Saturday, February 23, 2013

Une pensée saussurienne...

...le lendemain du centenaire de la mort de Ferdinand de Saussure.
Le rôle caractéristique de la langue vis-à-vis de la pensée n’est pas de créer un moyen phonique matériel pour l’expression des idées, mais de servir d’intermédiaire entre la pensée et le son, dans des conditions telles que leur union aboutit nécessairement à des délimitations réciproques d’unités. La pensée, chaotique de sa nature, est forcée de se préciser en se décomposant.
--Cours de linguistique générale, p. 156                         

Friday, February 22, 2013

Today in Language: Ferdinand de Saussure

It is hardly exaggeration to call Ferdinand de Saussure the father of modern linguistics. He was influenced by many predecessors (i.e., he didn't invent linguistics, or even some of his key concepts). He was made known by his students (without whom he may not even have been published), chiefly Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye, important linguists in their own right. Yet Saussure serves well as both a marker in linguistic history as well as an original thinker.

The most significant aspect of Saussure's structuralism, as laid out in his Cours de linguistique générale, are the linguistic pairs he introduced. Study of language would focus on both diachronic and synchronic analyses. Significant layers of human language would begin to unfold with the differentiation between langue and parole. And the distinction between signifier and signified in the linguistic sign would enrich and nuance studies from morphology to phonology, not to mention open pathways to new linguistic subdisciplines.

All of these pairs (not strict either/or pairs, and definitely not dichotomies) opened up linguistic inquiry in directions researchers had not much thought of. In its turn, of course, Saussurean structuralism also incited much critique itself and led to a whole century of poststructuralism.

Saussure died exactly 100 years ago today, February 22, 1913.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

A Saussurean Thought...

...on the eve of the centennial of Ferdinand de Saussure's death.
The characteristic role of language in relation to thought is not to create a material phonic means for the expression of ideas, but to serve as an intermediary between thought and sound, in such conditions that their union necessarily leads to reciprocal delimitations of [linguistic] unities. Thought, chaotic in its nature, is forced to clarify itself in breaking itself down.
--Cours de linguistique générale, p. 156

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Today in Language: Molière

Un certain Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, ou Molière si vous voulez, est mort à Paris le 17 février 1673. La fontaine Molière, au carrefour de la Rue Molière et la Rue Richelieu, n'est qu'un de la multitude de souvenirs du dramaturge français le plus célèbre.

A certain Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, or Molière as you may have heard him called, died in Paris on February 17, 1673. The Fontaine Molière, right in the heart of Paris and a couple of blocks from the Coméide Française that owes much to France's most famous playwright, is just one of many historical traces of Molière in the City of Lights.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Book Review: The Greater Journey

A superb departure gift from a cousin as my family and I moved to France last year, The Greater Journey by David McCullough fulfills for me several roles:
  • pleasure reading (in the midst of an overwhelming amount of other reading in contemporary French literature, postcolonial theory, and linguistics and pedagogy)
  • information on historical Paris
  • information on my cultural past (both French and American), particularly in regard to influential Americans (Samuel Morse, Emma Willard, Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Fenimore Cooper) and how they benefited from time they spent living in Paris. (Hey, like me!)
I am thinking of writing an extended chapter-by-chapter review of this superb book by a superb storyteller of the past (he's not of the past, but recounts the past). In the meantime let me give two reasons to read this book (and none not to read, so far as I can tell):
  1. You are an American moving to Paris (or any nationality moving to any other country) for a time and will both discover more about the world and about yourself.
  2. It's simply a fascinating read.

Monday, February 11, 2013

For Linguistic Kindness and Sanity: Case Study in Academia

The previous two posts on linguistic kindness and sanity focused on case studies from politics. An area that, for its public nature and its public "wordiness" and its strong emotions, is highly susceptible to linguistic unkindness and linguistic insanity. Today we turn to a case study from a very different domain, one inhabited by folks who really should "know better": academia.

The Story
It is not exactly a story, more of an example. Alan Jacobs, who has written many fascinating books, is a professor of English. In December of last year, on his blog The American Conservative, he wrote the following regarding the word extrovert (or extravert, if you prefer): "FYI, [extravert is] the proper spelling: extrovert is common but wrong, because extra- is the proper Latin prefix."

Linguistic Sanity
Those of us who study and teach language have to call each other out at times: what Jacobs wrote is wrong. The only accurate part of the sentence is that "extrovert is common." So why is this our example of questionable linguistic sanity in academia?

  1. Often, though not always, what is common determines what is conventional (i.e., acceptable), whether the issue is one of grammar, spelling, or orthography. Very few English speakers use, or even know, the word extravert. Thus, extrovert is actually "proper."
  2. Calling any usage "wrong" is in itself problematic. If it's used, it's "right," though maybe not conventional or generally acceptable. Again, though, most English speakers use the word extrovert rather than extravert. Thus, extrovert is actually conventional.
  3. All English dictionaries [ALERT: unproven assertion [because I haven't actually bothered to check all English dictionaries]] list both extrovert and extravert as acceptable (usually in that order) or else list only extrovert. Thus, given that the standard of up-to-date dictionaries at the very least accepts the common usage, the usage extrovert is "proper."
  4. Since when was Latin etymology the standard for 21st-century English usage? Answer: never. Thus, extrovert is quite proper and acceptable.

Linguistic Kindness
All that said, it is totally fine for Jacobs himself to use the spelling extravert and even to alert us to the fact that it is an alternative to extrovert and perhaps a purer form. But telling us that extrovert is improper, particularly in a parenthetical introduced by a condescending "FYI" does not come across well. This attitude of your-usage-is-wrong-and-I'm-here-to-enlighten-you is what turns some students off when it comes to grammar and English in general.

