Pixel Scroll 3/18/18 The Beast That Scrolled ‘Fifth!’ At The Heart Of the World

(1) LA VINTAGE PAPERBACK SHOW. John King Tarpinian snapped a photo of the full house at today’s event. I staffed the Loscon table for a couple of hours, then unfortunately need to retreat home and nurse a bad back.

(2) CITY BEAT. Adam Whitehead attended a preview of the first episode of The City and the City, the BBC adaptation of China Miéville’s 2009 novel.

The first ten minutes or so are a bit rough, especially for readers of the novel who may be surprised by how incredibly faithful it is to the novel one moment and how it goes off on its own tangent the next: there are major additions to the cast of characters and story. This makes sense: the episode was longer than the standard hour (I didn’t get the exact runtime but it seemed to be around 65-70 minutes) and there are four of them, which means the TV show is in the unusual position of having more time to tell the story than the relatively short novel has (which barely scrapes 300 pages). The new material is, for the most part, well-judged and intelligently deployed. Giving Tyador a wife seemed an unnecessary change, but by having her vanish in a suspected act of Breach immediately personalises the strange situation in the city: rather than the split (and Breach) being remote forces Tyador is aware of, they are instead deeply personal affronts that frustrate him. It gives the premise an immediacy not present in the novel but which works wonderfully on screen.

(3) WEIRD TONGUE. Aeon explains why “English is not normal” – “No, English isn’t uniquely vibrant or mighty or adaptable. But it really is weirder than pretty much every other language.”

…Finally, as if all this wasn’t enough, English got hit by a firehose spray of words from yet more languages. After the Norse came the French. The Normans – descended from the same Vikings, as it happens – conquered England, ruled for several centuries and, before long, English had picked up 10,000 new words. Then, starting in the 16th century, educated Anglophones developed a sense of English as a vehicle of sophisticated writing, and so it became fashionable to cherry-pick words from Latin to lend the language a more elevated tone.

It was thanks to this influx from French and Latin (it’s often hard to tell which was the original source of a given word) that English acquired the likes of crucified, fundamental, definition and conclusion. These words feel sufficiently English to us today, but when they were new, many persons of letters in the 1500s (and beyond) considered them irritatingly pretentious and intrusive, as indeed they would have found the phrase ‘irritatingly pretentious and intrusive’. (Think of how French pedants today turn up their noses at the flood of English words into their language.) There were even writerly sorts who proposed native English replacements for those lofty Latinates, and it’s hard not to yearn for some of these: in place of crucified, fundamental, definition and conclusion, how about crossed, groundwrought, saywhat, and endsay?

(4) FIND AND FLAG. In March, Rocket Stack Rank reviewed 65 stories from 10 magazines, of which 20 are free online, 2 are translations, and 13 by new writers. Greg Hullender also reminds readers about the blog’s new features:

Our March 2018 Ratings Page uses our new UI, which allows readers to rearrange the data to taste. For example, it’s easy to display stories grouped by:

The highlights can be toggled independently of grouping, of course.

Stories can also be flagged and rated by fans to indicate things like:

  • Stories to read later.
  • Stories they do not want to read later.
  • Stories for their Hugo longlist/shortlist.

The results of all the flagging show up on the My Ratings page, which is useful to manage your reading during the year and for award nominations at the end of the year.

We also updated the January 2018 and February 2018 Monthly Rating pages to use the new format, so people who want to maintain a complete list for 2018 can do so. The red highlights in these two lists indicate stories that were recommended by anyone, not just RSR. The March list will get those highlights on April 1.

(5) HALDEMAN. At The Archive, “Author Joe Haldeman on How the Vietnam War Gave Him Something to Write About”.

…From the settled and perhaps rueful perch of a septuagenarian writer, looking back a half-century into the very unsettled sixties, a couple of questions do now beg to be answered:

Would you have been a writer without the experience of Vietnam? What else might you have done?

I think I would have been a writer of some sort, since I’d started scribbling stories and cartoons and poems when I was about ten. I had no encouragement except from my mother, but she liked them well enough to bind them into little books with her sewing machine. (They would be around now as embarrassing juvenilia, but my father, a neatness freak, found them and burned them.)

But the long habit of writing, to paraphrase a title I would later use, was well entrenched long before I was drafted and sent off to save America from the Communist Menace. I didn’t think of it at the time, but without the war I wouldn’t have much to write about: it gave me a consistent subject and point of view for one remembered year—and the timeless theme of one man’s survival in a hostile universe….

