Tuesday, December 03, 2013

in which I try to recover from an hour-long motivation session

As you may or may not now, dear readers, I am employed by a certain large corporation chiefly known for its hardware, but actually offering a wide range of IT and other related services for other enterprises, large and small. Recently, the HR department of our corporation launched a new initiative, something about culture or engagement or some such nonsense I usually don't pay attention to because I'm, you know, busy doing actual work and creating value for our shareholders*. This time, however, there was a bit that made me sit up and listen and that bit is the name of the initiative: Arete. According to the initiative website:
Arete is pronounced [ahr-i-tey].
Arete is a Greek word and it means “being the best you can be” or “reaching your highest human potential.”.
And there it was, a subtle but unmistakeably new note in the usual deluge of corporate bullshit which my finely-atuned nose could not miss. My Greek may leave a lot to be desired, but a) this sounds way too lofty and b) I don't trust corporate types when it comes to anything, especially language (danger + opportunity, anyone?). So right after the meeting, I opened my copy of Liddell-Scott, fired up Perseus and soon came up with what I think is the actual word: ἀρετή = "goodness, excellence, virtue". The Perseus Project's first citation leads to Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, Book 2 and the translator's remark that "ἀρετή is here as often in this and the following Books employed in the limited sense of ‘moral excellence’ or ‘goodness of character,’ i.e. virtue in the ordinary sense of the term."
Of course, I don't think our management reads Aristotle on a regular basis, so I would expect that the direct source of the term can be found in one of those idiotic management guides. And indeed a cursory search on Google Books found one example, another one and I'm sure there are more. None of them, however, provide the definition given above. That can be found, verbatim, in the Wikipedia entry for the word. I will leave the assessment of that definition to those more competent in Greek, I just wish they would have stuck with - as the first book put it - functional excellence. That way, they would at least say what they mean without having to pretend they care about me.

*Pardon me while I throw up.

Monday, October 28, 2013

in which I briefly ponder the morphology of greetings

Lately, for reasons that I may or may not explain in due course, I've been thinking a lot about the classification of words (parts of speech et al.). Normally what I do is consider the more nebulous categories (indefinite pronouns, quantifiers and alike), but today somehow I got to thinking about verbs and how - at least in Standard Average European and immediate surroundings - they tend to be easily identifiable based on morphological criteria only. And then I thought of "čau".
To explain: In addition to all the formal[1] and semi-formal[2] options, there are basically three standard informal greetings in Slovak: "ahoj", "čau" and "servus". The etymology is of course obvious and interesting in itself, the use of the first one tends to baffle German and English-speaking visitors to no end, but these are otherwise unremarkable interjections (Pauliny 1981:207). Well, not entirely unremarkable. You see, unlike with most other interjections in Slovak, when you use these to greet a group of people, you can add a suffix "-te", ending up with "ahojte", "servuste" and "čaute". What is that suffix, you ask? Why it's none other than the suffix of the second person plural imperative, i.e. a verbal suffix. This would fit nicely into the paradigm where second person singular imperative lacks overt marking for some verb classes (e.g. "rob" = do.2SG.IMP, "robte" = do.2PL.IMP), so one could argue that some Slovak interjections actually take some verbal suffixes.
Hang on, is that the only explanation? Well, no. One could for example consider the influence of analogy where these forms would be based on greetings like "maj(te) sa" which is a honest-to-Ninurta verb in the imperative: the full form is "maj(te) sa dobre" = "be well"[3] "mať", lit. "to have", metaphorically "to be in a X condition"[4]. The absence of the reflexive pronoun might "sa" would have to be explained, but surprise surprise, "čaute sa" and "ahojte sa" do indeed frequently occur and from there, it's just one step to the forms we've seen, so that's plausible enough. We would thus have greetings formulas formed by analogy with an existing one and I don't think it matters that "maj(te) sa" is exclusively a farewell greeting, while the rest are universal.
But here's the thing: in addition to 2PL.IMP suffix "-te", there is also a 1PL.IMP suffix "-me" (Pauliny 1981:178). And guess what? Yes, you got it, "čau" and "ahoj" take "-me", too, to form "čaume" and "ahojme" and there is even one instance of "servusme" on teh intert00bz. These definitely cannot be explained by simple analogy with the "maj(te)" greeting, since appears to be no greeting formula "majme sa (dobre)"[5]. And so even if the 2PL imperative forms of "čau" and "ahoj" arose in analogy with "maj(te) sa" (which is possible, but in no way certain), they developed in their own way: first, they dropped the reflexive (which is not possible for "maj(te) sa" since the verb would then lose its idiomatic meaning) and once they could take one imperative suffix, nothing prevented them from taking the other one.
So, to sum up: some Slovak interjections take the full set of imperative suffixes. Now that is some awesome shit.

