The beauty of mid-century German linguistics books

Opening a Harrassowitz (Wiesbaden) or Winter (Heidelberg) publication from the 1950s and 1960s is to discover a wealth of linguistic information organized just the way it should be. Even if the author’s prose is abysmal and his pedagogical method suspect, I just find it so easy to absorb information out of these books on the basis of their perfectly proportioned typesetting. By way of example, though imperfectly representing the paper quality, impression, etc., here are two scans from the first edition of An Introduction to Classical (Literary) Mongolian by Kaare Grønbech & John R. Krueger, which Harrassowitz published in 1955 and credited Hubert & Co. of Göttingen for the printing and typesetting.

Pages 20–21 from Grønbech & Krueger (1955)Pages 34–35 of Grønbech & Krueger (1955)

Sadly, this aesthetic was lost when computer typesetting made it easy to forego the use of expert typesetters. It is illustrative to compare this book with Peter B. Golden’s An Introduction to the History of the Turkic Peoples (Turcologica 9) which Harrassowitz published in 1992. Hubert & Co. is still credited as the printer, but it appears that the author was obliged to typeset the book himself and the result is not so soothing to read. Besides some specific errors (the lack of en dashes in ranges, the use of straight quotation marks instead of left and right ones, and line breaks where there should have been a non-breaking space), there’s just a jumbled appearance that is hard on the eye:

Pages 54–55 of Golden (1992)

Nearly all smaller academic presses look like this now. Cost savings are usually cited as the reason, but even when there is the money to spend, there doesn’t seem much interest in the aesthetic anymore. If native English speakers can successfuly charge authors a hell of a lot of money for correcting the language of a book prior to publication (10€/page is the standard rate in Finland), you’d think that the author wouldn’t mind paying another 100€ to a hungry student to iron out the bulk of typesetting infelicities.

Brill doesn’t get it

It only recently came to my attention that renowned Australian linguist R. M. W. Dixon wrote a book entitled I am a Linguist that appeared just over a year ago. Here’s what publisher Brill’s website has to say:

I am a Linguist provides a fascinating account of the academic adventures of multi-faceted linguist, R.M.W. (Bob) Dixon. There is fieldwork (and lengthy grammars) on Dyirbal, Yidiñ and other Aboriginal languages of Australia, the Boumaa dialect of Fijian, and Jarawara from the dense jungles of Amazonia. Theoretical studies include adjective classes, ergativity and complement clauses. There are also detective novels, science fiction stories, and pioneering work on blues and gospel discography. Interspersed with the autobiographical narrative are explanations of how linguistics is a scientific discipline, of the development of universities, of diminishing academic standards, and of the treatment of Aboriginal people in Australia. The book is written in an easy, accessible style with numerous illustrative anecdotes. It will be an inspiration to young linguists and of interest to the general reader curious about what a scientific linguist does.

Dixon’s stories should have as much appeal to a wide audience as anything that Crystal or Deutscher have written, if not more with the recent phenomenon of publishing on adventurous fieldwork efforts like those of K. David Harrison. I too would like to read the book, and it is unavailable from my university library. But instead of making this book accessible to that wide audience, Brill has published it as a hardcover and sells it for US$175 (125€). I feel that this publisher is so stuck in its high-priced small-audience ways that it just doesn’t know how to get a popular book to a popular audience. Too bad Dixon couldn’t get this book out through, for example, Penguin instead.

A reading list for language death

Since the turn of the millennium there have been a number of books dealing with language death and the problem of protecting the world’s diversity of languages from the forces of globalization. Some of these are meant for undergraduates, while others want to communicate the problem to the man on the street. Here I’ve compiled a list of the ones that I’ve read. I’ve reviewed them all at Amazon if you want to see my detailed impressions of each book.

