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Saturday, January 13, 2007 -- 11:58 pm

By the term syntactic template, which I don't believe I've defined before, I mean, for any given language, a schematic of how basic grammatical concepts and relationships are set forth in that language. 'To want to X', which I've partially sketched out in Nama and Aymara earlier today, and Quechua some days back, would be an entry in these languages' syntactic templates. Of course, the idiosyncracies of particular languages, such as Quechua's distinction between drinking alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, and and Yup'ik's distinctions between drinking warm and cold beverages, will mean that there are some variations in vocabulary. Certain grammatical features, like Finno-Ugric noun tenses, ternary logic in Aymara, Navajo tenses, and Tariana evidential markers, will mean that some notions are expressed more succinctly in some languages than others. But the concepts do exist and are explainable. So if we withdraw to a higher level of abstraction, it should seem that the syntactic template should be a universal template for all natural human languages. One of my ongoing projects will be to attempt to illustrate this notion.

Of course, I'm lately becoming acquainted in my book-browsing with the notion of grammaticalization; it appears that people are researching the same notions of evolution in grammar that I had commented on earlier. Does the notion of grammatical evolution suggest that more evolved languages, if there are such things, are capable of expressing more than their predecessors, or that they're capable of expressing the same things more easily? I'll have to look into this.

Saturday, January 13, 2007 -- 10:59 pm

Not exactly earth-shattering, but I spent enough time with an antiquated Spanish-language Aymara grammar tonight that I feel entitled to record my accomplishment.

Saturday, January 13, 2007 -- 9:14 am

I finally got hold of a copy of Hagman's Nama Hottentot Grammar. I'm quite surprised to learn that although Khoisan languages are famous not just for their clicks, but for their overall very rich sound palates, Nama's is quite modest -- some twenty clicks, 13 other consonants, five vowels, three tones. Doesn't quite justify the vaguely pejorative epithet of "Hottentot", but I can understand how the untrained European ear would find a language with more foreign sounds than familiar ones to be somewhat bewildering.

Naturally I'm a bit impatient to sit down and read the whole book from cover to cover, but have to browse a bit, and start playing. The notions of an "indefinite tense" and an "indefinite gender" are pleasing. The latter is used to refer either groups of mixed masculine and feminine beings, or to refer to an unknown or hypothetical person who may or may not exist; so much for the need for a universal "he". The former (indefinite tense) is used to characterize actions that are not necessarily known to have occurred, or be going to occur, and so often figure in the protasis of a conditional sentence. I've always thought the Indo-European tendency to force imperfect indicative verb forms to perform double duty as conditionals was a bit inelegant, so this is a nice touch.

Since all languages are like complex puzzles, here's a stab at my first sentence in Nama:

Of course I realize that the click orthography will require some explanation; I get so impatient with phonology, even though I appreciate how essential it is. I'm also frustrated with Unicode 5.0 recognizing only a bilabial click and a palatal click. Anyway, ! is the post-alveolar click, and ≠ is the palatoalveolar click.

Next time: Aymara.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007 -- 10:01 pm

An investigation is not too different from an anthropologist's ethnography of some foreign society. I just started Malinowski's Argonauts of the Western Pacific, which appears to have the only detailed discussion of the Melanesian kula trade in the literature, but some of my thoughts here predated the my reading of Malinowski's description of his methodology in this book. The ethnographer's first task is to map the kinship and other genealogical relationships within society, as a starting point for articulating the questions necessary to investigate the social structure -- the natives, typically, will lack the conceptual vocabulary needed for responsive answers. This data will often yield surprising insights that no one otherwise would have thought to mention.

A proper legal investigation, similarly, must begin with a proper analysis of the job descriptions, tenure of incumbency, and reporting structure of an organization. Members of the organization will generally not be familiar with the reasons why such information would be useful or relevant, and for this reason cannot be relied on to volunteer it spontaneously.

Another point of similarity, and I will not catalogue them all, is that the ethnographer's relationship with the subject is key and must be cultivated carefully. People lie to strangers, get bored and impatient answering questions, and tend to put on their best or worst behavior for the outsider. It's only after a lot of time goes by, and people get used to going about their lives under your observation, that you start to see real candor and begin to collect meaningful information. Anything prior to that may simply be an act, whether intentional or otherwise.

Tuesday, January 9, 2007 -- 9:26 pm

Human endeavors seem to follow a natural and often tragic progression. We start with ambitious prospects and promising first steps, self-consciously trying to do everything just right. Inevitably, there's a minor mishap and things start to depart from the plan. The recovery -- or the adaptation to the mishap -- is perhaps not all it should be, especially if the consequences aren't taken seriously or fully appreciated, and especially if the endeavor is a bit overwhelming or work-intensive. Things snowball, going by far too quickly to permit sober reflection. And suddenly the endeavor that started out so promisingly has become an albatross that one, beleaguered, can only struggle to recover from.

After eight thousand years of human civilization, this situation has repeated itself once or twice. I would hope that someone has made a study of fiascos, how they arise, and how they're prevented or cured. Given that this is something that everyone experiences at least a half-dozen times in their life, I would also hope that people would receive some sort of elementary instruction in coping with failure. But I haven't seen anything like this anywhere. Is this because I live in a society of blind optimists?

I'm not sure. Perhaps there's something in Plutarch or Montaigne about this -- I'll have to check. But I don't suppose there's an author around who hopes for many sales of a how-to book with a title like "The Science of Failure", or many consumers who would enjoy being caught reading such a thing.

Sunday, January 7, 2007 -- 1:10 pm

One of the guys (a young persimmon) who's decided it's time for spring:

Diospyros kaki