May 4, 2004

Alternate History comes to Crooked Timber

I found this in the comments at Crooked Timber, by one "Jack Lecou", along with someone pointing out how the 17th article of the Iraqi transitional constitution compares to the American second amendment:

So what if say, the French, were to invade the US to “liberate” us from our despotic oppressor?

In our hypothetical scenario, the French troops quickly defeat the demoralized and ill equipped forces set against them, but then seem ill prepared for the aftermath. They successfully guard a few coal mines and movie studios, but make no move against the looters pilfering our museums and government offices. They install a puppet regime, which they populate with various partisan French officials and American expatriates - including one wanted for bank fraud in Canada. They sack all those who held positions in the the army, the police, all levels of civil administration and education. As is their wont, French firms move in and begin profiteering madly.

Not surprisingly (except maybe to the hawks back in Paris), a resistance movement springs up almost immediately. Initially made up of mostly rednecks and Republican loyalists, Francophobes and malcontents from all over the world soon arrive to aid in the struggle. This violence is opposed by the majority of the public, but there is little they can do (the insurgents are well armed, murderous, and secretive). Lacking a proper police force (they dissolved it, and haven’t managed to build a new one yet, nor did they bring one), the French military forces respond the only way they know how. Seemingly randomly, French patrols force their way into homes in the middle of the night to perform searches and haul adult males away for interrogation. Sometimes these arrests are based on intelligence, but usually that just means someone made up a name for a reward (or a respite from torture). Then too, sometimes the soldiers aren’t really sure if they’re at the right address anyway. The violence escalates, increasingly the French retreat into armored vehicles and behind checkpoints. A televangelist preacher takes the opportunity to gather an army of thugs and start trying to involve himself in the “democratic process”.

Its been more than a year since the invasion. The French have recently begun paying lip service to some form of new “international involvement” in the mess, but mostly that is because they can’t really afford it on their own anymore. In any case, the same old mix of corruption and incompetence still reigns behind the barricades of the puppet regime’s stronghold. Also, your toilet still doesn’t work, and half the time neither does the electricity or the telephone.

One day you see pictures of American prisoners being tortured, raped and humiliated by their smiling French captors. Chances are you know someone who’s been hauled away. How do you feel?

I'd buy an AltH novel written to such a spec.

Posted by Scott Martens at 11:33 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

I need some linguistics help

I'm trying to find somebody - Language Hat maybe? - who can offer a professional opinion on some work in Indo-European studies and linguistic reconstruction. To wit, is this as nuts as it sounds to me, or is there just stuff going on that I don't know about?

From: Theo Vennemann (2003), Europa Vasconica - Europa Semitica (Trends in Linguistics: Studies and Monographs, 138), Patrizia Noel Aziz Hanna, ed., Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Bemerkung zum fr?hgermanischen Wortschatz Reference

Several accounts of the history of the German language contend that about one third of the Proto-Germanic vocabulary has no Indo-European etymology. The categories cited as those in which these words cumulate are:

  1. warfare and weapons (e.g. Waffe 'weapon', Schwert 'sword')
  2. sea and navigation (e.g. See 'sea', Ufer 'bank, shore', Sturm 'tempest, storm')
  3. law (e.g. S?hne 'atonement', stehlen 'to steal', Dieb 'thief')
  4. state and communal life (e.g. Knecht 'servant', Volk 'division, people', Adel 'nobility')
  5. husbandry, house building, settlement (e.g. Rost 'Grill', Fleisch 'meat', Haus 'house')
  6. other expressions of advanced civilization (e.g. Zeit 'time')
  7. names of animals and plants (e.g. Aal 'eel', M?we 'gull', Bohne 'bean')
  8. expressions from numerous spheres of daily life (e.g. trinken 'to drink', Leder 'leather')

The accounts suggest that these unexplained words may be owed to prehistoric substrates. By contrast, it is shown in this paper that three of the eight categories of words thus claimed to be prehistoric substratal borrowings, categories 1, 3, and 4, are owed to superstrates rather than to substrates in historical cases of language contact. Indeed it is precisely these three categories where superstratal loan-words are shown to abound in the following cases:

  1. the superstratal Norman-French influence on Middle English,
  2. the superstratal Franconian influence on the Gallo-Roman Latin of Northern France,
  3. the superstratal Arabic influence on Spanish,
  4. the superstratal Lombard and Ostrogoth influence on Northern Italian,
  5. the superstratal Turkish influence on the languages of the Balkans,
  6. the superstratal influence of Low German on Danish and Swedish as a consequence of the commercial dominance of the Hansa.

