Language is whatever a group of people use to communicate with each other.
(view spoiler)[It doesn’t include Klingon - Do’Ha’ - but it would if there were a group of people who used it as their primary language and it was allowed to evolve naturally. Actually, considering the complexity of the Klingon in Marc Okrand’s The Klingon Dictionary, which is the common tongue of the empire, less well known or widespread dialects must be nightmares for non-natives to learn. (hide spoiler)]
McWhorter divides the book up into five chapters based on the acronym IDIOM, which stands for “ingrown,” “disheveled,” “intricate,” “oral” and “mixed.” He makes the point that English (and any widespread, widely spoken language) is not “normal.” “Normal” languages tend to accumulate a baroque collection of irregularities and ornamentation that make them difficult for non-natives to learn fluently. In Chapter one, he uses several examples of this, including Pashto, which conjugates verbs differently in the past tense depending upon whether they are transitive or intransitive. In Kikuyu, a speaker makes a much finer distinction between “here”-ness and “there”-ness than English. And, as I know from personal experience, a Mandarin speaker has to use a classifier when indicating quantity.
In Chapter two, McWhorter uses Navajo as an example of dishevelment: In Navajo, nearly every verb is irregular. As he notes, it’s as if every verb in English declined like be. And thus it goes through every chapter as he draws on many examples to showcase the complexities of language.
Just as some people get enraptured by biology or astronomy (or, shudder, economics), I get starry-eyed over language & linguistics so I give this book a strong recommendation. As I mentioned, it’s not as strong as McWhorter’s more academic efforts but it’s an enjoyable read for anyone interested in “our magnificent bastard tongues.”["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
I've enjoyed following his website for a couple or three years now - http://www.zompist.com/ - and I downloaded/printed the original (much shorter) veI've enjoyed following his website for a couple or three years now - http://www.zompist.com/ - and I downloaded/printed the original (much shorter) version of this to aid me in my own conlang forays. ___________________________________________________________
Review will follow as soon as I polish my conlang sufficiently. ___________________________________________________________
I may have mentioned in passing in other reviews that some of my favorite parts in The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion are the appendices where Tolkien writes about the languages of Middle Earth. As a boy, I would pore over the notes on pronunciation and the index of names, making up words and names for my own use in my own imaginary worlds. Now, my older self has most of Christopher Tolkien’s volumes of his father’s notes, which include the only extensive essay Tolkien pere ever wrote on any of his invented tongues – “Lowdham’s Report on the Adunaic Language,” Sauron Defeated: The History of The Lord of the Rings, Part Four. My older self is thrilled as well that Al Gore invented the Internet because I discovered there the hominin species homo sapiens geekus conlangis - the community of men and women who spend far too much of their free time making up imaginary languages comprising all the elements of the real things.
Mark Rosenfelder’s Language Construction Kit is an Idiot’s Guide to making those imaginary languages.
Part of the audience is the gaming community, particularly those gamemasters who want to create worlds that sound realistic. To that end, Rosenfelder gives some rough-and-ready guidelines for creating word lists and affixes that can be used to make names and short sentences for role-playing purposes. The second half of the book’s audience is the hardcore conlanger who may or may not be creating a language for any reason beyond the pure pleasure of the exercise. For those, he has chapters on sounds, vocabularies, grammar, semantics, pragmatics, language families and writing systems, and an appendix where he presents one of his own invented languages, Kebreni.
I wouldn’t recommend this book for the “casual” conlanger. Not because it wouldn’t be useful but because the author has had a shorter version on his website* for several years and that’s sufficient for someone who wants to avoid the dungeon-exploring party made up of “Boris,” “Bear Who Hates Honey,” “Wanda” and “Presto the Magician” adventuring in “Angland.”
Hardcore conlangers (especially those who are just beginning) should find a wealth of useful information and tips on making their languages more than just English with different words, however. Rosenfelder assumes the reader has a fair knowledge of linguistics but provides a useful bibliography for people who want to catch up. There is one thing that would have made the book better, IMO, and that is a CD with examples of pronunciations. It’s all well and good to describe tongue positions, breathing, and the difference between a high and a low vowel but I have trouble “hearing” them. After years of reading various grammars and linguistics texts, I still can’t easily identify alveolars from alveolar palatals or an affricative from a fricative.
