Eunomia · language

You are currently browsing the category archive for the 'language' category.

Yesterday, Barack Obama said there’s not a dime’s worth of difference between he and Senator McCain [bold mine-DL] on illegal immigration. ~Mitt Romney

I’m sorry, this may seem small and unimportant, but this butchering of a basic element of the English language is just awful.  It’s one thing when idiot sports announcers and actors can’t put pronouns into their proper cases, but when you have someone who is often praised for his education and intelligence it is the final straw.  This is more annoying than Obama’s habit of speaking about the ”amount of troops” lost in Iraq, as if there were some undifferentiated mass of Troop to which members of the armed forces belong.

I used to think that it really mattered whether or not I referred to Burma as Myanmar or Burma.  No, really.  I can remember when the change happened.  The Economist suddenly started talking about Yangon and Myanmar out of the blue.  Oh, the treachery, I thought.  SLORC said Myanmar, so obviously all right-thinking people had to say Burma.  Of course, at another time the British said Burma, so other right-thinking people would have insisted that something else be used.   

Then you spend about ten minutes looking into the significance of the change in Burma and you realise that this is silly.  Mranma/Myanma is one name that has been used to describe the country, and Bama is another.  One is apparently a literary style, the other is used more often in colloquial speech.  The traditional name of Burma evidently may or may not originally come from Bama, but is definitely held over from the British colonial designation for the place.  Why a different name can’t be reflected in English usage is a bit of a mystery.  Of course, it comes back to who made the change, rather than the substance of the change itself.  The logic seems to be: we won’t give them the satisfaction of using the new name!  That’ll teach ‘em a thing or two!  Of course, the Burmese government doesn’t really care that much which name we use–it isn’t about us–and so our valiant defiance of the dictators is so much huffing and puffing over nothing.   

All the time we use inapt names in English for countries that have never called themselves by that name (e.g., Armenia, Finland, Hungary, Greece), which has often puzzled me, since some of us get very annoyed with people who insist on calling us estadounidense and norteamericano.  These are the established names, and so for convenience I understand why we don’t run around talking about Hayastan and Hellas, but it would be nice if we could admit that it is a matter of convenience (and, one might say, a certain laziness) to use the non-indigenous names of other countries.  Strangely enough, we are more than happy to oblige foreign countries when other governments change their countries’ names (e.g., when Upper Volta became Burkina Faso, or Zaire became Congo yet again, or British Honduras became Belize).  Perhaps it is high time that we fought back against Fasoan tyranny and returned to the ridiculous-sounding geographical designation that preceded the current name.  Sometimes I will still say Zaire out of force of habit, but calling it Zaire for all those decades (which virtually everyone did) was, according to the logic of the anti-Myanmar crowd, a concession to Mobutu.  Since Mobutu was on “our” side in the Cold War, Westerners, so far as I know, did not worry themselves about whether or not they were giving in to some supposed anti-colonialist blackmail by using the official name of the country. 

Some people are upset by the official renaming of Bombay because Hindu nationalists were the ones who did it (I believe the old name is still frequently used out of habit), but it puzzles me why we shouldn’t, generally speaking, use the names for countries that the inhabitants themselves use or those that they say they would prefer.  There is nothing necessarily wrong with continuing to use old names, especially when they are well-established and familiar (we will not start calling Egypt Misr nor will we begin styling India Bharat anytime soon, I think), but actively protesting against the official name of a country–when it has as much claim to being a “legitimate” name as its alternative–seems like an odd way to express opposition to a regime.  It’s not as if the regime cares whether we use the new designation or not–the change is for domestic consumption anyway–and we are not lending aid and comfort to Burmese dictators if we happen to call it Myanmar.     

For instance, Iran has been the official name of that country in foreign relations since the 1920s, but there are still some who will insist on calling it Persia, thinking that they are somehow sticking it to the Ayatollah.  They are, if anything, sticking it to the ghost of Reza Khan and the Pahlavi rulers, which is pointless.  That Iran is the older indigenous name for the place only underscores how irrelevant this posturing over names really is.

This is probably well-known to more advanced students of both languages, and is so obvious that I feel silly for not noticing it earlier, but if someone told me about this before I had forgotten it.  Armenian seems to have borrowed the root of their words relating to translation (targmanut’yun, targmanich, targmanel) from Arabic or, more likely, Syriac, given the strong cultural and commercial ties between classical/medieval Armenia and Syria.  In Arabic, the word for translation is tarjama, so the connection between that or some variant of it and targmanel is clear enough, since anel means “to do” and the gim in Armenian is equivalent to the jim in Arabic.

