Thursday, December 21, 2006

Horse Mackerel by Any Other Name Would Apparently Taste Better
A while ago, my aunt loaned me Karin Muller's book Japanland: A Year in Search of Wa, since it had reminded her somewhat of my year in Japan. It's an excellently written book, which you'd expect from someone who makes documentaries for PBS and National Geographic. I'm actually sort of in awe of Muller, since she is really able to go out and really do things all by herself, where I often need at least the presence of another person to make me be adventurous. But after I finished the book, I noticed an item of linguistic interest.

At one point, Muller is staying in a ryokan run by a woman who apparently finds serving Westerners to be a huge chore, and delights in watching them fail to eat real Japanese food. Muller describes her breakfast like this:
I march downstairs, determined to disprove her Western stereotypes and polish off my plate. The meal is already laid out on the table: dried grilled horse mackerel, as stiff as sawdust soaked in Elmer's glue; pickled radishes and strips of seaweed; rice and tea and soy sauce; and – my heart quails – two servings of natto. (113)
The passage is of course followed by the requisite, in-depth, appalled and disgusted description of natto. (I can't recall having much of a reaction to natto, though I'm sure I must have had some at some point. I'll reserve my disgusted description for the stinky tofu dish encountered in China.) The thing that struck me out of the description above, though, was the part about the "horse mackerel." I've had this breakfast before, when the teachers went on the end of year trip to the really nice ryokan, and I knew the breakfast fish bits she was talking about. I actually thought they were good on the rice, and I thought it was interesting to find out it was called "horse mackerel," having been told the name only in Japanese.

Turns out, it isn't called horse mackerel. At least, not anymore. A week or so later, when I was read Forbidden Words, I read this:
Antipodeans are dubious about eating something called shark (perhaps it is because they sometimes eat us); so when shark is intended as food, it is called in Australian English flake, and in New Zealand English lemon fish. Well, why not? Apparently, no one would eat tuna either until the name was changed from horse mackerel – 'tuna' tastes better than 'horse mackerel', it seems. (182)
So my question is, did Muller use horse mackerel as a conscious choice to make the breakfast sound intentionally that much more weird and unappetizing? Or was it a dictionary translation problem? The Japanese do use the English loanword "tuna", or rather tsuna, but only to talk about tuna-in-a-can, not regular tuna meat. So do Japanese-English dictionaries translate whatever the real Japanese word for tuna is as horse mackerel still? I wouldn't be too surprised. Or was she using an old dictionary? We may never know…

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Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Those Pesky Homophones Will Get You Every Time
Today, we bookstore staff went out to lunch for our own version of a holiday party. We didn't go far, just to the shopping area across the street, where we went to a newish place called The Grape. As should be implied by the name, it's a wine bar that also happens to serve food. Despite lunch time customers like us, who did not drink at all, they really want to play up the wine aspect of their establishment, as witnessed by the signs over the doors.

The place has two entrances, you see. Over one, closer to the bar area, there is a sign that says "Tasting." Over the other, which turns out to be next to the great Wall of Wine, there is a sign that says "Seller."

"Seller?" I thought, "What, only vendors can go in that door? That makes no sense. The place isn't that big; it's just one room. Besides, wouldn't they go to the back?" And then we went in, by the wrong door, the "Tasting" door, of course, and I could see that there was in fact a big Wall of Wine on that side of room, and it became clear that the sign should have said "Cellar."

So my questions are these: Can no one who works there spell? If so, has no one told them their sign is wrong? Or was the sign so expensive that they can't afford another one with the proper word on it?