  • David Crystal, Language Death (Cambridge University Press, 2002) ISBN 0521012716. This is meant for an educated audience with some prior training in linguistics.
  • Daniel Nettle & Suzanne Romaine, Vanishing Voices: The Extinction of the World’s Languages (Oxford University Press, 2000) ISBN 0195152468. This is meant for undergraduates with only a basic linguistics background.
  • Mark Abley, Spoken Here: Travels among Threatened Languages (Mariner Books, 2005) ISBN 0618565833. This is written for a mass audience. Unfortunately, the author seems to have no formal training in linguistics and the book contains numerous errors and misunderstandings of the field.
  • K. David Harrison, When Languages Die: The Extinction of the World’s Languages and the Erosion of Human Knowledge (Oxford University Press, 2008) ISBN 0195372069. Here the author describes the problem and his work for an educated readership with some passion for the subject, but no more than basic undergraduate linguistics. In writing this book, the author draws on his personal experience with Siberian Turkic languages.
  • K. David Harrison, The Last Speakers: The Quest to Save the World’s Most Endangered Languages (National Geographic, 2010) ISBN 1426204612. This one is targeted towards the general public. It revisits many of the same topics as Harrison’s earlier book, but depicts the author and his peers as almost Indiana Jones-type figures in an attempt to get the layman’s attention.
  • Dying Words: Endangered Languages and What They Have to Tell Us (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009) ISBN 0631233067. The author hoped to reach a mass audience with this book, but the jargon and transcription choices will probably scare off most people and it looks like another book most suitable for assigned reading for undergraduates. Examples are drawn mostly from the Australian indigenous languages.

There’s a couple of other books that I’m aware of but haven’t yet read:

So that’s eight books in the last 12 years, and I’m sure there’s more I’ve not discovered yet. Whether they are popular or academic, each of them has competition, and the same general background is repeated across them all. Therefore the readership must be larger than I imagine if publishers are willing to put out another such book.

Besides these grim discussions of the threat to language diversity, there are also a surprising amount of general introductions to the subject of language revitalization, which I may list in a future post.

Исторические связи чувашского языка с языками угро-финнов поволжья и перми

M.R. Fedotov’s work Исторические связи чувашского языка с языками угро-финнов поволжья и перми (Cheboksary: Chuvashskoe knizhnoe izdatel’stvo, 1965) is a collection of four studies on interaction between Chuvash and Mari. In spite of the title, Fedotov examines only the flow of loanwords from Chuvash into Mari without considering Mari loanwords in Chuvash, and Finno-Ugrian languages besides Mari are rarely treated.

The first chapter discusses what Mari loanwords might tell us about the phonetic character of early Chuvash, namely the status of such developments of prothetic v- and the raising of *a to o/u. That Chuvash had become a r-type Turkic language before contact with Mari is not surprising, considering that r is reflected already in early Turkic loanwords into Samoyed (e.g. Tundra Nenets юр” ‘100’ < Proto-Chuvash jür) and so must have happened in Siberia. Rather than the Mari data, the material I found most intriguing in this chapter was the early attestations of Volga Bolgar in Arabic script and their somewhat ambiguous interpretation. I intend to read more on this field in the future.

The second chapter is titled ‘The morphological character of Chuvash loanwords in Mari’ and describes which suffixes have become part of Mari after being adopted in Chuvash words, e.g. Chuvash -ҫӑ > Mari -зе in loans like Ch. кӗслеҫӗ ~ Mari кӱслезе ‘kantele player’ and Ch. сунарҫӑ ~ Mari сонарзе ‘hunter’.

The third chapter ‘The lexical-semantic classification of the Chuvash loanwords in Mari’ shows in what kind of spheres Chuvash has contributed to Mari, ranging from kinship terms to flora and fauna and cosmology. Most interesting here was the large amount of shared vocabulary in Chuvash and Mari pagan religion, showing unexpected kinship in a field whose practitioners often boast of the Mari as a ‘pure’ nation, autochthonous and set apart from their neighbours.

The final chapter is a dictionary of Chuvash loanwords into Mari, over 1200 listings in alphabetical order. This makes a great quick reference when you’ve learnt a Chuvash word and want to know if it made it into Mari.

