December 14, 2017

During the past ten days there has been storm of contention on Language Log (see here, here, here, here and here), involving sometimes angry exchanges of posts and comments, around the use of singular they — not with reference to an indeterminate person of unknown sex, as is by now generally accepted, except in the stodgiest circles, or even of known sex, as found in Shakespeare — but (as discussed a few years ago by Mark Liberman) referring to a particular person of known gender, and even more specifically to a person identifying as non-binary. The storm was started by Geoff Pullum’s statement that for him “singular they is ungrammatical with a personal name as antecedent.” He added,

I don’t want to offend anyone. But it’s a bit much to expect me to start saying things that are clearly and decisively ungrammatical according to my own internalized grammar. I’ll do my best, but it will be a real struggle.

Despite the disclaimer, numerous people took offense. I have criticized Geoff Pullum on occasion, but I never came anywhere near the vehemence that was expressed in these posts and comments.

It may very well be, however, that if the use by young people as described by Mark Liberman expands, some day they will become the default third-person singular pronoun, just as you has become the second-person one.

What this means in the future (I don’t expect to be around for it) is that, just as with you, people will struggle to find an alternative to plain they as the plural pronoun. Will the Irish say theys? The British they lot or them lot? Southern Americans they-all? Or will the putative “General American” they guys or them guys take over?

Any bets?


Yellow ribbon

December 8, 2017

Las Sunday, as my wife and I were watching Manchester City achieve its second consecutive 2-1 victory with a late winning goal (in the previous game, that goal, by Raheem Sterling, came in the last five seconds of stoppage time), we noticed that Pep Guardiola, City’s Catalonian coach, was sporting a yellow ribbon on his lapel. We were both intrigued, and Pat quickly looked it up in Wikipedia, to discover that “the yellow ribbon started being used in late October 2017 by Catalan separatists as a symbol of the two members of the secessionist organizations ANC and Omnium accused of rioting, sedition, rebellion and embezzlement, and imprisoned to avoid destruction of evidences or escape” and that “Pep Guardiola, notorious follower of the separatist cause, has been seen wearing it”.

I find Pep’s advocacy of Catalonian independence puzzling, though it’s in keeping with the hundreds of estelades displayed by the fans of FC Barcelona, where Pep spent most of his career as a player and achieved fame as a coach.

For I can’t help wondering what would happen to Barça — or, for that matter, to the other Barcelona football club, RCD Espanyol — if Catalonia were to become independent?

In theory, it might be possible for these clubs to remain in the Spanish league system, analogously to the way Canadian teams play in Major League Soccer and Welsh teams in the English league system. (Wales is not independent in the political world but it is so in the soccer world.) But these are agreements between the soccer federations of friendly neighbors. Considering that the very basis for any possible Catalonian independence is hostility toward Spain, this possibility is null.

Since the putative referendum of October 1, many hundreds of businesses have moved their corporate headquarters out of Catalonia, dealing a heavy blow to the region’s economy. But football clubs are not like the movable franchises of North American sports, where the Cleveland Rams can become to Los Angeles Rams and, after moving to Indianapolis and Saint Louis, the Los Angeles Rams once again. They are firmly established local institutions, and none more so than those that are not “clubs” in name only but are true membership organization, of which Barça is one of the few remaining examples (Real Madrid, Athletic Bilbao, Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund are others, with the Green Bay Packers as the only American instance).

And so FC Barcelona would, in the event of independence, become the leading club of a strictly Catalonian league. (La Lliga?) Could it still be one of the world’s iconic entities, with its team colors worn by young and old around the globe? Not likely. No team outside Europe’s Big Five (England, Germany, Italy, France and Spain) can nowadays attain (or, in all likelihood  retain) such a position. Catalonia’s population is less than those of Portugal, Greece, Belgium or the Netherlands. But the days when teams like Porto or Benfica or Sporting or Panathinaikos or AEK or Anderlecht or Ajax or PSV or Feyenoord could reach the late stages of the Champions League (or, before that, the European Cup) seem to be over. The last time such a team appeared in the final was Porto (coached by José Mourinho) in 2004 (they won). This year Porto is the only one from this set of leagues  to have made into the knockout phase.

