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September 23, 2002

Anything but that
Posted by Teresa at 10:02 AM *

James M. Capozzola of Rittenhouse Review has pointed out an article in the Helsingin Sanomat’s international edition that at first I thought had to be a bad joke.

You know East Timor, poor unlucky East Timor, on the receiving end of everything? Still trying to recover from its most recent disaster, the spiteful and destructive behavior of the departing Indonesians? Yes. Well. East Timor is looking for a national language.

Trouble is, most of the SE Asian languages are historically the languages of East Timor’s oppressors. Lingua Francas like Portuguese, Bahasa Indonesian, French, and English are associated with colonialism. The original East Timorese language, Tetum, has a primitive grammar, and anyway it comes in eight or nine different tribal dialects so it doesn’t qualify as a unifying force.

But things are moving forward. It looks like they may have settled on a national language, which is now being taught in school to all the East Timorese children:


Of all the languages they could have picked, Finnish.

It’s spoken by no one else on earth except the Finns. It does have a slight but perceptible resemblance to Hungarian, but all that goes to show is that at some point in the past, both those peoples experienced significant amounts of alien contact. Linguists love it for its logical regularity and insane complexity. I suspect it’s their version of staring into the void.

I’m not a linguist, but I’ll admit that I (and James Capozzola, too) have also spent too many hours staring into that particular void. Finnish grammar is fairly amazing. As my Manual of Foreign Languages says, this is an agglutinative language in which:

The noun is declined according to cases, of which there are 15; according to number, of which there are 2; according to type of declension, of which there are 3; and according to its pronomial modifier (my, your, etc.). This involves the addition of various definite suffixes, subject, however, to the laws of vowel changes and contractions, of which there are 49.
These fifteen basic cases are the nominative (the tree), partitive (a tree, some tree), genitive (of the tree), inessive (in the tree), elative (from out of the tree), ablative (away from the tree), illative (into the tree), adessive (done on or with the tree), allative (to the tree), abessive (without the tree), prolative (along the tree), translative (became a tree), essive (as a tree), comitative (together with the tree), and instructive (by means of the tree).

Some Finnish scholars deny the existence of the prolative, saying it’s only an adverbial suffix. Some regard the instructive case as having vanished, lingering on only in proverbs and adverbs. Some allege the existence of an accusative case whose form coincides with the form of the nominative or genitive, and which can therefore only be detected by the presence of specifically accusative forms of personal pronouns. The compositive, multiplicative, and excessive cases are currently regarded as theoretical.

Pronouns are declined like nouns, and come in personal, demonstrative, interrogative, relative, indefinite, and reflexive varieties.

Then there are the twelve adverbial cases, which Mr. Capozzola helpfuly lists: superessive, delative, sublative, lative, temporal, causative, multiplicative, distributive, temporal distributive, prolative, situative, and oppositive.

Verbs are a bit simpler, having three persons, two voices (active and passive), two uses (transitive and intransitive), and four tenses (present, imperfect, perfect, and pluperfect). However, they also have seven moods: indicative, imperative, conditional, verbal noun, verbal adjective, and the optative and concessive; the optative being the imperative for the first and third persons, and the concessive expressing probability or likelihood. These can make for interesting complications.

And, since Finnish is agglutinative, all these interacting bits of language join up together to form a small number of large words. “After having registered at the hotel, we went to our room, which was on the third floor” turns into five glutinous words: “registered-after-having-our hotel-into, went-we, third-in, floor-in, situated-being-in room-into-our”, Kirjoittauduttuamme hotelliin menimme kolmannessa kerroksessa sijaitsevaan huoneeseemme. “The negotiating committee for the discontinuation of armed hostilities” comes out as aseleponeuvottelutoimikunta.

It’s actually necessary for the words to be this long, because otherwise they’d have more inflections than they have letters.

Anyway, anyway. I was oddly touched to discover that James Capozzola’s reaction to this news story was exactly the same as mine: Haven’t the East Timorese already suffered enough?

Comments on Anything but that:
#1 ::: Vera ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2002, 11:40 AM:

Actually Finnish sounds rather qool to me, and not all that different from Russian (which some people think is overly tough grammatically, but I think it is just logical and in many ways easier than English).

