Monday, June 25, 2012

"Inability to read or write in your mother tongue was a prerequisite for upward mobility"

If Mohammed Hanif's account of growing up in Pakistan below doesn't ring any bells, then congratulations: you're from one of the minority of countries worldwide with relatively low levels of diglossia. If you're Arab, you know exactly what he's talking about: substitute Darja/3ammiyya for Punjabi, Fusha for Urdu, and French/English as appropriate for English.

"When I was growing up in Pakistan, the complete inability to read or write in your mother tongue was a prerequisite for upward mobility... In my rural version of the state education system, the first thing they did was to try and save me from my mother tongue. Everyone spoke Punjabi in my household and like every five-year-old I had a vocabulary. I could name a goat, a donkey, a chicken. But since the medium of instruction in my school was Urdu, I had to learn alien names for familiar things. I must have spent the next 10 years learning in a language that I would be considered pretentious for speaking in my own street. By the time I finished high school, I realised that there was no college physics in Urdu, forget mathematics, and if you were destined to study aviation, you might have had to wait for centuries while someone drew up navigation maps in Urdu. So I began to learn English and by the time I drifted into writing I had no idea what my own language was. I was more like, “How much are you paying?”"

You might also think it's odd that there's no college maths in Urdu, given that there is such a thing in, for instance, Polish, a language with about a third as many speakers...

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Talking Dictionaries (Celtic, Tuvan, Athapaskan, ...)

This link needs posting: Talking Dictionaries, which does what it says on the tin. Included are comparative Celtic (Breton, Welsh, Cornish, Irish, Scottish, and Manx), which should interest some readers; Tuvan (a Turkic language of Siberia with which Richard Feynman was obsessed); a couple of Munda languages; three Native American languages; and an Oceanic language of New Guinea.

Inalienable possession and social change

Many languages make some sort of distinction between "alienable" and "inalienable" possession. The exact factors vary a lot from language to language, but typically, inalienable possession is when the possessor inherently can't end his relationship to the possessed at all - for example, your father, your brain, your birthplace - or at least not without unacceptably drastic measures - for example, your tongue or your kidney. Alienable possession is when the relationship is more easily changeable - for example, your book, your room, your beef tongue.

In Berber, the roughly corresponding distinction is in general limited to inalienable relations mediated through your parents, ie those that have an important role to play in determining your own social identity: thus father, mother, brother, uncle, aunt, etc. use a different possessive construction than other nouns. For these words, the bare form means "my _" - eg Siwi aṃṃa "my brother". To say "X's brother", you have to add a 3rd person possessive marker first - thus aṃṃa-s n X (brother-his of X) "X's brother". In contrast, for other nouns, including people outside this category - eg amdarrəs "teacher" - there's no 3rd person possessor: "X's teacher" would just be amdarrəs n X.

As widespread as it is, the notion of inalienability rests on an experience of the world that, although it would be immediately recognisable to most people anywhere any time, has been under increasing pressure in a modern context. High mobility - geographical and occupational - makes even parents a rather less meaningful determiner of your identity and position in society, let alone uncles or aunts or birthplaces. For a person who has spent life far from most relatives and with no very strong ties to them, the saying "friends are the real family" has a resonance to it which would seem bizarre to most people throughout history. The body and the brain remain more or less inalienable for life - organ transplants notwithstanding - but a few half-mad futurists like Moravec dream of changing even that. The point of inalienable possessions is not just that they happen to be inescapable but that they define your identity in a way you can't control. The spirit of this age resists such impositions on one's freedom - just ask Dr. Phil. But as Chomsky points out, blank slates don't get anywhere, and "creativity presupposes fixed structure".