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First novels

I traditionally start my phonetics courses with an "over-under bet", about how much randomly-selected audio we need to listen to (and look at), before we find a systematic, interesting, and essentially unstudied phenomenon. In the case of English, I generally offer 20 seconds as the threshold value — for less well-studied languages like French or Chinese, the threshold might be 10 seconds. For understudied languages, 3 seconds.

This came up a few weeks ago in my corpus phonetics course, and so we took a look at the most recent Fresh Air podcast at that point: "With a nod to 'Lolita,' 'Vladímír' makes a sly statement about sex and power", 2/22/2022.

Here's the first bit of the show (a little less than 12 seconds):

This is Fresh Air.
Our book critic Maureen Corrigan says
Julia May Jonas's new first novel,
called Vladímír,
should spark a lot of heated discussions
on today's campuses.

And the first interesting-and-unstudied phenomenon turns up after about 6.2 seconds:

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A mishmash of languages, "dialects", and characters

We've just been through the problems of standard language versus the vernaculars in Arabic (see "Selected readings" below).  Now we're going to look at a photograph, a caption, a book review, and a letter to the editor that encompass these contentious issues in spades — but for Chinese.  Here's the photograph:

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The social and political effects of language

Susan Blum, Lies That Bind:  Chinese Truth, Other Truths (Rowman, 2007), p. 130:

…Though language was viewed as having pragmatic consequences in the past, during revolutionary China and especially during the Cultural Revolution the social effects of language were consciously emphasized, as an entire propaganda department took over the government. All words and communication were politically charged, and people had to become completely conscious of the effects of their utterances, knowing they would be scrutinized. At the same time, a premium was placed on the spontaneous eruption of profound feelings of revolutionary ardor. This forced many people to pursue a path of performance, of masking feelings they could scarcely acknowledge to themselves.

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Mandarin and Manchu semen

[This is a guest post by Jichang Lulu.]

Recent discussion of that most Taiwanese expletive, 潲 siâu ‘semen’ (“Hokkien in Sino-Japanese script”), made me think of a favourite item. Although Mandarin 㞞 sóng has the same literal meaning, in my experience that’s less familiar to some speakers than nouns that contain it, e.g. 㞞包 sóngbāo (literally ‘bag of semen’), roughly ‘weakling’.

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Arabic and the vernaculars, part 4 — the case of Bible translations

Again, to refresh our collective memory and to provide the context for the present post and the other posts in this series, I repeat the following questions:

1. Is there such a thing as "Classical Arabic"?  If there is, how do we describe / define it?

2. What is "Standard Arabic"?

3. What is Quranic Arabic?  How different is it from Standard Arabic?

4. How many vernacular Arabic languages are there?  Egyptian? Syrian?  Lebanese?  Are they quite different from Standard Arabic?  Are they mutually intelligible?  Do they customarily have written forms and a flourishing literature?

You may also wish to revisit the introduction with which the first post in the series began.

Heather Sharkey offered the following eye-opening response:

You have opened a can of worms! Or many cans of worms!

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Qua qua qua

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Arabic and the vernaculars, part 3

For Arabic diglossia references, see the works of Mohamed Maamouri, e.g., here, here, here, here, here, here, and here (pdf).

Also consult the various Arabic datasets of the LDC (Linguistic Data Consortium), both MSA and colloquial.
 
An important point to make is that the regional Arabic "colloquials" have been developing in separate directions nearly as long as the regional Romance varieties have. So Moroccan Arabic is roughly as different from Gulf Arabic as (say) French is from Portuguese….

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Arabic and the vernaculars, part 2

To refresh our collective memory and to provide the context for the present post and the other posts in this series, I repeat the following questions:

1. Is there such a thing as "Classical Arabic"?  If there is, how do we describe / define it?

2. What is "Standard Arabic"?

3. What is Quranic Arabic?  How different is it from Standard Arabic?

4. How many vernacular Arabic languages are there?  Egyptian? Syrian?  Lebanese?  Are they quite different from Standard Arabic?  Are they mutually intelligible?  Do they customarily have written forms and a flourishing literature?

You may also wish to revisit the introduction with which the first post in the series began.  It was followed by a lively, informative discussion in the comments.

Devin Stewart offered the following illuminating response:

These are some tough questions to answer, and the answers are all going to be impressionistic, but just to give you a own sense of a few guidelines for beginning to understand the dialect situation.