I think the East Timorese will do fine. The logic and orderliness will get their minds away from the pain of their daily lives into the healing pain of abstraction.



#2 ::: Christopher Hatton ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2002, 11:46 AM:

Well, I am a linguist, though my degree is kind of old at this point. But you've obviously researched Finnish much more than I ever have.

Still: last I heard, the belief was that Finnish and Hungarian are actually related, albeit distantly (about like English and Hindi). The family was being called Finno-Ugric, and there was some speculation that it was related to Turkish (cheifly because of vowel harmony, which all three languages share; Turkish has the most beautifully symmetrical vowel system you can imagine).

Finnish and Hungarian aren't in the Indo-European family, which English and Sanskrit and Albanian all are. (Swedish is more closely related to Romany (a Prakrit and thus I-E) than to Finnish.)

I'd also like to point out that English has a lot of that stuff,'s just that most people don't know the names for all of it. Plus I bet they have way fewer prepositions than we have: a linguist from Mars could analyze English as having a "case" for every preposition, treating words like 'with' and 'of' as prefixes. Our native-speaker intuition rules that out, but native-speaker intuition isn't always correct analysis. (And I really have to get my books out again; I could have sworn Imperative was a voice, rather than a mood. But perhaps my brain is aging.)

And hey, props to the ETs (East Timorese, and stop laughing) for picking one of the least oppressive peoples in Europe to get their language from. (They kind of beat up the Lapps, but they're still less imperialistic than most.)

#3 ::: Alan Bostick ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2002, 11:53 AM:

I can't help but think that Marc Okrand is tearing his hair out with frustration that East Timor rejected a proposal of his own....

#4 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2002, 11:59 AM:

Ya lo se, Xopher. I've spent entirely too much time mulling over Finno-Ugric languages and their relatives, which is part of the reason I posted all those Turkish proverbs a while back.

Finnish is pretty; when I first read through that sentence about checking into the hotel, the echo I heard in the back of my mind was Taurelilómëa-tumbalemorna Tumbaletaurëa Lomëanor. And it's logical, orderly, genderless, and has regular spelling and pronunciation. These are all good things.

But still -- to wish it on yourself?

It comes to me that there's a paragraph missing from my original post. Let me go take care of that.

#5 ::: Christopher Hatton ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2002, 12:00 PM:

One more thing: I can see not wanting to pick one tribal dialect over another (although everyone else seems to have done so, notably the French). But what do you mean by a "primitive" grammar? How does that limit its usefulness as a national language?

I'm just knee-jerking here; a lot of people have the (entirely false) belief that some languages are "more advanced" than others, and even more commonly that some dialects are "superior." In fact, of course, the "standard" dialect became preferred because it was what the ruling class spoke, not the other way around. But no one listens.

Hey, they could've picked Hopi! Now there's a people with no history of aggressive warfare! (Unless I'm wrong. I was surprised to learn that the Navaho did; I stand ready to be surprised again.)

#6 ::: Christopher Hatton ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2002, 12:04 PM:

You commented while I was writing that last. Delete now-irrelevant parts.

I like your Sindaro-Entish example. Tolkein, I believe, loved Finnish. I'm also reminded of the only bit of actual Entish Entish in TLOTR: "a-lalla-lalla-rumba-kamanda-lind-or-burume" (leaving out diacritics and quoting from memory), part of the word for a particular hill they were standing on. Nothing's more agglutinative than Entish, I expect!

#7 ::: Jennie ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2002, 12:17 PM:


In both Latin and Greek (ancient, that is; I know nothing of modern Greek), imperative is a mood. I guess the logic is that it implies more about the state of reality of the action, than about the relationship of the speaker to the object. Thus, in "Eat your carrots", "eat" would be in the second-person, singular or plural, present, active, imperative.

I've never considered whether there's a passive or middle imperative construction. That's one I shall have to go look up.

I agree that Finnish is pretty; it's gorgeous to sing, if you can get your mind around all the different vowels. My feeling about it is that if you can learn Finnish, you can probably learn just about any other language earth may throw at you.