The conclusion drawn in this paper is that if the Germanic vocabulary lacking Indo-European etymologies consists of loan-words, then at least the loan-words in categories 1, 3, and 4 were borrowed from superstrates rather than from substrates. The paper concludes with speculations about the prehistoric settings in which such superstratal influence on Pre-Germanic would have been possible. The megalithic monuments of Western Europe are suggested to be the archaeological vestiges of the culture to which those superstratal languages belonged. No concrete proposal is made concerning the languages or language families from which the problematic vocabulary was borrowed, but Basque and Pictish are mentioned as testimony of a once non-Indo-European Western and Northern Europe.

I am troubled because Theo Venneman does have papers, particualrly on Germanic phonology, that seem to have been cited by respectable people, and he holds down a tenured position in Germanic studies at a very mainstream Bavarian university. The trouble is, this is quite remote from the comparative method in linguistic reconstruction, and I can't understand what he could possibly mean by "borrowing from a superstrate". I was especially suspicious after finding this, which leads me to think that Venneman hasn't even looked up sword in the OED.

Having tenure and having written a few good papers is not a guarantee of mental health. However, I should think that if there was a significant body of highly regarded research on pre-IE European languages coming to the kinds of conclusions Venneman is coming to, I might have heard about it. So, I'm hoping somebody with more background in Indo-European studies can tell me if this Venneman guy is taken seriously, or if there is a consensus that he's a crackpot.

Update: Does Venneman mean sociologically dominant when he says superstrate? That's not what I've always understood it to mean - I've always used it as a specialised term in creole studies, to mean the "target" language that substrate speakers are trying to communicate in - but it's at least not incoherent with that meaning.

Further update: Mucked up a link. The etymology I found on the web comes from here:

sword: ON swerdh, OE sweord- from general Gmc root, etymology dubious, perhaps OHG sweran ‘cause or suffer pain’, swero, swer(a)do ‘pain’ , Ir. serb ‘bitter’, Av. xara-’wound’ with orig. sense of root ’sting, cut’ (Walde-Pokorny, Krogmann, Kluge and Buck).

I can't figure out where that etymology came from though.

Posted by Scott Martens at 2:25 PM | Comments (11) | TrackBack

May 6, 2004

Found on the 'Net a collection of quotes labelled "Homosexuality":

Cruise the Straits with BC Ferries
    - BC Ferries advertising slogan, 1980s

I couldn't resist posting it.

Posted by Scott Martens at 10:28 AM | TrackBack

May 10, 2004

The social significance of lexicography

Modern lexicography strives generally to be descriptive in its outlook, in contrast to terminology, which is much less averse to telling you how you ought to use words. However, modern lexicography is often presented with problems that verge on questions of critical theory. By acting as a structured but still descriptive discipline, it is forced to attempt to understand words in the way their users understand them. Without the benefit of telepathy, this problem quickly becomes a matter of ethnography and cultural anthropology.

A stunning example of this is provided by Brad Delong, commenting on a post at Legal Theory Blog:

Strict construction is short hand for the idea that the United States Constitution should be strictly construed. The phrase appears to have become popular as a campaign slogan used by Richard Nixon when he ran for President in 1968. Nixon promised that he would appoint judges who were "strict constructionists" as opposed to the "judicial activism" that characterized the Warren Court.

The question is: what does strict construction mean? Is there really a method of constitutional interpretation described by the phrase "strict construction" or is this a mere political slogan? The confusion engendered by the term is illustrated by the following definition (offered on

strict construction (narrow construction) n. interpreting the Constitution based on a literal and narrow definition of the language without reference to the differences in conditions when the Constitution was written and modern conditions, inventions and societal changes. By contrast "broad construction" looks to what someone thinks was the "intent" of the framers' language and expands and interprets the language extensively to meet current standards of human conduct and complexity of society.

This definition borders on incoherence, opposing "strict construction" to both originalism and to the notion of a living constitution--ideas that might be thought antithetical to one another. So can we offer a better definition of strict construction?

