Saturday, June 13, 2009

Open to interpretation

Songhay's lexical economy - the way it keeps its lexicon rather smaller than its neighbours' by using a single word to fulfill the functions of what in most languages would be several different words - has attracted the attention of several of those who have written about the language from the 1850s onwards. While Kwarandzyey (Korandje) is so full of Berber and Arabic loanwords that the size issue probably no longer applies, it still has many striking examples of polysemy. Take "open", for example.

fya (from Songhay *feeri) is best translated as "open" (its commonest sense). Of course, to open one's mouth can be to start eating - hence the frozen compound fya-mmi "open-mouth" means "breakfast". But opening is also what you do to release something from an enclosed space; hence to "open water (for something)" (fya iri), or just "open", is to irrigate, and to "open for an animal or person" is to release them. Likewise, to "open a rope (for something)" is to untie it. To release something from your grasp is to let it fall - hence to "open for something" is also to drop it. And for a man to release his wife from her obligations towards him is to end the marriage - hence to "open for a woman" is to divorce her.

We can map the connections between these easily enough, making it clear that they form a coherent network of meaning:

breakfast untie
\ / \
open - release
\ / \
irrigate divorce

But not only will any single English translation applied literally and consistently yield ludicrous results for at least some of these cases - translating it differently in different circumstances will force you to choose a single meaning in cases where the text is ambiguous. "He opened for the woman" probably means he divorced her, but in principle it could mean he released her (eg from prison), or untied her, or (literally) dropped her; in fact, since Songhay has no gender distinctions in pronouns, it should even be able to mean "It (eg an automatic door) opened for her". And of course, this kind of ambiguity can be deliberately exploited for effect, as in puns.

In Kwarandzyey, this is never likely to cause serious ambiguity - the language is almost never written down, and it's a small enough community that the context is usually known to everyone anyway. But imagine worrying about this kind of thing in a millennia-old text in a language that no one today speaks natively, and you can really see why even the most literal translation of such a text is unavoidably an act of interpretation.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Why dead snakes are like clothes

What would you say if, in some science-fiction novel, you read of a language where the situations that in English would be described as "The clothes blew down from the clothesline", "Push that dead snake away with a stick", and "I see where he's carrying the rabbits he killed hung from his belt" were all naturally expressed with the same root, plus nothing more than different affixes? What about "I slammed together the hunks of clay I held in either hand", "I slung away the rotten tomatoes, sluicing them off the pan they were in", and "I picked up in my mouth the already chewed gum from where it was stuck on the table"? My inclination would have been to dismiss it as a neat but implausible idea, placing some strain on the reader's suspension of disbelief. But - until no more than thirty years ago - such a language existed right in California. Go to Part III of Leonard Talmy's dissertation Semantic Structures in English and Atsugewi to get the data; here's a slightly less surprising example as a taster:

Subject=I, Object=3rd personfrom a linear object moving axially [with one end] non-obliquely against the FIGUREfor a small shiny spherical object to moveout of a snug enclosure/a socketfactual
I poked his eye out (with a stick.)
Subject=I, Object=3rd personfrom the mouth/interior of a person, working ingressively, acting on the FIGUREfor a small shiny spherical object to moveall about, here and there, back and forthfactual
I rolled the round candy around in my mouth.

Of course, people are people; after explanation, the similarities are easy enough to make out, and presumably given enough time anyone can learn to look at a situation and decompose it into elements like these, rather than the elements that "leap out" at an English speaker. In fact, I suspect that having to learn to see things the way the people you talk to do is one of the subtler drivers behind contact-induced language change. But cases like this provoke thought: just how much can the attributes of a situation most relevant to formulating a sentence vary from language to language?