According to my linguistics textbook (I'll do a formal citation if you want, but the silly thing's at home, and I'm not, so it'll have to be later), the Finno-Urgic languages are indeed part of the Indo-European family, but waaaaaay back. Other siblings include Estonian, and, I think Latvian (but I'd have to check that).

If anyone can come up with an analogy to explain how far back, I'd be grateful. I tried to, but I've come up dry.

#8 ::: Kevin J. Maroney ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2002, 12:20 PM:

Dear me. Dear, oh dear me. Now I can't escape the feeling that they should just bite the bullet and go for Esperanto.

#9 ::: Chris Quinones ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2002, 12:45 PM:

Or Klingon.

#10 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2002, 01:47 PM:

"Okrand, Ackerman in Vulcan Death-Duel Over Timorese Language"

And please, nobody suggest Loglan. There are far more poetic languages available, like COBOL. (COBOL would at least have the advantage of providing work for some of the Timorese.)

I'm thinking of the language that would ensure that East Timorese tourists, should there ever come to be such people, would find an understanding ear in much of the world, as well as having a certain symbolic content: Yiddish.

Te4me4n kirjoitti that guy, Ur-Klingon Language Developer

#11 ::: Damien Warman ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2002, 01:54 PM:

Quenya. Easy to typeset with TeX.

Latin. Make Gilbert Tournoy happy.

I always thought that Finnish was the sort of language people would come up with when they had 150 days of winter with 18 hour nights and no television. Mind you, every Finn I've met has spoken at least six languages.

#12 ::: Mary Kay ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2002, 02:06 PM:

I'm just enchanted and delighted. No really, this is all such fun. I wish I didn't have to run away and pack books in boxes so I could spend all day researching Finnish on the web. (By the way, if anyone knows, Joe Mayhew once told Jordin he had a classic Finno-Ugaric (I thought he said) face. Is it possible he meant Ugric? Who are they and where were they?)

Oh, and Damien, well, once you've learned Finnish, I guess the rest is easy.


#13 ::: Jennie ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2002, 02:08 PM:

I seem to recall a Finnish hostess informing me that all Finnish school children learned at least four languages as part of their basic education: Finnish (of course), Swedish, English, and German. Most learned at least one other Scandinavian language, as they were so closely related to Swedish, and several of the other Finnish kids I met while I was there had some French or Russian.

Latin (much as I adore it) would be far too imperialist. So, I rather suspect, might Klingon.

Still, I don't envy those East Timorese teachers and parents.

#14 ::: Cassandra Phillips-Sears ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2002, 02:48 PM:

I've heard there's a language out there that mixes Finnish and Russian...Latvian, maybe? Straight Finnish can't be any worse.

#15 ::: Christopher Hatton ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2002, 02:51 PM:

Jennie: you're right about imperative. As for an passive imperative, how about "be blessed," or modern neo-Pagan pseudo-archaic "Blessed Be"? ("Get stuffed" is a fake passive, unfortunately. But there may be other real ones.)

Actually it occurs to me that "Blessed Be" is actually a subjunctive formal wish, if you assume that it's short for "Blessed Be (thou)" and parallel to "Blessed Be this forest!" But I bet it varies widely in syntactic interpretation from speaker to speaker...and since the symantics is the same anyway, who cares?

Swedish is interesting. It has one of the few remnants of IE tones. In stressed syllables the tone is sometimes phonemic in Swedish; this is called "tonal accent." There are traces of IE tone in many languages, including English, but that's the only one I know of that's still a tone (as opposed to a peculiar vowel alternation or something).

#16 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2002, 04:20 PM:

The obvious need is for a passive-aggressive case. Also a possessive-ablative ("I was only the CEO of the company, who knew how much money it made?"), an accusative-dative ("What did you know and when did you know it?"), and an imperative-transitive ("We are big-time bankers you betcha in a real-sounding African country, and your e-mail address was given to us . . .")

Imperative-obscurantist, or Neo-Floridian ("We have to go to war right now, really.") is left as an exercise for the reader.
Logomachy: the conflict mode of the future.

#17 ::: Bill Woods ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2002, 07:00 PM:

I too thought of Klingonese as I read this. They'd get lots of trekkies as tourists.

Hey, is their national domain ".ET "?