Legal Theory Blog pursues a strategy of enumerating possible meanings, both for strict constructionism and for its presumed antonym judicial activism. This may well be good legal theory, but it is neither good lexicography nor especially good cultural anthropology:

Posted by Scott Martens at 12:30 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

White Flight reaches new heights

How else should I interpret people complaining not that black people in their neighbourhoods lower property values, but that just naming a street after a black man will do it?

Posted by Scott Martens at 3:02 PM | TrackBack

The undeath of cynicism

When irony, cynicism and critical sense were declared dead after 9/11, I assumed that that it was just an ironic and cyncial attempt to stiffle criticism and that it might last 'til Christmas. I assumed that by the time the Iraq war started, irony and cynicism were back to their full fighting weight and critical sense was well on its way to its formerr glory.

Which is why this post over at Abu Aardvark came as something of a surprise to me. I haven't posted anything about this muck at Abu Ghraib because, well, I've been busy with my real life, especially exams, but also because I just couldn't think of anything to say. The discovery that people in uniform - men and women alike - could so quickly and easily turn into monsters, and that given the conditions of this war they were so far from adequate oversight that this could happen without consequences... None of this surprises me. That the private contractors and CIA people aren't any better surprises me even less.

Posted by Scott Martens at 9:07 PM | Comments (12) | TrackBack

May 12, 2004

Silly blog games

I should be sleeping. I've taken the rest of the week off from work to study for my exams. If my wife is reading this from Idaho, honey, I did try to get some sleep, okay? It's just the listening test tomorrow, only 5% of my grade.

Really, if I pass both my classes I'll be insufferable. I work full time and study Chinese and Russian in the evenings in classes that take place in Dutch, a language I studied for about a year and a half and still speak really badly. The only way I could have made it worse would have been to take Arabic on top of everything else - an option I considered. This is about the outer limit of my abilities, assuming I haven't finally bit off more than I can chew. I have limits - I've flunked enough times before to work that out - it just never seems to prevent me from engaging in these sado-masochistic bouts of schoolwork.

Anyway, via The Virtual Stoa, I notice the latest blog game:

Yes, it's the new game, to post choice lines from twenty randomly-selected songs on your preferred random-selection-of-songs generator. Me, I used the "party shuffle" feature on my regular playlist on iTunes (617 songs) to pick out a bunch, which the same "party shuffle" feature alleged were "up and coming". Then I edited the list to remove (i) instrumental pieces and (ii) more than one track by the same artist. And this is what we were left with.

I was listening to my iTunes at that moment and contempated following the instructions. But then, I decided to do something different. The song I was listening to is one of the (IMHO) better bits of francopop. It was also a song whose lyrics I tried to translate for my literary translation class in Montreal a million years ago - a class that I didn't fail, but where I learned that I have no particular gift for literary translation.

I think I'm a good essayist. I have a basic style that I acquired as a 16 year old freshman in Indiana, primarily in response to the red pen of this woman. My writing skills have at least half a dozen times saved me from the consequences of mediocre work. I also think that I used to be a fairly good French translator, and I like to think that I still am. But, I've discovered over the years that essay skills don't automatically translate into poetry or even fiction skills, and you have to have native literary skills to do literary translation.

So, I'm going to put up the whole lyrics to the song in question - Mylène Farmer, D?senchant?e - along with a mediocre translation. It's frustrating to know when you're just missing that perfect translation in your own native language, to read poetic language and be unsure how you ought to interpret it, to know you're writing crap. Worse still, I do not own a good French-English dictionary. I never have. I always relied on monolingual dictionaries and specialised glossaries. I have a Collins-Robert at the office, but without it I find myself asking whether I've really understood something, or really considered the options in translating some passage.

It's a frustrating feeling, especially when applying decade old disused skills. Anyway, voila, not my best effort but my best effort at 1 am in insominac mode, without dictionaries:

Posted by Scott Martens at 1:19 AM | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Two important pieces on Crooked Timber

First, Quiggin on the ticking bomb problem as a justification for torture and D2 on the lack of consideration given to the victims of torture in Iraq by the Western press.

I haven't got time to comment on them in any depth now, so I'm putting this up as much as a reminder to myself to do so later.