However, in discussing loans I think Fedotov was too quick to assign nearly all Turkic loanwords in Mari a Chuvash origin, when Tatar may have been possible as well. Mari шоган ‘onion’ could have come from Tatar суган just as much as Chuvash сухан. Mari емыж ‘fruit’ would in my opinion be a more likely loan from Tatar жимеш than from Chuvash ҫимӗҫ, as Chuvash loanwords with initial ś- usually show s- or š- in Mari.

Fedotov remains an informative overview of the phenomenon, though it is somewhat dated. More recent publications such as Hesselbäck’s Tatar and Chuvash Code-copies in Mari can point you to updated research.

Linguistic Areas

Linguistic Areas: Convergence in Historical and Typological Perspective edited by Yaron Matras, April McMahon and Nigel Vincent (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2006) ISBN 1403996571.

Linguistic Areas ed. Matras, McMahon and Vincent is a collection of 11 papers on areal linguistics, from scholars holding a variety of different views. The first two papers intriguingly suggest doing away with the term Sprachbund. Lyle Campbell’s paper ‘Areal linguistics: a closer scrutiny’ and Thomas Stolz’ ‘All or nothing’ recommend focusing on the facts of the individual loans and historical changes instead of chasing after a definition of Sprachbund, a definition which is perhaps impossible to establish because linguistics is difficult to quantify.

We then find a number of papers focusing mainly on individual linguistic areas. I won’t comment on all of them, as I read only those that I thought related to my research interestings. Maria Koptjevskaja-Tamm’s ‘The Circle that won’t come full’ shows that neither of the two isoglosses often used to define a “Circum-Baltic Sprachbund’ — polytonicity and GenN word order combined with SVO basic order — encompass together all the languages in the region. Her scepticism goes well with the views of Campbell and Stolz. Lars Johanson’s ‘On the Roles of Turkic in the Causasus Area’ makes use of a wealth of sociolinguistic information to explain how Turkic languages in the region have both influenced non-Turkic languages and converged toward their models. Claire Bowern’s ‘Another Look at Australia as a Linguistic Area’ is a response to Dixon’s controversial theory of ‘punctuated equilibrium’, essentially reading for anyone following that debate.

Principles and Methods for Historical Linguistics

Robert J. Jeffers and Ilse Lehiste, Principles and Methods for Historical Linguistics (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1979) ISBN 0262100207.

Robert J. Jeffers and Ilse Lehiste developed this textbook over several years in teaching introductory courses at the Ohio State University. It was ultimately published by the MIT Press in 1979.

Excluding back matter, the textbook is a mere 170 pages. Nonetheless, Jeffers and Lehiste manage to cover all the aspects of the field that undergraduates should know. There are ten chapters:

  1. phonetic change
  2. comparative reconstruction
  3. internal reconstruction
  4. morphological systems and linguistic change
  5. phonological change
  6. explanation in linguistic change: the case of sound change
  7. syntatic change
  8. lexical change
  9. language contact and linguistic change, and
  10. the evidence.

In my view the strongest chapter is that on phonological change. Lehiste was one of the great 20th century phonologists, and here she provides a helpful comparison of the views of the American structuralists and the Prague School on sound change.

Examples are mainly drawn from the Indo-European languages, both ancient and modern and both European and from the Indian subcontinent. There are also a few nice examples from the Baltic Finnic languages.

The book assumes some prior training in the basics of linguistics, and is written at a fairly rigorous level which assumes that the student is prepared to get only the basics here and seek out papers and monographs to learn more. In this way it may be seen to differ from the textbooks of Trask and Campbell, who try to walk the student through the field in a careful and approachable way. As to the value of Jeffers and Lehiste’s textbook today, I find it enlightening but superseded. One case in which the book shows its age is in that, though it makes brief reference to the glottalic theory of Indo-European linguistics, it doesn’t cover the application of typological insights to reconstruction. Certainly readers today would do best to make use of Hans Heinrich Hock’s massive Principles of Historical Linguistics, written at the same level but much more detailed in all its parts.