1. "Dobrý deň", lit. "good day".
2. "Zdravím", lit. "I greet".
3. See Swedish/Norwegian "ha det bra".
4. Note that in Slovak, one can inquire about other person's well-being by simply asking "Máš sa?". Normally this type of sentence would require a sentence-final adjective (for a simple question), a sentence-final interrogative particle (for focus on the particle) or a different word order (interrogative particle - reflexive - verb), but "Máš sa?" is perfectly cromulant, if informal, Slovak.
5. The main reason could be that the 1PL.IMP form of "mať" is not specific enough to facilitate a pragmatic interpretation as a greeting. In other words, when I hear "majme sa", I expect the next word to be the next part of one of the multiword expressions "mať" often features in, like "majme sa radi" ("let's like each other") or "majme sa na pozore" ("let's be careful"). Also, the imperative of "mať" is fishy in general.

Pauliny 1981: Pauliny, Eugen. Slovenská gramatika: Opis jazykového systému. Bratislava: SPN.

Thursday, January 03, 2013

in which I offer a not entirely serious review of a post by timothy michael law

A missing element in academic book reviews?
by Timothy Michael Law

A not entirely serious review by me

This opinion piece examines the question of whether criticism of “author's style” should become a standard part of reviews of academic works. Paragraph 1 lays out the context in which these musings came about (i.e. the impending launch of the long-awaited Marginalia: A Review of Books in History, Theology & Religion) and defines the problem. Paragraphs 2 through 4 examine why the evaluation of author’s style is currently largely absent from reviews of academic literature while paragraphs 5 through 7 offers some general remarks on why it could be beneficial or indeed desirable. The closing paragraph invites the readers to offer their review of the piece, which is what we are doing here.

First, let us address the unspoken assumptions on which Dr. Law’s remarks are based:
  1. There is something wrong with academic writing in terms of style ("Academic writing can be horrible") ... 
  2. ... vis-a-vis a certain standard ("a brilliant example of prose") … 
  3. ... and it’s entirely the author’s fault. 
  4. Nearly everyone is guilty of it at one point or another ("But is this not what *we* need in order to improve ourselves?"). 
  5. This needs to be remedied ("But is this not what we need in order to *improve ourselves?*"). 
As for (1), even assuming that a definition of ‘style’ were provided (which it was not) and could be agreed upon (which we doubt), Dr. Law offers no evidence whatsoever of what he terms horrible academic writing. Without a working definition of the term ‘style’, one cannot even endeavor to guess what that horrible writing could be. Is it overuse of rhetorical questions? Or perhaps paragraphs of one sentence? We couldn’t possibly know, though it would appear that whatever horrible writing is, it can’t be as bad as poor argumentation, especially of the sort displayed here.

Assumptions (4) and (5) are essentially corollaries of (1) and should be replied to in the same manner (and the voice of Law and Order’s Jack McCoy, if possible): “Assuming facts not in evidence, your honor!” Assumption (3) ignores the crucial role of editor in the publishing process, but that’s just a minor quibble.

Fortunately for those of us who are still troubled by the question of what bad writing is, there is assumption (2) which presumes the existence of a gold standard for writing. Judging by its description using the adjective ‘brilliant’ and the noun ‘prose’ which often feature in reviews of fiction, it is there that one must look for model of great writing. Unfortunately, there is very little consensus on what it actually is. Every time the issue comes up, this reviewer is reminded of B. R. Myers’ “Reader’s Manifesto” where he examines the writing of some of the prize-winning American authors of recent decades. He finds the praise heaped on them more than undeserved and as a result, casts doubt on the validity or indeed utility of reviews of fiction. It would therefore appear that no clear standard of good, let alone brilliant, prose exists. And without such a clear standard, one would run the risk of academic reviews turning into the sort of vapid wankfest Myers rightly criticizes reviews of fiction for.