And who would replace Real Madrid as Barcelona’s archrival? It could only be its derby rival,  RCD Espanyol.

This club has had its present name only since 1995; before that it was RCD Español. The initials RCD stood for Real Club Deportivo (royal sports club), the title having been granted by king Alfonso XIII; it was then Catalanized to Reial Club Deportiu, though deportiu is not actually a Catalan word — the correct word is esportiu — but keeping the initials was deemed more important than linguistic purity. The club was originally founded in 1900 (as Sociedad Española de Foot-Ball) under the leadership of the son of an Andalusian-born physician and politician who, as rector of the University of Barcelona, was notorious for his opposition to the Catalan language. The club, though at first composed mostly of Catalans (of the upper class), thus became a symbol of Spanish nationalism in Catalonia in the same way that FC Barcelona became one of Catalanism.

What, then would be the role of Espanyol in an independent republic of Catalonia? It would certainly no longer be royal, to be sure. Would it still be espanyol? If so, in what sense?

I don’t know.




When Harry met…

November 29, 2017

In all the media frenzy around the engagement between Harry Windsor and Meghan Markle, I have yet to see a reference to the recent movie King Charles III, in which a fictionalized Prince Harry falls in love with a black woman. The play that the film was based on was first produced in 2014, well before Harry met Meghan.

Looks like life imitating art, innit? To be sure, the woman in the play (Jessica Edwards) is working-class English black (and a republican to boot), while Meghan Markle is glamorous American blackish. And the fictionalized Harry gives up Jess in order to remain a royal, while the real one is going to marry Meghan. But still…

On Catalonian independence – 3

November 6, 2017

As the Catalonia crisis evolves, the vindictive actions of the Spanish government toward the leaders of the independence movement become ever more reminiscent — mutatis mutandis — of those of Philip V, mentioned in my previous post. The main difference is that those imprisoned in 1714 were not separatists (independentistes) but Habsburgists (austriacistes) who favored Archduke Charles of Austria as the prospective king of Spain, since they feared that his French rival Philip would take away their historic self-government, as indeed he did, not only in Catalonia but in the other lands of the Crown of Aragon (Aragon proper, Majorca and Valencia) as well.

A specific reminiscence of those times is the revival by the separatists of the pejorative botifler, originally used for the pro-Bourbon faction, to designate anti-independence Catalonians.

Another parallel: then as now, the initial impulse for Habsburgism/separatism came from the region around Vic. In our day, the first two towns to declare themselves “Free Catalan Territory” (on September 3, 2012) are in that region. And, historically, the Habsburgists were also known as vigatans; it was an assembly of landowners and lawyers from that region that sent two representatives to Genoa in 1705 to negotiate an agreement with a representative of Queen Anne that would provide England’s support for the Catalonian cause. Perfidious Albion, to be sure, broke the agreement in the Treaties of Utrecht in 1713. But some sympathy for the cause persisted (see here and here), and today most of the journalism sympathetic to the independence movement is to be found in the British press.

It remains to be seen what happens if the independence movement once again wins a majority in the parliamentary elections called for December 21. Will Rajoy emulate Philip by trying to revoke Catalonia’s autonomy?




On Catalonian independence – 2

November 1, 2017

In my previous post I mentioned that the Popular Party of Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy does not enjoy much support in Catalonia. Rajoy’s administration is regarded by many, perhaps most, Catalonians as especially unfriendly to their land, and the greatest Catalan of our age, the bilingual singer-songwriter Joan Manuel Serrat, has called it “factory of separatists”.

This, too, is reminiscent of the dynastic past. In the War of the Spanish Succession most of Catalonia sided with the Habsburgs, and one result of the eventual victory (in Spain) of the Bourbons, in the person of Philip V, in 1714 was a policy of repression in Catalonia, including especially the banning of the Catalan language from official use and the abolition of Catalonia’s institutions. A petty example of this policy is Philip’s closure of all the universities in Catalonia and the opening of a new one in the small city of Cervera, which had been pro-Bourbon.

