Saturday, February 24, 2007

Reviving Dead Languages

Recently, my local Columbus paper had a story on the efforts of people, especially at Miami University (of Ohio) , to revive the Myaamia language, once spoken by inhabitants of the Ohio Valley by a people forcibly moved to Oklahoma. The title of the article, "Linguist bringing back nearly dead language," is misleading since in fact the language was dead, the last speaker having died in the 1960's. Allegedly there are now about 50 speakers though no one is in a position to certify that what they are speaking is in fact what was spoken by the last people who spoke it. The tribe consists of some 3,000 members. I give the revival of the Myaamia language a 1% chance of being successful and that is being optimistic.

The article itself veers crazily from a story about a talk on The Myaami Project at Miami University (of Ohio) by a participant in the project and member of this tribe at the American Association for the Advancement of Science to a couple of paragraphs on the issue of global warming and then back to this language revival. This is a mind boggling segue. The only connection between the two is that both were topics raised at the conference. There is no connection between the survival of this language and the survival of planet Earth.

The author of the paper that gave rise to this article was Daryl Baldwin. He is referred to as a translator, and I suspect he is also a student at Miami University for there has been some effort to bring young people from Oklahoma to Ohio to study. At the project web site, the effort to recreate the Myaamia language is referred to as a reclamation project, rather than a revival, for, as I noted, the language had long since died. Baldwin is said to have claimed that "language contains ideas of a people's culture and interactions." Perhaps that is what he said but it is linguistically very naive. Yes, the referring expressions in a language give us an idea of the sorts of things that played a role in the lives of the people -- the animals they hunted, the foods they gathered, among many other things. Sometimes kinship relations may be inferable. But there is no way that the culture as a whole would be inferable from the traces of the language that do exist.

Those who are trying to reclaim the language are using written records, facts known about related languages that were spoken in the Midwest, and the memories of those elders who recall bits and pieces of the language. It is a characteristic of language death that there will be a time in which a generation of persons can understand what speakers are saying but cannot themselves speak the language. Once the speakers die out the language is dead since those who knew the language passively cannot keep it alive. From the description given, I gather that surviving members of the Myaamia tribe who retain some memory of the language represent the last stage of the death of the language.

There have been efforts to revive languages before this one of course. One of the most well-known is the Celtic Revival, which was begun in 1896. The Irish Free State made a concerted effort to assist in the revival of Celtic as part of an emphasis on developing a specifically Irish culture distinct from that of the UK. It has been met with mixed success partly it seems because time spent in school learning Celtic hindered the development of much more economically important English language skills. Indeed, I would imagine that Celtic ori8ginally died out because it came to be of little real use. Nothing in that regard has changed since then. Another point that people may miss, as may be true of those trying to bring the Myaami language back to life, is that it is not necessary to have a separate language to develop a unique culture. There are people in many countries who speak English but have different cultures.

The Hebrew language movement in Israel has been a complete success. There simply couldn't have been a viable Jewish state without a national language since there was no single other language that everyone spoke. To some degree, a Jewish culture already existed and this facilitated the development of a new state. There was no similar compelling reasons for the revival of Celtic since everyone in Ireland already spoke English. This revival was done for purely political reasons.

As I said, I give this effort to recreate Myaamia a 1% chance of success. There are only 50 speakers now and there are 0nly about 3,000 potential speakers. Moreover, there is no pressing economic or social need for the language. A member of this tribe does not have to speak Myaamia to get a job. However, study of the language and culture is of academic interest and there is no harm in teaching the children in the tribe a bit of the language to assist in preservation of at least bits of the culture. As in the Irish case, any time spent teaching the kids Myaamia that detracts from their learning to read and write English would not be time well spent.

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Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Supporting the Troops

During the Vietnam War, I and other opponents of the war ran into the roadblock that the American people seemed to be unable to distinguish between the two concepts "supporting the troops" and "supporting the President." The same problem has arisen again in the case of our current war in Iraq, but now, finally, Congress is about to draw the distinction between these concepts.

A majority of the members of Congress oppose the Iraq War and this includes a nontrivial number of Republicans. In order to express its displeasure with Bush's handling of the war, Congress is about to debate a nonbinding resolution opposing Bush's proposal to increase the number of troops in Baghdad. The mission of these troops will be to attempt to suppress the violence on the streets of Iraq. According to my morning paper, the effort went well on the first day. But if the troops leave the areas they have cleared, the bad guys will return. Moreover, 4 Americans were killed elsewhere. One step forward, one or two steps backward.

