The Linguistics & SF Newsletter
Volume 9, Issue 2 -- March/April 2008
The Linguistics & Science Fiction Newsletter (available by e-mail only) is written and published every other month by Suzette Haden Elgin, Ph.D. (linguistics), from the Ozark Center for Language Studies (OCLS), PO Box 1137, Huntsville, AR 72740-1137. For additional information, or to unsubscribe, please e-mail email@example.com.
In This Issue: Editor's Note; Real World Linguistics Update; BookNote: _The Genius of China_; Languages & Linguistics; Robotics Update; Cyberstuff; U.S. Corps of Linguists (USCOL) Update; Announcements
It feels more than usually sciencefictional around here at the moment; as I type, I'm hearing the news about the U.S. Navy's plans to fire one or more missiles tonight at that out-of-control spy satellite. By the time you read this, of course, that will be over, and we will -- maybe -- know how it all turned out; at least we'll have heard the official version of how it all turned out. [If I had audio capabilities, I'd tip in the "Twilight Zone" The Linguistics & SF Newsletter Volume 9, Issue 2 -- March/April 2008theme music here.]
I'm grateful for all the excellent and useful materials you've been sending me; thank you.
#Real World Linguistics Update
1. Philosopher Glenn Albrecht has proposed a "new type of sadness," which he calls "solastalgia," from _solacium_ (comfort) and _algia_ (pain), and of course "nostalgia" -- in "Global Mourning: How the next victim of climate change will be our minds," by Clive Thompson, on page 70 of the 1/08 _Wired_. Sample...
"In interviews Albrecht conducted over the past few years, scores of Australians described their deep, wrenching sense of loss as they watch the landscape around them change. Familiar plants don't grow any more. Gardens won't take. Birds are gone. 'They no longer feel like they know the place they've lived for decades,' he says. ... People are feeling displaced. They're suffering symptoms eerily similar to those of indigenous populations that are forcibly removed from their traditional homelands. But nobody is being relocated. It's just that the familiar markers of their area, the physical and sensory signals that define _home_, are vanishing. The environment is moving away from them, and they miss it terribly."
Albrecht has writen that solastalgia is "a form of homesickness one gets when one is still at 'home'." The article's last sentence says, "In a world that's quickly heating up and drying up, you can't go home again -- even if you never leave."
2. A very interesting development: According to Mark Liberman, in "A New Way of ?ing Mandarin," [at http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/005318.html#more ], Mandarin has begun using the English morpheme "-ing."
3. Thanks to all of you who have been sending me materials about the reported use of "yo" as a gender-neutral third person singular pronoun in the Baltimore, Maryland area, especially as a _subject_ pronoun. [Two sources for additional information: A _Wall Street Journal_ article at http://blogs.wsj.com/informedreader/2008/01/02/tired-of-saying-he-or-she-try-yo , and an _American Speech_ article at http://americanspeech.dukejournals.org/cgi/content/abstract/82/3/262 .]
All attempts to date to introduce a pronoun of this kind into English [roughly one hundred so far] have failed. That may be because (a) so many English speakers use "they" as a third person singular gender-netural pronoun when backed into a communicative corner, and (b) closed sets of forms such as pronouns are very resistant to language change. In passing .... it seems odd that this newest candidate should be a word identical to the "yo" that's a greeting. But you never know. It will bear watching. [For an annotated and chronological list of the failed attempts, by Dennis Baron, go to http://www.english.uiuc.edu/-people-/faculty/debaron/essays/epicene.htm .]
4. From "Sept. 11 Creates New Lexicon," by Michael Y. Park, at http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,213240,00.html:
"Though linguistics experts disagree on exactly how powerful an effect the attacks of Sept. 11 and the War on Terror had on American English, it's clear in everyday speech that the terrorist-driven tragedy and the years of conflict that have followed have added a long list of words to our language."