For several years now, I’ve been putzing around with my own conlang, meleke, born as part of an imaginary world originally created for my Dungeons & Dragons buddies back in the day. I have a fairly extensive wordlist and grammar notes but I’ve always had trouble finding a verb system I like. However, under the pressure of writing this review, I have managed to create one that I mostly like and have used it to translate the quintessential translation text for all “serious” conlangers – the Babel Text from Genesis 11:1-9:
Lemmonas osura tanda mava set tulonas tamenna aidar maknar. Rhojir tar si ratha, dennonas khellen shada si han SHINAR, kepsonas tamenna not. Afentonas intar tamenna – Fenathat menna tarmen set sajathat forsai menna disa. Tulonas tamenna nar amnen tarmen set nar bratho tumo. Tisona LORD aprir eserva set ostoro set arthir khellen khoten. Afentona tamen – Sathas tamenna sot. Soterathas tamenna lammas mava sot tanda mava fir nanta. Noyen faffas tamenna shenta ursa. Afentona tamen – Ismaffat set allanaffat tandar taralle. Uprathas tamenna kel afentir intar tamenna. Gatrona LORD atarat alo tar. Duronas arthir tamenna esevra. Apellonas khellen esevra BABEL preset not kadhir LORD glavo tandave alove. Gatrona LORD kar not atarat alo tar.
It’s still pretty rough – I haven’t developed the language enough to fully capture subtle connotations – and I’m still not entirely happy with the verbs but overall I think it’s coming along nicely. My problem is that I don’t have the patience to stick with it for extended lengths of time; I fiddle around with it for an hour one day, come back a week later, and then let it lay fallow for a few weeks.
But back to the book – This is definitely a highly specialized niche read. If you are a conlanger, I say, “check it out”; if you’re not, shake your head in bemusement, if you must, but devote your reading time to something else.
* The website contains a whole bunch of fascinating articles and not solely anent conlangs. I have especially enjoyed his essays on Asimov's "psychohistory" and his reviews of the entire Foundation series, including the non-Asimovian, and best IMO, Psychohistorical Crisis....more
This is a perfectly nice (if dated - 1987) book about exactly what the title suggests and it probably could only appeal to readers like myself who areThis is a perfectly nice (if dated - 1987) book about exactly what the title suggests and it probably could only appeal to readers like myself who are fascinated by how people speak but aren't linguists or philologists.
If you are a linguist, I think the book is too general as it's more a survey of Chinese languages than an in-depth analysis of any one of them.
And because it was written pre-Tiananmen, pre-fall of the Berlin Wall, pre-Soviet collapse, I don't know how current Ramsey's discussion of the PRC's policies toward minorities is or the status of some of the smaller languages (some of which had only a few thousand speakers in 1987).
While it's not a spell-binding read that will keep you rapt for hours, I did find it fascinating and would recommend it to the interested....more
The problem with linguistics is that it’s still wedded to the humanistic disciplines of anthropology and history, which have arbitrarily classified laThe problem with linguistics is that it’s still wedded to the humanistic disciplines of anthropology and history, which have arbitrarily classified languages by lexicon, proximity or some other, unscientific criterion. In The Atoms of Language, Mark Baker uses the analogy of the periodic table of elements to argue that languages can be similarly – and more usefully – classified in terms of elements (“parameters”) that combine to produce the variety we see around us. As he writes in the preface: “These parameters combine and interact with each other in interesting ways…. Even though every sentence of Mohawk is different in its structure from corresponding sentences in English, and every sentence in English is different in its structure from corresponding sentences in Japanese, the ‘formulas’ for making sentences in these three languages differ in only one factor each.” (p. ix)
In Chapters 1-5, Baker identifies several preliminary parameters that identify a distinct language. These chapters can be heavy going for the general reader who doesn’t want to put forth some mental effort but Baker ameliorates matters by:
1. Warning you that it’s going to get complicated and telling you what to skip (though why anyone interested enough to pick up this book would want to skip parts is beyond me); 2. Providing you with a concise dictionary of linguistic terms that comes in handy when you forget what “ergative” means; and 3. Writing in a clear and accessible style.