(6) THE IMMIGRANT’S PLIGHT. Erin Horáková has a fine review of “Paddington 2” at Strange Horizons.

…Perhaps to immigrate is not what it once was, because the nature of our struggles has changed—though “immigration” means many things, and for many contemporary refugees the process is so awful and fraught as to defy any such ameliorating comparison. Old sins have new names, and all that’s “post” is prologue. Yet in a vital way to be an immigrant, to live as an immigrant, is already to have succeeded against great odds. It is to have made a voyage, and to make it again every day in miniature. To feel they journey’s echoes in your bones, even ten years on, when you raise children in a new land. Always. Even when you “belong.”

This opening sequence shows us Paddington’s life as a success, as a blessing, as a source of pride for himself and those who love him. Silly, fallible, mess-making Paddington, who is good in small things, and through this great in goodness. The film makes several nods to the amusing misunderstandings and clumsy mishaps of Michael Bond’s Paddington series. I slightly feel that the way the films merely tip the hat to this aspect of the source material before moving on is due to the late-capitalist cult of productivity and achievement. Even in comic children’s fiction, messing up, not Being Useful in some work-like capacity, feels too cringey, too high stakes. I myself have an awful fear of failure and embarrassment, and so wince through the Amelia Bedelia-ish incidents when reading the books. Yet the films’ redirection of emphasis does serve an important narrative purpose: it enables Paddington escape being a stupid immigrant caricature, allowing him both difference and dignity, both failure and worthiness of love. When Paddington’s whimsical approach to his window-cleaning business succeeds after some false starts, we have our cake and eat it. I ultimately feel the film is performing a good update of the series. The movie’s doing its own thing, minimising one aspect of the books’ formula to focus on its own projects….

(7) MISTER ROGERS FOREVER. CNN says “Mister Rogers is coming to a post office near you”.

The stamp is set for release on March 23 and will be introduced through a free dedication ceremony at WQED’s Fred Rogers Studio in Pittsburgh, which will be open to the public.

It spotlights the cherished children’s television star along with one of his show’s prominent puppets, King Friday.

(8) THE MONEY KEEPS ROLLING IN. (Wait, that was Evita…) The Washington Post’s Peter Marks, in “Fans of the books will love Broadway’s Harry Potter — but will others?”,  discusses how Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is coming to Broadway with seven members of the London cast and how competitors have put off mounting other plays on Broadway because they know Harry Potter will crush the competition.  (Tickets for both parts of Cursed Child currently sell for $1,217 on Ticketmaster.)

Marks also visits the Harry Potter Shop in London and finds it loaded with goodies, including a personalized letter of admission to Hogwarts for 15 pounds.

In King’s Cross railway station, at the approximate location of Platform 9¾ , there bustles a small commercial temple of the multibillion-dollar Harry Potter kingdom. Within the well-stocked walls of the Harry Potter Shop, you can conduct a merchandise sweep the likes of which might cause even He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named to collapse in swooning contemplation of licensing checks yet to be cashed.

(9) YOU DON’T SAY. Well, duh: “Virtual cash helps cyber-thieves launder money, research suggests”.

Between $80bn (£57bn) and $200bn of cash generated by cyber-crime is laundered every year, said Dr McGuire drawing on a study by US analyst firm Rand released in early 2018.

A significant chunk of that cash is piped through various crypto-currencies and digital payment systems in a bid to hide its origins, said Dr McGuire, who carried out the research for security firm Bromium. The study sought to understand the wide range of methods that cyber-crime gangs used to clean up cash they extract from individuals and businesses.

(10) HOW TO EXPLORE THE FUTURE. The “Imagining the History of the Future: Unsettling Scientific Stories” conference takes place March 27-29 at Ron Cooke Hub, University of York, UK:

The future just isn’t what it used to be… not least because people keep changing it. Recent years have seen a significant growth of academic and public interest in the role of the sciences in creating and sustaining both imagined and enacted futures. Technological innovations and emergent theoretical paradigms gel and jolt against abiding ecological, social, medical or economic concerns: researchers, novelists, cartoonists, civil servants, business leaders and politicians assess and estimate the costs of planning for or mitigating likely consequences. The trouble is that thinking about the future is a matter of perspective: where you decide to stand constrains what you can see

With confirmed plenary speakers Professor Sherryl Vint (University of California, Riverside, USA) and Professor Charlotte Sleigh (University of Kent, UK) this three-day conference will bring together scholars, practitioners, and activists to explore ways in which different visions of the future and its history can be brought into productive dialogue.