In case you were wondering, beyond their vocabulary challenges, the food was fairly good, but the service seems dedicated to preserving the Slow Food movement. I have no idea about their wines, because I hate the taste of it and most alcohols, but I can tell you that they have a nice, highly complex rating scale that they'd love to explain.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Generational Differences in Viewing the Pinochet Era
This post is a little late, as I've been rendered lethargic for most of the week by a nasty cold, but since reading of Pinochet's death earlier this week, I have been thinking back on all the research I did on the Pinochet era in Chile while I was in college. My final project was a paper on the generational differences in how people in Chile viewed the Pinochet era. The articles on his death have concentrated mostly on the divisiveness felt by the older generation that lived through the coup, who tend to view Pinochet and everything that went with his rule as either good or bad. But in my research, I found the view of the younger generation that grew up with no real memory of the pre-coup era to be more interesting:
Though the members of the new generation are willing to acknowledge that they are products of their society and take pride in the success of the restructured economy, they do not automatically see a link from the economic policies of Pinochet to the policies of political repression, simply because they were instituted by the same government. They do not condone the policies of repression, as enforced through either restrictive laws or physical violence. They are firm in the belief that the economy could have been improved without resorting to such measures, and they do not accept the argument that without such measures, chaos would have reigned. They wish that the political atmosphere had been allowed to develop along with the economy, rather than a decade later. Now that they are old enough to question the status quo, they are frustrated by the lack of individual freedoms and the lack of true political representation due to the prohibitive laws instituted to consolidate power and maintain order by a government that most think should have been out of power years before Pinochet finally allowed the plebiscite. And they do not hold to the idea that the past should be forgotten.
This is opposed to what Pinochet and his most ardent supporters hoped for at one time:
In national polls done in 1993, 53.4 percent of the Chilean population supported clarification of the violations and punishment for those responsible, while 18.5 percent supported only clarification, and 17.4 percent wished to just leave the past behind. This latter opinion is the one shared by Pinochet, who advocates, as Cristián García-Huidobro says, a "Cultura de la subliminalidad." It is as if Pinochet and his adherents believe that if no one ever speaks of it, the abuses will be forgotten and be erased from even the memories of those who lived through them.
When he was interviewed about his leadership in 1989, just after being voted out of office, he denied that there had ever been human rights abuses, and after his arrest in England in 1998, his letter to the Chilean people proclaimed that he had only ever done things with their well-being in mind.

When I wrote the paper in 2002, a year after I had lived in Santiago for my semester abroad, I said this:
The older generation is the generation currently in power in Chile, and the polarized positions members of this generation hold appear to be tearing the country apart even now, fourteen years after the end of the dictatorship. Their feelings about the coup are so strong that they transmit their memories to their children, as their children have no clear memories of their own of the coup. As noted, however, the new generation is struggling to construct its own collective memory, which must be based on experiences held in common. Their collective memory of the coup is actually the collective memory of their parents, which is fractured between left and right, but their memory of the dictatorship is their own. The two types of collective memory correspond to the two historical events that the new generation separates in its own evaluation of recent Chilean history: the collective memory that has been transmitted from the old generation corresponds to the coup and remains the same, whereas the collective memory the new generation has formed of its own accord corresponds to the years of the dictatorship and the transition to democracy and differs greatly from that of the old generation...

The apparent ambivalence of the new generation is confusing to the old generation. It is frustrating for them to see people who, from their viewpoint, refuse to take a solid stance on what they see as the obviously either/or issue of Pinochet... The editors of 100 chilenos y Pinochet see the responses of the younger generation as outliers to their hypothesis that a response to Pinochet "es amor o es odio" ["is love or is hate"] in every case... They do not believe that these young Chileans are finding a new way of interpreting their past, but are instead just refusing to take a stance out of the desire to be on no one's bad side.
My opinion has not changed in the intervening four years, so when I heard of his death, all I could think was that I was glad he had died of natural causes, finally, because then and now, that was the only way I could see that the issue would be resolved, and the "new" generation's attempts at reconciling the coup and the dictatorship into something everyone might be able to live with into the future might begin to take hold.

(I do have to say that I find it interesting to reread a quote from Ricardo Lagos, when he was interviewed for 100 chilenos y Pinochet about 10 years before he was elected president, because even then, he diplomatically noted that Pinochet had marked the country, for good or ill, and it would need to accept this in order to move on. The new president, Michelle Bachelet, I do not think has quite such a diplomatic view, since she was tortured as a dissident under Pinochet's rule, and (understandably) refused to attend his funeral. The old generation still holds.)

Buena suerte, Chile.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Love as a Four Letter Word
Given all the linguistic blog coverage of taboo language lately, I was amused to hear this song on the radio on my way home tonight:

"Love You"
by Jack Ingram

Dang the sun; dang this day
An' I'm just tryin' to stay outta your danged ol' way
To heck with this; to heck with us
An' shoot if I'll ever look back on where I've been
Shoot if I'll ever give away my heart again

Love you, love this town;
Love this mother-lovin' truck that keeps breakin' lovin' down
There's only one four-letter word that'll do:
Love you

Love your cat; love this house
Well, I can't believe myself that I'm lovin' gettin' out
Love talkin'; love fightin';
Thought of never seein' your lovin' face
There's some words that some words just have to replace

Love you; love this town;
Yeah, I'm sick an' lovin' tired of all your lovin' around
There's only one four-letter word that'll do:
Love you

Love you; love this town;
Yeah, I'm sick an' lovin' tired of all your lovin' around
There's only one four-letter word that'll do:
Love you

Love you; love this town;
Love this mother-lovin' truck that keeps breakin' lovin' down
There's only one four-letter word that'll do:
Love you
Love you
Love you
Love you, honey
Another neat and tidy way of avoiding saying "fuck," but I doubt the New York Times will be adopting it as a new stylistic convention.

