the airport, though, I couldn’t find the person I was supposed to meet and couldn’t remember the name or number of the hotel I was supposed to be staying in.  There was a taxi driver talking to me in Spanish trying to get me to take his cab, and out of desperation I managed to start producing sentences in Spanish.  I got the guy to take me to a decent hotel, then I managed to get a room and make a long-distance call back home to sort out the whole mess.  I hooked up with the rest of the field school the next day.  After that I was fine talking in Spanish for the rest of my time in Peru.
  3. French.  Canada is officially bilingual in French and English, and what that means for English-speaking children is that they must study French.  I resisted learning French, partly because I thought it was unfair to expect me to study it at the same level as my classmates when I’d never encountered it before (the educational system made no concessions to immigrant children in this regard), and partly because I’d begun taking up the attitudes of my Anglophone classmates regarding French (mainly, that it was stupid).  By the time I got to high school I started making an effort and actually got an A in French, despite me not knowing how to count past ten (by that level, you’re assumed to have already learned the basics, so you don’t get tested on them).  However, that was only for one year, the last year of mandatory French study, and after that I dropped French like a hot potato.  In retrospect, I wish I hadn’t, since there are all kinds of direct advantages to be enjoyed from French fluency, such as the greater number of scholarships one becomes eligible for and the greater number of job opportunities.  And I wouldn’t mind living in Montreal sometime, despite it being the dirties Canadian city I’ve ever seen (which is still rather clean compared to the Philippines).  I can still kind of get the gist of written French, though, and sometimes in Chinese restaurants I read the French side of the fortunes in my fortune cookies first just to see how much I still understand.
  4. Bahasa Indonesian.  I had this idea for doing ethnographic fieldwork in Malaysia and Indonesia for my Masters and I bought myself a Teach Yourself Indonesian book in preparation (the proposed project turned out to be too big for a one year Masters program like mine).  I only got a quarter of the way in and I haven’t cracked the book in over a year, so all I can remember is yes, no, and counting to ten.  Still, I’m hoping to do fieldwork in Southeast Asia for my proposed PhD project, so the book could still be useful in the future.  I’ll have to start doing the exercises again sometime.
  5. German.  This one I’ve never studied at all, but I could have.  After reading Heidegger in my high school philosophy class, I suddenly got the hankering to study German and signed up for it.  However, I was the only one interested in a school of (I think) 5 000 students.  My school offered to have me bussed to another school for my German lessons, but I decided I didn’t like Heidegger enough to put up with this inconvenience.  Again, in retrospect I wish I’d stuck with it, since it’s never a bad thing to have more languages under one’s belt.