These first chapters are interesting and informative and straightforward so I’m not going to dwell on them in this review; Baker illustrates 8 characteristics of language that he feels should be included in any parametric table, and for a linguistics geek like myself they’re fascinating:
1. Null subject 2. Head directionality 3. Subject side 4. Polysynthesis 5. Subject placement 6. Verb attraction 7. Serial verbs 8. Optional polysynthesis
It’s in the final two chapters, however, that Baker moves beyond the simple mechanics of parameters and gets into the philosophical “stuff,” and gets into the most interesting part of the book. He first tackles a schema for ordering his “elements”: “…parameters are ranked by their power to affect one another and their potentials for rendering each other irrelevant.” (p. 162) Using this criterion, “polysynthesis” become the first parameter – the “hydrogen” of the parametric table of languages. Whether a language opts to be polysynthetic (like Mohawk) or not (like English) determines how the remaining parameters interact, e.g., head directionality is prior to the subject side parameter, which is prior to verb attraction, etc. Baker commendably avoids over-determining language development. First, he’s offering only a preliminary suggestion of how a schema might be organized. And second, humans are not atoms subject to (relatively) iron-clad natural laws. Identifying parameters might help linguists predict a language’s syntax but can’t determine it. An example is Hindi, an Indo-European tongue, which is head-final and ergative in the simple past tense due to the influence of neighboring, non-IE languages on the Indian subcontinent. Another example is Amharic, where the verb follows its object. The parametric table would predict that Amharic should use postpositions but it doesn’t; it uses prepositions just like English and, as with Hindi, due to its proximity to SOV languages.
One cause of parametric change that’s observable is stylistic in origin. Old English is Japanese-like in having SOV word order but there is a convention that fronts the verb after conjunctions (e.g., Bob the ball threw, and bit the dog Mary). As verbs and their objects tend to attract each other, the tendency toward an SVO order became too powerful, and Middle English acquired the familiar syntax of modern English. A more recent example, and one that can be observed in real time, is the transformation of Quebec Eskimo from an ergative to an accusative language. (pp. 219-22)
Why does this occur? It occurs, in Baker’s estimation, because “human speech is unbounded, stimulus-free, and appropriate” and can’t be explained in wholly mechanical terms. (p. 223) A second factor is that people (esp. children) learn languages from the people around them. Studies have shown that absent “intentionality” and “interaction” people don’t learn a new language (so my dreams of learning Spanish by watching “Sabado Gigante” are just that – dreams). A third factor, also most present in the young, is that language learners can extrapolate from examples. It may be an inaccurate conclusion (like OE-speaking children coming to believe SVO was the correct English syntax) but if it reaches a critical mass it transforms a language. This latter factor is part of our general capacity to infer patterns and generalities from imperfectly understood specifics.
Baker is an acolyte of Noam Chomsky and assumes that there is a Universal Grammar lurking in the human brain. Most of my reading in linguistics has been with – if not outright anti-Chomskyans – at least authors with serious issues with UG. But I’m an agnostic on the subject; Chomsky’s insights (and those of his followers) are either going to be a part of any theory of language or their inadequacies will have to be addressed and resolved.
Baker defines the two prevailing viewpoints regarding diversity and development: “cultural transmission” and “evolutionary biology.” Neither of these can wholly account for the variety of languages nor for our ability to learn a language. Cultural transmission focuses on the plasticity of human nature and puts nurture before nature but adherents can’t explain why languages are diverse within a limited frame of reference. E.g., only 1% of nonpolysynthetic languages are OVS, and there’s only one (possibly) OSV language that has been studied to any extent yet 87% of nonpolysynthetic languages are SVO or SOV. (p. 128) (The proportions aren’t exact since they don’t incorporate every language but the ratios are probably close to reality.) There’s also the problem that a culture’s grammar bears no discernable relationship to other cultural artifacts.