Or, Lord help us, it could get even worse: with no definition of ‘style’, reviewers (who like most people, even educated ones, don’t know shit about language) could take it to mean what non-linguists refer to as “grammar”. Soon, copies of Strunk and White would be pulled out and we would be subjected to the sort of uninformed outrage about leaving out adjectives and adverbs and not ending sentences with prepositions that makes Geoff Pullum very angry. And you don’t like him when he’s angry…

In short, Dr. Law has failed to demonstrate that (as he assumes) there really is a problem with bad writing in academic literature and if, that it is indeed pervasive and that it indeed needs to be addressed, if only in passing as a part of a review. And as to the central question of his piece, i.e. whether judgments on author’s style should be routinely included in reviews of academic literature? The simple answer is no. First, as we hope this review has demonstrated, reviewers of academic literature have enough on their hands dealing with conceptual and factual failings of reviewed works (and even that seems like too arduous a task for some). Second, if indeed everyone is guilty of bad writing, then criticizing somebody else’s bad writing would be not only a waste of time, but also a prime example of blind leading the blind and without a clear idea what good writing is, it would soon devolve into the sort of pointless quibblefest academics are known to sometimes engage in and routinely - and justifiably - mocked for. And finally, let us once more return to the issue of the gold standard for good writing: Even if there were one (and we hold that Myers above has shown that it isn't), it would only apply to fiction the purpose of which is to paint a picture with words and evoke emotions and all that other jazz fiction is good for. The purpose of academic literature is to convey information, argue points, outline theories. To insist that this be done in a brilliant prose (whatever that may be) is not only to put an extra burden on the author, but also to elevate form over content. To which I say, fuck that shit.

Sunday, September 30, 2012


Unless you've been living under a rock these past weeks, you know about the Gospel of Jesus' Wife (GJW), so no intro, just the basic overview: this is the draft PDF of the paper by Karen King, Alin Suciu has some great comments, Mark Goodacre links to detailed textual analysis by Francis Watson (but see Timo Paananen for a rebuttal) and a video by Christian Askeland; and Jim Davila is, as always, your go-to guy for the complete picture of the debate. Before I venture any further, let me offer a disclaimer: I have no dog in the fight over the historical Jesus and my faith (such as it is) is not threatened by the very idea of Him being married. To me, this whole debate is first and foremost a wonderful example of how scholarship works and it's a great thing to watch it more or less live. Well, mostly watch, because (disclaimer continues) I am no expert on either Coptic or any aspect early Christianity and thus I cannot and will not offer any opinion as to the authenticity of the GJW fragment. I did, however, leave one comment on Mark Goodacre's blog where I essentially wondered aloud about some usage in GJW I found peculiar. As it so happened, yesterday earlier this week on Charles Halton's blog, Gesine Robinson offered her view of the whole affair and her remark #8 addresses the same point, except of course in a much more detailed and better articulated manner. I'm reproducing it below with one modification - I've changed the transliteration scheme[1] to something that I find a little easier on the eyes:

Therefore, the rather rare phrase PEDžE IS* (though frequently used in the Gospel of Thomas since we have to do there with a collection of Jesus’ sayings) is used even in both instances of speaking, instead of the form PEDžAF (+ pronominal/nominal object) + NQI + subject that is more common in dialogues or other literary texts. Here in the first instance one would expect something like PEDžAU NIS* NQI NMAThÉTÉS, and in the second instance PEDžAF NAU NQI IS*, or since Jesus answers the disciples, even AFOUÓŠB[2] NQI IS* PEDžAF NAU DžE. It seems a cautious and perhaps unsure modern Coptologist was at work here.

To actually understand what's going on, first, PEDžE. Translated as "(pronoun) said", PEDžE belongs to a funny little class of words Layton (2000:297-314) refers to as verboids. Semantically, they are like verbs, and they can even take some of the verbal affixes, but there are a few important aspects in which they differ from actual verbs. In case of PEDžE, they are as follows:

  1. 1. PEDžE cannot be negated or converted, i.e. it cannot take the relative, circumstantial, preterit or focalizing prefix (Layton 2000:321-322).
  2. 2. PEDžE only expresses the past tense.
  3. 3. PEDžE can only be conjugated sufixally.
  4. 4. PEDžE can appear in two forms: 
    • independently (PEDžE), in which case it must be immediately followed by the subject noun or pronoun (Layton's 'prenominal state').
    • suffixed (conventionally written as PEDžA=) where the suffix marks the subject of the action of speaking (Layton's 'prepersonal state'). In this case, if the 3rd person subject is also expressed by a noun, the noun is preceded by the preposition NQI.