(11) BRING YOUR OWN PLUTONIUM. O’Reilly Auto Parts carries a listing for a Flux Capacitor.

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  • Flux Capacitor requires the stainless steel body of the 81-83 DeLorean DMC-12, V6 2.9L , to properly function.
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  • Upgrade Kits available: Part # 121GMF

(12) AVENGERS TRAILER. Marvel Studios’ Avengers: Infinity War – Official Trailer.

[Thanks to Cat Eldridge, JJ, John King Tarpinian, mlex, Martin Morse Wooster, Andrew Porter, Chip Hitchcock, Mark Hepworth, and Carl Slaughter for some of these stories. Title credit goes to File 770 contributing editor of the day Daniel Dern.]

88 thoughts on “Pixel Scroll 3/18/18 The Beast That Scrolled ‘Fifth!’ At The Heart Of the World

  1. About (3), this isn’t the first time I’ve come across this article being passed along. It’s a tendentious piece of writing. For example:

    But actually, it’s us who are odd: almost all European languages belong to one family – Indo-European – and of all of them, English is the only one that doesn’t assign genders that way.

    Basically, he makes English sound weird because he doesn’t look at Indo-European languages as a group (Persian and Armenian both lack grammatical gender even in personal pronouns–no difference between he, she, and it) or languages spoken in Europe as a group (Hungarian and Finnish also lack grammatical gender even in pronouns, and Basque distinguishes animate and inanimate nouns, which was the distinction millennia ago that developed into masculine versus neuter in proto-Indo-European that is still shown in Hittite and the other Anatolian languages; the feminine developed after their split, most likely), but only INdo-European langauges spoken in Europe.

    There’s a lot more I could say about the article, which is full of oversimplifications and tendentious statements (for example, languages without grammatical gender are very very common around the world, such as Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Mongolian, Tibetan, Turkic, Manchu-Tungus, Thai, etc., etc., etc.; if anyone’s curious, I could after I get back from some family business in a few hours.

  2. JJ,
    It seems like it’s the narrator’s voice saying “Anyways,” at least as far as I was able to get in it. I felt no great desire to keep reading, either before or after that. I’ve done my bit. You need feel no obligation to keep reading, in my opinion.

  3. Ferret Bueller on March 19, 2018 at 6:59 pm said:
    His contention that personal endings died because of the Vikings makes no sense, as they were used into the 17th and 18th century, and even later for some purposes. They certainly weren’t dead before Shakespeare.

  4. @Ferret Bueller: also interested in another perspective, although I do find it interesting that the languages closest (geographically) to ours retain grammatical gender while ours doesn’t.

    Thing that annoyed me a bit about it was near the end, when he was pointing out how little Icelandic has changed compared to how much Old English has changed, which was all down to word choice I guess?

    “Wraþmod wæs Ving-Þórr/he áwæcnede” doesn’t look at all like “Ving-Thor was mad when he woke up” but it does look an awful lot like “Wrathful was Ving-Thor / He awakened” (especially when you know that special character was originally a ‘th’ sound, which you can work out from Ving-Thor’s name even…)

  5. (8) THE MONEY KEEPS ROLLING IN. “(Wait, that was Evita…)”


    “And the pixels kept scrolling in from every side
    Mike Glyer’s hands reached out and they reached wide. . . .”

    I envision something about how @Mike Glyer collects news items, but I’m too tired to actually do this, sorry. BTW thanks for the ear worm, Mike! 😉

    @Contrarius: “Cat Watching Psycho

    LOL! Thanks, that was cute.

  6. @Oneiros, I worked out the same thing from that Old English line. I couldn’t do much with the one quoted earlier, though. I do think small selections of phrases are inadequate to demonstrate connections or lack thereof.

    I was reading up about Japanese, but not in really reliable places; I did gather that even with similarities in grammar and overlapping vocabulary it’s difficult to tell whether two languages are related ancestrally, or have merely influenced each other by proximity or otherwise. Tricky. Linguists have my respect.

  7. Okay, now I’m envisioning a gritty, Game of Thrones / Altered Carbon style adaptation of Perido Street Station with lots of hot man-on-khepri action.

    Shut up and take my money! 🙂

  8. @Lenore Jones: yeah, there are whole swathes of Beowulf that would amply demonstrate the contrasts between modern and old English. He simply picked a silly line and a bad translation to use as an example, for some reason.