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Terry Kaufman 1937-2022

Terrence Scott Kaufman was born on June 12, 1937, in Portland, Oregon, and died on March 3, 2022. He earned his B.A. at the University of Chicago in 1959, began his decades-long fieldwork career in 1960, and earned his Ph.D. degree in 1963 at the University of California, Berkeley. His Ph.D. dissertation was a grammar of Tzeltal. He taught at The Ohio State University (1963-1964) and at Berkeley (1964-1970), and then spent the rest of his teaching career at the University of Pittsburgh (1971-2011). He was a valued mentor to the many students he trained at Pitt and in his MesoAmerican documentation projects, and a dear friend to many of the rest of us. As his old friend Lyle Campbell put it recently, Terry was truly "astonishing in the breadth and depth of his knowledge of seemingly everything, of his seemingly superhuman ability as a fieldworker, picking up instantly on the most subtle of things, getting more documentation done in a week's fieldwork on a language than most others could achieve in years of effort".

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"These items have been completely untested"

From an ebay listing for a "job lot" of used computer keyboards:

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Accent, power and persuasion

If, like me, you're behind in streaming the latest crop of mini-series, you may need some help in decoding this SNL skit:

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Arabic and the vernaculars

With this post, I will begin a series on the nature of the Arabic group of languages.  My reason for doing so is that many people are badly confused about just what "Arabic" (a Semitic group) signifies when it comes to language, almost as badly confused as most people are about "Chinese" (linguistically more properly referred to as Sinitic).

For a basic, foundational statement, here are the opening two paragraphs of the Wikipedia article on "Arabic":

Arabic (اَلْعَرَبِيَّةُ, al-ʿarabiyyah [al ʕaraˈbijːa] (listen) or عَرَبِيّ, ʿarabīy [ˈʕarabiː] (listen) or [ʕaraˈbij]) is a Semitic language that first emerged in the 1st to 4th centuries CE. It is the lingua franca of the Arab world and the liturgical language of Islam. It is named after the Arabs, a term initially used to describe peoples living in the Arabian Peninsula bounded by eastern Egypt in the west, Mesopotamia in the east, and the Anti-Lebanon mountains and northern Power Steering Pump Fits 94-02 DODGE 2500 PICKUP 134533 in the north, as perceived by ancient Greek geographers. The ISO assigns language codes to 32 varieties of Arabic, including its standard form, Modern Standard Arabic, also referred to as Literary Arabic, which is modernized Classical Arabic. This distinction exists primarily among Western linguists; Arabic speakers themselves generally do not distinguish between Modern Standard Arabic and Classical Arabic, but rather refer to both as al-ʿarabiyyatu l-fuṣḥā (اَلعَرَبِيَّةُ ٱلْفُصْحَىٰ "the eloquent Arabic") or simply al-fuṣḥā (اَلْفُصْحَىٰ).

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Henry Lee Smith Jr.

Amazingly, it appears that Henry Lee Smith Jr. has no Wikipedia page, despite a notable career in science, public service, and the media. According to his 1972 NYT obituary:

In 1940, when Dr. Smith was 27 and a member of the Department of English at Brown University, he came to public attention on the radio program, “Where Are You From?” over WOR. He selected people from a studio audience, listened to them talk and told them where they came from. He was right in four out of five tries.

For more about that radio program, see "Dr. Smith", The New Yorker 11/22/1940 (page image here), or "Radio: Where Are You From?", Time Magazine 5/6/1940.

According to a "Flashback" by the UB Reporter ("55 Years Ago: Henry Lee Smith, Linguist", 10/27/2011):

After receiving his PhD from Princeton and lecturing at Barnard, Columbia, and Brown, Smith headed the Language Section, Information and Education Division of the U.S. Army from 1942 to 1946.

Prior to the war, there were no foreign language materials for the bulk of the military and civilian personnel, and Smith, along with linguists he recruited, produced language guides, phrase books and military and general-purpose dictionaries in many different languages. Under Smith’s direction, the linguists also developed what came to be known as the Army method of language instruction—later adopted by colleges and universities—emphasizing the use of phonograph records on which a native speaker recited the foreign words and allowed a pause for repetition by the student.

Smith founded the State Department’s School of Language and Linguistics in 1946, and served as the school’s director prior to coming to UB.

For more about the role of linguists in (what became) the Defense Language Institute, see "A tale of two societies" (3/1/2007) and "Linguistics in 1940" (3/11/2007).

My personal exposure to Smith's work was through the influential 1951 monograph that we used to call "Trager Smith"  — I remember being struck by how many of the examples in Chomsky & Halle's 1968 The Sound Pattern of English were reproduced exactly from that source. (A link to a .pdf, courtesy of the Internet Archive, is here.)

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