Indeed, the same Catalonian nationalists who regard 987 as the beginning of Catalonian independence consider its end to be in 1714, and the date of the final defeat, September 11, is the National Day of Catalonia.

But what was this independence? According to Spanish nationalists, after all, it never existed. Let’s look into the matter.

What may have become de facto independent in 987 was a set of counties ruled by Borrell II. In the Frankish kingdom (Francia) the counties (pagi) had been established around 800 by Charlemagne as administrative units. each headed by a governor (comes or count) named by the king, and supervised by roving royal commissioners (missi dominici).  This system continued in the western kingdom (Francia occidentalis) that split off in 843, but toward the end of the 9th century the power of the kings waned and the counts came to name their own successors, usually their sons, thus establishing the feudal dynasties of Europe. The first count of Barcelona to do so was Wilfred the Hairy (878-897), starting what came to be known as the House of Barcelona. He was the direct ruler of several neighboring counties as well (in particular, those of Osona and Girona were never again to be separated from Barcelona), and was accepted as overlord by others.

This kind of rise to prominence of one count over the others in a given region happened elsewhere in the kingdom. Often these counts took the name of the whole region as their title, so that the counts of Troyes and Meaux became counts of Champagne, and in several cases they became dukes, as those of Burgundy (originally counts of Autun). But the counts of Barcelona (like those of Toulouse) were content with their original titles, along with a listing of all the additional domains that they ruled.

The first reference to Catalonia as a geographic entity dates from early in the 12th century. It was recognized as a legal entity a little later in that century, after the counts of Barcelona had become simultaneously kings of Aragon. Since the 14th century it has been referred to as a principality (principatus).

Now, “Prince of Catalonia” was never used as a monarchic title in Spain (though it was used in legal texts); it was understood that “count of Barcelona” meant that. In the listing of the many titles held by the kings of Aragon, it came directly after the list of the kingdoms and before the titles (such as duke and marquis) that technically ranked above that of count. But elsewhere in Europe the title was used; the Emperor Charles V (Charles I of Spain), for example, called himself as Fürst zu Cat[h]alonia/princeps Cat[h]aloniae in documents issued in his non-Spanish dominions.

Catalonia, then, was a monarchy of sorts that was in personal union with the kingdom of Aragon and later with the other kingdoms that those rulers acquired (Majorca, Valencia, Sicily etc.), and ultimately also with that of Castile, first with Ferdinand the Catholic upon his marriage to Isabella (until her death) and, for good, beginning with Charles V.

Charles and his Spanish Habsburg successors are known in Spain as the House of Austria, with de Austria being their formal surname, used in particular by illegitimate but recognized offspring who are mistakenly called “of Austria” in English, like this one.

The Spanish Habsburgs continued — as did their Austrian counterparts — the ancestral Habsburg policy of leaving their various domains as self-governing entities. And Catalonia maintained its laws, language and political institutions until they were replaced by the Bourbons, whose French tradition was the opposite — one of centralized rule. This explains Catalonia’s choice in the War of the  Spanish Succession.

But can Catalonia be said to have been independent during those centuries of personal union?

No one would deny that in our days Canada, Australia and New Zealand are independent countries, even though they are all monarchies in personal union with the United Kingdom. But then, nowadays the British monarch reigns but does not rule; the actual governing is done by the parliaments and governments of the respective countries.

It was different in the centuries before the 20th, when monarchs actually ruled, and the constituent units of a personal union, for all their internal self-government, were not really free to adopt policies that were independent of the ruler. And so, Catalonian autonomy — yes. Independence — not really.