The Democrats have been forced to issue a fairly weak resolution opposing the troop surge in order to bring some Republicans along with them. However, even this very weak action counts as failing to support our President and is therefore a very worthy thing to do at this time for it shows the people that it is acceptable to oppose the President publically. The main reason the action is so weak is that the Democrats are afraid to give Bush's Pit Bull in Chief, Dick Cheney, the opportunity to argue, in his typically sophistic way, that Congress is putting our troops in danger. The Pit Bull in Chief, whom I never tire of reminding you evaded the Vietnam War with something like 5 student deferments, has already harried war opponents, as arm chair warriors always do, on the grounds that they are giving comfort to the enemy by passing this resolution. Cheney, of course, has never let the truth interfere with what he wants to say.

Conceptually, Congress has made it acceptable to draw the distinction between supporting the troops and supporting the President. The problem is that there are few ways in which Congress can create legislation that limits Bush's options. He acted quickly enough to make this opposition not only ineffective but moot since the troops have already begun the mission of clearing the streets of Iraq. Will Congress cut off funds to provide the reinforcements required to help them complete their task? I think not. Congress has so far never run a war -- has never deployed troops or laid out battle plans -- and this would not be the right time to start. They could set an end date for the war, however. They might dictate a deadline of January 1, 2008 for the removal of the troops by giving that date as the date the money will stop flowing in furtherance of this war. It would be claimed by the Pit Bull that the enemy would be emboldened. Perhaps it would. But no one really knows what will happen. Americans have proved to be pathetically unable to predict what enemies from markedly different cultures like SE Asia and the Middle East will do in response to what we do. That is the interesting thing about the future. It is like Forest Gump's mother's box of chocolates.

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Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The Perils of Sloppy Language Use

The news has not been a good source for blog material in recent weeks so I Googled my own blog to see if I could find some some reactions to it that were of interest and found one that was very troubled by my blog on the language of the abortion controversy. The reply concerns my claim that language does not determine thought, as the novelist Orwell or the linguists Whorf and Sapir would have it, but at most influences thought.

The argument in Words, You, and a Pink Elephant is intended by its author to show that language does determine thought. His first demonstration consists of the opening passage:
If I tell you not to think about a pink elephant, have I determined your thoughts? It seems undeniable that I have.
In fact, in saying this to others one can cause them to think about pink elephants but not what to think about them and the latter is what is of interest. So, if the author were to say
Pink Elephants can fly
he would not in so doing cause me to do any more than think about this proposition. He could not make me believe that it is true. That is, simply asserting something does not guarantee that people will believe it. Ask George Bush how that way of doing intellectual business is working for him.

The author then goes on to say
In fact, it appears self-evident that words not only influence thought; they determine it.
Questions that are of any intellectual interest do not have self-evident answers. At least, I haven't found one. .

The blogger goes on to say
If I step onto a commercial airline, seize control of the cockpit mid-flight and say over the PA-system, "We have some bombs!", do you think I mean to affect behavior?
Notice that he has moved off the term "determine" to "affect" but these are anything but interchangeable in meaning. My blog did say that use of language can influence thought but not determine it. The terrorist could cause people to do things but not what they will actually do, as one group of terrorists learned on 9/11.

My causing someone to believe some proposition through what I say depends on what sorts of beliefs the person already has, the ability of this person to think critically, and what sort of faith this person has in my credibility concerning that issue. If someone comes into a linguistic class knowing nothing about language, I can influence the hell out of him or her. I did it over and over during the years I taught. However, when I went in front of a body of trained linguists and delivered a paper, my ability to "affect" their beliefs was conditioned only in part by what I said. What they already believed would play no less a role.

What the blogger does in his blog is use terms like "determine," "affect," and "influence" as if they meant the same thing. He also fails to observe the mightily important distinction between thinking about something and thinking something about that thing. The blogger says
What if I walk up to a bank teller and hand him a note which says, "Give me all the cash in your cash drawer or I will shoot you in the head"– am I not predetermining an outcome?
I am not sure where the "pre" comes from in the blogger's thinking but if the robber were to do this he would certainly cause something to happen. But unless he has cased the bank and become familiar with all of its security features, his ability to determine a specific outcome would be quite limited. For instance, it could be that there is a button on the floor that the teller can press that causes a bullet proof screen to pop up between the customers and all the tellers making the passing of money over impossible. Suppose further that as the screen goes up, a very loud siren goes off which alerts the security guard as well as the local police. Suppose the guard draws a gun and orders the robber to drop his gun. Our robber certainly didn't predetermine this outcome, one he couldn't have known simply from casing the bank unless he got to watch another person trying to rob the bank. He caused there to be a reaction of some sort. That's all.

