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By TheophileEscargot (Sat Dec 29, 2007 at 12:12:30 AM EST) Reading (all tags)
Details to follow. Meanwhile here's my "What I'm Reading", written on a mobile so may be errory than normal.

The Islamist, Story of Human Language, Sociolinguistics, American Pastoral, A Complicated Kindness.

What I'm Reading 1
Finished The Islamist by Ed Husain. This book's got a lot of attention lately: it's an account by a British asian man who became involved with Islamic militancy in the Nineties, but eventually renounced it in favour of a more moderate form of Sufi-influenced Islam.

Very interesting, insider account of how Islamic militancy operates in the UK. The basic form is the same as practiced by most cults and fringe political groups: target dissatisfied young people, start with open discussion, attract them with simplistic universal answers to complex questions, and in-group status, encourage scapegoating of others (Jews seem to work pretty well for both religious and political groups).

However, the specific details of how they work are interesting. British Imams tend to be relatively powerless: it's mosque committees that are worth infiltrating. A variety of innocuous names are given to groups, presenting them as normal debating societies to the authorities. The groups try to appeal to moderate moslems at first by campaigning for popular things like prayer rooms: after that they move gradually towards extremism.

As has been pointed out, there are a number of splitting / merging sub-groups: this seems to be our chief hope.

Most of this isn't particularly new. The most worrying thing is that according to Husain most of the public bodies (like the Muslim Council) have been taken over by Islamists who are much more extreme than the UK moslem population as a whole, and these groups are negotiated with and taken as representative by the government.

Overall, an interesting and important book, well worth a look.

What I'm Reading 2
Partway though TTC course The Story of Human Language. Careful what you wish for, you might get it: I've complained about some TTCs being too basic and just covering what I already know before. This is a 36 lecture course on Linguistics and just covers that subject.

Doesn't do much on Chomsky. Goes through how linguists work, and how the major language groups have evolved in some detail. Now he's going through several lectures on dialects.

Has some interesting examples like Ukrainian for instance. When the Russian capital was in Kiev Ukranian was seen as standard Russian. WHen the capital shifted it began to be seen as a peasant dialect of Russian. Now it's seen as a language in its own right.

He also says there should really be one language called Scandinavian spoken in Denmark, Sweden and Norway.

Annoyingly though, he keeps going in very heavy-handedly against "prescriptivism, repeating many times that it's "natural" for languages to change.

Now that's fine, but let's be consistent here: he also talks emotionally about the tragedy of languages dying out. Now that's also a perfectly natural process, so why attach emotional importance to one but not the other? If wanting to maintain the use of "disinterested" is Canute-like unnatural conservatism, surely wanting to preserve Welsh or Cornish or Catalan is equally unnatural?

Also he undermines his own case somewhat by admitting that written languages when there is widespread literacy tend to be more stable precisely because of the teaching of a standard form: therefore the endeavour to maintain meanings cannot be entirely futile.

Also, he admits at different points that he has difficulty in understanding Shakespeare, and has trouble with the differences between formal and informal French. If language changes can be kept relatively slow, then language users will have a larger body of literature to read, and will find it easier to travel.

Later lectures are about differences between the formal language we use for writing and the informal language we use for everyday speech. (Everyday speech uses a smaller vocabulary, simpler structures) He conflates formal speech with written speech, saying that we only use formal language (lecture, political speech, court speech) verbally because we have learned how to do it in writing. To support this he gives examples both of cultures without a written language, and of early writings from a mostly oral culture. He uses Genesis 1 as an example, saying that the original has short, simple sentences just like everyday speech.

I'm not totally convinced by this. For one thing, it seems to me that illiterate or near-illiterate cultures have more in common than just illiteracy: I suspect they tend to be hunter-gatherers or subsistence agriculturalists, living in small communities without much specialization. Maybe they use simpler speech because that's all they need, rather than because you need writing for complexity.

Or suppose that as soon as a culture starts finding complicated things to say, it invents a way to start recording these complicated things.

Wish he wouldn't keep using the word "natural" to describe everyday language and the changes to an oral-only language. That's the trouble with these recorded courses: I would so love to rip into him at closing questions but I'm helpless.

He has mentioned one really cool thing that exists in some-languages and we should totally import into English . They're called evidential markers: it's part of the grammar that every time you make a statement of fact you have to append how you know it: whether through seeing it yourself, hearing it, through gossip or whatever. So every statement has to have a kind of source. Want.