Baker’s chief objection to evolutionary biology is that it doesn’t explain why language capacity doesn’t extend to a complete, fixed and truly universal grammar. Or why diversity confers any advantage at all. In fact, most theorists aren’t even concerned with the questions Baker wants to ask. Baker is limited to pointing out the limits of current theories since the state of knowledge is still in its infancy.
The first hypothesis we can dispense with is that there’s a physical reason why parameters are in a language. There’s no evidence for this, however. Even in the face of our ignorance, nothing suggests such a necessity so Baker dismisses this option.
A second theory says that parameter-based language ability (PLA) is an accident of evolution. A conceptual system similar to that of apes evolved with a parametric component and fortuitously conferred an advantage over other hominids. But Baker fiercely resists any suggestion that parameters are evolutionary spandrels. So this idea too is dismissed as inadequate.
Other possibilities have been offered by Steven Pinker and Paul Bloom: “…some facets of language might have been so easy to learn with the cognitive apparatus that was already in place when a gene-based language recipe appeared on the scene that there was no pressure to specify those facets.” (p. 213) This suggestion has significant problems, however, and ends up being as inadequate as other theories but it’s headed in the right direction. A second hypothesis, also derived from Pinker, argues that a PLA makes it possible for individual speech to stay in tune with a group’s communications. Essentially, people construct language from individual recipes that would express themselves externally in a common tongue. (p. 214) Unlike many other hypotheses, this one is potentially testable but studies that touch on the question tangentially suggests that this can’t be true.
Ultimately then there’s no remotely adequate explanation for why a parametric table of languages would exist. It’s here that Baker speculates most freely. He distinguishes between two types of problems: There are puzzles, which are questions that can be answered using traditional scientific theories and procedures, e.g., Fermat’s Theorem. Then there are mysteries, which are questions that appear irresolvable with current theory and practice, e.g., why would one language “opt” to be polysynthetic and another not? A mystery is a puzzle, the “difference is that those explanations happen to be outside the range of what the human mind can grasp.” (p. 228) It’s in this latter category that Baker puts PLA. For him, it’s dependent upon how the human mind relates to the external world, a subject we’re only beginning to understand and for which we have only the most primitive tools.
Baker doesn’t fall into the Intelligent Designers’ fallacy of saying we can’t understand a mystery – who would have believed a century ago how many “mysteries” have been reduced to “puzzles” if not solved? – and doesn’t say we’ll never resolve the dilemma but he entertains the possibility that our minds are simply not capable of resolving the dilemma.*
In the end I would recommend this book to my fellow linguistics geeks. It’s given me a new perspective for looking at languages, their histories and their development.
The first 12 lectures (the first volume) cover familiar ground but McWhorter is engaging and it's endlessly fascinating stuff. I have yet to listen to the 2nd and 3rd volumes but I look forward to it....more
What the Koran Really Says is a collection of papers representing critical assessments of the Koran in a variety of areas – Introduction; Background;What the Koran Really Says is a collection of papers representing critical assessments of the Koran in a variety of areas – Introduction; Background; A Question of Language; Sources of the Koran: Essenian, Christian, Coptic; Suras, Suras, Suras; Emendations, Interpolations; Richard Bell: Introduction and Commentary; Poetry and the Koran; and Manuscripts.
This is definitely a volume for the specialist – someone with a pretty extensive background in the subject and a grasp of Arabic (and Semitic languages in general). None of which I have in any great abundance. Which is not to say that there aren’t articles here of interest to the generalist. Many, however, assume a breadth of knowledge the average reader will not have.
Thus I wandered, lost, in many articles (e.g., the paleographic treatise “The Problem of Dating the Early Qur’ans”). For the uninitiated there were some fascinating papers, though. Warraq’s introduction, for example, offers an overview of Koranic studies since the middle of the 19th century; and shows how, despite the claims of the faithful, the Koran is anything but the “clear” (mubin) Word of God. Not only is it unclear now whether the Arabic it’s written in was ever actually spoken but, like its rival Christian and Jewish scriptures, it’s replete with obscure and confusing text. A circumstance even its earliest, Muslim commentators wrestled with.