    Japanese is also a strange beast of a language. I suspect that the more you know of any specific language the weirder it starts to look. (I’ve been attempting to learn it on-and-off for a few years now.)

  9. JJ:

    Ferret Beuller, I’m interested!

    All right, I’ll add a bit more to the pile.

    There is exactly one language on Earth whose present tense requires a special ending only in the third?person singular.

    Perhaps, perhaps not (that would require a long typological study), but there are a number of languages I can think of that have a marker for only one of the six persons. (While having three persons in the grammar seems to be universal, since it’s based in the very nature of speech itself, some languages have more: The Algonquian languages like Cree and Blackfoot have four persons, the regular third person and then fourth person, meaning a different third person, whose usefulness is clear when you realize it means speakers automatically distinguish between “John went in his [John’s] house” and “John went in his [another man’s] house.” This distinction is also called proximate versus obviative, and in Cree at least there’s even a marginal fifth person, used for nouns inalienably possessed by a fourth person: “John [3rd] hit his [4th] hand [5th].”) Middle Korean had a distinct 1st person singular ending in certain verb forms, if I remember correctly (no personal verb endings at all now), and modern standard Tibetan has what is called an egophoric system, where special auxiliary verbs (no person endings) are used when there is a 1st person participant involved in a statement or command, either as subject, direct object, or indirect object–except with the added wrinkle that the same auxiliary verb is used if a 2nd person is involved in a question, thus implying 1st person in the response (though just to make things even more complicated for you, Tibetan has what is called an ergative system, where the subject of an intransitive sentence has the same case as the direct object, not subject, of a transitive verb; English has something kind of similar for certain verbs, like “The shirt is hanging on the line” and “John is hanging the shirt on the line.”); English seems like garden variety after that, no? Spoken colloquial French is also often analyzed by linguists of certain theoretical persuasions (offshoots of Chomskyan approaches) as having only one distinct personal ending of the six options–nous aimons is analyzed as literary/written and replaced in speech by on aime, leaving only vous aimez as a distinct form. (Whether you accept that analysis is a different question.)

    More generally, there’s a good deal of homophony in person marking across languages, contrary to McWhorter’s implication. If you look just at the singular, there are numerous languages that distinguish 3rd person from the other two; if you want details in real detail, see Chapter 2 of Michael Cysouw’s The Paradigmatic Structure of Person Marking (Oxford, 2003), which has sections on Spanish-type (2nd person different), Dutch-type (1st person different), and English-type (3rd person different) homophony in singular person marking.

    How did English get that way? Simple: Heavy first-syllable stress. Stress usually causes vowels in syllables following the stress to be reduced in stages (odd-numbered syllables after the last stress and final syllables more heavily than the others, for example, often to varying degrees), followed by a massive loss of vowels, especially final ones. In Old English, the full range of vowels and diphthongs only occurred in stressed syllables; case endings and personal endings were still fairly distinct, but the spread of confusions in spellings in manuscripts shows that well before 1066 many of the endings were falling together, which led to the use of prepositions in place of cases to an increasing extent, just as in the development of the Romance languages from Latin (and for the same reason, though the stress usually fell later in the word than in Old English). In particular, it seems to have been underway in West Saxon (the dialect of Old English that is always taught in classes, because it was the kingdom least ravaged by the Vikings, so by far the greatest body of Old English texts are in that dialect), and the fact that the dialect least affected by the Norse settlers showed this development starting possibly before ever fighting and then eventually ruling the Norse settlers is a useful little fact for linguists that McWhorter ignores completely. (Not to mention the fact that Old English runes, which antedate our oldest manuscript texts, show even richer case endings vowel-wise.)

    Basically, just consider the class of (mostly) masculine nouns that provided the pattern for modern English nouns. You have stan, stanes, stane, stan / stanas, stana, stanum, stanas (‘stone’, long a in the noun, NGDA, S/P), itself heavily reduced from the Proto-Indo-European system by Germanic first-syllable stress, which helped eliminate three or four cases; due to reduction by Old English stress, the unstressed a and e fell together as schwas and then disappeared in most instances. The loss of the dative plural is similar; German still has a form of it, as in den Steinen, which is directly parallel to the form it developed to in very early Middle English and where the vowel was a schwa (stanen and stanon are two of the attested forms, where the only difference in pronunciation at that point, if there even was one, was whether the schwa had lip rounding or not)–or at least that’s the usual surmise, but then it disappeared quickly (the Peterborough Chronicle shows losses of it in favor of a uniform plural as early as 1154, for example.

