Archive for October, 2017

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.