This turns out to mean less that new words have been added than that already-existing words have acquired new currency, words no longer in use have been resurrected, and so on. However, Park does mention three brand new terms: "9/11," pronounced "nine-eleven"; "fobbit" -- from "forward operating base (the safest place to be near the front) and J.R.R. Tolkien's 'hobbit,' "; and "hillbilly armor," said to be complimentary, referring to the self-made armor soldiers cobbled together for themselves in Iraq by "welding metal plates to their vehicles to harden them."
_The Genius Of China: 3,000 Years Of Science, Discovery, & Invention_, by Robert Temple; Inner Traditions 2007. ISBN-13 978-1594777217-7; ISBN-10 159477217-7. Oversize paperback; 288 pages; $29.95.
This book (a new and revised edition of an award-winning volume first published in 1986) is beautifully produced -- with full-color illustrations and charts and other graphics throughout. It's printed on heavy paper in crisp black type, and is a welcome relief from the current fashion for sloppiness and shoddiness in publishing. I find its quality especially impressive given its modest price. Here is a quote from page 127 (in the article on printing), to give you an idea of the style and scope of the text:
"A traditional Chinese form of printing which required special expertise on the part of the printer and his staff was printing by movable type. Typesetters had to be linguistic experts and scholars knowledgeable in the history of language and literature. This is because of the thousands of characters in the Chinese language, many of which are obscure and rarely used, therefore only known to learned scholars. It is common in traditional Chinese typesetting to have at least twenty different pieces of type for each of the commonest characters. So the imperial printing works had to make 200,000 bronze characters in 1725, and in 1733 250,000 wooden characters were produced for another project. In the early nineteenth century, one private printer is known to have had a stock of no less than 400,000 different bronze characters. ... This was a major reason for the rare use of movable type in China, despite the fact that it was invented there four centuries before its 'invention' in Europe by Johannes Gutenberg."
The eleven sections of the book include: Agriculture; Astronomy and Cartography; Engineering; Domestic and Industrial Technology; Medicine and Health; Mathematics; Magnetism; The Physical Sciences; Transportation and Exploration; Sound and Music; Warfare. I recommend it enthusiastically, not only as a fascinating read, but as a valuable resource for science fiction writers.
#Languages & Linguistics
1. My thanks to Nancy Palmer for sending me "At A Loss For Words," an article by Sarah Grey Thomason about endangered languages [in particular the Salish-Pend d'Oreille language], on pp. 24-29 of the 12/07-1/08 issue of _Natural History_. I want to share two quotes with you here, both from page 28:
"In a very real sense, you cannot say anything you want in any language. This is not a question of translatabiity... but of less tangible things, such as cultural ties, through language, to one's great-grandparents and to traditional ethnic ways of thinking about the world. Languages place special emphases on things and concepts that are important to their speakers: shapes of objects, meaning of certain plants and animals, fundamental ways of seeing the world. For instance, the word for 'automobile' in Salish-Pend d'Oreille... is named for the appearance of tire tracks -- literally, 'it has wrinkled feet.' "
That is such a beautiful and elegant example, and so _implanted_ with cultural information. "It has wrinkled feet." It would be sad to lose that one.
[About the difficulty of understanding why heritage languages
matter so much]:
"I got my first inkling of its importance when, right after college, I spent a year in Germany, speaking German constantly and becoming fluent. Although I was delighted with my new linguistic skill, I spent the whole year with the uncomfortable feeling that I wasn't quite the same person as when I was speaking English. It felt like a slight personality transplant, with different rhythms of thought and speech. I was glad to return to my English-speaking self when the year ended."
I'm glad to have another item to add to my collection of statements from multilinguals saying that they feel like a different person when they shift from one of the languages they're fluent in to another. I myself have always felt like a different person when I am speaking or writing French.
[In this context, Linguist List for 11/13/07 had a book notice for Michèle Koven's book _Selves in Two Languages: Bilinguals' verbal enactments of identity in French and Portuguese_ [John Benjamins 2007]. From the abstract:
"Bilinguals often report that they feel like a different person in their two languages. In the words of one bilingual in Koven's book, 'When I speak Portuguese, automatically, I'm in a different world... it's a different color.' ... Focusing on French-Portuguese bilinguals, the adult children of Portuguese migrants in France, this book provides an empirically grounded, theoretical account of how the same speakers enact, experience, and are perceived by others to have different identities in their two languages. ..."]