    Mind you, the Scandinavian settlers in the Midlands did have a significant influence on English, since their speech affected the speech of the Midlands that is the major basis of standard modern English because their speech became predominant in London due to many centuries of internal migration, and as their dialect of Middle English had -en for all plural person markers, rather than the -eth throughout the plural in West Saxon descendant dialects, that is one big reason you only have a distinct person marker for the 3rd singular (since that -en went the way of all other unstressed Middle English -ens). (The only real survival of the plural -eth that I can think of is “Manners maketh man,” which was the motto of a school in southern England and thus reflects the southern form rather than a Midland form.)

    That’s basic stuff, and has been basic stuff since the 1800s. The fact that McWhorter didn’t see fit to mention it is unfortunate.

  10. Part the next:

    But also, they had an odd construction with the verb do: they used it to form a question, to make a sentence negative, and even just as a kind of seasoning before any verb.

    At least McWhorter seems to have learned something from earlier gaffes–he used to argue, if memory serves, that English borrowed dummy-DO or periphrastic-Do, as it’s called, from Welsh, whereas the written data (there are more Middle Welsh texts surviving to this day than most people could read in a lifetime, I have been told) show that it did not exist in Welsh until after English developed it. And while it is a curious little construction, its development can be traced in the written record and the reasons for its development are fairly clear–most basically it seems to have been a way of retaining subject-verb order while allowing the verb to precede the subject in questions. (There’s a nice graph of the data that is famous among linguists who work on English here.) However, this use of do can be considered similar to a pro-verb (that is, a verb used to fill in for another verb in the same way a pronoun fills in for a noun), and pro-verbs are not so rare across the world. (Modern Mongolian ing- ‘to do this way’, teg- ‘to do that way’, yaa- ‘to do what way?’, for example.)

    So basically:

    At this date there is no documented language on earth beyond Celtic and English that uses do in just this way. (Emphasis added.)

    Yes, if you make your goalposts narrow enough, no one else can get through, but it tells nothing about what happens when the goalposts are a bit further apart…

  11. Part the nexter:

    There is no other language, for example, that is close enough to English that we can get about half of what people are saying without training and the rest with only modest effort.

    There actually is, more or less, Scots English. But that’s a quibble. On to less quibbly things.

    The Normans – descended from the same Vikings, as it happens – conquered England, ruled for several centuries and, before long, English had picked up 10,000 new words.

    “Before long”? Well…And along the same lines:

    “And you know what English is? The results of the efforts of Norman men-at-arms to make dates with Saxon barmaids…”

    Well, no. More precisely, Hell no. English is what happens when you have a Norman French aristocracy with holdings on both sides of the Channel and who thus cross it all the time and stay part of the Norman French speech community until a political moron loses all the French territories because he decided to steal the wife of a vassal (among other astonishing feats of political suicide) and gives the French king an excuse to relieve all his French vassals of their oaths of fealty and take all that territory for himself, so the Anglo-Norman aristocracy has to choose which king to give fealty to and thus has to choose which side of the Channel to live and hold estates on, two to three generations after which many of their descendants no longer speak French since they rarely cross the Channel and interact with their former countrymen but still use French as the language of law and administration, so they pump all of those words needed for government and higher culture into the language spoken by their subjects over the two centuries or so during which English spread among the nobles as a mother tongue.

  12. Darren Garrison:

    This must be Ferret Beuller’s day off.

    Fair cop, though actually it’s my daily break.

  13. Final comments:

    …sections on Spanish-type (2nd person different)…

    If that sounds odd to you when you think about it, that’s because he relied on the imperfect to come up with a familiar-sounding label.

    Back to McWhorter, he did interesting work on pidgins and creoles. Pidgins are languages created when speakers of different languages are thrown together, usually through slavery, colonial endeavors, or migrant labor. Creoles are the languages that result when their children grow up with a pidgin as a mother tongue. They are a very interesting form of language with great grammatical simplicity. Now, simplicity/complexity is a tricky idea; a language might be simpler in one part of its grammar but more complicated in another–though how do you define complexity even for a small part?–and so they seem to balance out in the languages we’re familiar with. McWhorter developed a mathematical measure of complexity of language based on different measures for important subsystems of grammar; while it’s hardly the final statement, it’s a very interesting attempt that is based on sensible ideas, and in that research it turns out creoles really are distinctly simpler by that measure than other languages, which show roughly comparable levels of complexity.