On Catalonian independence – 1

October 28, 2017

It’s a common trope among Catalonian* separatists (independentistes) to describe Catalonia’s relationship to Spain as one of colony to empire (see here, for example). It’s no coincidence that the movement has replaced the official flag of Catalonia (the senyera, 1) with a lone-star version (estelada, 2) that is modeled on the flags of Cuba (3) and Puerto Rico (4), former colonies of Spain.

senyera estelada-01211439 cuba  puerto-rico-flag

 (1)                     (2)                        (3)                    (4)

But I think that a better model for the relationship is that between a vassal and a suzerain in the feudal system of medieval Europe. Indeed, Catalonian nationalists (not necessarily separatists) celebrated 1987 as the millennial of Catalonia’s first independence because of what did not happen in 987: Count Borrell II of Barcelona did not pay homage to his overlord Hugh Capet, king of the Western Franks, when the latter was  unable to give him military support against the invading Moors.

The present situation, with the Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, dismissing the government of Catalonia and replacing it with appointees from his own political party, is reminiscent of what happened in Austria in 1276, when the emperor Rudolf I (of the house of Habsburg) dismissed Ottokar II (who was also king of Bohemia) from the dukedom of Austria and placed the lands under direct imperial administration, to be governed by his sons.

Of course, the originally Swabian Habsburgs remained as rulers of Austria until 1918. Rajoy, on the other hand, has promised to hold new elections in Catalonia on December 21, and it’s unlikely that his party (the modern equivalent of a medieval dynasty), the Partido Popular, will do any long-time governing there, not being very… popular in Catalonia: it got 8.5% of the vote in the last election. Most of Catalonia’s center-right vote goes to the main nationalist party, formerly Convergència and now PDeCAT.


*I prefer to use “Catalonian” rather than “Catalan” when referring to the territory (the so-called principality) of Catalonia; I use “Catalan” for the language, culture and ethnicity, both inside and outside this territory. I like to make this distinction whenever the English language allows it, as with Somali and Somalian, Slovak and Slovakian, and even Greek and Grecian. This way I can talk, for example, about Catalonian Catalan as distinct from the Balearic and Valencian varieties of the language. What’s more, the French sculptor Aristide Maillol and the Valencian writer Joan Fuster considered themselves Catalans, but they were not Catalonians.



October 24, 2017

I recently read a book that I should have read some forty years ago, when it first came out. And reading that book led to another, by the same author, which turned out to be among the most delightful novels I’ve ever read. And all because of serendipity.

A couple of months ago Mark Liberman published a post on Language Log about a book that had just appeared in English, The seventh function of language, by Laurent Binet. The book’s relevance to Language Log lay in its linguistics-laden contents and in its inclusion as characters of many real-life personalities in linguistics, semiology, literary criticism and related fields. Here’s the list cited by Mark Liberman:

Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Umberto Eco, Noam Chomsky, Louis Althusser, Paul de Man, Jean-François Lyotard, Judith Butler, Jacques Derrida, John Searle, Morris Zapp, Gayatri Spivak, Bernard-Henri Lévy, Julia Kristeva, Philippe Sollers, Jacques Lacan, Camille Paglia, and more.

I was familiar (if only from having seen them in print) with many of these names, but not Morris Zapp.

I was able to get the French original (published in 2015), La septième fonction du langage, from my university library. It turned out to be a fun read, and the first part, taking place in Paris and Bologna, seemed like historical fiction. While this term is not usually applied to books taking place in the recent past (here it’s around 1980), there is no reason why it shouldn’t: actual events (the death of Roland Barthes, the Bologna massacre) form the background, and fictionally treated actual persons mingle with fictitious ones — that’s what historical fiction is. But when the scene shifts to Ithaca, NY, things go haywire: Derrida and Searle die (the former lived till 2004, the latter is still with us), and the flamboyant Morris Zapp makes his appearance.

When I tried to find out about Morris Zapp, I discovered that he is a fictitious character created by David Lodge in his novel Changing Places: A Tale of Two Campuses. I looked this up on Wikipedia, and found out that one of the two campuses involved is modeled on UC Berkeley, the university where I taught for most of my adult like. My public library has nothing of David Lodge, and the one at UCB had it  only as part of a trilogy, which I duly checked out.