2. For your files, from a post at http://literarytranslators.blogspot.com/2005_12_01_archive.html :
"Translators are key in Suzette Haden Elgin's dystopian classic from 1983, Native Tongue. It's 2182. Earth's economy depends on fluency in alien languages, and the only way to be fluent is to be born a Linguist, and grow up from infancy with an Alien in Residence. ... Alien literary translation enters into the story briefly, when Nazareth, a brilliant young linguist, has offended alien trade negotiators for the umpteenth time. In order to understand just how she has transgressed the bounds of politeness, she tells a long rambling story gently introducing the offensive ideas (in this case, color) to gauge the alien reaction without triggering their hostile withdrawal."
[Note: That publication date should be 1984, by the way.]
3. From "Interlinguistics and the Internet," by Mark Fettes, at http://esperantic.org/ced/internet.htm :
"By enabling rapid, low-cost, many-to-many communication across political and geographical boundaries, the Internet constitutes a radically new medium both for the reinforcement of minority and immigrant languages and the development and spread of planned languages."
This article discusses (very briefly) a number of conlangs; it has a bibliography and some useful links.
4. From _The Complete Lojban Language_, by John Woldemar Cowan, published by the Logical Language Group in 1997:
[On page 297, after mentioning the role of tone of voice in the expression of emotion and attitudes, and the impoverishment of that system in written language]
"In Lojban, everything that can be spoken can also be written. Therefore, these tones of voice must be represented by explicit words known as 'attitudinal indicates', or just 'attitudinals.' "
[On page 329] "If we ever ran into an alien race, a culturally neutral language of emotion could be vital. (A classic example, taken from the science fiction of Larry Niven, is to imagine speaking Lojban to the carnivorous warriors called Kzinti, noting that a human smile bares the teeth, and could be seen as an intent to attack.)"
5. In Jay Lake's short story collection _Dogs In The Moonlight_ [Prime Books 2004], there's a strange and mournful story called "Twilight of the Odd" on pp. 78-90; it's written in the Texas dialect of a narrator "of diminished capacity," and it offers some interesting linguistic tidbits. For example...
"The State of Texas sent some people to look at our town. They came in a hello chopper." [page 82]
"Mrs. Sheriff Fader says I am not a liar. She is a nurse practice sinner at the clinic and after they argued about me for a while she made Deputy Feist get his head examined. Elmo Sinclair that runs the lab there made a X-ray picture of Deputy Feists's head and they said, 'Here look. There is evidence of bone nits in here.' " [page 84]
"Missus Deputy Feist says I need my friends although I am no longer maybe going to be charged with a salting of the deputy on account of my this-here testimony." [page 85]
6. And in Jay Lake's _The River Knows Its Own_ [Wheatland Press 2007], on page 67, we have a chance to share the thoughts of apprentice wizard T.R. Like this:
"T.R. privately thought that words were another field waiting to be plowed, much as the transit wizards and the financial wizards did in the cities. ... It all came down to words, after all. Without words, the beacon fire of thought never bridged the gap from one consciousness to another. The world's purposes were powerful but wordless -- no volcano ever wrote poetry, no forest ever told its children a tale of heroes rampaging amid quiet folk -- and words were how the wizards tipped the balance back into place. Even the little workings were no more than ways of making those words sensible to the land."
7. I recommend the "Herge's Syldavian: A grammar" website at http://www.zompist.com/syldavian.html , Syldavian being a conlang found in the _Tintin_ books. Lots of material here, including a complete lexicon and clear statements such as "To negate a sentence, the particle _nietz_ is placed after the subject, in auxiliary position."
8. For a collection of four "sentences for travelers" in many different conlangs, go to http://www.travelphrases.info/languages/conlangs.htm . The four sentences are:
"Where is my room?"
"Where is the beach?"
"Where is the bar?"
"Don't touch me there!"
And I'm pleased to be able to say that the four LAadan translations of those sentences are perfect.