No wonder Americans are so weak in learning foreign languages.  Take this case.  I had not heard of this academy, but I was not surprised to find that one of its critics was Daniel Pipes, who wrote earlier this year what may be one of the most ignorant things I have seen:

I say this because Arabic-language instruction is inevitably laden with pan-Arabist and Islamist baggage.

This is absurd.  I just went through the equivalent of one year of Arabic language instruction here at Chicago, and if it was laden with “pan-Arabist and Islamist baggage” it would be news to all of us who were in the class.  It would be one thing to argue that, in a specific case, the instruction was loaded with such messages, but to say that learning Arabic inevitably involves “pan-Arabist and Islamist baggage” is to reveal yourself as a fool. 

One of the most common textbooks used for Arabic instruction in this country, Al-Kitaab, the text we used this summer, is essentially free of anything that might be construed as political or controversial.  (The one thing that I noticed that was bluntly political and obnoxious was the depiction of Kosovo as an independent country on one of its maps.)  It is true that studying al-fusha involves not learning specific dialects, but that hardly makes it “pan-Arabist” in any meaningful way.  This would be like saying the study of German is inevitably laden with Pan-German ideology because it privileges Hochdeutsch over Bavarian, Austrian and Swiss dialects. 

Pipes isn’t finished:

Also, learning Arabic in of itself promotes an Islamic outlook, as James Coffman showed in 1995, looking at evidence from Algeria. 

Really?  Does that mean that Pipes’ own study of Arabic made him into an Islamist sympathiser?  This is preposterous.  Arabic predates Islam; there are still many Arab Christians (though fewer of them remain in the Near East thanks to foreign policy moves favoured by geniuses like Pipes), and there are Orthodox and Maronite liturgies in Arabic.  It is doubtful that these Arab Christians are being Islamicised when they learn the language of their parents or when they go to church.  (The phrase in the title of this post is the Arabic for the Orthodox Paschal greeting, “Christ is Risen,” and the response, “truly He is risen.”)  It is likely that Pipes would have no objection to the students learning about the history and culture of the Near East, provided that they were learning the sorts of things with which Pipes would agree.     

Of course, the results of the cited study (which appears in Pipes’ own journal, which has incidentally also played host to articles providing cover to Armenian genocide denial) might have something to do with the students being Algerian Muslims living in an overwhelmingly Muslim country.  These results have literally no bearing on instruction in this country.  It is very likely that there were other factors that determined the results Pipes cites.  For one, students in Algeria who are studying in Arabic rather than in French might already be predisposed to endorse these views.  There seems to be absolutely no control here for their social background, the political affiliations of their parents or the materials presented in the class.  Studying Arabic in and of itself cannot induce an Islamic outlook if there is no attempt to propagandise the students, and in most Arabic instruction in this country it is implausible that such propagandising is taking place.  Learning foreign languages does not compel you to embrace this or that ideological or religious frame of mind.  If Americans become convinced that learning Arabic is somehow buying into Islamic propaganda, they will be that less interested in learning it.  It is fairly despicable that a putative scholar of the region should actively spread such misinformation.  Put it down as one more reason to pay no attention to what Pipes has to say.  

Are we really supposed to believe that Maha and Khalid, two of the characters of Al-Kitaab, are the vehicles of jihadi subversion?  Give me a break.  Perhaps Pipes had this experience in Egypt, but Brooklyn is in a very different mintaqa.  Whatever else might be said about the principal of this academy or the curriculum of the school, it can hardly be a good thing that her ouster is a victory for buffoons of Pipes’ ilk.

Update: Just for your enjoyment, here is the voice of the wonderfully talented Maronite nun, Sister Marie Keyrouz, as she sings Inna Al Masih Qad Qam (approx., Christ Has Risen).  Here are additional liturgical songs courtesy of the same Melkite Catholic church site.

The soundtrack to Fanaa was playing in the background, and I was finishing reviewing the most recent Arabic lesson’s vocabulary when I was reminded of another Arabic loanword found in Sayat Nova’s poetry.  His Doon en hoorin is (You Are A Nymph) has a line where he says:

Toor, indzi spane, ikhtiar unis!