He also uses "unnatural" to describe the creeping of Latin forms into English grammar, which he traces to the earliest English grammars by [look up in PDF]. Again, I don't think he's being quite consistent here. He also quotes other old attempts to change or restrict the language which never took hold; so you can't just attribute it to the malign influence of these two ignorable people. Elsewhere he talks a lot about the influence of bilingualism on language change, and how elite groups are more influential than lower groups. Now for centuries the elite and most literate class of English speakers were bilingual in English and Latin: there doesn't seem to be anything unnatural or unusual in the fact that over that time period bits of Latin grammar started creeping into English.

Overall though, these are minor complaints. I've delved into another language book and this seems to be a pretty thorough introduction to linguistics. Though it's much more opinionated than most such courses, it does seen to keep you informed of both sides of most arguments. Overall, well worth a look.

What I'm Reading 3
Also read a Philip Roth novel, American Pastoral, about a high school athlete turned businessman whose daughter becomes a terrorist in the Vietnam War period.

Really liked the last two novels of his that I read, (The Plot Against America and I Married a Communist), but was very disappointed by this one.

The characters don't seem to gel at all. Athlete/businessman "Swede" Levov seems like a bland, dull non-entity. There might be a culture gap problem here: maybe USians are supposed to be shocked and fascinated to find that these people have feet of clay and are not purely heroic role models, whereas UKians are trained to believe these guys are probably arseholes from the start. However, as I recall pretty much every high school athlete character I've seen on US TV, in US movies or in US print seems to have been a jerk of some kind, so it can't be that much of a revelation to them. Maybe there are intricate subtleties to Levov's conformism that I'm not equipped to discern. But it seemed to me he's just far too dull a character to base a book around.

The terrorist daughter Merry seems to be a complete cypher, not a plausible character at all. One minute a delightful daughter, the next she metamorphoses into a cartoonish harridan, shrieking the most obnoxious and hurtful insults she can at here bewildered parents. At a guess, this is another one of Roth's cat-swipes at his ex-wife's family: he's blamed their chubby daughter for their marital problems before.

The character weaknesses might not matter if there was a decent plot, but there isn't: just hundred of pages of high-level rambling while not a lot happens, until an implausible coincidence of timing brings everything to a head at a dinner party at the end.

The overall setup: high-school-athlete-turned-businessman-encounters-sixties-radicalism seems very reminiscent of the middle two Rabbit books by John Updike. Loved those, but this might just be a half-baked attempt to poach on his territory.

Overall recommendation: avoid. No real redeeming features here.

Review, review, review. Oddly, just found that this one's won a Pulitzer.

What I'm Reading 4
Finished the short book Sociolinguistics: an Introduction to Language and Society by Peter Trudgill. Short book introducing the subject, this edition revised in 1983. Doesn't really require any previous knowledge of linguistics, though a little is helpful.

Goes through the basics of how language varies according to social class, ethnic group, sex, context, geography and so on. Quite informative, though it doesn't go into a lot of depth. Only slightly dated, which seems most evident in the UK sections: interesting to see they think it would be absurd for the news to be read in a regional accent, which started to happen soon after that.

Tone is a bit dry though since it's an academic book. I found it interesting but most people wouldn't.

What I'm Reading 5
Read A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews. Short coming-of-age novel about a rebellious teenager in a Mennonite religious community . Not bad, has some nice Douglas Coupland style angst-and-pop-culture stuff, but despite being warned by the author not to expect a good ending, it still seemed pretty weak. There was kind of a half-resolution, but it still seems hard to believe that the mother and eldest daughter have made no attempt to contact the younger daughter, and I got the impression that that's not for any good reason.

Still, interesting as a look inside religious fundamentalism. Not sure how autobiographical it was.

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Back from holiday/family visits | 12 comments (12 topical, 0 hidden)
Scandinavian by Vulch (4.00 / 2) #1 Sat Dec 29, 2007 at 01:41:54 AM EST

The three individual languages are about as close as Glaswegian, Geordie and Cockney I'm told by speakers of multiple languages. Classic examples of the "A language is a dialect with an Army and a Navy" definition...

It's interesting by TheophileEscargot (4.00 / 2) #2 Sat Dec 29, 2007 at 01:53:35 AM EST
Half the time people like to call what are basically dialects languages out of pride.

But also half the time people like to call what are basically languages dialects. The modern regional Arabics are basically different languages to classical Arabic; but people don't want to admit that they're not still speaking the language of the Koran. Similarly with Jamaican patois: a standard English speaker can't really understand a normal conversation in it: but speakers of get insulted if it's suggested they're not speaking English.
It is unlikely that the good of a snail should reside in its shell: so is it likely that the good of a man should?