The second piece points something out that I missed. The press, even the liberal press - heck, even me - didn't think twice about the dignity of Iraqi prisoners when they showed photos from Abu Ghraib. Considering the fuss over Iraqi TV showing reasonably clean and dignified images of American POWs, this does seem a touch on the racist side, even if somewhat unconscious.

The first piece covers precisely the reason why I don't take the position against the war but for the troops. I come from a genuinely pacificist religious tradition and even though I've largely rejected it, I still have serious problems not with having a cause worth dying for, but with causes worth killing the innocent for. There may be causes worth it - things so important that they merit killing people who are not any more evil than I am. But if so, it's a cause worth not only running the risk of being killed for but of being despised for. There are causes worth killing for, but I won't allow honour or tradition to substitute for actually deciding whether your cause is worth someone else's blood before you take it.

Lastly, I seem to be gettng a reputation as an anti-liberal. It's true in the sense intended by Mrs. T, but not on most of the actual issues she's highlighting. My problems with liberalism are far more about liberal political philosophy and about the real actions taken under that name rather than the largely uninteresting matter of trade and regulatory policy.

If a state has to impoverish itself to be competitive, I don't see why folks should support it. It seems to me that free trade doesn't need to impoverish people, but I agree with the folks who claim that government intervention is may be necessary to keep it from becoming a justification for destitution.

Posted by Scott Martens at 2:58 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

May 13, 2004

Exams, exams, exams

I think I blew my Chinese luisterexam last night by writing "?" when I meant "?" consistently. It's not like there's any actual phonetic difference between the two. They're homophones not only in Mandarin but I think in every other form of Chinese.

Most Chinese characters seem to be used in primarily phonetic ways - they don't seem to reduce ambiguity in any meaningful way. There are circa 1200 unique syllables in Chinese, probably less than a thousand for the 70 percent of Mandarin speakers for whom "?" sounds the same as "?". Really, would it be so frigging impossible to just pick one character for each distinctive syllable? It would make my life only a thousand times easier.

And Russian... don't get me started on Russian. What is with this "???? ???", "??? ????", "???? ?????" stuff? I get the concept of case as an indicator of verbal argument structure. I get case as a these marker. But how in hell does case get to be an indicator of number? "Two and three take the genetive singular." WTF?

I'm just having that "my brain is full" feeling. Language classes - like drugs, only less fun.

[Warning: You need to set your Text Encoding to Unicode to read this entry.]

Posted by Scott Martens at 9:52 PM | Comments (17) | TrackBack

May 14, 2004

Aced the Russian luistervaardigheidsexam

The prof told us the answers afterwards. Unless I made a mistake filling the test out, I got all of the questions right. Of course, it was multiple choice and only comes to 5% of the final grade. The real test is Monday and Wednesday - the written and the oral.

In the mean time, my life consists of Chinese interleaved with Russian.

Since I've already pronounced my efforts to study two of the three hardest languages offered at Leuven at the same time, while holding a full time job, to be completely nuts, I find myself somewhat surprised to be considering taking an intensive, five week Dutch course in lieu of a third year of weekly classes. Three nights a week, four hours a night.

Upside: If I did it, I could take fourth year Dutch next year or try to do both Russian and Chinese again, and since I feel guilty - vestiges of bad immigrant guilt - for not studying Dutch this last year, I could end up as far along as if I had studied it all year.

Downside: If I did it, I could take fourth year Dutch next year or try to do both Russian and Chinese again, and my wife will kill me.

Classes would start the day before my last exam and run til the end of June. Should I do it? Duch is easy enough, I just hesitate to give another language three nights a week. On the other hand, it's only a month and only one more night than I've been doing for the last year.

Posted by Scott Martens at 10:35 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

May 17, 2004


When I talk about SF being about the possibility of a different world, this is the kind of thing I mean. John Brunner could be horrifyingly depressing. Consider, for example, The Sheep Look Up - the prototype of the environmental catastrophy novel. But, this was the same man who wrote Stand on Zanzibar a novel which one reviewer (Thomas Disch I think) said described an absolutely horrible world which is nonetheless better in almost every respect than the one we have.

What I most prize in an SF story is to find a world which I couldn't imagine wanting to live in, but which is still credibly better than this one. The only thing still better is a world which seems to fit my intentions and sucks even worse than this world. The first makes me dream, the second makes me think.