To say that the State University of Euphoria (also called Euphoric State) is “modeled” on Berkeley is an understatement. While the state of Euphoria is supposedly “a small but populous state… situated between Northern and Southern California” — that is, the greater Bay Area is imagined as a separate state — the site of the university, “Plotinus” is an obvious stand-in for Berkeley (both are named for philosophers), and is across the Bay from the “glittering, glamorous city of Esseph” (SF, get it?). The “right-wing Governor of the State” is (this is 1969) “Ronald Duck, a former movie-actor.” Berkeley’s Euclid and Shattuck Avenues become Plotinus’s Pythagoras Drive and Shamrock Avenue, while UC Berkeley’s Wheeler Hall is Euphoric State’s Dealer Hall. San Francisco’s North Beach is Esseph’s South Strand, and the Golden Gate Bridge is the Silver Span.

(To be continued)


Three notes on “anti”

October 18, 2017

1. Just as I had expected, when antifa suddenly hit the world of the media, it was (and still is) almost invariably heard as anTEEfa, in accordance with what I have already written about  (here, here, here and here) as the default rule (which I called a “misrule”) for stress in unfamiliar words, namely, that in words that in the syllable the stress goes on the penultimate. In fact, this phenomenon was discussed on Language Log, in a post by Mark Liberman, who noted that “there’s strong pressure to apply penultimate stress to vowel-final borrowed or constructed words in English, as in ‘Tiramisu‘ or ‘Samarra‘ or ‘NATO’.” Only commenters who knew the origin of the term — an abbreviation of Antifaschisten in 70s-80s Germany — argued for an antepenultimate stress, as in German.

I should say that it isn’t only in borrowed or constructed words that this misrule (in its more general form, as I have discussed) is followed, but more generally in words that one encounters in writing before hearing them spoken; ‘awry’ is a famous example (which I first learned about in Richard Llewellyn’s 1939 novel How Green Was My Valley). In my posts I have also discussed some exceptions to the rule, to which I would like to add another: it doesn’t necessarily apply to vowel-final words of more than two syllables if the vowel is represented by y (if only one consonant stands between it and the preceding vowel); here the preference is for antepenultimate stress, by analogy with hundreds of such words in English (bravery, variety, melody etc.).

2. The antifa phenomenon, and the generally hateful counterprotests by various self-styled leftist entities to demonstrations by what they perceive as hate  groups (though Patriot Prayer, for one, hardly seems to fit the description), made me think of calling them “anti-hate hate” by analogy with what was once called “anti-missile missile” (now it’s “anti-ballistic missile”). And it reminded me of Tom Lehrer’s introduction, over 50 years ago,  to his song National Brotherhood Week, in which he said, “there are people in this world who do not love their fellow human beings, and I hate people like that.”

3. The correct grouping of components (if there are more than two) in compound words and phrases often presents difficulties in English. These are partially alleviated by hyphenation, but people are often negligent in using it, and it doesn’t always work. For instance: what do you call some who opposes Muslim extremists? An anti-Muslim extremist? (That is, if you use bracketing, an anti-[Muslim extremist].) But that would read the same as someone who is an extreme anti-Muslim (that is, an [anti-Muslim] extremist). And so the British writer Maajid Nawaz, who was once himself a radical Islamist but has turned into an opponent of Islamic extremism, has found himself branded an “anti-Muslim extremist” by none other than the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), alongside the likes of Pamela Geller and Frank Gaffney, as recently reported in Salon.


October 18, 2017

When Mariano Rajoy, the primer minister of Spain, sent armed police to violently suppress the (admitted illegal) referendum on independence conducted by the government of Catalonia, he was following the standard playbook of a right-wing leader.

As I’ve written before, the main difference, in opinion, between left-of-center and right-of-center politics is that the former is based on hope and the latter on fear.

The hope is that things will get better for people. But to inspire such hope a charismatic leader is necessary, and nearly all electoral victories of left-of-center parties happen when such a leader is present. (I list examples in the cited post.) When, on occasion, a left-of-center party wins without one, its success is ephemeral, as shown by the French Socialist Party under François Hollande.

The fear is that the some “other” threatens the people. The “other” may be another country or set of countries, or some ethnic, political or cultural minority.