1. Our tax dollars at work on the coming Robot Military...
a. "It sounds like every general's dream; technology that allows a nation to fight a war with little or no loss of life on its side. It is also a peace-seeking citizen's nightmare. Without the politically embarrassing threat of soldiers returning home in flag-wrapped coffins, governments would find it far easier to commit to military action. ... This is not a fantasy scenario. Over the coming years, the world's most powerful miitary machine, the US Department of Defense, aims to replace a large proportion of its armed vehicles and weaponry with robotised technologies. By 2010, a third of its 'deep strike' aircraft will be unmanned aerial vehicles... In a further five years a similar proportion of the US army's ground combat vehicles will be remote- controlled robots... The US navy, too, will have fleets of uncrewed boats and submarines. The US military is already using robots in various roles."
This is from "Armchair warfare," by Paul Marks, on page 24 of the 10/28/06 _New Scientist_; among the interesting questions Marks raises is this one: "What happens when the software fails?" My thanks to Frances Green for the copy.
b. From "Bots on The Ground," by Joel Garreau, at http://tinyurl.com/36p7yz [_Washington Post_, 5/6/07]:
"The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have become an unprecedented field study in human relationships with intelligent machines. These conflicts are the first in history to see widespread deployment of thousands of battle bots. ... Bots search caves for bad guys, clear roads of improvised explosive devices, scoot under cars to look for bombs, spy on the enemy and, sometimes, kill humans. Even more startling than these machines' capabilities, however, are the effects they have on their friendly keepers who, for example, award their bots 'battlefield promotions' and 'purple hearts.' "
And quoting Marine master sergeant Ted Bogosh, who ran a robot repair shop:
"Sometimes they get a little emotional over it. Like having a pet dog. It attacks the IEDs, comes back, and attacks again. It becomes part of the team, gets a name. They get upset when anything happens to one of the team. They identify with the little robot quickly. They count on it a lot in a mission."
This is true for the battle bots, Garreau writes, "even though their designers have made no attempt to load them with emotional cues." My thanks to LJ-er beckyzoole for sending me this story; highly recommended.
For me, pacifist that I am, the only silver-lining-fragment in this particular cloud is that perhaps the robots will make it less likely that the military will be using primates and dolphins and seals.
See also "Killer Military Robots Pose Latest Threat To Humanity, Robotics Expert Warns," at http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/01/080226213451.htm .
2. I love the second sentence of "From medicine to military, machines finally arrive," by Michael Kanellos, at http://www.news.com/2009-1040-5171948.html ...
"The robots are coming. And when they get here, they will take out the trash."
3. "Linked to a child via computer, the... virtual tutor can tell if the child is frustrated, angry or confused by the on-screen teaching session and can adapt the tutoring session appropriately. The animated Eve (with a human-sounding voice) can ask questions, give feedback, discuss questions and solutions, and show emotion."
This is from "Virtual Eve: first in human computer interaction," no byline, at http://physorg.com/news114704050.html , a story that reached me via the 11/21/07 _KurzweilAI.net_ newsletter. Scientists at Massey University (Auckland) first observed and filmed thousands of images of teacher/child interactions. "From these images of facial expression, gestures and body movements they developed programs that would capture and recognise facial expression, body movement, and (via a mouse) heart rate and skin resistance."
4. Maybe they're on the verge of Going Too Far....
"While a computer-written bestseller may be unlikely, a technology expert has created a computer program that writes its own fiction stories with minimal user input. The program, called MEXICA, is the first to generate original stories based on computerized representations of emotions and tensions between characters." You can read all about this, in unnerving detail, at http://tinyurl.com/yq4v6c .
And a brief item at http://www.kurzweilai.net/news/news_single.html?id=6519 for 3/3/07 reports that Ray Kuzweil "has been issued the first patent for AI software capable of writing poetry." The patent is assigned to Kurzweil CyberArt Technologies, Inc., where you can get Cybernetic Poet, "a free downloadable screen saver that helps users write poetry and song lyrics. It reads a selection of poems, creates a 'language model,' and writes original poems from that model."