In GJW, PEDžE (i.e. the prenominal state) appears twice: first on line 2 (PEDžE MMAThÉTÉS NIS* DžE ... = "The apostles said to Jesus: ...") and then of course on line 4 (PEDžE IS* NAU TAHIME = "Jesus said to them 'My wife...'"). The objection Dr. Robinson raises is that this is unlikely since PEDžE in its prenominal state is rare and seeing it twice in such a short text even more so when there are other (presumably more frequent) constructions that could have been used. We have very little reason to doubt Dr. Robinson's intuition and experience. But what we also have is a way to actually check whether she's right. Distribution and probability, that's all we're dealing with here, and that is a familiar theory NLP territory where a corpus and some math is all you need. The questions to be asked can be reformulated as follows:

1. Is the prenominal state of PEDžE indeed rare?
2. What is the probability of one prenominal PEDžE following another?
3. What about the frequency of other constructions?

Tuesday, February 14, 2012


A while back over at Lameen's place, we discussed the mystery morpheme -ij-/-iyy- that is used in Maltese and Siwi Berber with the plural suffix -at/-iet. Lameen argued that in both cases, it seems to be employed chiefly with nouns whose form is atypical for the given language. For Maltese, this would definitely make sense, since many of Maltese nouns with plural ending in -ijiet are borrowings. In fact, of the 20 most frequent nouns of this type in the MLRS Corpus, only three are of Arabic/Semitic origin: xogħlijiet = "works", mistoqsijiet = "questions" and aħbarijiet = "news". Sounds straightforward enough, especially in the context of Maltese where there is a separate conjugation paradigm for borrowed verbs, thus the existence of a noun suffix used predominantly with borrowed nouns with their strange and unusual syllable structures and vowel patterns is not that surprising.
This, however, cannot be the full story. For one, the question of 'what is a typical noun form' is one that is not that easy to answer. Secondly, Maltese is notorious - well, at least among us melitists - for applying some creative broken plurals to borrowed nouns. Thus we get forma / forom, storja / stejjer, spiża / spejjeż ("cost"), rotta / rotot ("routes") and so on, even though, say, storja with its four consonants or spiża with its very un-Semitic initial consonant cluster are not exactly, um, typical. At the same time, Romance borrowings of the honest-to-El Semitic CCVC / CVCC type (see Lipiński 2001:216) like skop or post form their plurals by means of the suffix -ijiet. Obviously there are other factors here at play, like perhaps the age of the borrowing or even the place and manner of articulation of root consonants, which would all have to be taken into account if a more detailed explanation is to be provided.
And then there's the whole semantic aspect. As Lameen notes in a reply to my comment where I wondered why we get art / artijiet ("earth, land") instead of *arieti (< Ar. 'arāḍī with presumed imāla, depharyngealization and devoicing) or żmien / żminijiet (instead of something like *azmina):

... "earth", "time", and for that matter "mother" are all words that are very rarely pluralised, increasing the pressure to adopt some commoner plural type.
This makes perfect sense - so in the evolution of Maltese, the original *arieti or something similar fell into disuse and artijiet, formed most likely by analogy, took over. And as I was reminded this morning by Charles Briffa's new book Iż-Żmien fuq Sider Malta, we actually have evidence for this shift. Not just any evidence, mind you, the mother of all evidence: Il-Kantilena. If you're reading this and you don't know about Il-Kantilena, feel free to consult Wikipedia for more details (I recommend the French version which seems to offer the most comprehensive account, and this image for the actual text). Suffice it to say that it is the oldest literary text in Maltese composed by Pietru Caxaro and dates back to the late 15th century (terminus ante quem 1485). We find what we're looking for on line 18:

Transcription (Wettinger and Fsadni 1968):
haliex liradi ’al col xibir sura

Modern orthography:
Għaliex l-iradi għal kull xiber sura:

because DEF-land.PL for every span [1] shape

for each (piece of land) has its own shape (features)
And here it is: it would seem that ca. 1470, the noun art still formed a broken plural. One might consider - especially in the light of the genre - the possibility that Caxaro deliberately chose an archaism for both effect and reasons of metrics, but as for the latter, the number of syllables is the same for l-artijiet and l-iradi. In any case, it seems Lameen's hypothesis is correct and by 1796, the publication of Vassalli's Lexicon Melitense-Latino-Italum, art only had the suffixed plural form, in Vassalli's spelling Ardijyt
By the way, if you're wondering why it's iradi and not my hypothetical *arieti, it's because I forgot to account for the emphatic which, at least in most cases, inhibits imāla.
Finally, if you want hear what Il-Kantilena might have sounded like try the video below. The performer, Dr. Martin Zammit, is an Arabist and it kinda shows - for example in verse 18 (1:32) where the first word has -ie-, Martin reads [halāš]. Nevertheless, I think it is a pretty good approximation.

[1] span = "the space between thumb and forefinger". Cachia (1994:89) glosses għal kull xiber as għandhom = "they have".