Words like "determine," "predetermine," "affect," and "influence" are not interchangeable and the distinction between thinking about something and thinking something about that thing are very different. Yes, our blogger could get me to think about pink elephants but he couldn't make me think one could fly simply by saying
Pink elephants can fly.
What we have is some very sloppy uses of language that reflect, I fear, a very sloppy way of thinking. So I might agree to the thesis that sloppy uses of language can determine sloppy ways of thinking.

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Sunday, February 04, 2007

A Clean Black Man

Democratic candidate Joe Biden, whose nice head of hair is due to hair plugs and whose dazzlingly white teeth have been made that way by some dentist, can reasonably be said to have done all this in an effort to be President some day. Unfortunately, Biden cannot do for his brain what he has done for the rest of his head. He said of a rival candidate, Sen. Barack Obama
"I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy," he was quoted as saying in the New York Observer. "I mean, that's a storybook, man."
a statement that can be found in every newspaper and web site in America I suspect.

Black Americans have no trouble recognizing the multiple racial insults implicit in what Biden said though most have, not surprisingly, gotten hung up on "articulate" since that predicate or equivalents to it ("well-spoken," for instance) are White code words that communicate that one would not expect a person like him (a Black man) to be articulate. I run into this on sports message boards occasionally in connection with Black athletes. Being an athlete and Black is a double whammy since athletes are presumed by many not to be very bright.

What Biden seems not to understand is that many adjectives come with an explicit or implicit reference class. If one says of a five year old boy that he is tall, the speaker doesn't mean to suggest that the boy is size-wise ready for the NBA. The speaker means only to say that the boy is tall in so far as five year old boys (or children) are concerned. "Five year old boys" or "five year old children" are the most likely reference classes in a case like this. A second thing that Biden seems not to understand is that when one predicates a property of someone or something one implicates that one might not have expected that this person or thing might have that property. One occasionally hears references to women doctors when the fact that the doctor is a woman is totally irrelevant to what the person is saying. The speaker suggests, perhaps unintentionally, that one would not expect a doctor to be a woman.

With this in mind, we need to look at all of the adjectives Sen. Biden used, namely "mainstream," "articulate," "bright," "clean," and "nice-looking." In fairness to Biden it should be noted that he meant to complement Obama. I think he meant to say that Obama has the sorts of qualities that make for a viable candidate for the Democratic nomination. But in doing so, he reveals a few of his prejudices.

In two cases, we know what the reference classes of the adjectives are. For "mainstream" it is African-Americans. Actually, we should probably cut him a little slack and say that he meant 'African-American candidates' or 'African-American Democratic candidates' as the reference classes. There have been some non-mainstream Black candidates. Eldridge Cleaver, a member of the Black Panthers, ran for President of the Peace and Freedom Party. Since I was myself a non-mainstream person at the time I contemplated voting for him but decided that I disliked Richard Nixon too much to waste my vote and switched to Hubert Humphrey at the last minute.

I suppose that Biden might have thought of Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton as being non-mainstream since they weren't conventional politicians holding or having held a political office. Since Biden has since apologized to Sharpton, we can be sure that while he may think that Al Sharpton is non-mainstream, he doesn't want to be known as thinking that. Al Sharpton is funny and is far from being non-articulate. I feel a personal disdain for Jesse Jackson for I see him as having hurt the Democratic Party by running for the nomination. I was very pleased when my boy, Bill Clinton, not so gently shoved him aside when he ran for office. He didn't want Jesse Jackson anywhere near his campaign. Shirley Chisholm, another Democratic candidate, was clearly a mainstream politician.

In the case of "good-looking," Biden gives us "guys" as his reference class. The problem here is that it implicates that Blacks, perhaps just Black men, are not generally good-looking. Did he mean to suggest that? Who knows? But, as I noted, when you predicate a property of someone, there is often an implicature that this property is in some way out of the ordinary for that person or kind of person. When you say, "That white kid can jump!" you suggest that white kids do not normally jump well, a fact that the movie title "White Guys Can't Jump" exploited. We are also not so hot at running fast or for long distances.

Both "articulate" and "bright" can be heard as "articulate for a Black person" or "bright for a Black person" in the way that "She's a tough/bright cookie" implicates that she is tough/bright for a female and that one doesn't normally expect females to be tough/bright. Not everyone will hear Biden as suggesting that Obama is bright/articulate for a Black person or draw the inference that Biden thinks that Blacks ordinarily are not bright/articulate. The problem for Biden is, I think, that many African-Americans will see him as having these prejudices.