5. According to a 3/2/07 story at http://www.cnn.com/2007/TECH/03/02/ robot.tea.ap/index.html titled "Robot serves tea just the way Japanese like it," sent by Douglas Dee, a humanoid robot made by Kawada Industries can not only pour tea into a cup, it "has been programmed to do the dishes."
Now that's more like it. Instead of robots that write fiction and poetry and song lyrics, let's have robots that serve tea and wash dishes. Thank you, Douglas.
6. There's a truly fascinating and very informative story about "sociable robots" by Robin Marantz Henig, titled "The Real Transformers," at http://tinyurl.com/2uoof7 . It includes detailed accounts of various robots the author got sociable with; I recommend reading the entire article. Here are two samples.
"We already live with many objects that are, in one sense, robots: the voice in a car's Global Positioning System, for instance... But scientists working in the field mean something else when they talk about sociable robots. To qualify as that kind of robot, they say, a machine must have at least two characteristics. It must be situated, and it must be embodied. Being situated means being able to sense its environment and be responsive to it; being embodied means having a physical body through which to experience the world. A G.P.S. robot is situated but not embodied, while an assembly-line robot that repeats the same action over and over again is embodied but not situated. Sociable robots must be both, as well as exhibiting an understanding of social beings."
"Neuroscientists recently found a collection of brain cells called mirror neurons, which become activated in two different contexts: when someone performs an activity and when someone watches another person perform the same activity. Mirror-neuron activation is thought to be the root of such basic human drives as imitation, learning and empathy. Now it seems that mirror neurons fire not only when watching a person but also when watching a humanoid robot."
#Cyberstuff1. From _Publishers Lunch Deluxe_ for 11/01/07, about a _Wall Street Journal_ article on "Dilbert creator Scott Adams":
"His new book "Stick to Drawing Comics, Monkey-Brain!" compiles posts from his blog -- as improved and commented upon by readers. ... 'As part of the book deal, my publisher asked me to delete the parts of my blog archive that would be included in the book. The archives didn't get much traffic, so I didn't think much about deleting them. This turned out to be a major blunder... A surprising number of my readers were personally offended that I would remove material from the Internet that had once been free, even after they read it... In the end, the bad feeling I caused by not giving away my material for free forever will have a negative impact on book sales.' "
2. For a spectacular and classic example of LinguistSpeak [Galore Variant], and a demonstration of why it's unwise to invite more than one linguist at a time to come to your dinner party, see "Ontological Promiscuity v. Recursion," by Mark Liberman, at http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/005380.html#more .
3. From KurzweilAI.net for 2/4/08...
"Dean Kamen's 'Luke arm' -- a prosthesis named for the remarkably lifelike prosthetic worn by Luke Skywalker in Star Wars -- came to the end of its two-year funding last month. Its fate now rests in the hands of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which funded the project." More at http://www.kurzweilai.net/email/newsRedirect.html?newsID=7917&m=28437 .
4. There's a very useful reading list, compiled by Elisa Kay Sparks, at http://virtual.clemson.edu/groups/dial/sfclass/sffem.html . It's titled --misleadingly -- "Imagined Sexual Futures"; I can clarify that by listing its categories: "FDS's: Female Dominated Societies; WOW's: Women Only Worlds; MDS's: Male Dominated Societies/Feminist Dystopias/Battle of Sexes; Feminist/Egalitarian Utopias; Multi-Worlds; Androgynous or Sex-Changing Species; Sex-Exchange (Men in Women's Bodies and Vice Versa); Anthologies." Under each category heading is a list of novels, with author and date of publication; some categories are divided into "As Imagined by Men" and "As Imagined by Women" subsections. Recommended.
5. In "The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction" [_Science Fiction Studies_, 11/96, at http://www.depauw.edu/sfs/backissues/70/icr70art.htm ], Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr. lists seven characteristics which he proposes as criteria for "what makes science fiction science fiction." Two of those characteristics:
"1. Neologisms -- invented words, intended to refer to imaginary 'new realities.' "
"7. Parable -- whatever the scientific content and historical extrapolation of an sf tale, it is constructed in the form of literary parable. The science and technology are vehicles for moral tales; the morals may have a lot to do with science and technology, but they do not come out of science and technology."