#18 ::: David Moles ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2002, 07:34 PM:

I think this is way cool, myself. I hope they stick with it. Finnish may be complicated, but it's consistent, which in learning a language that's not a near neighbor of your own is a good thing. It'd be on my short list of languages to learn if it was spoken in more than two or three places. For those (I'm not one) who believe in Sapier-Whorf, hey, there could be worse brains to model your kids' after than the Finns' -- aside from the suicide rate, and that's probably attributable to seasonal affective disorder anyway, which wouldn't be much of a problem at 9° South. And I bet that over the long run East Timor becomes the preferred destination for Finnish and Estonian tourists looking for tropical vacations, too, which can't hurt the local economy.

#19 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2002, 09:48 PM:

Great cases, Mike.

I've decided I'm not going to add another paragraph to the main post. Here is good.

Kevin, when Patrick first told me about this story, saying "Guess which one they picked!", Esperanto was my first choiceess. Or Latin; that wouldn't be a bad choice either. But the back of my mind -- which was going by Patrick's expression, rather than logic -- was saying "Oh god, Finnish or Hungarian or Hopi."

Speaking of which, Christopher, the Hopi have been holding their ground since around 500 AD, though they lost some to the Navajo in the late 1600s. If you ever see a kachina of a young woman with half her hair in the traditional "squashblossom" hairdo and the other half hanging down straight, she's a maiden who was in the middle of doing her hair in the morning when enemies attacked. She grabbed her weapons and ran to the fight with her hair half up, half down.

There aren't many surviving peoples who don't have histories of warfare. In fact, I'm not sure there are any.

I don't know the grammatical characteristics of the original local language. I was just repeating what the news story said.

I'm aware that picking one tribal dialect over another is hardly unprecedented, but the French aren't a more notable example of that than any of their neighboring nation-states. Spain's at least as bad, and Italy's arguably worse. The whole idea that Latin transformed into a few major languages (with minor local differences in dialect), and that those major languages conveniently match up with the regions occupied by autonomous nation-states, starts looking shaky the minute you examine those "local dialects".

Check out the Lord's Prayer in the Ibero-Romance, Gallo-Romance, Italo-Romance, and Balkano-Romance groups. For the vast&compendious version, this site collects Paternosters in all known languages, including invented ones. And yes, they have a Klingon version of it 85 and the Hail Mary, too.

Choosing one variant of a closely related group of languages as the prestige form isn't the worst sort of oppression, but it means that the children of the low-prestige language groups will grow up hearing that the way they talk isn't a different language; it's the same language as the prestige version, but they're just using it wrong.

In English, there are linguistic forms that are perfectly acceptable when they occur in early New English literature, but are illiterate, slovenly, and uncouth if they come out of the mouth of an Appalachian child. Or look at Scots -- deprivileged for hundreds of years, but still in use. Contrast this site, which treats Scots the way it would any other language, with the condescending, isn't-that-colorful tone you usually get in discussions of Scots dialect.

My objection to Finnish is that if East Timor and the East Timorese children don't carry through, they'll wind up half educated in a language they only half speak. And if they do succeed, what a strange disjunction there'll be between generations!

#20 ::: Mary Kay ::: (view all by) ::: September 24, 2002, 12:35 AM:

Teresa: Somebody on, I think, rasfw was objecting to your characterization of the situation. He says that the document in question says only that the East Timorese bought a bunch of Finnish textbooks, and doesn't say what they're to be used for.

Would you care to comment, Ms Nielsen Hayden?

MKK--many books are now in many boxes, but I'm still short of time...

#21 ::: Michael S. ::: (view all by) ::: September 24, 2002, 02:30 AM:

Has this been reported anywhere else? I can't find much evidence for it on the web.

Nexis gives a story from the Australian which says that, "The World Bank donated Finnish picture books for children in Year 1, and Portuguese texts for Year 2. The remaining years of primary and high school are still taught in Bahasa Indonesia, with Portuguese reintroduced in the final years of high school as a foreign language, along with English."

#22 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: September 24, 2002, 07:10 AM:

Mary Kay, the number of copies of these textbooks is equal to one-fourth of the total population of East Timor. And if they're not going to be used in the schools, then I don't know what they're for.