At the same time, even when we see something we disagree with (in my case, Jacobs' questionable linguistic analysis/explanation), we must be gracious in our critique. Perhaps I have not been--you are the judge.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

For Linguistic Kindness and Sanity: Case Study 2 in Politics

The last post discussed the urban legend surrounding President Kennedy's 1963 Berlin speech, a case study that revealed a potential lack of both linguistic kindness and sanity in the way it has been misused.

By contrast, the linguistic sanity of today's case study (i.e., the linguistic point that teachers and translators will draw from a mistake) is indisputable. We can learn much, however, about linguistic kindness.

The Story
At the beginning of the Obama administration, like at the beginning of every administration, everything was fresh and everyone was looking for change and renewal. Specifically in the area of foreign policy, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Russia and conveyed to her Russian counterpart that the U.S. wanted to "reset" the relationship. She gave him a gift of a mock reset button that said "reset" in Russian. The problem, however, is that the Russian word chosen to print on the button actually means "overcharged."

Highly embarrassing, yes, and you can check out the story at BBC, because I can verify none of the details, 1) never having examined the button gift and 2) knowing absolutely no Russian anyway to be able to check the translation. But how should we respond, had this happened in 2013, our year of linguistic kindness and sanity?

Linguistic Sanity
Unfortunately, the linguistic sanity of the story and its humor are indisputable. It provides a good example of botched translations. It also raises the question of how extremely rich multinational corporations cannot get better translation services. (If the U.S. State Department is not technically a multinational corporation, it is arguably even richer and more powerful.)

Linguistic Kindness
In spite of the humor, however, linguistic mistakes should not, we repeat, become grounds to mock someone's character or politics. Whatever one thinks of the Obama administration's foreign policy, Hillary Clinton's tenure as Secretary of State, or even the success or failure of the so-called "Russian reset," the admittedly funny translation error should have no bearing whatsoever on those judgments.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

For Linguistic Kindness and Sanity: Case Study 1 in Politics

If you know the following story, just pretend that you don't and that you are hearing a language teacher tell it for the first time to make a humorous point about mistakes we make when learning languages. We'll analyze the story and the humor afterwards.

The Story
President John F. Kennedy visited Berlin in 1963 and gave a speech to express solidarity with the people of West Berlin (and thus express America's foreign policy against the Soviet Union). He said one sentence in German because, of course, it always comes across well if you say a little something in your audience's natural language. He said, "Ich bin ein Berliner." Translation: I am a Berliner -- right? Well, actually, a Berliner is a specific type of German pastry, meaning that the president actually said, "I am a jelly donut." Whoops! Ha ha!

Analysis: The Story
I am no expert on this story, much less the Kennedy presidency or the Cold War. You can read a thorough account of the speech and context on Wikipedia. I don't think the facts are important to the linguistic point other than the use and meaning of the German phrase. What is significant, however, is the supposed humor of the story.

Analysis: The Humor
The humor is supposed to remind us of the fraughtness and dangerosity of using words we don't know or trying to make up words in our second language. And it comforts those of us who have made hilarious mistakes in other languages to know that even the most powerful and public figures have done the same.

The problem with this story, however, is that Kennedy simply did not say that he was a jelly donut. If he had, of course it would be hilarious. Even if he had, however, it would not be a good reason to ignore the politics of his speech or grounds for disagreeing with his politics and presidency (although other reasons there may be). Thus linguistic kindness, or fairness, is in order. Don't look for any old reason to attack someone whose politics you disagree with.

What Kennedy did say (in German) is "I am a Berliner." And he meant that he was a (West) Berliner ideologically speaking, as opposed to a Communist. A Berliner in German does refer to a type of jelly donut. And it is also refers to an occupant of the city of Berlin. Thus we have an example of a homograph/homonym, a word that has multiple (and sometimes quite disparate) meanings but all of which rely on the same orthographic and phonetic representation. Read more (and watch a video) on Wikipedia.

For example, have you ever said, "I'm dead"? If you have and no one laughed or at least looked at you with a weird look, why not? Because dead means "physically dead" as well as "physically tired."

To the Point: Linguistic Kindness and Sanity
So let's be both kind and sane in how we think and talk of others' language usage. Kind, because it's right. Even if a politician makes a linguistic mistake, that probably has no bearing on whether his or her politics is good or bad. Sane, because otherwise we might be the ones people laugh at! In other words, we have to make sure we know what we're talking about before we critique someone for saying something like "Ich bin ein Berliner," or the joke will be on us.

Friday, February 1, 2013

For Linguistic Kindness and Sanity in 2013...

. . . and beyond.

But if we can have just the last 11 months this year with basic linguistic kindness and sanity, that would be a great start! Those who work in academics, and particularly the humanities perhaps, do not have an immediate impact on the major, visible problems of evil in the world (greed, idolatry, violence, poverty, oppression). But improving how we think about, say, language does change how we think about others and then ultimately how we treat them. A trickle-down effect if you will.

Linguistic Kindness
So how do we think kindly about others' usage of language? I would argue that it starts with humility. Regardless of how much we know about language in comparison to someone else, we do not allow ourselves to think less of them when they use language or say things about language (metalinguistics) that we disagree with or even know to be patently wrong.

Linguistic Sanity
At the same time, we must insist that none of us knows as much about language, or anything else, as we would like to. So before we make linguistic condemnations or pronouncements, let's be sure we know that what we are saying is true, sane.

Concrete examples of all this to follow . . .