Sunday, April 29, 2007

Who has more than 40 words for camels?

Geoffrey Pullum is annoyed to hear a reporter state that "Arabic famously has over 40 terms for different types of camel" - not so much for whether it's true or not as because "they are presented as if profound and significant and clearly supportive of exoticizing claims about far-away nomadic peoples like Arabs and Eskimos, when in fact even if they were true they would be utterly unsurprising." I suppose I should point out that it is true - unsurprisingly. I don't know much more than three (Classical) Arabic words for "camel" ('ibil camels in general, jamal male camel, nāqah female camel); but people I can only describe as camel geeks have taken the trouble to post lists of terms for camels of various ages, sexes, colours, and breeds - and there appear to be 38 more terms for female camels classified by their breeding status alone, and another 14 for different Saudi camel breeds (and I'm ignoring at least another 6 lists of specialised terms for camels just on that site.) If I were a professional camel breeder or something (perish the thought!) I would no doubt know all these terms; but otherwise, who needs them?

But "Arabic famously has over 40 terms for different types of camel" is nonetheless misleading. People have a habit of thinking of technical vocabularies as aspects of a language - English has n terms for types of dog, Japanese has x terms for types of seaweed, etc. But that doesn't really work. It's not English speakers that have more than thirty terms for places of articulation; it's linguists working in a certain tradition. If they publish in a different language but studied in the same place, they'll just calque or borrow the words; if they cut their teeth on Panini or Sibawayh - in the original or in English translation - they will use a differently organised vocabulary even if they're writing in English. Likewise, an English camel breeder (if such a thing exists) will most likely just borrow the terminology of whichever region he got his camels from wholesale, as sure as an English sushi restaurant will borrow Japanese sushi terminology. Some Fulani tribes have shifted to Songhay - primarily a language of town-dwellers, with few native words for livestock types - but kept their cattle-herding lifestyle; unsurprisingly, they've also kept Fulani's enormous set of words for different types of cow, and not suddenly forgotten how to tell one cow from another. If practically every speaker of a language knows a given technical terminology, then it might make sense to view it as a property of the language; but that certainly isn't the case here.

Friday, April 27, 2007


I'm writing my core chapter at the moment on Kwarandzie (Korandje), the Northern Songhay language of Tabelbala. (Ethnologue and basic historical common sense notwithstanding, it is specifically Northern Songhay in ancestry, sharing common innovations with the language of places like In-Gall rather than the city it used to trade extensively with, Timbuktu.) It is very heavily influenced by Berber, like other Northern Songhay languages, and I found a great example the other day: the word for "old woman" is tamghazinut. Amghar is a Berber word meaning "old man"; zinu is a Songhay word meaning "old"; and ta-...-t is a Berber circumfix forming the feminine, which, even though Kwarandzie doesn't have gender agreement of any kind, seems (judging by this remarkable case) to be marginally productive as a derivational affix. (Postvocalic r is regularly lost in Korandje.)

On the map below (which I put together for my thesis using Google Earth and GIMP), you can see something of the geographic improbability of the situation:

Friday, April 20, 2007


A query on LINGUIST List the other day asked for examples of other languages which, like English, have a verb "exist" distinct from the general-purpose existential "there is". In Algerian Arabic, such a verb has emerged in recent years through borrowing from French - and has enjoyed the rare distinction of being publicly condemned by the president:
"Ma tinsistish", "ma texistish", the President of the Republic repeated, exclaiming: "What is this language?! It's not French, nor Arabic, nor Tamazight." Looking irritated, he added "I've heard some say that this is a matter of Algerian specificities. If so, I refuse as a citizen to be a part of these specificities."
(L'Expression 9 Mar 2006. The quote can't be found on the official record, which just has a general condemnation of the "repulsive jargon we use in our daily dealings, in which it's sometimes hard to find our national language or even our original unadulterated colloquial dialect.")
Silly as it may sound, this borrowing does have advantages. kayen is the usual way of expressing "there is" in Algerian Arabic, but there are contexts in which it simply won't work - you could not reasonably render "I exist" as *kayen ana, or "Homer existed" as kan kayen Homer (any more than "there's me" or "there used to be Homer" really mean the same thing.) You have to have recourse to loanwords for that, whether you use a Classical Arabic word (mawjuud, say) or a French verb.

Anyway, I did a quick web search for examples of this, not expecting much - but it seems that the online corpus of colloquial Algerian Arabic is bigger than you might have thought, and as full of code-switching as you might expect given who is most likely to have web access. Anyway, presidential proscription or not, a number of examples come up:
* hahahaha mazal yexisti had nou3 taa les femmes? (lol does this kind of women still exist?)
* Antik yerhem waldik, can u send me the link of derja dikssiounaire blenglizia ila yexisti bien sour (Antik please can u send me the link of Darja Dictionary in English if it exists of course)
* Hiphop ma zal yexisti (Hiphop still exists)
* en deux mots : ma yexistich en un mot makachou. (In two words: it doesn't exist. In one word: there isn't any.)
* c un ideal li ma yexistich (It's an ideal that doesn't exist)

Note the -i in this verb. In Algerian Arabic, Classical final-y verbs have mostly merged to end in -a in the past 3rd person and -i everywhere else: bka "he cried", yebki "he cries", bkit "I cried", ebki "cry!"; wella "he returned", ywelli "he returns", wellit "I returned", welli "return!". The rest of the stem remains constant throughout the conjugation; only the final vowel changes in such cases. Some of the commonest forms of French verbs happen to end in [e]: j'existais, il existait, exister, existez... So by an interesting compromise, throughout North Africa most French verbs are borrowed as final-y forms: tilifuna "he called", ytilifuni "he calls", tilifunit "I called", tilifuni "call!" (< telephoner). exister is no exception.