Mari New Testament published

У Сугынь (Хельсинки: Библийым кусарыме институт, 2007) ISBN 978-952-5634-12-9.

The cover of the Mari New Testament

Last year a translation of the New Testament into Meadow Mari was finally published. While the Chuvash New Testament in my departmental library is a century old, there was long a conspicuous lack of a Bible translation into its large northern neighbour whose half a million speakers would seem to command one. This translation was undertaken and published by the Biblical Translation Institute of Helsinki, which has already published translations of the Scriptures in other Uralic languages such as Nenets. It is meant for Russian Orthodox, the vast majority of Mari-speaking Christians.

An appropriate page from the Mari New Testament

The Bible is handsomely made, with more extra touches than I would have expected. The front matter consists of an preface by John, Archbishop of Yoshkar-Ola and Mari El, and an introduction laying out the formal organization of the Bible (gospels, epistles, Revelation). As back matter one finds a glossary of Biblical terms, and several colour maps showing the Roman Empire around the birth of Christ and Paul’s missionary journeys. In the Bible translation itself, the source of quotations from the Psalms are explained in footnotes, as are weights and measures and certain idiomatic phrases.

Unfortunately, I doubt this Bible is going to see much use in Mari El. Not that it isn’t economical. As it sells for only 50 rubles (approximately 1.50€), probably significantly subsided, any family could afford it. Rather, the target audience for this are already completely bilingual and have already grown accustomed to the use of Russian in religious life. When the liturgy is in Russian and most parish priests speak only Russian, it’s hard to imagine Mari speakers replacing their Russian-language Bibles with this new translation. Only permitting all expression of Orthodox Christian life in Mari would make a Mari Bible essential, but the Russian Orthodox Church has departed a long way from the efforts of St Stephan of Perm and St Herman of Alaska who initiated the translation of liturgical texts into indigenous languages, and seems nowadays to be on the side of Russia’s forces for ethnic unification.

The wackiness of spoken Finnish II

Continuing on from my last post on the difficulties of learning colloquial Finnish, I thought it might be helpful to summarize how various introductory materials for English speakers handle the divide between the literary standard and popular speech.

  • Leila White, From Start to Finnish (Helsinki: Finn Lectura, 2003). Teaches the standard language only. In the last chapter the author lists some general features of spoken Finnish.
  • Lili Ahonen, Sounds Good! Kuulostaa hyvältä! (Helsinki Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seura 2005). Teaches only the standard language. In the second to last chapter the author gives some general features of spoken Finnish.
  • Supisuomea. Teaches mainly the standard language, but throughout lists colloquial forms when these greatly different from the standard. The DVD has some scenes which are as close to spoken Finnish as television speech gets.
  • Eila Hämäläinen. Aletaan! suomen kielen oppikirja vasta-alkajille (Helsinki: Helsingin yliopiston suomen kielen laitos, 1998). Teaches mainly the standard language, but from early on each chapter features some dialogues in the spoken language.
  • Fred Karlsson, Finnish: An Essential Grammar (London: Routledge, 3rd ed. 2008). Describes the standard language, but the last chapter gives some general features of spoken Finnish.
  • Maija-Hellikki Aaltio, Finnish for Foreigners (Helsinki: Otava, 1989). Teaches only the foreign language.
  • Terttu Leney, Finn Talk (London: Finn Guild, 2001). Gives all material in both the standard language and the spoken language from the very beginning. The author even suggests that some readers will want to learn only the spoken language at the time.

If you already have some handle on standard Finnish, then good resources for learning spoken Finnish are:

  • Maarit Berg & Leena Silfverberg, Kato hei! puhekielen alkeet (Helsinki: Finn Lectura, 2004). This is a textbook on the Helsinki spoken language for students who have already completed two semesters of Finnish for foreigners (all text and instructions for exercises are in standard Finnish).
  • Vesa Jarva & Timo Nurmi, Oikeeta suomee: suomen puhekielen sanakirja (Helsinki: Gummerus, 2006). A dictionary for the spoken language, with great coverage of contemporary slang and idiomatic expressions.