6. There's an excellent long list of annotated links of resources for _teaching_ science fiction and fantasy at http://42explore.com/fantscifi.htm ; my small-type printout is eight pages long. Samples:
"(1999 ThinkQuest Internet Challenge Project) http://library.thinkquest.org/28010 This entry seeks to educate visitors on the topic of fantasy fiction, and contains a comparative study of Dragonlance, Dragon Prince, and Heralds of Valdemar."
"Science Fiction Writing by J. L. Flynn http://triton.towson.edu/~schmitt/311/pages This is a college course site for an introduction to the skills and techniques of writing speculative fiction."
As is true with any list of this kind, there will be links that don't work -- and if they were all fixed or deleted at 2:00 p.m. today, there'd be other ones there that don't work by 2:15 p.m. That's the nature of the NetBeast. This is nevertheless a valuable resource, and I recommend it.
7. For a set of "formal definitions of science fiction" proposed by Judith Merril, Brian W Aldiss, and others, go to http://www.nvcc.edu/home/ataormina/ scifi/define/formaldefine.htm . The page is part of the "SciFi Guide" website, at http://www.nvcc.edu/home/ataormina/scifi/default.htm .
8. There's a fine interview with Terry Pratchett, conducted by Jim Young, at http://www.scifi.com/sfw/issue449/interview.htm#thetop , described as "on the origins of Discworld, his Order of the British Empire and everything in between." Talking about that Order of the British Empire, Pratchett says:
"It's quite fashionable to turn it down. But it's only worth turning it down if you can tell people that you turned it down; there's no point turning it down and no one knows, eh? And I thought, when people asked me why I accepted it, for the best reason: It made my mum proud. The other thing is, we've always been going on about SF getting out of its ghetto and that sort of stuff. Well, if they're going to hand you a gong, well, be there when the medals are handed out. Never refuse a medal or a promotion."
9. From "Fun With Alternate Universes," by Debra Doyle, at http:// outofthiseos.typepad.com/blog/2006/12/fun_with_altern.html , for your metaphor collection:
"Most of them take as their justification the idea that at moments of choice the time-stream bifurcates, resulting in two parallel time-streams from that point onward. (Terry Pratchett plays with the same theory, jestingly, when he speaks of events going down one leg or the other of 'the trousers of time.')"
["Them" in the quote refers to classic examples of alternate-universe novels.]
10. To read "Bio-sensor puts slime mould at its heart," by Will Knight -- about a sensor chip controlled by "a living slime mould," and not science fiction -- go to http://www.newscientisttech.com/article.ns?id=dn11875&print=true . Sample:
"...[S]ince slime mould can survive in a dormant state for months at a time, the device could conceivably be vacuum-packed, stored and shipped, then reactivated with moisture and nourishment."
11. My belated thanks to the Kinast-Porters for sending a copy of Lakshmi Chaudhry's "Can Blogs Revolutionize Progressive Politics?", on pp. 23-30 of the 2/06 issue of _In These Times_. Chaudhry points out on page 30 that for all of the alleged democratic and democratizing nature of the blogosphere, "any such strategy is unlikely to work if those in charge of crafting it... show little interest in expanding the reach of the progressive blogosphere to include the largest, most diverse audience possible. If the blogs are unable to bridge the class divide online, there is no reason to think they can create a grassroots movement that can do so in the real world.."
Top progressive bloggers, the article says on page 28, "tend to be young, well-educated, middle class, male and white."
12. Cyberplaces to visit: a collection of definitions of science fiction, at http://www.panix.com/~gokce/sf_defn.html ; a review (titled "Science and Sorrow") by Sally Sate, of Allan V. Horwitz' _The Loss of Sadness: How Psychiatry Transformed Normal Sorrow Into Depressive Disorder_, at http://tinyurl.com/37fyna ; website with math songs that look promising for filk, at http:// users.bentonville.k12.ar.us/rflowers/Default_files/page0002.htm ; and the "Technovelgy" website featuring "the predictions of sf writers coming true in today's world," at http://www.technovelgy.com .
