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Serendipity

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)

 

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Addendum to “Google Maps and stress”

June 20, 2017

In asserting that “vowel-final words with a single consonant between the final and penultimate vowels, but a doubled one or a cluster between the penultimate and antepenultimate, are more likely to have the stress on the antepenultimate,” I made an over-hasty generalization. It is clear that when the word has an ending that’s perceived as characteristically Italian (e.g. ina/i/o, ona/i/o, ola/i/o, ara/i/o) or Spanish (e.g. ito/a, azo/a) then this ending will be stressed, on the penultimate, regardless of any preceding consonant cluster: Martina/i/o, Portola (Spanish Portolá), and so on.

Oh…

June 3, 2017

I never got around to seeing the movie Elle when it was released last year. Though I have long been a big fan of Isabelle Huppert, and usually try to see everything she is in, for some reason I missed Elle. It isn’t the first time I missed seeing a movie I had meant to see. But then I have usually made up for it by seeing it in a revival or on video, sooner or later.

But something made me want to see it sooner rather than later. It so happened that on some recent flights on Air France I got to see a couple of movies with an actress named Virginie Efira, hitherto unknown to me, and I was quite impressed by how skillfully she managed to move between the serious and comical aspects of her characters, unhampered by her spectacular looks. When I found out that she had a supporting role in Elle, I became eager to see it soon.

It turned that I was not the only one. The Contra Costa County Library has 15 copies of the DVD, and not only are they all checked out, but I placed a hold a month ago and I am still in 54th position in the queue.

While waiting, I checked out (from another library) the novel that the film is based on, Oh… by Philippe Djian, about whom I have written before. (Hence the title of this post.) I was, of course, curious about  the character named Rebecca, played by the new object of my fandom.

To my surprise, Rebecca makes only the briefest of appearances, and is described by the narrator-protagonist as an mousy (by implication) little redhead. Well, Virginie Efira is a spectacular-looking (as I said) tall blonde. (In the films that I saw she did not display her assets as prodigiously as she does in her publicity shots, except in one comic turn in Victoria.) The screenwriter must, then, have expanded the part to accommodate Virginie Efira’s commanding presence.

I am getting curiouser and curiouser.

 

Stress “misrule” expanded

May 4, 2017

When I recently wrote that a kind of default rule for stress in unfamiliar words encountered by English-speakers is to stress the penultimate in words ending in a vowel, I had not come to grips with two major exceptions. (I am not referring to familiar words whose pronunciation is well established, such as America or Africa, which do not obey the rule.)

The first is that, if the penultimate vowel is /i/ (whether spelled i, e, or y, but not ae) and there is no consonant between it and the final vowel, then the stress falls on the antepenultimate, as in words like radio, rodeo (but not when the e is read as /eɪ/), mania, trachea, TokyoRomeo, names ending in -ia (Sonia, Tania, Slovakia, Peoria etc, with some exceptions like Maria, Sophia, Tanzania, and Lucia when given an “Italian” reading, as well as some idiosyncratic surnames like Scalia and Renteria) or –ya (Sonya, Tanya, Marya, Kenya, Libya). Among common words, idea is another exception to the exception; among names, Korea is another; Althea is ambiguous.

The second is that when the penultimate and antepenultimate vowels are separated by more than a simple consonant (even a doubled consonant), while only a simple one separates penultimate and final, then the default stress is also on the antepenultimate. I will discuss this in an upcoming post.

Accents

February 28, 2017

As soon as I entered the title I realized that it could be understood in several different ways, even if only relating to language. Without checking any dictionaries, I would posit that accent can mean one of the following:

1. Stress on a syllable.

2. A way of pronouncing a language, indicating (a) a regional variant or (b) the influence of a foreign language.

3. A diacritic mark on a vowel, which may indicate

(a) Syllabic stress, as in (i) Greek (in all words), (ii) Italian (on final syllable only), (iii) Spanish (only in words that don’t follow the default stress rule, (iv) Swedish (mainly in surnames)

(b) Vowel length, as in Czech and Slovak

(c) Vowel height (openness or closeness), as in French

(d) A combination of (a)(iii) and (c), as in Catalan and Portuguese

(e) Tone (as in Mandarin pinyin)

Here I mean to write only about 2(a), specifically with reference to the BBC series Line of Duty.