Franz Rosenthal’s “Some Minor Problems in the Qur’an” struggles with problems of interpretation in some very important suras – primarily Sura 9, which lays the basis for collecting the jizya, the tax levied against the People of the Book. The phrase an yadin, which occurs in the verse, resists adequate translation and even its meaning in the Arabic has stumped commentators for centuries. The following paper, Claude Cahen’s “Koran X.29,” suggests that it refers to a rite of submission but admits that there’s no textual or anthropological evidence for it. As I learned, many scholars have come to the conclusion that many of our problems stem from the fact that the suras’ original contexts were long since forgotten by the time the first commentaries were written.
James Bellamy’s “Some Proposed Emendations to the Text of the Koran” questions the fanatical resistance to changing any word in the received text, even when an error is obvious. Bellamy quotes Uthman (the third caliph), who, when he noted mistakes in the text, said, “Don’t correct them for the Bedouin Arabs will correct them with their tongues.” Bellamy argues that this intransigence does a disservice to the text and to believers’ understanding of their religion as it has forced subsequent commentators to do linguistic somersaults and concoct far-fetched explanations for nonsensical passages. Passages which become perfectly clear and meaningful when one realizes that a copyist forgot a stroke or added one too many. It’s of interest to compare this attitude with Christians’ and Jews’ attitudes toward their respective scriptures. By and large, Christians and Jews have actively sought the best reading of their Bibles; in fact, there’s a cottage industry that aggressively scours various editions and translations. It will be interesting to see if a similar spirit takes root in Muslim scholarship.
The final half of Ibn Rawandi’s essay “On Pre-Islamic Christian Strophic Poetical Texts in the Koran: A Critical Look at the Work of Gunter Luling” brings up the recent spate of revisionist histories (mainly Western in origin, I gather) that argue against the traditional story of Islam’s origins. Some of the more radical notions include the idea that Islam arose in northern Arabia, in towns bordering the Roman and Persian empires, between AD 650 and 800; that “rasul Muhammad” was a title and no one man named Muhammad ever lived; or that Islam is an offshoot of a heretical Christian sect (or a Jewish one). Fascinating stuff, though I can see how even a moderate, believing Muslim might become uncomfortable with the fundamental questions being asked (it’s akin to a Christian reading about how Jesus Christ never existed and Paul invented Christianity – yes, the theory’s out there). But as the author quotes Pascal – “There is always enough evidence for those who want to believe, and never enough for those who do not.” In my opinion, as long as questions are posed in the respectful, scholarly atmosphere of these papers, it shouldn’t cause offense. After all, it’s the message, not the medium that matters, whether the Word came from a south Arabian trader, a Jewish rabbi, the Son of God, or some other prophet.
But I wax too philosophical for a simple book review.
Weighing in at 744 pages of text and due to its specialized audience, I can’t really recommend this to anyone though the notes and bibliographies might be mined for further study. ...more
This book was a bit of a disappointment: Not quite what I was expecting. As the author himself notes in his introduction, it's a Guiness Book of WorldThis book was a bit of a disappointment: Not quite what I was expecting. As the author himself notes in his introduction, it's a Guiness Book of World Records-like compilation of factoids about language and linguistics. There's some interesting "stuff" but there's also a lot of "stuff" that's not, and most of the entries are frustratingly short.
And - the copy editor in me froths - the typos are legion. The most egregious pops up on page 320 of my edition where the entry "Person Marking on Nouns" is repeated verbatim. The only difference being that the non-English words in the second entry are italicized.
And and - the typesetting can be problematic. A lot of entriesgetscruncheddownlikethis or spread out like this. It looks like someone threw the book together on a version of PageMaker....more
This is an extraordinarily delightful little book that highlights some of English's lesser known idiosyncrasies because, as the author notes, EnglishThis is an extraordinarily delightful little book that highlights some of English's lesser known idiosyncrasies because, as the author notes, English is not just a collection of words, nor is its genius an markedly unusual openness to new vocabulary.