If the word is now that they're going to switch over to Portuguese and Bahasa Indonesian next year, with English as an optional foreign language in high school, I can only think they've gotten other reactions like mine.

Bahasa Indonesian and Portuguese make a lot more practical sense, but I regret the loss of the chimerical Finnish-speaking East Timorese.

#23 ::: Christopher Hatton ::: (view all by) ::: September 24, 2002, 11:15 AM:

Teresa, OK, goodall. But I was talking about aggressive war; I meant in a land-grabby (or food-, slave-, even sacred site-grabby) way.

All cultures that still exist are either a) utterly isolated, or b) descended from at least some warriors. But have the Hopi ever held another people in subjugation? Or tried to? Did they enslave captured Navaho? (I'm not saying they didn't, only that I don't know.)

My Irish ancestors certainly enslaved captured Saxons, and the Sassenach aren't done paying the Irish back yet. And before that they basically ruled Spain with an iron fist, until the tin mines were played out and they left for Ireland (and thence Scotland and Mann).

Heyyy, that's it! IRISH (aka Irish Gaelic)! They should learn Irish! That would serve a double purpose; give them a great language to speak (and one not nearly as difficult as Finnish), and save a language with a vanishing few native speakers left.

#24 ::: Kevin J. Maroney ::: (view all by) ::: September 24, 2002, 11:45 AM:

Teresa: A note in the original article cited by the Rittenhouse Report notes that the textbooks are disposable--they have fill-in/tear-out worksheets. So it's possible that the Timorese government got a *lot* of them for long-term reasons.

#25 ::: Dave Trowbridge ::: (view all by) ::: September 24, 2002, 05:19 PM:

"Finnish is pretty; when I first read through that sentence about checking into the hotel, the echo I heard in the back of my mind was Taurelilf3meba-tumbalemorna Tumbaletaureba Lomebanor."

I once had a Hungarian friend read some Quenya out of Tolkien. He had no trouble with the diacritics, spoke without hesitation, and what came out of his mouth sent shivers through me. It sounded so real!

#26 ::: zizka ::: (view all by) ::: September 24, 2002, 05:37 PM:

I have read that in Namibia, because of Finnish missionary activities, Finnish is one of the most common, or even the most common, second languages. So the Timorese will not be not alone.

PS. Any possibility that this is a false alarm, and that the Finnish textbooks were written in English but published in Finland?

#27 ::: Janet Lafler ::: (view all by) ::: September 24, 2002, 07:32 PM:

Getting people to actually use a language that isn't their mother tongue, and for which there's no local cultural or historical context, is virtually impossible. People need a reason to use a language: if a language isn't useful for communicating with one's family, for buying and selling, for reading the newspaper, for telling stories, etc., people won't use it. This is one of the problems with trying to revive Irish, even though there IS a local cultural/historical context for it: people learn it in school, but outside of school they primarily use English because it's more widely spoken both within Ireland and outside it.

As far as I know, there's only one successful example of people reviving a language that was dead as an everyday spoken and written language: modern Hebrew. And the people who did that were highly motivated by nationalism, and many of them were already well-versed in the language in its ritual usage.

If it's true that the East Timorese kids are learning Finnish in school, I think it's highly unlikely that they'll use it much, if at all, outside the classroom.

#28 ::: mark ::: (view all by) ::: September 25, 2002, 08:08 AM:

...are you sure Finish verbs distinguish transitive and intransitive? I bet it's definite and indefinite.

When I started Hungarian, they all told me the two types of verb were transitive and intransitive, but they're not. "I read [the paper]" goes "olvasom"; "I read" goes "olvasok"; but "I read [_a_ paper]" also goes "olvasok".

The little ones will love it. If it's like Hungarian it's logical, phonetically systematic -- and they can all work for Nokia writing mobile-phone code a decade from now!

#29 ::: Bob Webber ::: (view all by) ::: September 25, 2002, 05:38 PM:

Is this thread long enough that I can drop in a note that reading the title inevitably reminds me of a long, rambling, and pointless joke once told to me by Dan Carver (an Arizonan of mutual acquaintance), and expect it to be safely diluted by intelligent commentary?