    As a result, he sees creolization everywhere. Other linguists had already proposed that Scandinavian settlers caused creolization of English, hence grammatical simplicity, decades ago, which led to lots of debate and a general refusal to accept the argument among historical linguistics. There was a good deal of language contact, yes, but not so strong as to cause creolization; see Sarah Grey Thomason and Terrence Kaufman’s Language Contact, Creolization, and Genetic Linguistics (Univ. California, 1992) if you’re curious for a discussion of that. However, McWhorter takes a positive view of the question and runs with it; I suppose it’s not something to discuss at length in a popular article like he wrote, but still…Anyway, I think that’s that for now.

  14. Actually, a bit more. I meant to reply to this earlier.

    Lenore Jones:

    I was reading up about Japanese, but not in really reliable places; I did gather that even with similarities in grammar and overlapping vocabulary it’s difficult to tell whether two languages are related ancestrally, or have merely influenced each other by proximity or otherwise. Tricky.

    Japanese is part of a case that falls probably just outside the bounds of where you can expect reliable results, yes. The ideal case is something like the Indo-European languages, where you have written records covering several thousand years, so the point you’re concerned with is only a few thousand years before your earliest forms. Also, the earliest forms of the language provide us lots of vocabulary and have a rich inflectional grammar.

    Basically, you have to judge relatedness by similarities and, better, systematic differences.You can pile up mounds upon mounds of similarities just by the workings of random chance, especially when you’re just exploring the question and accepting any similarity for further consideration. Mathematically, however, that shows virtually nothing.

    To get further along, you start with the fact that attested records show that resemblances in general are due to (1) descent from a common ancestral form, (2) borrowing, (3) forms that are “universal” in some sense, especially through sound symbolism or “baby talk,” and (4) random coincidence: There are a finite number of combinations of sounds in two languages and a finite set of meanings, so a certain number of chance resemblances are to be expected. The need then is to exclude (3) and (4), which tell us nothing much interesting about the history of the languages, while keeping examples of (1) and (2), which are our basic tools for exploring the history of languages. (This is a broader issue than the relatedness of languages, which too many people take as the basic purpose of historical linguistics. Relatedness is only one aspect of a language’s history, but in either view, distinguishing (1) and (2) is crucial.)

    Now, with (1) we know that many changes are regular: All instances of a particular sound change the same way in the same environment, assuming there is an arbitrary connection of sound and meaning (regular sound change). Unfortunately, when words are borrowed, they are fitted to the borrowing language’s sound system pretty systematically as well. Moreover, for the other types of changes, analogy, there are also regularities in the processes involved, but they can’t be viewed as exceptionless–verb paradigms are regularized over generations a verb at a time, but the changes still show patterns.

    Moreover, with enough data you can determine the layers of changes in a language; this is the main way of distinguishing many loanwords if there are no documents to clarify the issue. However, later changes can obscure earlier changes–if a sound changes in a particular environment, then a later change eliminates the conditioning environment in many words, then you can’t recover the details of the earlier change very securely. Also, some words drop out of use; some are replaced by borrowed words; some change in meaning so much you can’t really connect the greatly changed word with what you’re comparing it with (for instance, cheap is cognate with German kaufen ‘to buy’; by itself it’s a rather unconvincing pair; when you get into possible cognate sets like whore/Latin carus ‘dear’/Sanskrit kama ‘love’, you need a lot of confirmatory evidence.)

    Anyway, what you have to look for to build a convincing case is regular recurrent sound correspondences: Many words in which one sound in language A corresponds systematically to a set of sounds in language B, where the different sounds in language B show some degree of conditioning by neighboring sounds. The process isn’t done all at once; it involves hypotheses and refinements over and over and over, and different parts of the reconstruction have different degrees of reliability. However, when you have regular recurrent sound changes, you go beyond r=l in one word but r=y in another, say, without being able to say which will occur when, so the best you can say is {r:l OR y}. Instead, you have, say, corn– : horn, so {k:h AND o:o AND r:r AND n:n}, which is a very different probability calculation that quickly takes you far beyond the realm of chance resemblances, especially when it is repeated for hundreds or thousands of words in dozens of languages, as with Indo-European.

    It does not, however, suffice to distinguish cognates from loanwords. Grammatical similarities are also useful if they are systematic enough, in the sense of whole paradigms (regular recurrent sound correspondences in all the person endings for a particular verb tense, for example), but these are also the sorts of similarities likely to be upset and eventually obscured by analogical changes, and if you don’t even have such paradigms, then grammatical similarities are much weaker evidence. (The most dispositive such evidence is suppletion; that is, the use of unrelated forms to fill out a paradigm, as with good/better and gut/besser. That is almost certain evidence of cognacy.)

