Monday, August 25, 2014

in which I consider the way in which English profanity is borrowed into Slovak and Danish

On or about July 23rd, as I made my way through the local supermarket, I passed a guy about my age with a daughter who was about five or six. They were apparently engaged in the usual "buy me this - no, I won't" tug of war and just as I got within earshot, the dad concluded the discussion by saying the following:
"... pretože je strašne šitné a hneď sa zlomí." 
because is terribly šitné and immediately REFLEXIVE break.FUT. 
Yes, you are quite right: "šitný" [ʃitni:] (of which the form given above is the neuter) is an adjective derived from "shit". I guess we can now add it to the growing list of English borrowings which made it into mainstream Slovak (as opposed to geek speak), but what's more interesting is the pragmatic aspect: by using the word with his pre-school daughter, the dad apparently doesn't consider the adjective vulgar or profane, it's just another way of saying "of bad quality".
I was reminded of this incident last week when I was visiting Copenhagen*. Being who I am, I naturally intended to partake of the offerings of local bookstores, however, due to time constraints I only had the time to visit Politikens Boghal and only for a few minutes. This turned out to be enough, because just as I entered (and passed Tom Rachman discussing his latest book), I ended up right under the "New arrivals" section which included a book titled Dansk i skred. 52 sproglige opstrammere (roughly: "Danish in a downward spiral. 52 linguistic eye-openers"). "Linguistic and current, perfect, even if happens to be just your standard peevology tome," I thought and proceded to the counter to make the purchase with just enough time to make the flight home.  When I finally sat down to read it, I quickly found out that my fears about the nature of the book were unfounded. First, its author is an actual linguist and and an accomplished one at that - someone who wrote Udtaleforskelle i Danmark: Aldersbestemte, geografiske, sociale ("Pronunciation variation in Denmark: Age-determined, geographic, social") just knows too much to be a peevologist. Second, the Foreword includes this explanation of the title:
Bogen hedder “Dansk i skred”, ikke fordi sproget er ved at miste fodfæste, men fordi det hele tiden tilpasser sig nye udtryksbehov og derfor må udvikle sig.

This book is called "Danish in a downward spiral" not because the language is losing its footing, but because it constantly keeps adapting to new needs for expression and therefore must evolve.
And in fact, the same Foreword includes this example of such an adaptation and its effects (pardon my translation) that has direct bearing on the "šitný" incident described above:
... For både sproget, stilen og tabuerne ændrer sig. Danmarks Radio laver temaudsendelser i primetime med titler som Kussen, Pikken og Røven, uden at nogen tilsyneladende tager anstød af det. På den måde afmonterer man tabuerne, men man støder også en hel del fra sig, og de grænsesøgende må søge nye veje, fx gennem import af kraftudtryk som fuck og shit, som heller ikke har bevaret deres kraft i moderne sprogbrug. Når en 13-arig pige til sine bedsteforældre kan sige "fuck, hvor er jeg glad for den kjole", har det for barnet samme valør, som når man tidligere sagde “nej, hvor er jeg glad” eller "gud, hvor er jeg glad." Men sådan opfatter de ældre generationer det ikke.

... Because both the language and style as well as taboos change. The Danish Broadcasting Corporation makes primetime shows with titles like Cunt, Cock and Ass, apparently without anybody batting an eye. In this way, taboos are destroyed but, one also removes a large part of oneself. Those wishing to push boundaries must then look for new ways to do so, such as importing profanities like fuck and shit, which, however, did not retain their vulgar status in modern use. When a 13-year old girl says to her grandparents "fuck, I'm so happy about the dress", to the child it is the same as when one used to say "oh I'm so happy" or "God, I'm so happy." But the older generation doesn't see it that way.
This has happened before, this will happen again and I suspect only more so once English is spoken as widely in Slovakia as it is in Denmark.


* If you ever go, make sure to wear comfortable shoes and visit La Glace for a piece of HC Hat.

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].
and
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.

Notes:
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.

References:
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

tahime

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?