Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Syntactic Gems from Jared Diamond

Posted by Neal on September 20, 2006

The Language Guy mentions Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel in this post. Funny he should mention this book. I’ve never read it, but it recently made it onto my mental reading list because I’m finding another book by Jared Diamond so interesting. The book is Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Aside from its compelling and scary content (supported by wide-ranging case histories that Diamond has done an astonishing amount of on-the-ground research for), I’ve found an unusually high number of syntactic or semantic oddities in this book. Enough, in fact, for me to gather them together in a single post here. But lest I give the impression that Diamond is an inept writer, I’ll start of with a couple of passages that illustrate his clear and engaging explanatory style. It’s passages like these that have kept me reading this book late at night when I had intended to press onward in a more linguisticky book that isn’t written so well. (More on that one in a future post.)

The passages come from a chapter on the Norse settlements in Greenland. (And even though they ultimately disappeared, the failed Greenland Norse societies lasted 200 hundred years longer than the United States has to date.) More specifically, they address the topic of relations between the Norse and the later-arriving Inuits. The first one comments on a mention in Greenland Norse annals of how when Inuit or Dorset people “are stabbed with a nonfatal wound, their wounds turn white and they don’t bleed, but when they are mortally wounded, they bleed incessantly.”

Brief and matter-of-fact as this account is, it suggests that the Norse had a “bad attitude” that got them off to a dreadful start with the people with whom they were about to share Greenland. “Skraelings,” the Old Norse word that the Norse applied to all three groups of New World natives that they encountered in Vinland or Greenland (Inuit, Dorset, and Indians), translates approximately as “wretches.” It also bodes poorly for peaceful relations if you take the first Inuit or Dorset person whom you see, and you try stabbing him as an experiment to figure out how much he bleeds. Recall also … that when the Norse first encountered a group of Indians in Vinland, they initiated friendship by killing eight of the nine. These first contacts go a long way towards explaining why the Norse did not establish a good trading relationship with the Inuit. (p. 261)

The next passage elaborates on the difficulties of initial contact between peoples:

What do you really expect the first Norseman spotting a group of Inuit … to have done?… Over the course of my biological fieldwork in New Guinea I have lived through such “first-contact situations,” as they are called, and I found them dangerous and utterly terrifying. … Neither side knows what the other will do, both sides are tense and frightened, both are uncertain whether to flee or to start shooting, and both are scrutinizing the other side for a gesture that could hint that the others might panic and shoot first. To turn a first-contact situation into a friendly relationship, let alone to survive the situation, requires extreme caution and patience. Later European colonialists eventually developed some experience at dealing with such situations, but the Norse evidently shot first. (pp. 265-266)

And now on to the bits of weird syntax or semantics. First, a multiple-level coordination of clause, verb phrase, and clause:

In Greenland’s cold and intermittently wet climate, [trees are small], [grow only locally], and [their timber deteriorates quickly]…. (p. 217)

And another multiple-level coordination, of verb phrase, verb phrase, sentence:

New Guineans with whom I have worked over the past 40 years [have matter-of-factly described their cannibalistic practices], [have expressed disgust at our Western burial customs of burying relatives without doing them the honor of eating them], and [one of my best New Guinean workers quit his job with me in 1965 in order to partake in the consumption of his recently deceased prospective son-in-law]. (p. 151)

Next, a non-parallel coordination in an adverbial relative clause:

…houses where laborers lived during the summer to tend animals and make hay but returned to live on the main farm during the winter. (p. 225)

It’s OK to say Laborers lived in these houses during the summer … but returned to live on the main farm during the winter. It’s just an ordinary coordination of two clauses. But what if you want to turn this into a relative clause by pulling out these houses? That’s what Diamond did, and now there’s a problem. It’s clear that where takes scope over both verb phrases (lived…, returned…), since there’s only one subject (laborers) for the both of them, and where takes scope over that. But now it doesn’t make sense anymore; houses where laborers returned to live on the main farm is a contradiction. At least, it shouldn’t make sense, but I understood it just fine. I think this is another instance of something that might be modal subordination but I never realized it, and more specifically, one like Geoff Pullum’s non-parallel relative clause.

The next items are from Diamond’s chapter on Tikopia, an island in the Pacific. First up, a “Friends in Low Places” coordination:

Alternatively, infanticide was carried out by [burying alive], [smothering], or [turning a newborn infant on its face]. (p. 290)

The last item involves some strange quantification involving decreases:

…archaeological middens reveal … a three-fold decrease in fish and bird bones, a 10-fold decrease in shellfish…. (p. 292)

Does this mean a decrease from X to X/3, and from Y to Y/10? I’m having the same difficulty getting these as I did with half less. For more on this subject, check out this piece by Bill Walsh.

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3 Responses to “Syntactic Gems from Jared Diamond”

  1. Glen said

    I feel obligated to tell you that Diamond’s Collapse has been challenged on several grounds that are very persuasive to me as an economist. Specifically, he apparently fails to take into account the role of property rights in preventing the tragedy of the commons (which is the basic phenomenon he describes on Easter Island and elsewhere). Full disclosure: I have not read the book. I was thinking of reading it until I heard these criticisms from sources I trust. It’s hard for me to take a book on environmental destruction seriously if it doesn’t at least discuss the tragedy of the commons. Here’s a relevant blog post on the subject.

  2. Neal said

    Grain of salt duly noted. The tragedy of the commons hasn’t been discussed in the part I’ve read so far, but I did see it in the index, so he must at least mention it.

  3. [...] of the one-tier-different variety. Of these 23, four coordinate VPs with an entire sentence (see this post). The remaining 19 coordinate, like Doug’s example here, coordinate two NPs with a VP. To be [...]

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