It had the repeated catchphrase, "Bite the bag!" in case that rings a bell for anyone else reading the words "Anything but that".

#30 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: September 25, 2002, 10:22 PM:

Daniel Charles Carver never told me that joke, most likely because I was a girl.

#31 ::: Marissa Lingen ::: (view all by) ::: September 25, 2002, 10:26 PM:

My Finnish is very, very sketchy, so I can't confirm or deny anything about verb forms. I can tell you, however, that it is indeed quite phonetically systematic. I don't find the vowels difficult at all, especially since even dipthongs are only halfway blended. It's like Japanese that way.

I do find it difficult to spot typos while using Finnish character names: after you've had Riina and Noora, it looks perfectly natural for them to goo too the stoore aand buuy soome breaad.

#32 ::: Prentiss Riddle ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2002, 01:17 AM:

I'm surprised no one has suggested Basque, the only European language that clearly beats
Finnish in difficulty and isolation. More seriously, a better alternative than any language without Timorese connections might be to attempt to codify a fusion of the Timorese dialects. Language planners have attempted something similar with other languages, notably Romani, the highly fragmented language spoken by Gypsies worldwide.

#33 ::: Prentiss Riddle ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2002, 01:17 AM:

I'm surprised no one has suggested Basque, the only European language that clearly beats
Finnish in difficulty and isolation. More seriously, a better alternative than any language without Timorese connections might be to attempt to codify a fusion of the Timorese dialects. Language planners have attempted something similar with other languages, notably Romani, the highly fragmented language spoken by Gypsies worldwide.

#34 ::: Christopher Hatton ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2002, 10:58 AM:

Marissa - that's funny about the typos. It reminds me of a guy I knew in college, who valedicted his Finnish wife with something that sounded like "goh-odd bue-eh." It was a joke between them. (Can you figure out where that came from? I couldn't.)

Prentiss - why are they trying to un-fragment Romany? (I like the idea, understand, I'm just curious what's driving the effort.) After all, "they came and took" their country way from them; there's no nation for those folks. And I'd lay odds they won't go back to India (if that's even where they lived before; I'm basing this on their language being a Prakrit).

#35 ::: Prentiss Riddle ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2002, 11:57 AM:

Christopher: In the age of the Internet, does one need to ask this question? Rom worldwide share political and cultural interests but different Rom communities have been isolated from one another for so long that their various local dialects are not mutually intelligible. If Gypsies in England, Spain, and Hungary want to communicate to organize a music festival, a lobbying campaign at the EU, or (better yet) a wedding, wouldn't it be good if they could do so in some common form of Romani rather than, say, English?

The emergence of "standard" forms of a language that can bring together speakers of diverse dialects is usually a natural process that takes a long time and is driven by economic and political forces that don't necessarily serve the goals of ease of use by the largest number of speakers. One of the concepts behind "language planning" is that applied linguists can speed the process and make it more logical. It sounds to me as though Timor could really use a SWAT team of language planners right now.

#36 ::: Christopher Hatton ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2002, 02:38 PM:

Well, I was just trying to get at the actual driving force (out of the many I knew were possible). For example, in addition to the reasons you cite, they could be trying to get their language together to increase their recognition level as a people (in e.g. the UN). I didn't know which thing was actually what drove them to take action, so I asked. Thanks for letting me know.

I agree with what you say, btw, especially the second paragraph. The number of people who believe they speak "correctly" and everyone else speaks "incorrectly," when actually they just lucked into being born into the ruling dialect group (class) is appalling.

One thing, though: sometimes a language loses big time by becoming "logical;" I know you were talking about the process, and that's all to the good, but I wanted to make the distinction. English lost some very cool stuff because the goddam logicians got hold of it. Also the goddam Latinists, and that damage is even worse, but never mind.

#37 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2002, 04:31 PM:

Don't grieve too much; English is recalcitrantly illogical, and has a long history of opting for vividness, flexibility, and clarity over mere formal logic.

The Latinists and other tinkerers haven't won either. If you hear someone say "Look, I've worked in this bar for years, and I've seen a lot of strange stuff, but I ain't never seen anything like that weapon he drew on me," you know exactly what she means. You don't tot up the two negatives, convert them to a single positive, and figure she means she sees those all the time.