    Japanese has been proposed to be related to (in various combinations, some or all of) Korean, Ainu, and the Altaic languages (Turkic, Mongolian, and Manchu-Tungus). Even the relatedness of the Altaic languages is hotly debated; there is demonstrable heavy borrowing among them throughout their history, they don’t have paradigms of person endings or the like, and there’s just not enough or old enough documentation of older stages of the language to make it seem likely that the issue can even be settled without spectacular finds of much older documents. Grammatical similarities don’t help either, because if you look at grammatical patterns across the languages of the world, the Altaic languages are perfect examples of the most common type of language: Subject-Object-Verb (SOV languages make up about 45% of the languages surveyed in major typological studies covering over 1000 languages of the 6000 or so languages of the world, SVO languages like English only about 40%), and there are very strong correlations in word order types: SOV languages almost always have postpositions, SVO languages prepositions; SOV languages usually have the adjective precede the noun, SVO languages the opposite (though this is by far the weakest such correlation, English being only one of numerous counterexamples), and so on and so forth; moreover, when the basic word order of a language changes (SOV to SVO, for example), over time the other word orders change to match; these correlations are taken as being special cases of head-first versus head-last (the head being the word in a phrase that makes the phrase have its part of speech), which is taken as being of basic importance cognitively (and in Chomskyan linguistics is an inborn parameter that a child learns to set based on the evidence around it).

    So yes, the affiliations of Japanese are way up in the air and likely not ever to be definitively settled.

  15. A few years ago, I read a history of the Spanish language, in English and for a readership that wasn’t assumed to know Spanish. The book also discusses other languages of Iberia, including Basque. If I recall correctly, while Basque is considered a language isolate, that’s a statement about Basque grammar: a lot of the vocabulary is derived from Latin.

  16. Ferret Bueller: I came up with something like the egophoric system on my own for a constructed language. It was a few years before someone (Sylvia) pointed out Tibetan. It seems to work best with main clauses. Proximate-obviative is also interesting.

    JJ: Anyways, welcome to diversity. 🙂

  17. Ferret, thanks for all that.
    As a non-linguist, I can’t comment on its accuracy, but I found David J. Peterson’s The Art of Language Invention informative and fascinating; it certainly convinced me that English is indeed pretty garden-variety in terms of grammar. (Peterson is the person who invented Dothraki for HBO’s Game of Thrones.)

  18. Seems like to drag this old chestnut out for one more parade.

    The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary. -James Davis Nicoll (circa 1990).


  19. @Lisa Goldstein: I get your particular reaction, but I note the Piper is of a (perhaps blunter) piece with quotes going back at least to Walter Scott (whom the article echoes without credit in its discussion of animals and their meats) — and scott was quite plain about the power dynamics. Note also that the quote has the Normans talking instead of just taking, which is a step forward (at least from how they’re commonly portrayed).

    @Ferret Bueller: which royal/political idiot are you thinking of? My very light knowledge of later-medieval history suggests there were several. And with you on the difficulties of matching/deriving; I’m still struck by Yaakov->->James, which seems relatively well-documented.

  20. Jeff Jones: I probably should have said linguistic diversity.

    I grew up in the Midwest of the U.S., and have lived in several different regions of the country. I’m very familiar with linguistic diversity, including the “using words that don’t actually exist” kind. This, I think, is a copyediting problem — or an “authorial voice” problem — because (having now read 30% of the book, Gunpowder Moon) it doesn’t fit with the “dialect” of the rest of what is said by the two characters who are using the word. But so far the word doesn’t seem to have been used again since the 5 times in the first 25 pages.

    It’s very much a debut novel in that I could see the author taking it to Clarion and getting good advice about what works and what doesn’t — but I’m really surprised that Harper Voyager agreed to publish it in its current form. There’s a fair bit of infodumping, as well as what appears to be a fair bit of the author seeing a clear progression of thoughts or events in his mind but not really getting that progression translated to the page.

  21. I’m really surprised that Harper Voyager agreed to publish it in its current form. There’s a fair bit of infodumping

    I found similar faults (among others) in another debut, The Last Days of Magic (Mark Tompkins, Viking); there was a solid page of the definition of a cog (the ship), and another detailing (in the middle of a battle!) exactly how a certain type of archer’s quiver worked; I wondered whether the large-print edition (all my library had) was taken from an early version, or whether the editor just didn’t bother to tell the author that these pages were utterly unnecessary. It certainly doesn’t make me willing to read any more of the author’s work — at least from that publisher.