I believed that this translated roughly as, ”Come (lit., give), kill me, you have the right.”  The modern Eastern Armenian translator renders ikhtiar as iravunk’, which is where my translation of ikhtiar as “right” comes from.  In the context of the poem, this rendering might make perfect sense, since the gusan is talking about the authority of the beloved to order his death, where she plays the role of a khan or some other powerful figure.  Yet my Arabic lesson tells me that the primary meaning of ikhtiar is “choice” and the dictionary confirms that it means selection, preference or even free will in certain usages.  Fortunately, there is a way out of this contradiction.  

Ikhtiar (or ikhtiyar as Hans-Wehr transliterates it) can also mean “option” in Arabic, which would also fit the context of the poem.  It would not, however, bear out the translator’s decision to use iravunk’.  This rendering does manage to convey some of the meaning, but does not capture exactly what the poet was saying.  Still, I can appreciate the translator’s quandary, since the main Armenian word for choice is entrut’yun, which is a bit more cumbersome.  So, eight weeks in intensive Arabic have at least brought me some new insight into Sayat Nova.  Park’ Astutso!

Intensive Arabic has been going pretty well, but as we are now on Day 18 of 45 I have started to feel a little run down.  In fact, after reading a short article about a Dubai Islamic studies graduate student today, I just so happened to find a UAE dirham in my pocket that had been given to me in change for my tea earlier that day.  The single dirham coin is the same shape and colour as a quarter, so it might easily pass for one if the cashier didn’t look closely enough.  When I first saw it, I thought I had started hallucinating Arabic writing on money.  That may give you a sense of my state of mind.  The good news  is that I can make out everything on the coin.

In Canada they have two national languages, but that’s one reason Canada often seems silly. They don’t even know what language they dream in. ~Peggy Noonan

With respect to Ms. Noonan, who has been pretty good, especially on immigration, in the last year or so, this is not right.  To justify our desire for English language, we should not have to run other nations in the process.  Their ways are not our ways, and that is fine.  The important point here should not be that every nation must have one and only one language, but that there should be one official and national language that provides a common means of communication and a source of common identity.  There are fictitious, meaningless nation-states whose linguistic divisions signal a deeper divide of culture, ethnicity and politics.  Take Belgium, for one.  There are others that have a common history and a reason for existing as a common, albeit federal, relatively decentralised, polity that are not the products of accidents of European great power politics or the Treaty of Versailles.  Canada is such a nation.  I understand and appreciate the Quebecois separatist view, but I have long since matured out of the weird American need to belittle the Canadian nation, which, strange as it may sound to American ears, does exist, as if we were so insecure in our own nationality that we needed Canada as our whipping boy to make us feel more American.  An American patriot does not need to disdain Canada to be more at home with who he is.  Canadians will sort out their internal debate on their own.  There is nothing necessarily “silly” about having multiple languages in a polity (it may impractical, but it is not silly–in terms of maintaining the peace, it can be the soul of wisdom in certain situations).  What is silly is pretending that a centralised, uniform nation and a mutiplicity of languages can coexist without any difficulty.

What does this mean?  First, let’s consider idaafa.  Idaafa is a construction that expresses the possessive relationship between two nouns in Arabic.  The other day I likened it to the German genitive, and the more I learn about idaafa, the more I think that this is a very good analogy.  It is a very useful way to understand this idea, at least for those who have studied German.  For example, das Buch des Vaters is a genitive construction in German.  Arabic will have the exact same construction with kitab-u al-waalidi.  Like anything in a German genitive construction, the idaafa must take genitive case endings.  Tanween, meanwhile, is the concept of doubling the last vowel in a word.  To have the nominative indefinite, you double the damma, which is equivalent to our short ‘u’, but if you have the tanween al-fatha (this phrase is itself idaafa) you double the fatha (equivalent to a short ‘a’).  This has the effect of making the noun accusative, and you cannot have a random accusative floating around in a genitive construction.  At least, that’s what I’ve managed to understand so far.  Now admit it–you really wanted to know that.  

Read the rest of this entry »

Max Boot actually makes the right, if obvious, point that we need more trained linguists in the government and in the military.  How far away is the goal?  Pretty far:

We won’t close our knowledge gap until a Foreign Area Officer—an officer who has dedicated much of his career to understanding a particular region—gets at least as much respect within his service as a tank commander or fighter pilot.