#U.S. Corps of Linguists (USCOL) Update
I haven't been able to finish any more sf stories in my USCOL series [for new Network members, that's a series of stories in a fictional future U.S. that _has_ a U.S. Corps of Linguists, and you can read one of them -- "We Have Always Spoken Panglish" -- at http://www.sfwa.org/members/elgin/Story-Panglish.html ]. It has been a seven-ring-circus here lately. But the Real World has been busily doing things that fit right into that fictional future; the only reason I'm able to stay ahead is that I have the privilege of adding extraterrestrial languages to my fiction, and -- so far -- the Real World hasn't shown any interest in those. Here are some of the things that _have_ been happening...
1. "The Department of Defense (DoD) announced today that it has begun recruiting for the National Language Service Corps (NLSC) Pilot, a public civilian organization composed of volunteeers engaged on-call to provide diverse languages services across a broad range of local, state and federal government departments and agencies. The opportunities for service will vary from emergency relief to international crises to immediate national need -- wherever language skills are needed."
The languages identified up to now are Hausa, Hindi, Indonesian, Mandarin Chinese, Russian, Somali, Swahili, and Vietnamese. You can read the rest of this 1/30/08 news release at http://www.defenselink.mil/releases/release.aspx?releaseid=11651 . You'll also find a link there for "U.S. citizens interested in volunteering, or seeking more information..."
I am much amused that when I click on that link I get a page which says "We apologize, NLSCorps.org uses newer technology not fully supported by your current browser. To best enjoy our new experience, please download and install an updated browser using one of the recommended links below." Only U.S. citizens equipped with up-to-date browsers need apply; that may rule out a lot of people with the necessary language skills. Presumably the 800 number provided works for one and all. [There's also the fact that a 5/12/07 DoD news release at http:// www.defenselink.mil/transformation/articles/2007-05/ta050907a.html announces "the implementation of a pilot 'The Language Corps' " which it goes on to say was formerly the "Civilian Linguist Reserve Corps"; the description provided doesn't seem to indicate that this Corps and the NLSC are two different entities, but you never know.] My thanks to Hal Davis for sending the copy.
[See also Mark Liberman's "Drop And Give Me 50 (Conjugations)," at http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/004480.html#more . See "Walsh presses Internet language lessons for military," by Roxana Tiron, at http://www.thehill.com/thehill/export/TheHill/Business/051006_internet.html ; that's Republican Congressman James Walsh. And you can see the military's Language Transformation Roadmap at http://www.defenselink.mil/news/ Mar2005/d20050330roadmap.pdf .]
2. My thanks to Tia Johnson for sending me "Multilingual speech processing challenges and solutions," by Tanja Schultz and Katrin Kirchhoff, on pp. 49-53 of the 1-2/07 issue of _MultiLingual_. On page 51:
"The 'TransTac 100-day challenge,' a current US government project on rapid development of an English-Iraqi Arabic speech translation system, revealed that the most crucial factor for timely development was the lack of language and cultural expertise. It turned out to be extremely difficult to find native speakers who simultaneously have enough insight into their own language and the necessary technical background. Wtihout such a skilled language expert, speech processing developers face the time-consuming situation of having to either familiarize themselves with the language or train an unskilled language expert. Social and cultural aspects may further complicate the process.... "
This linguist is not surprised. It would have been more accurate to write that "the factor most likely to hold back timely development was the lack of language and cultural expertise."
Also on page 51: "As the public interest turns toward less widespread languages, it becomes clear that the traditional approach to system development is prohibitive for all but the most widely spoken, widely read and economically viable languages." This leads me to believe that it will be a while before the DoD turns its attention to extraterrestrial languages.