  22. @ Ferrett Bueller

    …which was the distinction millennia ago that developed into masculine versus neuter in proto-Indo-European that is still shown in Hittite and the other Anatolian languages

    I am amused by the unintentional contextual implication that Hittite is a contemporary language.

  23. And I’m sad to have missed most of the linguistics discussion here due to travel distraction. (Popped off to NYC for the weekend for a conference.) It’s always fun to see familiar names in linguistics popping up. (I TAed for McWhorter and Peterson was one of my students.)

  24. @Heather Rose Jones, if you have anything to add, I’d be interested!

    And how was your trip?

  25. Chip Hitchcock:

    which royal/political idiot are you thinking of? My very light knowledge of later-medieval history suggests there were several.

    King John. In fact, his second queen, Isabella (his first queen was named Isabella also, so you could even leave out the comma before her name), was only betrothed to another, not actually married, but her breaking the betrothal was still sufficient to give King Philip II reason to seize her lands (she was countess of Angouleme); this was one of the main steps in John becoming John Lackland. (Interestingly, four years or so after John died, Isabella married the son of the man she had been betrothed to before her marriage–her daughter had been betrothed to him instead, but she was apparently still so beautiful he insisted on the mother instead; the daughter, Joan, got married off to the Scottish king.)

  26. @ Lenore — The trip was fun, though it would have been more fun if I weren’t fighting off something that strongly resembles a respiratory bug at the same time. (Back a week ago when it started I thought it was allergies, since I always react to something right around this time of year. But at this point I think it must be something more like a cold.)

    The conference was on medieval fashion and clothing. (The main attraction for going was that my girlfriend was one of the organizers.) It felt a little like if you lifted the DISTAFF sessions from Kalamazoo and did them as their own separate conference.

  27. Oh, nice! I love learning how things worked domestically. When I was in Scandinavia last summer I was in a small historical museum that covered domestic arts, including traditionally female ones. I remember at the time thinking that when I was growing up less attention was paid to traditionally female household implements, and being pleased at the difference.

  28. PhilRM:

    As a non-linguist, I can’t comment on its accuracy, but I found David J. Peterson’s The Art of Language Invention informative and fascinating; it certainly convinced me that English is indeed pretty garden-variety in terms of grammar.

    Yes, he’s an interesting fellow; he also writes humorous articles like this.

    Another one that I remember being quite good by an old acquaintance of mine is this.


    I do find it interesting that the languages closest (geographically) to ours retain grammatical gender while ours doesn’t.

    It is an interesting question. Again, the basic factor is the loss of all those endings due to heavy stress. When you have gender, it manifests itself in agreement, which for the most part was marked on the ends of words in English. With all those endings sanded off, pretty much all that was left [*] was whether you used he, she, or it for a singular noun. The lack of other agreement meant there were no structural impediments to a shift from grammatical gender to natural gender. Something similar happened in Afrikaans, by the way.

    [*] Helped by the extension of one noun declension type to virtually all nouns; only traces of the other declensions are left, such as oxen, children/brethren, and feet/sheep and the like. Similarly, the lack of a singular genitive ending for feminine nouns that Old English inherited from common Germanic did stick around enough to leave a few small traces in modern English–ladychapel (for lady’s chapel), the name Ladyman, and the frequent lack of ‘s in “for convenience sake” and the like are the ones I can think of.

    In French, on the other hand, for example, because stress fell on one of the last three syllables in Latin rather than the first syllable (except for certain prefixes) in Germanic, the loss of all those endings still left enough structural traces of grammatical gender at the ends of words modifying nouns (blanc/blanche, etc.) that were associated with the form of the corresponding pronoun that two of the three Latin genders did survive.

  29. re Peterson and language, Got to talk to him during Worldcon last year about his linguistics work for the S&F podcast.

    Fascinating guy, interesting stuff.

  30. Ferret Bueller on March 22, 2018 at 12:07 am said:
    and as a result, I have the Peterson, the LCK, and the Okrent on order from the Large South American River.

  31. @Paul Weimer

    re Peterson and language, Got to talk to him during Worldcon last year about his linguistics work for the S&F podcast.

    Fascinating guy, interesting stuff.

    I was on a panel with David Peterson and our own Heather Rose Jones at Worldcon 75. Enjoyed it a lot.

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