If her friend then chimes in with "And did you see what he was stirring his drink with?", and the bartender adds, "I'm going to absolutely promise, you right here and now, that that's the last art student we're lettin' in here," you aren't confused or bothered by the terminal preposition or the split infinitive.

I'm a great believer in maintaining old-time standards; and English has been splitting infinitives, ending sentences with prepositions, and using double negatives as intensifiers, for a very long time.

#38 ::: Christopher Hatton ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2002, 04:56 PM:

And you would also go back and reevaluate the first speaker's symantics, and realize that she probably has some body art now.

But we lost our 3per. sing. indef-gender pronoun! We're slowly getting it back, but wow, what a loss.

And sequence of tenses is almost a crime against humanity. All the nuance and color of different uses of tenses--gone, leaving only temporal sequence. Don't get me wrong, TS is important, but it seems like a paltry thing to blithely trade all that other stuff for. (Ha! There!)

#39 ::: Jennie ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2002, 05:02 PM:

Christopher: referring waaay back. I think, technically, that "blessed be" or "be blessed" *is* indeed an example of a passive imperative, if it's in the second person. If it's in the third, as in your example "blessed be this forest" then its a jussive or hortatory subjunctive (I forget which; I always mix them up, anyway).

And if you think what the bloody Latinists did was bad, think of what the Hellenists might have done! Middle-voice optative aorists, third person-dual anyone?

Prescriptive grammar has a lot to answer for in the propagation of the attitude that the "standard" or prestige dialect of a language (be it English, French, Latin/Italian, or what have you) is the correct one, and the other grammatically and phonologically consistent, rule-governed dialects are Just Wrong. I understand how prestige dialects may have come to be, though, and it's to justify not teaching Standard (i.e. prestige) Usage, once one has been established. If your students write perfect, rule-governed, well spelled, well written Scots, or Newfoundlander, or Black Urban English (is it currently called that, or was that last year's moniker?), but don't write Standard English, then they're at a disadvantage in a world in which Standard English (whichever version of *that*) is the accepted *proper* usage.

That said, the conflation of "standard" and "proper" is vexing.

#40 ::: Christopher Hatton ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2002, 06:17 PM:

Jennie: yeh, them kind o' subjunctives are also called "formal wishes." People don't really get them any more. They don't realize e.g. that "God bless America" is a formal wish subjunctive, as is "Bless you!"

It's those that make me think the status of "blessed be" is a little spongy. I may be thinking directively ("(you should) be blessed" or "I command you to incur blessing!" silly as that sounds), and another person may be thinking subjunctively ("(may you) be blessed" or "I hope that whatever-beings-may-or-may-not-be-in-charge-of-blessing-or-withholding-blessing will bless you").

Since it's also kind of a magical exhortation, it gets even spongier: command forms are used for formal wishes in that context. ("By art made, by art changed: be no more wax, but James VI!" - to a wax doll, right before doing NARSTY things to it...we don't do this any more. Of course. For one thing, James VI is dead!)

See why I think there's some ambiguity left there?

I agree with you about prescriptive grammar. I've often thought that were I teaching in an urban HS, I would tell them to keep in mind that their language is just as good as the language they're learning in my class, but that just as they can't speak English in French class, only a semblance of the Standard Dialect will be used in English class - the object being to teach them what they can use to get ahead.

#41 ::: Robert L ::: (view all by) ::: September 27, 2002, 01:14 AM:

That would be "I ain't never seen =nothing= like that weapon he drew on me" least from most people who talk like this...

#42 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: September 27, 2002, 07:11 AM:

So where're you from, Robert?

#43 ::: Christopher Hatton ::: (view all by) ::: September 27, 2002, 09:12 AM:

I inadvertently used King James' Scots title. When he was cursed, it was under his English name: James I.

Did you know that when Elizabeth I died, people chanted in the streets "Elizabeth was King, now James will be Queen!"? Or maybe it was at his coronation.

#44 ::: Jennie ::: (view all by) ::: September 30, 2002, 04:40 PM:

O.k. Christopher, let it be granted that I acknowledge the blurriness of the distinction between passives imperative and formal wishes (only, I call 'em optative subjunctives) in English (this wonderful, illogical, vivid, flexible, nay more, darned near plastic language of ours).