The first chapter discusses two characteristics of English not found in any of its Germanic cousins but that is found in Celtic languages. Namely, the meaningless "do" and using the present participle (-ing) to express the present tense. For example, in the sentence "Did she go to the store?," "do" isn't really necessary - "She went to the store?" could (and does in other tongues) work just as well but English doesn't like to say it that way. And while it's fallen out of use in modern English, Shakespeare used it in positive statements all the time - "She did go to the store, Yorick!"
And in all other Germanic languages (and, again, in nearly every other extant ones), to say you are doing something in the present tense, you say (for example) "Er schreibt" - "he writes." English, however, likes to say "He is writing," reserved "he writes" for something like "He writes for a newspaper" or "He writes every morning from 9 to 10."
In Chapter 2, McWhorter focuses on the somewhat arbitrary nature of grammar. While he supports the idea that a language needs a standard grammar and that it should be taught, as a linguist McWhorter wants to point out that language and grammar are constantly evolving and that nonstandard grammar is only "wrong" depending on context. Arguing before the Supreme Court, one probably wants to avoid ebonics or Jamaican patois but within the appropriate milieux, those two variants make perfect sense (and are no less expressive and complex than standard English, no matter the detractors).
Chapter 3 discusses why English has lost the case endings that learners of other Indo-European languages must struggle with (amo, amas, amat...). Briefly, it's all the fault of the Vikings. In the 8th century AD much of north and central Britain fell to Viking invaders (the Danelaw), effectively wiping out all of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms except for Wessex. However, the Northmen were in a decided minority and wound up learning Old English as a second language. Being adults learning a second language, they learned it imperfectly, dropping the case endings and passing on this "battered" English to their children. (McWhorter points out that the only case ending to survive in Northumbrian English was one that matched its Scandinavian equivalent - the dative plural, as it happens, pp. 115-6.)
In Chapter 4, McWhorter sets out to demolish the popularly conceived idea that grammar shapes thought. First posited in any serious manner by Benjamin Whorf, the idea is that a language's grammar shapes how its speakers view the world. Thus, the Kawesqar of Chile have no concept of the future because they have no future tense marking. Of course, neither does Japanese, yet it is perfectly capable of letting its speakers express themselves regarding future events. And then there's Whorf's prime example - the Hopi language, which he claimed had no tense marking at all. This turns out to be nonsense - the Hopi are capable of understanding tense and their language can and does make temporal distinctions. They just don't do it as English speakers do.
McWhorter does allow that the neo-Whorfian reformulation of Whorf's original thesis may hold some validity but not much explanatory power. It may highlight an interesting quirk in a language, but little else. As McWhorter writes: "The idea that the world's six thousand languages condition six thousand different pairs of cultural glasses simply does not hold water. The truly enlightened position is that, by and large, all humans...experience life via the mental equipment shared by all members of our species. No one is `primitive,' but just as important, no one is privileged over others with a primal connection to The Real" (p. 169).
The final chapter is the most exciting for me because McWhorter discusses a hypothesis for why proto-Germanic (English's "grandfather") developed an interesting characteristic - a sound shift from "p," "t" and "k" to "f," "th" and "h," respectively. The sound morphing is unusual in that the former sounds are stops, the latter fricatives ("hissy" sounds in McWhorter's words). It's hard to see why, in isolation, a "p" would become an "f." However, if proto-German had been in contact with a language rich in fricatives, it's more than possible.
Recent archaeological evidence and linguistic reconstructions are suggesting that a Semitic influence is responsible, most likely Phoenician or Punic (Carthage), Phoenician's "daughter." Both civilizations had documented contact with Northern Europe around the right time (last half of the 1st millennium BC). The evidence is circumstantial, probably forever so, but strongly suggestive. Phoenicia had trading stations on the Atlantic side of Gibraltar (the Tarshish of Biblical fame) and Britain had long been a source of tin so it's not impossible to imagine a relatively large Semitic presence in proto-Germanic's bailiwick whose only evidence remains in the oddities of Germanic sound change.
I strongly recommend this general work, even if you're not particularly interested in languages. It's short and written entirely for a nonspecialist audience but appeals to language fans as well. I'll also take this opportunity to recommend McWhorter's other work....more