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.