Saturday, October 18, 2008

Notes on the "habla"

For all you hispanohablantes or general Spanish language enthusiasts, this is my entry on Latin-American slang and indigenous peoples.

So last month I went to go see a showing of a low-budget film called Peces de Ciudad by Peruvian director Felipe Degregori about the indigenous people of Peru who have either been driven from their homes in the highland villages either by political violence or by lack of economic opportunity.  These Indians move to Lima, where they live in depressed slums without electricity or running water.  Houses are made of straw, cardboard, plywood, and corrugated tin.  Indians suffer a tremendous deal of racial discrimination in Lima, and are called a variety of derogatory names: charapa, cerrana (as in cerro or "hill"; literally, "hillbilly") and cholo among others.

So I went to Google these names after I saw the movie.  The first hit for charapa?  An entry on Quechua Wikipedia!  I had no idea that a Wikipedia in Quechua (a language of the indigenous peoples of the Andes and a direct descendant of the language of the Incan empire) even existed, so this was as a pretty exciting discovery for me.  I had to figure out myself, too, what language it was--that NACLO practice exercise with Quechua finally came in handy!

It turns out charapa is a Quechua word for turtle.  Apparently this is an insult directed towards Indians in Peru.  Another word used is cholo, which surprised me because it means something entirely different in Mexico and in the United States (something like "Mexican gangster," which, like "nigger" probably began as a derogatory word and eventually was reappropriated by the group to which it originally referred).  So, I went to Urban Dictionary for some clarification.  Some entries do mention its use as a derogatory term for Indians in Andean countries.  Another definition clearly only references the Mexican-American meaning, but also offered a source of its origin.

"Like many words that originated in Latin Americas--tomate, chocolate, etc.--the word cholo originated from the Nahuatl language and was eventually Hispanicized.  The original word was Xoloitzcuintli, where the X is pronounced somewhere between the English SH and CH.  The Spanish had no letter for this sound and used the X as a placeholder.  Xoloitzcuintli is the native breed of Mexican hairless dog was valued by the Mextica (Aztec) and Mayan natives.  The Spaniards used the shortened version of this word, Xolo, to mean "Mexican dog" with derogatory conotations [sic] when used by Anglos or Mexicans, as noted in previous definitions." 

This seemed to good to be true to me, so I decided to e-mail the professor of my Mesoamerican  Art & Architecture class, who is familiar with Nahuatl languages (once the tongue of the Aztecs) to ask whether or not this etymology seemed legitimate or plausible.  (As an aside, we have a ton of Nahuatl speakers here in New Haven.  You don't have to go much further than the local supermarket to hear Nahuatl spoken, since there's a large Mexican Indian immigrant population.)  Here was her reply:

"There are lots of words in Mexican Spanish from Nahuatl, almost all of them nouns (like most loan words).  My favorite is pocho--quite fascinating word origin.  I think the derivation below is correct.  Too bad the spelling of 'connotation' is wrong.  Perhaps you'll go in and fix it."  

There you have it!  I'll leave you all to look into pocho...


Counting Your Words

Erica recently called to my attention this great article in The New York Times about the work of University of Texas psychology professor James W. Pennebaker.  He counts the number and type of words (using a computer program called Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count or LIWC) used by an individual to see what it can tell us.  Pennebaker's approach is unique in that it's a departure from traditional text analysis, which he says, "is really more interested in context, how sentences are put together and what a meaningful phrase," whereas his approach "is simply counting words."  He has used his software to analyze the number of first person pronouns used by Al Qaeda number two Ayman al-Zawahiri to demonstrate a shift in his relationship with Osama bin Laden.

Pennebaker has also used his counting technique to analyze the speeches of the 2008 presidential candidates (the link:  He posits that the way each candidate uses language can tell us something about how he thinks (and from there we can analyze the difference between the way each approaches problems).  Here's a choice excerpt:

"Whereas McCain tends to be more categorical in his thinking, Obama is more fluid or contextual in the ways he approaches problems.  Categorical thinking involves the use of concrete nouns and their associated articles (a, an, the) and suggests that the person is approaching a problem by breaking it down into its component parts and attempting to put it in meaningful categories.  Fluid or contextual thinking involves a higher rate of verbs and associated parts of speech (such as gerunds and adverbs)."


Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Overheard: "Legitly"

Hey, guys! Since I know we're all abbreviation-happy, I thought I might report that I have heard the word "legitly" spoken on the Yale campus twice this week. It's a combination of the word "legit" (as in the abbreviation of the word "legitimate") with an "-ly" tacked on to make it an adverb. My suitemate from North Carolina used the word once at dinner, and then a couple of days later I heard it used again, interestingly enough, by a middle-aged male construction worker (a vastly different kind of speaker than a college-age female from the South).

It really piqued my interest, since it's clear neither the construction worker nor my suitemate was using "legit" consciously--as a curiosity or a novel slang word. Rather, the word had sunk at some point into their mental word banks, and when it was uttered, was treated by the brain as any other common morpheme, following the same English morphological rules (take an adjective and tack on "-ly" to make an adverb).  Now that's legitly interesting!


Tuesday, September 30, 2008


So I was searching the Yale library system today out of curiosty, just to see whether we might have an original copy of Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language.  It turns out we do have some incomplete sections of the first edition in Beinecke, our rare books and manuscripts library.  But more surprisingly, it turns out we have a complete of the dictionary's second edition (1755) just sitting in the stacks of our main lending library!   This is a very big deal, because this book is worth thousands of dollars.  Naturally, I went to go check it out.  It's a beautiful book printed in two folio-sized volumes--in remarkably good condition for its age.  Apparently Yale doesn't even know they just have it sitting it in the stacks, waiting to be perused by students.  Anyway, this is great news for amateur lexicographers and general lovers of old books with access to the Yale library system, because it means we can go in and commune with Johnson's tome in the deep recesses of Sterling Memorial Library stacks whenever we want.  Here are some pictures of me doing just that!

The last image is of the entry for the letter "X."  As I mentioned before, Johnson included no words in his dictionary that began with the letter.  The text reads: "X is a letter which, though found in Saxon words, begins no word in the English language."

So I've transcribed some of the Dictionary's preface that I thought was particularly interesting (Remember when McKean told us to read the frontmatter?  It turns out she was right!).  It gives us some insight into Johnson's worldview, as well as his philosophy of lexicography (prescriptivism):

"In adjusting the ORTHOGRAPHY, which has been to this time unsettled and fortuitous, I found it necessary to distinguish those irregularities that are inherent in our tongue, and perhaps coeval with it, from others which the ignorance or negligence of later writers has produced.  Every language has its anomalies, which, though inconvenient, and in themselves at once necessary, must be tolerated among the imperfections of human things, and which require only to be registered, that they may not be increased, and ascertained, that they may not be confounded: but every language has likewise its improprieties and absurdities, which it is the duty of the lexicographer to correct or proscribe.

As language was at its beginning merely oral, all words of necessary or common use were spoken before they were written; and while they were unfixed by any visible signs, must have been spoken with great diversity, as we now observe those that cannot read catch sounds imperfectly and utter them negligently.  When this wild and barbarous jargon was first reduced to an alphabet, every penman endeavored to express, as he could, the sounds which he was accustomed to pronounce or to receive, and vitiated in writing such words as were already vitiated in speech.  The powers of letters, when they were applied to a new language, must have been vague and unsettled, and therefore different hands would exhibit the same sound by different combinations."
Judging by the second paragraph, it seems to me Johnson is one of the first scholars to identify the phenomenon of the eggcorn!  As he says: "those that cannot read catch sounds imperfectly and utter them negligently."  He cites illiteracy as the root of this problem, since our only knowledge of a word, then, is what we hear, which can often be wrong--either we mishear or the person we hear the word from has misheard and repeated what he thought to be correct.  My third graders are familiar with this problem; it's the crux of the playground game "Telephone."  Naturally, with widespread illiteracy, Johnson's lifetime is the heyday of the eggcorn!  Anyway, even in this short passage, Johnson's description takes on a literary tone.  I just love how he calls our language before writing and standardization "wild and barbarous jargon."  If you can get your hands on a copy--even a later edition--it really is worth a look!