British writers of detective fiction often use fictitious locations, but when this happens they are usually within well-defined regions, such as Peter Robinson’s Eastvale (in Yorkshire), Ruth Rendell’s Kingsmarkham (in Sussex), or Caroline Graham’s Causton (in fictitious Midsomer, but within commuting distance of London). And in the television adaptations of these novels the characters – if they are local – speak with the appropriate regional accents, just as they do in series where the locations are real. It’s different, of course, when the location is London, because one expects to find people from all over the UK ending up there; practically every London-based show has its token Scot.

Line of Duty is anomalous. It takes place in a nameless big city that is clearly not London: no London landmarks are ever shown, and one of the characters is a Deputy Chief Constable, a rank that doesn’t exist in the Met. The first series (“season” in US parlance) was filmed in Birmingham, and though the subsequent ones were filmed in Belfast, there are some hints that the city is something like Birmingham (though no actual Birmingham locations are ever shown). For one thing, according to Wikipedia, “maps of Birmingham appear on walls, and telephone numbers use an 0121 area code.” For another, there are references to “East Midlands Police” as being a neighboring police area (in reality the East Midlands cover six counties with six police areas, though not exactly one per county), while Birmingham is in the West Midlands.

However, no one speaks with anything like a Birmingham accent (such as can be heard, for example, on WPC 56). Instead, it seems as if every actor speaks with their native accent: Adrian Dunbar (Hastings) — Northern Irish, Mark Bonnar (Dryden) and Allison McKenzie (Akers) —  Scottish, Vicky McClure (Fleming) — Nottinghamshire (which sounds quite a bit like Northern to a non-expert like me), Lennie James (Gates) – London, and so on. Most of the others speak with what to me sounds like a kind of neutral RP-like accents, including, strangely enough, Martin Compston (Arnott), who is a Scot and has spoken like one in other television appearances (for example in an episode of Death in Paradise). I don’t know why.

I have never been in Birmingham, so I don’t know if such a variety of accents is heard there in reality, but I have my doubts. It ain’t London.

Kanté / Conte

February 3, 2017

I don’t remember which soccer commentator it was who said, some time last summer — after Leicester City surprisingly won the Premier League championship while Chelsea, the previous year’s winner, finished in 10th place — that Leicester’s most valuable player was not the high-scoring Jamie Vardy (24 goals) or Riyad Mahrez (17 goals), but the newly signed N’Golo Kanté, with only one goal scored.  It was his tackles and interceptions that impressed observers.

And look what’s happening this season: Kanté is now playing for Chelsea, in first place by a large (perhaps insurmountable) margin, with Leicester currently wallowing in 16th. Speaks for itself, doesn’t it?

Except that the addition of Kanté isn’t the only big change for Chelsea. There is also his near-namesake (in English pronunciation) Antonio Conte, replacing as coach the controversial José Mourinho, about whom I wrote here and here, and who is now managing Manchester United with less-than-brilliant results.

 

 

 

IPA

December 2, 2016

I recently wrote about the French roots of most older (pre-Second-World-War) international organizations that have the word international (not world or universal) in their names, and hence I in their initialisms or acronyms. But in none of them is the Frenchness as pronounced as in the IPA.