I wonder if other dialects have adopted this word too? I found one example from Tunisia, but that scarcely counts as a different dialect...

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The Piraha debate heats up

A recent Language Log post alluded below the fold to two very interesting papers continuing the Piraha debate. Piraha Exceptionality: a Reassessment (Nevins, Pesetsky, and Rodrigues) reexamines Everett 2005's claims in light of Everett 1986, pointing out substantial and inadequately explained discrepancies between the two, and concluding with the rather hard-hitting statement that:
CA asserts, for example, that the embedded clauses amply documented and described in the earlier work are not actually embedded clauses, but offers no account or even acknowledgment of the numerous facts that argue in favor of the old view over the new. Similarly, CA offers as an argument for the new view the absence of long-distance wh-movement, but offers no new account of the data that in earlier work motivated the claim that Pirahã has no overt wh-movement of any kind. Likewise, as we have seen, CA asserts that Pirahã lacks quantifiers, but offers no coherent evidence against the proposal that the words described as quantifiers in the earlier work were described wrongly. In section 5, we have suggested that the situation is little better with respect to CA's discussion of Pirahã culture. CA simply asserts that Pirahã grammar has properties that, if true, would place it outside the pale of grammar and culture as we know it and would demand a special explanation for Pirahã's seeming uniqueness.
Everett replies in "Cultural Constraints on Grammar in PIRAHÃ: A Reply to Nevins, Pesetsky, and Rodrigues (2007). He protests their efforts to provide comprehensible glosses for his 2005 sentences, objecting that considerations like what "the best free translation, the least exotic translation" is are irrelevant to the final analysis, which should rely solely on the truth conditions for the word's use, and that in any event "armchair linguists who wouldn't be able to pronounce a single Pirahã word" are in no position to give such glosses. Glosses like "cloth arm" are superior to glosses like "hammock" (which is what the compound in question means), because they help inform the reader about the complexity of Pirahã morphology. He also offers some interesting evidence on why he now analyses what he had previously termed a "nominaliser" (and had glossed as such in 2005) as a marker of old information. His core objection seems to be that such efforts as Nevins et al's are bound to fail because not all languages "translate fairly well into one another", and in particular, Piraha cannot be translated well into English; the comprehensible translations they propose don't have the same truth conditions, and the "literal" "translations" (yes, I think that was worth two pairs of scare quotes) that he sometimes gives (eg Everett 2005:624: “Smallness of cans remaining associated was in the gut of the canoe”; what would the truth conditions for something being "in the gut of the canoe" be, I wonder?) don't exoticise the language so much as attempt to render its genuine exoticism into English.

The debate looks like an argument about where the burden of proof lies: for example, does Everett need to provide more than two examples of how the truth conditions of Piraha "ba´aiso" differ from those of English "whole" (supposedly; the anaconda skin example works just fine for me in English, presumably implying that my word "whole" does not in fact mean the same as Everett's word "whole"), or do his critics need to go learn Piraha before they can question his claims about the meaning of "ba´aiso"? Are his critics justified in assuming that, in the absence of contrary published evidence, a given Piraha structure will have a familiar counterpart? Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

Incidentally, Everett's response provides another interesting example of differing truth conditions for a sentence in English. In his idiolect, apparently, the fact that, when outsiders come,
"They say hello and the Pirahãs say hello back. They ask if there are any fish and the Pirahãs say that there are fish or are not fish. Many Pirahãs can communicate at a rudimentary level in Portuguese. But they lose the gist of conversations very easily and often after someone has left they ask me to interpret... The best speakers of Portuguese among the Pirahãs speak it about as well as I do French. I can say a few things and find a bathroom, but I am not ready for any conversation of any depth at all."
is so perfectly compatible with all Piraha being "monolingual" that he can actually offer it as evidence for the claim.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Of truth and Scotsmen

A few commentators on my previous post invoked the "No true Scotsman" fallacy. This term refers to a rhetorical move whereby one makes a sweeping generalisation about some class (say, Scotsmen), and, when presented with a counterexample to the generalisation, retorts that this counterexample is not a true example of the class ("no true Scotsman"). While not strictly speaking fallacious, this move is of course misleading, in that it suggests that the empirically testable generalisation first proposed still stands, when actually it has been replaced with an unfalsifiable tautology applying to a much narrower class. I didn't in fact use any such argument in my last post, but I smelled something fishy about this "fallacy", and decided to examine it further.