Monday, September 1, 2008

End of summer musings

Hey, guys!  As we're transitioning from summer to fall and high school to college, thought I might take this opportunity to look back and forward—that is, to recap some things I've been thinking about in August and the direction those thoughts are leading me in for school, maybe.  So as I've mentioned, I took Spanish conversation classes at Berlitz this summer.  They kind of shuffled me through instructors, but I guess I didn't mind too much because it meant I got to see four or five different perspectives on the Spanish language.  

I noticed there were more or less two types of instructors—those who were concerned with the purity of the Spanish they spoke, taught, and demanded of students, and those who were content to speak somewhat Anglicized Spanish after having lived in the States for a while (“tenemos un picnic” and “es muy nice”).  To me, this Anglicized Spanish was a wonderful example of language change, and it was easy and interesting to see how and wear English had left its mark.  Yet other instructors saw this as wholly negative—a contamination of language rather than a natural change.  I almost got into a terrible argument with one instructor who was hell-bent on teaching me “lo mas puro” when she told me that despite variations from country to country, "solo hay un espanol"—there’s only one "Spanish."  Well, I would have fought her had I been able to express myself properly in not-English.

But above all, each instructor said to me that I'd know that I'd have achieved some kind of fluency if I dreamed "in Spanish."  I've heard that before about learning a language, as I'm sure you guys have.  I'm wondering to what extent there's any scientific backing to that claim, especially because there's reason to doubt that we think (or dream, in this case) in any particular language at all!  We've talked about Chapter 3 of Pinker's The Language Instinct, in which Pinker tells us that we do not think in words, or even in images.  The "language" of our minds, he says, is "mentalese"--an idea pioneered by American cognitive scientist Jerry Fodor.  (If you Google "mentalese," there are a few good links... look into it!)

Tangentially, this also came up when my dad and I were talking about translated texts, and lamenting their inadequacy in precisely expressing the idea communicated in the original language.  We were reading something that had been written in Spanish but translated into English by the author himself.  I said I thought this might be better than having a third party translator do the job, because the author knew best what he wanted to express with each particular word/phrase in Spanish, and could therefore carry it over into English.  But does this actually fix our “lost in translation” problem?  Or, does it still matter that the idea was originally expressed in Spanish?  How does this affect the outcome of the translation?  Is the translation true to the way the idea was conceived? What if there is no real way of translating a particular idea or concept wholly and precisely?  What if, in the language of translation, there were no good words?  One language could be better to express a particular idea than another.  This got me wondering about whether we conceive of thoughts in a particular language, and how and why some languages communicate certain concepts better than others.

Anyway, these questions are part of a larger one: Can thoughts exist outside language?  Or, what is the relationship between language and cognition?

A second fundamental question for me is the extent to which culture affects language (and perhaps vice versa?), especially if language is a pre-programmed human capacity.  In other words, do grammar and culture in fact mesh?  I understand how culture could affect language on a lexical level; however apocryphal the story that the Inuit have dozens of words for snow may be, it certainly proves the point.  Yet I wonder whether culture impacts language on other levels?  For example, what about syntax?  Is the fact that verbs come at the very end of a sentence in an SVO language like Latin just pure coincidence?  Random?  Chance?  Or is it affected by an external factor, like the culture, biology, or even geography (Jared Diamond style) of the people and place that develop a language?   These are the kinds of questions that I want to be able to answer in college—through the study of linguistics, anthropology, cognitive science, etc., and through spending time abroad observing the relationship between the culture and language of a particular place.  I’m ready.


Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Hello, London!

So it turns out London is a linguist's (or lexicographer's) paradise! I've just returned from a week-long trip there with my family, and learned a whole lot about both Egyptian hieroglyphic script and the first real dictionary of the English language. I thought I'd share, and suggest, perhaps, a field trip!