IPA stands for both the International Phonetic Association and the International Phonetic Alphabet; the former is the body responsible for the latter. (Both are API in French.) It seems strange that an organization would knowingly — and, at least to some, confusingly — use the same abbreviated name for itself and for its product. The Ford Motor Company is, to be sure, known briefly as Ford, and one of its cars (if it comes from the Ford Division) is a Ford; while a specific one may be called the Ford (if, for example, a member of a multi-car family announces “I’m driving the Ford today”). But in French the company would be called la Ford, as would the car if a specific one is meant (both are feminine because both compagnie and voiture are feminine). French-speakers seem to be used to such ambiguities and find various ways to resolve them. For example, la Corse means both ‘Corsica’ and ‘the Corsican woman’; Balzac, in his story La Vendetta, refers to the Corsican woman at its center as l’Italienne.

Here I will  refer to the association (when necessary) as IPAss, and limit the use of IPA to the “alphabet.”  I have often toyed with calling it the FPA, because of its French bias and because it doesn’t really make sense to refer to phonetic characters as international — they have to do with languages, not nations. But it can also be questioned whether it’s really phonetic, or really an alphabet.

Let’s start with the last. To most people, an alphabet is a finite set of characters (called letters) that one learns in a specific order; hence the term alphabetic order. Whether modified letters (like á or ç) or digraphs (like æ or ch) constitute distinct entries is a matter decided by the individual language authorities. The IPA, however, is not finite — phoneticians create new characters as needed — and there is no alphabetic order. If it is anything, it’s a code, not an alphabet.

The IPA was first conceived by a French organization of modern-language teachers (L’Association Phonétique des Professeurs de Langues Vivantes) as a way of teaching pronunciation to children, not as a true representation of native pronunciation. This meant giving French approximations to, say, English sounds. Thus the character c (later replaced by ʃ) was proposed for both the French ch in chaud and the English sh in show. These are actually quite different sounds; in the English one the tongue is considerably farther back than in the French one. But when show is used in French as a loanword, it’s pronounced just like chaud; in fact, in IPA the pronunciations of show (as said by a Scot or a West Indian) and chaud would be written the same way: [ʃo], regardless of how different they actually sound.

The real problem with the IPA, for me, has always been the representation of affricates. as, for example, the English sounds represented by ch and j or ge in such words as judge, charge and change. Note that these words all come from  French, and at the time they were borrowed their pronunciation of these consonants in French (Old French, that is) was not that different from what it is in English. But French lost its affricates as it changed from Old to Middle, and when speakers of modern French borrow words from languages that have them, they pronounce these sounds as stop + fricative. That is, a French-speaker would approximate the English phrase ‘catch it’ as ‘cat shit’; one need only  listen to native francophones pronouncing  such words as tchèque, jazz, pizza or tsar. In IPA these are written as [tʃɛk], [dʒaz], [pidza] and [tsar].

But what happened was that the IPAss decided to keep these representations for all languages, even those in which a fricative is a single consonant (in my native language, Polish, there are six such sounds). It was only on the insistence of some non-French linguists that ligatures (such as ʦ, ʧ, ʤ) or over- or under-bows (such as t͡s or t͜s) were allowed “when necessary,” but they are still usually omitted from IPA charts. Many linguists resort to non-IPA symbols, such as č for the ch sound.

So much, then, for “international,” “phonetic” and “alphabet.”

Franzen’s “hacelo”

November 29, 2016

Jonathan Franzen writes long novels. At least some of their length is due to his deep delving into the minutiae of his characters’ occupations, be they business, politics, sports, music, cooking or whatever. This depth seems to be a result of meticulous ad hoc research, since in his appearances on Jeopardy! Franzen did not impress as a man with a breadth of knowledge at his fingertips. But the writing, as technical as it may get, is never didactic, it flows smoothly and is a pleasure to read.

When it comes to things German, as displayed in Purity, Franzen’s knowledge appears to be echt, since he studied German as an undergraduate and spent several years in Germany. What little German is actually quoted is impeccable, though the dialogue that is supposedly in German but written in English does not read as if it were translated from German. (In my novels in which dialogue written in English is meant to be spoken in another language, I made a point of thinking it first in Spanish, Hebrew or German before writing it down, but then I am not a professional writer.) There is, moreover, a tour de force in the form of a bilingual English-German poem, with the English part carrying a scandalous German acrostic that lands its author, a German named Andreas Wolf, in trouble. Franzen leaves it up to the reader to figure out that the acrostic reads something like “To your socialism I dedicate a splendid ejaculation.”