[ Parent ]
Scandinavian by bobdole (4.00 / 1) #3 Sat Dec 29, 2007 at 06:42:01 AM EST
As close as Glaswegian, Geordie and Cockney would be to a non-native speaker of English.

The extremities of the three languages would not be understandable to each other with out some practice. Written however is usually grasped rather quickly.

It's all probably down to the geopolitics of the 17/18/19th century northern Europe... if it had turned out somewhat more harmonious we probably would've had one common written language.
-- The revolution will not be televised.

[ Parent ]
Extremities by Vulch (4.00 / 1) #4 Sat Dec 29, 2007 at 06:57:32 AM EST
Yup by TurboThy (4.00 / 1) #12 Mon Dec 31, 2007 at 02:55:55 PM EST
There are a couple Danish dialects I have a harder time understanding than spoken Swedish, mainly the ones from Northwest Jutland and some smaller islands. Thing is, with increasing standardization of Danish due to bigger mobility of the younger generations and a general view of dialect speakers as stupider than average, we have seen a sharp decline in the use of dialects. If the same was to happen in Sweden and Norway (I don't know if it is), the multitude of dialects grouped under the three main language trunks would, I imagine, seem to separate into three more disjointly perceived languages due to less variance within each.

Not sure if that made sense.

(Snark: Norwegian bokmål is really just Danish with bad grammar and spelling. Nynorsk (lit. New Norwegian) is a pathetic contrivance, and they would use their time better trying to rejoin the rightful Scandic empire.)
Sommerhus til salg, første række til Kattegat.

[ Parent ]
Presciptivism by Scrymarch (4.00 / 2) #5 Sat Dec 29, 2007 at 07:39:59 PM EST
It's interesting. I think it would be hard to argue for prescriptivism in dictionaries or professional linguistics anymore. If the words and usages exist they should be recorded and written down as part of the living language.

However, when it comes to language education, either in a native tongue or a foreign language, how else can you do it? If your primary school teacher isn't a prescriptivist, you will be left with all sorts of childish language tools which will not serve you well dealing in a more sophisticated, less structured language environment. Learning a foreign language throws it into particularly sharp relief - how are you supposed to get to grips with the different sounds and grammar unless someone tells you when you are right and wrong?

The Political Science Department of the University of Woolloomooloo

Learning foreign languages by TheophileEscargot (4.00 / 1) #6 Sun Dec 30, 2007 at 12:13:37 AM EST
He thinks that people should be taught a much more colloquial form of foreign languages. He complains particularly about being taught to use "nous" for we in French when "ons" is much more common in everyday speech.

The thing is, you might not necessarily be learning a language just for colloquial conversations. If you're learning it to read French books, or for business, you'll need the formal form as well. I suspect the language books just think it's safer to be too formal than too colloquial, since you'll be understood either way.
It is unlikely that the good of a snail should reside in its shell: so is it likely that the good of a man should?

[ Parent ]
Colloquial by Scrymarch (4.00 / 1) #7 Sun Dec 30, 2007 at 05:08:49 AM EST
My impression is also that colloquial forms tend to be more regionalised, and hence less generally useful. Slang in English for instance. It's like that scene in Good Morning Vietnam, where the Robin Williams character teaches his students "practical English", which turns out to be a lot of wincingly dated seventies slang.

The Political Science Department of the University of Woolloomooloo

[ Parent ]
The purpose of language by Herring (4.00 / 1) #8 Sun Dec 30, 2007 at 06:39:11 AM EST
surely a language is a convention for communication within a group. To me, this argues for prescritivism (is that really a word?) in education at least - otherwise how are people to understand each other?

You can't inspire people with facts
- Small Gods

[ Parent ]
Preaching to the converted here by Scrymarch (4.00 / 1) #11 Sun Dec 30, 2007 at 10:48:36 PM EST
One modern defense of prescriptivism is by novelist David Foster Wallace, don't know if that makes you more or less inclined towards it ...

Some rebuttal by mefi's languagehat.

The Political Science Department of the University of Woolloomooloo

[ Parent ]
Linguistics by lm (4.00 / 1) #9 Sun Dec 30, 2007 at 06:30:38 PM EST
I don't know much about linguistics as a field. But I do know that there are quite a few completely contradictory approaches and that most linguists are 100% certain that they are right and that every competing theory is dead wrong.

Kindness is an act of rebellion.
Yep, that sounds like a field [nt] by TheophileEscargot (2.00 / 0) #10 Sun Dec 30, 2007 at 07:39:23 PM EST

It is unlikely that the good of a snail should reside in its shell: so is it likely that the good of a man should?
[ Parent ]
Back from holiday/family visits | 12 comments (12 topical, 0 hidden)