Whitney’s Teach Yourself Finnish

Whitney, Arthur M. Teach Yourself Finnish (London: English Universities Press, 1954).

It’s amazing how long it took textbook authors to realize that the most effective way to teach a modern language would be to equip the reader with how to handle himself in common everyday situations. The first incarnation of Teach Yourself Finnish, written by Arthur H. Whitney, was published in 1954, but its methods go back a century further. Continue reading Whitney’s Teach Yourself Finnish

Robert Austerlitz, Finnish Reader and Glossary

Austerlitz, Robert. Finnish Reader and Glossary (The Hague: Mouton & Co., 1963). Routledge printing 1997, ISBN 0700708154.

Nowadays, a foreigner wishing to learn Finnish can choose from any number of well-designed courses, whether for classroom use or self-study, in print or on DVD, but it wasn’t always this way. Until just a couple of decades ago, Finnish was probably the most exotic of all the major languages of Europe (perhaps save Albanian). Robert Austerlitz’s A Finnish Reader and Glossary shows how the old school had to learn the language. Vol. 15 in Indiana University’s Uralic and Altaic series, the reader was meant for linguists willing to learn new languages from dry grammars and crestomathies.

The texts in the reader are a highly varied collection. As is usual with these sort of Uralic readers, they are based mainly on little folklore texts and easy newspaper articles. But you get more than just the basics with this reader, for there’s a text here on the use and care of a refrigerator (must have seemed intimidatingly high-tech back then), and an extract from a high school science textbook. There’s a newspaper crossword (with key). One even finds an example of the earliest Finnish writing with one of Mikael Agricola’s poems, which Austerlitz gives both in the original orthography and in the modern standard:

Oppe nyt wanha ja noori
joilla ombi Sydhen toori,
Jumalan keskyt ja mielen
iotca taidhat Somen kielen.
Laki se sielun hirmutta
mutt Cristus sen tas lodhutta,
Lue sijs hyue Lapsi teste
alcu oppi ilman este.
Nijte muista Elemes aina
nin Jesus sinun Armons laina.

Opi nyt vanha ja nuori
joilla ompi sydän tuore,
Jumalan käskyt ja mielen,
jotka taidat suomen kielen.
Laki se sielun hirmuttaa,
mut Kristus sen taas lohdutta.
Lue siis, hyvä lapsi tästä
alkuoppi ilma estettä.
Niitä muista elämässä aina,
Niin Jeesus sinun armonsa lainaa.

There are not many writings here of an informal and colloquial nature, but the foreigner wanting to know how Finnish was spoken earlier in the 20th century should seek out the deliciously old-fashioned first edition of Teach Yourself Finnish by Arthur M. Whitney.

I like Austerlitz’s approach to teaching vocabulary which he explains in the preface and implements in the vocabulary. He breaks down each word into its component parts, encouraging readers to assimilate each of them. That way, one can readily understand a word from its construction even if one hasn’t encountered it before. However, highly idiomatic passages are not glossed, which make the reader challenging to use unless you can consult a native speaker about any unclear points.

It’s ridiculous how big this book is. Out of 294 pages, over 200 form the glossary. Like many publications in this series, the book was set in cold type (typewritten?), which resulted in incredibly inefficient use of space. Since anyone reading this today will probably invest in a decent dictionary and can use that in tackling the readings, the buyer is really just getting 71 pages. For that reason alone, the price of US$220 that Routledge is charging for its reprint is ridiculous.

There are now many readers on the market, covering all kinds of written Finnish. Chances are, if you are a passionate student of Finnish, you already know how to get one. Nonetheless, if you are ravenous for reading material, seek an old copy of Austerlitz on the used market.