I have, in the last few years, developed a hobby (described here) of reviewing English-language novelists for their language lapses, especially relating to Spanish. Spanish appears only sporadically in Franzen’s writing, but I am pleased to report that when it does, it is invariably flawlessly idiomatic. (I have seen nothing in his biography indicating any profound exposure to Spanish.) One instance deserves special attention.

In Purity,  when a character is told (in Spanish) that someone is there to see him, he replies, Hacelo pasar,” meaning ‘let him in’ or, literally, ‘make him pass.’ Hacelo does, in fact, mean ‘make him,’ but not in standard Spanish; there it would be hazlo (with ) or hágalo (with usted) (or, in Spain, possibly hazle or hágale). The setting here, though, is eastern Bolivia, which happens to belong to that portion of Hispanic America where vos is used instead of , and hacelo is the form consistent with vos. Franzen’s familiarity with this form — which is almost never taught to Spanish-learners — is impressive.

But there is a problem. The person making the utterance is the aforementioned German, Andreas Wolf. We are not told how or where he learned Spanish. In Bolivia he lives at Los Volcanes, an isolated compound where English, not Spanish, is the prevailing language. In my case, I learned the vos forms when I lived in Costa Rica, because my friends and colleagues there used them with me. At Los Volcanes, the only local is the driver Pedro, and it’s in response to his announcement of a caller that Wolf says Hacelo pasarNow, what Pedro says is, “Hay un señor en la puerta que dice que es su amigo”  (‘There is a man at the door who says he’s your friend.’)   Su amigo, not tu amigo, indicating that Pedro addresses Wolf with usted. It’s a double mystery, then, that Wolf comes to use vos in return: first, it isn’t clear how he learned it; and, second, it seems out of character for him to be in a master-servant kind of asymmetric address relationship.

Perhaps Franzen’s meticulous research — this time into language use — carried him a bit too far.

IPA

November 25, 2016

That damned electoral college, again

November 11, 2016

Sixteen years ago, in the wake of one of the most contested presidential elections in American history (and one in which, as in the recent one, the winner of the popular vote lost the electoral one), I wrote an essay in which, among other things, I analyzed the effect of changing our electoral system without amending the Constitution, by having the electors in each state determined by proportional representation rather than by winner-take-all. The result was that, in that election, Gore and Bush would have received 263 votes each, and Nader 12. Under the Constitution, then, the election would have been decided — even more undemocratically — by the House of Representatives. But of course the different system would probably have produced different results in the vote, and, as I wrote then, “in a system in which ‘third-party’ candidates are potential recipients of electoral votes, the electors might regain some of the discretion that the framers of the Constitution had intended for them to have.” It was perfectly possible, I wrote further, “that the state Green Party organizations would operate on the lesser-evil principle and instruct their electors – ahead of time, of course, so that voters would know – to vote for Gore.”

I subjected the recent election to a similar analysis, and found an equivalent result: 265 for Clinton, 259 for Trump, 12 for Johnson, and one each for Stein and McMullen. If the scenario I just imagined were to occur, what would Johnson’s electors do?

I have always thought of self-styled Libertarians as Republicans who liked to smoke pot, and I believe that their electors would choose Trump over Clinton.

This is exactly what would happen in the impossible case of replacing the electoral college with direct elections. Neither major candidate having received a majority of the popular vote, a runoff would be required, and I suspect that most of the Johnson vote would go to Trump (he is, after all, if not exactly a libertarian, at least a libertine), giving him the victory.

Now all we need is for all fifty states to adopt the principle of proportional representation for presidential electors.