I mourn the fading of the formal wish (call it what you will), just as I regret the gradual passage of other uses of the subjunctive from the's just such a *useful* mood. Would that it might be revived.

I tend to think of magical invocations as kind of inherently subjunctive - the speaker is trying to alter reality "Thou art [present indicative active] currently but wax etc. but BE THOU CHANGED" - it's a directive, and also a hope or a wish, something the speaker desires to come to pass. Kind of like praying "Don't let it notice me, please, Whoever, don't let it notice me!" - one wants the not noticing to be happening at the moment the prayer is, as well as in the future.

Hrrmmm...I shall have to think more on this.

Thanks - this has been fun!

And wandering merrily down the dialect tangent....

One of my great regrets is having been too poor to buy the only copy I have ever seen of _The Aeneid_ translated from the Latin into Scots. The Scots was treated as a language entirely distinct from, and equal to English (well, duh, I can hear someone editorializing in the background). I don't remember the exact wording of the prologue (written in English), but it was something to the effect that the translator felt that Scots readers would appreciate the beauty of Vergil's poetry, and would benefit from reading this classic of literature in their own tongue.

The book was $40. I was a starving student. When I went back three weeks later, after a minor windfall, it was gone.

Oh, the anguish.

#45 ::: language hat ::: (view all by) ::: October 01, 2002, 12:55 PM:

Jennie: I feel your pain. I've had similar experiences, with the result that now I almost always err on the side of spending/buying too much -- the regret is so much worse if you don't. The complete Eneados by Gavin Douglas goes for over $500 (I just checked; a book of excerpts may or may not be available, and there are a couple of passages here. Won't some Scottish nationalist site put the haill thing online? I'll offer him or her a bottle of Lagavulin....

#46 ::: Renee ::: (view all by) ::: October 01, 2002, 09:05 PM:

National language is much more than just a language. It is a vehicle of the mainstream culture, and mainstream culture, like it or not, is crucial - especially for small developing cultures. National language writers get governmental funding. Newspapers, radio, TV, official writing is done in the national language. There is nothing wrong with bilingualism, but when the speakers' native language is not the national language, and the national language is far removed from the speakers' own, the speakers' culture will find itself in trouble very soon; and the Welsh can tell you all about that.

Everybody is talking about Hebrew and how it "arose from the dead"; but I didn't hear many outside Israel speak about Yiddish (language and culture) killed by Hebrew. And yet it is so. Most of the surviving speakers of Yiddish came to Israel, and they were forced to change their language. End story.

Speaking of Finnish, I once saw a translation of Kalevala into Yiddish. Di Kalevale. :)

#47 ::: Timo T.A. Mikkonen ::: (view all by) ::: January 21, 2003, 02:35 PM:

I'd gladly see Timorese people speaking Finnish. In Finland we'll have soon big problems with employment of the workforce. Large part of the population is going to retire within 20 years and we have to rely on foreigners to fill the lack of workers. We could co-operate in a new unseen way. Timorese come to Finland to get money and Finnish go to East-Timor for vacations (especially in winters) to spend their money and thus boost the Timorese economy even more. Mixed marriages with Timorese will do good for our culture and our genotype. I guess we have the most homogenous population in whole Europe i.e. we look dull and have a lot of typical/national diseases. All this sounds actually too good to be true.

#48 ::: Michael Davies ::: (view all by) ::: February 16, 2003, 12:23 PM:

Most people here probably know this, but Estonian would be the language that combines Finnish with Russian, although you might just as well call Finnish the language that combines Finnish with English. In Tallinn most of the menus and things are in Estonian, Finnish and English, and the Estonian and Finnish often have the exact same sentence, except Finnish has a word like "menu" while Estonian has "haaletukkaloohd" or some damn thing like that.

Latvian isn't related to Finnish, it's the other Baltic language, along with Lithuanian. And none of my linguistics textbooks ever said the Finno-Ugric languages are part of the Indo-European family, although they have started saying they're part of a supergroup with the Altaic ones (Turkish, Kyrgyz, Mongolian).

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