What is most bizarre about Biden's blunder is his attributing the property "clean" to Obama. I have never heard or read any politician saying of another that he is clean. Obviously, Biden does not mean to suggest that Blacks cannot be expected to bathe regularly. But what does he mean? We often hear it said that such-and-such ran a dirty/clean campaign and so Biden may have meant that Obama doesn't engage in dirty politics. People are sometimes said to have "clean records." We might mean that the person has had no arrests or or black marks on his credit reports or has earned no demerits. I think Biden may have meant that Obama has run clean campaigns and has no baggage of the sort Clinton had when he ran What is the reference class for "clean" in this case? I think it is not African-Americans so much as it is politicians.

Biden may or may not have self-destructed his campaign. I suspect it was going nowhere anyway. This race for the nomination is about Hillary -- who can beat her and who can't. Biden can't possibly measure up to Hillary intellectually (as his gaffe shows) or financially. Hillary has a political Fort Knox to draw from already or so the TV pundits have said.

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Friday, February 02, 2007

Does Iraq Have a Civil War Redoux?

Nearly seven months ago, I blogged on the possibility that Iraq was already suffering a civil war despite the strong protestations by the Bush Administrations that it was not. Today, a National Intelligence Estimate, which I picked up from the Washington Post and you should be able easily to find, came out saying:
The Intelligence Community judges that the term “civil war” does not adequately capture the complexity of the conflict in Iraq, which includes extensive Shia-on-Shia violence, al-Qa’ida and Sunni insurgent attacks on Coalition forces, and widespread criminally motivated violence. Nonetheless, the term “civil war” accurately describes key elements of the Iraqi conflict, including the hardening of ethno-sectarian identities, a sea change in the character of the violence, ethno-sectarian mobilization, and population displacements.
In my blog I hesitated to proclaim unequivocally that Iraq's internal strife was a civil war. I find it interesting that in the passage just quoted, the NIE hedges a bit suggesting that a civil war might be part of what is going on.

I was inspired to descend to my blog room (i. e., what my wife calls "our so-called study") by hearing Defense Secretary William Gates say that what is going on does not match up with what he thinks of as a civil war. He had in mind dual competing governments and a divided or two separate armies going at each other. This would be close to the default understanding of a civil war that we all very well might share.

As a linguist, I caution against carrying on a political debate that relies on how one defines the concept of a civil war for as Ludwig Wittgenstein said years ago in his Philosophical Investigations, one of the great books of the 20th century in my estimation, most words and "fixed expressions" like "civil war" do not admit of a definition consisting of a univocal set of properties that specify all of the things covered by the word or fixed expression and nothing else. What counts as a "ball" must include baseballs and cricket balls, basketballs, American footballs, rugby balls, balls of twine, and many other things. Being round is important but the moon is more or less round and isn't a ball. and balls of twine rule out "used in games" though doubtless some kids somewhere have stolen someone's ball of twine and used it as a ball. What Wittgenstein said was that these things exhibit family resemblances to each other, some more like what one might call a paradigmatic ball such as a baseball or cricket ball, both of which are round, and others deviating from it in varying degrees. Rugby balls are not quite ovoid but are certainly not round. And they are all made of different sorts of things.

The notion of a "civil war" is also subject to this same problem. The American Civil war might be one's idea of a paradigmatic civil war since we had two governments and two standing armies. The Russian or French Revolutions were civil wars not involving two independent governments and they differed from each other in nature. The recent Ethiopian invasion of Somalia was part of a civil war since it supported a nearly defunct government in a fight against Islamic revolutionaries. So, one could argue, as the NIE does, that a civil war might be part of what is going in in Iraq.

In reality, the important thing is not what we call it but how we describe it. After giving a description of who is fighting whom (a long list I fear) then we are in a position to decide what aspects of the fighting we might have some ability to affect and what not and to try to restrict ourselves to doing just that. Bush has given our military at least two aims -- stop the killing of each other by groups of Shiites and Sunnis and try to destroy the so-called "insurgent" forces. Sadly, this is where we were before the last election when the people spoke loudly and clearly as to how they feel about continuing this war. However, Bush decided to escalate the war using Johnson's method of adding more troops. How many of you think he is just buying time so that he can get out of Dodge before we see people dangling from the runners of the last helicopter to leave Baghdad?

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