There will be no SF in my life for a little while. My Russian exam starts at 6pm tonight. Then, it's Chinese tomorrow night, and my Russian oral on Wednesday. I've decided to register for the one month intensive Dutch if, as advertised, they really will be doing level 3 Dutch. Thursday is the beginning of a four-day weekend. I'll need it. My new Dutch class will be starting Tuesday and my Chinese oral is Wednesday next week. Then, it's back to work in a big way. Big project, gotta be done by October.

Posted by Scott Martens at 3:59 PM | Comments (10) | TrackBack

May 25, 2004

Survived another exam season

My last exam - the Chinese oral - was tonight. I am done with exams for a few weeks, until I do my Dutch final. I'm not stressing over Dutch. I think I passed everything, and but I think my Russian grade will be close enough to the line that I won't be able to take much joy from it.

You don't advance in a language by getting A's. You advance by not failing. This is important to understand when you take a language: There will come a point when it will just start to gel in your mind, and you'll start learning very quickly. You have to hold out and keep paying attention until you get to that point.

The only problem is that now I wish I had done Spanish instead of Russian.

Posted by Scott Martens at 9:23 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Café sans frontières

Mark Liberman over at Language Log confronts the rather distinctive bipartite division of coffees in Montreal: velouté or corsé? I was a student when I lived in Montreal. The answer was always corsé. Montreal coffee culture is a bit different. Instead of Starbucks, Van Houtte is the place for du vrai corsé.

But what makes this really funny to me is that I had the same experience in reverse.

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May 27, 2004

Hi, honey. Enjoying the Microsoft conference?

I note from the comments bar that the wife has been reading my blog. Alas, there is little I can do to allay her concerns at this time.

I dunno honey, would you like to go to Latin America this fall? I mean, you're over in San Diego without me. *sniff*

As for my exams, I'll find out the second of June how they went. Same day the new Harry Potter movie opens.

And as for taking languages in the fall... you may have a point. I tell you what, I'll just take Chinese, but then you have to take French. Okay? I have worked too hard on my Chinese to give up.

And lastly, have you given any thought to the matter in your last e-mail? I owe you one, but it'll help if I have a year or two to prepare if it involves anything long distance.

As for everybody else, I just got back from seeing The Day after Tomorrow and I'm going to try to get a review up on AFOE tonight or in the morning, before it opens in the US tomorrow night.

Posted by Scott Martens at 10:43 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

May 28, 2004

The Day After Tomorrow: An Anti-Review

Roland Emmerich is the Anti-Tarantino. There is in this notion a Master's thesis in film theory for somebody, I'm sure of it. But it isn't going to be me, so I open it up to anyone who want to take the job on. These two men belong to the same generation, and both could be avatars of postmodern film-making. Having grown up on the genre films of the 70s, they are both in the business of making films which are only comprehensible to audiences who share those same cultural signifiers. Just as Tarantino's Kill Bill can only be understood and enjoyed in the light of a whole generation of martial arts movies and westerns, Roland Emmerich's latest work - The Day After Tomorrow - is indigestible without the Pepto-Bismal of a lifetime of disaster science fiction.

Read the rest of my review over at A Fistful of Euros.

Posted by Scott Martens at 4:10 PM | TrackBack

May 31, 2004

Cussing in Hebrew

Geoffrey Pullum is struck by a passage in the latest New Yorker in which young Jewish settlers in the West Bank use particularly foul language to express their lack of common feeling towards their Arab neighbours. What he finds most striking is the use of the Arabic word for "cunt."

Pullum's sentiment - particularly the futility of looking for a linguistic solution to ethnic hatred - is right on. However, the use of Arabic obscenities by these young Hebrew-speaking men is not terribly surprising. Modern Hebrew is a language that came into being quite recently and which was originally defined in a very artificial way. The language has been transformed by being adopted by many Yiddish, Ladino and Arabic speakers over the last century and much of its real structure and vocabulary comes from those roots.

The consequences of this sort of creolisation were related to me by my Jewish vice principal in high school who tried to order a glass of water in a restaurant in Tel Aviv using his rather rusty Hebrew. It seems that Americans who mispronounce the Hebrew word for water often end up producing something that sounds like the Arabic word that translates as "cunt." Everyone in Israel knows that word because nearly all Hebrew obscenities have been borrowed from Levantine Arabic.

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