Monday, December 04, 2006

AAVE or not AAVE?
or How Too Much Linguistic Knowledge Can Ruin an Otherwise Fun Book

I like reading Robert Parker's Spenser mysteries. Really, I do. My father addicted me, and the books are all over my parents house, begging to be picked up in idle moments. But sometimes, I find his writing distracting.

I've already mentioned his erratic use of the question mark. I'm working on moving beyond that. But when I read the latest Spenser novel a few weeks ago, I found myself being distracted by something else entirely. Something more subtle, more insidious, more niggling...

Is Spenser's partner Hawk really speaking AAVE? Parker describes Hawk as easily slipping between dialects of English, and becoming more "black" depending on his mood and the point he's trying to make. At which point my brain kicked in, trying to dredge up the little AAVE copular be usage pattern information I've picked up over the years from various classes and random reading, and before I knew it, I had read several paragraphs without really taking in the words, as the majority of my mind occupied itself with trying to analyze whether Hawk was speaking proper dialects of any kind or not.

Then, just when I convinced myself I didn't remember enough to know for sure without doing a lot of research, which I was clearly too lazy to do, I got distracted by trying to figure out what the pattern was in the plot for Hawk's dialect code-switching.

Clearly, there is some sort of sociolinguistic dialect paper in this. Too bad I'm not in school anymore. Maybe I should do it anyway. Any AAVE reference suggestions, world?

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Two Linguistics Short Stories
The other day, I found myself looking through some old issues of Fantasy & Science Fiction, trying to find a story I vaguely remembered the plot of, but nothing else. It turns out that search was in vain, but I did find two other short stories featuring linguists. They were both about women working as interpretors and translators, though very different in their understanding of the profession.

The first one I read was "Universal Grammar" by Mary Soon Lee. Unsurprisingly, the author says that she wrote it after reading Chomsky's Language and Problems of Knowledge. In the story, aliens have been visiting Earth with some regularity, as tourists. They always arrive able to speak a known human language, and refuse to teach humans anything of their own language or culture. One group of them had used a gestural communication system, which the main character of the story had figured out, gaining her some stature in her governmental linguistics department. Now, new aliens have come to Earth, and appear to be trying to actually communicate with humans. However, they look like octupi and, since they are floating in a tank, are nonverbal. Our intrepid linguist sets about trying to decode their gestures, on the basis that all languages have the same underlying structure, the universal grammar of the title. But when she makes no headway, she begins to question this assumption, bringing up the most interesting question of the story: why would alien species from other planets have the same basis for language that we do? As it turns out, though, the squid-things are just animals sent out for exchange. When a tank of fish and pages of math are put into the airlock of the spaceship, the real aliens feel confident to approach the humans to begin a true exchange of ideas. Then the story goes back to the expected path, with the initial "one, two, three" number exchange, etc., and lo and behold, the language functions in a more or less expected way, the linguists prevail, and the aliens and humans become friends, valuing their warm feelings of cultural exchange. Ta-da! Not the most surprising plotline, but a fairly good story, with an almost noir feeling to it, which amused me. The gritty linguist, working from the neighborhood bar, out to solve the case of the nonsense gestures.

The second story was "The Roaring Ground" by Sheila Finch. Delfin, the main character, is supposed to undergo her final exam to become a "lingster," member of a professional guild of translators who make themselves unemotional conduits of purely verbal information. Apparently, this is done by putting oneself in a sort of gestalt state through the judicious use of psychotropic drugs. However, Delfin is a natural empath, and since she can't help but interpret people's emotions, she is failed for not being unemotional enough. There is a small alien child in the school, though, the only survivor from some disaster on his home planet, and no one has figured out how to communicate with him yet. It turns out Delfin's empathic abilities are the key to breaking the code of his language, (and what he was saying was he was lonely and wanted to go swimming, which should have been obvious, since he was the only survivor from his water world planet, but I guess lingsters aren't expected to be very intuitive, or even use basic common sense.) Even though I thought the writing in this story was good, and the author created an interesting professional society, her understanding of language was rather flawed. Given how much time I now spend immersed in autism literature, it has become quite clear to me just how big a part emotional and nonverbal communication plays in actually understanding language fully. If the lingsters truly kept themselves open as utterly unemotional conduits for verbal expression, they would be performing essentially the same function as Babel Fish. There is also reference made to a chip implanted in people's minds that allow them to understand the language of dolphins (tutors at the school,) so I find myself wondering why the world needs lingsters if they already have automatic translation devices.

Anyway, I enjoyed getting a look at some more SF interpretations of the role of linguists in the future. It's interesting to see the difference in a story written with something of an understanding of how language works, and one written purely from the mind of writer. I have to say, I liked the first one better.

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