If we were speculating about why “we haven’t launched a crash program to teach thousands of young people Near Eastern languages” (Dari, Pashto and Urdu aren’t really Near Eastern*, but we’ll let that go this time), a few answers present themselves. 

One is that the administration has remained in many ways so tied to the earlier “liberation” approach that it does not think there is a real need to teach Americans these languages.  Why go to the trouble to learn Dari or Pashto, when Afghans are glorying in democratic freedom and don’t need us to talk to them?  This would be a result of the contradictory impulse to dominate a region as hegemonists, but to insist all the time that there is no hint of colonialism at work.  You probably don’t teach a lot of people to learn these languages unless you see your involvement in the relevant countries being very long-term.  So perhaps no one is preparing for the “Long War,” because they don’t think the war will actually be all that long (or perhaps they hope to project power via bases, but avoid local entanglements as much as possible).  Perhaps they still expect, in spite of everything, for the local people to figure out alien systems of government, effective administration and establish some reasonable level of order and security without much in the way of assistance and advice (except as can be given in English to prominent exiles or those among the locals who can speak English).  However, this seems a less likely answer.

Another possibile answer for the lack of extensive language training programs is simply that the administration is filled with officials either so contemptuous of the rest of the world or so ignorant of much of it that they do not appreciate the importance of having an expanded corps of linguists in these languages.  Mr. Bush is famously intellectually incurious, so the initiative wouldn’t come from him.  One can almost imagine him saying to Secretary Rice, “Why can’t all those people just speak English?”  Secretary Rice would seem at first like the better candidate to push for improving language training, at least as far as her responsibility at State goes, but she is famously not a Near or Middle Eastern expert and might not have given a lot of thought to the variety and range of different languages that need to be sponsored to support operations across these regions.  You would think a Robert Gates (no stranger to collaborating with foreign rebels is he) would press for this more.  Perhaps he has privately tried and run up against the uncomprehending, baffled looks of other members of the administration?

The third answer is simply that of incompetence: everyone in the administration knows how important this is, they really want to take it seriously, but haven’t much sense of how to go about training a lot more linguists.  Unfortunately, given the track record of this administration, this seems the most likely explanation, as attractive as the other two might seem. 

Reporters have had fun quizzing top officials on the differences between Islamic sects and the affiliation of relevant jihadis, showing in the process that many of the top people in relevant areas of policy and oversight have no idea what goes on “over there.”  I think they should go back and corner top officials on these language questions.  Corner the heads of Senate Foreign Relations or House Armed Services.  “Mr. Chairman, what are the major languages that they speak in Afghanistan?”  If one gets even one of them right, ask: “What kind of a language is that?  What other languages is it related to?  Which groups speak that language?”  And so on.  This would be very elementary, but it might just embarrass enough prominent people that they would feel the need to make more of an effort in boosting these language training programs. 

I like foreign languages.  While I am probably too much of dilettante and not really good enough at many of the languages I have worked on, I would like to think that I know something about their value and importance, not simply for the immediate purpose of communication, but for understanding how other peoples around the world think and understanding what other peoples think is important.  The apparent initial indifference of the government to this matter, and its sluggish response up till this point, is just one more indictment against the competence of the administration and the entire apparatus of the federal government.

*I have typically referred distinctly to the Near East and the Middle East as different regions, because they are different regions.  This follows an older, European categorisation of the Orient into Near, Middle and Far.  This is reflected in many modern European languages: the Near Eastern region is still described as der naehen Osten, le Proche Orient, etc.  For whatever reason, Americans collapsed the Near and Middle East together, so that we are treated to the bizarre descriptions of places in the Levant as being “Middle Eastern” and frequent references to Israel-Palestine negotiations as pursuit of “peace in the Middle East.”  Perhaps Americans call the Near East the Middle East because some of us already regard Europe as the “Near East”?  Who knows? 

It has become so widespread and conventional that it is a bit hopeless to try to change the usage, but Boot’s usage above is doubly odd, since it conflates everything in the opposite direction and makes everything–including languages found principally in Pakistan and India–”Near Eastern,” which is no more correct than the other confusion.  It seems to me that the logical point dividing the two would be somewhere between modern Iran and Pakistan.  Arguably, Iran might be classed as part of the Middle East instead, except that I believe Oriental Studies has usually taken Persia to be Near Eastern.  Yes, there is a certain arbitrariness in drawing the line, but for the sake of geographical accuracy it does need to be drawn somewhere.