The first awesome thing about London is that there are a million different people there from every corner of the world, so walking down the street you hear every language imaginable--from German to Arabic to Urdu. I guess that's not much different from New York, except the distribution of languages is different (there's a LOT of Arabic, and a LOT of Hindi or Urdu, as well as a higher concentration of non-Spanish Romance languages).

But unlike New York, London can claim possession of the original Rosetta Stone! I saw it at the British Museum, and made my sister take like a billion pictures of me in front of it. Here's one:

I've also included a picture of one of the signs posted on the exhibit, which explains the basics of how the Egyptian hieroglyphic script works. The reason the Rosetta Stone is so important is that it helped scholars (specifically, British scientist Thomas Young and French scholar Jean-Fran├žois Champollion) to finally decipher hieroglyphics in 1822. The stele, created in 196 BC, records a decree of Ptolemy V in three different written languages: ancient Greek (interestingly, I believe this was the language used by the Egyptian government at the time), and the two Egyptian language scripts, hieroglyphic and Demotic. (Hope I explained that correctly... you might want to fact check because I'm not sure whether hieroglyphic and Demotic are different scripts or both different scripts and different languages. I do know Demotic comes later in Egyptian history). Anyway, scholars had difficulty deciphering hieroglyphics for many years, as the sign reads:

"...Because hieroglyphic signs look like pictures, they assumed that all hieroglyphs were images recording ideas without language. In fact hieroglyphs recorded the ancient Egyptian language with a mixture of sound and picture signs." The word cat is written by combining the signs standing for the sounds /mi/ + /i/ + /w/ as well as the picture sign for "cat" (as shown, as picture of a cat). Incidentally, the Egyptian word for cat would sound something like "miw." It's easy to tell this word was derived from the "meow" sound made by cats!

While in London, we also made a trip to the 17 Gough Square home of Dr. Samuel Johnson, where he wrote the first real dictionary of the English language over the course of nine years, from 1746 to 1755. Other English dictionaries had been published before, but never an authoritative one on the scale and scope of Johnson's. Johnson most notably included quotations from great works of English literature to illustrate his definitions of particular words. The first edition of Johnson's A Dictionary of the English Language contained over 110,000 quotations! This practice was considered innovative, and its influence has endured to the present day; the Oxford English Dictionary today continues to include quotations with many of its definitions.

But I found Johnson's treatment of word definitions even more interesting. Originally, Johnson believed that there were "at most seven different senses of a word." He identified the "natural and primitive signification," the "consequential meaning," the "metaphorical sense," the "poetical sense," the "familiar sense," the "burlesque sense," and "the peculiar sense, in which a word is found in any great author" (I like that one). But eventually he realized how limited his semantic philosophy was, and eventually came to permit as many definitions as he could find. Ultimately, he listed 134 definitions for the verb "to take," which took up roughly 8,000 words (and five whole pages) in his dictionary! As we know, words with multiple meanings can have their definitions listed in dictionaries in one of any number of different orders (the particular order depends on the choice of the publisher)--chronologically, in order frequency, etc. Johnson chose to list his definitions from the most tangible, literal sense of a word to the most literary, figurative, or abstract sense.

Today Johnson's dictionary is still praised for both the literary merit and thoroughness of its definitions. Just don't look for any entries under "X," since Johnson believed no real English words began with the letter! Johnson, a real character whose sense of humor always shone through in his definitions (he defined the word "oats" as "a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people"), defined lexicographer in his dictionary as "a harmless drudge." The irony is hilarious; he proved lexicographers to be anything but that!



This article in the Times discusses the sociolinguistic issues at hand in the Caucuses, as it relates to the present situation in Georgia. Apparently Georgians will choose not to learn or even pretend they do not understand Russian as a form of cultural defiance. 

Some interesting commentary: "A language is the prime indication of the existence of a people," said George Hewitt, a University of London scholar of Abkhaz, the language spoken in Abkhazia, another separatist region of Georgia. "If a language dies, the culture dies as well. The people will become assimilated."

This is obviously a case where linguistics is directly tied into the politics of a region in the world. I'll be learning about this in my "Languages of the World" survey course that I just started today (!); I'll post more if I learn anything new.