The "true X" construction is semantically productive in a wide variety of contexts (a true friend, a true patriot, a true gentleman, a true villain, a true genius, a true cat...) In each case, it presupposes that some things that would normally be termed members of the class are not true ones (that not all of those who are normally labelled friends are true friends, for example). At least for animate nouns, it seems to distinguish between a broader use of a term based on appearance or convention, and a less inclusive one referring to a sort of ideal that members of the broader class may or may not live up to. Thus a true cat is one that exhibits, in exaggerated form, all the characteristics that we associate (accurately or not) with stereotypical cats; a true friend is one who exhibits the characteristics of friendship in circumstances where others would fail to exhibit them. Anyone can be a Scotsman merely by being born in Scotland, but to be a true Scotsman, you probably have to wear a kilt all the time, love haggis, roll your r's, etc.

Obviously, this feature of English is not inherently fallacious or misleading; using the phrase "true X" simply saves us the trouble of saying "an X that more than satisfies our expectations of Xs". Now that more people actually know foreigners personally rather than by report, it's become painfully obvious how far from reality most national stereotypes are, so this construction sounds rather silly when applied to Scotsmen; but even there it nonetheless conveys a fairly clear meaning to anyone familiar with English culture.

Interestingly, though, the rhetorical move originally criticised is not always misleading either. You can undeniably be a Scotsman (or a cat) without being a true Scotsman (or a true cat), so the suggestion that calling someone not a true Scotsman saves the original sweeping generalisation about Scotsmen is false. But if you're not a true friend (or a true gentleman), you're not really a friend (or a gentleman) at all - just as fool's gold isn't really gold - so calling someone not a true friend, if justifiable, does save your sweeping generalisation about friends, or, more accurately, your statement defining the characteristics of a friend. A poem I studied way back in middle school provides an entertaining example of the non-fallacious use of an (implicit) "No true Scotsman"-type argument:
Ramped and roared the lions, with horrid laughing jaws;
They bit, they glared, gave blows like beams, a wind went with their paws;
With wallowing might and stifled roar they rolled on one another,
Till all the pit with sand and mane was in a thunderous smother;
The bloody foam above the bars came whisking through the air;
Said Francis then, “Faith, gentlemen, we’re better here than there.”

De Lorge’s love o’er heard the King, a beauteous lively dame,
With smiling lips and sharp bright eyes, which always seemed the same;
She thought, The Count my lover is brave as brave can be;
He surely would do wondrous things to show his love of me;
King, ladies, lovers, all look on; the occasion is divine;
I’ll drop my glove, to prove his love; great glory will be mine.

She dropped her glove, to prove his love, then looked at him and smiled;
He bowed, and in a moment leaped among the lions wild:
The leap was quick, return was quick, he has regained his place,
Then threw the glove, but not with love, right in the lady’s face.
“By Heaven,” said Francis, “rightly done!” and he rose from where he sat;
“No love,” quoth he, “but vanity, sets love a task like that.”

Monday, April 02, 2007

Bloggers who abusively invoke "Islam"

Today, it appears that politics has once more touched the hallowed halls of Language Log Plaza. Unfortunately, while one post was good, the other was devoted to criticising what looks like an eminently sensible - if unlikely to be followed - EU recommendation that, among other things, the term "Islamic terrorism" be replaced in EU discourse by "terrorists who abusively invoke Islam", and the term "jihad" not be used in reference to terrorist acts. This should be an absolute no-brainer. The likes of Al-Qaeda wrongly describe their own terrorist acts as jihad in order to make them appear legitimate to other Muslims; for Western governments to publicly accept this characterisation is about as sensible as it would be for Muslim critics of Bush to start losing no opportunity to call him a true American patriot, or a stalwart defender of democracy and freedom.

Bill Poser seeks to justify the term "Islamic terrorism" by saying that "Dozens of terrorists have explicitly said that they are Muslims and that their motivation was Islam. Moreover, there is clearly widespread support among Muslims for terrorism." He then lists a table of responses across selected Muslim countries to the question of whether "suicide bombings against civilians are sometimes or often justified". Slightly expanding that table might have modified his conclusion. In the US, it turns out, "only 46 percent of Americans think that "bombing and other attacks intentionally aimed at civilians" are "never justified," while 24 percent believe these attacks are "often or sometimes justified."". The loonier fringes of the blogosphere are rife with the sorts of idiots who would be happy to describe themselves as patriots motivated by patriotism and who support the mass killing of Muslim civilians. So by Bill Poser's reasoning, Americans' killings of Muslim or Muslim-looking civilians ought to be termed "patriotic terrorism" (626 ghits.) Of course, such a term is extremely unlikely to be used, because, given the sensible general view that such crimes are unpatriotic, the term's only function would be either to attack the whole notion of US patriotism by tarring it with the "terrorism" brush, or to promote the idea of terrorism by wrapping it in the flag. Calling the terrorism of groups like al-Qaeda "Islamic" fulfills precisely the same two functions - and no government should be in the business of promoting either of the resulting noxious ideologies.

Update: Bulbul, whose blog is always worth reading, has put up a good response to this issue.