Sometimes the fear is factually based — that is, the threat may be real. As a popular button in the sixties had it, even paranoids have real enemies. In that case the people usually seek a leader seen as competent to deal with the threat (Churchill in 1940 is a good example).

But often the threat is manufactured, whether spontaneously or as a part of propaganda serving some special interest. It may be ascribed to a country against which there already exists a prejudice, to domestic groups associated with such a country (“foreigners”), or to groups somehow seen as suspects (Catholics, Jews, Muslims, freemasons, “radicals” of any stripe, and so on). In those cases the fear is wholly irrational, and mere competence is not enough; what people look for in a leader is an image of strength.

What conveys such an image may vary. High military rank obviously fills the bill: witness Eisenhower (when the threat was communism) or de Gaulle (Algerian nationalism). Without such a qualification, leaders must improvise. By virtue of his bullying personality, Donald Trump has convinced a significant portion of the American people that he has the “toughness” to protect their country from China, Muslims and immigrants.

What, then, is a mild-mannered civilian politician to do? Ronald Reagan provides an example: he earned his image of strength when, as governor of California, he sent the the highway patrol and then the national guard to put down “radical” student demonstrations in Berkeley.  Later, as president of the United States, he refused negotiations with the the striking air-traffic controllers’ union and abruptly fired them.

Currently, Putin, Erdoğan and Duterte are examples of right-leaning leaders who earned their tough images by violent crackdowns against Chechens, Kurds and drug dealers, respectively.

Rajoy, who is now (like Reagan)  consistently refusing negotiations, is merely following their example. When the time comes for new elections, he can boast of his strength in putting down separatists.

Thoughts about Italian

October 7, 2017

When I’m asked about the languages that I know, I usually include Italian among them, since I can speak it, understand it (even the stilted language of opera) and read it without much difficulty (I’m not so sure about writing it). But unlike the other languages in which I consider myself fluent — English (my primary language), Polish (my first language), German (my primary language in the past), Hebrew (ditto), Yiddish, French, Spanish and Catalan — I have never lived in an Italian-speaking environment. I have been in Italy many times over the past six decades, but never longer than a few weeks at a time, and my communications with Italian colleagues and students has been in English. So I’m not quite so sure of expressing myself correctly in Italian as in the other languages. I’m not always sure where the stress in a word is, or whether a given e or o is closed or open, or if an intervocalic s is [z] or [s]. But I’ve discovered that in Italy these things vary with region, and my when-in-doubt default seems to coincide, for some reason, with the Milanese variant (that includes using the perfect tense instead of the simple past, as in French).

I have recently been think about some qualities of Italian. Not its esthetic qualities (“Italian is a musical language”) or even linguistic ones, but its relationship to other languages,

Italian is, on the one hand, quite welcoming to foreign loanwords, usually with not change of spelling or any other attempt to italianize them: computer, würstel, Bohème… Acronyms are borrowed as well: for AIDS and NATO Italian has Aids and Nato (usually only the first letter is capitalized in Italian) where French, Spanish and Portuguese have SIDA and OTAN. And when originally Italian words are modified by alloglots to express another meaning, Italian accepts the modifications by respelling: the Italian casino (‘brothel’), modified by the French (with the accent on the last syllable) to mean ‘gambling establishment’, became casinò; and getto (‘casting’), which in its Venetian form geto came to mean ‘foundry’ and to designate a neighborhood in Venice around a foundry, became ghetto when this neighborhood was settled by German Jews who pronounced the g hard rather than soft.

On the other hand, some words common to a great many languages have no Italian counterparts: ‘hotel’ is albergo (though hotel names usually include the word Hotel); ‘football’ (soccer) is calcio (though American football is football americano). And the old habit of converting foreign forenames to one’s own language (as in ‘Ferdinand’ for Fernando) is alive in Italian; thus the British queen is Elisabetta and her husband is Filippo, as is the king of Spain. And French characters in Italian operas have names like Alfredo, Violetta, Rodolfo, or Marcello.

All languages, of course, have quirks, one can even say personalities, beyond vocabulary, phonetics and grammar, and getting to know them is part of learning a language.