3. I was briefly startled by an item titled "Polyglot 3000: Your Universal Translator," at http://www.appscout.com/2007/03/ polyglot_3000_your_universal_t.php -- especially since the program is identified as freeware -- but it turned out to be yet another example of a fantasy headline. Sample:
"Polyglot 3000 recognizes over 400 languages, and instantly identifies the source language... Simply open the app, paste in as much text as you like, and click 'recognize language.' Once Polyglot has recognized your language, you're safe to copy/paste the text into a translater like Babelfish or Google Translate... "
4. "We have to stop being so myopic -- probably the most valuable thing in Bush's new strategy is the National Security Language Initiative, on the very last page. This initiative strives to expand American foreign language instruction, beginning in early childhood. The fact that the FBI has only a few agents capable of speaking Arabic fluenly goes a long way toward explaining that agency's many failures, but it also goes a long way toward explaining why America is failing to grasp the nature of our enemy. One of the reasons we don't understnad why they hate us so is because we're not listening."
This is from a 9/10/06 _San Francisco Chronicle_ editorial (no byline) titled "Five years into a new world," on line at http://tinyurl.com/36bcsv . Notice those words "expand American foreign language instruction, beginning in early childhood." Nothing in the editorial addresses the problem of how Bush plans to fit that goal into No Child Left Behind.
5. From an American Enterprise Institute paper titled "Recruit Academia," by Michael Rubin and Sarah N. Stern, at http://www.aei.org/ include/pub_print.asp?pubID=23501 , under the heading "What Needs to Be Done":
"Cultivate foreign language experts. A priority must be placed on the rigorous study and mastery of relevant foreign languages. Area studies programs should not receive federal funding if their students are unable upon graduation to demonstrate proficiency in one or more of the foreign languages of interest to our current and prospective national security needs. Many academics claim fluency -- but practicality matters. If they cannot explain how to fix a clogged drain or change a flat tire in Arabic, Persian, or some other foreign language, then they are not fluent."
[Note: I can tell you from personal experience that many academics who are _native speakers_ of English cannot explain in English how to fix a clogged drain or change a flat tire.]
The next thing listed in this document as needing to be done is "Foster students' field research." I would like to think that that's a step toward requiring that federal linguists be trained in linguistics as a scientific discipline. The paragraph on field research ends with this sentence: "As Margaret Thatcher once wrote, 'We make a great mistake when we transpose our beliefs onto the rest of the world.' " Hear, hear.
6. For any of you who are interested in how to write an adequate teaching grammar for a language, I'd like to recommend that you go to http:// linguistlist.org/pubs/reviews/get-review.cfm?subID=54346 and read Alex Bellem's excellent detailed review of _Formal Spoken Arabic_, by Karin C. Ryding and Abdelnour Zaiback. Here's one brief sample:
"The book is clearly and intentionally aimed at US Foreign Service personnel posted to the Arab Middle East. It is noted in the foreword to this edition that post-9/11, 'the acquisition of spoken Arabic has suddenly been thrust to the forefront of US national security. ... [I]t is my opinion that it does not seem to foster much interest in either the language, the people or the culture(s) of the Arab world. To encourage personnel to take up postings with the expectation that the only interaction required in Arabic is to facilitate American presence in the region seems indicative of an ethos which does not harbour respect for, or genuine understanding of, Arab culture or Arabic language and thus does not aim to foster genuine, harmonious or equal relations."
1. From the Society for the Study of the Indigenous Languages of the Americas:
"The SSILA Bulletin is distributed electronically to all members of SSILA. Non-members may subscribe free of charge by sending their e-mail address to the editor (firstname.lastname@example.org)."
2. Barnes & Noble has decided to let me do a second edition of _The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense_. I am very happy about that, since it badly needs an update. Not only because parts of it have grown exceedingly quaint [for example, the recommended reading lists with no references dated later than 1979, and the sections where it's presupposed that a calculator is a very expensive item]. It also needs to be updated to include hostility in cyberspace. If you have any suggestions for this project, they would be welcome.
3. The _Internet Review of Science Fiction_ is back on line, with a newly-designed website, at http://www.irosf.com . The table of contents for the current issue includes "The Magic Mundane: Re-examining the Supernatural in Marion Zimmer Bradley's _The Mists of Avalon_," by Darin C. Bradley, described as about "Neo-paganism, magic, and the materialist world view." Also a podcast review, short fiction reviews, an interview with Peter Watts, and other things that look interesting.